While It is Still Not Too Late

My sermon from Sunday, September 29th, 2019 at Southminster Presbyterian Church. Listen to audio here.

How late is it?

For me personally, at the age of 58, it is likely too late to fulfill that dream of playing second base for the New York Mets. That dream should be put on the shelf. My seven-year-old nephew, Cooper, can dream that dream, but for me, it is too late.

The journey of life requires that of us. That is to evaluate what there is still time to do and what must be considered realistically, too late. We may harbor old dreams long past their expiration date. It is healthy to let those dreams go with appropriate mourning and ritual so we can look with clear eyes at what is still yet possible and what dreams fit reality.

It is not easy to let go of dreams. Those dreams can be so much a part of us that we hold on to them even when evidence of their demise is easy to see. We call that denial.

Poor Zedekiah, the last king of Judah before its capture by the Babylonians in the 6th century before Christ. He has had a long relationship with Jeremiah. Almost friends I wonder? Their dance goes like this: Zedekiah asks Jeremiah for a word from the Lord. Jeremiah gives it to him. Zedekiah refuses to heed it. Again and again they repeat that pattern.

When it is too late for anything else, Jeremiah tells him, “Surrender. It is over. Spare your life and your family’s life.” Zedekiah won’t believe it.

And according to the text we heard this morning, even as the Babylonian army is besieging the city, Zedekiah asks Jeremiah why he is prophesying the end for Judah. It would be almost comical if it weren’t so tragic. Denial to the last. Zedekiah is captured. His family is killed before his eyes. Then his eyes are gouged out and he is taken to Babylon in chains. The last king of Judah.

Jeremiah does give one more prophecy. But if Zedekiah heard it, we can’t know if it ever held meaning for him. Jeremiah tells the story of the field he bought, complete with a lot of detail regarding the purchase. The prophecy is that land will be purchased in Judah again. Yes, it is hopeful. A hopeful prophecy. But it will not be fulfilled in the lifetime of anyone listening, including Jeremiah. This hope will be realized on the other side of the devastation. That is hope in the midst of reality. A real hope. It is not fake hope, the hope to which Zedekiah clung.

Some have been showing us that the hour is late for America. I won’t tell you that. I am not as clear of vision as they are nor as brave as Jeremiah. I will just point out that there are those people who say things like that. There is hope for us. Real hope, they say. But it is long past the fake hope of endless happy motoring. That era, they say, will end soon, as the hour is late.

So what do we do?

Well, there is a parable for that.

It is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. But Lazarus doesn’t have much of a part. The real story is about the rich man. Many people don’t like this parable as it conjures up images of hellfire which many of us traumatized in our childhood religion are glad to have left behind.

In my mind the best interpretation of this parable is by Charles Dickens in his story “A Christmas Carol.” One Christmas Eve awhile back, Ebeneezer Scrooge, the old miser, is visited by three spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, respectively. Scrooge is given a gift that he didn’t deserve. He was able to see his life, past, present, and future.

The Ghost of Christmas Future, unlike the other two spirits, does not speak. He only shows. The death of the crippled boy, Tim. The celebration of the city over what? The death of Scrooge as he realizes seeing his own tombstone.

“Are these things that will happen or may happen?” Scrooge asks desperately to the Ghost who doesn’t answer.

Mercifully, Scrooge awakens, scared witless, but transformed. Much is too late for Scrooge. Too late for the love of his life he traded for greed. Too late for Christmas dinners that he missed with his loved ones. Most of his life is water under the bridge. But he has a little time left. It is not too late for everything. It is not too late for one more Christmas Day spent with joy and generosity.

Through the lens of Charles Dickens is how I see the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
We might ask,
“Is this what really happens when we die?”
“Is there really a hell?”
“Is there really divine judgment?”
“Or is it just a story?”

Jesus, like the ghost of Christmas future does not answer. He just points to it.

The parable is not for the dead, of course. It is not for Lazarus or the rich man. The parable is for the living.

We can dismiss it as the rich man fears his brothers will dismiss what is written by Moses and the Prophets.

“Send Lazarus back to warn my brothers!” he cries.

“Even a resurrected dead man won’t convince them,” says Abraham. “What you get is what you get.”

Here we are today, September 29th, 2019, confronted by two Bible stories, one from Jeremiah and one from Luke. Bible stories that have been in Bibles long before any of us were around. Bible stories translated into hundreds of different languages, commented upon, reflected upon, debated, heard, dismissed, and received.

What do we do?

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a powerful sermon on this text in 1955. The rich man in Latin is Dives (Dahy-vees) and the King James used Dives as proper name for the rich man. King in his sermon, said Dives’ sin, the rich man’s sin, was not that he was rich, but it was that he refused to bridge the gulf between Lazarus and himself, the gulf now permanent in the afterlife. This is from King:

“Dives is the white man who refuses to cross the gulf of segregation and lift his Negro brother to the position of first class citizenship, because he thinks segregation is a part of the fixed structure of the universe. Dives is the India Brahman who refuses to bridge the gulf between himself and his brother, because he feels that the gulf which is set forth by the caste system is a final principle of the universe. Dives is the American capitalist who never seeks to bridge the economic gulf between himself and the laborer, because he feels that it is the natural for some to live in inordinate luxury while others live in abject poverty.

Dives sin was not that he was cruel to Lazarus, but that he refused to bridge the gap of misfortune that existed between them. Dives sin was not his wealth; his wealth was his opportunity. His sin was his refusal to use his wealth to bridge the gulf between the extremes of superfluous, inordinate wealth and abject, deadening poverty.

So when Dives cries to Abraham to send him one drop of water at Lazarus’ hands, Abraham replies: “There is a fixed gulf between you now.” There was a time that Dives could have bridged the gulf. He could have used the engineering power of love to build a bridge of compassion between him and Lazarus. But he refused. Now the gulf is fixed. The gulf is now an impassable gulf. Time has run out. The tragic words, too late, must now be, marked across the history of Dives’ life.

King finished his sermon by saying that all of us are Dives in one way or another.

“Each of us is a potential Dives, maybe not rich in material goods, but rich in education, rich in social prestige, rich in influence, rich in charm. At our gate stands some poor Lazarus who has been deprived of all of these. There is a gulf. But the gulf can be bridged by a little love and compassion. Bridge the gulf before it becomes too late. It is now passable. But it can become impassable.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached that sermon October 2nd, 1955 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, 64 years ago this week.

Nearly 12 years later on April 4th, 1967, in Riverside Church in New York, he preached the sermon that defined his last days, “Beyond Vietnam.” Exactly one year later, April 4th, 1968, he was assassinated. You can tell me whether or not his assassination had anything to do with his Vietnam sermon. The King family thinks it does.

The point is that it was a good sermon King preached in 1955 in Montgomery. Everyone liked it. It was scholarly, contemporary, and inspirational. Take a lesson from Dives before it is too late and bridge the gulf between yourself and those less fortunate than you.

The sermon he preached in 1967 was not well received. There King preached against the Vietnam War, saying at one point what had happened to the Vietnamese people:

“They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.

So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.”

King called for the end of the war and for young men and women to become conscientious objectors. Near the end of his sermon he said:

“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood—it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.”

King was vilified, of course, by representatives of the war machine and by the many enemies he had already made over the years in his battle for civil rights. More than that. He lost virtually all support from his friends, colleagues, and supporters in the civil rights movement itself. His last year of life was a lonely year. It was also a year that he felt most alive.

“I have been to the mountaintop and I have seen the promised land,” he said in his last sermon in Memphis before he was shot and killed.

King knew his Vietnam sermon would change the course of his life. He knew the risk he was taking speaking against the war machine. He knew what people would say, that he would lose all that he had worked for, lose his support, lose virtually everything. Lose his own life.

King knew something else. He knew that it was late. He knew that America had not much time, (even less today) to save its soul before it destroys the world. He knew that the hour was late for him. Even at the age of 48, he knew his days were not indefinite. He knew that he had to make a choice. He had to decide what his life was, what his life was worth. He knew that he couldn’t retire on the victories of the Civil Rights Act when the elites were leading the country to hell in Vietnam and beyond.

He made his choice in his time.

He took a lesson from the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.

Bible stories. That is all they are. Ancient history and parables. Jeremiah and Zedekiah, the rich man and Lazarus. Just Bible stories. For some people that is all they are and ever will be. For others, Like Martin Luther King, they are the summons from Spirit.

Spirit calling those who would hear that the hour is late.
There is not much time.
But there is time.
Time to end denial and to put on the shelf unrealistic dreams.
Time to act on a realistic hope.
Time to take inventory of your life and what you value.
Time to ask yourself what the rest of your life is for.

Amen.