The way it was meant to be:
A matter of timing
Today, I’m continuing on with a little series of sermons on the creation stories – the cosmogony – in Genesis, and today we come to the 4th day of creation: the creation of sun, moon, and stars. And once again, the relentlessly scientific reasoning of today – or what people think is scientific reasoning today – comes to the fore and says, “What nonsense. The creation of sun and stars cannot come after the creation of the earth, and certainly they – as well as the moon – are older than the seas and vegetation.
But once again, we are not looking at a scientific explanation of the processes of galactic or solar or planetary formation. We are looking at an account, set against other accounts given by other religions, that tell us about the God of Israel, about his nature and about his intentions. And we must take special care to note the wording in verse 14, where God said, “. . . let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and for years.”
What we are talking about here is not the creation of heavenly bodies, but the ordering of time that is symbolized by the creation of calendars. For the sun and the moon define days and years and months, and the stars here mean not just the mass of stars all over the sky, but the arrangement of stars we call constellations, along with the planets – the “wandering stars” – that move among them. When the ancients looked up at the sky, they saw a gigantic clockwork, and they applied themselves to figure out the regularity of its movements. This allowed them to calculate the length of the year, and when seasons began.
Many ancient people worshiped the heavenly bodies – or at least, gods that they identified with them – and Israel was warned not to do that, but rather to worship the one who made those heavenly bodies. And many people also tried to divine the will of the gods, or of God, or of fate, by tracking the movements of the sky and noting celestial happenings like comets and eclipses. Lest we be too proud, we should remember that our modern science of Astronomy is built upon the mistaken science of Astrology, and even if the ancients were wrong about the influence of the heavens, they were at least astonishingly acute in observing them -- something you can’t say about people today.
We have become so inured to the use of clock and calendar that we look up at the sky and can’t tell if the moon is waxing or waning, or how many hours of daylight we have left before sunset – things which everybody, even the smallest child, knew back in the day. A few years ago, I was trying to explain how to find local solar noon to some Scout leaders, and they were boggled by my explanation that in the summer, local solar noon hereabouts comes at around 1:45 in the afternoon. My whole riff about time zones and daylight saving time took them utterly by surprise. (You mean even though the government decrees when 12:00 o'clock is, the earth and sun don't get the memo?) And of course, if we’re talking about constructing calendars, about “signs and seasons,” then we’re also talking about ritual – about holy days, days of sacrifice and prayer to mark the beginning of planting, the bringing of the harvest home, and so on.
Of the seven days of creation, the creation of sun, moon, and stars comes in the middle – ahead of the creation of Man, because we always experience the round of observances in a year as something that’s just always been that way, even if we acknowledge that, actually, we are at liberty to order the year as we will – but not at first, because, after all, we’re talking about something which is based upon human perceptions and responses, not mere matter-and-energy, or vegetation. In fact, the whole creation account in Genesis is ordered hierarchically, in an ascending scale of responsiveness to God. Each day’s creation is that much more able to reflect God’s glory than those of the day before, ending with the creation of those who are able to have a reciprocal relationship with their Creator - to know as they are known, to not only receive love, but return it.
And if we are going to return the love of God and obey him as we ought, then we have to consider how we will order our time in his service. Discipleship is built upon pattern, on habit – the practice of daily prayer, of weekly worship, and the remembrance of important days in the year.
Today, we live by several different, overlapping calendars that produce the year as we experience it. There is the remnant of the traditional, agricultural calendar that gives us the Harvest Moon, for instance. And there is the civil calendar that decrees observances of Independence Day and Washington’s birthday, Labor Day, Memorial Day, and, oddly enough, Thanksgiving.
In the Church, we observe the liturgical calendar, which has two great cycles: the winter cycle of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, centering upon the Incarnation of God in Christ; and the spring cycle of Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, centering upon the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The rest of the time is called “Ordinary Time” and is symbolized by green paraments – which stay up for nearly two dozen Sundays a year.
One time, I was in the sanctuary when Debbie W. was changing the paraments, and she said, "I get so tired of green." And I immediately broke into song:
Green, green, it's green they sayAnd then, there’s the school calendar, which affects people's lives profoundly, even if they don’t have children, because it determines when vacations mostly happen and other such “must-do’s” as Graduation, Homecoming, etc. (The school calendar originally followed the agricultural calendar, which is why we don't go to school int he summer and why fall and spring breaks are where they are.)
for half the Sundays in the year.
Green, green, I'm goin' away,
when I come back, it'll be green still.
And the challenge is, how shall we serve God as we pass through one set of observances or another? Where shall our priorities lie? This is a personal challenge for each person who wants to follow Jesus, but it’s also a challenge for each congregation, as a body, who are trying to do ministry together in their community. And here I want to be very, very practical and talk about you and me and our congregation and community and how we use the time we have. The ancient duty to measure time and account for it, to offer it to God and do his work with it has not changed; so, how are we doing?
Well, let’s start with Summer. There are a lot of things we look forward to doing as a congregation in the summer: Vacation Bible School; church camp; Scout camp; high adventure and mission trips; and also church picnics and pool parties and trips to ball games – all of them enjoyable and useful for advancing the purposes of the Church. And all these activities jostle for space on our personal and community calendars with the County Fair and youth sports and family vacations and other such stuff.
Lately, our congregation hasn’t done as many of these summer ministries as we used to, and that’s disappointing. Some say we need more people to step forward in leadership – and that’s true, but that’s another sermon. What I want you to look squarely at, is that the traditional summer we all remember from way back is shrinking under the pressure of the expanding School Calendar. Summer used to last 12 or 13 weeks, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, or thereabouts. Now it only lasts 8 or 9 weeks, because graduation is the first Saturday in June and we start back to school in the first week of August.
There is simply not enough time to squeeze in everything we want to accomplish, unless we work very hard at it. And that means that if you aren’t prepared to get your event on the calendar, and negotiate with all the other people calendaring their events - by, oh September – then you probably aren’t going to get anything pulled off next summer, even if you have people who want to get ‘er done. I’m afraid those “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer” are no more. And how we use our time in God’s service requires us to be more pro-active than we used to be. You cannot wait until after Easter to plan your summer ministries; you can’t even wait until Hallowe’en.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the year, there is that period of time we all know and love, called by many simply, “The Holidays" - the period of 6 weeks or so between Thanksgiving and New Year’s – a.k.a. The Eating Season. Advent and Christmastide is crammed with all kinds of things: family events; school events; church events; work events. Everybody wants to get the most out of the season and we all beat ourselves up trying to do it.
Me, I’ve been trying for over 30 yrs to make a religious holiday out of Christmas, and I’m about ready to give up trying. Everyone is frantically trying to get their Christmas fix; they come to church, saying, "Gimme a pound of Christmas -- with sauce on it." People want something great and wonderful from the Church at that time, but without more people to sing in the choir, or help with the Women’s bazaar, and so on, we can’t give it more than a lick and a promise – and you can’t wait until Thanksgiving to start preparing. (Consider this a plug for Cindy and the choir, which starts rehearsing right after Labor Day!)
Meanwhile, after the New Year, there comes . . . Winter. The weather turns nasty, which causes a number of our parishioners to flee South for a time; meanwhile, others who stay and stick out the Indiana winter are often housebound by the weather. And many others are down, emotionally. I have two members of my family who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, and we say in our house that “February is the longest month of the year.”
The Church finds itself squeezed out by holiday hoopla for six weeks, then spends six or eight weeks trying to get the year started when many folks have hunkered down to just wait out the winter. It makes doing ministry difficult. It’s a challenging time of year, and we need to consider it more carefully as we figure out how to serve God at the turn of the year.
Then, there’s Fall. I love Fall, I always have. Fall in the UMC is about Commitment. It’s about accountability. We do Charge Conference in the fall – and while that isn’t the big deal it used to be, still, the District Superintendent announcing the date of Charge Conference sets the schedule for much of the church’s official activity, as the leadership starts putting together reports and budgets and recruiting new officers and committee members for the coming year.
Also in the fall, we do our annual Stewardship program, in which we challenge everyone to think about how they will serve God in the coming year. Thinking about how much you will give back to God, monetarily, is a big part of that, but not the only part. We also want people to think about how they will serve God with their time, with their abilities, with their hearts.
Fall is also the kickoff for Sunday School. Used to be, we’d have a Rally Day to start the new classes. Unfortunately – and perhaps the school calendar has something to do with this, too – people no longer show up the Sunday after Labor Day in force, ready to attend and participate and serve regularly, Sunday after Sunday, through the fall and winter. Nowadays, attendance is more volatile; as long as there’s good weather, many people are squeezing in one more family trip, one more camp out, and there has to be a hint of frost in the air before things start building up toward Christmas anymore. Yet, of all the things we do in the fall, getting people committing to teaching and attending Sunday School is one of the most important.
Fall is about accountability, about commitment, and this is surely something we need to be thinking about in our congregation, as we seek to serve God in the Fall of the year.
And then, there’s Spring. Easter. Pentecost. A time of joy and fulfillment. A time when I like to receive Confirmation classes. A time to consolidate spiritual growth. Used to be, we’d do all kinds of special things in Lent: special studies, special services. We don’t do so much of that, anymore.
And I’m not trying to guilt people into doing more, more, more, nor am I merely griping about how hard it is to pull things off these days. I’m saying that when God revealed the sun, moon, and stars, he put us in charge of ordering our personal lives – and our common life – in such a way to show forth our praise of him, and to do him good service. We need to take stock of the frantic busyness of our lives and of what we’re spending our energies on. If we’re not putting God first, then in the end, all our frenzied activity will not add up to much, its satisfactions strangely insufficient. But if we work together to see that the best we have is offered to God in each of the seasons of the year, then we will not only do others good, but ourselves as well – and he will bless us. Amen.