January 1, 2017
Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie
“A Time to Welcome Christ”
As we begin a New Year today, the passage from Ecclesiastes seems very appropriate for our reflection on the year past and our looking forward to all that is in store for us in 2017. The author of the Wisdom Book of Ecclesiastes helps us to keep the events of the last year in perspective, remembering that there were good times and challenging times, and that God was with us through them all.
“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…” There is a time and a season for each purpose – good news for those of us who often feel like we are always running short on time.
Of course, the poetic listing of those various purposes is familiar to us. Perhaps we’ve encountered the passage in Bible study, or heard it read at a funeral, or maybe we just know the song by Pete Seeger, later covered by the band, “The Byrds”: “To every thing (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn) and a time for every purpose under heaven…”
But the passage doesn’t end with the listing of those various times, but goes on to reflect on the meaning of our human activities and work. It continues: “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.”
The author begins with a question (What gain have the workers from their toil?) and by the end of the short section, he answers it. I might have said that our work has a number of gains for us… the tasks are accomplished, people are helped, we earn a living for our families… But our passage settles on a more fundamental gain – it is God’s gift that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. Our work should be enjoyable and pleasant, giving us a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
The author remarks that he has noticed the busyness of everyone. Imagine! This passage was written thousands of years ago, but it fits perfectly for us today with the pace of our lives. We have certainly taken the line about “the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with” a little too far! Sometimes the “busyness” takes over, and we hardly have a moment to discern what time it is, and how we should be spending our time.
We are reminded that God has given us a sense of time – past, present, and future – this is more than the other animals have, who mostly function based on instinct and concern for the present moment. But we are not gods, we don’t have God’s perspective on time. We don’t know the ultimate beginning and ending of all things, but we only function within the limited sphere of our lives in this world.
The author tells us that God intends for our lives to be happy and joyful. Yes, we have work to do. Yes, there are hard things that happen too. But God does not want our lives to be filled with pain and drudgery, but rather happiness and enjoyment.
I think that the passage is a call for balance in our lives. Of the various times and seasons, we notice how each one has an opposite. Yes, there is a time for mourning and crying, but there are also times for dancing and laughing. And a life lived with one side of that equation missing will be very sad, indeed, even if the side that is missing is the mourning and crying. Because somehow that may indicate that the person has not connected and loved enough to experience pain and sadness when there is a death or a loss.
For some of us, the imbalance in our lives is that we are too focussed on the hard stuff, the work, the busyness of our many commitments. But this passage reminds us that God made us for joy, for pleasure, for happiness. We do not need to feel guilty about taking time for ourselves – for rest, for rejuvenation, for activities that bring us pleasure.
And our work should also bring us pleasure. I think we need to choose work that is fulfilling, meaningful, giving us a sense of purpose and a sense of accomplishment. (That applies to our paid work, and our volunteer work, and the work we do in keeping a house, raising children, caring for elders, and more.)
But Ecclesiastes does not pretend that every moment of our lives will be pure joy. Even if we do enjoy our work, and even if we are disciplined enough to take time for rest and relaxation, the hard seasons will come too.
So, what do we do during those seasons? First, I think we must remember that they are only seasons, not forever. And we must remember that God is with us.
It makes me think about something I noticed when I was walking downtown earlier this week. It wasn’t too cold a day, so I decided to walk outside. And as I started off it was just fine, not a lot of wind, so it almost felt warm. But then with the tall buildings, the wind picked up between them, and as I turned a corner it was like I was walking through a wind tunnel.
It was bitterly cold, and I knew that I wouldn’t last long in it. Frost-bite was a real possibility if I didn’t cover my face soon. But it was just one block, and I was pretty sure that once I rounded the next corner I’d be out of the wind. So, I powered through… walking as quickly as I could against the wind, and sure enough, as soon as I rounded the corner, there was a dead calm. It felt like Spring!
Of course, when hard seasons come for some of us, we may not be able to just grit our teeth and power through them. Sometimes we know that they are going to be long, hard seasons, and we have to find a way in that context. Earlier this week, I was talking to someone, and I expressed my hope that 2017 would be a good year for my friend and her husband.
And rather than just saying, “Thank you,” she said, “Well, it doesn’t look like next year will be any easier. The doctor says that my husband’s health situation is only going to get worse as we go on. We can’t hope for things to get better. We can only pray that they don’t get too much worse.”
It seems to me that when these hard seasons go on and on, that’s when we most need to rely on God to get through them. That’s when we need to work extra hard to find the moments of joy and laughter and healing that will punctuate even the hardest of seasons. And that’s when we most need to remember that our time is not God’s time. We need to hold on to an eternal perspective, because we believe that when our lives in this world come to an end, that there is something more.
John of Patmos gives us a vision of the new heaven and new earth that God promises: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
But in the meantime, we live here in this world. And God is with us here too… in the midst of our working and resting, eating and sharing, crying and laughing… God is with us.
The problem may be that much of the time we are so busy with our business that we do not look up and notice that God is here among us.
I came across a short story by Leo Tolstoy this week – “Where Love Is, God Is” – a story inspired by today’s Gospel text.
Martin Avdeitch was a shoemaker who lived in a certain town in Russia. He lived in a basement room which possessed but one window. This window looked onto the street, and through it a glimpse could be caught of the passers-by. Martin’s life had had many hard seasons. He had been married, but his wife had died, as had his children. And so, he was alone again, bitterly sad, working away in his basement room.
But one day there came to see him an ancient peasant-pilgrim, and the two had a conversation about life, about grief, and about God. At a point in his life when Martin felt he had no reason to go on living, the pilgrim instructed him to live for God alone… “It is He who gave you life, and therefore it is He for whom you should live. When you come to live for Him you will cease to grieve, and your trials will become easy to bear.”
The pilgrim encouraged Martin to buy a Bible and to begin reading it, saying, “You will learn there how to live for God.” And he did. He bought a Bible, and he began to read it every day. The more he read, the more clearly did he understand what God required of him, and in what way he could live for God; so that his heart grew ever lighter and lighter.
One night, as he was reading, he found the story in Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus is visiting the house of Simon the Pharisee. Although a woman described as sinful anoints Jesus’ feet with oil and pours out her love, Jesus remarks on the host’s lack of hospitality and welcome. And Martin wonders… “If the Lord were to visit me, would I receive him any better?”
Later that night, Martin is suddenly awakened from his sleep by a voice calling out his name. “Who is there?” he asks. And then he hears the words: “Martin! Martin! Look thou into the street tomorrow, for I am coming to visit thee.”
The next day, Martin keeps watch for Christ coming to visit him. Although he works at his table, repairing shoes as usual, he looks up frequently, watching the passers-by, looking for Jesus, who he expects to visit him that day.
And as you might guess, Martin does receive some visitors that day… an old man, frozen from shoveling snow, with whom he shares a cup of tea and a conversation; then a young woman and her infant child, with whom he shares some warm clothes, a little food, and some encouragement; and finally, an old woman and a rascally young boy, who start off as enemies and leave as friends.
Martin watched all day, and never saw Jesus passing by his window. But by the end of the day, he learns that by watching and welcoming, he has offered hospitality to Christ three times in one day. That evening he opens his Bible to read once more, and opens it to the Gospel of Matthew chapter 25: “For I was hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me to drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in.” And further down the page he read: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren ye have done it unto me.”
Because Martin believed that Christ was coming to visit him, he kept looking up, watching, and waiting. It’s not that he stopped doing his work, though he might have been slightly less productive than he would have been otherwise. But he expected Christ to come, he looked up, and he was able to welcome Christ in a cold man, a struggling mother and child, and an old woman and a boy.
No matter what 2017 may hold for you, may you know that God is with you through the times and seasons of your life in this world, may you be comforted and encouraged by the hope of life and peace in the world to come, and may you keep your eyes and your heart open (and your busy schedule flexible enough) to receive Christ in whatever forms he may come to you this year. Amen.