December 31, 2017 – Pastor John McNeill
Years ago, I had a regular practice on New Year’s Eve to try to recall how I spent New Year’s Eve during previous years, seeing how far I could go back. I would sometimes ask others to try to remember their past New Year’s Eves and share what they were doing and who they were with.
Martha’s and my New Year’s Eve celebrations have tended to become less and less noteworthy or memorable over the years. It would be a challenge to remember even the last couple of years.
It is funny what we remember and what we forget. I have a relatively clear memory of something I learned in college, probably in 1972 or 1973. I was sharing a house with a number of friends. One guy was taking a chemistry or some other science class. He was doing a homework problem set and one of the questions was something like: Assuming equal distribution, how often do people living now breathe in an argon atom that was contained in Julius Caesar’s last breath?
He explained to me that the reason this is calculable to some reasonably close level of accuracy is because argon is an inert elemental gas so that virtually all of it that existed over 2000 years ago is still in the atmosphere today. Basically, no more of it is being created and none of it has been lost. We know the average volume of a breath. And the volume of air in the earth’s atmosphere has been calculated along with the number of argon atoms in each liter of air.
In those days, we did not have electronic calculators, but a slide rule could help you work it out straightforwardly. My recollection is that it is one in every 17 breaths that we breathe in one atom from Julius Caesar’s last breath – again, assuming equal distribution. By the way, the same is true for the argon in Jesus’ last breath. You are breathing in an argon atom from Jesus’ last breath every few minutes.
I was reminded of this fact when I heard a promotional message for a podcast that offered this enticing factoid: Every bit of water that we drink has passed through the kidneys of a dinosaur. The reason to believe this is that, like Argon, pretty much all the water that there has ever been exists today. Dinosaurs were drinking and excreting water for some 165 million years, which is more than enough time to have gone through all the water and then some. All the water we drink has passed through dinosaurs at one time or another.
That makes you feel closer to dinosaurs, doesn’t it? Maybe closer than you wanted to feel.
We can attempt to have a feel for the enormous number of things that have happened over the course of the earth’s existence. We can attempt to have a feel even for all the things that have happened over the span of time that humans have lived on the earth, or even all the things that have taken place over the course of our own lives and feel the smallness of this moment.
The bigness of the whole of time and the vastness of the universe can make us feel small and insignificant indeed. And yet, we are connected to that vastness in ways large and small.
The verses that were read from Ecclesiastes put us in touch with both of these feelings.
Some of you may recall the version of this text put to music by folksinger Pete Seeger. It had its widest circulation in a recording by the group the Byrds in the late sixties with a memorable 12 string guitar accompaniment.
I was impressed at the time that a song with lyrics from the Bible managed to be so popular, but I also was uncomfortable with the song because of a couple of lines in particular that I could simply not accept. I could not accept that there was a time for war and I could not accept that there could be a time for hate.
Surely that could not be right. Hate is wrong and war is wrong. Case closed. Or at least in my teenage way of looking at things.
The Book of Ecclesiastes is one of several so-called Wisdom books in the Bible. It is traditionally attributed to King Solomon, although Biblical scholars think it unlikely that Solomon wrote it.
To read this book in the context of the rest of the Bible is to notice a piece of writing that is unusual. The tone is often described as cynical or somewhat jaded. In the first chapter, the author says that everything is vanity and a striving after wind. That is: all is meaningless and hopeless because in the end we die.
There have been those who have wanted to remove the book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible because of its apparent pessimistic tone. But I think those who would do this have missed the point.
I think Ecclesiastes is written for a time in our lives when our experience of failure or frustration or even despair is about to overwhelm us. It is a word from a preacher who reaches out to us when our ideals or our hopes or our dreams have been compromised and we are left confused about our place in the cosmos and God’s connection to it. A time when it seems like it’s only just one meaningless thing after another.
The writer of Ecclesiastes counsels that in this world, from our limited perspective, we are not able to see in all things how God is at work, or what God will be able to make out of the circumstances of our lives or the lives of those dear to us. From our limited perspective, we are not even able to always know what is best for ourselves or our loved ones.
And so we are invited by the author of Ecclesiastes to turn our attention to what we do experience in this world: love and hate, war and peace, seeking and losing, gathering and scattering, weeping and laughing. These contrasts are surely a part of our lives and the lives of our loved ones.
I don’t think that the author is saying that we are to think that everything is ok and war is as good as peace or hatred is as good as love. Instead, we are offered the perspective to lay aside for a moment our need to judge or evaluate or criticize or even strive to correct what is wrong – because much of the time we can’t fix it anyway. We are sometimes called to simply trust that God is at work in all things and often the best thing we can do is simply trust that that is so.
This brings me back to my judgment of this passage in the song Turn Turn Turn. In those days, my narrow, judging vision held me back from appreciating that like it or not there was going to be war and hate, but I don’t have to lead with my judgment into the world.
I can lead with my wonder. I can lead with my compassion. I can lead with the love God has been trying to offer me. I can lead with the freedom that trusting God’s goodness – and not my judgment – can provide.
In baptism, we are invited by the gift of water – water that has nurtured life on earth through all the generations of living organisms, including us humans – to ally and yield ourselves to be a part of the ongoing miracle of God that is being revealed (sometimes mysteriously) in the ways of the world.
We are invited into hope. We are invited into love. We are invited into eternity.
Each year of this world there will be plenty of
giving birth and dying,
planting and uprooting
killing and healing,
tearing down and building up,
crying and laughing,
mourning and dancing,
and all the rest.
We are placed in time at our birth, but we are welcomed into eternity at our baptism.
This morning Eric takes that step, offering himself to consciously be a participant in the unfolding of God’s big love story, God’s eternal love story.
At this turn of the year, when remembering and reflecting on our lives placed in time comes to the fore, I invite all of us to reflect on our lives in the limitations of time and the spaciousness of eternity by remembering our baptism.
Day by day we face accomplishment and frustration, joy and sorrow, confidence and apprehension. It is easy to feel like we are at the mercy of time and place with no clear direction. The years go by and what does it add up to? In our baptism, we are assured that we do have a place, that we do have a connection that we are held in the mercy, compassion, and love of God, who is bringing us into the completeness and the fullness and the wholeness of eternity.
Thanks be to God.