Just a Matter of Time

Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called….  (1 Timothy 6:12)

Seven years ago, the wonderful Indian writer, Amitav Ghosh, published a novel that tells, in a way, the story of Burma from the collapse of its monarchy at the hands of the British Empire in 1885, through the exploitation of its many natural resources, through the independence movement that followed World War II, to the coup d’etat that established the current line of military rule.

The British had known that Burma was not only strategic, it was a land of wealth.  The nation has been a leading producer worldwide of rice and teak; it has significant amounts of oil and natural gas, as well as other valuable minerals; the population is well-educated.  Yet, by 1987 (25 years into the rule of its military leaders) Burma was designated a least-developed nation by the United Nations, and most of its population remains poor.

You surely know that for some weeks now, Burma has been boiling over with anti-government protests, spurred-on, in part, because of a steep rise in the price of fuel that translated into bus fares that doubled over-night.  The footage – over the past week or ten days – of the columns of Buddhist monks walking through the streets of Rangoon or Mandalay, surrounded by the poor, ordinary people of Burma, has had me transfixed.  Sometimes the processions seem almost silent.  Sometimes there is singing, sometimes the chanting of slogans.  Sometimes the people join hands in a protective barrier as they walk or jog alongside the human river of shaved heads and maroon robes and sandaled feet.

At least some of those processions were headed through the streets of Rangoon to the guarded home of Aung San Suu Kyi, which has been her prison for a dozen years or more, and where she is to be found in the final paragraph of Amitav Ghosh’s book.  

Ghosh writes this:  “She has already succeeded….  She has torn the masks from the generals’ faces….  She haunts them unceasingly, every moment…  She has robbed them of words, of discourse.    They have no defense against her….  The truth is they’ve lost and they know this….  Soon they will have nowhere to hide…. It is just a matter of time before they are made to answer for all that they have done.”

It is just a matter of time before they are made to answer for all that they have done. This was also the case for the rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day, about whom we heard in the Gospel this morning.  It was just a matter of time.

At his gate – at his own gate! – lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.  We are meant to understand that despite this desire and his proximity, Lazarus got no crumbs.  It seems unlikely that he got more than a glance – and that a disgusted one, as the dogs licked his sores.  But it was just a matter of time, just a matter of time.

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom in heaven.  And the rich man died and finds himself in hot, hot water.  It was just a matter of time. “Father Abraham!” he cries out, “Have mercy on me, have mercy on me!”  But you know how the story goes: it had just been a matter of time, after all, before he was made to answer for all he had done… or failed to do.

Abraham calls back down to the once rich man:  “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.  And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.”  It was just a matter of time.

I don’t really know what to make of this worrisome  teaching about the permanence of our fate in the life to come.  It requires either knowledge or wisdom that has not been given to me.  But this much seems clear: that the chasm between heaven and hell is not yet fixed in this life here on earth; between the rich man and Lazarus there were only steps – only inches – to be crossed.  The distance between hope and despair is miniscule.  What a difference it makes if those of us who can, will take those steps.  And if we don’t, is it just a matter of time?

The point of this parable is not to teach us something true about the afterlife; rather it is to teach us something true about this life: that how we live it matters.  The point is to “take hold” in the words from the Epistle today, to “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called,” which, apparently, is something we do in this life.  Apparently it’s something we do outside these doors, beyond those garden gates, on those streets.

Does it help to think about someplace far away?  As we sit with bated breath to find out if the other shoe will drop in Burma, do we think it’s true that it’s only a matter of time?  Will those generals be made to answer for all they have done?  Which side would we want to be on?  Is the promise of eternal life as easy as that?  Is it as easy as choosing to link arms as the monks take up their march?  

Or does it help to think about someplace closer to home?

There is a place I like to go for lunch on Walnut Street – on the other side of Broad.  I can usually be found heading there once a week or so.  And I know that in almost any weather, in the doorway of a building on the northwest corner of Walnut and Juniper Streets, I will encounter one of the many Lazaruses that inhabit this city.  He is poor, I know that.  He goes to a shelter at night, I know that.  And he will walk and talk with me for blocks at a time, I know that.   I have never seen him drunk or high.  I believe he has had a hard life.  And he is vigilant.  He always sees me coming – whether or not I am wearing a clerical collar.  He does not ask me for money, but I know that it is what’s wanted, and what’s needed.  I give him some, but it never comes close to the amount I am about to spend on lunch.

And I know precisely how to avoid him.  All I have to do is walk up Locust Street and then turn left on 13th to join Walnut there.  All I have to do is plan out my steps and I can avoid him so easily.  All I have to do is choose my route a little carefully.

I believe, however, that in some way God has planted that man in the middle of a path between me and my lunch.  It is a path that I can so easily avoid – by fixing just a small chasm of space between him and me in this city: just one block!  Then I could go on to my lunch and have thoughtful, concerned conversations about the situation in Burma.  In which case I’d have avoided doing anything about the situation far away or the person close at hand.

Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.  Like everything we have in this world, the possibility of eternal blessing with God is a gift given by his loving hand, poured out with the blood of his Son.  And it is ours for the taking.  It has been so since the beginning, when the gift was planted in a garden.  The Scriptures remind us that we generally prefer to reach for death than for life.  We like the risk.  We can’t stand not knowing what its fruit tastes like.  We reach for it because we can; it is close at hand.  It’s a bad habit of ours: reaching for death rather than life.  But the distance between hope and despair is miniscule… if only those of us who can, will take the steps, before the earth moves under our feet and we find a great chasm yawning between us.  It might just be a matter of time.

I read Amitov Ghosh’s book about Burma, The Glass Palace, five or six years ago and then promptly forgot about that far-away place or its people.  So it was a little shocking to find myself so moved by their recent struggle for justice, for freedom, for life.  It was shocking to be reminded that in this global village of ours the distance between hope and despair really is so often miniscule, just as it is closer to home.

And I was surprised to read in that final paragraph of the novel what amounts to a kind of statement of faith, placed in Aung San Suu Kyi: she has already succeeded; it is already done; victory has already been won, even if you cannot yet see it, and it is just a matter of time, just a matter of time.

This is surprisingly similar to the way we speak of our faith in the triumph of Jesus over the powers of death.  He has already succeeded; it is already done; victory has already been won, even if you cannot yet see it, and it is just a matter of time, just a matter of time.

But how we make use of that time does matter.  Whether or not we reach out to take hold of the eternal life to which we have been called does matter.  The gift of life is a gift that God has been cultivating for us from the very beginning.  But we have preferred to reach for death.  And it may just be a matter of time.

Or it may be as simple as linking arms around a long line of Buddhist monks, as simple as unlocking the gates to a house somewhere in the streets of Rangoon – what could be simpler?

Or it may be as simple as choosing to walk past that northwest corner of Thirteenth and Juniper, whether I feel like it or not.  And as I stand there talking with my Lazarus, is it fanciful of me to imagine that the earth threatens to move under my feet?  Is there a great chasm about to yawn open between us?  And what side of it will I be on?  Is it just a matter of time?

And wouldn’t it be better to take what steps I can – while I am able – to cross that meager distance between me and him, which looks a lot like the miniscule distance between hope and despair?

Take hold, my brothers and sisters, take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.  Take hold!  It may be just a matter of time.  But as it was in the beginning it surely is now: the gift of life is ours for the taking, already won for us, once and for all.  But the ride from here to eternity is sure to be a bumpy one – and who knows how long it will last?!  Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and don’t let go!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
30 September 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 1, 2007 .