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A Time for Everything

April 30, 2006

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Jackie had been here five years as Minister of Music when I came to Morningside as Pastor. One factor that really influenced my decision to accept the position was the fact that she was here in that capacity. I had witnessed the close rapport between Dr. Alistair Walker and Ronald Wells, and I knew the importance of a good relationship between the Pastor and the Minister of Music when it comes to worship leadership. These two staff members really must get along well, work well together, and see eye-to-eye on almost everything.

I am happy to say that Jackie and I have worked well together though I must confess that we have not always seen eye-to-eye on everything. I remember the first December I was here as Pastor. December is a high-stress time for a Minister of Music. I always say that if it were not for the last minute, I would not get anything done. That first Christmas season, I tried to run in some changes on Jackie at the last minute. I learned my lesson; and I can tell you that every year since then, I just take a step back and give her lots of elbowroom, plenty of space, when the holiday season arrives.

Jackie has been an unofficial censor, editor, of my sermons over the years. My concept about what is acceptable language from the pulpit and her understanding are different. For example, when I used the word gynecologist in a sermon, I thought Jackie was going to have a fit. She felt that word was inappropriate to use in a sermon. Sometimes on Monday mornings, she criticizes a word I said in the previous day’s message. Many times, she asks on Monday morning, “What is your sermon topic for next week?” I have hardly had time to catch my breath before she wants to know the sermon title for the next week. I usually answer her, “Jackie, it is going to be about Jesus.” That reply, of course, is not much help to her.

My role to her has included being the brother she never had. I am a big brother by nature as I have seven younger brothers and sisters. A big brother’s role is to tease, and I have tried my best to rib Jackie through the years. She has taken the banter very well, and I will continue with my teasing of her today.

I heard about a pastor who announced on the first Sunday in December that he planned to retire at the end of the year. On the day of his retirement, he preached his last sermon. Afterwards, the Minister of Music, who had selected the music for the day, asked the congregation to stand and sing the closing Christmas hymn, “Joy to the World!” What a blunder!

I almost made a blunder this week. Sometimes I set the sermon tone, and Jackie selects the music to fit the sermon. On other occasions, I will fit the sermon to the anthem she has planned for the choir to sing. This week, I really shaped the sermon to Jackie’s announcement about her resignation and selected this passage about time from Ecclesiastes. Then I told Jan the sermon title “It’s about Time,” which she typed in the newsletter, wrote on a note, and placed on Jackie’s desk. About an hour later when I realized what I had done, I called Jan and asked, “Have you given the sermon title to Jackie yet?” Jan answered, “It’s on her desk. She hasn’t seen it yet.” I told Jan, “Quick! Go get it. I cannot call the sermon ‘It’s about Time’ on the day she announces her retirement!” What a blunder that would have been!

Our sermon today is about our understanding of time. The writer of Ecclesiastes, traditionally thought to be Solomon, was pessimistic. The tone of the book is pretty much “Vanity of vanities – all is vanity.” Perhaps the favorite passage from Ecclesiastes and the one most often quoted is Chapter 3, Verses 1-8, which contains fourteen polarities about life.

The very first polarity says, “There is… a time to be born, and a time to die.” How often have we seen here on the organ both a white rose and a red rose, a time when we celebrate the birth of a child and remember the death a church member? Tomorrow, I am going to do something I have never done before in forty years of ministry. I am going to perform three funerals: one for Lillian Kirby; one for my elementary school principal, Mr. E.P. Todd; and one for Frances Foster. The passage states there is a time to die. If you know any of these people and their life situation, the truth is that none of us can believe that these deaths are untimely. In fact, death for them seems to have occurred about the right time.

Some of the opposites in Ecclesiastes seem so self-evident, but some are more difficult to understand. The writer gives us a perspective on how to understand life. He also presents, in an ambivalent way, an over-riding issue. Chapter 3, Verse 15 states, “Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account.” We might call this outlook an attitude of determinism or predestination. Are we to consider these fourteen polarities as experiences of life over which we have absolutely no control? Are we look at them as being preordained for us? Are we to consider them as events that happen, not as choices or decisions for which we have the freedom to make? Certainly, that is the case with some of life’s events. We do not choose the time we are born. We do not really choose the time we die.

Also reflected in the passage is the attitude that we can make choices about other polarities, like a time to love and a time to hate. Verses 11-13 state, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all of his toil this is a gift of God.” That attitude seems to say that not everything is pre-determined, but that free-will, free choice, decision making, is very much a part of our lives.

We must address another issue here. What is the meaning of the word time? The Greeks understood this better than we do because they used two words to express time. The first word the Greeks used is chronos, which is time measured by a clock, a calendar, or an hourglass. The concept is that time moves along at a slow, steady pace. We have no control over that at all. I noticed in a watch store recently that many watches are now called chronometers, which means a meter for measuring the passage of time.

Some of you will be glad to know that we have a clock on the pulpit. This clock receives a signal from Colorado Springs, Colorado, that makes the time precise, to-the-second. The radio station that carries this broadcast also has an atomic clock receiving the same signal from Colorado Springs. Therefore, Morningside can have exact time synchronization with the radio station. You might think somebody at the radio station is pulling levers and pushing buttons, but the truth is that a computer does almost everything at the station. This clock allows me to know where we are in relationship to the radio broadcast. At exactly 11:59:40, we go off the air because the computer is set up that way. It does not matter if I am in the middle of a sentence or in the middle of a story, and it does not matter if we have already sung the invitation hymn and walked out the door. That has never happened before, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility. The truth is that the clock really makes very little difference in how we conduct this worship service.

Another Greek word that deals with time is kairos, which has nothing to do with measuring time. Let me explain by telling you about a Meyers lemon tree I purchased three years ago at Park Seed Company. If the temperature drops much below 40 degrees, I bring the tree inside the house; otherwise it stays outside during the summer, spring, and fall. The first year, the tree actually produced three or four lemons somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Last year, fragrant blossoms covered the tree, but a dry spell in the middle of the summer caused the tree to suffer terribly. At some point, the weather was so severe that all of the fruit buds dropped off, which was quite a disappointment.

Last year in September, one flower appeared on the tree. It was very much an untimely bloom. We nursed that tree throughout the winter months, and I picked the one and only lemon that tree produced the week of Easter. Now, the tree is covered with blossoms once again. Each one holds the promise of a wonderful lemon, but the lemons will be exactly right at a particular time. Kairos is not measured time, but it carries the sense that the time is right. Those of you who grow homegrown tomatoes know exactly what I mean. You do not mark on your calendar the date you are going to pick your first tomato. You must watch that tomato grow and pick it when the time is right.

Both Jackie and I talked last week and agreed that now is the right time for her retirement. Both concepts – chronos and kairos – are present in this passage of Ecclesiastes, but kairos seems to predominate in this particular case. When people retire, they very often receive the gift of a watch or a clock as a symbol of retirement. Jackie, we are not going to give you a clock or a watch. We are going to celebrate kairos with a party in our Fellowship Hall. We want to invite everyone to come to this special celebration the night of July 9.

Whenever Clare reads a book, I sometimes read it, too. She often reads passages to me, as she did with the one she is reading now, A Strong West Wind. Gail Caldwell, the author writes a memoir about the romance between her grandfather and grandmother who lived in Ridley Springs, Texas. Her grandfather was very much in love with the then seventeen-year-old Della McElroy, the daughter of a physician. When he wrote and asked Della to marry him, Della asked her father for permission.

He replied, “No, you are only seventeen. You are not ready to get married.”

“How will I know when I am ready to get married?”

Her father directed, “Step on the scales.” They both saw that she weighed about ninety-six pounds. He said, “When you weigh more than 100 pounds, it will be time for you to get married.”

Della mounted her horse and rode it into the creek until the water came just to her saddle. Once her long skirts were soaked to the waist, she rode back home, climbed off her horse, and walked inside to her father. She declared, “I am ready to weigh again,” and stepped on the scales. This time, the scales exceeded the 100-pound mark.

Her father conceded, “You have my permission to get married.”

Sometimes you can push the time a bit, which usually is not a good idea.

Maybe you have read the novel Zorba the Greek or seen the movie in which Anthony Quinn played the leading role. Zorba found a chrysalis, a butterfly cocoon. He was so impatient to see the butterfly that he picked the cocoon from the tree. He could see that the butterfly was almost ready to emerge, so he took his thumbnail and opened the protective home. Sure enough, a fully formed butterfly was inside. The butterfly came out on his hand and sat there. It did not fly because it could not fly. The butterfly soon died. A butterfly must struggle to emerge from a cocoon. Through that struggle, the butterfly develops the strength needed in its wings to fly. If you push the process and make it happen too soon, the butterfly cannot fly. It just dies.

This church will soon enter into a process to look for our new Minister of Music. The Personnel Committee has already appointed a search committee. Discerning God’s will in this matter begins with prayer for this committee. I encourage you to be in prayer about their responsibility. Look with me at one verse in this passage from Ecclesiastes, the end of Verse 7: “There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.” At least four people in our choir have served as ministers of music in other churches. At least four families in our church have children who have served as ministers of music in other places. At least eight people might qualify for this position within our church family.

Can you see the problem we would have if people start vying for the position of Minister of Music at Morningside? That will not be good for us. It will not be good for anyone. It certainly will not be good for the committee. I want you to pray for them. Before they do anything, they are going to pray. The committee will perform the same thorough search that it conducted for our Minister of Youth. The members have a detailed job description, and their deliberate search will include at least the southeastern part of the United States. Notices will appear in Baptist state papers, and seminaries will receive notification. The person who becomes our Minister of Music may be somebody we already know, or it may not.

Zorba the Greek spent weeks constructing an enormous aqueduct. Finally, the day came when he could open the sleuths. When the water roared through the aqueduct, Zorba became so excited that he started dancing. The surge of water caused the structure to begin shaking, and then it collapsed. Zorba was stunned that all of his hard work was for naught. After a moment of disappointment, he started dancing again. Look at Verse 4 in this passage: “There is a time to weep, and there is a time to laugh. There is a time to mourn, and there is a time to dance.” Many of life’s occasions call for both a time to mourn and a time to celebrate, a time to weep and a time to laugh. Jackie’s retirement will probably be just like that. It is going to be occasion for both emotions. We are certainly going to be praying for Jackie and David.

Gene Ellis told me about a most unusual experience he had when he took a trip to Florida for a funeral. He told me that following his part in the graveside service, a belly dancer danced. I do not expect any of these three funerals tomorrow will have belly dancers; but at some occasions, a time of mourning and celebration and a time for weeping and laughing do go hand-in-hand.

My mother’s funeral service was one such occasion for both polarities. My mother was born on the Fourth of July; and as the family left the sanctuary, the organist played “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Once we reached Mom’s gravesite, one of my sisters-in-law, who remembered the Fourth of July celebration we always had at Mom’s house, passed out kazoos to everyone. We all played “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Some occasions call for grief and celebration, for weeping and laughter. Jackie’s retirement is going to be very much that way.

These next months are going to be special. July 9 is going to be unique, but this passage in Ecclesiastes teaches us that life is constantly moving. We are all going to continue moving. Jackie and David are going to do the same. I hope to see them riding around town in their mustang with the top down, really enjoying their retirement together. That seems right to me.

The church is going to move forward, as well. We are going to weep, we are going to laugh, we are going to mourn, we are going to celebrate, and we are going to move on with life. God, I pray, is going to continue to bless us. Ecclesiastes teaches us that we are supposed to live that way. The challenge that lies before this congregation is to continue with life. Paul writes, “Redeem the time.” He means that we are to make the most of this opportunity, make the most of every day, make the most of the time we have.

The Bible also tells us there is just the right time for salvation. The Apostle Paul says, “It is now.” If you do not know Jesus Christ as your Savior, today is the day of salvation. If you have come to this sanctuary with a decision for the Lord in your heart, today is the day to make it. Perhaps a person would like to come by transfer of letter. You know the decision God has laid on your heart. We invite you to respond as we stand and sing together our hymn of invitation, “Wherever He Leads I’ll Go.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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