You’d probably say I was crazy. Or maybe my parents taught me my colors wrong.
All right, now, what would you say if I told you that time isn’t linear?
I’m just going to assume that most of you would say the same thing.
But, if there are any Doctor Who fans in the house, you might agree with me. I’m outing myself as a nerd, but I love the BBC series Doctor Who. It follows the adventures of an alien called The Doctor. He travels through space and time in a blue box called the TARDIS, which stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space. The Doctor finds that time is…well, not linear. He describes it as “a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey…stuff.”
Now, we don’t have to become time travelers to get out of this linear way of thinking. All we have to do is look outside. Have you noticed that ominous coat of fine yellow dust on everything? Yep, it’s spring. I love when things start blooming this time of year, because it’s all so beautiful I barely notice how miserable I am from the allergies.
North Carolina is infamous for dramatic mood swings when it comes to the weather, but we do experience four distinct seasons here.
Especially in this climate, we’re all aware of the cyclical nature of seasons. Winter is gone, but it’ll be back. Every year we travel around this wheel of seasons, always coming back to where we were a year before.
This is true in the church as well. Many Christian traditions follow a liturgical calendar that moves through an annual cycle of liturgical seasons. Right now, we are in the season of Easter. Yes, Easter is a whole season! It’s not over! Go buy all that candy that’s on sale and eat it without shame!
The season of Easter is all about celebrating resurrection and new life. How appropriate in this season of spring. After the cold and darkness of winter, we emerge into a time of sunlight, of blooming flowers and new gardens, of outdoor activities and sidewalk seating at all the restaurants on Fourth Street here in Winston-Salem.
But my favorite season has always been fall. There is nothing like watching the leaves change in North Carolina. But if you think about it, that process we find so beautiful is actually a process of death. How strange that we should find the dying away of spring and summer bounty beautiful.
And even though I love fall, every year I experience a touch of sadness when summer is over. Even as I get excited for hoodies, bonfires, and pumpkin flavored everything, I mourn lemonade, the pool, sundresses. Every change, even predictable change, even good change, comes with loss. Even good change brings a touch of grief.
But grief isn’t necessarily bad. When it is a reaction to a natural or good change, it is so closely tied to the joy of whatever new thing is coming about that it’s hard to separate the two. To risk a second Doctor Who reference, in one episode a character says, “Sad is happy for deep people.” When we understand and inhabit time as non-linear, as made up of seasons, we can hold the sadness and the happiness together as part of the same cycle.
I was a little too pleased with myself when I realized that a song I thought of in my preparation tonight was made famous by a group called The Byrds—Jonathan, any relation? Anyway, you may remember this song:
To everything—Turn! Turn! Turn!
There is a season—Turn! Turn! Turn!
This song is a deliciously 60s adaptation of a passage from the book of Ecclesiastes:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace. — Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
This is all beautiful poetry, but I have to tell you something about the book of Ecclesiastes. The author’s main point is simple: everything is meaningless. The book of Ecclesiastes is all about how life is fleeting and the work of humans is futile.
But many scholars argue that Ecclesiastes could actually be read as life-affirming. Especially if you read Ecclesiastes in the season of Easter, you might see it as a celebration of the cycle of death and rebirth.
Because in order to get to spring, we have to go through winter. In order for something to grow, a seed must fall from the plant and be buried. 1 Corinthians 15:36 says, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.”
You may remember that a few months ago there was a controlled burn at Pilot Mountain that got a little, um, out of control. But flare-up aside, the burn itself was an effort to supplement a natural process: the renewal of forest through fire.
Forest fires are a natural way of clearing underbrush to make room for new plant life. Some cones require heat to release the seed by which the trees germinate.
These days, you hear a lot about people having been “burned” by the church. I’m sure many of you in this room would say that you have been. These days, too often Christians are known for what a few of them are against than what all of us are for.
We’ve seen an interesting mix of this recently here in Winston-Salem. Green Street United Methodist Church just decided they will not perform any weddings until gays and lesbians can be married in the United Methodist Church and legally in the state of North Carolina. In the weeks following, they met with protestors shouting slurs at Sunday morning worshippers, including children. Whatever you think about gay marriage, I hope that all of us can agree that saying hateful things to children isn’t the best witness.
This past Sunday, the Green Street congregation was prepared. They convened a few hours early for some instructions, and church members and supporters got ready by standing in front of the church with signs bearing messages of love and welcome. Greeters were prepared to escort worshippers inside to protect them from any harassment. They weren’t there to argue or counterprotest. They were there to worship. They had been burned, but they responded with love and a welcome for all.
If you have been burned by the church and have left, I do not blame you. Sometimes fire is purely destructive. But inexplicably, miraculously, some people who have been deeply burned by the church are still here. And it seems to me that there is a fire being kindled within the church itself, and change is coming.
We will never get it right; the church is made up of people, after all. And I’m not saying we’ve got it all wrong—I wouldn’t be here if that were the case. But I believe the church will change more in my lifetime than it has in hundreds of years.
My hope is that this fire will not simply destroy. We may not have it all right, but we don’t have it all wrong either. My hope is that this fire will burn away the excess and bring us back to the core, to the seed of goodness, of truth, of love, to the root of it all, to Jesus who died and lived again, to the God who is love.
The fire Jonathan sang about burned away the cries of the rebels who were hung from the oak tree’s branches, It burned away the blood of the souls who suffered and died in the belly of that hallelujah holocaust of a slave ship. And it burned away the hunger of the sailors on that beach. Out of the ashes of that fire, a spark of life stirred in one small acorn, the beginning of a millennium of new growth.
If you’ve been burned, wherever, however, by whomever, I challenge you to look for what new life might come from the ashes. Whatever season you are in, this is the season of Easter, of new life, of resurrection, and I have hope. I thought of one more song, by Rory Cooney, and I’ll close with that refrain:
My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn!
Sarah S. Howell