S C I E N C E & S P I R I T



"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven...."

This well-known phrase gets a fresh interpretation by Dr. Eugene Bay, Senior Pastor of the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church. In the sermon (annotated) below, the themes of community, diversity, and the role of the United States in the world community, resonate with core values of Serendip.

Links have been added to the sermon which point to other relevant topics on Serendip-- time, theorizing interdisciplinarity, diversity and deviance, culture as disability.

"A TIME TO...?"


from the pulpit of


Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania


Dr. Eugene C. Bay

June 15, 2003

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven...." Ecclesiastes 3:1

Some of you, may recall the musical version of these words by Pete Seeger and made popular by The Byrds: "Turn! Turn! Turn!" The song was popular in the 1960's, and the text remains a favorite of many. "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven...."

It has never been a favorite of mine. I have always heard it as encouraging a passive response to life, a religious version of "Play the hand that life deals you." There is, of course, a sense in which we all have to do that: respond to what we are given, take life as it comes. But there is also our calling, our responsibility, to influence events, to help shape life and not merely be shaped by it. So, the third chapter of Ecclesiastes has never warmed my heart.

Recently, however, I have learned that it is possible to view this text in a different light. Early last month I was in St. Louis with twenty-five other pastors with whom I meet twice a year for two or three days. One morning we were addressed by Dr. William Danforth, Chancellor Emeritus of Washington University. In the course of his talk, Dr. Danforth proposed an alternative reading of Eccesiastes 3. What if, he asked, we were to interpret the text actively, instead of passively? "If for everything there is a season," Danforth said, "ought we not to be asking, 'What is the season we are in now? If there is a time for everything, what is this a time for?'" What, in other words, is our time inviting, or even demanding, from us?

Danforth's question reminded me that the New Testament has two words which our Bibles translate as "time." One is the Greek word "chronos," from which we get "chronology," and which refers simply to clock or calendar time. "The time is eleven o'clock": that's "chronos." But the New Testament knows there is another kind of time, and its word for this second kind of time is "kairos," meaning an opportune time, a moment when there is an opening, or an opportunity, for a breakthrough to occur, for change to happen - a time which, if seized, could make a difference. It's what Paul has in mind in Romans 13 when he says, "You know what time it is, how it is time for you to wake from sleep."

Ever since hearing Dr. Danforth's talk, I have been haunted by his question. What is this a time for? I have wondered if this could be, in any sense, a "kairos" moment? I have come to think this might be such a time, especially for people of faith such as ourselves. And I want to suggest to you now two ways in which I believe this is a moment to be seized and made use of.

* * *

First of all, I believe this is a time for people of faith to affirm what Jonathan Sacks has called "the dignity of difference."1 That's the title of his recent book. Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew congregations in the United Kingdom. He reminds us that "one belief, more than any other" is responsible for the age-long slaughter of individuals, the wars of all the centuries, as well as the more recent spate of terrorists attacks. "It is the belief that those who do not share my faith - or my race or my ideology - do not share my humanity."2

Sacks reminds us that we are now in a era when "difference has become part of the texture of daily life. At work, in the street and on the television screen, we are regularly confronted with people whose faith, culture, accent, race, skin color and customs are unlike ours." Says Sacks: "The critical question" is whether we will make room for the other, the stranger, in other words, "acknowledge the dignity of difference."3

Religion and religious people will either be part of the solution or part of the problem. In the past, we must sadly confess, religion and religious people have been part of the problem. One has only to recall the Crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms, the Salem Witch Trials, to say nothing of the use of the Bible to justify slavery, or present day homophobia. As Sacks puts it: "Nothing has proved harder in the history of civilization than to seek (the image of) God ... in those whose language is not mine, whose skin is a different color, whose faith is not my faith and whose truth is not my truth."

There are even Christians who have difficulty believing that other Christians who do not believe or behave exactly as they do will be saved. Perhaps you recall that account of heaven, popular in the early days of the ecumenical movement, where St. Peter is taking a newcomer around. In one room there are a lot of people dancing and drinking. "Who are they?" asks the visitor. "Oh, those are the Southern Baptists, making up for lost time." In another room there is loud, noisy conversation: "Who are they?" is the question. "Those are the Quakers, also making up for lost time." And yet in another room there are people just beginning to have a good time. "Those are the Presbyterians," St. Peter says; "they are learning how to have fun." As they turn the corner, at the end of the corridor there is a room in which a lot of people are looking very serious. "We must be very quiet here," St. Peter says; "we mustn't disturb them, for these are the Catholics and they think they are the only ones here."4 It would be nice to believe we have outgrown that story, but there is evidence aplenty that we have not. We need to. Indeed, without forfeiting or diminishing our Christian faith one iota, we need to recognize that we are not the only ones beloved by God. And we need to realize that people of other faiths may also possess some of the truth of God.

Today is Trinity Sunday, a day when we are encouraged to think about God, about the nature and being of God, the splendor, the transcendence of God. It is the perfect day for me to encourage you, as well as myself, to think bigger thoughts of God. We can believe, as I do and presumably you do, that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself," without consigning people of other faiths to outer darkness. We must not be so arrogant or ignorant as to think that our way is God's only way. Trinity Sunday is a perfect occasion for us to acknowledge that our ideas of God are not God. To equate our understanding of God with God is idolatry. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." That's not Gene Bay, by the way, that's Isaiah- Chapter 55, verses 8 and 9.

What is this a time for? I believe it is a time for a new "generosity of spirit."5 I believe it is a time for people of faith to outgrow puny, parochial, provincial notions of God, and time for us to recognize the humanity we share with all of God's children. A time, as Sacks puts it, to really and truly understand "that God transcends the particularities of culture and the limits of human understanding ..., a time to believe in and commend to others a God who is above us all, "teaching us to make a space for one another."6

Sacks asks, what would it be like to have such a faith? "It would," he says, "be like being secure in one's own home, yet moved by the beauty of foreign places, knowing that they are someone else's home, not mine, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours."7


* * *

My second thought about the "kairos" moment we are in is related to but different from, the first. I believe this is a time for rediscovering and reclaiming the notion of the common good, or as we Pennsylvanians call it, the "commonwealth."- a time for a declaration of interdependence, of mutuality.

Here, in our own society, the gap between rich and poor is wide and growing wider. The gulf between city and suburb remains. The inequalities in our own state with regard to public education are a disgrace.

In the wider world, the disparities between the rich nations and the poor nations are enormous. According to a study by the World Bank, one out of every four persons in developing nations lives - or struggles to live - in absolute poverty, on less than one dollar a day.8 In an address given during the recent meeting of the General Assembly of our denomination, former Senator Paul Simon pointed out that of the twenty-two wealthiest industrial nations in the world, the United States is first in wealth and twenty-second - dead last - in terms of aid given to combat hunger and poverty. And we wonder why we have enemies.

What is the time we are in? It is the moment for us to realize we cannot flourish while others perish. It is, I believe, a moment for people of faith to hear the cry of the needy, and to remember the admonitions of Amos and Micah, of Jeremiah and Isaiah, to be, in God's name, advocates for justice and agents of mercy.

Four years ago, during all the fuss about the dawn of the new millennium, the New York Times Magazine asked Peter Gomes, minister of Harvard's Memorial Church, to nominate what he thought was the greatest sermon of the last millennium. Gomes reports how he recalled many of the great preachers of the years 1000 to 1999, people such as St. Thomas Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, Wesley and Edwards, Moody and Brooks, Fosdick and Sheen, Tillich and Barth, King and Graham. But the sermon he chose was from none of these. Can you guess what it was? It was the sermon preached by John Winthrop, a layman, aboard the ship Arbella before it landed the Puritans in 1630.

Winthrop's sermon was a call to mutuality. His argument went like this: "If we do not restrain our individual appetites and ambitions, and put the good of the whole before the good of the self; if we are unable to share abundance with those in need; if we are unwilling to take our public responsibility more seriously than our private convenience, then this new society we are seeking to create will be no better than the one from which we are trying to escape. We will be an embarrassment to ourselves and to the world."9

That's a paraphrase. Here are Winthrop's very own words: "... We must be knit together in this work as one ...; we must delight in each other, make each other's condition our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes ... our community as members of the same body, so shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace."10

The greatest sermon of the millennium? I don't know. But this I do believe: Winthrop's words are as relevant today as they were in 1630, and his vision of a community of mutuality, of a people who remain responsible for each other and bear each other's burdens, is one we need to recover. The prospects of peace depend on it. Faithfulness to the God of the prophets, to the God made known supremely in Jesus Christ, requires it.

Such a vision is not likely to come from the politicians. According to Robert Putnam - he of "Bowling Alone" fame - our political leaders actually missed the kairos moment provided by the tragedy of 9/11. "In the aftermath of (that) tragedy," Putnam writes, "a window of opportunity ... opened for a sort of civic renewal that only occurs once or twice a century." We might have been called upon to sacrifice; instead, we were encouraged to shop. That crisis, Putnam says, "revealed and replenished the wells of solidarity," but so far those wells remain untapped.11

They need not remain so. "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven...." The season we are in is one where the wells of solidarity could be tapped. This, I believe, is a time for people of faith to see as a "kairos" moment, the opportune time for us to recover and reclaim a commitment to the common good, and lead others to do likewise.

Heavy lifting for a warm summer morning in June? Perhaps. But like the Apostle Paul, I believe this is a moment for us to wake from sleep.


Readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1-9; Romans 13:11-14

1. Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (London, New York: Continuum, 2002).

2. Ibid. p. 45.

3. Ibid. p. 61.

4. Peter J. Gomes, Life Before Death (The Memorial Church, Harvard University, 1999), pp. 136-137.

5. Sacks, Ibid. p. 65.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Christian Century, June 14, 2003, pp. 24-25.

9. Peter J. Gomes, There Is A Plan (The Memorial Church, Harvard University, 2000), p. 134.

10. Ibid. pp. 134-135.

11. Quoted in Context, June 15, 2002.


Gene Bay sermon directory


Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church



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