“We are running out of time. But it is not life that is running out of time. It is death. It is not justice that is running out of time, but injustice. It is not hope that is running out of time, but despair,” said the Rev. Thomas G. Long at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning worship service. His sermon title was “Telling Time,” and the Scripture reading was John 11:1-21, the beginning of the story of the raising of Lazarus.
“This is a long chapter. It is one story and I asked our reader to stop in the middle because it is long, it is familiar and we know how it ends,” Long said. “But because we know how it ends we can fasten our attention on Martha who confronts the one person she thought she could depend on. ‘If you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ She has a point.”
Martha has a point and if Jesus had been there, Lazarus would not have died. She speaks with the sound of betrayal, Long said. He shared a story of returning to school at Princeton after a holiday break to find out that a classmate had died of a brain aneurysm.
“ ‘How are his wife and children doing?’ I asked the person who told me. He said that it was very hard for them,” he said. “I thought ‘I will have to visit them,’ but since they had family there, I thought ‘I won’t go now.’ After the family left, I thought ‘I should visit them,’ but since it was their first time being alone, I thought ‘I won’t go now.’ ”
When he saw the friend who had given him the news and asked about the family again, the friend said they were doing as well as could be expected and they had asked after Long.
“They would have liked to see you,” the friend said.
“It was not that I was afraid of death,” Long said. “I had been a pastor and had seen death. It was death coming close to someone my own age.”
Jesus did not have a good excuse not to go to Bethany when he heard Lazarus was sick. The writer of the Gospel of John makes it clear that Jesus never intended to go, Long said.
“Jesus, who loved them, decided to stay where he was until it was too late, until they had run out of time,” he said. “Running out of time is a theological sign in our broken and fallen world. We want a government that serves the people and speaks with civility. We want good government, but we are running out of time.”
“We want a country that is just and fair,” Long said. “There are young African-Americans in my city [Atlanta] who are afraid to go out because they don’t know if society is for or against them. We have police who wear blue, some of whom are both people of color and wear blue, who are afraid as they try to protect us. We are running out of time.”
The sojourner and the immigrant, who work hard, are afraid of what might happen to them.
“We want justice to roll down like waters, but we are running out of time,” Long said. “In our families, we wish things were better, but we are running out of time. And down every corridor is death, wagging his clock, saying, ‘Eventually, you will come to me.’ ”
Yet, precisely when it was too late, Jesus rounded up his disciples and said, “We are going in.” His disciples said, “Not in there. There is death in there.” Jesus said to them, “This is not about death, but about the glory of God.”
“He strides up to the tomb and yells, ‘Lazarus come out,’ and he did full of life and hope,” Long said. “It is not life that is running out of time, it is death; it is not justice that is running out of time, it is injustice; it is not hope that is running out of time, it is despair.”
Long said in John’s Gospel there are two wristwatches, the one of ordinary time of the roiling world and the one of God’s time, eternal time where justice will roll down like waters.
“They were trying to get Jesus to live according to our time and he refuses,” Long said. “He goes in [the tomb] with God’s time in his eyes.”
Karl Barth said if he gives money, he gives money, but if he gives time, he gives all he has.
“In Jesus Christ, God has time for you, is time for you; Jesus Christ is the lord of time,” Long said.
He shared the story of how Olivier Messiaen composed “Quartet for the End of Time” while he was a prisoner of war during World War II.
“Its rhythm is irregular and the only way to play it is for the players to play together. Instead of writing pianissimo or forte in its directions, he wrote ‘play with tenderness, play with ecstasy, play with love.’ ”
Long was at a clergy conference in Atlanta and, when they had an afternoon off, he went to get a haircut. As he sat down in the chair, the woman who was going to cut his hair said she did not recognize him. He told her he was at a conference and she said that she was a Christian, too, and was a member of Creflo Dollar’s church. Dollar preaches a gospel of prosperity and has been investigated by the government.
“I thought, I am already getting a bad haircut, and now I am going to get bad theology. So I asked her if she had gotten her blessing yet,” Long said. “She said yes, she had. I waited for her to mention diamonds or a Jaguar but she said, ‘Twice a week, I volunteer in a shelter for battered women. I used to be one of them, so they trust me.’ Jesus is loose at Creflo Dollar’s church.”
A New York Times article featured a story about Joyce Wallace who uses a van to provide health care to prostitutes in Times Square. She attempts to give them encouragement and liberation. The reporter was impressed but still skeptical because many of the women still die from AIDS or drug overdoses, Long said. She told the reporter that her mother, who worked as a teacher with special-needs children, taught her not to look at the damage but the image, the image of God that eternity preserves in each one of them.
Her mother taught her class songs from My Fair Lady and took them to sing at a PTA meeting.
“It never occurred to her not to let a child in a wheelchair sing, ‘I Could Have Danced All Night,’ ” Long said. “Since Jesus is lord of time, she will dance. It is not easy to live as a person of faith in this world. It is a long story, a familiar story, but we know how it ends.”
The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr., director of the Department of Religion, presided. Larry Thompson, a member of the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the Chautauqua Choir. The first anthem was “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” arranged by Dale Adelmann. The second anthem was “The Image of God,” written by Craig Courtney for “Brock McCauley and God’s disabled children, all of whom bear his image.” Susan Bentall Boersma wrote the words, based on Psalm 139. Barbara Kemper Hois played the flute solo. The offertory anthem was “Be Still, My Soul” with music by Jean Sibelius, choral setting by Mack Wilberg and words by Katharina von Schlegel, translated by Jane Borthwick. The organ postlude was “God Among Us” from La Nativité du Seigneu by Olivier Messiaen.