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Sermon: Under the Protective Veil
Texts: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Romans 8:38-39
Speaker: Joel Miller
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Ecclesiastes 3:1
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, writing in the middle of the 20th century, made the bold statement that “the Bible is more concerned with time than with space.” He pointed out that while the religions of the ancient world tended to locate the deity in particular places – “mountains, forests, trees or stones,” a shrine, a sacred image - that the Jews experienced God as primarily present within history, within time: deliverance from Egypt, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, Sabbath which he called “a cathedral in time.” Heschel wrote: “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information (or things), but to face sacred moments.” (All quotes from page 6 of Heschel’s book The Sabbath).
The higher goal of spiritual living is to face sacred moments.
The writer of Ecclesiastes expands even further on the human experience within time, even as they remain somewhat skeptical about the sacredness of it all. Ecclesiastes is one of the Wisdom writings of the Old Testament. It’s a group that includes Job and Proverbs, and extra-biblical books like the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. One of the characteristics of Wisdom literature is that it makes no reference to any of these signature happenings of Jewish identity. The promises to the patriarchs and matriarchs, the Exodus, and Sinai, are not mentioned. Instead, Wisdom concerns itself with the raw material of life. It is a universal category of literature, a shared language across cultures. It concerns itself with things that can be seen and observed. The object of observation is life itself, in all its joyous, brutal, and boring aspects. Things happening right now, in your neighborhood. And, as Ecclesiastes states time and again, if life has its sacred moments, then it also has its desecrated moments, and it’s pretty hard to sort it all out.
This is the final service in our worship series focused on worship and our new hymnal Voices Together. When we were deciding on the themes for each of these seven weeks it was observed that the hymnal contains quite a few songs for special occasions, for times and seasons, that we don’t get to sing very often. So we designated this final Sunday as a time to focus on worship as covering the full span of life. Or, to use Heschel’s words, worship as facing sacred moments.
It was not pure coincidence we chose today to not just talk about facing sacred moments, but to actually experience and share in a sacred moment with the child and family dedications. Our dedication anthem, “We are marching in the light of God,” wasn’t in any of our previous hymnals, so it was a pleasant surprise to see it in Voices Together. Even though it’s in a different section than the child blessing songs, we know that’s where it really belongs.
At the baptism conference we hosted a week ago Dr. Leo Madden from Ohio Dominican University talked about a Roman Catholic understanding of infant baptism as a “protective veil” around a child. Theological debates about infant baptism vs. child dedications aside, it’s a beautiful image for what can happen within a worshiping community.
Dedicating our children in a congregation is a reminder that birthing, adopting, and parenting children is not just a private matter. The sacred moment we share is not just a single event, but a pledge to support parent and child throughout life. To participate in a kind of protective veil.
One of the disorienting parts of the pandemic has been that all our regular ways of doing this have been disrupted. Thank you to Aiden, Asher, and Luka for reminding us of the wonder of new life in which we can all share. We are marching in the light of God, even if we’re still marching 6 feet apart.
On the other end of life, that thick protective veil of a healthy childhood can feel pretty thin. A while back I read an essay by a Mennonite pastor about what they called the omega generation. You become part of the omega generation when the family members in the generation above you, especially parents, have all died. If you’re in the omega generation there is no longer anyone who stands between you and death. That protective veil that the older generation provided is gone. In fact, you are now that protective veil for following generations.
One song in our hymnal that speaks to this sense of exposure and vulnerability is “Abide with me.” It’s an evening song and thus one of those songs we AM worshipers don’t get to sing much. But we’ll sing it today. “Abide with me, fast falls the even-tide. The darkness deepens. God with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless O abide with me.”
Ecclesiastes 3 begins: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die.” And that pretty much covers it.
But there is a lot that happens in between and the writer includes 13 other pairings besides birth and death. Here are five:
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.
A time to break down, and a time to build up.
A time to mourn and a time to dance
A time to tear, and a time to sew.
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. ”
We draw special attention to those high marks of life as sacred moments, but here we have a series of very ordinary moments that we also face. Ordinary Time becomes sacred time. Like the hymn says: “Take my moments are my days, let’s flow in ceaseless praise.”
Not all of the seasons that get named are ones we would call sacred moments.
“A time to kill. A time to hate. A time for war.” The naming of these seasons can raise our awareness that they are indeed a part of our lives. Our nation is currently emerging from the longest war of its history, in Afghanistan. But with our continually expanding military budget the line between peace time and war time is blurry at best. And for Afghans, the war continues. Columbus alone will be resettling about 350 Afghan refugees in the coming months. This will actually be the focus of our Advent giving project.
With Veterans Day this past week we remember that war comes with a price beyond dollars and death as veterans live with trauma and injury.
Just because it gets mentioned in Ecclesiastes’ list of seasons doesn’t make it sacred. But just because we don’t wish to make war sacred doesn’t mean it is absent from our worship life.
Voices Together 794 is a carry over from our previous hymnal: If the war goes on. Verse 2:
“If the war goes on, and the truth is taken hostage, and new horrors lead to the need to euphemize; when the calls for peace are declared unpatriotic who’ll expose the lies?”
Worship invites us to name what is true. To add to Heschel, to face not just moments that are sacred, but also those that are desecrated.
At the beginning of the series we noted that worship is something we do all the time. Worship is baked into our humanity. Devotion, loyalty, allegiance, awe and wonder, are fundamental features of conscious awareness.
So is our need for some sense of a protective veil. To be under it. To be part of it. And our need to face sacred moments with others and truthfully name desecrated moments.
So that’s how we’re going out with this series.
Ecclesiastes presents us with the seasons of life, none of which are beyond the reach of the Spirit’s presence.
In his letter to the Romans Paul includes his own list of what we confront in this life. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
To which we can all say. Amen.