by Rev. Joe Connolly
“…you know what time it is, the time in which we are living. It is now the moment, the time, the hour for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer, closer to us now than when we became believers, than when we first accepted faith. The night is far spent, gone; the day draws near. Let us, then, lay aside the works of the night and put on the armor of light.” — Romans 13:11-12.
So, what time is it? Certainly most Sundays when I stand in this place it’s somewhere between 10 and 11 a.m. on a given Sunday. Today, as you heard me say earlier, is the 27th of November, 2016, the First Sunday in Advent of year ‘A’ on the church calendar, the Sunday in Advent on which we commemorate hope. [A choir member, realizing he pastor has said “October” rather than “November” points that our and there is a back and forth with the choir and the pastor as all have a good chuckle over this.] So, that’s secular time and church time. But what time is it, really?
In San Francisco it’s between 7 and 8 a.m. If you were there instead of here you could just roll over for another 40 winks. In London, England, on the other hand, it’s between 3 and 4 this afternoon, too late to start anything significant now. And in Sydney, Australia, it’s between 2 and 3 a.m. tomorrow, Monday morning. How does that work? (Slight pause.) What time is it, really? (Slight pause.)
A couple of weeks ago I started my comments by noting I was a voracious reader. And so I recently came across a book about the Stephen Sondheim show Follies, one of my favorite musicals, a book about putting the original production of the show together. I was unaware this book even existed. I bought it immediately.
I need to take a moment to tell you about Sondheim’s Follies— and yes, the topic here is time. For decades starting in 1907 there were a number of shows on the Great White Way which carried the title Follies or similar names. They were what we would today call variety shows and there would be a new production of a show most years.
The story in Sondheim’s musical is about a reunion of women— Follies girls to use the vernacular— who appeared in these shows. This narrative takes place on an evening in the Spring of 1971.
The reason for the reunion is a theater at which multiple, yearly productions of this version of a Follies show was presented is being demolished. The play— the story about this reunion party— takes place in that doomed theater on the evening before demolition is scheduled to start.
At the very beginning of the musical you know something strange is happening because what appears to be ghosts of Follies girls glide on and off stage as characters in real time, current time, come and go. Indeed, as the show unfolds the four main characters— two men and two women— live in real time, exchange dialogue and have songs to sing.
The ghosts of the four main characters are there also but never actually interact with their own, newer, modern self. They appear to be living, breathing, in the 1940s and sing and interact with the other ghosts as if it was the 1940s.
Further, the dialogue helps us understand that sometimes what had been true and really happened back in the 1940s is not exactly how it is remembered by the older, current versions of those ghosts, people now living in 1971. Additionally, things have not exactly turned out the way the younger people back in the 1940s had hoped.
At times all eight characters— old and young— are on the stage simultaneously saying things, singing, but never interacting with the other selves. Scenes from two eras happen simultaneously. However, what all eight characters say reflects on both on what had been true and untrue in the 40s and what will be true and untrue in the 70s.
An example from the show: in real time, reflecting on where life has taken him and where he has been and where he has gone, one character sings this. “The road you didn’t take / Hardly comes to mind / Does it? / The door you didn’t try / Where could it have led? / The choice you didn’t make / Never was defined / Was it? / Dreams you didn’t dare / Are dead / Were they ever there? / Who said / I don’t remember. / Chances that you miss / Ignore / Ignorance is bliss / What’s more / I won’t remember.”
The questions posed seem to be ‘where have I been?’ ‘Were am I going, now?’ ‘How did I get here?’ ‘Would I rather be back there, then?’ ‘Do I even want to be here, now?’
In short, this show not only mixes up time. You can feel the pain in those words, those question. And you can feel the truth in those words, those questions as the song asks what is happening now and asks what has happened? What are your memories? Are they real? What is real? So yes, the play asks, “What time is it, really?” (Slight pause.)
I wanted to tell you all this because I am reading that book about Sondheim’s Follies right now. Reading it has had a similar effect on me. I’ve started thinking about where I was in back 1971 when the show opened. I was there opening night. Who I was with? What I was doing?
Because many memories have been dredged up for me, I have started to have flash backs to when I was young. I started asking, “Do I remember, really, what my life was like, where I’ve been, what it has become, where has it gone?” “What time is it for me, now?” And there is pain in those questions and there is truth in those questions. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as Romans: “…you know what time it is, the time in which we are living. It is now the moment, the time, the hour for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer, closer to us now than when we became believers, than when we first accepted faith. The night is far spent, gone; the day draws near. Let us, then, lay aside the works of the night and put on the armor of light.” (Slight pause.)
Paul makes an assumption in this passage. The Apostle assumes readers, listeners will know the “time” referred to is not chronological time. Indeed, rather than using the obvious Greek word for time chronos, Paul uses kairos— kairos God’s time.
I would suggest in God’s time past and present blur. In God’s time, you see, God is near to us not then or now. God is near to us always. In God’s time God is at our side, always.
In God’s time the presence of God is not a linear but eternal. And there is pain for us in that observation. And there is truth in that observation. After all, we are mortal. How do we understand or even think about the eternal?
But then Paul takes us beyond that. Paul proclaims now, within our mortality, is the time for us to awake from sleep. Now is the time for us to cease dwelling on or in the past and to understand that God is with us, now. And what has happened or rather Who has happened that says to Paul that God is at our side, that God is present to us, now? Jesus, the Christ, has happened.
Because Jesus has happened, time— as it has been known before— time as it has been known before— has ended. On top of that, because Jesus has happened (quote:), “The night is far spent, gone; the day draws near. Let us, then, lay aside the works of the night and put on the armor of light.” (Slight pause.)
For some the past is a safe place. The night is a safe place. The shadows are safe. And hence, for some, light is threatening. And there is pain in that observation and there is truth in that observation. There are many who want to hide from the truth and take refuge in pain.
Further, while Paul speaks in terms of night and light, what is being addressed here is not the night nor is it the light. What Paul addresses is falsehood and truth. And yes, falsehood can sometimes feel comforting and truth can sometimes feel painful. But for all it’s potential for pain, Paul invites us to live in the truth and the reality of the present and the reality of the presence of God. (Slight pause.)
Today is the Sunday in Advent on which we commemorate hope, or so I said at the start of my comments. Having said light represents truth I also need to say light represents hope.
And what we celebrate in Advent is the hope found in Jesus. What is the reality of that hope, the truth of that hope? God is with us. God is at our side.
And there is pain in that observation and there is truth in that observation. There is pain in that observation because we recognize our own mortality. Also there is pain in that observation because we too often forget about hope.
But there is truth in that observation. There is truth because God is real. There is truth because God is not simply a vague memory which fades over time. God is a reality now.
So, as Paul suggests, awake we need to be— awake to the reality of God. We need to be awake to the hope and the peace and the love and the joy of God throughout this Advent. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “In my comments I made reference to the Stephen Sondheim show Follies. The word follies can, of course, be taken two ways. It is a show title. But we all have follies, fantasies, of some kind or another which ignore reality. Perhaps the most difficult of our follies is can we decide who we really are. I believe the answer is simple, if we are willing to see the truth and the pain of the answer. We are willing to be children of God who walk in the light of God, people who seek the truth of God.”
BENEDICTION: Let us know and understand that our hope is in God. May we carry the peace of God where ever we go. Let us share that peace and that hope, which is God’s, with all whom we meet. For God reigns and the joy of God’s love is a present reality. Amen.