Sermon: “The Vagabond Rapping at Your Door” (November 8, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Vagabond Rapping at Your Door” (Hebrews 9:27-28)
November 8, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In his book How to Read and Why, acclaimed Yale University literary critic Harold Bloom writes, “Bear yourself with equanimity, for you will go out from here to live a life in which you will constantly find yourself keeping appointments that you never made” (281-282). Have you ever found that to be true? Have you ever found yourself scrambling about in order to keep up with all the appointments in your life?

When I think of my life there are some appointments to which I have looked forward with great anticipation—like dates with my wife or visiting my kids at college or watching the Georgia Bulldogs play between the hedges or in Jacksonville with nearly 100,000 “slightly” inebriated fans.

There have been some appointments that I missed altogether. Perhaps you have experienced that sinking feeling when you realize you have stood someone up for lunch. I have done that, and worse, I have missed on occasion important events or moments, appointments, in the lives of my kids that I should not have missed.

There are other appointments which I dread—dentist appointments, for one, because no matter how much I try to maintain proper dental hygiene, I am always informed at dental check-ups that I have once again fallen short.

Some appointments can be really stressful. When I was in my late twenties I had a habit of driving, um, “exceedingly efficiently”, especially on the highway. While living in South Carolina I was driving up to Virginia to visit friends in a car I had rented that had an amazing stereo system in it. I was flying down I-95, the music cranked up really loud, thoroughly enjoying myself, when I saw the dreaded revolving blue lights in the rearview mirror. I was given a ticket for reckless driving and had to drive back there six weeks later for my appointment to stand before the judge. This appointment stressed me out, but this stress was allayed when the merciful judge kindly reduced my ticket.

And I think Harold Bloom is right. Some days I certainly find myself keeping appointments I never made, or at least never intended to make. In today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews we read about an appointment to which very few people look forward, an appointment that many people dread or find stressful, an appointment that none of us will be able to miss:

For just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgement, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him (Hebrews 9:27-28).

The appointment that none of us will be able to miss, or avoid, or delegate, is our appointment with death—“it is appointed for mortals to die once,” Scripture says.

In William Faulkner’s first published novel, entitled Soldier’s Pay, a character named Januarius says this about our mortality:

Whoever is completely comfortable…unless he be asleep? It is the fatigue caused by man’s inevitable contact with the earth which bears him be he standing, sitting, or lying, which keeps his mind in a continual fret over futilities. If a man, if a single man, could be freed for a moment from the forces of gravity concentrating his weight upon that point of his body which touches earth, what would he not do? He would be a god, the lord of life, causing the high gods to tremble on their thrones: he would thunder at the very gates of infinity like a mailed knight. As it is, he must ever have behind his mind a dull wonder how anything composed of fire and air and water and omnipotence in equal parts can be so damn hard (Faulkner: Novels 1926-1929, 47).

Now for two illustrations—one from a movie from the 90’s and one from a song from the 60’s—first illustration… In the 1998 romantic film Meet Joe Black Anthony Hopkins plays Bill Parrish, a wealthy business executive who is about to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday at a huge party organized by his daughter, Susan. Prior to the party a vagabond comes knocking on the door named Joe Black (played by Brad Pitt, which of course means there are plenty of women who would be just fine with this particular vagabond knocking at their door).

The problem is Joe Black is none other than a handsome version of the Grim Reaper; Joe Black is none other than Death. Joe Black proceeds to inform Bill that his appointment with death is imminent. Toward the end of the film, at his birthday party, knowing this was his final birthday on earth, Bill blows out the single candle on the top of his six-tiered birthday cake and when the crowd calls for a speech, he obliges:

I thought I was going to sneak away tonight. What a glorious night! Every face I see is a memory. It may not be a perfectly perfect memory. Sometimes we had our ups and downs. But we’re all together, and you’re mine for a night. And I’m going to break precedent and tell you my one candle wish—that you would have a life as lucky as mine, where you can wake up one morning and say, “I don’t want anything more.” Sixty-five years…don’t they go by in a blink?

Second illustration… on July 25, 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan shocked and angered folk music purists by playing several songs with his band that included electric instruments. In response to this anger Dylan took the stage again, this time with just his acoustic guitar and harmonica, to the initial delight of the crowd, but he proceeded to play a song called “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”—making it clear to his fans that, like it or not, he was heading in a new direction:

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast Yonder stands your orphan with his gun Crying like a fire in the sun Look out the saints are comin’ through And it’s all over now, Baby Blue…

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you The vagabond who’s rapping at your door Is standing in the clothes that you once wore Strike another match, go start anew And it’s all over now, Baby Blue
(from his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home).

“It is appointed for mortals to die once”—someday each one of you will hear the vagabond Death “rapping at your door” and when it comes to your earthly life, it will be all over now, Baby Blue. That is the bad news.

But the good news is that there is Someone else who came knocking on earth’s door, Someone else who was labeled and dismissed because he too was a Vagabond who had “nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20), and Scripture assures us that this Vagabond actually holds the keys of Death (Revelation 1:18).

“For just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgement”—again, that is the bad news…but also again, here is the good news—“so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him (Hebrews 9:27-28).

Jesus Christ, the Vagabond, “standing in the clothes that you once wore,” kept his appointment with death, an appointment that he dreaded, an appointment he found more stressful than we could imagine, and yet an appointment he would not miss. On the cross the forces of the gravity of our sins concentrated its collective weight upon the point of the cross, where Jesus the Vagabond died for us all.

And on the cross Jesus, the One into whose hands God the Father had given power to execute judgment (John 5:26-27), took that judgment upon himself. In other words, Jesus is the Merciful Judge who not only reduced the ticket recording the deeds of your reckless life, but tore up the ticket altogether.

And this means your appointment with death can be viewed from a new perspective.

In 1547 the first of two books of homilies was published, a collection of sermons that were to be read in churches throughout England. One of the sermons is called “An Exhortation against the Fear of Death.” Although it is unknown for sure who wrote it, it has been attributed to Hugh Latimer (1487-1555), considered the greatest preacher of the English Reformation and who was one of the Oxford Martyrs burned at the stake on October 16, 1555. Listen to these words of hope about your appointment with death:

For death shall be to him no death at all, but a very deliverance from death, from all pains, cares, and sorrows, miseries, and wretchedness of this world, and the very entry into rest, and a beginning of everlasting joy, a tasting of heavenly pleasures, so great that neither tongue is able to express, neither eye to see, nor ear to hear them, no, nor for any earthly man’s heart to conceive them.

Latimer continues:

Thus is this bodily death a door or entering unto life; and therefore not so much dreadful, if it be rightly considered, as it is comfortable; not a mischief, but a remedy of all mischief; no enemy, but a friend; not a cruel tyrant, but a gentle guide; leading us not to mortality, but to immortality, not to sorrow and pain but to joy and pleasure, and that to endure forever; if it be thankfully taken and accepted as God’s messenger, and patiently borne of us for Christ’s love, that suffered most painful death for our love, to redeem us from death eternal (Book of Homilies 93-94).

Yes, the years of our life indeed go by like a blink, and yes, we often scramble to keep up with appointments we did not even wish to make in our “continual fret over futilities”—but the Apostle Paul tells us there is something else that will happen as quick as a blink:

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).

The good news of the gospel is that although you have an appointment with death, you can rest assured that Jesus, whose unconditional love has triumphed over death, will be there; he will not miss that appointment.

And even now, at this very moment, Scripture tells us this same Someone calls for you—Jesus Christ, the Vagabond rapping at your door (Revelation 3:20).

Amen.