In the light of today’s scripture, what does God want? Justice, compassion, active deeds of love and mercy.
Here is a story of a man who embodies just that. He was a man without a huge amount of education, but he stayed up late nearly every night; he read and read and read, educating himself in the ways of the law. During the Great Depression, a bank in his rural, Southern county hired him to receive and to dispose of the many farms that the bank was foreclosing on as a result of the desperate financial times.
He had always been deeply concerned about the plight of African American farmers, most of whom were sharecroppers whose situation was little better than slavery. They lived on someone else’s land. During the winter, they had to borrow from the landowner to buy food and fuel, and the interest they were charged was at least six percent. In the summer, when the crops came in, the first money, taken off the top, went to pay back those debts with interest. And then there was never enough money. Each year these sharecroppers sank deeper and deeper into debt.
So, the man began to meet with the sharecroppers. He trained them in advanced farming methods, and he kept careful records of their crops. He helped them get a good price for their work. By the time he died, some 200 black farmers and their families, who had never before owned land or a home, were proud, hardworking landowners, living by the fruits of their own labor. No handouts – just hard work.
When the man died, they were forced to have his funeral at his home rather than at the local church, because they knew that most of the people at the funeral would be black, and blacks were not welcome at the predominately white church.
That would have suited the man. He had almost never attended church. He couldn’t stand to sit there and watch ushers pass the offering plates on Sunday, knowing how those scoundrels conducted their businesses during the week, knowing the way they treated people when they weren’t all dressed up and playing church.
He respected not hypocrisy but justice, compassion and active deeds of love and mercy. In the light of the final portion of today’s Gospel, I think he will be ready for the Son of Man coming at an unexpected hour.
We spend a lot of time getting ready for things, don’t we? And waiting for things. Remember dating? She spent hours bathing and deciding what to wear and curling and dressing and putting on her face. He spent time nervously in the living room with her father. Waiting.
Having a baby. Getting the layette ready. Painting the nursery. Finally going into labor. She labors. He paces. And in the child’s own good time, he is born. Expected, but rarely arriving on schedule.
And there are those unexpected happenings that – happen – whether we are ready or not. Accidents. Sudden visitors who drop in when you are in your bathrobe and you haven’t vacuumed in days. I remember one day saying facetiously to my husband, “I think I’ll go out to the mailbox and see if anyone has sent us a thousand dollars.” I went to the mailbox, and there was a letter from my Aunt Liz with a check in it for a thousand dollars – my share of the proceeds of the sale of my grandmother’s house. Talk about the unexpected!
Of course, what Jesus is talking about here is the coming of the Son of Man. It’s not the occurrence itself that will be unexpected. Rather it’s the timing. We are to be ready to meet Him, but when? I don’t mean to counter Jesus’ assertion that we don’t know when He will come. My question is a bit different.
Thinking of meeting Jesus after our own earthly life is over, I see a couple of possibilities. Will we meet Him at the moment of our death? Step through the door of death into new life – and there He is? Or is there a lag in time between our death and the last trumpet when all those who have died will rise at once and meet Him?
Frankly I lean toward the former option because I suspect that heavenly time doesn’t operate the way earthly time does. But I don’t know. And what’s more, I don’t care that I don’t know. Because I have faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. I don’t have to know all the details in order to be sure that it’ll happen. Faith, says Paul, is the assurance – the assurance – of things hoped for, the conviction, the absolute certainty in the reliability of things not seen. I thank God for the gift of faith.
So. If we are ready to meet the Son of Man when he comes, however and whenever that happens, what does that mean? What do we do to be ready? Get our hair done? Shave and put on a white shirt and tie? Get a room ready? Buy life insurance? Vacuum? Read the Bible cover to cover? Somehow, I don’t think there is any list of things to do that will make any of us ready. I don’t think it’s our finances and our rooms and our appearances that we need to make ready, although taking care of our bodies and keeping our financial affairs in order are important.
What I learned from my mother in the last months of her life was that being ready to die means making peace with God – and thus with our relationships. By the time she died, she told us there was nothing left unsaid, and none of us, her kids, felt that we had left anything unsaid either.
Now for her, death was not unexpected, nor was it unwelcome. In fact, she complained that it was late. When her oncologist figured that she had six months left to live, he arranged hospice care for her. Six months later, she was still here. Seven months later, she was still here. Somewhere in the eighth month, she said to us, “Damn – I flunked dying.”
But our focus here shouldn’t be on death per se, but on the coming of the Son of Man. He will come like a thief in the night. A thief in the night? Christ is not a cat burglar! But he is apt to pop in on us at unexpected times. And that’s the point. What if He had popped in on us at, say, five to nine last Tuesday morning. What were you doing then? Anybody remember? Would you have been ready for Jesus? If any one of us had died at 5 to 9 last Tuesday morning, would there have been things left undone? Things left unsaid? Would we have felt prepared or unprepared to meet our maker?
We make a lot of preparations in our lifetimes. Life without planning and preparing would be pretty chaotic. As a teacher, I was required to plan, to make lesson plans, partly because I taught better if I had something planned, and also because the school district required it. But I learned very early in my career that plans sometimes got flung out the window, that I might revise or improvise at a moment’s notice. In 1965, my first year of teaching, the principal was making his first formal observation of me, this brand-new teacher. I had a detailed lesson plan for some poetry we were studying. The observation had been scheduled ahead of time, and we were expected to hand the principal a copy of the lesson plan when he walked in the door. The specific lesson I don’t remember, but I do remember the question that came from a small high school freshman named Paul. He asked if someone was a Jap.
Whoops! New lesson! We had an impromptu study of inappropriate pejorative (there was a new vocabulary word) pejorative nicknames vs. appropriate ones – especially when related to ethnicity. I didn’t follow my lesson plan. I couldn’t pass up such a teachable moment for such an important concept. And the reward that reinforced the lesson for me was the high marks I received from the principal.
Looking back on that and on many similar experiences since then, I see also a theological lesson. We may write our own agendas. But God may have a different agenda for us, and we should switch, with grace, to God’s agenda. How many of us had our own agendas for our children, only to learn that God had other plans. That’s especially true, I think, of parents who discover that their child is born with a handicapping condition. It is the parents who are able to say – Not my will but thy will be done who not only will survive but who also will be ready to meet the Son of Man without bitterness.
Not all agenda changes are devastating. But boy, can they be unexpected. The main characters in this little scenario are my younger sister Ellen and her son Robert. They are Episcopalians and were active in church and Sunday School. So they saw themselves as part of Jesus’ “little flock.” Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s god pleasure to give you the kingdom. . . . Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. If you are part of Jesus’ little flock, then you know that he is your shepherd, and you should be ready for anything.
Well, almost anything. Ellen lives on the Russian River in Northern California. It’s a pleasant river, winding through the California foothills, meandering slowly between wooded banks and small beaches. A favorite summer activity is floating, inner tubing, down the river.
It was on such a lazy, floaty day that Eller and Robert, who was 8 or 9 at the time, floated past a group of people who were boisterously, noisily, flinging themselves out over the river on ropes and dropping into a deep pool in the river. That was not an unexpected occurrence for Ellen and Robert. But – these guys and gals were nude. Not a bathing suit in the bunch.
Ellen and Robert certainly weren’t ready for that. Robert is now grown up and his children of his own. Ellen is very active in her church, as is Robert. Both of them are, I am sure, ready for the coming of Jesus -- a far cry from how they weren’t ready for the naked people flying out over the river during their journey downstream.
We’re all on a journey to meet the Son of Man, and we don’t journey alone. We’re part of a little flock. Right here. I hope that we are ready and open to receive God more fully. We may not have to be ready for people swinging into our lives on the end of a rope. But let’s pray that we’ll be reading for the coming of Jesus, having filled our lives with justice, compassion, and deeds of love and mercy.