Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Is it ever too late to repent?

Pentecost XVI - Proper 21 - Year C
September 27, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

Last week, Chic Donovan said to me on the way out of church, referring to the parable of the Crooked/Shrewd Merchant, “That’s not the worst parable ever!” “Oh yeah?” said I, “you try preaching on it!”

Well, I think this morning’s parable about Lazarus and the Rich Man  (Luke 16:19-31) is probably one of the more controversial of the parables of Jesus. There are lots of different interpretations, depending on your perspective. Which is just a parable is supposed to do.

As you can imagine, it’s not a favorite of the folks who believe in Calvin’s understanding of ‘the elect’ and what happens to them after they die. Or, those fundamentalists who think if you follow purity codes, you’ll get a seat right by Father Abraham. 

Some see it as a deliciously political statement about the evils of income inequality. Liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff and Jürgen Moltmann see this as evidence of what is known as ‘God’s preferential option for the poor’.

One of the ways to tell who has favor in scripture is whether or not the characters have names. The rich man is just a rich man who is “dressed in purple and feasts sumptuously every day.” The poor man is not only described in painful detail, right down to the sores that even the dogs had mercy on and came to lick them, but also he has a name. Lazarus.

After he dies, when the rich man looks up from his torment in Hades, he sees Lazarus at the side of Father Abraham (one assumes Mother Sarah was somewhere nearby). 

Still unrepentant and revealing why he is in Hades, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to tend to him with some cool water. Abraham reminds him of how he hoarded his riches while on earth, not caring for the plight of those like Lazarus and sharing some of his wealth. So now, the tables are turned and worse, Abraham says that the chasm between heaven and hell is fixed.

The rich man suddenly understands his fate and his heart is moved to save his five brothers, to send Lazarus to warn them so that they might repent and change their ways. 

But Abraham reminds him of the warnings of Moses and the prophets and says, well, "if they won’t listen to them, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."

Just a subltle hint there, about the expectation Jesus has about the effectiveness of people believing his own prophecies after his death and resurrection.

Well . . . that certainly doesn’t sound like good news, does it? Not for the rich man, anyway. Actually, it doesn’t sound like good news for the poor. Not to my ears. 

I remember hearing this story as a kid and thinking, “Wait! What? I have to suffer and struggle in this life and be content knowing that I’ll have everything in the next? That’s hardly fair. I’ve got this one life. I don’t want to waste it thinking about how much better it will be when I’m dead. That makes no sense.”

I remember having long conversations with my grandmother about this. She thought the purpose in life was for us to be more loving and giving, to share what we had with others, so that there would be fewer hideously filthy rich people as well as fewer horribly, painfully poor people. But, she said, sometimes, Jesus had to tell stories like this to get people to wake up and do what’s right.

Over the years, as I’ve reflected on this parable, I hear other, deeper questions. I’m struck by the rich man’s – oh, let’s give him a name; how about Winston? Winston Richman, that’s what we’ll call him– I’m struck by Winston Richman’s own unique form of repentance and concern for his five brothers. 

I’m touched by Winston's desire, even in the midst of his own suffering amidst the flames of Hades, to save his brothers, to give them the opportunity to repent of their sins of gluttony and greed and share with others before its too late.

Which raises the question: Is it ever too late to repent?

Winston Richman repented from Hades. Father Abraham didn’t hear his plea, but did God? That’s not part of the story Jesus told. Does it mean that it didn’t happen? Isn't it God's job, ultimately, to forgive and not Abraham? Or, did Jesus leave off the last part to make a point – to wake us up?

I don’t know about Father Abraham, but certainly Mother Sarah knows about being given another chance. She was an old woman, we are told, when she finally conceived a son, Isaac. She squandered that blessing when she convinced Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael into the desert to die. 

But God heard the cry of the child and saved them, promising that Ismael would also have as many descendants as there were stars in the sky. 

Some Rabbis teach that there is evidence to suggest that, having survived an attempt on his life by his own father, Abraham, Isaac sought refuge from what could only have been PTSD by staying in the wilderness with his stepmother Hagar and half-brother Ishmael – and never saw either his mother or his father again.

The bible is filled with stories like this: a fall from grace, a shot at redemption, followed by a fall from grace and yet another shot at redemption. When we have the opportunity to look back over our lives, if we’re honest, we might see the same patterns emerging.

In my work as a priest, I am often privileged to have conversations with people about their own stories of their redemption. I have found that people are eager to share their redemption stories with me. You would be amazed at the people in this very church this morning, people you may have known for years, who look for all the world like they not only have it all together but they have it wrapped up in shiny paper all tied up with beautiful ribbon with a bow on top.

I’ll tell you what they know: they didn’t get here by chauffeured limousine. Actually, some of them have travelled hundreds of miles of pretty rough roads and count themselves lucky to be alive. If you look them in the eye when you talk to them, you’ll see flickers of the evidence of those stories. 

There are real heroes in this community of faith, people who have fought incredible battles of adversity. They have not necessarily won every battle but they did win the war. You’ll know them because they are some of the most quietly generous, kind people you’ll ever meet.

When I was living in Baltimore in the 80s, the AIDS epidemic was raging. In those days, we walked among spiritual giants who lived lives of redemption. People who knew they had AIDS – and at that time, it was a death sentence – but they were determined to make whatever time they had left with their lives worth something. People who said to me, “You know, I may have lived most of my life as a junkie or a prostitute but I’m not going to die like that.”

I can still remember their names and their stories. 

Lisa, who discovered she and the baby she was carrying (whom she would name Anastasia), were HIV positive only after she lost her husband and her two sons to AIDS, all within four months of each other. 

Bertie Johnson, who lived on the rough streets of Baltimore and soothed the pain of her existence with booze and drugs that she bought with the money she earned through prostitution. 

Avon Johnson, a humble and kind hustler and a drug addict who often confounded his nurse but also made her laugh out loud – no small feat, to be sure.

And, my man, Tall Paul Wallace, a musician who was also magic on the basketball courts and would draw a crowd to see him play the midnight games at the hoops in the vacant parking lot on St. Paul Street as well as when he played a wailing saxophone at the Jazz Café on Calvert Street. 

As I call out their names, I can see Ms. Conroy smile in recognition of their stories. She was their nurse. 

I had the privilege of being their chaplain and their colleague in our work together on the Interfaith AIDS Task force – especially the Faith Community Education Committee.

They were, to a person, amazing, articulate educators. God only knows what contributions they could have made before they got caught in the web of poverty and inopportunity, violence and crime; if only those who had more might have shared a bit more with those who had less.

I learned so much from them. They were my teachers, my professors in pastoral care and counseling. The best among them was my man, Tall Paul Wallace. Everybody called him Tall Paul because he was 6’7” of a lean, lanky product of the projects around Hopkins University Hospital with athletic abilities and musical talent that should have gotten him a scholarship. Instead, he got AIDS and became a modern leaper.

Paul was one of my best professors. He and his momma taught me how to eat collard greens and corn bread – and his momma’s recipe for macaroni and cheese remains my family’s favorite. They also taught me how to pray extemporaneously. As a newly ordained priest in The Episcopal Church, I excelled at reading prayers from the BCP but they taught me how to center myself in my soul, open a channel to the divine and speak from my heart.

As any newbie to her profession, I was pretty bound up by rubrics and order. Don’t get me wrong. I still love the BCP and our own unique brand of disorganized organized religion, but back then, well, let’s just say that I took great umbrage when things were, shall we say, not in good order. Which meant, of course, they weren’t done the way The Episcopal Church said was good order.

Paul’s funeral was on the evening of All Saint’s Day. I’ll never forget it. It was scheduled at the exact same hour as the liturgy at the Cathedral that I had fully intended to attend. The choir, which was excellent, would be there. There would be smoke and bells and chanting and, no doubt some real solid preaching by the Dean or the Bishop on the importance of the resurrection.

Instead, I would be attending a small, inner city storefront church known as Deliverance Baptist Church. I feared surely there must be a special place in hell for priests who don’t attend a proper Episcopal liturgy on All Saint’s Day – perhaps right next to the room in hell for Episcopalians who can’t tell a salad fork from a dessert fork.

I walked into the church packed with people. Clearly everybody loved Tall Paul Wallace. The women in white nurses uniforms bustled about in their white orthopedic shoes, fanning those who were overcome with grief. The organist was playing familiar tunes softly as some folks quietly hummed along while their bodies gently rocked in sorrow.

And then, I saw it. The casket. To my horror, the casket was open. Now, every good Episcopalian worth her salt, not to mention anyone who has ever worked the Altar Guild knows that the casket is closed. 

We focus on the resurrection of the body – not the body. An embroidered pall covers the closed casket because, whether you are a rich man or Lazarus, a saint or a scoundrel, buried in a gold casket or one made of unfinished pine, you get the same funeral, the same grand, soaring language, the same availability of beautiful hymns because now you are with Jesus in heaven.

Well . . . . it was almost too much for my carefully taught and trained Episcopal sensibilities, so I had to sit down and compose myself. 

Just then, one of the women of the church got up to read the sympathy cards. She read each and every one of them, and the notes inside. One was from the Mayor of Baltimore and a few were from a few clergy of the churches where Paul and I had done our AIDS presentations, which were received with rounds of applause from the congregations.

People then got up, one by one, to give their testimonies. Each one was simple and real – no one glossed over his mistakes or denied his talents and good deeds, much less their grief at his loss –  which made them very powerful. 

And everyone, to a person, proclaimed their belief in the resurrection and their Christ-the-solid-rock hope in seeing Paul again in that great by and by.

And then, the organ started to play and Paul’s young daughter began to sing a hymn that isn’t in our hymnal but should be. It’s a hymn about redemption and release. It’s a hymn about the glory of heaven. It’s a hymn Paul had asked me to sing many times while I sat at this bedside – a bluesyversion of which he always played on his sax as the last song of the night. 

His daughter began to sing her father’s favorite gospel hymn:

Some bright morning when this life is over / I'll fly away
To that home on God's celestial shore / I'll fly away  
I'll fly away, oh glory / I'll fly away in the morning
When I die, Hallelujah by and by / I'll fly away.

I’ve listened to hundreds of sermons before and since, at funerals and on All Saints’ Day and on a Sunday when this gospel parable has been read, but nothing really sums it up quite like the experience I had at the funeral of Tall Paul Wallace at Deliverance Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, singing I’ll fly away.

So, here’s the thing. Here’s what this gospel passage teaches me about life that I want to preach to you this morning: It’s never too late to repent. It’s never too late to turn your life around and make things right. 

There’s always a shot at redemption, even if someone else doesn’t think it’s good enough. 

There’s always a chance to be the hero in your own story, even if no one else knows it but you and God. But, the pencil is in your hand. You get to chose how your story is written. Or, at least, you’ve got the choice to give it your best shot and tell the truth, even if just to yourself.

Because, despite how others may judge us, or what you may think, I believe we’re all going to heaven – saint and scoundrel, king and pauper, ne’er do well and over-achiever, church-goer and church gossip, whether your name is Winston Richman or Lazarus Poorman – we’re all going to meet together again in heaven. 

That was another song we sang that night at Deliverance Baptist Church, that helped me to know that resurrection is not just a theological doctrine.

Resurrection, redemption and salvation are not something to be grasped or easily explained. These are things to know not just in your head, but in every fiber of your being.

When we all get to heaven
What a day of rejoicing there will be
When we all see Jesus 
We'll sing and shout the victory.

No comments: