This is a slightly edited version of a sermon I preached for Sunday January 3, 2021. The worship service was pre-recorded and posted to Facebook.
I began with an invitation to listen for what word or phrase stood out during the reading of the scripture. If you would like to listen in this way, you can hear the NIV translation of the passage here, stopping at 1:05 when you hear "a time for peace."
Ecclesiastes 3:1-9 NRSV
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
I am curious what you heard in this text for a reason.
There is so much - 26 different actions and 2 nouns in these 8 verses - is not possible for us to attend to all of them equally.
When I read scripture, especially verses like these, I will find myself paying more attention to different parts based on what is going on in my life, what is challenging me in the moment. And that’s what happened this week.
The part that leapt off the page for me was “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.” And it took me by surprise.
If you had asked me what was included in Ecclesiastes 3 from memory before this week – embracing would have been missing from my list. But the question of when to embrace and when to refrain from embracing has been a fraught one this year.
It was the unspoken question during my sabbatical when I found myself with an old friend. As we said good-bye, we stood at a distance and hugged the air between us.
It was also the lack of the question or even hesitation when my 10 year old niece nearly tackled me before I even got out of the car at my sister’s house in August.
There is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.
As we faced this holiday season without many of the connections we normally have, I know why I took special notice of this verse.
Can you name what led you to the phrase that you heard loudest in the scripture this morning?
Is it something that is missing for you right now?
Is it something you are experiencing?
Is it a decision you are trying to make and you haven’t yet determined if it’s a time to seek or to lose, to build or tear down, to stay silent or to speak up?
Are you stuck between two? Are you living both sides of the coin?
Can you name your relationship with the word or phrase?
The unwritten question posed to us by Ecclesiastes is, what does this moment, this season require of us?
Consider how we mark time, seasons in the church -
The liturgical calendar that shapes the rhythms of our worship life together calls for different responses in different seasons.
In Advent, we have purple paraments, cloths on our pulpit and we focus on preparing, waiting for the Jesus to be born. There is a rhythm to the four Sundays of Advent as we light the Advent wreath.
On Christmas Eve, we switch to white and celebrate the birth of the Christ child.
In the spring, when we enter the time of Lent, it is a time for prayer and repentance as we remember Jesus’ life and prepare for Holy Week.
Today we are still in the season of Christmas, the 12 days of Christmas to be exact before we move to Epiphany on January 6th.
Epiphany is the day we remember the Magi coming to visit Jesus and his family. Having seen a star in the sky, having gone to the King to find out what he knows (which wasn’t much), they finally arrive at the house where Jesus was staying.
And then, having been warned in a dream that the King wanted to kill Jesus, they went home by another way.
And here is how I get from Epiphany back to our scripture this morning –
The travels, the decisions of the Magi were guided by the question, "what does this time require of us?"
They saw a star that spoke to them, that their tools and resources, their beliefs told them was important and significant.
And so it was a time to seek.
They shared what they knew, they learned more and they kept traveling.
It was a time to speak, to keep going.
They arrived, they celebrated with the family.
It was a time to laugh, to dance, to build up.
Then they slept, they dreamed. And they changed course.
It was a time to keep silent, to break the agreement with the king.
This is the work of continuous discernment we are also called to do.
What does this moment, this situation, this relationship, this experience ask from us?
How will we act? How will we respond?
What will we say? What will we do?
We are not passive receivers of circumstances but co-laborers with God in the moments and places we find ourselves.
These are not easy questions.
In part because no matter how poetic it sounds in scripture, rarely is it a binary choice.
Like the parade of choices this past year called on us to make as individuals and as communities, one answer rarely fits all when juggling the complicated needs of life together.
To repeat something I say every Blue Christmas service and many other times in between– we can and do hold contradictory emotions simultaneously.
We can laugh at a happy memory through tears at a funeral
We can be grateful for the end of pain as we grieve loss.
We can look forward to new opportunities as we dismantle what we used to have or do.
We can rejoice in finding creative responses to difficult situations.
And so we are called to discern, to decide with wisdom.
When faced with decisions, with conflict, with change, with opportunity,
What is required in this moment, in this time?
Does conflict and pain mean it is time to break away from an old relationship or is it time to find a way to heal what has been broken?
Do the injustices faced by your friends and neighbors require you to speak up and advocate for them? Do those same injustices require you to stay silent to learn from the experiences of another?
Is it time to push pause on the pain and sorrow and grief you carry to just dance? To find some place to plant seeds of hope for yourself and others?
Is it time to seek out a new opportunity in order to live more fully into to your gifts?
Is it time to kill a longstanding tradition or habit, “the way we’ve always done it”?
Is it time to build up something new?
The work of answering these questions, of discerning, is hardest because there is no one right answer.
Any quilter will tell you that sometimes you sew just to tear it out again.
We find no judgment, no hierarchy in this text. There is no imposed order, negative vs. positive to be found.
it is simply finding the right time for each.
Silence has its time, as does speaking up.
Tearing down, rending, harvesting, throwing away, losing, even hatred all have their time and place.
Ecclesiastes 3 (NRSV) continues this way in verses 9 through 11:
9 What gain have the workers from their toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. 11 He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
We cannot see the whole picture, the whole of time from God’s perspective.
We don’t know what God has done or will do from beginning to end.
We can’t understand the full picture of eternity.
It is our lot that we will be forgetful, we can’t even hold in our collective memory a couple generations of human experience. 
While we will never understand the fullness of time, the full arc of God’s will for us, for humanity, for this world, we are called to discern the right response to the moment we find ourselves in.
To look backwards, to see the times that have been, to learn from the past.
To look forward, with hope, with intention to the future God wants us to create.
In response to the ways our life together, our rhythm has changed over the last year, what is ours to do in this time?
What do we hold on to from what we have learned?
What do we let go of – from the past and from this season of change?
Where are we called to tend, where are we called to uproot?
When do we speak, when do we stay silent?
We have this time, this season, this moment.
It is a threshold between one year and the next,
between what has been and what we hope for our future.
This new year stretching before us.
And for this moment, this time,
we, seeking guidance from God and our faith, discern.
What is called for, not forever, but for now?
What is needed from us now in order for us to live in harmony with God?
----------  W. Sibley Towner, "Ecclesiastes" in New International Bible Commentary, Vol 3, pg 307