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