Stewarship, IV: Time
Bible Text: Ecclesiastes 3:1–8; John 1:1–5 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster | Click here to listen to this sermon.
For everything there is a season, and time for every matter under heaven —Ecclesiastes 3:1
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
This sermon begins with a riddle: Which time of day is both too early and too late? 4 a.m. says Jason Rives, “the mothers are sleeping, the joggers are sleeping, the morning people are sleeping, the night owls are pretty much asleep.” (Rives, by the way, claims to be the world’s expert on 4 a.m., and he probably is, he has Four in the Morning Museum, kid you not.)
Unless your daily routine is a particular type of intense, most people only see 4 a.m. if they’re up way too late, or up way too early. Awakened by a knock at the door at 4 a.m.? Terrified. Frozen pizza in the oven at 4 a.m.? You probably have someone in your household under the age of 25. If you see 4 a.m. on the regular, you have an intense commute, a new baby, a new puppy, an overactive bladder, or work on the trading floor.
Time has a feeling to it. 4 a.m. has a particular feeling to it. Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins muses about God and time in a similar way: “The god of three a.m. is the god of the dripping faucet, sirens, and barking dogs…” Noon holds something vastly different from those dark midnight hours. Sunrise. Sunset. Lunchtime. Dinner time. Snack time. Christmastime. Summertime. You can take yourself there, to the feeling time creates.
Time also asks questions: Is your time your own? Do you have freedom to use your time as you would like? Does your freedom of time come with responsibility or a sense of duty? Does your time belong to your boss? Your children? Your spouse? Your parents? Is your time driven by the dollar? Do you understand your time as infinite? Do you see time as scarce? Abundant?
What is time for us? The centuries old book of Ecclesiastes has this vast egalitarian outlook on time: there is a time for everything under heaven. It is a song, a scripture passage, a philosophical understanding that is balanced, reasonable, level-headed. It seems realistic: it does not deny all that is impossibly hard about life, without being sensationalist. It is the kind of passage that can help you hold onto all that is joyful in a time of sorrow or acknowledge all that is sorrowful even in a time of joy. It is as if it opens up a threshold, a doorway between every diametrically opposed human experience and emotion and allows us safe passageway between.
Life is not all war, or all peace. There is a time for each. We cannot remain at all times at peace, because sometimes the sense of justice to which God calls us is under threat, and yet we cannot remain at war all the time, for as the prophets insist: we shall study war no more. Our God of Ecclesiastes opens up a threshold, a doorway between every diametrically opposed human experience and emotion and allows us safe passage between.
In November of 1914, German and British soldiers started writing home about just this kind of safe passage toward peace in a time of war. The two lines of trenches during World War I were just a few miles apart, and November brought with it heavy rains and ice, then slush and snow. But there, at the threshold of war and death and mourning: the breakfast truce. “On the whole there is silence (at breakfast time)” one British soldier writes. “After all, if you prevent your enemy from drawing his rations, the remedy is similar, he will prevent you from drawing yours.”
No one knows exactly how it started, but little by little, one mile of trench to another, the soldiers on either side of the trench stopped fighting long enough to eat breakfast. For years, this story was thought to be a myth, surely an impossibility for war to cease while soldiers are at breakfast—but now historians have enough letters home to wives and mothers to know the story is true: this peace-in-a-time-of-war spread up and down the Western Front, until December, when, at dusk on Christmas Eve, Germans brought out lit Christmas trees to the front of their trenches and began singing Christmas carols. One German soldier wrote home about that Christmas eve: “I shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot. Can we speak to each other? At first there was silence. And then, we came together and shook hands.” Our God of Ecclesiastes opens up a threshold, a doorway between war and peace, and allows us safe passage in between.
It happens all the time: laughter at a funeral. Silence in the middle of a poignant speech. The phrase “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” could easily be the mantra of the #metoo movement. These dichotomous pairs offer us hope in hopeless times, perspective when all seems dark, and a humble heart. These sets of words—a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to mourn and a time to dance—they offer us a glimpse into the Stewardship of Time.
Recent scholarship on the book of Ecclesiastes offers an answer to why these words might resonate: Biblical scholar Ellen Davis from Duke Divinity School in North Carolina says that this “peculiar mixture of gravity and merriment” seen throughout the book of Ecclesiastes is not just the author’s personal temperament. Instead, it is a way of thinking that “emerged from within the cultural context of Hellenism, or Greek influence” and should be read “as a response to the anxiety that was the dominant mood of that culture:” anxiety because of shifting international powers, anxiety because of religious clashes, anxiety because of new regular contact between East and West, anxiety because customs and cultures newly intermingled (sound familiar?).
Davis goes on to say that the book of Ecclesiastes somehow holds onto this anxiety and from within it, the author “feels [anxiety’s] full toll on the human spirit.” The book of Ecclesiastes had been preserved and held sacred in Jewish and Christian circles, both today and throughout religious history because “it dares look at radical doubt from the inside, speaking to those whom no ordinary assurances could satisfy.” That doubt has been present across the ages, too: Martin Luther 500 years ago says we should read “this noble little book” every day. And, one student who suffers from recurring depression says reading Ecclesiastes is “like slipping into a warm bath.”
Ecclesiastes offers us a useful glimpse into the Stewardship of Time because it holds all that is anxious about life and death, holds all our doubt, and preserves what is sacred throughout. A Stewardship of Time as seen through the lens of Ecclesiastes asks us to stand between the opposing forces of life, the tensions, the impossibilities, and to dwell in the sincerity of the words “For everything there is a season, a time for every matter under heaven.” A Stewardship of Time has to do with holding onto dueling paradoxical ideas: past and future, now and always, and never and eternity.
But a Stewardship of Time is more tangible than that, too. I grew up knowing my great-grandmother, my mother’s mother. We would go to her tiny two bedroom 900 square foot house in Hillsboro, Indiana, population 600 (maybe, if visitors were in town). We would drink well water out of her pink aluminum cups and watch birds out her picture window, looking out toward the barn. She was born in 1898, two years before the turn of the century.
Something about the threshold of the century made me know she was from another era, and I always felt as if sitting next to her shoulder to shoulder on that yellow couch connected me beyond her to men and women decades gone who had sat alongside her when she was young. Her life connected me to men and women born before the Civil War. Those saints of light became as close to me as she was in that small living room: even now she connects me to them. She died when I was 12 but she carries me across the threshold of time into a thousand other lifetimes.
The same is true, I suspect, holding your own child, grandchild, great-grandchild. They will live on into a future that is beyond you, God willing, and one day will meet their own grandchildren, their own great-grandchildren: across generations we carry one another into pasts and futures known and unknown.
So, a Stewardship of Time draws us near to all that is tangible about holding every moment sacred. A Stewardship of Time means noticing, taking in, sitting next to, being present with one another. A Stewardship of Time demands we pay attention now, because now is all we have, and that even when this now becomes a distant memory, a colorful fragment of what was, we know and recognize every now as sacred.
Finally, for Christians, a Stewardship of Time is also rooted in the Incarnation. For us this happens naturally and almost accidentally. In the Christian tradition, in ways that are unseen and practical invisible, we have a tradition of rooting all time in Jesus Christ. Maybe this is not a surprise. Every stewardship theme we will encounter this fall can probably be rooted in Jesus Christ. That’s what we do as Christians. We root our life—all our life—in Jesus Christ.
John did it first: the gospel writer. Unlike Matthew and Luke, whose gospels begin with mangers and shepherds and wisemen and genealogies, John takes a time centered approach to telling the story of Jesus: In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. In other words, this one that you will meet in the flesh has been with us and with God since the beginning of time. All time is made sacred because since before time was even created, Jesus Christ was, and so we can trust that Jesus Christ is and will be present for us now and forever from now. All time is made holy by John’s reframing of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But there’s a second aspect of this, too. We live in the year 2019 because we have rooted time in Jesus Christ. 2019 years ago, or approximately so, Jesus Christ was born. The Christian calendar, which by happenstances of ecclesial and colonial power became the world’s calendar, is rooted in the incarnation. In the same way, Muslims use an Islamic calendar to root all time in the Muslim community’s journey from Mecca to Medina. And the Buddhist calendar dates from the day Buddha attained Enlightenment. We count time in such a way that our most monumental events shift time for us. And so, every time we look at a calendar, every time we mention a date in history, every time we date a letter or write a check, we are reorienting ourselves—shift ourselves—into God’s presence with us in Jesus Christ. The ancient Christians who moved time and eternity to shift our calendars to say 2019 instead of some other number were trying to send us a message: all of this is a gift from God.
Steward your time, for it is of God, it is holy, it is rooted in the tangible life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, made visible here today. Time, it seems, has the ability to feel a bit ethereal, a little untouchable, like sand slipping fast through our fingers. And so, as if to punctuate the intangibility of time, we take time every week, every month, every year, to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ into this very moment, into the now, by reenacting the last supper in which Jesus gathered around the table with his disciples, and he took bread and blessed it and gave it to them saying: take, eat, do this remembering me.
The last supper is a memorial meal, a meal that remains in the past, only until that moment when we reenact it again, and there, in our time, Jesus, who from the beginning has transcended time, can cross the threshold of past and future and enter into an eternal now, in which we know and trust and are fed by his love that transforms us. For us on this World Communion Sunday, we are united beyond time, beyond place, at a common table. This table, today, unites us beyond all difference, and holds us in a tangible, embodied eternal now of celebration, in which the simplicity of bread and cup allow us to enter into the presence of Jesus Christ, who, too, is beyond and within time and place, holding us in his transformational love. “Which Time of Day is Both too Early and too Late?” TED Radio Hour. June 19, 2015.  “Tit for Tat” Radiolab. WNYC Studios. September 17, 2019. Ellen F. Davis, “Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs” p. 163.