It’s About Time
Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, University Chaplain
10 September 2017
Readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Revelation 21:1-6
Is the secret of life about accepting how things are? There’s definitely a strain of thought that would say so, in contemporary wisdom, and in a number of faiths from Buddhism to Christianity. Perhaps the most beautiful expression of this acceptance is found in the Hebrew scriptures, in Ecclesiastes 3.
For everything there is a season, and a time for everything under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die…
What follows are a set of binaries, opposites, pairs which express alternative experiences, actions and approaches which together encompass all that a human life will involve, from birth to death, from the individual to the planet. Each pair of these binaries is true in some sense – in life there are times when all (or nearly all) of these will happen. There will be times of planting, of throwing away, of silence, of war, and of all the others. Indeed, it’s arguable that each pair of a binary needs the other – that there would be no building up without breaking down, no loving without hating, no dancing without mourning.
Perhaps then the secret of life is not merely accepting that it contains both sides of each binary in experience, but in knowing which is the season for each. For example today for new students just arrived in St Andrews, it is clearly
a time to plant – to put down roots in Albany or Regs or wherever you woke up this morning;
a time to build up – new friends, new knowledge from Arabic to zoology, new skills in the lab, or the Ultimate Frisbee pitch;
a time for laughing, with those new friends – or weeping, as it seems everyone else is making friends faster than you are;
a time for dancing – from Club 601 in the Union, to the swing jazz society;
a time for embracing – in Club 601 in the Union, to wherever;
a time for seeking – and you should find a helpful map of St Andrews on the back of today’s order of service – and losing your way en route to your first lectures, but believe me, that excuse for being late won’t work after about next Wednesday;
and a time for loving – from loving the wonder of DNA, to a Shakespeare sonnet, from fantastic friendships, to meeting the One.
But of course, today is not just about the time of new students, it’s about the time of their parents, their family members and others who have accompanied them to University, and will soon be leaving St Andrews. What things under heaven is this the season for, for them, for you?
A time for plucking up – transplanting this offspring into new and rather unfamiliar soil of McIntosh, or DRA, or wherever they woke up this morning;
a time for mourning, a time for weeping – grieving the end of their childhood, except when your offspring decides it’s not over and they would like some comfort in troubles, and a medium-size deposit in their current account to tide them over;
a time for embracing, before you have to get back in the car, step into the train, and leave them behind;
a time for losing – at least that familiar music seeping out of a bedroom, clothes to be washed and odd foodstuffs in the fridge – and a time for seeking – new purposes in life;
a time for silence and speech – and perhaps you will know best when your child requires one or the other when they tell you how things are going;
and a time for loving – which I suspect you know will never end.
So there is wisdom then in accepting the breadth of life’s experiences, recognising that it can’t be champagne and strawberries every day between the Freshers brunch and the Graduation garden party. And yet, could I suggest that this reading from Ecclesiastes, and the strain of thought which advocates acceptance is itself one pole of a binary? That there is a different approach to life which offers a corrective to this essentially conservative mind-set? There is a time for Ecclesiastes, and a time for Revelation.
The passage we heard from Revelation, the final book of the Bible, is about not accepting the status quo. It is a vision, a prophecy perhaps, which recognises the conditions of life in time and space – pain, crying, death and mourning – and doesn’t accept that they must always be. The vision resists the time of weeping, the time of mourning. And it resists this time by sensing the possibilities outside time, an eternal perspective, “coming down out of heaven from God.” This God is Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet in which the book of Revelation was written. This God is “the beginning and the end.” This God resists all that is finite, flawed, even fallen in time – and offers a different future, without pain, without crying, without death, without mourning. This is a vision not of binary opposites we must accept, but of something unmixed, completely and perfectly good, beautiful and joyful.
Sadly, perhaps, the vision has no room for the sea! v. 1: “The sea was no more.” To many Hebrew minds, the culture out of which Revelation came, the sea was the source of chaos, danger, the monstrous. The Spirit brooded over the waters, waste and void, before creation. Death, personified as a horrific creature, lurked in the depths of the sea. And so a vision of perfection has no room for the sea – even though St Andrews’ beauty would be unimaginable without the waves. We’ll hear a little more about water and faith next week in Chapel when I’m preaching on “Dry Run for the Pier Walk.”
When will this happen? Well, some theologians would say it already has. Verse 6: “It is done!” This can’t help but recall a word said by Jesus on the cross: “It is finished.” God has already defeated the powers of death, in the death and resurrection of his Son, and so we are already in God’s realm of joy, peace and love.
And indeed, there are some students and others in St Andrews who do sometimes think they’ve woken up in heaven. The buildings, the shoreline, the beautiful people, the intellectual ferment, the golf courses, Club 601, the Chapel!
But in reality, this bubble doesn’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) keep the world and its problems at bay. For all that I believe in the vision of Revelation as our destiny, I am conscious that this world still has all the polarities of Ecclesiastes. We dwellers in time know birth and death, healing and killing, peace and war. Last week’s news alone – of hurricane in the Caribbean, flooding in South Asia, fire in Burma, and the threat of nuclear war – makes it painfully clear that it is not yet a time only of peace.
And a St Andrews life is rarely untroubled. They may seem a lifetime away but those first deadlines around week 5 or 6 will creep up. Freshers Week can be a time of wildly oscillating emotions. Friendships can be joyful and painful. Relationships can be the same but even more extreme. There can be problems with money, accommodation, fitting in, and feeling you belong. There are losses as well as new findings.
But drawing on this vision from Revelation, while we cannot banish the sea any more than King Canute – indeed, we’ll run into it madly at first light on the first of May – we can join our hearts to the vision of God’s loving future for creation. We can reach out to those in pain with the hand of friendship. We can give the gift of time to those who are crying. We can offer our skills to join with those who resist all that is deathly, in our studies, our volunteering, even our future careers. And we can let this hope for life mark our every action and every word.
Susan Sontag, the late essayist and novelist, wrote this:
Time exist in order that everything doesn’t all happen at once… and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.
Sometimes, in the midst of Orientation week, it may well feel that time and space have collapsed, that everything is all happening at once, and to you. It’s about time you launched into life, and with the sea on all sides, there is every reason not to sink but to swim! Those who will be leaving St Andrews in a few hours or days will know all too well the existence of time and space, as the miles stretch out, and the length of time between phone calls home. But perhaps it’s about time we let these fabulous creatures go, and discover who they are.
St Andrews is not the holy city, the new Jerusalem. Or not entirely. For the more we catch that vision of the realm of the eternal God within our time and space, of divine resistance to pain and crying, death and mourning, of new things in our midst – the more this city will be adorned with beauty, love and joy. May God bless this time.