Sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation on September 7, 2014, by Christopher L. Webber.
“This month shall be for you the beginning of months . . .” Exodus 12:2
My parents liked to tell a story about my younger brother who finished kindergarten successfully and had a leisurely summer and then began to hear references to a new school year and asked: “You mean I have to go again?”
Well, here we are again at that time of year and you have to wonder whether the committee that planned the readings for today was thinking about the new school year when they chose that passage from Exodus.
“This month shall be for you the beginning of months . . .” Exodus 12:2
This still is the “beginning of months” – and not just for school kids and teachers. We’re less than three weeks from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. We are one week into the Eastern Orthodox Liturgical new year. We’re less than two weeks away from celebrating the hundredth anniversary of this parish and beginning the new parish year, the one hundred and first parish new year.
But how many New Year’s Days can you think of? January is the official one at the moment, but Chinese New Year comes on February 19 next year and March was the European New Year until a few centuries ago. July begins the new financial year. November brings Advent and the beginning of the Church Year. And that’s just off the top of my head – which means that if you want to celebrate a New Year you never have to wait long to do it. Which means that if you want a chance to start over, it’s always theoretically available.
And I think we need new years, new starts. I think it’s a very human impulse. We make a mess of things and we want the chance to start over. I’ve gotten really tired in recent years of hearing interviews with athletes who say, “I’ve just got to put it behind me.” Some of them have pretty much used up the space behind them. Politicians too. Wouldn’t Washington like a chance to start over in Afghanistan and Iraq? You look back and you see a trail of devastation, broken relationships, broken lives, things no human power can set right, and you can’t just start over as if it hadn’t happened. The money you spent on weapons is gone. The lives sacrificed are gone. You can’t bring them back. There’s a terrible finality to our actions and no way to reverse time. It’s no wonder the concept of a new year, a new beginning has such appeal.
There are two ways of looking at time and I think only one of them is truly Biblical. The Greeks thought of time as cyclical. Agricultural people always think of time as cyclical. You plant and you harvest, plant and harvest, plant and harvest. I’ve been reading a collection of poems by Wendell Berry who was a poet and farmer and his world is like that. You plow things under and they come up again and get plowed under again and come up again.
There is one book of the Bible, the Book of Ecclesiastes, that takes that approach to time but we never read it on Sunday. You remember the song that was based on it, “To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn.” Ecclesiastes says,
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down. . . All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.”
Why is that in the Bible? Maybe for the same reason that they put salt in cookies: for the sake of the contrast. But when this morning’s Old Testament reading talks about a “beginning of months” the purpose is not to repeat what has been or to put it behind us; the purpose is to remember, to remember what God has done so that we can begin again, so that life can be lived with renewed confidence in what God is able to do.
“This day shall be a day of remembrance for you,” said our reading this morning. Not a day of new beginnings or a day of putting things behind us, but a day of remembrance, a day that transforms our time by recalling the relationship with God that needs to center our time. Notice how the second reading looks at the same subject. “You know what time it is,” St. Paul wrote: “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light . . . put on the Lord Jesus Christ . . .”. It’s time not to do it again but it’s time to wake up, wake up and begin a new day; the night is far gone, and the day is near.
Paul is looking forward, not back, and Paul is seeing the passage of time not moving around in a circle but moving ahead, moving forward, moving toward an end, a completion, a fulfillment of purpose. And that is the usual Biblical perspective: not so much looking back, not setting out just to do it again, but looking ahead, moving toward a purpose. Instead of an infinite succession of circles getting us nowhere, time is seen as a road leading us always on and the distance to be traveled is not all that great and less with every passing day.
And don’t we know that that’s a better approach to life? When we say, as we all sometimes do, “I seem to be just going around in circles” that’s when life is most frustrating, least satisfying, when we need a way out, a way forward. And that’s what the Bible offers when it says “remember.”
Remember what God has done:
remember how God called Abraham to follow,
remember how God revealed his holiness to Moses,
remember how God set the people free from slavery,
remember how God gave them a land and a mission,
remember how God sent prophets to speak of an ultimate purpose,
remember how God sent them into exile and never forget how he brought them back,
remember especially how God sent a Messiah and gave us a meal to remember,
and remember how God moves history forward toward a purpose.
There was a Japanese emperor centuries ago who created a garden of rocks and raked sand with no plants, no flowers, no trees, nothing growing at all because he thought the constant flowering and fading, flowering and fading, was so unutterably sad. So he created a garden where nothing would ever change. He had no reason to look forward. He knew nothing about a God with a purpose. But we do.
We do. And if you want to think of this week end as the beginning a new year – school year, Jewish year, whatever – the only real question to ask yourself is this: with one less year to work with, how can I use this time to move towards God’s purpose? Time doesn’t move in circles. Time moves toward a purpose, God’s purpose. There’s no reason for us to move in circles when we could move toward a purpose, God’s purpose for us, and for this parish. And we have only this day, this minute, to use – now or never – it won’t come again.
We spend a lot of time in the church talking about stewardship and we’re beginning to talk about it in larger terms, as we should: stewardship of the environment, care for the earth, wise use of our resources. But we haven’t talked nearly enough, I think, about time and our stewardship of time. “Treasure, Time, and Talent” are the three “T”s of stewardship, but somehow it seems as if Treasure is the only one we really talk about. But think about Time. We’re asked to think in terms of a tenth a tithe for our treasure, a tithe of our income, and most of us are a long way from that standard. But the Biblical standard for time is higher, not a tenth but a seventh. The Bible says, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God . . .”
One seventh of our time belongs to God. And here too, we fall way short. The commandment doesn’t say “Go to church once a week for an hour and then go play golf.” It would be real progress if we all did even that. But it asks a seventh, one day, twenty-four hours, out of every week. And I think we need one day when we don’t do the ironing or balance the check book or go shopping, one day that doesn’t get used for our routine purposes. I envy the people that really do keep a Sabbath. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it. Setting aside some time as God’s time can remind us that all time is God’s time, all time has a potential holiness. The Bible says “Remember.” And we need to remember. The monastic offices are said seven times a day, but usually combined into five or six. The Prayer Book has always provided two offices to be said morning and night and it’s not just for priests. The current prayer book provides four much shorter daily offices and that might begin to get us where we need to be. Because we need daily Bible reading, daily prayer, daily meditation to keep ourselves on track.
How will we ever get away from that spinning sensation unless we straighten our lives out and get them in line with God’s purpose by remembering – not repeating, but remembering – remembering who God is and who we are and that we belong to a God with a purpose and then moving toward that purpose. “The night is almost over.” Paul had no idea there were two thousand years to go, nor did he understand as we do that 2000 years is the blink of an eye in geological terms or astrological terms. But whether a thousand years or a matter of minutes none of us can count on that much time still available.
We talk about “making time” for something but of course what we do is reprioritize. We can’t make time, but we can stop misusing it, stop wasting it, remember who does make it and who it belongs to and why we have the gift of this day, this short span. And when we remember, we can use it as it was meant to be used carefully, prayerfully, joyfully to the glory and praise of God.
© 2014 by Chistopher L Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Lectionary Readings: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Pentecost/AProp18_RCL.html (Track 1)