A sermon preached on November 7th, 2010 based upon Luke 20:27 – 39.
I’ve been thinking about time.
When we were babies, time as we’re accustomed of thinking of it didn’t really exist. We hadn’t developed the capacity to file memories away, so there was no past. And we surely hadn’t begun to give any thought to the future either. Everything was simply now – the present.
An essential part of our growing up involved coming to terms with the concept of time. We learned about clocks and calendars and the techniques we have to gauge the passage of time. Parents and teachers conspired together to get us to get with the program. In kindergarten, if not sooner, our report cards began including the question: “Does the child make good use of his or her time?” Which meant, did we stay focused on the task at hand – did we get it done on time?
Generally speaking, when we were little kids, we resisted getting with the program with every fiber of our being. Why do I have to hurry on to the next thing if I’m enjoying this thing I’m doing right now?
Gradually we learned to submit. It’s pretty basic stuff, this coming to terms with time, because without it, we can’t really function in society. There are people counting on us, and they count on us within the confines of time. If we can’t get to work on time, we won’t keep our job. If we don’t pay our rent or our mortgage on time, we’ll end up on the streets.
To some extent we come to experience time as something we are in bondage to – a harsh taskmaster. We find ourselves constantly in a hurry, always aware of what needs to be gotten done in the limited time we have, whether it be the limits of the day, the week, the year, or our lifetime. It becomes very hard for us to be in the present moment precisely because we have become so aware of and endless series of deadlines to meet.
In our bondage to time, in our hurry, we become small minded. We can’t think outside the box, so to speak. All we can focus on are the places we need to get to on time, the “to do” list hanging over our head.
This is one way to understand Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite are oppressed by time hurrying down the road to get to their shift at the temple on time. They become small minded, afflicted by tunnel vision. And so they can’t really take in the stranger left beaten, half-dead at the side of the road.
Our relationship with time is connected to our awareness of death itself, and perhaps part of the reason why the priest and the Levite hurry on down the road is the fact that the man at the side of the road is described as “half dead.” To stop will mean pondering their own deaths, and that is precisely what they don’t want to do.
The knowledge of our deaths can create a sense of panic in relation to time: Time is running out! It can lead us to keep ourselves so busy in time so that we’ll be constantly distracted from contemplating the fact that we eventually will die.
And yet the awareness of death can also lead us in the opposite direction: It can slow us down. A friend dies suddenly, and in the sorrow of our loss we pledge to savor time; to spend more time in the present moment. We realize that hurrying through life is precisely what we don’t want to do. We don’t know want to waste whatever time we have last.
In our Gospel story, the passage of time and the reality of death looms large in the back ground. Jesus is in the final week of his life. He has arrived in Jerusalem; in a matter of days he will be hanging on a cross. Jesus is acutely aware that he has little time left in this world. It brings a poignancy to all his interactions.
And some Sadducees approach Jesus intent on tripping him up in a battle of wits. We don’t know a great deal about the Sadducees other than that they were a group that didn’t believe in an after life. The question they address to Jesus has a condescending tone. They conjure up a hypothetical possibility which seems to imply that an afterlife would create chaos and confusion: one woman with seven husbands. Since all they know is this world with the order that time creates, they can’t imagine anything other.
Jesus responds by saying in essence that their question arises from small-mindedness. When we ponder life beyond this life, we don’t have the concepts with which to wrap our minds around what it would be like. We will be like angels Jesus says, but who has any notion of what that will be like? Just because we can’t wrap our minds around it, however doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
It was Jesus who said that unless we turn and become like little children we will never enter the kingdom of God. The implication is that little children perceive something that we adults have long since lost the capacity to perceive with all the assumptions we accumulate about life. In order to encounter the deepest realities, we have to let go of all that we think we know, and become once more like a little child.
There is a little story I love from the end of the life of the great 13th century Italian systematic theologian, Thomas Acquinas. Thomas Acquinas was brilliant; he wrote thousands and thousands of pages of theology that served as a guide for the Church for centuries. Towards the end of his life however Thomas Acquinas had some kind of direct experience of God – a “near death experience” perhaps — and afterwards he referred to his life work – all those books he had written about God — as just “so much straw”. He realized that all that he had written simply could not convey the beauty and the power of the love he had experienced in his face to face encounter with the living God.
Part of what little children perceive is that time isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.
Einstein had a big mind. He had to in order to think outside of the box of Newtonian physics in which everybody had been thinking for centuries. One of the things Einstein concluded was that time as we know it is an illusion. Late in his life, when a close friend named Besso died, Einstein wrote this intriguing words:
“Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us … know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
In responding to the Sadducees, Jesus calls to mind a formative story of the Hebrew people — the first instance when God spoke to Moses. It’s a curious story. He was out doing his job, watching his father-in-law’s sheep, when he notices something weird in the distance. A bush appears to be burning, and yet it’s not consumed.
He was on the clock with his father’s sheep, and they were surely due somewhere before nightfall. He really shouldn’t have wasted time, but he did, becoming like a little child, chucking his wrist-watch, and turning aside to investigate this curious sight.
It was then that God spoke. “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Well, said Jesus, for God to introduce himself this way implies that Abraham, Isaac and Joseph must be alive in some realm that is beyond our comprehension in order for God to still have a relationship with them.
When Moses went on to ask God what his name was, God’s response was a real puzzler. It was, in essence, an unpronounceable word, but the best effort at translation would be, “I am who I am,” or, “I will be who I will be.” He is the God beyond time.
Now the point here isn’t that we should all chuck our watches and calendars and begin to live like little children. What a mess that would be!
We are called to walk a fine line, in time, and yet out of time. It’s not easy being a human being, because our tendency is to fall off on one side or the other. To either obsess over time, or to be irresponsibly cavalier about time.
The truth is, the world of time matters. The God beyond time cares about intensely about the world that is in time, and he hears the cries of his people suffering under their various taskmasters. And he calls us to make a difference – to ease the suffering, to set the people free.
Here’s another interesting quote from Einstein.
|“Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others…for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.” We come to church on Sunday, and we can’t help but worry over time as we go through the routine of getting out the door and arriving here. (We are a church of chronically late people, with me being the first and foremost in this regard.) Hopefully however, once we get here, to some extent we begin to leave this bondage behind, and touch the eternity that is beyond time. We gather with Jesus once more in his upper room, and the fact that this took place in time two thousand years ago doesn’t really matter. He is here, as are all the saints, in this moment.
And touching eternity, we find strength to live in time as those who bear the grace of God.