November 15, 2020 /24th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 / 2nd Reading 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 / Gospel Matthew 25:14-30
Apply Your Hearts to Wisdom
The scripture readings for these November Sundays call our attention to ultimate things:
The end of time
Our human mortality
This week in Reflections I shared how the shortening days and early evenings serve to remind us that our time has limits. Cleaning out the garden beds, emptying the flower pots and window boxes, raking dead leaves, and watching the early sunset through the now bare branches of the oak trees – all serve to remind us that seasons have an end, and so do our lives.
Today’s psalm, Psalm 90, offers a meditation on time – and our relationship to passing time. The psalm is honest about the boundaries time imposes. There is a touch of melancholy about the transient, fleeting nature of human life. Psalm 90 is not pessimistic, just realistic – and ultimately hopeful, in spite of life’s brevity.
Two weeks ago on All Saints Day we viewed a photo montage of some of the departed saints of our congregation. Those familiar faces stirred up sweet memories, and also made us aware of the relentless passage of time. Looking through photo albums has the same effect. The psalmist reflects on how God exists beyond time, while we are captives to time: “A thousand ages in your sight are like yesterday when it is past…” (which is to say, God doesn’t wear a watch).
Our lives, however, are subject to the inexorable march of time: “…we fade away suddenly like the grass. In the morning it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered.” This reality was evident as I pulled out the dried-up remnants of the tomato and pepper plants which had been so lush and flourishing a short while ago. So it is with us. We flourish and we are fruitful for a while – then our time is up. The scriptures are not morose or morbid about our human mortality – but neither are they naïve or sentimental. The bible tells it like it is – plain and simple. You and I can live in denial, pretending that we have an unending string of days at our disposal. Our culture tends to encourage this attitude, urging us on in the endless pursuit of youth, by whatever means necessary. But we can only fool ourselves for so long. Eventually we awaken to the brevity, the swift passage of life.
Dr. Seuss describes this dawning awareness:
How did it get late so soon?
It’s night before it’s afternoon.
December is here before it’s June.
My goodness how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?
Psalm 90 speaks frankly about the boundaries of our existence:
“The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; Yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly, and we are gone.”
Contemplating the shortness of our life span can lead to pessimism, and perhaps even despair. But there is another way to look at it. Recognizing that our time on earth is limited is part of what makes life momentous and vital. As a boy I thoroughly enjoyed the movie version of George Orwell’s novel, The Time Machine. The protagonist creates a device that empowers him to travel back and forth across time, to both past and future. Toward the end it dawns on him that he will never have to be in a hurry again. He says, “I now have all the time in the world.” The fact that we don’t have all the time in the world imparts an urgency and weight to our decisions and our commitments: choosing one path precludes choosing others. There are no do-overs; we are motivated to seize the day and make the most of the time we have. Psalm 90 speaks to this reality. Verse 12 is a key verse: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” We pray, in other words: “Lord, because our time is short, help us to wise up! ”
What wisdom is helpful to us?
There is wisdom to be gained in terms of making sense of our lives and finding our way in this world. A starting point is acknowledging that our days are in fact numbered. There was a time when many tombstones bore an inscription intended for the living: Memento Mori – remember you must die. This year at Halloween, the downtown of Highwood was filled with skeletons in all kinds of poses. Many of these displays were humorous – but they were also a straightforward representation of our common destiny. Memento Mori; keep in mind that our days are truly numbered.
The wisdom of scripture is that time moves in a line from beginning to end, from creation to the last days, from Genesis to Revelation. However, we are conditioned by habit to order our lives according to a circular notion of time. The earth orbits the sun in a circle, giving us a year, divided into four seasons. Likewise, the earth spins in a circle on its axis, giving us one 24 hour day after another. The hands on our clocks revolve in relentless circles, marking the passing hours, minutes and seconds. Even as we operate in circular time, living according to the regular cycle of hours and days and seasons and years, wisdom realizes that we are also moving on a straight line, from birth to death, and on into eternity.
True wisdom fosters deep humility: recognizing our limitations, appreciating how small our place is in the vast scheme of space and time. Reflecting on Psalm 90, theologian Paul Tillich wrote this:
“A wise heart accepts the infinite distance between God and man, and does not claim a greatness and beatitude which belongs to God alone.”
Which is to say: wisdom always bears in mind that God is God – and you and I are not. Blessed are the humble.
To be wise is to keep our limits in mind, and to proceed to live out the time we have with true and good intentions – to live each day on purpose. Within life’s boundaries we have great opportunities. Our time may be brief – nevertheless we can make the most of the time we have. We can choose to lead lives that are of use to something and someone besides ourselves: seeking ways to serve, doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, aiming to be grateful and gracious and generous. You and I have the honor and the privilege to live as salt and light in this world. How we live does make a difference. Being mindful of mortality doesn’t mean our lives must lack joy and laughter. Christian poet Wendell Berry has it right:
“Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful, even though you have considered all the facts.”
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The greater part of wisdom involves keeping God always in mind. (which is not easy, and yet vital) Wisdom recognizes that while our time may be brief, our God is eternal. The prophet Isaiah proclaims:
“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8)
God is eternal. And God is for us. God is far greater than our hearts and minds can conceive, yet at the same time we have a relationship, a baptismal covenant with God that transcends time and binds us to God forever.
Wisdom includes coming to accept our allotted life span. And there is a deeper and greater wisdom – a wisdom described by Benjamin Disraeli: “Time is precious, but truth is more precious than time.” We embrace the saving truth of God – that God who exists beyond time has loved us enough to enter into time, loved us enough to send Jesus to rescue us from sin and death, and bring us out of time to our eternal home with God.
In closing, I share two quotes – one from a poet and one from a Christian mystic. They offer up wise insights about time – and how you and I can make best use of the time we have.
Henry Van Dyke describes how our attitude determines our experience of time:
Time is too slow for those who wait,
too swift for those who fear,
too long for those who grieve,
too short for those who rejoice.
But for those who love, time is eternity.
How then shall we live? The 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich, sums it up very well:
“The greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.”
We honor God by living gladly!
May God teach us to apply our hearts to this great wisdom.