Just . . . in Time

Sermon

 Thomas G. Long

Bandy Professor of Preaching
Candler School of Theology

Saturday Closing Worship
November 5, 2005

John 11: 1-21

The 11th chapter of the gospel of John contains the well-known story of the raising of Lazarus.  It’s a long story.  It’s a familiar story.  And you already know how it ends.  So I’m only going to read a portion.

John 11: 1-21

I stopped reading the story right at that point not only because the story is long and familiar, and you already know how it ends, but mainly because I wanted to fasten our attention on this very poignant moment in the story when a desperately grief-stricken Martha, the sister of a now very dead Lazarus, goes out to confront the one person in the world she thought she could depend upon. And with sorrow and a sense of betrayal in her voice, she says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died.” 

We have to admit, don’t we, that Martha has a point.  Jesus has already healed a man who was blind from the day he was born.  Jesus has already gone to the pool at Bethsaidaand found a man paralyzed 38 years, and told him, “Pick up your mat and walk,” and in the power of God the man did just that.  Way back in Cana, a desperate young father came all the way from Capernaum to seek him.  “Sir, please come.  Please, it’s my son – I’m losing my son.  Please come.  Please come now!  I’m running out of time.”  Jesus said, “Go! Your son will be well,” and that very hour he was.

So, you have to admit, Martha has a point.  “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died” – but he wasn’t there.  When he got the message that Lazarus, his friend, was ill, that Lazarus, whom he loved, was sick, he didn’t go.  He didn’t go.  We can understand then the sense of betrayal in Martha’s voice. 

Some of us can really understand it. Many years ago when I was in graduate school, I had been home for the Christmas holidays, and when I flew back to school I was met at the airport by one of my classmates who had some tragic news.  Another of our classmates had been at the Christmas dinner table with his family and had begun to feel a headache.  The headache got worse.  He went to lie down, and he never got up again.  A brain aneurysm took his life at age 28, leaving a wife and two young children. 

“How are Sue and the children doing?” I said. 

“They are not doing well,” said my friend.  “They are not doing well. This is hard.” 

I said to myself, “I need to go see Sue, but I won’t go now because she’s got family around.  I don’t want to intrude.”  A few days later when the family had left, I said to myself, “I need to go see Sue, but I won’t go now.  This is the first moment of solitude she has had to get her life together.  I won’t go now.”  I never went.  The fact of the matter is I was afraid to go.  I was a minister, I’d done funerals, I’d faced death.  But I had never faced death in a friend I’d loved.  I’d never faced death in someone my own age, whose mortality showed me that I was also running out of time.  I did not know what to say, I did not know what to do, and I did not go.  Several weeks later I ran into my friend who had met me at the airport, and he said, “I saw Sue last night.”  “How’s she doing?”  “About as well as can be expected, I suppose.  She asked about you.”  “She asked about me?”  “Yes,” he said, “I think she would have liked to have seen you.” 

“Lord,” said Martha, “if you had been here, . . . but you weren’t.”  

He didn’t go.  And it’s not as if the problem were Jesus’ packed schedule.  It’s not as if he could look at Martha and say, “You know, Martha, I’m sorry. I would have been there, but I was feeding the 5,000.  You know, Martha, nothing would have pleased me more than to be right at Lazarus’ side, but I had a previous speaking engagement with the multitudes.”  John makes it absolutely clear that the reason he did not go was because he never intended to go.  The way John puts it is, even though he loved Martha, even though he loved Mary, even though he loved Lazarus, when he got the word that his friend whom he loved was ill and needed him, he decided to stay two more days in the place where he was.  He waited until time had run out, and Lazarus was dead.

Lord, if you had been here; but you didn’t come, and we ran out of time. 

It is a theological sign of broken and fallen and tragic and suffering world that we are running out of time – all of us.  We are running out of time.  Down at the end of every corridor stands death with a leering face, waggling an alarm clock and saying, “I own time. Time belongs to me, and you are running out of time.” 

Last month I went to Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta to visit a friend.  He had gotten bad news about an X-ray, and then there was a biopsy, and then there was exploratory surgery, and when I got to the hospital he said, “Tom, the news is not good.  It is all through me.” 

“I’m sorry,” I said. 

“I told the doctor I just want five more years.  If you could just get me five more years.  I want to see Melissa graduate from high school.  That is all I’m asking is five more years.” 

“What did the doctor say?” 

“He said he would do the best he could, but he could make no promises.  I just need five years; but I’m running out of time.”

I teach at Candler School of Theology, a Methodist school, and many of you know that last week the highest court in the United Methodist system issued two particularly pernicious and graceless rulings. The first one removed from the gospel ministry a young woman with many spiritual gifts because she is in a committed lesbian relationship. “We don’t need your ministry.” And at the same time they restored to his ministry and his pulpit a man who had in his choir a gay man who sings every Sunday the praises of God and who wanted to deepen his relationship to Jesus Christ and the Body of Christ by becoming a member of the congregation; and this pastor said, “No. We don’t need your unrepentant kind in the body of Christ.” And the court put him back in his pulpit: “Bless you! Job well done. You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie.” When the news hit campus, our students went into shock and grief. They held an impromptu service of worship. It was a time of lament, and one of my faculty colleagues said, “It is so sad to see our students so early in their careers running up against injustice in the church that is so intransigent they will never be able to take it out. They are so young, and the church is already taking away their future.” We are running out of time.

“Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died; but we ran out of time.”

And it was right then, when the world felt it had run out of time, that Jesus said, “It is time to go in. This is not about death. This is about the glory of God.” It is not Lazarus who has run out of time; it is death that has run out of time. It is not justice that has run out of time; it is injustice that is running out of time. What I think that means for us is that, at least in a theological sense, if we are going to be disciples of Jesus Christ we are going to have to throw our wrist watches and our Palm Pilots and our Blackberrys away, because Jesus will not participate in the alienated, atheistic, anxiety-ridden world that does not have God and that believes that hope and life and justice are running out of time. He stands before every tomb and says, “I am the Lord of time. Come out, Lazarus! Come out!”

Theologian Karl Barth once said, “If I give you money, then I give you money. But if I give you my time, I give you me. If I give you my time, I give you all that I am.” God created time, said Barth, and in Jesus Christ “God makes time for you, has time for you, takes time for you, is time for you.” Standing at the end of the corridor is not death wagging an alarm clock, saying “I own time.” It is rather Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

That is what baptism really means, you know.  It’s moving from a world that is running out of time into a new world in which God gives us time and takes time.  In a beautiful baptismal sermon from the fifth century by the old bishop Theodore of Mopsuestia , he told those who were about to be baptized what was going to happen to them.  He said, “You will kneel on the floor, and you will face the West, the region of evil and darkness, and you will point your finger at the accuser, and you will say, ‘Satan, I renounce you and all your vanities, and all your angels and all your ministries.”  In other words, “Evil, I don’t have any more time for you.”  “Then you will face the East, and you will find that the Bishop is in new clothes which are resplendent and dazzling and light, a symbol of a new world which you are entering.  They dazzle because you will shine in that world.  They are graceful and delightful for you will be graceful and delightful.”  In other words, baptism is not simply joining the church or even changing identities.  It is changing time zones!  We are moving from a world that is running out of time to one where hope and justice will never die. 

Some of the most beautiful music ever composed was played on a cold January night in 1941 in an unheated barracks at Stalag 8, a German death camp.  It was composed by a prisoner at the camp.  His name was Olivier Messien.  He was a devout Christian, and he wanted to compose some music that would say, even in the death camp, that the forces of oppression and evil do not control time.  He was tired of the Hup-two-three-four, one-two-three-four beat of the jack boot. And so he composed a “Quartet for the End of Time,” based on that word of the angel in the Book of Revelation, “There will be no more time.”  All fragmented and broken and hopeless time has been gathered into the time of God.  How do you compose music like that?  The meters, rhythms are irregular.  The musicians cannot play in splendid isolation, simply keeping time.  They have to attend to each other.  They have to play as an ensemble.  More than that they have to play in communion with each other.  In fact, right on the score where most composers would have written, “Play slowly, play rapidly,” Messien wrote, “Play tenderly, play with ecstasy, play with love.”  And it was played in the middle of a death camp.  It is not life that is running out of time.  It is death that is running out of time.

Last spring I was leading a clergy seminar way on the west side of Atlanta, on the other side of town from where I live.  We took an afternoon off.  It was a long enough break to have some refreshment, but it was not long enough for me to drive back to my home; so I tried to figure out what to do with the free afternoon.  I needed a haircut, so I went looking for a Fantastic Sam’s or a Great Clips, or some place where you could simply walk in.  I found one, and when I went in I was in the chair, and the woman was cutting my hair, and she said, “I don’t recognize you.  Have you ever been in here before?”  I told her no, that I was a Presbyterian minister and that I was leading a clergy seminar.  And she brightened up and said, “Oh, I’m a Christian, too, you know.”  I said, “Really!”  She said, “Yes, I’m a member of Creflo Dollar’s church.”  You may not know Creflo Dollar, but he is the latest incarnation of the “God Wants You to be Rich” theology.  He drives a black Rolls Royce, he has a corporate jet, and his congregation has bought him millions of dollars of real estate.  He is known locally as Cash-flow Dollar, and here is this woman telling me, “I’m a member of Creflo Dollar’s church.”  I’m thinking to myself, “I’m already getting a bad haircut, now I’m going to get bad theology as well!” 

But to be hospitable I played along – she was holding a razor, after all.  I said, “Well, have you got your blessing yet?” 

She said, “Oh yes, I’ve gotten my blessing, all right!” 

“Well, tell me about it,” I said, expecting her to say something about the Lexus in the parking lot or the diamond earrings in the scissors drawer. 

But instead she said, “Two nights a week I get to volunteer in a shelter for battered women.  I was one myself, you know, and they trust me.  They need me.  They know I love them.” 

I sat there silently thinking, “My God!  Jesus is loose in Creflo Dollar’s church!”  It’s amazing the way he does it.  He hangs around in the parking lot refusing to go in, letting them gorge themselves on greed and selfishness until the witness to the gospel is dead – absolutely dead!  And when it is dead, then Jesus says, “It’s time for me to go in.”  We say to Jesus, “Don’t go in that church, Jesus!  That one is dead.  It’s been dead four days!  Can’t you smell it? It stinks!” 

And Jesus says, “This is not about death; this is about the glory of God.”  And he goes into Creflo Dollar’s church, and he finds a nine-dollar-an-hour hair cutter, and by the power of God he ordains her in the Holy Spirit to be a minister of the most high God, and she has a ministry of trust and compassion.  It’s not hope that is running out of time.  It’s death that is running out of time.  It’s injustice that is running out of time 

And if Jesus is loose in Creflo Dollar’s church, Jesus is loose in the Presbyterian Church, too!

Jesus is coming into the Presbyterian Church right at the point that we think the ministry is dead and saying “I am setting a banquet where people will come from East and West and North and South, and if anybody wants to block people from coming to that banquet, they are running out of time” Jesus sees that the Holy Spirit falls on the young and old, male and female, and red and yellow, black and white, gay and straight; and if anybody in the church says, “We don’t need those gifts of the Spirit,” well, they are running out of time, because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. 

That’s why we are called to be prophetic.  Prophecy is, after all, a word spoken from one time zone to another.  Now, I know they killed the prophets.  Sounds like bad news, but it’s not.  Everybody in this world has to die.  We get to die in prophecy instead of cowardice.  We get to die with the word of hope on our lips instead of despair.  And as for death, it is highly overrated, because it is running out of time.

I sat there silently thinking, “My God!  Jesus is loose in Creflo Dollar’s church!”  It’s amazing the way he does it.  He hangs around in the parking lot refusing to go in, letting them gorge themselves on greed and selfishness until the witness to the gospel is dead – absolutely dead!  And when it is dead, then Jesus says, “It’s time for me to go in.”  We say to Jesus, “Don’t go in that church, Jesus!  That one is dead.  It’s been dead four days!  Can’t you smell it? It stinks!” 

And Jesus says, “This is not about death; this is about the glory of God.”  And he goes into Creflo Dollar’s church, and he finds a nine-dollar-an-hour hair cutter, and by the power of God he ordains her in the Holy Spirit to be a minister of the most high God, and she has a ministry of trust and compassion.  It’s not hope that is running out of time.  It’s death that is running out of time.  It’s injustice that is running out of time 

And if Jesus is loose in Creflo Dollar’s church, Jesus is loose in the Presbyterian Church, too!

Jesus is coming into the Presbyterian Church right at the point that we think the ministry is dead and saying “I am setting a banquet where people will come from East and West and North and South, and if anybody wants to block people from coming to that banquet, they are running out of time” Jesus sees that the Holy Spirit falls on the young and old, male and female, and red and yellow, black and white, gay and straight; and if anybody in the church says, “We don’t need those gifts of the Spirit,” well, they are running out of time, because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. 

That’s why we are called to be prophetic.  Prophecy is, after all, a word spoken from one time zone to another.  Now, I know they killed the prophets.  Sounds like bad news, but it’s not.  Everybody in this world has to die.  We get to die in prophecy instead of cowardice.  We get to die with the word of hope on our lips instead of despair.  And as for death, it is highly overrated, because it is running out of time.

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