Before we look into our scripture today I would like to take a moment to introduce myself if we have not met yet. My name is Courtney Stamey and I am the second pastoral resident at First Baptist Church. The pastoral residency program is a two-year transition into ministry for seminary graduates. A pastoral residency, like ours, operates in a way that balances vocation and education. Residencies have the potential to solidify young minister’s theological and ministerial constructs, providing a foundation that will last for years to come. For my ministerial role I spend part of my time in the church and part of my time at Peacehaven community farm. Peacehaven’s mission is to “connect persons with special needs to the larger community through shared living and the work of a sustainable farm.” Day to day at the farm I operate in a non-profit chaplain role, as a support and resource. I don’t do much regarding caring for the goat or harvesting vegetables, but it does happen sometimes. The split is about three days here and two days at the farm. After four months I think I finally have my schedule figured out, and I don’t usually end up in the wrong location. For the First Baptist portion, I have spent my first few months in a shadowing process, working alongside ministerial and administrative staff. This meant learning about finances, practicing with the choir, and helping with a funeral, among other things. Now that shadowing is complete, I will begin to select a few “projects” to work on for my remaining twenty months. So, right now I have the opportunity to be creative in selecting what projects I will work on. And it seems like it is a good time to start thinking since it is New Year’s Day.
If the internet is any indication, there are lots of people who are ready to see 2016 gone. So much so that before the first came, before even Christmas, I saw something pop up on my Facebook news feed. It was the top 20 fitness trends for 2017. They include some lively topics like wearable fitness technology, high intensity interval training, matcha tea, and wellness retreats. All I was thinking was about how can you call something a “trend” that hasn’t happened yet. Then, on Thursday I was filling up at the BP by Friendly center, and when I finished and cranked up my car every, I mean EVERY, radio spot was about the new year, including an advertisement for how better mattress will help you achieve your New Year’s resolution for better sleep. Sometimes, the New Year frustrates me because we are so busy looking ahead that we do not know where we are. And so here we are in these pews on January 1st, with this poem in Ecclesiastes, made famous by the song Turn! Turn! Turn! By the Byrds in 1965. And I promise it was in Ecclesiastes before it was on Pete Seeger’s lips. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…and maybe on this New Year’s Day, we are looking forward to this new season, maybe we are looking back, thankful the last season has come and gone. But what if we intentionally attended to where we are right now, fully present, fully awake, fully alive?
There is a show on History channel called American Pickers. It has been out for a few years and apparently has some staying power. The show’s premise is that two men, Mike and Frank, consider themselves pickers. And pickers are people who search for “rusty gold” in the broken down barns and junk heaps of America’s backroads.
So these two gents from Iowa travel around in a van searching for forgotten treasures that they can resell in their shop. They are collectors themselves, and the people they visit are collectors. Sometimes they go to random places, in an act they call “freestylin’ but for the most part they lean on their shopkeeper Danielle to find them locations, prearranged with the owners to “pick.” And goodness do they find places. I’m talking people who have bought out auction houses, and purchased manufactured buildings to store their goods. Out parcels so full that Mike and Frank must literally climb on top of rusted out Schwinn banana seats, and mute jukeboxes to reach the top. However, there are sometimes, when Mike and Frank roll up to a collector’s home, already pre-arranged, and the homeowner will sell nothing. I mean not a thing! The collector won’t even sell the things they forgot they owned. That’s the thing with some collectors, they cling tightly to the things they own, sometimes for so long, they forget the joy they had when they began. They forget why they started collecting in the first place and can see no other existence than grasping to their collections, devoid of curiosity.
The author of our passage today is sometimes known as a collector, His name is Qohelth, the namesake for the Hebrew title of the book we call Ecclesiastes. Some call him teacher, others, preacher, but I prefer collector and sceptic. He is not, however, a collector like in American Pickers. His collection is based on his own personal experience, he desires to not cling too tightly to the wisdom passed on to him, but to be curious to discover for himself, and critically test his beliefs.
He does not grasp onto to one season or the next, collecting them for his own pleasure, but instead chooses to live fully in his present and to share his wisdom with others.
There is no book in the Bible like Ecclesiastes. It departs from conventional wisdom, by a long shot, and it’s a wonder why we have a text like this at all. It is so different, verging on heretical. Concerned about the shape of the human condition, in places where God feels distant and unconcerned with the intricacies of anthropology. And so, Qoheleth asks the question, the question we all ask at some time or another, what does it profit? What is the point?
Another way of phrasing this is to ask, what time is it? The beautiful piece of poetry in verses 1-8, presents to us dichotomies that exist in the seasons of human life. The word “Seasons” here, points to a particular time, when a certain action is to take place. So we have a time to be born, and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted…and so on.
And we could probably add more for our own time period and our own lives, a time to start kindergarten and a time to graduate, a time to pay taxes and a time to get a refund, a time to be married and a time to divorce, each dichotomy particular to the seasons of each of our lives. These seasons are sticking points in our lives, I would call them poles. They are the moments where we hang our hats, times that we can mark with a certain starting point and finishing point. Poles that are conjured up with our senses, in an instant that they feel like they just happened to us. The melody of a familiar lullaby, the smell of grandma’s cooking, the feel of sand between our toes, the sight of the gravestone where we stood weeping. And poles are important, they are the seasons of our lives, they are our fondest and most tenuous memories, and in some ways they remind us who we have been, who we are, and who we are becoming in life’s climaxes and monotonies.
But these poles do not answer the question what time is it? What is the point in this very moment? What is the point, in our present? My fear is that when we grasp onto these poles, much like the collectors from American Pickers we lose sight of the joys of life, we forget our freedom and our curiosity. When we are always looking back or we are always looking forward we are continuously unaware of the present. And when we grasp so tightly to those poles of life, like a medieval torture machine, we will surely be torn asunder.
The metaphor that comes to mind is a parent holding a child’s hand while crossing the street. In early years of formation, this is absolutely necessary for the child’s safety. But what if the parent and child never let go of each other, not through the child’s teenage years and into the child’s twenties, they kept holding hands through busy parking lots and crosswalks. I would venture to say that at the very least it would create a relationship of dependency and hinder the maturity of both the parent and the child. Like a child holding the hand of a parent, holding onto the poles of our lives is important, for a time. They provide stability, safety, and boundaries protecting the important parts of our lives. But if we hold on for too long, then we become dependent, and our growth is stunted.
So, Qoheleth lines out his poem with fourteen lines of antithesis. Which we have called poles. And he asks us in verse 9, “What gain do workers have from their toil?” In other words, what is the point? Our central question. And he answers it in verses 11-13. There it is, life between the poles. This is our human vocation. I translate verse 11 as, God has made everything, beautiful in its time, and has set eternity into the hearts of people. Everything God has made is beautiful and eternity is set in our hearts. This is incredible! Did you catch it? The question what is the point? What do we gain from work and toil? The response is not money nor property nor fame and recognition, in fact it seems like Qoheleth circumvents the question of work at all. Instead he goes big picture. God has made everything beautiful in its time, and has set eternity into the hearts of the people. The texts goes on to say that humans cannot fully grasp this. Furthermore, that the best humans can do is to be happy and enjoy themselves.
But maybe, just maybe, we could catch a shimmering glimpse of the beauty of eternity if we stopped, looked around, and looked inside of ourselves. This is difficult work, living in the present. It is exhausting trying to catch a glimpse of the beauty of eternity. Our senses betray us. Because even with the speed of light as fast as it is, we are always seeing things in the past. We cannot ever truly see the present. And when we ask what time is it, as soon as we respond the second hand ticks away, and our response becomes the past. It is a sticky place to be, what if there is no point to life, what if we cannot catch that shimmering glimpse of the beauty of eternity? What if, as Qohelet asks, life is meaningless?
Well, let’s take a step back for a moment.
Perhaps the key, as Qoheleth states is to enjoy the little things in life. To eat, and drink, enjoy our toil, to do good, and express things like gratitude. In reality they aren’t little things at all. They are the thousands of choices and attitudes that we have between those poles. They are the countless seconds passing by from solstice to equinox. Yes, there is a time to be born and a time to die, but the season is the time between, it is where life happens.
There is a scene in the Movie Men in Black, that I think describes this paradox. At the crux of the movie an important alien dies and the last word on his lips are “The galaxy is on Orion’s belt.” So, the Men in Black, defenders of order in the galaxy, must preserve the galaxy. And so they think of Orion’s belt, the constellation, that must be what the cryptic line means. What they discover is that Orion is a cat. A cat owned by the very alien who left the cryptic message. Upon closer examination, the Men in Black look at Orion’s collar and on it a charm. Looking even closer they see star spiraling. And suddenly it becomes clear, the galaxy they thought was so big and so vast, was actually tiny, and in front of them the whole time. An eternal beauty so vast, that it must be nearby.
And Christianity is a faith of similar paradoxes, God in the form of an infant, faith the size of a mustard seed, belief like that of a child, one must be born again, the idea that the kingdom of God is simultaneously already here but not yet fulfilled. And yet with all this paradox and mystery, the Psalmist, reminds us to be still to know God, and Jesus teaches us not to worry for if the Creator cares for grass and birds and flowers, how much more will we be provided for.
And here we stand on the edge of the unknowable, challenged to be and to believe, and to be fulfilled in those things. Our life is a season between the sacred and the secular. And we are called to live in the paradox between. And if I may be so bold. Let me remind us that God calls us as we are, presently, not for what we have done nor for who we will become. Just as we are. God holds up a mirror, beckons us to look in, to be reflective of our present situation, and God calls us beloved. The difficulty here, is do we call ourselves by the same name? Are we willing to, are we daring enough, to do some present self-examination and self-care? This task takes some practice, this is where tools like mindfulness and centering prayer can come in handy. These are spiritual practices that can help us learn to be fully present and to be attentive to eternal beauty.
So, our challenge on this first of the year, is not to be consumed with new year’s resolutions. Not with how much weight we will lose, how many books we will read, nor how much money we will save. Not with whether or not we will follow a 2017 fitness trend or buy a new mattress. No, not today, for we are already in a season. For some of us we are grieving, for others rejoicing, some of us our building up and some of us are tearing down, and many of us are somewhere between. The challenge today is to recognize what time it is.
In some way or another all of us are called, this day, to heed the word of Qoheleth. We can boldly proclaim that life is not meaningless, it is a gift from God. We can take satisfaction in what we eat, and drink, and the good works that we do. Not with resignation but in a way that celebrates the joy in the seconds and even the milliseconds between the poles of our lives. Today we can choose to grasp onto the poles that we think define us or we can live into the present freedom and curiosity that God has gifted us with.
Where are we in the seasons of our life? And what do we need to do or what attitude do we need to take to enjoy it? Take a breath, and deep one. What’s time is it for you?