Preached in the Duke University Chapel on Nov. 11, 1984, during a Homecoming celebration.
A woman of my acquaintance has thrown away her watch and decided to have nothing more to do with clocks. “I have freed myself from the tyranny of time,” she says. She has had it with bourgeoise, middle-class punctuality. She will now live as if everyday were a vacation at the beach.
Something in me would like to be her, free from time’s tyranny, measuring time as did my ancestors — through the gentle passage of seasons, sunrise and sunset, not seconds, minutes, hours, punching in and punching out.
I have been conditioned into the chronology of the academy. I used to wonder why faculty meetings lasted so long. Days, weeks spent discussing, evaluating, pondering. The Dean announces that coffee hour has been changed from ten to ten thirty.
“Well, I believe we ought to reflect upon that,” says one. “What are the larger issues, the basic philosophical questions surrounding coffee hour?” says another. Three days later, we are still pondering.
Before you laugh at us academics, I remind you that, as scholars, we are in the business of cautious observation and careful deliberation. Many a good thesis has been ruined because its author rushed to judgment, failed to weigh carefully all the facts, prematurely eliminated a possible solution. The key to good research is patience, restraint, caution.
“Scholars don’t make good managers,” says one management theorist. “They are trained not to decide.”
The story is told that the physicist, Max Planck, died and went to heaven. St. Peter met him at the gate saying, “Professor Planck, this door goes to the Kingdom of Heaven, while this door leads to a discussion about the Kingdom of Heaven.” As a scholar, you know which one he chose.
The word “decision” comes from the Latin meaning “to cut off,” “to sever.” Better to discuss, defer, refer to a committee for further consideration. Why go on record believing that the earth is round when someone may discover next year that it’s really flat? Wait. Observe. Be patient. There’s still time.
No wonder that many prudent people simply decide not to decide. They drift, or sit quietly in a corner, watching the vast, multicolored parade go by. One day they may decide, but not now, not with so many options. Not today. We musn’t prematurely close out the possibilities. Each time we take account of our lives, look back on where we have come, the roads taken and not taken, we know: Life is the sum of all the choices we make, or refuse to make.
“Men at forty dose doors more softly,” says the poet. Only a fool would rush to close one door prematurely by opening another. Best to wait until all of the evidence is in, until the data has been collected. Wait. Decisions are for tomorrow.
And there will always be a tomorrow. It’s in the Bible. “There is nothing new under the sun,” says the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Something comes, something goes, thus it has ever been, thus it will ever be. Life is one thing after another in endless procession. Ecclesiastes has a Greek view of history. For the Greeks, time is a circle. There is no beginning to the world; no end either. Everything is a circle. There is a time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to reap, a time to build up, a time to tear down.
Over and over again it goes, eternally rising and falling and rising again. This is time, said the Greeks. There will always be tomorrow. Wisdom belongs to those who wait, who carefully weigh all possibilities, collect as much information as possible, consider all sides of an issue, and be moderately cautious. Why hurry? There will always be tomorrow.
Besides, as Christians we know that, even if we make the wrong decision (or, more to the point) no decision at all, there is always grace. A young boy asked for his inheritance from his father. He then took the money out to the “far country” to live the “good life.” But his plan turned sour. He lost all of his money in loose living and was soon reduced to the level of a pig. Yet all was not lost for this prodigal. He returned home, penitent and broken, and his waiting father received him with joy, threw a party for him, and all was forgiven.
Matthew tells a story. A man goes out at dawn and hires some workers for his vineyard. Later in the day, he goes out and hires some more men to work. Late in the afternoon, an hour or so before quitting time, he hires yet more workers. When the day ends, he calls all the workers together and pays them all — the same wage. The ones who have been out sweating since dawn get paid as much as those who only got in an hour before dusk. There is grumbling. “Do you begrudge my generosity?” the master asks the grumbling workers.
And we love that little parable. Because it means that what we hoped is right: There is still time. So what if you haven’t got your life together today? Don’t worry. The fattier waits. You may be the eleventh hour worker who will get as much grace from God as those who have been at it since infancy. God’s Kingdom is like that, says Jesus. God is gracious. There will always be a tomorrow for decisions and homecomings. Why trouble ourselves about the now when there is always grace for the future?
All would be well if Matthew told only one parable, the one about the laborers in the Vineyard. We could let grace be grace, a gift a gift, and drift on through today to an ever-open tomorrow. But Matthew tells other stories: A group of girls are invited to a wedding party. They mean to go get oil for their lamps, but it was first one thing and then another. When the call finally goes out, “Come to the party!” the oil is gone. By the time they go out and buy oil, alas, the door is shut. The party has begun without them. They bang at the door, they cry out, they claw at the door! But no, the door is shut. They had their chance. It’s over now. There will be no tomorrow.
Or today’s lesson from Matthew: When you see the fig tree blossom you know what time it is. Noah knew the time. When Noah built the ark his neighbors ate and drank at back yard patio parties. They looked over the fence and saw the old man feverishly hammering away at the ark. If they had only known: The clouds gathering on the horizon were to spoil more than their picnic!
Thieves don’t send engraved announcements to alert you of a nocturnal visit, says Jesus. And that’s the way God is, life is — sometimes it comes upon you like a thief in the night.
Jesus, Jew that he was, had no Greek view of history. Unlike the Greeks, Israel viewed history, not as a never ending circle, but as a straight line, a line with a beginning and an end. The world begins in Genesis with God’s creation of the world and ends in Revelation. There is a beginning and an end to all things. Someday, there will be no tomorrow.
The invitation is given. When it is rejected, it goes elsewhere. The door is opened. Then it is shut. The gavel goes down, the ticking clock is silent, the little up and down line on the monitor becomes straight and it is over. There is no tomorrow.
That’s a word which isn’t popular these days, is it? We would rather Matthew tell us about eleventh hour workers who get grace rather than about procrastinators who end up out in the cold. 99 percent of Americans like the Story of the Prodigal Son better than the Story of the Foolish Virgins or the thief in the night.
And that was possibly the way it was for the church of Matthew’s day. The time of crisis was over. It’s hard to live every day, day-in-day-out as if there were no tomorrow. Jesus had said that he was returning soon to reclaim the faithful. But where was he? The church had waited, and waited. By the time this Gospel was written the church had been waiting for maybe 75 or 80 years for the return of Christ, and that’s a long time to stand on tiptoes. It’s hard to maintain a sense of crisis for 80 years!
Therein is the problem. “There will always be a tomorrow,” some must have said. “After all, there have been about 29,000 tomorrows since Jesus told us he would return for us.” The once taut church relaxed, loosened its grip, settled down in the everydayness of things.
And that, our story today indicates, is dangerous. To live as if there will always be a tomorrow is to live like a fool. The best selling religious book of all time is called The Late Great Planet Earth. Fifty million people paid good money to read Hal Lindsey’s view of the end. Yet it isn’t only Jerry Falwell, Hal Lindsey and James Watt talking this way. The gathering ecological crisis, the threat of nuclear war, international monetary problems — suddenly everyone is talking apocalyptic but the church, the liberal, contented church which long ago made peace with the present and dared not think about tomorrow.
Next year, next administration, maybe we’ll sit down with the Russians and talk disarmament. There’s still time.
It is so easy to be fooled. Here we sit with all this substantial stone enclosing us. This church has been here for fifty years so it’s not too foolish to assume that we’ll be here fifty more. You’ll come home to your Fiftieth Reunion and everyone will look exactly “as they do now, right?
A few Sundays ago, after the service was ended in this vast, eternal-looking neo-Gothic place, tourists were milling around in the nave, looking at windows and admiring the carving. A man slumped to the floor. His wife cried out. The Duke emergency team was called. Later she told me that they had moved to North Carolina a month ago. Early retirement it was to be in this climate more hospitable than Iowa. They were in Durham to walk in the Duke gardens and to see the Chapel. He had no history of heart trouble. She went in to see the Chapel. She left a widow.
Who are we kidding? We who smile and go about our business, raise our children, build our houses, go to football games, take afternoon naps — all under the shadow of the great, dark, mushroom cloud. The flash, the roar, the rush of wind and rubble and, for the whole race, there is no tomorrow.
Is that why not everyone thinks it’s such a grand idea to return for Homecoming? These occasions make time seem so linear, life so finite, the bitter-sweet realization that the ever-rolling stream of time bears all our dreams away?
It was at the funeral of her beloved husband when she asked if she could say a word to the gathered congregation: If you are going to love somebody, she said with tears in her eyes, do it today. If you are going to tell someone they are special, that their life has touched yours, do it today. She had become wise the hard way.
Jesus says you and I can live any way we want. We can put off life as if there were always a tomorrow. We can make it all look so secure and solid and eternal. Yet, for me, for you, for us all, there will be one day when there is no tomorrow. The invitation comes, the door opens and light shines through, the word is spoken, the waters rise, the bell tolls, and it is time, for good or ill, it is time.
“Of that day and hour no one knows,…Watch.” When I was serving a little church in rural Georgia, one of my members had a relative who died and Patsy and I went to the funeral as a show of support for the family. The funeral was in a little hot, crowded off-brand Baptist country church. Well, I had never seen anything like it. They wheeled the coffin in, the preacher began to preach. He shouted, fumed, flayed his arms.
“It’s too late for Joe,” he screamed. “He might have wanted to do this or that in life, but it’s too late for him now. He’s dead. It’s all over for him. He might have wanted to straighten his life out, but he can’t now. It’s over.”
What a comfort this must be to the family, I thought.
“But it ain’t too late for you! People drop dead every day. So why wait? Now is the day for decision. Now is the time to make your life count for something. Give your life to Jesus!”
Well, it was the worst thing I ever heard. “Can you imagine a preacher doing that kind of thing to a grieving family?” I asked Patsy on the way home. “I’ve never heard anything so manipulative, cheap and inappropriate. I would never preach a sermon like that,” I said. She agreed. She agreed it was tacky, manipulative, calloused. “Of course,” she added, “The worst part of all is that what he said was true.”