I love dystopian and apocalyptic stories. The Hunger Games, 1984, The Matrix, The Day After Tomorrow, and countless others. They don’t necessarily predict the future; in fact, their purpose is to prevent that kind of future from happening. They serve as warnings, calling us to pay attention to something we might otherwise be ignoring. They warn us to change our ways before it’s too late.
This week I woke up to an incredible headline from Time: “China’s Falling Space Station is Not Going to Hit You on the Head. Unless It Does.” (1)
The basic gist is that, having completed its mission, the Chinese space station is going to fall back to earth within a year or so, and scientists don’t actually know where it’s going to land. It’s not the first space station to make an uncontrolled fall to earth; both Russia and the United States have also had spacecraft fall uncontrolled to Earth. Years ago, I read a similar article called “Space Junk Keeps Falling on My Head,” which also made me concerned about the “stuff” that we’re putting into the atmosphere that eventually must make reentry.
As my mother says, “Well, I’ll just add that to my list of things to worry about.” Sometimes the things that you forget about can become potentially dangerous.
This is part of what movies and literature — especially of the dystopian kind — help us. They remind us to pay attention.
In reading this news, I thought of the Disney film, Wall-E, that came out a few years ago. In it, the whole human race had evacuated to a space station because our whole planet and the surrounding space had become so polluted with junk and garbage that we had to leave Earth. Humans live on this space station, overweight and addicted to their screens. They don’t even walk around anymore, but are carted around on little hovercraft. Left behind on Earth is a little robot, named Wall-E, whose task is to collect and condense the massive amounts of trash that cover the earth’s surface. Humans hope someday to return to Earth, but at least at the beginning, it doesn’t look hopeful.
I won’t give away the rest of the plot, but the point of the movie is to warn us of the danger of things we might not otherwise notice — namely, how we’re becoming preoccupied with screens and how we’re covering the earth, and even the space around us, with trash that we’ve got no real plans of dealing with.
You know, like the free-falling Chinese space station. And movies like Wall-E call us to wake up and pay attention.
And as for this parable today? Well, there’s a lot here.
Heaven and hell. Privilege and money. Building walls between us and then and being unable to cross the divide. My pastor friend Kathleen described it as A Christmas Carol: Bible Edition. It’s a warning.
There’s a rich man who’s enjoying life. At his gate there’s another man whose name is Lazarus. The rich man has built a wall around his home, as was customary, to protect his things and his wealth. And Lazarus lay at his gate day after day, longing, Jesus says, to satisfy his incredible hunger with even the rich man’s scraps.
And then the story turns. They both die. Jesus tells us simply that the rich man “died and was buried,” while Lazarus dies and is carried away by the angels. Everything good that he couldn’t enjoy in life, God gives him in death.
But that’s not the end of the story.
There was a wall between them in life, and in death, there’s a great chasm between them. Only now it’s the rich man who suffers outside.
The rich man lies in torment while Lazarus is loved and comforted by father Abraham. And the rich man looks up and sees Lazarus by Abraham’s side. And here’s what’s crazy to me that I never noticed until this week: the rich man still wants Lazarus to serve him. He wants Lazarus to dip his finger and quench his thirst, then he wants Lazarus to go and warn his siblings of the coming danger. The rich man is convinced that if Lazarus returns from the dead, his siblings will be able to avoid this torment, but the ironic thing is that the rich man still doesn’t understand.
And the story ends ominously, with Abraham telling the rich man: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (v. 31).
What people seem most obsessed with in passages like this is the idea of heaven and hell. And it’s understandable, as humans, to be concerned with what happens when we die, especially as we all grow older.
But a beloved professor of mine said something years ago that has stuck with me. She was tasked with doing a talk on “New Testament Visions of Heaven” and confessed right at the beginning that she was somewhat at a loss to begin, because the New Testament is not nearly as concerned with where we go when we die as it is with how we treat one another here and now. Even the depictions we have of heaven and hell we have in the New Testament, she suggested, were aimed at changing our behavior now. (3)
It’s not unlike apocalyptic and dystopian literature. It’s not necessarily describing the future. In fact, it’s trying to get us to avoid a future like that. It’s trying to get us to pay attention to something now.
So where do we find ourselves in this story?
Are we the rich man, walking by those in need? Are we Lazarus, ignored by the world but loved by God? Or are we the rich man’s five siblings (the Greek for “brothers,” when it’s plural, can describe both brothers and sisters, like in Spanish)?
Some of us are the rich man and his siblings. We put up barriers, physical and emotional, between us and those who have less privilege than us — those who are different than us. We don’t see other people. We ignore and discount their perspectives just so that we stay safe and comfortable, living unproblematic lives in a society that benefits us. We stay safe in our financial security, in our whiteness, in our ivory towers of education, and in countless, countless other ways. We ignore the cries of the needy and the oppressed, daily, and we put up barriers and stick our fingers in our ears while they suffer.
Jesus warns is that that isn’t sustainable. He calls us with this apocalyptic parable to open our eyes and see things as God sees them. To see others as fully human. And to see ourselves as fully human.
Because in our own ways, most of us are also Lazarus, kept outside the walls. We don’t have a lot of political power, or money, or status. We may find ourselves ignored, talked over, or bullied, because we are women, because we are young, because we are old, because we don’t have a lot of money, because we are working class. And Jesus has good news for us: we are loved and called by name, not by the world’s standards of class and privilege, but by the God who created everything we see.
Over the past few months, and long before that, it’s often felt to me like the world is on fire. War, terrorism, racism, problems at home and overseas. It feels like we’re living in one of those dystopian movies. It can lead us all to feel helpless and fearful.
But we have a choice, and we have a God who has promised to be with us “to the end of the age,” which I believe covers whatever apocalypse comes and beyond. This God has called us not to be safe, to see those we might otherwise walk by, to take down our walls and live open to the world’s pain because for a resurrection people, even death is not the end of the story.
As our hymn of the day says, “Do not be afraid, I am with you. I have called you each by name. Come and follow me, I will bring you home.”
There’s no getting around it. Following Jesus is highly unsafe and ultimately leads to death. But death, in Christ, leads to new life. That is the crazy, unsafe, ultimately secure hope of life with Jesus.
And so, let us walk forward with confidence. Let us dare ourselves to see those outside our gates. Let us pay attention and live openly and freely and without fear, knowing that we are each called by name.
The Talmud, the central text of rabbinic Judaism, puts it this way, reflecting the words from Micah that are now, thanks to Barb and Dave, in our narthex:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly, now.
Love mercy, now.
Walk humbly, now.
You are not obligated to complete the work,
neither are you free to abandon it.” (4)
So do not be distracted by promises of heaven and terror of hell. Let us not be daunted by the grief that we see around us or the weight that we feel inside or even the threat of space junk falling on our heads someday.
Let us see, now. Let us love, now. And let us be loved, now.
And let us pray and come to the Lord’s table together, now, that we may be the body of Christ for the world, today. Amen.
(1) Jeffrey Kluger, Time Magazine, 22 September 2016, http://time.com/4504892/tiangong-china-space-station/.
(2) Jeffrey Kluger, Time Magazine, 10 October 2011, http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2096210,00.html.
(3) Gail R. O’Day, lecture, “New Testament Visions of Heaven,” Holy Trinity Parish, Decatur, GA, 2010.
(4) Shapiro, Wisdom of the Sages, 41. Paraphrase of Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s interpretive translation of Rabbi Tarfon’s work on the Pirke Avot 2:20. The text is a commentary on Michah 6:8.