August 16, 2020 Sermon
“Living in the Past, Present, and Future: The Present”
1st Scripture Reading – Matthew 6:25-34
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
2nd Scripture Reading – Matthew 25:31-46
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
“Living in the Past, Present, and Future: The Present”
Today is the final sermon in our series considering what God has to say through the scriptures about living out of the past, present, and future. As I’ve suggested the past two Sundays, I’m sure that to some extent, we’re supposed to allow each of these periods of time – past, present, and future – to impact how we live as followers of Jesus in every moment. But there are dilemmas in this: which time period deserves MOST of our attention for living and by how much? And even more than figuring out how much attention we’re supposed to give each period of time, we’ve got to figure out as followers of Jesus how, exactly, to let these periods of time influence us. What in each period – past, present, future – should be our focus? These are big questions. These are important questions. If we get the answers wrong, things can go very badly, even badly to the point of us not really following Jesus anymore. If we get the answers right, the kingdom of God can become a reality here and now.
So far, we’ve discovered that God very much wants us to live out of a sense of ONE very specific thing about the past and ONE very specific thing about the future. With regard to the past, God desires us to live each present moment out of our constant remembrance of God’s mighty deeds that demonstrate God’s steadfast love for people. With regard to the future, God wants us to live each present moment in HOPE of what God promises to provide for us – God’s victory over all evil powers that will usher in an era of eternal life in a new heaven and new earth.
Today, we consider the era of the present, which seems kind of strange. I mean, if you’re making decisions in the present moment – which is really the only time you can definitively make a decision to act and how to act – it just makes SENSE that you must consider what’s going on in the present to make those decisions. However, I hope you discovered from the past two sermons, this isn’t necessarily true. You really COULD make all of your decisions in each moment based on your remembrance of God’s mighty deeds in the past and out of your hope for God’s eternal victory in the future. Even without a God-focus, you really could make all of your decisions in each moment based on something terribly painful in the past or something worrisome about the future. You don’t necessarily HAVE to consider what’s going on in the present at all to decide what to DO in the present. In fact, quite a few people don’t give their present context much weight when it comes to their decision-making.
I’ll provide an example of one phenomenon that’s going on in our society right now. I’m sure you know, there are quite a few people working in the present moment to REMOVE statues, memorials, reminders of things from the past: statues of Christopher Columbus, statues of Confederate leaders, statues of pretty much anyone associated with slavery. I’m not here today to address whether or not this is right or wrong – it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this sermon. What matters is that the people who are doing this, they are focusing almost completely – if not completely – on the past to make their decisions for the present.
So we have the question: if God wants us to focus on what God has done in the past and what God will do in the future when making our present decisions, does God ALSO want us to focus on what’s happening in the present?
Before I begin to answer the question, let’s consider what people in our society actually DO. Let’s consider what kinds of things people tend to focus on in the present in our world today – because, I hope you know, a great many people DO focus on the present as a source for decision-making:
- News might be the biggest thing people focus on in the present. I don’t know how you begin your day, but many people begin their day by watching the news on television, reading about the news on their favorite news website, or even hopping onto social media to find out what’s happening in the world. And for so many people, what they discover in the news completely sets the tone for their day. They HUNGER for breaking news, and THAT is focusing on what’s happening in the present.
- Social media is another great example. I know, I mentioned social media in the news category, but we do so much more with social media than just check-in on what could be called “the news”, don’t we? We check in with friends and family. We discover memes that either tickle us or enrage us. We get bogged down in heated arguments with others. I would suggest that more than maybe anything else in our time, social media has ratcheted up our focus on THE PRESENT. Every five seconds you can get an update on what’s happening with somebody, somewhere, right now. You don’t have to wait for a phone call or a letter in the mail or even an email; you get second to second updates on what’s happening.
- Or how about what’s going on with family, friends, and even work colleagues. If someone we love or are close to is sick in the present moment, that impacts what we do, how we live, how we decide, doesn’t it? Especially in the context of the COVID pandemic; if someone close to you might have COVID-19 at the moment and is awaiting the results of a test, YOU have to quarantine and also await the results of that test. The context of our neighbor’s lives in the present most definitely impact our decisions.
- Or how about your present financial situation? If you don’t have enough money to eat food today and you don’t have food sitting in the pantry or the refrigerator or the freezer, that’s going to impact your decision-making, right? Alternatively, if you’ve got enough money right now to go on vacation or buy a new car or move into a bigger house, you just might decide to do so.
I hope you can see, people, most of us, maybe ALL of us, do focus quite a bit on our present context, our present situation, to decide what to do in each moment. In fact, I would suggest people today likely make their decisions as much or even more so out of a present-focus than out of a focus on past or future. And due to advancements in technology that give us a greater connectedness to what’s going on throughout the world in the present moment – think of all the people who spend so much of their time absolutely GLUED to their smart phones, I would suggest we have a more present-focus than any time in recent history.
So, people do focus on the present when making decisions, but, as followers of Jesus, as people of God, SHOULD we? And, if so, what about the present SHOULD be our focus as opposed to what IS our focus? These are the questions I’ll consider for today.
From our first scripture reading, which I’ve referenced throughout this sermon series, I hope you have gleaned that the answer is a resounding “YES”. That’s what Jesus meant by “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Focus on what’s going on right now. Through Jesus, God communicated to thousands of people at the event of the Sermon on the Mount and billions more through the transmission of Matthew’s gospel that God DOES want us to focus on the present.
But, what is it about the present context that God wants us to focus upon? If you read Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 too literally (remember, Jesus often used figurative speech to make his point), you’d be tempted to think God wants us to focus on “today’s trouble”…which seems more than a little on the opposite side of what we’ve already discovered God wants us to focus on in the past and the future. In the past and the future, God wants us to focus on the GOOD STUFF, God’s mighty deeds past and God’s promised mighty deeds in the future. Why would God want us to focus on the troubles of the present?
As it turns out, God communicated a desire for us to focus on the present quite often in scripture…but without exactly saying those words. Rather, God tended to communicate primarily through telling us WHAT it is about the present upon which God wants us to focus…and it’s not troubles, or, at least, not troubles in a way that will get us down. These passages, they predominantly communicate the same message from our second scripture reading for today, which, like the first, provides words from Jesus.
By the way, don’t get confused by the way this story begins: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.” The beginning makes it sound like this is a story calling us to focus on the future. But it’s not. While the story is set in the future, the story is all about what we’re supposed to focus on about the present in each present moment. In the story, the king recalls the activities of his subjects, what they did and focused on back in the previous present moments of their lives. And it even has to do with “today’s trouble is enough for today.” But here’s the thing, the “today’s trouble” described here is not YOUR trouble for today – it’s not troubles that should get you down; NO, it’s your neighbor’s trouble. Did you catch it?
This story, some call it a parable, is all about what we, you, each of us should be focusing on in the present moment. Jesus describes where our focus should be with the following phrases:
- I was hungry and you gave me food
- I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink
- I was a stranger and you welcomed me
- I was naked and you gave me clothing
- I was sick and you took care of me
- I was in prison and you visited me
Y’all, what we’re supposed to focus upon about the present moment, our context in each moment, is the needs of people all around us! I do think Jesus meant these particular needs quite literally – look for people who are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, without adequate clothing, sick, and unjustly imprisoned – but I ALSO think Jesus meant something much MORE than just these listed needs. In the ancient world, to provide such a list typically suggested the commonality of the list was symbolic of ALL other things that are like those on the list. In this case, the commonality is the needs of other people.
AND in structuring the list as Jesus did, by combining each need with an action to MEET that need, Jesus was also revealing that focusing on the reality, the existence, of need is not enough. In other words, going through the present moments of your life LOOKING for the needs of others without actually doing what YOU can do to meet those needs is NOT ENOUGH. Your focus should be on both seeking out needs AND doing what you can to meet those needs. That’s what you’re supposed to focus on about the present to inform the decisions of your life. Which, by the way, is ALSO what Jesus said in our first scripture reading, but he used different words. Jesus said, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness…” This word that gets translated as “righteousness” can also be translated as “justice”…and you know what God’s justice is throughout the scriptures, don’t you? It’s taking care of the needs of others!
Too often, I see people getting one half of this right but whiffing on the other half. You’ve probably met people who are really good at finding/seeking/seeing the needs of others but who leave the meeting the needs part to someone else, haven’t you? They experience a hungry person on the street, have everything they need to help that person get some food, but then decide to tell the Outreach Chair or the Pastor at church…as if the Outreach Chair or Pastor can do anything to help a person they saw standing out in front of WalMart three days ago. Can you imagine what Jesus would have said about that? Can you imagine if his list for separating the sheep and the goats was:
- You saw me hungry and you gave me no food…but expected someone else to
- You saw me thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink…but expected someone else to
- You saw that I was a stranger and you did not welcome me…but expected someone else to
- You saw that I was naked and you did not give me clothing…but expected someone else to
- You saw that I was sick and in prison and you did not visit me…but expected someone else to
Oh, wait, that’s almost EXACTLY what Jesus said to the people Jesus called “accursed”.
You’ve probably met people who get just the other half right, as well. These folks go around meeting needs that don’t exist. They offer fancy gear to homeless people who don’t have a need for fancy gear because it will get stolen. They offer a good word to a hungry person because they believe the REAL need is a good word, rather than food. Sometimes they even go around doing things for themselves – giving gifts others don’t want or need so they can feel better about themselves or stealing big-screen televisions from a burning Target store in the name of racial justice, which is a way of replacing the very real need for racial justice with their not-so-real need for a new and free big screen television – and convincing themselves that they’re meeting the needs of others. Whole organizations even exist to serve this kind of purpose. But these people and organizations are deceiving themselves. And the outcome is the same as for the people who see need but don’t do what they can do about it: by meeting false needs, needs that don’t exist, these people end up NOT meeting any real needs at all, so that the hungry people remain hungry, the thirsty people remain thirsty, the strangers are not welcomed, the naked are not clothed, and the sick and imprisoned are not visited. I’m quite certain Jesus was calling these folks “accursed” as well…because they do not do what they can to meet the needs around them.
But all this talk of people being accursed might give you the wrong impression. Fear – the fear of being accursed – is NOT why we should be focusing on seeking out and meeting the needs around us in the present moment. No, the reason is a WONDERFUL, AMAZING reason. It’s bound up in what Jesus said to the sheep, rather than the goats: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…”
When we get this RIGHT, when we live our present moments focused on God’s justice, on God’s righteousness, on identifying and then meeting the needs right in front of us, WE will live our lives as people who feel BLESSED by God. Isn’t that what you want, what you long for, more than anything? (I know some people long for riches or fame or something worldly, but wouldn’t you, as a person of God, prefer to live each day with an overwhelming sense of God’s blessing upon you?) So, individually, we will feel blessed by God, and the world around us will go through an amazing transformation. The world increasingly becomes the kingdom of God, the place where people are serving God’s will, the place where all needs are met, the place where people have EVERYTHING they need to enjoy life, not just in the present moment but forever. And doesn’t THAT world, that kingdom, sound so much better than the one in which we’re living? All it takes is for us to seek and meet the needs in front of us, to pursue God’s justice in each present moment, and our lives, our world, WILL change for the better!