Ecclesiastes 1 & Luke 6: Life Lost in Living: Reflections on the Quotidian

Selection from Section 1, Choruses from “The Rock,” T. S. Eliot

I.

The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,

The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.

O perpetual revolution of configured stars,

O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!

The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,

All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death no nearer to G o d.

Where is the life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries

Bring us farther from G o d and nearer to the Dust.

I journeyed to London, to the timekept City,

Where the River flows, with foreign flotations.

There I was told: we have too many churches,

And too few chop-houses. There I was told:

Let the vicars retire. Men do not need the Church

In the place where they work, but where the spend their Sundays.

In the City, we need no bells:

Let them waken the suburbs.

I journeyed to the suburbs, and there I was told:

We toil for six days, on the seventh we must motor

To Hindhead, or Maidenhead.

If the weather if foul we stay at home and read the papers.

In industrial districts, there I was told

Of economic laws.

In the pleasant countryside, there it seemed

That the country now is only fit for picnics.

And the Church does not seem to be wanted

In country or in suburb; and in the town

Only for important weddings.

Chorus Leader:

Silence! and preserve respectful distance.

For I perceive approaching

The Rock. Who will perhaps answer our doubtings.

The Rock. The Watcher. The Stranger.

He who has seen what has happened.

And who sees what is to happen.

The Witness. The Critic. The Stranger.

The-God shaken, in whom the truth is inborn.

Enter the rock, led by a boy:

The Rock:

The lot of man is ceaseless labour,

Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,

Or irregular labour, which is not peasant.

I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know

That it is hard to be really useful, resigning

The things that men count for happiness, seeking

The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting

With equal face those that bring ignominy,

The applause of all or the love of none.

All men are ready to invest their money

But most expect dividends.

I say to you: Make perfect your will.

I say: take no thought of the harvest,

But only of proper sowing.

The world turns and the world changes,

But one thing does not change.

In all my years, one thing does not change.

However you disguise it, this thing doe snot change:

The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil.

Forgetful, you neglect your shrines and churches;

The men you are in these times deride

What has been done of good, you find explanations

To satisfy the rational and enlightened mind.

Second, you neglect and belittle the desert.

The desert is not remote in southern tropics,

The desert is not only around the corner,

The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,

The desert is in the heart of your brother.

The good man is the builder, if he build what is good.

I will show you the things that are now being done,

And some of the things that were long ago done,

That you may take heart. Make perfect your will.

Let me show you the work of the humble. Listen.

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When I was a child my father, apparently taking a cue from the Good Lord himself, spoke to me primarily in riddles. He quoted Shakespeare, he quoted Eliot, he quoted any number of random historical datum. He quoted from his collegiate French books; but most often he quoted Robert Penn Warren. It was from the last passage in All the King’s Men, and it came whenever I was complaining about time. Against my claim that one half hour of guitar practice a day was both tyrannical and useless, my father would mildly proclaim,

“Soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.”

To this day whenever I mourn the quick passage of time, or the end of a season my father will draw this passage from the recesses of his memory pausing to give weight to those last five words: the awful responsibility of time.

It seems to me that we as a church, that we as church folk, do a particularly good job of succumbing to the awful responsibility of time. You see it in the way we try to manipulate time, take possession of it: over-book and over-extend ourselves. The way we schedule and over schedule and over schedule even over that. We fill our lives with stuff. [* We march forward with time, in beat with our clocks, possessed by and obsessed with their time: tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. We measure our worth by the things we’ve done against the awful responsibility of time – in spite of its constraint.

The teacher of Ecclesiastes knows this even better than we: note the way his narrative moves forward: a generation comes and goes, the sun rises and sets, the winds endlessly blow, streams run into the sea – with wearisome repetition the days repeat themselves, and we, human beings seem but happenstance of history. Nothing is new under the sun and all things are vanity chasing after a wind that will not be caught.

We are not so different than the teacher of Ecclesiastes. We, with time and the streams, move forward, because we don’t know what else to do.

This, I think, is the economy of the world.

This is living; it is not life. It is information. Datum. Not knowledge, and certainly not wisdom. It is words, but it is not the Word.

But friends, with the resurrection of Jesus Christ the economy of the World, the awful responsibility of time, is utterly uprooted *] and in its place appears the maddening, upside-down, topsy-turvy economy of the kingdom.

You may think me madder than the mad hatter, but here is my suggestion: When we view time from the lens of the resurrection of Jesus Christ we are released from its bonds.

You see, where the world views time as a given progression forward that ages and brings decay, we who know Jesus Christ know that time is but the circumstance that allows for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Time is the stage upon which God acts and calls on us to do likewise. Time does not bring death, but is the very gift of life.

The kingdom of God calls on us to act, to provide a space in our day to day lives for its in-breaking. This is the quotidian – which of course is a way we linguistically dress up the every day. The economy of the quotidian kingdom of God, the banal kingdom of God, the everyday, mundane kingdom of God doesn’t require the mountaintop or the depths of desolation, though it will certainly meet us there. This is God at the office, God in our studies, God as we raise children, God as we grow old, God in the day to day.

In the kingdom, time is not a given, but a gift, a mad gift that through the act of forgiveness uproots history itself.

This is time based on resurrection, and it says something about the transformability of the past, the possibly of forgiveness today and the hope for the future. For what is forgiveness but given time? Resurrection time it is the maddening reversal of time that says that the past is not as far away as we would think. The past is transformed in the resurrection, because it is forgiven, and we with it. And our forgiveness causes us to hope, not just for the future, but for now.

The time of the kingdom is neither a line nor the Ecclesiastical writer’s infinite circle of repetitions. The time of the kingdom is now-time. It is now. It is a perpetual now where we are invited to transform the present according to the maddening economy of the Kingdom – the Kingdom that, as Jesus tells the Pharisees, is already among us.

Our forgiveness, the chip of our currency in the kingdom, is hope at the office, hope in our studies, hope as we raise children, hope as we grow old, hope in the day to day.

The world’s economy is tit-for-tat, or better perhaps, tick-for-tock. You are paid according to what you have done or not done. Your worth is measured by your to-do list. Your clock becomes the sacredest of icons.

This kingdom economy does not provide payment for service. Its eye is not on the clock, but on God. It is the kingdom where those who weep will be full of laughter, where the hungry will be full of food. It’s the kingdom that loves those who are full of hate, the kingdom that offers itself as peace amidst a world full of violence, where one gives of one’s very being, not just one’s abundance.

Kingdom time is a kingdom of surprises.

Think about the sermon on the plane for a moment. It has become a cliche to us but it is, indeed, a radical reversal of the world’s economy. It is a strange arithmetic that claims that the one lost sheep is greater than the 99 found, that the one who weeps is closest to God, that the one who sins is given priority. This is a strange reversal, but it is precisely the math of the kingdom.

In this way the kingdom of God is more than a physical reality or a hope for the afterlife. It is about God’s strange arithmetic.

It is the very transformability of our lives.

And before you think that this message is just a jumble of nice-sounding aphorisms, hear this: what is the economy of the kingdom in the everyday? It is the Alice-in-Wonderland esque economy that gives from its abundance, even from its deficit, to work to provide health care for the millions, some of whom are here today, who do not have it. It is the economy that invites the stranger in, that makes room for the immigrant whose language is different than ours, It is the economy whose concern is not sexuality, but only the wholeness of the embodied person who is beloved and accepted by God.

And just when it can’t get any crazier – any more dangerous and surprising – it is the economy that  proclaims that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. That the very God who founded the universe entered into the finitude space of the world in order to redeem time. It is the economy that does not wait for repentance but that loves and forgives prodigally. This is the astounding everyday minutia of the kingdom of God, and it is no awful responsibility. It is a gracious gift.

It is the economy that prays that the Holy Spirit would break into the everyday moments of our lives and transform us;

It is the economy where our future hope is based on an event that happened two thousand years ago, an event that tells us who we are as human beings today;

In the economy of the kingdom. God shatters the tyrannical tick-tock of the forward movement of time. God breaks into our world and demands that we make something of it. God forgives us and opens us to renewed life.

Time moves forward. We are not immune to age, to sickness, to death. And when we speak of forgiven time we do not simply mean to wipe away history or somehow transcend the limits of our own finitude. We do not forgive in order to simply forget. The past is too deep, too thick with tragedy to be forgotten, but also too heavy to be borne without transformation.

The kingdom is thick with transformation. With salvation. With new life. It awaits us. It awaits us when we stop serving the clock and start serving God, who is truly the giver and author of time.

When we press our ears up against the kingdom it is not a tick-tock, but the explosion of possibility, the incoming of the event of God’s appearance that we will hear.

Time is not ours to program. It is not ours to direct. It is God’s, and by giving it to God, by confessing that God rules time, we learn to keep time holy and ourselves whole.

In giving time to God we give time to the outcasts, to the hungry, to those whom we hate. To gays, lesbians, the queer community, to the poor. To immigrants, to CEOs. To the poor. To the folks who we pass on the streets everyday, the folks who have deserts in their very being.

The kingdom of God is Sermon on the Mount living, it is quite the opposite of everyday, but it doesn’t have to be.

Listen to Eliot’s Rock who proclaims: “All men are ready to invest their money / But most expect dividends. / I say to you: Make perfect your will. / I say: take no thought of the harvest, / But only of  proper sowing.”

The kingdom is among us. Invest in it, but do not expect its returns. Sew its goodness, and wait for the harvest. And for that, trembling, perhaps full of apprehension, even as we are terrified of the other, we pray: hallelujah, come lord Jesus.

Amen.

 

During the sections marked within brackets ( [* *] ) I tapped my foot to an ever unsynchronized beat to mirror the tick-tock of a clock and evoke an unsettled feeling of time out of control.


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