Telling Time

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Learn to face things — “tell time” — better than the moose.

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

I’m not a big consumer of much of anything and I don’t have too much brand loyalty, but

I love funny commercials. I hold onto them and quote them for years.

I think I like them because they follow a lot of the same rules as other art forms like film and literature: if it speaks to something timeless about being human, something everybody can relate to, we remember it. Or at least I do.

I had two new ones to add to my list during the Pats game this week.

The first one featured a blue-toned screen focused on a white man in his mid-forties. He appears to be in a support group of some kind as he leans forward with a sincere, emotional, and somewhat distracted look on his face. He finally says, “You know, no job, no responsibilities — just leave it all behind.

The scene zooms out to reveal one guy standing in front of a white board with Fantasy Football picks listed on it. He and several other people in the room stare at the first guy uncomfortably. Finally, the guy at the board says, “…. Your fantasy pick, John.” while the others chime in, “Pick, yeah, pick!” 

The other one appeals slightly less to the darker side of my sense of humor:

It features three people sitting around a campfire talking about car insurance. Quickly, the camera zooms to the stickers on the RV behind them. One of them, a cutout of a buffalo, also brings up car insurance conversationally with the other stickers. The buffalo ends with, “They even insure RVs.”

A sticker that’s a silhouette of a moose says, “What’s an RV?”

A drawing of a howling wolf says, “Uh, the thing we’ve been stuck on for five years?”

The moose replies, “Wait. I’m not a real moose?”

The buffalo says, exasperated, “We’ve been over this, Jeff,” while the wolf chimes in, “We’re stickers!

“I’m not a real moose,” says the moose silhouette as he hangs his head.

The buffalo and the wolf say, “Give him some space,” and “Deep breaths, Jeff,” as the moose’s little silhouetted eye widens and he says, “What’s a sticker!?” (1)

Humor is always up for interpretation, but I think this sort of thing is funny to people because there is so much that we don’t openly acknowledge because we don’t know how to deal with it. Denial really isn’t just a river in Egypt — it’s a state of mind that most of us go swimming in about something every day: our health. Our job. Our family or other relationships. The state of our finances.

We resist hard things. It’s just human nature. It’s easier to deal with the day to day than to do a lot of deep work on ourselves or our relationships: to really think and talk about and deal with the thing you try to put out of your mind, or to have those hard conversations with people you love — it really is much easier to just carry on as if everything is fine.

This is what makes crises such a jolt to our consciousness. Crises are times when the deep issues we avoid become immediate — when there is no denying the unpleasant thing anymore, and all that’s left to do is act. Often, we treat crises like moral pop quizzes, because you never know how you’ll react until the time comes: what do you do when the unthinkable happens? How do you react when lives are on the line? Crises are when we see humanity at its most raw, and we see the most compassion, bravery, and self-sacrifice — as well as, in other cases, the most selfish, the most cowardly, the most evil. What we do when we are afraid reveals something about our character, and we know that.

And these days, especially, we understand crisis. There are storms everywhere, literally and metaphorically. Studies show that the earth’s crust in Houston flexed under all of the water that was dumped on it by Hurricane Harvey. The ground is literally shifting under our feet.

The prophet Ezekiel, featured during our Old Testament reading today, was alive and writing during a crisis in Israel’s history — when Jerusalem fell in 587 BCE. An invading force had taken over Ezekiel’s country, and he calls for the people to wake up. In exasperation, he writes: “Why will you die, O house of Israel?!”

Ezekiel calls for dealing with the unpleasant because it can’t be avoided anymore. The crisis is here, and it’s time to see what Israel is made of.

Paul’s words in the epistle could also have been Ezekiel’s: “You know what time it is.”
The crisis is here. The ground is shifting. No more pretending. No more carrying on as usual.

Paul calls the early church in Rome to wake up and get kicking. They’re suffering from persecution. Christians are dying. But Paul urges them into action: You know what time it is. Salvation is near. Crisis is an opportunity: you just have to be able to tell time.

This weekend, I went to see the movie Dunkirk, about the famous battle to get French and British troops, driven to the sea by the Nazis, out of France to fight another day. It was the very definition of a national crisis of the worst degree: an invading army is winning. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but at times the movie seemed (to me at least) to be an illustration of a sinner/saint theology, as the crisis pushed the troops and the officers and ordinary civilians to display the best and the worst of humanity.

Crisis is an opportunity to show what you’re made of: you just have to be able to tell time.

Then there’s the Gospel lesson, which is one of those passages that one of my colleagues refers to as “Practical life advice from Uncle Jesus.” And it is. Jesus gives a practical guide to dealing with crises and not putting it off — in other words, to telling time. He’s talking about the kind of crisis when we in the church hurt one another, which happens all the time. We’re human: sinners and saints, all of us. We have an enormous capacity to love each other and lift each other up, and an enormous capacity to hurt one another. And here, Jesus tries to guide us through the latter: we deal with these things in community. We don’t put them off.

We don’t pretend like everything’s okay until it’s not, and then disengage entirely.

Except that sometimes we do. Because we’re human.

We can work crises in relationships out, too: we just have to be able to tell time. We have to know when it’s time to love by giving space and when it’s time to love by confronting. This congregation’s had a lot of experience with that over the years, and so have I — and we’ve all bungled it up royally and we’ve all occasionally gotten it really right. But we keep trying.

And you know, sometimes, I think that’s one of the best gifts a church can give: teaching one another, gently, how to be kind and patient and loving and part of a community. To teach each other, gently, how to confront the unpleasant things head on. To teach each other, gently, how to tell time.

In my initial notes this week about the Gospel text, I quoted the verse where Jesus says, “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:19-20).

Beside it, I wrote, “Given the current state of things, you’d think he’s being sarcastic.”

“I mean, seriously guys, agree on anything and I’ll do it. Like even two or three of you.”

Seems like what’s true of rabbis has become true of American Christians: where you’ve got four of us, your’e got five opinions.

If I’m one of those Christians, three of those opinions are usually mine.

But “You know what time it is.”

There’s storms raging and more storms brewing, both in the Atlantic and in our souls, and whether we like it or not, it’s time to deal with some difficult stuff. The ground is shifting.

You know what time it is.

For our part, we are not a church in crisis. We are a church with a strong foundation of kindness and generosity and action. We are a church that’s already given $500 to Hurricane Harvey relief, who sponsored a child in Haiti long before Irma came along. We’re a church that looks after each other, too, and does what it can in the community. Today, we’ll gather and go help a neighbor with house and yard work just because she needs it and has become unable to do it herself.

This “small and mighty” congregation feeds people, fixes homes, and gives funds to send kids to camp. You are the kind of congregation St. Paul describes as he doles out the advice: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). Uncle Luther gives some similar advice when he says, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.” You know that.

And you know what time it is.

So as the storms rage literally and metaphorically in our world and in our lives, let’s remember what time it is. It’s time to help. It’s time to reach out. It’s time to be an anchor for the community around us. It’s time to deal with what we’ve been putting off, to take better care of our neighbors and ourselves — I am by far not the first to point out that “Love your neighbor as yourself” requires that you love yourself.

Let’s continue to root ourselves in the sacraments and in God’s deep grace as we go forward. In a few weeks as we enter stewardship season, you’re going to hear a lot about building our future together. This is where it begins: rooted in the foundation of generosity and kindness that you have, and we have, over decades, laid in our lives and in this assembly. As Paul told the Romans, salvation, and God, are nearer to us now than when we started this whole thing together, not because we’ve moved closer, but because God keeps showing up here among us. God keeps moving towards us. This is our foundation.

And now, let’s move forward to be an anchor for each other and for this community as we build our future together. Let’s go — it’s time. Amen.

1. Full commercial can be viewed here.

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