As many of you already know, today is my last Sunday here at Augustana Lutheran Church. And so I want to begin this morning by saying, “Thank you.” Thank you for the gift of this year that you all have given to me. Thank you for taking on the financial and congregational responsibility of training me for parish ministry. And thank you for your care and support over this past year. I am grateful for the experience of sharing in ministry with you and I love you. It has been an honor being here.
There is a time for everything. No one knows this better than new parents whose new worlds revolve around which time it is. When it is time to feed the new baby, they need to feed her. When it is time to change the baby, they need to change her. There is not any control in it and there is no other way around it. It simply is that time and there is a time for everything. This is what the author of Ecclesiastes has to say to us today.
When Ecclesiastes was written, Israel was not what it used to be. It only had memories of its glorious past. When Ecclesiastes was written, the Greeks had taken over Jerusalem and ruled over the Jewish people. Israel, a nation that was once powerful and strong, was now small and weak. In the midst of all this, the author of Ecclesiastes is desperately looking for meaning in life. In his search, the author discerns that much of life can lead to feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness. For the author, part of the way out of that emptiness and meaninglessness is in naming what so many of us gratefully and regretfully know – that there is a time for everything and sometimes that is just the way it is. Any farmer or gardener knows that there is a time to dig a little hole and sprinkle in some tomato seeds and a time to pluck the ripe tomatoes from the stalk. Any construction worker knows that there is a time to break down an old wall and a time to build a new one up. Any kid who has spent any time near a lake knows that there is a time to gather a handful of stones together and a time throw stones away, skimming them across the water and counting the number of jumps. And certainly any person who has lost someone they loved knows that there is a time for embracing and a time to refrain from embracing, letting the person go into their death.
There is a time for everything and sometimes that is just the way it is. Much of it is beyond our control and we are not always sure of which time it is. What time is it for us? I don’t know. Our futures are uncertain.
The future of this congregation is uncertain. Augustana is in a time of significant transition, struggling with financial strain, declining numbers, and a changing neighborhood. Is it time to think about closing? Is it time to buckle down and focus on growing the church? I don’t know.
The future of each one of us as individuals is uncertain. What will today bring for me or for you? Is it time for the housing agency to call saying they finally found you a place to live? Is it time for the doctor deliver bad news from your biopsy results? I don’t know. Our futures are uncertain. A man walked into my office this past week saying that he was dying of liver failure. He said he might be able to live three months with this liver, or he might live longer. “I just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. As this man left my office, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “How is he going to live out his days?”
And isn’t that the question for all of us? There is a time for everything; much of which is beyond our control and uncertain. And the only question to ask is this: how then shall we live?
How shall we live, in the face of great uncertainty? How shall we fill the emptiness and challenge the meaninglessness that the author of Ecclesiastes found to be so prevalent in life?
There is no clear-cut answer to that question, but it demands our attention and asks us to wrestle with it. How shall we live? Throughout the rest of Ecclesiastes, the author suggests that we do what we can to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we live. That we hang together, lifting each other up when we fall down, holding each other so as to stay warm. That we try to appreciate the everyday gifts of life that have come and gone and those that are still present.
Now the suggestion to try be happy and enjoy life isn’t all that new or profound. In fact it is a little clichéd. It is easily to watered down and often has little to no affect on one’s life. So often people who are facing a grave illness or difficult time in life say – “I am just going to try and keep my spirits and enjoy the things around me.” And I don’t know about you, but I am often left unconvinced. But when someone says, “In light of what’s happening to me, I think I am going to call my daughter. We haven’t talked in awhile,” then I know that they have taken this clichéd phrase and really thought about it. For this person, a happy life is one of reconciliation with her daughter. Or when someone says that they are going to spend their time writing letters to those who have influenced their life, then I know that they have contemplated on what would bring them joy. For this person, a joyful life is one of gratitude.
God desires fullness of life for all, which doesn’t mean a life without pain, but it means life with a settled heart. What will settle our hearts?
In the face of great uncertainty, how shall we live? For Augustana – perhaps by finding a way to celebrate the great ministry that has been done and is continuing to be done within this congregation. Perhaps by honoring the connections and relationships that have been birthed here. Or perhaps it means inviting members and pastors who have been gone for awhile back for a reunion.
Or what if we took seriously the commission that Jesus gives to his disciples in our text from Matthew today. What if we went out into the world, taking with us the message that God breaks beyond all boundaries to love all of creation, that God calls us to care for each other by self-sacrificing love instead of oppressive power and authority. That, in the kingdom of God, there are no distinctions between me and the person beside me – we are the same. What would happen if we did that? We might not preserve a particular church building but instead carry out its legacy and live out the calling to love God’s people, which is what the church was created for. Because in case we have forgotten, we are the church. All of us. No one is excluded. If you have a beating heart, God calls you out into the world to love God’s people.
And to love is no easy task. To love is to show people you love them but it is also to tell them the hard truths. To love is to confront and heal broken relationships. To love is sometimes even to end broken relationships. To love is sometimes to put yourself at risk of being hurt. Love is no easy task. But as Jesus shows us, to love fully is to live fully. It settles our heart.
In light of an uncertain future, how then shall we live? How do we prevent meaninglessness and emptiness? Whether you are a member of this church or not, I invite you to wrestle with this question. All things evolve, all things change and all things die eventually. Everything has its time. How shall we live? I do not know what is on the horizon for Augustana Lutheran Church. And I don’t know what is on the horizon for any of you as individuals, either. What I do know is that what is of value is the relationships we share and the care that we have for one another. What matters is the love and support that we have experienced in life which then equips us to go out into the world seeking life. We will be able to face whatever may come our way with settled hearts if we honor and celebrate those relationships that have been meaningful for us, if we are grateful for what has been, and if we take out into the world the love of God and love of neighbor. This is hard work and it won’t be easy, but we do it trusting that the Spirit of the living God will guide us on our way, and trusting that whether we live or we die, we are always in God’s care. AMEN