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A TIME TO WEEP AND A TIME TO LAUGH

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8

 

Preachers are each unique creations; special messengers of God. They can be male or female; Pentecostal or Presbyterian; expository preachers or narrative preachers, and the descriptions can go even further. Preachers share their message seasoned with their own life experiences. Some, like Joel Osteen today, bring an enthusiastic, positive-thinking message! An earlier version of that type of preacher was Robert Schuller who commanded the positive thinking airwaves for decades. But after Dr. Schuller retired, his Crystal Cathedral was sold. “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”

 

The words from Ecclesiastes, when put to music by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s, or sung in harmony by the group called “The Byrds” in 1965, can make for a joyful and uplifting message; it can be the message for children, as it was today; or it can be the message for joyful or hopeful youth or adults. In the 1960s it was a staple of folk music. But preachers aren’t always joyful or even positive; and the Bible is not always put to music!  Let’s hear these words, so often chosen for both weddings or funerals, from the words of the biblical writer. The person is called literally a “Qoheleth” which has been translated, according to R.B.Y Scott, as “One who assembles a company or a congregation.”  But it was Martin Luther who labeled such a person as “the preacher.” So through the ages the author has been called “The Preacher,” even though the New Revised Standard translations before us begin the book with “The words of the Teacher.” For our purposes we will call this person “Preacher.” And the original language uses a feminine participle, so this could be a woman, or perhaps a man. But whoever the preacher is, she or he has a particular mood; it is at one point sardonic; it is at another point sarcastic; at another, realistic, and at another- bitter. This is the viewpoint of life that may come from age, or burnout, or something else. So with that framework in mind, and without it being put to music, hear this scripture again:

To everything there is a season: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pull up; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to tear 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.

 

And so on. Read in that way, from the prospective of age or wisdom, it is more of a reflection than it is a vision of hope. Age and youth often balance each other.

 

Age has some funny moments even in this vain.  The cartoon called “Maxine” alternately called “Crabby Road,” has Maxine, a smart, no-nonsense elderly woman looking straight at the reader in one comic, saying “Fool me once, shame on you! Fool me twice, you’d better have a good look at your insurance policy! Or the cartoon “Pickles,” first introduced to me by Richard Hills. It features an elderly couple. In the June 23rd comic strip, the man’s young grandson says to him: “Grampa, your shirt is on inside out and backwards.” And his grampa, still laying on the couch and not batting an eye, says to his young grandson: “I know. It’s my way of rebelling against the mindless conformity so rampant in today’s society.”  Straight talkers! That’s what they are! That’s who this preacher in Ecclesiastes is too. Over the years, preachers see a lot; they can get tainted by deaths and burials, and by illnesses of people who don’t heal. They get worn down by  congregational conflicts, or by situations or persons in their congregations who are critical or difficult. So as the preacher in Ecclesiastes starts that litany:  “ a time to be born, a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;  and time to weep and a time to laugh,” we who are this preacher’s congregation for the time being, should not add a soundtrack to the sermon.  I know in some churches an organist plays music softly as prayers are prayed. This preacher would have none of that! Why would we let music guide the mood of the message? Sometimes I write words for hymns and sung responses; how important it is to choose the right music, and the right key, to enhance the words!  But music can also distract us from the text. Comedian and actor Steve Martin is also a proficient banjo player.  On one of his earliest record albums, he says, when you play a banjo, it makes everything happy!  You can’t say anything unhappy when you’re playing a banjo; look!  (And so, while picking his banjo, he sings, “Oh death, and grief, and sorrow, and murder” then he grins and keeps playing!) So our apologies to the Byrds who made Ecclesiastes sound uplifting. It can be uplifting, but it can also be realistic.  I am so proud when realistic and honest people fill our pulpits over the ages or serve in the mission fields. Arthur John Gossip, on the Sunday after his wife died, did not take a day off, but  instead stood in the pulpit of the church he served and poured out his broken and hurting heart in his masterpiece sermon “When Life Tumbles in, What Then?”  In it he said: “You people in the sunshine may believe the faith, but we in the shadows must believe it.  We have nothing else.” Contemporary Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor found that church life as the rector of a small congregation in rural Georgia was not what she thought it would be. She was overwhelmed by the demands of ministry and her immense popularity made her church overflow to standing room only every week. So what did she do in the midst of her calling?  She resigned. She is now an author and teacher, but not a pastor.  She wrote about it in a book she called, “Leaving Church.” Her decision was met with some resentment by the flocks of people who loved her. She asked her colleague and friend at Columbia Seminary, Rodger Nishioka, why there was such a backlash to her book. “Barbara,” Rodger said, it begins with the title! “Leaving Church!” It hadn’t dawned on her that her title was so provocative. But for Barbara, the move was needed for the cup of her soul to start to be filled again.

“To everything there is a season” is either a joyful accounting of a hopeful existence, or a painful realization of what life brings.  Some preachers have offered it optimistically, especially when used in weddings. Other preachers have offered it as a commentary on the transitory nature of life. C.S. Lewis, for example, spent the first half of his life as an atheist.  But the Word of God and the Grace of God began to melt his heart and change his outlook, leading him to become one the most beloved inspiration authors and speakers in Britain.  Mother Teresa, who the world lifted up as a model of faith, had her very dark, doubting, and unsettling times, especially later in years, when, like the Preacher, the romantic notion of mission gave way to the realistic political and cultural roadblocks she constantly faced. Some of her times of darkness were found in her diary and published after she died.  Perhaps she, like others, could have used Ecclesiastes 3 as a means of triaging and evaluating situations that came her way. Perhaps this passage is less about description and more about decisions? It depends on your age and how you read these words. One child who was in our church years ago, had her grandmother teach her Ecclesiastes 3.  Why would that grandmother chose those words among others in the Bible? “Because children need a basis for knowing how to act,” her grandmother told me. She said to her granddaughter: “We act differently on a playground than we do in church. On a playground we can run, and hang from monkey bars, and talk loudly or scream. But in church we are still and silent except when we pray or sing. See it says that in the Bible.” And she pointed to Ecclesiastes 3:7. “There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” This litany guided the growth of a young girl; it has guided many others too.

 

How should you hear that sermon? That’s up to you, of course. You may hear it differently during the different seasons of your life. You may hear it differently during the different moods of your life too. But don’t assume the preacher had a twelve string guitar or a banjo playing in the background while it was preached! These words, likely written by a person later in years, bring realism, insight, and a matter-of-fact attitude that for some is refreshing. A short hand way of saying it is wisdom; with age comes wisdom: a different way of looking at life than you did where you were young.  The words of Ecclesiastes 3 were likely spoken with a sense of straight taking honesty, something that is often in short supply.  Thanks be to God for preachers who truly are joyful in the Lord! Thanks be to God for preachers who, when they are struggling express it honestly. And thanks too that God knows, and understands, every emotion that we feel in the seasons of our lives.

 

Let us pray:

God of the young, the middle-aged, and the old: you are the same yesterday, today, and forever. But we change; and when we change, parts of the Bible speak to us differently. Even if we think we know that Bible, a fresh reading can offer us new insights. Help us find that wisdom and will to keep learning and adjusting to every age we face so that we not only find peace for our selves, but become good examples for young eyes who are watching us.  In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          July 19, 2015

 

 

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Our passage this morning is a blessing offered up to us over the centuries. Paul begins this letter to the Ephesians with a blessing for them and their community.

 

One of the remarkable things about this blessing, is that in the original Greek, this was all one long sentence. The entire passage this morning was one poetic sentence, phrase building upon phrase to create a blessing that is part of the Jewish tradition.

 

While it may sound poetical in the original Greek, translating it into English turns this passage into a very dense, theologically-heavy, blessing. It can be hard to take all in at the first reading and it is easy for a listener to miss the impact of what they are being blessed with.

 

To understand all of it, I think this passage is best looked at broken down into sections. Paul begins with:  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us” (Verses 3-8a).

 

We begin the blessing by realizing just who we are to God. God chose us. God chose you and God chose me to be God’s children. To heap grace and love upon us. To show us forgiveness and redemption. To claim us as God’s own. You have been chosen and loved by God, through Christ.

 

That alone can be hard for many people to accept. “God chose me? Why me? What makes me worthy of being loved by God?” But God loves you because God chose to love you, and God chose you because God loves you. It is not a question of what you deserve, but instead it is what has been freely offered to you by Christ.

 

And because we have been adopted in Christ, we never are completely alone again.  No matter how low or worthless we feel on any given day, we can rest assured on the certain knowledge that God loves us, even us. Through our adoption we have been saved and redeemed for all time, in Christ. God is with us and God will be with us, not because of our own merits, but through God’s endless supply of grace.

 

The other difficult part of this blessing, once you accept that God chose you and loves you, is the knowledge the God chose and loves more than just you. Look around and you will see all around you people who, just like you, are loved by the Creator. God chose them because God loves them too. They are your brothers and sisters by adoption, different though you may be.

 

The different bit can be hard to handle. “How can God love me and that guy over there that I disagree with so much? How can God chose me and someone who said something so hurtful to me at the same time?” But God instead lavishes grace upon us all. While we might not always get along with everyone, we are called to accept them as part of our adopted family in Christ.

 

The second part of the passage move the focus from the self and our community to the entire world. “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Verses 8b-10).

 

Really? God will gather all things up in the fullness of time? That can be hard to accept, especially if we ever turn on the news.

 

When I look around at what is happening in the world with all its problems and violence, people exploiting, abusing and neglecting one another, it is hard for me to imagine a time when all things will be gathered up and used for God’s will for creation.

 

How Lord? How can the murderers and the rapists  and the abusers be gathered up with the innocent victims, the peace-makers, and  the caregivers? That sounds impossible, to us. There sometimes seems to be too much bad in the world to find the good. Luckily we are not God, who can look at even the mess we sometimes see the world as and turn it to God’s own ends. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” We might not always see the outcome, and we rarely see God’s final plan, but we can rest assured that in the end God’s plan will prevail.

 

Now, this does not mean that the violence, poverty or destruction happen according to God’s will, that God deliberately causes or encourages or accepts any of the horrible things that happen in the world. No, instead God finds a way to work all that we do towards God’s final purpose for creation. We may do evil, but God finds a way to work with it to good. I have a hard time imagining how that can happen, but God does not. God sees a vision that we, who see through a mirror very dimly, may be unable to see. We are blessed with the knowledge that God will turn all things back to God’s plan.

 

Finally, in this very long sentence of Paul’s, we turn to our response to this blessing we have been given. “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. ”

 

“May you be blessed and a blessing.” God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, and our right response to these blessings is to live for the praise of Christ’s glory, to in turn offer that blessing to others. We are called to affirm the first two parts of this blessing to the rest of the world.  As the church, we are to live lives of service, working for peace and reconciliation among our brothers and sisters all over the world through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

 

You are chosen. You are loved. God will gather the world up to good in the fullness of time. Now go forth and offer up your praise and service to the one who chose you.

 

One of my favorite blogs, Unfolding Light, which is written by Steven Garnaas Holmes, posted a paraphrase of this passage this week. He returned it to the spirit of poetry these lines were meant to be read as, but for the modern English speaker. I’d like to end with that blessing for you all this morning

 

“Blessed be God, who birthed real love among us in Christ, and in that love has given us the blessings of heaven itself. Since before Creation, in this love, God intended that we would be holy, loved, and loving, God’s own dear children. In this love, so generously lavished on us,we are redeemed, and all our wrongs are forgiven. Stop and wonder at this grace, and give thanks!

 

“If God gives us any wisdom or insight it is to know that it is God’s delight to always be gathering everything in Creation into Christ, into the body of love. This is is our destiny, God’s will, which is always fulfilled: that we, who began by hoping in the Love that Fills the World, would ourselves live lives that radiate that love.

 

“When first heard this wonder, that you are part of the world’s salvation when you first opened yourself to this love, it poured into you. God’s Spirit changed you. Now you yourself are part of God’s promise. The Spirit in you is the first bit of God’s redemption of the world. That is God’s glory. Doesn’t it make you want to praise God?”

 

Well, doesn’t it?

 

Blessings be to you. Amen.

 

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When you think about it, Jesus was just a hometown boy.

 

Our Lord never even left Nazareth until he was close to thirty. While we can’t be sure, why, one convincing argument is because his father had died young and he was needed to support his mother and his brothers and sisters. That would be why the people in the passage today call Jesus Mary’s son instead of Joseph’s son. As the oldest child, all that Joseph had would have passed to him and he would have been responsible not just for his siblings, but also for his mother, because Mary wouldn’t have been able to inherit at the time.

 

It was only when his siblings were all old enough to fend for themselves that Jesus felt free to leave. Even God’s mission had to wait for Jesus to take care of his family. There is something comforting in Jesus’ actions here, in the idea of God being there in the ordinary in every respect, even taking up family duties.

 

So in our text for today, Jesus was coming back to where people knew him as an infant. They knew him as a small child. They saw him grow up, working as a carpenter just like Joseph, The people there  thought they knew who Jesu was. After all, he had spent most of his life with them. How could they not know him?

 

When Jesus started saying things that didn’t make sense, that didn’t fit into their view of who he was in their world, the people there didn’t listen. And some of those who sort of listened, grew offended. “Who does this guy think he is? I knew him when he was just a child. How could he possibly think he can tell me what to do?”

 

Because Jesus had lived in this little place for so long, and because he was so well-known, when he finally returned to his hometown, the people there couldn’t believe he was anything more than the child they had know. Jesus was rejected not for being too different, but for being too well known. The theologian William Barclay writes: “Some times we are too near people to see their greatness.”

 

How often do we dismiss what we are told, just because we think we know something about the person saying it? How often do we tune out what others are saying because we have heard it all before?

 

Too often we go through our days only half listening to what others are saying to us. And we can be the most guilty with this when it comes to the people we are the closest to. Spouses and siblings and children all get less than our full attention because we know them. Because they are familiar. Because we think we already know everything they have to say.

 

Jesus has this problem in his hometown. In his passage, Ezekiel is dismissed as being the crazy, ranting prophet. How many times has God tried to speak to us in our lives and we haven’t listened? How many times have we gone “Mmhmm.. That’s nice” and continued thinking our own thoughts,  when God is using a loved one to speak?

 

One morning a man in Washington D.C. stood on a subway platform. By most measures, he was nondescript; a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled  to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.  It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by.  No one knew it, but this was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made.

 

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run,  for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

 

Most rushed by, ignoring the man with the violin, giving a concert for whatever change the crowd might give, when only days before the very same man’s concert tickets brought in hundreds of dollars a piece for the cheap seats.

 

How often do we fail to hear what is happening around us?  Male and female, young and old, wealthy and working class, each demographic walked past this wonder  in equal measure.  All demographics that is except one.  “Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch.  And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”  The children didn’t know enough not to listen.

 

If we truly believe that God can work through anyone, that God is present in every moment, we cannot tune anyone out. We cannot nod and smile politely while waiting for our turn to speak. We cannot dismiss the child who wants to share her day with us. We cannot rush through the streets without looking around and seeing who else is present.

 

We are called to listen in our daily lives, to listen for God speaking through the mundane and familiar. Some days we will be better than others, but we have to try.

 

Now if we manage that, if we hear when God is speaking to us, we are only halfway there. Because we are then called to follow that message.

 

After all, there is a second part to this passage. The flip side of listening for the Word is going forth and sharing the Word ourselves. Once we have heard God we must speak in turn. Listening comes first, but then we must speak. We must work towards the will of God in the world.

 

This isn’t always the easiest thing to do. In the second part of the passage this morning, Jesus tells his disciples, and therefore us, to go forth and preach to the world.  He told the disciples to teach and to heal and to care for people.  And he warned the disciples of what might happen.

 

Sometimes? No one will listen to you even though what you have to say matters. Rather than getting hurt or upset, or trying to force the message upon them anyway, Jesus tells us to move on and offer the message to someone else. Don’t take other’s reactions personally. Just go and find someone who will listen to you.

 

Jesus tells his disciples, and us, that if we are unwanted shake the dust from our feet and move on. Now, all of us will find some time in our life where we are not wanted. No one is liked and accepted by everyone. No message is either.

 

That is the delicate line of evangelism. We cannot force belief on anyone. We can offer up our belief and others can chose to respond to it or not. If they don’t, we are called not to lash out, but instead, to seek out someone who will listen. Too often Christian groups try to badger people into belief, but that attitude usually drives people farther from Christ.

 

At the end of the day, Christ himself isn’t always listened to. Why do we assume we will be?

 

Most of the time, we aren’t comfortable with this. We don’t like saying things that others reject. After all, who likes being rejected? Coming out and speaking the truth makes us vulnerable and puts us at risk, which is always hard to take.

 

And  more than that, it’s hard to let it go when people ignore us or ridicule us. We want to fight back, to defend ourselves. But that’s not what Christ is asking us to do. We are called like Ezekiel to speak. To offer up our faith. And then to let it go. What God does with it afterwards is out of our hands. The important thing is that having heard the Word, we go out and speak.

 

Jesus says if we are rejected move on.  But if we move on don’t think all is lost or we have failed.  If we move on without rancor, resentment, animosity or malice, but with love and self-possession we will leave behind a message from God. When we respond to anger with anger, we don’t show Christ as being any different. When we lash out and fight back we don’t carry that message of love to others.

 

Because God is at work in the world around us. God is at work whether we see it or do not see it. Whether we listen or don’t. God is at work outside the walls of our churches and outside of our communities. By speaking we participate in the incredible work of God in our world. But it begins with listening, even to those we know so very well. Every day it begins with hearing God.

 

So as we go out this week, listen. Listen to all those around us. Listen to the familiar and the strange. Listen with open hearts and discerning minds to all that you hear. We never know where the Word may come from.

 

And when you hear the Word, follow it’s call. Amen.