Did you ever meet someone who was completely stuck in the past? Every conversation with them eventually leads to the phrase, “I remember when…” They are always thinking and talking about the “good old days.” Most of us do this from time to time — it can be quite enjoyable to reminisce, to think back on good times and happy memories. But if we’re not careful, that kind of thinking can draw you in. We all know people who, as the phrase goes, are “living in the past.” All of their thoughts, all of their energies are always directed into the past and focused on the way things used to be.
People can get stuck in this trap even if the past wasn’t all that pleasant for them. Each of us carries with us the scars and traumas of the past. And it is true that these past hurts form an important part of who we are. But for some people, their past injuries become the core of their identity. They primarily identify as either a victim or a survivor of those traumas — abuse, injury, disease, circumstances, whatever it may be. As a result, their whole being becomes tied up with and associated with their past.
This can also happen in the opposite direction — just as people can be stuck in the past, they can also be stuck in the future. You can identify these people by the frequent use of the words “Someday” or “Soon” in their daily speech. They are always looking for the next thing, which will surely make their life complete: the next vacation, the next job, the next home, the next relationship. The solution to their problems always lies in the future. (This may best be illustrated by a coworker of mine who has a “days-to-retirement” counter on his desk which currently reads “6 years, 3 months, 2 days to retirement.”)
Other folks are living in constant dread of the future. They are unable to cope with today because of fear about what will happen next. Fear of loss and fear of uncertainty prevent them from engaging in meaningful work or relationships.
This problem of living in the past or in the future is something that we all fall victim to, from time to time. And it is this problem that Jesus addresses in today’s Gospel lesson. Remember the imagery that Jesus uses in this text:
Be dressed for action.
Keep your lamps lit.
Be ready to open the door as soon as the master knocks.
Be prepared for the thief that comes in the night.
The Son of Man will come at an unexpected hour.
The Christian life cannot be lived in the past, and it cannot be lived in the future. It can only be lived in the present moment — in the “now.” Look at any aspect of our life in faith, and you will see that this is true.
As Christians, what do we do when we encounter a hungry person? Do we…
- Lament the state of modern society, remembering that hunger was not so great a problem in the past?
- Make grand plans for a new society where there will be no more hunger?
- Think back to times in our own life when we were in need, and remember the pain and hurt that resulted?
- Smile knowingly, because the person we elected to office promised to take care of this problem?
None of the above. We feed the person! Yes, we may make plans to address hunger in our community. Yes, we may look back to understand how we addressed the problem before, or to try to understand the root causes of hunger better. But first, we see the need in the hungry person and we satisfy that need if we can.
Another example – As Christians, what do we do when we need to make decisions as a church, or committee, or a family? Do we…
- Focus on how great things were in the past, and on the way we used to do things?
- Lament the future and how demographic or social changes might erode the base of our church?
None of the above. We start by focusing on the needs of our church and our community today. We ask, “What needs to be done today, and how do we do it?” Yes, we honor our traditions. Yes, we plan for tomorrow. But first, we act on what is needed in the present moment. Because we recognize that our past and our future are a part of who we are — but they are not the whole, or even the greatest part. It is what we do now that matters the most.
This focus on the present is difficult work, and not always so common. We’ve all worked with planning committees, and we’re all familiar with historic preservation committees — but have you noticed there is no committee for what we need to do today?
So … how do we do it? How do we focus on the present? How do we build up that treasure in heaven that Jesus was talking about?
We start by remembering those wonderful words of Jesus: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In other words, whatever it is that you value, that is where your attention will be. Do you wake up each morning and check the stock listings? That means you value your investments. Do you take time out of your day to spend time with your spouse and family? You do that because you value them. We have the ability to choose what we value.
When we start to value the things that God wants us to value, living in the present moment becomes easier. Have you ever worked at Downtown Daily Bread or another food ministry? When you’re working there, you are entirely focused on that work of feeding the hungry. When you visit the sick or dying, you are sharing the present moment with them. Notice how you are always focused on the present moment whenever you teach, or serve, or work for the benefit of others — even when you pray, or sing, or paint, or dance, you are in the present moment. Each of those acts is an act of love (which is the greatest command God has given us — to love).
When we are doing God’s work, our attention is where it belongs. We are building up that treasure in heaven.
There is another saying that Jesus offers in today’s lesson: “Do not be afraid … it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
We are not to be afraid or intimidated. It is true that when we start to take scripture seriously, we are faced with some surprisingly challenging demands:
Love your enemy.
Forgive those who persecute you.
Sell what you have and give it to the poor.
These seem impossible — at first. If we study these commands, our mind races forward or backward — what will happen if I do these things? What would the world have been like if these commands were taken seriously? But if we just do these things, or at least make a start, we begin to learn that they are possible. With God’s help, they are not beyond our abilities. We can start building up that treasure in heaven right now.
And finally, remember that the Father is pleased to give us the kingdom. We do not have to “earn” our way into heaven. (In fact, we cannot!) We do not have to convince some grudging god that we are worthy to be in his presence. No, the kingdom has already been given to us, as God has been pleased to give it to us. We need only be watchful and remain present — to notice the opportunities to see the kingdom that has been presented to us. When we remain awake, we will not miss our chance to build up that treasure in heaven.
This sermon was preached by Mr. Ryan Tobin on August 10, 2019 for the Celtic Eucharist service at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral. The service celebrated the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14C) and the lesson was Luke 12:32-40.