“Making the Most of Time”

November 10, 2013

 

Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

Ephesians 5:15-20

 

People are always giving me suggestions for sermons—which is great, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes…

It’s like what happened with the Diaconate at their October meeting. Remember, this was my first day back from my sabbatical. And the deacons were talking about what their work makes happen around here—and about how much of what they are involved with requires the work of other members of the congregation as well. That’s a good thing, sharing their work with others. The word “deacon” comes from a Greek word, diakonos that can be translated as “servant.” So the deacons are the servants of the congregation. As Congregationalists, however, we don’t want to take this too literally, of course. We recognize that one form of service the deacons provide to our congregation is helping us all to be servants of one another as we serve God together. So it’s the deacons who arrange for ushers and greeters and members to provide hospitality on Sunday morning—small but significant ways in which we serve.

All of this is good and it works pretty well except when members forget that they are supposed to usher, or when someone responds to a request by politely but firmly saying, “I don’t want to do that,” or admit that they just can’t make coffee (and believe me, in the days before I started to drink coffee I once made some very bad coffee for the president of a seminary who was a house guest of ours, so I know the concern).

In the middle of this discussion the assembled servants of the congregation turned to me. “You should preach about this!” they said. “Preach about time and how we use it.” Problem solved.

Did I mention this was on my first day back from my sabbatical?

Actually, in a way this seemed to be a pretty straight-forward and easy task. I stand up here, remind you that we’re all in this together (which is true), tell you that we need everyone to give of their time as well as their treasure in supporting the ministry and mission of our congregation (which is true), maybe look a little stern (which I can do) and—problem solved! We have people lining up to usher for the next year and a half.

It seemed like a simple request from the Diaconate—until I started to think about it.

That is, until I started to think about time.

St. Augustine famously wrote in his Confessions, “What then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who does ask me, I do not know.”[1]

How to preach about time, when I, too, don’t know what it is?

It is difficult, if not impossible, to get a grip on just what this everflowing stream of time is. Physicists since Einstein have not made it any easier, telling us that space and time are married as space-time—a fourth dimension added to the familiar three of left/right, forward/backward, up/down. And, they tell us, such space-time is curved and not absolute. Of course, to me, one of the best proofs that time is relative and not absolute is the difference in the number of people in our sanctuary at 10:15, when we say that worship begins and some ten minutes later. No wonder the Deacons wanted me to preach about time!

“What then, is time?”

Paul Tillich rightly noted that even the greatest minds have each discovered only one aspect of time. But, he says, everyone “apprehends the meaning of time”—that is, our own temporality.[2]

The author of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a season, a time, for everything. And then with the same breath makes it clear that such an awareness in no way allows us to know what God is doing in and through the times and seasons in which we live. Still, we are called to open our eyes and look around. To everything there is a season—a time to rend, to sew, to plant, to reap, a time to be born; and a time to die, yes, for that fills us with an urgency to do our work, and love others, and live our lives.

 Remember that line from Six Feet Under? One person asks: “Why do people have to die?” The response? “To make life important. None of us know how long we've got. Which is why we have to make each day matter.”  Or as another person put it: “The shock of death exists to teach us that our first decision is to commit ourselves to an ethical world, a civilized existence, a moral order. You have to ask yourself, am I an ethical person, first and foremost, always and with no exceptions?”[3]

The early nightfall of November makes us even more aware that the days pass, one after another, and no clutching will keep them. As the calendar winds down, I remember the first page of my appointment book with the words of Benjamin Franklin: “Do you love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.”

We might not know what time is, but we begin to sense the connection between time and our own finitude. We do well, then, to pray with the Psalmist: “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

Now this psalm is said to be a prayer of Moses. And although we today might not think that this psalm originated with Moses, his story helps us understand the psalm and maybe even gives us a better understanding of time.

It has been pointed out that the problem Moses had was time—that is, his time was too short. After leading the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt, after putting up with them and chastising them and giving them the Torah in the wilderness, Moses died before entering the Promised Land. And so his story is the human story; his story is our story. As one person put it, “We always come up short, in terms of time, intentions, and accomplishments.”

And yet, if we listen we will hear encouragement for our own lives in this story. Clinton McCann, who teaches at the UCC Eden Seminary down in St. Louis asks: If even Moses came up short, should we be surprised or lament when we do? The death of Moses was a reminder that God, not Moses would lead the people into the land. Our time, is not all there is to measure. God’s time is primary and…our time must be measured finally by God’s time.

So Moses or the unknown psalmist or we do not ask that God teach us how tragic and oppressive life is. We would ask with the psalmist to learn how to accept the gift of our days, however many or few.[4] It is in these days that come to us as a gift that we would work and would pray that our work might prosper.

Here, of course, the author of Ecclesiastes helps by telling us that we should take pleasure in all our toil, that we should be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we live. After all, when death comes, no one says, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.”

And this brings us to those surprising words from the Letter to the Ephesians: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people, but as wise, making the most of time, because the days are evil.”

Two things are clear in these words. First, following in the way of Jesus Christ requires that we use the time we have to the best of our ability. We receive our life, our time, from God, and we should be guided by the wisdom that each day is of eternal value and eternal meaning.

Second, we are encouraged to make the most of time, not because everything is going so well and it’s an opportune moment. We are encouraged to make the most of time—because the days are evil.

The unchecked assault on the environment is resulting in global climate change.

The unchecked greed is resulting in a global inequality between rich and poor.

The unchecked religious fanaticism is resulting in global unrest and animosity.

Our time, like all times, is filled with threats, with dangers, and yes, with what we would call “evil.” We may feel that we are in a vast wilderness with no Promised Land in sight. In just such circumstances we are called to live fully, remembering the words of the prophet in this morning’s anthem, that we should do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Our task in these days is to give God those works that might prosper—to create beauty, to be agents of healing, to raise children who can love as they have been loved, to teach, to generate wealth and share wealth. All such works matter now in time and will matter continuing into God’s eternity.

And so I come back to the request of the Diaconate. We might not know what time is, be we gain wisdom as we count our days and use our days to the best of our ability.

Sometimes that starts in small ways.

If you like to meet people, if you’re ready to welcome others, tell the deacons you’d like to be a greeter.

If you have that gift of making people feel comfortable and at home, let the deacons know that you’d be glad to be an usher.

If you’re someone who loves to extend hospitality, well, the deacons would be glad if you’d put on a pot of coffee and set out some donut holes.

You don’t have to do any of this but the good news is that you can do any of these things even if you aren’t very good at them but would like to get a little better.

These are small things, really, given the challenges we face in these days. Still, I’ve seen a teenager pour coffee in a way that expressed the love of God as much as anything else. I’ve been greeted in a way that reminded me that I, too, am a beloved child of God.

This is one of the countless, and I don’t use this word often or lightly, but one of the countless blessings of life in a congregation, life in this congregation. A blessing after all, is something that adds to the life we have, something that seeks more life for all involved. Our participation in the common life of this congregation leads to more life—to blessing—in the wider world.

By doing the small things in the midst of this community, we grow and are empowered to do greater things for a greater number of people beyond our walls. You greet people here and become more welcoming in the world. You study with others here and you find yourself better able to examine the deeper and more perplexing problems that confront us beyond the church. You teach a child and gain new insights into being a parent.

And so on.

Blessing.

The gift of time is connected to God’s desire for us—that each of us might find newness of life in these days that we are given. Each year, each day is a gift to us from our Creator.

God gives us life—and time, the stuff that life is made of.

The days are evil—although sometimes, you know this, don’t you, sometimes they can seem pretty good. Let us make the most of time.



[1] St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 11, Chapter 14.

[2] Paul Tillich, “Meditation: The Mystery of Time,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, pg. 35.

[3] Peter Koestenbaum,  Fast Company, January 2002, pg. 29.

[4] Clinton McCann, Psalm 90, NIB