Circles and Straight Lines

“This month shall be for you  the beginning of months . . .”      Exodus 12:2

A sermon preached at St Paul’s Church Bantam on September 4, 2011, by Christopher L.  Webber.

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.  The new school year has been a bit delayed for a lot of people by Hurricane Irene, but Labor Day weekend feels like a new year anyway.  And we’re only three weeks or so from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  I’ve been trying to make a list of the number of new year’s days. How many can you think of? January is the official one at the moment, but Chinese New Year comes in February, I think, and March was the European New Year  until a few centuries ago.  July begins the new financial year. I don’t think August is anybody’s idea of New Year but September has two with the school year and the Jewish year.  October draws a blank but 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 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.

I think that’s a very human impulse. We make a mess of things and  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 put Afghanistan behind it?

You look back and you see a trail of devastation, 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 is gone.  The lives sacrificed are gone.

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 think of time as cyclical. You plant and you harvest, plant and harvest.  I’ve been reading a collection of poems by Wendell Berry and his world is like that. You plow things under and they come up again and get plowed under again.

There is one book of the Bible, the Book of Ecclesiastes,  that takes that approach 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 to wake up, the night is far gone.  Paul is looking forward, not back, and 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: 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: how he called Abraham to follow, how he revealed his holiness to Moses, how he set the people free from slavery, how he gave them a land and a mission, how he sent prophets to speak of an ultimate purpose, how he sent them into exile and brought them back and how he sent a Messiah and gave us a meal to remember, how he moves history forward toward a purpose.  

There was a Japanese emperor who created a garden of rocks and raked sand with no plants, no flowers, no trees, because he thought the constant flowering and fading, flowering and fading, was so unutterably sad he couldn’t stand it. So he created a garden  where nothing would ever change.  He had no reason to look forward. He knew nothing of a God with a purpose.

But 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 more towards God’s purpose?  Time doesn’t move in circles. It moves toward a purpose. 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, 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  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.” It would be real progress if we all did just 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.  We need daily Bible reading, daily prayer, daily meditation.

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 –  who God is and who we are and that we belong to a God with a purpose.  The night is almost over. Paul had no idea  there were two thousand years to go, but 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 we can use it as it was meant to be used carefully, prayerfully, joyfully to the glory and praise of God.

1 Comment

Sermons on GraceAugust 2nd, 2012 at 12:41 am

I really enjoyed reading this, especially the opening anecdote about the “new year” beginning almost every other month. There is a reason why time lines are straight, there is an end and a purpose. Then I read that God intends to have 1/7 of my time because that’s one day a week. At first that seems like a great thing to aspire to, then I realized that also means I spend 1/7 of my time on Monday…

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