Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Carpe Diem, the Extraordinary Life (2): Punching the Clock

Matthew 20.1-16, Ephesians 5.1-21
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Opening Theme: Clip from Hook, Peter returns to his family a changed man, no longer tied to the job, having rediscovered his happy thoughts

In ancient mythology, Chronos was a Titan, a first-generation Greek god, the youngest child of the heavens and the earth (Uranus and Gaia). He carried a sickle, and harvested life. After taking the throne of his father, he brutally devoured his own children to prevent them from doing the same to him. And he was the god of time. No wonder. Human beings have always had a problematic relationship with time.

Last week, we talked about the biblical phrase "the fullness of time" (only in Galatians 4.4, Ephesians 1.10). We noted how God "seized the day" to "make [our lives] extraordinary", to make us children of God and no longer slaves. Now, there are many ways our slavery can be described. One is in terms of addiction – a slavery to sin and self-destruction, in any form. Another is in terms of time – a slavery to death and an end that will surely come for each of us, if the Lord tarries. Death, the Bible tells us, entered the world through human sin. "If you eat it, you will die" (Genesis 2.17). "Sin entered the world, and death by sin" (Romans 5.12). And, it introduces an anxiety that is manifested in countless ways, from the young person’s recklessness to middle aged workaholism.

In J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the two protagonists are both enslaved to time. Hook fears time and death, banishing clocks so that titan time does not find him. He pursues children, in the form of Pan and the Lost Boys. He meets his end in the form of a crocodile that has swallowed one of the clocks he cast into the sea. Pan refuses to grow up. He has the gift of joy, the naivete of a child, and the arrogant recklessness of an untouchable youth. In the film adaptation Hook, Peter left Neverland to marry and start a family, but forgot his joy, his "happy thoughts". He has become a venture capitalist, tethered to a cell phone, unable to linger with his family. He has become Hook. When the real Hook abducts his children, taking them to Neverland, Peter has to return to Neverland, rediscover his happy thoughts, face Hook, and bring his children home. He returns successfully, a changed man, ready to treat life – even life as a grown up – as a wonderful adventure.

We’ve got a problematic relationship with time. We exchange time for money. So, the workers in the vineyard, in the story Jesus tells, were upset because those hired last, at 5:00 in the afternoon, were paid just as much as those who were hired at 6:00 am. Time is money! Of course, they were paid for their time, and paid the agreed upon sum. But they felt an injustice had been done.

Yesterday was Marie S’s 100th birthday party. It was a wonderful celebration. So, I was reminded of the story of Jeanne Calment, at one time the oldest living person. She lived in Arles, France, a sister city to our own York, Pennsylvania, until she passed her 122nd birthday! At some point, around her 120th birthday, she was asked her outlook on the future. Her answer was witty and to the point: "Brief." In 1965, when she was 90 years old and had outlived all her heirs, she sold her apartment on a contract that permitted her to live there as long as she was able and promised to pay her a monthly sum until she died. If time is money, that guy who brought the apartment had no idea how much time she had in the bank. He was 45 years old at the time, and she outlived him. Where’s the justice in that?

Fernando Tr√≠as de Bes wrote a marvelous business satire, The Time Seller. The main character, out of work, develops a completely new business. He bottles and sells time. People buy 5 minute vials of time, and it is theirs. Whenever they open that vial, they have 5 minutes to themselves. They don’t have to listen to the boss. They don’t have to answer the phone. It is their time, after all, bought with their money. He adds capacity, expands the market, and soon has 2 weeks of time for sale, 2 weeks of time that you can use however you want. Eventually, he saturates the market, produces more time than the economy can handle, and disaster ensues.

The book raises all the questions we struggle with when time is money. Is it worth it to punch the clock? Are we just a slave to the machine? And, what would we really do if we were in control of our own time? A whole lot of nothing, perhaps? When we get to be 100, like Marie, will we look back on our time with pleasure at our purchase, glad for what it bought us?

So, we come to this phrase, traditionally translated "redeeming the time" (Ephesians 5.16). Last week, we learned that "redeem" was language that comes from the market, from the place where time is MONEY, and, specifically, from the slave market. "Be careful how you live," the apostle writes (5.15). If you want to set time free, if you want to be free from slavery to time, "do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is" (5.17).

It turns out that this isn’t too complicated. It is extraordinary not because it fits our standard fantasy of greatness. It is extraordinary because not too many folks do it. It is extraordinary because it is about doing the ordinary, and doing it well. "Do not be drunk with wine" – live in sobriety (5.18). "Be filled with the Spirit" – make worship your lifestyle, with prayer and song and thanksgiving (5.18-20). "Obscene and vulgar talk" is "out of place" (5.4). Our sexual lives should be characterized by faithfulness (5.3, 5). Give up greed and practice thanksgiving instead (5.4-5).

We have a problematic relationship with time. We treat it as a commodity, a finite resource. And, to a degree, there is truth to that. There is only 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute. Rudyard Kipling, in his poem on manhood ("If"), concludes:

If you can take the unforgiving minute
and fill it with sixty seconds worth of distance run
Yours is the earth, and everything that’s in it
And, what is more, you’ll be a man, my son.

But all this focus on time – "it takes too much time", "I just don’t have time for that" – is completely misplaced. In the Greek language, there are two words for time. One is chronos, the root for chronology, cronograph, chronicle. It is time that marches past, sixty seconds every minute. It is time that we cannot seize, only mark and measure. But there is another word for time, a word that describes the day we may seize, carpe diem. It is the word kairos. It is a word for time as moment or season, time that we may seize, time that has its roots in eternity because it is always present tense. We’ll look at that a bit more in three weeks, at the conclusion of our series, "When Time Stands Still". Next week, we’ve got "One Thing" and the week after, "I’ve Got Rhythm".

We have a problematic relationship with time. In our duel with Chronos, we never have enough time, and – no matter how disciplined we are – we do not fill every minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run. Time – chronos – is not on our side. With great wisdom, the apostle calls us to "redeem time", using the term kairos. He calls us to living ordinary life well. And, the practical tool he emphasizes, over and over, is the practice of thanksgiving. Give thanks – instead of getting stuck in greed or faithless living. Give thanks – instead of obscene or vulgar speech. Give thanks – instead of living our addictions.

Today, we call that practice, at least around the meal table, "saying grace". It is not limited to meal time, however. Grace is that in which we live. Grace is God’s gift, not earned or deserved, simply given. Grace is what the landowner offered the laborers. The story Jesus told in Matthew 20 is not about our 9-5 jobs. It is about God’s kingdom. It is about eternity, about kairos, not simply chronos.

But we get the frustration of the laborers hired first. We look at the way the landowner overpays the folks hired last and we complain about injustice. Why? Because we’ve been punching the clock, and it feels like the clock punched back, like the ticking crocodile of Captain Hook is after us. Now, there are times when it is important that we punch the clock. There are matters of justice that are important in every workplace. But we cannot allow ourselves to be defined by that kind of time. We cannot define ourselves by chronos or we will miss out on grace.

What matters is that we seize the day, redeem the time, take hold of eternity. It doesn’t matter when we do it. It matters that we do it. The grace of God is for all of us. Say grace, seize grace, live grace. And we’ll find ourselves dealing not with Chronos, god of time, devouring his children. Instead we’ll be dealing with Jesus, whose grace invites us to this table . . . to say grace. Time may not be on our side, but eternity is. And that changes everything.

Resources: (The story of her birthday quip is from an old newspaper article.)

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