Series: The Secret of Life
Jun 30th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Ecclesiastes 3:1-15
I have been asked where sermons come from. Usually, I am given
guidance by the lectionary - that systematic set of readings that takes us through the major stories and themes of the Bible. Sometimes, a sermon grows out of a particular event that calls for attention and insight from Scripture. And sometimes, the preacher just gets a wild idea and it grows into a sermon.
This summer, I have planned a series of sermons that grows out of
pastoral concerns that people have shared with me over 33 years of
ministry. As I have served the people of three congregations - and have
been with them in the high moments and low moments of life - I have
learned some lessons about life that it seems to me should be shared.
Maybe you will hear some echoes of conversations we have had, or you’ll hear something that you’ve wondered about, or maybe you’ll just be as bored as always, but my hope is that you will find some ideas over the summer that will make life more meaningful and better, and find a secret or two to life.
This audacious series of sermons begins with a sermon about time.
If there is one topic that seems to present itself again and again, it’s the subject of time.
Time is something of a human construct. We started with evening
and morning - wayhi ereb wayhi boger yom - as the author of Genesis gives it to us. Evening, morning - a day. Over time, we began the practice of sabbath - of marking every seventh day as a day of rest and renewal. And then we noticed that the moon seemed to cycle from new to full and we organized days into months. By 45 BC, Julius Caesar introduced the Julian Calendar, organizing time into twelve months, though poor Julius thought a year was 355 days. The Gregorian Calendar was created in 1582, when Pope Gregory reorganized the calendar into the form in which we have it today. Oh, there’s much more to it than I have said, but you get the idea - human beings created the way we think about time. It was the Babylonians who created hours and minutes and seconds. They used a counting system that was based on 60s, much as we use a system based on 10s. An hour was sixty minutes and a minute was sixty seconds. They did all of that without an Apple Watch! And so we arrived at where we are today. Sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour, twenty-four hours in a day, seven days in a week, “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November; all the rest have thirty-one, excepting February alone, and that has twenty-eight days clear, and twenty-nine in each leap year.”
But, on a slightly more reflective level, time has become a form of
currency. We value time. We value time over money. We will pay for
someone else to use their time on our behalf, so that we have time to do what we want. How many time saving devices, products, and services do we employ every day of every week? The dishwasher was invented to save us time. The washing machine was invented to save us time. The microwave was invented to make bad food and save us time. Right? Go online, place your order, and have everything delivered to you from food to books to appliances to who knows what else. You don’t have to schedule a time to go to a store, choose items, or wait in line to pay for them. You can do it in the morning, afternoon, evening, or the middle of the night.
We also value people who are involved with time, over those who
aren’t. The busier a person is, the more we think they are valuable and
important. The less busy a person is, the more we consider them lazy,
shiftless, and not contributing to the greater good. There is, of course, some judgment involved in those distinctions, but we don’t seem to mind that. The poet/teacher/philosopher/author of the wisdom book of
Ecclesiastes keenly observed time and offered insights. The Teacher
looked at the world and saw that there was a certain, reliable order for
everything. “To everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.” The Teacher saw that there is a rhythm to life - birth and death, planting and harvesting, time for weeping and time for laughter, a time to keep and a time to throw away - nothing arbitrary or erratic. “To everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.”
The observation is not offered to consign us to a life of dreary
inevitability. Fatalism is not the manner of life for which God created
us. Far differently, the Teacher is reminding us that time is not endless.
Time exists, is real, and has its patterns and purposes. But above all of that, the message of Ecclesiastes is that time - and that portion of time which we call a lifetime - is hevel. The word is used 25 times in the Book of Ecclesiastes and is often translated “vanity.” A better translation would be “absurdity, meaninglessness, or vapor.”
Perhaps, even better, we should translate the word as “fleeting” or
“transitory.” Our life - our time - is brief and once it is done, there is
nothing we can do.
Having constructed his argument, the Teacher gives us something of
an unexpected lesson.
I know that there is nothing better for them tha n to be happy
and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is
God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.
The gift of life is meant to be enjoyed. Life is meant to be happy, joyful,
and even fulfilling. We are meant to have a sense of wholeness and
contentment about life, and if that is true, if life is not that way, then we aren’t doing it exactly right.
Which means that God gives us the gift of time in order for us to be
happy, to experience a sense of achievement, to know for ourselves the joy of life. What life becomes for each of us is, in many ways, up to us. We are responsible for finding the happiness, achievement, and joy that life is intended to offer. This is, dare I say it, the stewardship of life and time.
I’ll give it to you in this way. I have been there as people face the end
of their time. I have been there more than I want to remember. In all of those times, I have never once heard a person say:
“I wish I had worked a little harder and a little more.”
“I wish I had been away from my family and friend a little more.”
“I wish I had watched a little more television.”
“I wish I had fought a little more with my family or my friends.”
“I wish I had been a little more judgmental along the way.”
“I wish I had spent more time standing idly by.”
Do you get it? The truth is exactly the opposite. What I have heard is,
“I wish I would have made more time for fun.”
“I wish I would have been more present with my family.”
“I wish I would have enjoyed the simple things a little more.”
“I wish I would have been a better friend.”
“I wish I would have made more of a difference.”
The truth is that I have heard more regrets about simple things that bring the happiness, joy, and contentment. I have heard regret over things that could have been. I cannot count the regrets that have had to do with the misuse of time.
The Psalmist, in the 90th Psalm, gives us this goal:
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.
A wise heart is a heart in tune with God and the ways of God. It is a
heart that understands life as a gift of God to be used wisely and well -
for God, for neighbor, and for ourselves. It is a heart that knows that life is fleeting and that none of us are promised tomorrow. It is a heart that beats in time with God’s own heart, which is the source of all happiness, all joy, and all contentment.
Too often, I hear people speak of time as “the enemy.” That is to
discredit the gift of time that God has given. One of the secrets of life is
simply this: making friends with time. It is to remember that life is hevel - fleeting and temporary - and using it to its fullest and fairest. It is to savor every moment of every day.
One of my favorite books is still Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
The quote that always comes to my mind is this:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to
front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not
learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die,
discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was
not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice
resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live
deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily
and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a
broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and
reduce it to its lowest terms...”
“…and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
I’m not suggesting you need to go to the woods and build a tiny cabin and scratch out an existence like old Uncle Henry.
But I am suggesting - in fact, I am inviting you - to think about time,
to make friends with time, and to practice a faithful stewardship of time. I am inviting you to “gain a wise heart.” I am encouraging you to “suck our all the marrow of life” and to not, when you come to die, discover that you have not lived.
God has gifted you this day.
God has gifted you this life.
God has gifted you blessing upon blessing.
What will you do with it all?
“To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under
Make friends with time. For now and evermore. Amen