Num. 6:22-27; Gal. 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21
Today we begin a new year. In many respects it’s a pretty significant year. While many people seem to be excited about prospects that a new president brings, most of the people I know are horrified. Anything that keeps us awake to what is going on around us is a good thing. If a calendar does that, we can be grateful. Yet, in reality, January 1 is simply a social construct to turn over the calendar on this particular day. Other cultures do it at different times – for the Jews Rosh Hashanah ushered in the year 5777 in September. On January 28 the Chinese will greet the year of the Rooster. Christians already celebrated our new year last month at the beginning of Advent. So what difference does it make that we turn over a new year on January 1 that we have decided to call 2017?
Today's texts offer an opportunity to focus on how we are to relate meaningfully to time. It’s so easy to get this wrong. It’s worth spending a few minutes thinking about what it means to get it right. Time is like water, air and land in that come to us as a gift of creation. Native peoples understand that time, water, air and land are to be shared. We moderns tend to commoditize all of them. We bottle water, sell land and trade air rights. And time? Joan Chittester writes, "We package it, put it on watches, calendars, schedules. Good capitalists but poor poets, we use the same verbs to talk about time as about money: we save it, we count it, and we invest it. We forget too often to savor it, enjoy it and trust it. Instead we fill it, wrench it, race against it and fight it. We make it enemy not friend. So we lose it.” (There is a Season)
How do we stop losing time and live in accord with its purpose. Spiritually, the purpose of time is to alert us to ourselves so that we can become the only thing it is really worth our time to be: a totally human, human being; a great-hearted, fully-embodied soul who in living life has become truly alive. Through time, we become people who survive the afflictions of time and find ourselves to be more human, wise, kindly, just, flexible and integrated because we have lived through a moment of definition, a phase of survival, a streak of chastening awareness.
Each of the three texts we read this morning speaks of a lost dimension of life we need to incorporate if we want to become fully human by speaking in a different way of the meaning of time. Numbers focuses on Kronos time - chronological time - the ongoing nature of time. It does this by speaking about the blessing of life: the priestly blessing that is repeated week after week in Christian and Jewish congregations around the world. It invites us to live fully in the present and open our eyes to bless this moment. If we don’t realize that life is a blessing we will end up dancing out of sync. No matter what horrors are going on around us, there are certain cyclical routines that keep our lives grounded.
Galatians focuses on significant moments in history by speaking of “the fullness of time” - or Kairos time - a special moment. Time moves in and out of these special moments. Galatians says that the Kairos moment around Jesus is about freedom: we're no longer slaves but children and heirs. If we think time is only ongoing we might fail to put ourselves on the right side of history during those special moments, the side that leans toward freedom, inclusion and promise. For those who are horrified about changes coming later this month, Kairos is a good way to think of time.
Luke talks about integrative time - how to integrate the new thing into our history after the big Kairos moment passes. The shepherds go back to work; Mary ponders what just happened; and the new baby gets circumcised, just like all male babies. If we can't go back to work, reflect, and move on we won’t know how to integrate the Kairos moment into our daily lives.
Putting the three dimensions together, we could say that there are many January firsts – the ongoing dimension of chronological time; but there is only one January 1, 2017 – the unique dimension of Kairos time. Then each Jan. 1 must be pondered as to what it means: is it a moment of blessing or cursing, of fullness or emptiness, of going back to work or taking a sabbatical, of acting or of pondering?
The Chinese tell a story that incorporates all three dimensions of time. A farmer had only one plow horse to get him through planting time. One day the horse broke away from his stake and ran off into the hills. Neighbors poured in to commiserate with the man’s bad luck. “Well, good event, bad event,” the farmer responded. “Who knows?”
And, sure enough, a few weeks later the horse came galloping down the mountain leading an entire pack of wild horses straight into the open corral. The neighbors went wild with glee. “Well,” the old man said in quiet answer to their excited congratulations, “Good event, bad event. Who knows?”
Sure enough, at harvest time, the farmer’s only son and heir fell under the bucking horse he was training, suffering a totally mangled leg. The neighbors were beside themselves with distress for the aging man, whose harvest was now in danger. “Well, good event, bad event. Who knows?” The old man shrugged as he saw most of his harvest lost in the field.
Then about six weeks later, the warlord came through the valley, conscripting every young man in the village for the latest feudal war – with one exception. The warlord would not have the crippled son of the aging farmer as part of the king’s noble army. And when his neighbors, grieving for the loss of their own sons, envied the old farmer for the presence of his, he simply folded his hands and said, “Well, good event, bad event. Who knows?”
I don’t know about you, but I need that farmer’s wisdom in order to find life every January 1. If it brings death, it demands that I enter into life anew. If it brings failure, it means I must begin again. If it brings loss, it compels me to start over. In the week before Christmas we had a press conference to launch the Sacred Resistance movement that is the ongoing commitment to being a Sanctuary Diocese. Bishop Bruno opened up that press conference sharing what he has learned over 70 years of life: life isn’t lived in a straight line; it isn’t an ongoing journey toward progress. It makes u turns; time and again it comes out of nowhere, or at least out of where we would rather not be.
Joan Chittester again writes, “Life is a mosaic made up of small pieces of human experience common to us all but lived uniquely by each of us. It’s not a drama made up of scenes around a common theme leading to resolution. It’s a series of experiences, all of them important, all of them here to be plumbed and squeezed and sucked dry, not for their own sake but so that we may come to know ourselves. Life is not what we see happening on the outside. Life is what goes on inside in the quiet, murky waters of our souls. And life is driven by energies too wild for us to ignore, too deep for us to hide. It calls us to the universals of life so that we can understand it before we lose it; enjoy it before we miss it.” (p. 1)
If we insist on ignoring that truth, we will find it more comfortable to stay in the dark after a death than to venture out into the light alone again; to refuse to try again after failure than face those who saw the shabby first effort. It’s less painful to surrender to the lowered expectations of those around us than to grow ourselves for a larger world. Or as John the Baptist learned, it's easier to wear the uniform of the socially acceptable than to eat locusts and wild honey.
What we are looking for is life. But life flows and can't be grasped; it runs and does not stop. That’s a good thing. We never really achieve; we only sample; that means we can never be trapped by anything. If nothing is permanent, nothing is deadly. We struggle to negotiate a series of lurches and turns until we see the links between them. Finally a pattern emerges, and the truth dawns that life is simply a matter of living from one season to the next, learning as we go.
A Sufi story illustrates this.
“Where shall I look for Enlightenment?” the disciple asked.
“Here,” the elder said.
“When will it happen?” the disciple asked.
“It is happening right now”, the elder said.
“Then why don’t I experience it?” the disciple persisted.
“Because you do not look,” the elder said.
“What should I look for?”
“Nothing, just look.”
“But at what?”
“At anyth ing your eyes alight upon.”
“But must I look in a special kind of way?”
“No. The ordinary way will do.”
But don’t I always look the ordinary way?
“No you don’t.”
“But why ever not?”
“Because to look you must be here. You’re mostly somewhere else.”
Here's to living in the here and now!