Join us for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, as we continue our series Busy: Reconnecting with an Unhurried God.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with.
He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
This morning’s reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes is familiar if for no other reason than it is read often at memorial services, as recently as Richard Harper’s service last Sunday afternoon. And for those of us who grew up in the 60’s, we can remember the Byrds recording a song originally written by Pete Seeger, “To Everything there is a Season, Turn, Turn Turn,” which became an international hit. Today’s reading is not a cheerful text; but then practically the whole Book of Ecclesiastes is pessimistic. The author begins his book in the very first chapter with the declaration that “all is vanity” (1:2) and throughout reflects on the futility of all human endeavor. Today’s lection consists of two major parts. The opening verse of this chapter lays out the general thesis: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter (or experience) under heaven.” Following that opening declaration, verses 2-8 then, develops that thesis in detail by means of 14 pairs of opposites. These in turn begin with the most comprehensive opposite of all: “a time to be born, and a time to die” (v. 2). The most difficult funeral I have ever done was for a newborn infant who lived a mere 6 hours. “A time to be born, and a time to die” took on a very different meaning when read at that funeral. When we read that line, we all look forward to 60-70-80-90 plus years of life before we die, plenty of time to experience the following 13 couplets. The steady rhythm and the repetitious pattern further emphasize the thesis—“everything has its regular time, and moves on in an orderly fashion.” On the face of it, the lesson we can take away is to exercise patience. Endure whatever you face, for its time will end. Another lesson is to study and to learn in order to have the wisdom to know the right time for each thing. The author, however, won’t leave it at that. In the second part of our reading, we are brought back to the pessimism of the book. Verses 9-13 suggest that God has predetermined everything to such an extent that humans are really rather powerless before the determinations of God. Verse 9 reads, “What gain have the workers from their toil?” suggesting that if things are going to happen in a divinely determined way there is nothing that we do that will make a difference! God has assigned humans their task, “made each thing right for its time”; but we humans do not have the capacity to find out what God has done or will be done. So why not just “eat, drink, and be merry”?
We like to believe that we are in charge of our destinies, that we are in control. We want to embrace the memorable verse in William Ernest Henley’s poem, “Invictus,” ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” The wise sage of Ecclesiastes knew well that we are not unconquerable; and brings that home in the very first of the 14 couplets: “A time to be born, and a time to die.” In stark fashion, death wipes away the illusion that we are in charge of our destinies. We are not unconquerable; for there is a time for all of us to die. You are I are not gods unto ourselves. You and I are not in charge. We do not control time, and often it is difficult to know the right time for everything.
The current scientific consensus is that we live in an expanding universe, a galaxy-filled space that began some 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is an enormous system of stars, of which our sun is a single, rather insignificant member. We earthlings inhabit the 3rd planet from the sun in our tiny solar system. Biological life on earth began approximately 3.5 billion years ago, roughly 10 billion years after the Big Bang. The hominid ancestor that we have in common with chimpanzees did not emerge until only about 6-7 million years ago, and anatomically modern humans emerged in Africa roughly 200,000 years ago. Human beings take their place, alongside millions of other species as latecomers to life on earth. Astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson has dramatized the brevity of human existence within this larger cosmic story by laying out the whole history of the universe to this point over a one-year calendar. By prorating 13.8 billion years across an imaginary 12 months, deGrasse Tyson’s “cosmic calendar” shows that all of what we think of as human history takes place in the last minute, of the last hour, of the last day of the universe. Christians confess that God is the Creator of all planets and stars and galaxies, even of universes beyond our ability to perceive or imagine. Yet our theology has often shrunk this enormous cosmic story down to a minute human story.
We don’t like limits of any kind. We long for freedom, lack of constraints, independence, open country. We disdain and even fear anything that might restrict that freedom. And we all share a deeper conviction: we are reluctant to acknowledge that we’re human. And finite. And how do we know that we are finite? We wear dentures and hearing aids. We have gray hair, or no hair. We get senior discounts, have gimpy knees, and have experienced death of our parents. We’ve gone through menopause; we’ve written our wills. We have diminished energy and some memory loss. We’re finite beings. We know we’re mortal; yet somewhere deep inside, we still think we’re going to live forever. Well, if not forever, for a long, long time. We engage in heroic efforts to prolong life when we are irreversibly or gravely ill; physicians do everything they can to prevent someone from “dying on their watch.” While we are living, we are dying. Even if we don’t develop a life-threatening illness, our body parts wear out.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every experience under heaven…a time to be born, and a time to die.” Theologian Marcus Borg has said, “Death is the teacher of wisdom.” Borg says that death liberates us from all of our culturally induced trivia; it promotes authenticity, and makes it possible to love life without holding back. Several years ago, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the renowned oncologist and bioethicist, vice provost at the University of Pennsylvania wrote an article in the Atlantic, where he identified the age of 75 as a personal cut-off point for health interventions. He wrote, “once I have lived to 75, my approach to my health care will completely change. I won’t actively end my life (he does not believe in euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide); but I won’t try to prolong it, either.” I told my son, Jason, how very much I agreed with that premise. His response was, “But dad, think about your children and your grandchildren; we want you around for a long time; we love you!” And I said to him: “Well, make time for me now while I am still around.”
Those of us with loved ones being treated for cancer and other potentially fatal illnesses come face to face with the truth and reality of our finiteness. And many of us have discovered the hidden blessing in the midst of that crisis. It puts everything in its proper place and time…and perspective. The awareness of death as the final human boundary is the key to the Book of Ecclesiastes. Awareness of human finitude leads the author to frustration; but it also focuses his attention on life as a gift of God. Dying people are in the process of letting go of everything they have loved. It’s how they get ready to die. What we can learn from the dying is that letting go of dreams makes room for ordinary moments of grace. Letting go of replicating past experiences makes room for tomorrow’s surprises. Letting go of self-sufficiency makes room for discovering vulnerabilities previously unknown. Letting go is an act of handing over or relinquishing ourselves to a process we cannot control. As the saying goes, “Have you ever seen a hearse with a U-haul trailer”?
The author and church historian Karen Armstrong believes the purpose of religion is to hold us in a state of wonder. Perhaps that is the purpose of our dying. Wonder is that overwhelming feeling of seeing something in a completely new and numinous way. C.S. Lewis said when we’re in awe we think “every bush is a Burning Bush and the world is crowded with God.” Planting flowers with a granddaughter. Late night conversations about things that matter. Bathing in a sunrise seldom seen. The unexpected beauty of a familiar crystal salt shaker in the sun. An email from a long-lost college friend. Suddenly a shiver. Life is grander than we thought. William Sloane Coffin said that spirituality to him meant “living the ordinary life extraordinarily well.” Most of us are so busy, so preoccupied, that we miss a lot of what happens in us and to us and around us. We do a lot of looking but not much seeing. Long-range planning sets our sights on the future at the expense of the present moment. Obsessions about work or past mistakes or the next appointment are the excuses we often give for not paying attention. I don’t dare bring up what our smart phones are doing to us! We’re just too busy to bother. By contrast, paying attention is noticing and becoming aware of blessings we normally take for granted.
Mortality can teach us a lot about life. It is a harsh teacher, no doubt about it. It is inevitable. It will happen to you. It will happen to me. The final exam it gives entails just one question: “How then shall we live?” In this Lenten season, how would you answer these questions: “What matters to you? What gives your life meaning? And do your daily decisions reflect that?” You are I are not gods unto ourselves. You and I are not in charge. We do not control time, and often it is difficult to know the right time for everything. The good news is that there is One—who is more powerful, wiser, and more just and merciful than we—who is in charge. Jesus is the master of our fate. Jesus is the captain of our souls. Jesus is Invictus.