Always Running Late

May 29, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

When is a bird late? Never. They don’t have an alarm clock; often they are an alarm clock. What makes a friend show up late to ask for bread? Because they forgot to ask for it earlier. Is it ever too late? No. Is it ever too early? No. This parable about the friend who shows up late – and is still fed even though he is late – is classic Jesus. We are asked to violate normal borders and boundaries, to do something and to be someone who is minimally unusual and maximally transgressive. We are asked to be kind to the person who has done something inappropriate, if not rude. And we are being told something about God, on whom you can never call too late. God doesn’t keep business hours or bankers’ hours. God’s door never has a sign on it that says, “Closed.” Bread is available on into the night.

The text reminded me every so much as early Occupy. Surely, you remember the campers in Zucotti Park. We volunteered to offer showers at Grace House and even if I do say so myself, we did a bang up job. We laundered the towels every morning, bought a variety of shampoos and deodorants and turned ourselves into a Marriott marquis. Dozens of people came, and we rarely ran out of hot water. There was only one problem. We said we would be open from 10 – midnight and then at midnight we would be closed and go back to our private property and let the hot water refill on behalf of our own morning libations. Occupiers are not good at rules and so they broke them. Most would show up around 11:50 p.m. and hope that we were still “open.” Finally, we developed a self-regulating policy, went to bed and the occupiers policed the door on into the nights. The same thing happened at Judson where the people who lived with us for most of the winter broke just about every rule we created. They were to be up and out at 8:30. They never were. Roland can tell you great stories. In the name of our own hospitality, we finally evicted them. We violated the whimsy of the parable, knowing that we just couldn’t take the entitlement and discourtesy any longer, without shooting the very Occupiers we know and love.

Very few of us are Jesus. Most of us meet the classic Jesus and set our internal alarms for a few hours a day. We agree to try to be unusual and transgressive and different and radically generous with bread. Then we come late and later to the party. We are always running late when it comes to following Jesus. Will you follow Jesus, the old song asks? Yes, we respond, with rules and self-protections, time limits and good personal boundaries. That friend showed up and didn’t quietly ask for a little bread, by the way. He or she showed up and asked for three loaves. Talk about shameless audacity. Imagine wanting a lot, like the Occupiers did, rather than a little.

I titled this sermon “Always Running Late,” because I wanted to identify with those who ask for too much, too late, and hope we will give it to them. We have talked about how to interpret parables for some time now. We often say that the best way to understand a parable is to pick a part and play it. Thus with the Prodigal Son, that most famous of parables, we often preach from the aggrieved brother or the puzzled father, instead of the returning son. Or we think of ourselves as those who walked by before the Good Samaritan stopped in his tracks. Here, in this parable, we can identify with the friend who receives the late night knock on the door or with the friend who needs the bread – or even with the bread or even with the lateness. Today I am going to play the part of the lateness. Why didn’t he come round earlier? Why wait so long?

Most of us have a problem with procrastination. Procrastination makes us late. Maybe you are the on time type but I sure am not. I often wonder why I feel like I am always running late. I turn 65 this week and feel like I’m not on time for that yet either. So permit me to try to define early, late and on time.

I suppose you could say that Zuckerburg is the early type. He may wear a hoodie to meetings on Wall Street but he did move fast and break things. Early people do just that. We often brag that Judson is “early” on issues – and when we do that, we hear that famous response to justice seeking people. It is the “not ready yet” response. Implication, they may sometime be. I used to always be rejected for jobs. “We like you, Donna, but we’re just not ready yet for a woman minister.” Surely the United Methodist Church is telling us they are not ready for clergy who happen to be gay. Dr. King heard non stop that the South wasn’t ready “yet” for civil rights. The biggest excuse people make about justice or entrepreneurs is to say that they are too early. One of the great questions in Bill Coffin’s life was whether he was ‘early” to protest the Vietnam War or late. This parable plays with this problem. So what would be the fun of our friend showing up right at 5 p.m. to ask for three loaves of bread? Jesus is having fun with us when he offers the bread late, knowing that we like to think we are early.

If early makes people uncomfortable in lots of directions – don’t you hate the people who arrive early for the party – so does late. Why am I always running late? Because I try to fit too much into too little. My biggest excuse lately for being late is that I didn’t leave early enough, because I was fooling around on the Internet. Just one more thing, Mr. Zuckerburg, just one more thing. We are late because we refuse to make choices and we let choices make us. We are late because we want to make sure we please all our masters. We try to do more than we can do – and run smack into the demand of this parable that we open our door late at night, when we should be doing only what we want to do, not serving others who didn’t get their acts together. Jesus often adds to our to do list – or at least many of us misinterepet him that way. I could give you a practical way to stop being late. You’d have to know at all times exactly what you wanted to do, measure our your minutes, and only do what you said you would do. Time management is not a small subject. Apparently there are even wantologiss available now to counsel you. Find out what you want and then you won’t be late any more. But that practical advice, good as it is, won’t keep the door from knocking late at night. You could perfectly manage and border your own life – and that wouldn’t help Jesus’ project at all. His project is your peace first and then your participation in peace for all.

Jesus is always playing with time. He is also playing with your mind and soul – and asking you to get over being both early and late and to instead be on time and in time. There are big differences. The big theological word for this is the “already, but not yet” understanding of Jesus. His promises – of bread for all, any time, any way – are already realized in our spiritual appreciation of them and confidence in them – and they are not yet realized because we have to become the givers of bread. Jews talk about this differently. “The value of the Jewish Messiah is that not that he never arrives, but that his arrival is imminent, “ and “every second of time is the straight gate through which the Messiah might arrive.” Walter Benjamin

In both the Christian and Jewish notion of time, only the moment matters. You never finish what you have to say. You figure out what to leave out and what to let in, every moment, and when you do that, you are living the on time life, whether you are 18 or 80. Tony Bennett was pushed hard to answer the question of what gave his 80 year old singing its lift? He responded by saying “it is knowing what to leave out.” Opening your door at midnight to a friend also means you are leaving something out as well as letting something in. Bill Keller, as he retired from the New York Times as editor, said, “If 80% is showing up, 20% is knowing when to leave.” Prophets tell truth long before people want to hear the truth, said Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. She said, “You always tell people more than they want to hear.” Why do prophets do that? Because they are not afraid. Because they have peace. Because they have to.

I think you can hear the already but not yet in Tony Bennett and Bill Keller and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. Chair designers put it like this: Remove, remove, remove. Let the chair emerge from what you don’t put into it. Or Michelangelo, talking David. “I just chipped away till the figure emerged.” Less is spiritually more. More is spiritually less. Don’t try to get it right. Try to get it. When we work in the world of already but not yet, we are always on time. We get over being late or early. You will want to know what that means.

Do open your doors for showers for people who have none. Throw them out or get them to take care of themselves. Don’t get uptight about it. Action leads to thinking more than thinking leads to action.

Do not understand your wedding as the best day of your life or any day as the best day of your life. Sure the day of your wedding you lose weight and the years of your marriage gain weight. So what?

The best day of your life is when you are most glad that you are you and not anyone else. Or even a few hours of not pleasing people are good. Joan Didion was criticized terribly for having “half stated regrets,” and never saying what might have been different. I don’t know if that is true about her or not—but I do think many of us live in the past so deeply that we rarely risk what might be different this afternoon, or tonight, or when the birds start their song in the morning. Knowing Jesus, living in he peace of salvation, eliminates regrets. No one has the time for them. No one at all. No one has need for them either. There is a door that is always open, a place where it is never too late. That place is here and now as well as there and then.

Jesus is the only Messiah who never really shows up, intentionally, I think, to keep us with something to do, to keep history open, to avoid the rigidity of the right, which imagines that God stopped speaking right after the last psalm was written. For better or worse Jesus really meant it when he said we were his hands and his feet.

There is a quiet in the night – even if somebody may show up and ask for something. It is a quiet that doesn’t care if you please Jesus or do not please Jesus. You could also not answer the door. You are free to do that. There is a non chalance to Jesus that makes being late or being early less important than we normally imagine they are. Jesus is the bread, as he often said. It is a bread of action and peace, both not either.

Nigel Marsh talked about this peace – that becomes action – when he spoke of “the thousands and thousand of people out there, leading lives of quiet, screaming desperation, where they work long hard hours at jobs they hate to enable them to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.”

How to keep the bread alive among us – so that we give it receive it during the day and at night? Scream the quiet desperation. Work less hard at anything, including your job. Buy less unless you are poor, in which case find a way to buy more. Never try to impress people, even the ones you do like. Like the birds who live without alarm and without clocks, float. Now is then. Then is now. Amen

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