Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, from the Common English Bible
Our lives and our world have changed dramatically over the past 10 weeks. Beyond the stunning and sobering reality of almost 100,000 Americans dead from Covid-19–including, now, our own dear Nick Kendall–and another 240,000 deaths around the world, . . . beyond shelter-in place orders, work-and-school-from-home challenges, and massive unemployment, . . . beyond all the ways we and other communities of faith are learning what is and is not essential, the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are large and small and sometimes surprising.
With most restaurants closed, for example, spending on groceries has skyrocketed, and items ranging from toilet paper to yeast, flour, and dried beans have been hard to find.
With far fewer people commuting to work and play, the number of traffic accidents has plummeted so sharply that most car insurance companies are refunding a portion of premiums.
Car traffic is down 40 percent but ozone levels are still high, because diesel trucks, power plants, and factories are still spewing pollutants.
And, perhaps my favorite pandemic ripple effect: With the perfect storm of less traffic noise, more time at home, and the advent of spring, the number of people watching and counting and listening to birds has absolutely exploded. The bird population is dropping, but the number of people counting birds officially is up 50 percent since last year.
We think there are lots more birds out there because more of us are paying more attention. Why, just last Sunday, much of our pre-worship YouTube "live chat" was about birds! Indigo buntings and rose-breasted grosbeaks, pileated woodpeckers and hummingbirds, cardinals and robins.
God knows these are strange and challenging times. God knows these times are isolating but also inventive, as we resort to everything from livestreamed worship, Zoom meetings, and drive-by parades to connect with one another, sometimes in groupings that never would have materialized if we had been able to meet in person. To acknowledge what is perhaps the truest and most over-used descriptor of these times: They are unprecedented.
Speaking of unprecedented, never before had the fifth verse of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes struck me the way it did last week: There is a season for everything, the scripture says, a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces.
A time for avoiding embraces.
Perhaps I am not the only one with "skin hunger," a term I learned just yesterday.
Our reading for the day, popularized in an old folk song, begs one of the key questions of these times: What time is it?
What time is it for you and your loved ones?
What time is it for various struggles for justice and peace and climate care?
What time is it for the Church (capital C), and what time is it for First Church Amherst?
What time is it for our nation?
What time is it for people the world over, more connected perhaps than ever by our common human experience, even as we must stay put and keep distant?
If there is, in fact, a season for everything and a time for ever matter under the heavens, what is this time for? What does it have to teach us? What can we learn from it?
Where is God in it? Is God in it?
What do you think?
I ask these questions not because I believe there is an answer, necessarily, and certainly not because I believe there is a right or a wrong answer.
I ask these questions, and I encourage you to consider them, because as uncertain as these times are, as unsettling and difficult and deadly as they are, I do believe God is in them. I am quite sure of it–and, at the same time, knowing and trusting that is not always enough to help me make it through another day, much less know how to live into a different future.
For that, I need to make meaning out of what is happening now. And for that I need to stop and pay attention. I need to notice what I’m feeling and how I’m doing. I need to consider the needs and experiences of people different than me. I need to figure out what time it is.
And for that, questions can be a helpful tool.
Which brings us back to the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is, in essence, a search for meaning and a struggle to trust God with what is beyond human understanding. Surely, the writer says, God has set a season for everything, but I’ll be darned if I can figure out what time it is. And if I don’t like the time I’m in, I’ll trust that a different time is coming. This, too, shall pass. Meanwhile, I’ll do my best to enjoy this life God has given me.
Well, that’s fine, I guess, if a bit short-sighted and self-centered. And I think we can do better than that. I think we owe it not only to ourselves and our neighbors but also to our Creator and future generations to live with intention and trust, to create from our own struggles and learnings a better future for all creation.
And I think questions can help us get there. Also, I totally understand that the prospect of creating a better future might feel overwhelming right now, when many of us are not even sure what day it is. That’s okay.
Because questions can also help us make sense of the present and deepen our connections to the Holy, ourselves, and one another.
This is why, for a few weeks now, in our Tuesday morning staff meetings (done by conference call) and our Wednesday evening Zoom Vespers gatherings, we’ve been asking and answering–or at least considering–various questions. I know some have found these questions very helpful and have even shared them with family members, and so I want to share some of the questions with you.
Remember: There is no "right" answer. The point is to listen to your heart and look for the Holy. Consider:
What are you learning about yourself right now?
What are you learning that you absolutely need?
How are you taking care of yourself?
What did you use to think was important but now are realizing you could do without?
What do you want more of?
What is the hardest thing for you right now?
What is giving you hope right now?
How are you experiencing the Holy?
What are you learning about our church?
What new thing would you like to see us do?
Who are you more aware of?
What are you realizing about our neighbors?
What is one thing that this experience makes you want to do differently?
And, finally: What time is it?
What needs to die, and what needs to be born?
What needs uprooting and what needs to be planted?
Who and what needs healing?
What needs to be torn down so that something new and better can be built up?
Are you making time for crying as well as laughing?
When you no longer have to avoid embracing, who will you run to to wrap your arms around?
With whom could you consider these questions, and what new relationships could be begun and old relationships be deepened by the asking?
Going forward, how will you make time for love?
How will you make space for the Holy?
Going forward, how do you want to live?
Going forward, how will we build community?
Perhaps it goes without saying, but these are questions of faith. Perhaps it goes without saying, but these are the questions of life, with or without a deadly pandemic.
Perhaps it needs to be said: These are the questions Jesus asks of each of us. These are the questions Jesus asks of the church: How will you join me in loving this world into wholeness and peace, justice and joy?
There is life to be lived in the asking. There is hope to be found in the considering. There is a new world to be built in living the questions.
And there is no time like the present.