Ecclesiastical Time Lords
Sermon for Service of Hope and Remembrance – 2 November 2019
St John. Felixstowe
Text: Ecclesiastes 3.1-15
That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by (Ecclesiastes 3.14-15)
God give you peace my sisters and brothers.
When I became vicar of this parish, I did not know that I also became some kind of Ecclesiastical Time Lord, although I do think I could look rather fetching in a scarf and a fez.
Well not so much a Time Lord as a Holy Horologist,
Well not so much a Holy Horologist as a Clerical Clock-tender
Well not so much a Clerical Clock-tender as the bloke who sets the time on the clock in the church tower.
I never thought that all the effort I put into studying three degrees in theology on two continents would see its culmination in the twice yearly hauling of my body up 92 steps in the tower of St John’s Church to either put the clock one hour back or one hour forward.
This however is not a sinecure, it carries the weighty responsibility of being the Town Timekeeper and you cannot imagine the pressure I experience every time the clock is wrong, the chimes are wrong, or it stops altogether. In fact, I have a strong suspicion that later this morning when the clock hands show 12 noon it will only chime 11 times and I will have to scurry – well huff and puff really – up those 92 steps to fix it!
Yep! If the time is wrong, it’s my fault.
Which, in the light of our Bible reading which suggests that God, and by extension, God’s ministers have an excellent sense of timing (‘For everything there a season, and a time for every matter under heaven’) should give pause for thought!
My experience from the banal task of keeping the church clock to the deep and personal reasons that have drawn us all here today is this. If there is indeed ‘a time for every matter under heaven’ then somebody has got their timing badly wrong.
I have been conducting funerals for over 30 years and amongst them I can count on the fingers of one hand those for whom the words of Scripture ‘a time to die’ made any sense at all to the bereaved.
But perhaps I am being a little too picky about the words of the Preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes?
After all the words, made familiar to me at school by the pared back folk music of The Byrds singing of a life that is turn, turn, turning around, do not pretend that there is a ‘good’ time for things to happen or even that there is a ‘bad’ time for things to happen. The Bible reading says simply this, stuff happens. The world turn, turns, turns and people are born and people die. Brutal as it may seem on the face of it, this is just how it is.
And we,, we are left with our emotions, our emptiness and our questions as to how we will live with a world that turn, turn, turns around regardless of us.
Those of us in the middle of grief, and if we are honest, almost everyone we meet is in the middle of some sort of grief, do not easily understand the niceties of a ‘good’ time for a death to happen or a ‘bad’ time for a loved one to leave us. We simply feel deep in our hearts that, like the church clock I tend poorly, it is all too often the ‘wrong’ time!
Where do we go to have our sense of timing put right?
What do we do to fill the aching emptiness within us?
To whom do we turn when, because of death, life doesn’t work anymore?
Later in our Scripture reading the Preacher tell us about a God who is outside the relentless turn, turn, turn of time and that:
…whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it;
That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by’
‘God seeks out what has gone by’
God has always been a seeker.
When our first parents sinned in Paradise, though knowing what they had done, he still came looking for them.
When the children of Israel were lost in Egypt, he sought them out, rescued them, and led them to the Land of Promise.
And, at the last, seeking us and our loved ones who have gone ahead of us, he came as a man and died to bring life eternal for us when it came to our turn, turn, turn to die.
‘God seeks out what has gone by’
Those who have gone before us are not alone, they are cherished
We who are full only of grief and its tear are not left comfortless.
We may feel empty but if we turn to the God who seeks us we will find all our pains wrapped up and healed by the blood of the cross and the life of the risen Christ.
T.S. Eliot, borrowing from the words of Julian of Norwich, wrote about how ‘God seeks out what has gone by’. In his poem Little Gidding, he reminds us that ‘we are born with the dead’ and it is along with them we continue to journey
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
May each of us this day know the deep sweet love of the God who not only comes to seek us but to hold us until, with our beloved dead, we are all enfolded together again ‘And the fire and the rose are one’
[This blog ‘Ecclesiastical Time Lords’ is copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2019]