Sermon for Epiphany 3 Evensong & Benediction Sunday 22 January 2017
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Ecclesiastes 3.1-11; 1 Peter 1.3-12
“To everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven..”
Not many passages of holy scripture have made their way into the pop music charts, but tonight’s reading from Ecclesiastes did in the 1960s – first, in its writer the American folk singer Pete Seeger’s version, “For everything there is a season: turn, turn, turn; and then in a cover version by the Californian Folk Rock band the Byrds – who spelt their name with a “y”. If they had ever heard of a 16th century English composer of Church music of that name, Wikipedia does not reveal.
The author of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, “the Preacher,” with his “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity;” a message which has been summed up as: “Life in one thing after another, and then you die.” may not seem more suited to a winter day in London than the sunshine of California.
We live in a time-conscious culture. With electronic devices we are able to calculate time down to the second. But at the same time, we are oppressed by time. Those same devices beep and flash and buzz to remind us of appointments and deadlines. Time is something of which we never seem to have enough.
What the Preacher offers is an alternative view of time; one which springs from an assurance that there is an adequate and appropriate time for every necessary element of life.
His poem reduces life to its basic elements. These include the physical and emotional rhythms of our private lives: birth and death, love and hate, killing and healing. Some of the hard sayings may and in most cases should be taken figuratively. So, on killing and healing, for example, St. Gregory of Nyssa offers this analogy, not perhaps for the squeamish:
“Doctors say that tapeworms…are engendered in our intestines by some faulty humour; if they are destroyed by some medicine the patient will be restored to health again…When anger, sucking within, or enervating by resentment the vigour of the soul and the rational powers, generates the parasite of envy, or malice generates some other such evil, the one who perceives that his soul is nourishing a parasite inside him will use in good time the medicine which eliminates diseases (that is, the teaching of the Gospel), so that, when they have been killed, healing may be implanted in the one who was ill.”
Included also are the various activities that constitute our social existence: war and peace; the uprooting and planting, breaking down and building up of nations; economics (“throwing away stones and gathering stones together,” probably refers to traders using them as counters for goods exchanged}.
The various pairs are not so much alternatives, we can freely pick and choose between, as moments of life that, more often than not, are thrust upon us and likewise pass away, whether we wish it or not. The fleetingness of all human activity, which is one of the writer’s great themes, is spelled out here. We cannot determine the times for many of the important things in life, nor even choose “the business …to be busy with” (v.10), for that is a gift of God. Nonetheless, there is a crucial element of choice involved in living well. We must decide whether our posture will be one of acceptance or resistance, whether we will fight against the ever-changing rhythms of life, of whether we will dance with them.
Nor are the Preacher’s paired experiences opposites that cancel each other out and so render all human activity futile. His view is that as “everything under the sun” is fleeting, then enjoying ourselves as long as we live (v.12) is not a matter of good luck but a work of great delicacy and skill – that is a dance. The poem’s orderly rhythm reinforces the message that there is a pattern to human experience, just as there is in the non-human world. When we learn to discern that pattern, then we see that there is a place for every essential aspect of life – not “everything”. Note that there is no time for oppression or wretched suffering, for foolishness or deceit.
The Preacher affirms that “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time” (v.11) – a statement so bold that our translation (the NRSV) tones it down to a restrained “suitable.” But this mutes one of his most striking statements of faith. Only because all things are finally God’s work can they be pronounced beautiful and complete. Faithfulness, then, is a striving always to discern the perfect pattern of God’s work in our own lives, preparing ourselves to receive the gifts of God, yielding gracefully when familiar gifts are withdrawn and new ones, even perhaps unwanted and challenging ones, are given.
The problem is that the pattern is so often obscure to us. God “has put a sense of past and future” in our minds (v.11). Perhaps it is this which keeps us from perceiving what God is doing in time. Our minds continually reach forward and back, driven by the impossible desire to retain what is already fleeing from us – and the equally impossible desire to control the future on the basis of what we have known in the past. Memory without faith can be no more than the source of guilt, sadness and sentimentality – all the things that keep us from present joy and openness to the new gifts of God.
Ironically, the pattern that God is working in time can only be perceived by the mind that can stand, at least for a moment, outside time. That is what we do in prayer. We see the perfection of God’s work when we stand still before God in awe (v.14) and trust, perhaps before some beautiful scene of action. We who are moved by the ebb and flow of time can nonetheless glimpse the pattern of God’s work.
Although every necessary thing may have its proper time, we do not always find and claim that right time. So, for example, careless tending of a marriage may kill love long before “we are parted by death.”
An old priest phoned the other day to let me know that his wife, whom he had been caring for with great devotion in her increasing mental and physical frailty, had died peacefully; in fact, just after singing a hymn. At one point in our conversation, he said, “It was her time to go.” She had lived a long life, one of love and care for husband, children – both natural and adopted – grandchildren, friends and parishioners. Now body and mind were both worn out.
It was time not just for her to die, but for her husband and family to let her go, to commend her into the hands of the one we bless as the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” who is the God and Father of us all:
“By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last day.”
Despite all the “right times” that are missed or violated, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are for Christians the assurance that God’s work in time is at last brought to perfection in
We rest on the gospel promise that nothing of substance perishes eternally, nothing of value is forgotten by God who seeks out and saves the lost. That is the hope in which we live and die.