Sermon, June 26, 2022
Rev. Anton Jacobs - KCUCC
Fifty years ago, 1972, I was in seminary, studying theology, Bible, and other stuff, and occasionally protesting the continued execution of the Vietnam War. If you had told me that fifty years later, we still would not have universal health care, and guns would be even more easily available with more firepower and fewer controls…. If you had told me in 1972 that in 2022, we would still be telling women they cannot have control over their own bodies, and poverty and homelessness would be just about as bad as ever…. If you had said to me, minorities would still be fighting to protect their right to vote, and we’d have a former president who with the collaboration of sycophants tried to overturn a legal election, incessantly falsely claiming the election was fraudulent, and millions of people would believe him…. If you had told me all these things fifty years ago, I’d have thought that that is a most unlikely dark and dystopian future. If you had told me fifty years ago that, fifty years hence, there would be no Soviet Union and that China would be a major world power…. If you had told me that my telephone would be carried in my pocket, and that that telephone would give me access to millions of books, essays, newspapers, and encyclopedias in any language, and that phone would have the capacity of a fax machine, a typewriter, a copy machine, a high resolution camera, and could send memos and letters, and tell me where I am and how to get anywhere else, and let me shop and buy almost anything I could want and afford ….
Well, we get the point. The passage of time brings many surprises—some good, some that ain’t so good. Each generation of human beings faces the challenge of living in the present while still affirming the goodness and value of life. Honestly, sometimes this affirmation of life is more difficult to make than at other times.
Our relationship to time is complicated, contradictory, challenging, and funny. A Hagar the Horrible comic strip shows Hagar speaking to his son: “Hamlet,” he says, “we live in a time of war, high taxes, crime, famine and civil unrest...” “But, believe it or not, when you grow up you’ll call these ‘The good old days.’”
More highly seasoned people, by which I mean seniors, often talk about how things used to be compared with how they are today. Some of those conversations are about how much better things used to be; some about how much worse they used to be. Such conversations get a kind of see-saw-yes-but dynamic. We didn't have a school bus or soccer mom to take us to school, and we had to walk a mile each way. Yes, but we didn't have to fear strangers along the way or knives and guns at school. We were poor; we didn't have anything like they have today. Yes, but we had a lot of love in our home and always sat together for dinner.
Folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote an autobiographical account of his Depression-era travels, hopping and riding the trains around the country, looking for food and work. One day a newcomer got on the train and noticed some rather young boys also on the train. “Evenin’, gentulmen, evenin,’” he said. When one of the boys “raised up to a sitting position,” the newcomer said, “You gents is a little shade yo’ng t’ be out siftin’ th’ cinders, ain’t you?” The boy replied, “C’n we help how old we are? ... Me ol man’s fault. Oughtta been bornt sooner.”
It’s not always easy for us to accept that our lives are fully subject to the twists and turns of the times and places in which we live. And in a rapidly changing world like ours the passage of time is often intimidating, occasionally depressing, sometimes thrilling, always interesting.
Sometimes we’re tempted to wish we had lived in another time. A middle-class woman once told me she thought it would have been better to have lived in the Victorian era. But her idea of life in that time had been shaped by romantic novels and movies that typically depict the upper classes. The Victorian period wasn’t so romantic if you were a peasant farmer in Russia, a mill worker in Manchester, England, a black sharecropper in the American south, a Native-American coercively relegated to a reservation in the Great American land grab, or just plain poor anywhere. Probably we should think twice before romanticizing the past and demonizing the present.
It is true, though, that changing times often grate on the nerves of all of us, especially those over thirty years of age. In the 1960s, some in my generation were saying, don’t trust anyone over thirty. That seems rather bizarre to me now that I’ve passed thirty twice and then some. The sentiment came from the observation that older people often resist new ideas and ways of doing things. It’s an understandable resistance; changing times can be hard on us. A Ziggy comic shows Ziggy sitting pensively in front of the TV watching Jeopardy. The caption reads: “You know you’re getting old when you notice that more and more history questions happened in your lifetime!!”
Change is often painful. Today it comes not only with major disruptions in our lives but whole new ways of doing things, even everyday things. I remember when you could move into a house or apartment, call the phone company to hook up the phone that was already there, and you’d have phone service—cheap local service, expensive long-distance. Today you have to choose and purchase your smart phone from among a zillion options and decide which utterly incomprehensible phone service you’re going to use.
There was a time when you had a checking account that cost a small amount of money and a passbook savings account that paid about 5% interest. That was it, along with your regular income. If you had extra money, you could risk it on stocks and bonds in the stock market or, if you were unusually adventuresome, in commodities. You might be approved for a credit card that many merchants didn't accept anyway. Now you have a debit card and three credit cards; many different kinds of savings accounts and checking accounts and, besides stocks and bonds and commodities, various CDs, mutual funds (including Growth Funds, Emerging Market Funds, Small Cap Funds, Large Cap Funds), money market accounts, an assortment of annuities (including Equity Indexed and Variable annuities), this kind of fund and that kind of fund with different levels of risk, paying varying amounts of interest, depending on the day, with a variety of hidden and not-so-hidden fees and requirements and stipulations and conditions that themselves are always changing, and umpteen pin numbers, passwords, and usernames. This is the new age of free-enterprise, globalized capitalism. And if some of our leaders who want to shrink government get their way, we're even going to get the added pleasure of using our Medicare vouchers to negotiate with a more-or-less regulated private health-insurance industry, and decide where and how to invest our social security funds in all this as well. I can't wait!
The disruptions of social change also come with bewildering innovations in language. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies somewhere between two and three thousand new English words every year. And it seems to me that anyone not familiar with computers and the Internet has got to feel that this has become one very alien world. A Non Sequitur comic shows a poor beggar sitting on the sidewalk holding out a cup. Next to the beggar is a sign that reads, “Couldn’t interface with a new paradigm, whatever the hell that means.”
You can’t say we don’t live in interesting times. It’s no wonder we resist change when we can. But the reality is that we live when we do. And affirming the goodness and value of life requires some affirmation of the present. Living in the spirit includes living in the now.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” declares Ecclesiastes of the Hebrew scriptures. In the Christian Gospel of Mark, Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” Whatever else these mean, I think they’re affirmations of the present.
The radical philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the few intellectuals in late nineteenth-century Europe who was not optimistic about current history; he said it was a decadent world. Yet, he called on his readers to love life unequivocally. He argued that true greatness lies in the ability to love one’s fate, whatever it is, it’s past and its future for all eternity. He said the real test whether you love life is if you can applaud the idea of living your life over and over for all eternity without a single change. Honestly I’m not sure I love life that much, nor was he.
The late Vietnamese-French Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh came of age during the wars of Vietnam and upon leaving for a while was barred from returning. Yet, he wrote that so much of the time we’re caught up in the past or plagued by concerns about the future. He said real peace and joy come in living mindfuly in the present moment. He writes:
…we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive. Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity. We need only be awake, alive in the present moment.
These sentiments gathered from various realms of our cultural heritage remind us that a spiritual approach to life includes a different relationship to time. I'm not sure how to characterize it. I’m not all that spiritually deep myself. But I think I can sometimes sense what the deeper people are talking about—this spiritual sense of time. It’s a kind of embrace of life in the now. It’s a kind of confidence about time, no matter what, that the past has been what it’s been and the future will be what it will be, but we have the present moment to embrace life with all that it gives us and doesn’t give us. It’s in the now that we laugh or cry, sing with joy or lament with sadness. Now is the time to embrace life in this universe saturated, as it is with the presence of God. Ecclesiastes reminds us that “For everything there is a season…: a time to be born, and a time to die…; a time to kill, and a time to heal…; a time to weep, and a time to laugh….”
Whatever is going on at any given time, we live when we do—more or less faithfully, more or less responsibly. In the end, this is all we can do, and what we’re called to do—live as faithfully and responsibly as we can in the events of the present hour, whether romanticizing or lamenting the past, whether pessimistic or optimistic about the future. Life is about the reality that we are when we are.
I admire and I envy the attitude of the late Buck O’Neil. Buck O’Neil was a better-than-average ballplayer with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro baseball leagues before the Major Leagues were integrated. For a while, after his playing days were over, he was a scout for the Chicago Cubs, but he himself never got to play in the Major Leagues. He never lamented it. Sometimes people would say to him, “Buck, you were before your time.” He didn’t agree with that. He said he had been there “right in the midst of it all.” He felt he had had something to do with those Negro leaguers breaking into the majors. “I was playing before them,” he said, “and the way we held ourselves when we played back there when—that is the reason that they’re playing now. Everything happens in its season.” In his autobiography Buck said it with greater emphasis:
“The best thing about the film [Ken Burns’ documentary, Baseball], though was that it gave me a chance to tell folks about the Negro leagues, about what a glorious enterprise black baseball was, and about what a wonderful thing baseball is. Back in 1981…a young fellow from Sports Illustrated asked me if I had any regrets, coming along as I did before Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues. And this is what I told him then, and what I’m telling you now:
“There is nothing greater for a human being than to get his body to react to all the things one does on a ballfield. It’s as good as sex; it’s as good as music. It fills you up. Waste no tears for me. I didn’t come along too early—I was right on time.”
Chris Browne, “Hagar The Horrible,” The Kansas City Star, 1 April 1999, E8.
Woody Guthrie, Bound For Glory (N.Y.: New American Library, 1943), 31-32.
Tom Wilson, “Ziggy,” The Kansas City Star, 3 July 1999.
Mark Falter, president of Mid-American Investors, Inc., Weston, MO, provided some of this information regarding various kinds of investment options.
Mark Liberman, "Counting New Words: Is there a lexicography gap?" Language Log, <http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000257.html> 23 December 2000 [accessed 6 October 2007].
Wiley Miller, “Non Sequitur: The Modern Language Barrier,” The Kansas City Star, 7 Oct. 1999, E6.
Eccl. 3:1; Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise indicated.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, translated with commentary by Walter Kaufmann (N.Y.: Vintage; Random House, 1967 ), 258.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science: with a prelude in rhymes and an appendix of songs, trans. Walter Kaufmann (N.Y.: Vintage, 1974 [1882, 1887]), 273-274, §341.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, ed. Arnold Kotler (N.Y.: Bantam Books, 1991), 5.
Quoted in Janet Bruce, The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1985), 131.
Buck O’Neil, I Was Right On Time, with Steve Wulf and David Conrads (N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 2-3.