Ecclesiastes 3: The Gifts of Time – 7/15/12

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;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break 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;

a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

a time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to throw away;

a time to tear, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

a time to love, and a time to hate;

a time for war, and a time for peace.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.


We needed 28 readers for that, which I’m guessing is a record for a scripture reading at Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship.  28 different happenings, seasons of life, arranged as 14 different pairings.  Seven is the biblical number of completeness, so these pairs are seven twice over, double completeness.  A representative sample of everything.  “For everything there is a season.”  And each of these happenings, each statement from all 28 readers, shares a key common word: Time.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, writing in the middle of the 20th century, made the bold statement that “the Bible is more concerned with time than with space.” (p. 6)  He pointed out that while the religions of the ancient world tended to locate the deity in particular places – “mountains, forests, trees or stones,” a shrine, a sacred image –  that the Jews experienced God as primarily present within history, within time:  deliverance from Egypt, and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and Sabbath which he called “a cathedral in time.”  Heschel wrote: “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information (or things), but to face sacred moments.” (p. 6) (All quotes taken from Heschel’s book The Sabbath)

These are beautiful thoughts, but it’s questionable whether the writer of Ecclesiastes would buy it.  Ecclesiastes is one of the Wisdom writings of the Old Testament, a group that includes Job and Proverbs, and extra-biblical books like the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach.  One of the characteristics of Wisdom is that it makes no reference to any of these signature happenings of Jewish identity.  The promises to the patriarchs and matriarchs, the Exodus, and Sinai, are not mentioned.  Instead, Wisdom concerns itself with the raw material of life.  It is a universal category of literature, a shared language across cultures.  It concerns itself with things that can be seen and observed.  The object of observation is life itself, in all its joyous, brutal, and boring aspects.  Things happening right now, in your neighborhood.  And, as Ecclesiastes states time again, if life has its sacred moments, then it also has its desecrated moments, and it’s pretty hard to sort out what this is all about.  What’s going on within this time that we are in.

We use many of the same kinds of words for time that we use for money.  Time can be spent, saved, and invested, but it defies being accumulated.  And it can’t be tricked.  Our extended family would always get together to celebrate birthdays and I remember that when my Aunt Teri was in her early 30’s she told us she was going to save some of 30’s birthdays until later and use up her 50’s now.  I think it’s about time for her to be cashing those in.

In the spirit of Ecclesiastes and Wisdom, I’d like to make two observations here.  I know that sermons are supposed to have at least three points, but Connie will also be speaking to what she has observed through the passage and why it is significant for her, so that should fill things out.

The first observation we might call The vulnerability of wisdom

Look at the Bible in your hands or in front of you in the pew, and then imagine it’s not there.  All of sacred history and its revelations are set aside, and all you have are your life experiences, common sense, and the world around you.  Pay attention.  Where do you find wisdom?  Where do you find foolishness?  In one way, this is how the wisdom writers seem to approach their task.

Or, better yet, open the Bible and read it all the way through, but then add to that the Qur’an, the Talmud, Confucious, the Vedas, Lao Tzu; and while you’re at it, pile on Homer, and Dante, and Tolstoy, and Mary Oliver, and Harry Potter, and whatever else you can get from inner library loan.  Not sure if Harry Potter belonged on that list.  But Yes.  Anything.  Everything.  And that’s just the books.  Open your eyes and look.  Look at the ants and spiders, gaze at a tree, listen for the bird call, feel the stones, watch the people.  Wisdom dares to confront it all.  To not leave anything out.  To look, observe, take it in.  What do you see?  Don’t sugar coat it.  Don’t turn your head when it gets difficult.  Don’t rely on easy clichés when you don’t understand.

Just about all the book of Job is actually spent arguing against what had become the conventional wisdom of the day.  While his friends take cover under their piety and platitudes, Job is exposed, in his suffering, at the mercy of biology, and God.  Wisdom is vulnerable.

Apparently, it also dismisses the idea that one always need to be pleasant in order to be righteous.  Ecclesiastes begins:

NRSV Ecclesiastes 1:1-9 The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3 What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? 4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. 7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. 8 All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. 9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.

Of course, these are the Teacher’s opening statements, and not his concluding statements, but it is quite a way to kick things off.  And it does put in a different light those words from Ecclesiastes 3.  Are they a statement about the expansiveness of life experiences, or are they a statement about the restrictions of what life has to offer?  All these things have already happened to others, and they’re going to happen to you, so you might as well get ready.  There’s nothing new under the sun.

Wisdom opens itself up to vulnerability because it looks reality square in the face, and even if it admits that it can’t see everything, it names openly what it can see, and puts it out there for others to consider.

These kinds of thoughts are normally ones that we might consider to be outside the realm of faith.  In the category of doubt, or skepticism.  But, remarkably, Ecclesiastes is in the Bible.  How did that happen?!  The very collection of sacred history that Wisdom is willing to look beyond, includes this voice, and canonizes its perspective.  Wisdom, vulnerability, honest inquiry, openness to insight wherever it may come from: this is part of what the life of faith is all about.

The second observation is the Importance of knowing what time it is.

The basic observation of Ecclesiastes 3 is that life happens in seasons, and, I’m guessing since enough of us chose it as an important passage, it rings true.  There’s a time for everything.

Some of the things mentioned here are difficult.  “A time for war.”  One way of looking at this is to consider that we are in a time of war, and it’s important to be conscious of that.  It’s not a time of peace.  And, we could perhaps try and convince our leaders, that the time for war is over.  It’s time for a new season.

“A time to kill and a time to heal.”  I’m not particularly all that interested in experiencing a time to kill.  But we do have those chickens in our backyard.  They’re still giving us eggs every day, but they’re in their second year and production is going to trail off at some point.  When the Bellefontaine Farmer’s Market is done in the fall and there are live first year chickens available that my parents are offering, is it time to kill these?  And if you ever eat meat, then it was time to kill somewhere, you just had the luxury of not having to do it yourself.

It’s been observed that the structure of the opening and closing couplets might speak a message in itself: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time for war, and a time for peace.  Death and war are a part of what time holds, but neither one gets the first or last word, as they are enclosed within birth and peace.

It’s important to know what time it is.

I think of Eric Erickson’s developmental stages of personhood and how each of these seasons has different opportunities and pitfalls.  The adult stages are Intimacy and Solidarity vs Isolation.  Generativity vs. Stagnation.  Integrity vs. Despair.

What time is it, and what are the opportunities and pitfalls of this particular time of life?

It’s a beautiful thing when you see people embracing the particular season of life that they are in.  Children do this without necessarily being conscious of it yet, with their exuberant playfulness.  You can see it in the charged energy of youth, in the freedom of young adulthood for travel and exploring the world and one’s identity.  We see the seasons of life being embraced in the happiness of a newlywed couple or the contentment of someone who is single, investing in friendships.  We see it when expectant parents focus their attention and energy on preparing a safe and loving space for a birth, or an adoption; during the householding years when people give their passion and creativity toward a career or business venture, making a home, raising children.  When someone slowly recovers from a painful divorce and faces this unknown future they never thought would be theirs with an open heart; embracing this season.   It’s a beautiful thing when a couple walks through the disorientation of an empty nest and rediscovers their love for each other in new and simple ways.  When the retired person pursues an interest that fills them with joy.  When the aging woman embraces being the gentle crone, the wise woman, a mentor who distributes blessings and calls everyone “dear” because she has come to know that it is true.  It’s a beautiful thing when a man in his twilight years need only give that sharp, mischievous smile to say more than words are able.

It’s a beautiful thing when you see people embracing the particular season of life that they are in, although it can also be beautiful when people defy age stereotypes.  When you see the 60 year old woman running in the 5k race, or the adolescent boy playing gently with young children.

So without being overly restrictive about it, one of the key directives on the path of wisdom seems to be knowing what time it is.  When you know what time it is, you can embrace it for all its gifts.  But there’s no need to hold on too tight.  It is a season, and it will end, and a new season will come.

These are times that happen on the scale of one human life.  People who look at the larger scale of time tell us that we are currently living during 6th mass extinction period in the history of life.  If this is true, then this also helps direct our path.  It means we all, every one of us on this planet at this time, have a common calling, since we all live in the same time.  It’s a calling to celebrate and cherish the beauty that we have inherited, that has taken millions of years to produce, but which won’t always be with us in this form.  It’s a call to mourn losses.  It’s a call to humility.  To live humbly on this planet.  It’s also a call to take responsibility for our exisitence.  To come out of adolescence as a species and grow into adulthood.

As Christian people, we have a special way of talking about time and understanding our current time.  The Teacher of Ecclesiastes said “There is nothing new under the sun” but the writers of the New Testament, those who experienced the radiance of Jesus, and Jesus himself, speak quite openly about newness.  About something already here, pressing in through the pores of time.  “This is the new covenant.  Do this.  Remember this.”  “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, the old has gone, and the new has come.”  Time, as Jesus taught, is haunted by the dreams of God.  Time is the arena in which these dreams come to realized. “The kingdom of God is at hand.”  “Now is the day of salvation.”  The rabbi from Galilee and the rabbi of the 20th century have a similar message.  “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information (or things), but to face sacred moments.”  And those sacred moments are now, and always will be.