Past vs Present

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday July 23, 2017, the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost.

Collect: Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion, we beseech thee, upon our infirmities, and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, mercifully give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 44:6-8, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Two weeks ago in my sermon on Romans 7, I suggested you all go home and read Romans 8. I should have looked ahead in the lectionary, because I would have seen we’d go on to spend three weeks in Romans 8, last week, this week, and next, as the second reading these Sundays.

There’s a lot here, but first of all it makes me think of a close friend of mine. A few months ago now, she checked herself into rehab for alcoholism. It happened as it sometimes does: she reached a crisis point, which played itself out in a more public setting than anyone might have wished. This set in motion a series of events that led to her going to rehab. It’s uncertain now what will become of her job, her marriage, her housing. But it’s a good start that she’s finally getting the help she needs.

Why do I bring this up? Because as her friends, all of us had noticed that she liked to drink, but it simply didn’t occur to any of us that there was a problem until that final moment in the pattern. Then it was obvious, then we all felt stupid for not seeing it before and trying to do something that might have helped.

This scenario isn’t all that unusual. At some point or other we all ask ourselves, “How could I have been so blind? I didn’t see it until it was too late.” We hear it in the news all the time too. No one can see the pattern until the final tragedy, which always comes as a surprise. 

Crises are like that, it seems. The final event is what finally reveals the pattern that made it inevitable in the first place. How could we have seen? What could we have done to prevent it? The truth is that we couldn’t see, not until the final event made the pattern visible, and then it was too late.

It’s not just crises either that work this way. Positive events run the same kind of course. When we fall in love, get married, have children, discover our vocations, or any number of other major, joyful, life events, it causes us to stop and re-read our pasts. Suddenly it all makes sense, it all seems inevitable. While we slogged through a former, unhappy career, or kept trying and kept striking out on the dating scene, or shopped for churches until one “clicked,” in the middle of it all nothing made sense. And then when we found it, or him, or her, it all made sense. Everything before suddenly seemed to have prepared us for this exact moment.

These kinds of events, whether crises or joys, all cause us to re-read the past, whether our own or our society’s, to see how it led us here. Crises or joys both make it clear, that while the past is what got us to this moment, at least in our minds and hearts this present moment tends to recreate, reinterpret the past, and not the other way around. The present is what reveals the pattern that no amount of research, profiling, or soul-searching could have revealed while it was still unfolding.

So what then, is the past somehow subject to the present, with all of its “changes and chances”? Must we stop attempting to discern any kind of patterns whatever? No, that would be a pretty grim world if it were the case. Life would be governed by fate, by chance, and all we could achieve would be a stoic acceptance of whatever life happened to throw our way. Enthroning the present above the past makes for people with very strong characters, but not much sense of humor. Or the opposite, it creates people with such flippant attitudes towards everyone and everything that life becomes nothing more than a means to my own pleasure. Both approaches lead to narcissism, and a self-destructive nihilism.

There’s a problem then in the way we think about both past and present. The past cannot have final say because it’s always the present that finally reveals the pattern. But the present cannot have final say either, because it would make us prisoners to fate, to the uncontrollable march of time and events. 

What to do then about the past and the present, and the way they relate to each other? If you’ve watched, read, or listened to the news lately, you might say this exact question is the crisis point in American public discourse at the moment. But the same question was also one of the fault lines in ancient culture too, into which Jesus was born, exercised his ministry, was crucified, and rose again. And this is also the fault line that Paul is exploring here in Romans 8.

How to make sense of the Church’s Jewish past, of Paul’s own past, and the forgiveness and freedom from the Law that Christ brings? How to make sense of so many conflicting pressures both in tradition and in experience? How do you and I hold onto hope when friends take a stumble, family disappoints, or respected mentors fall from grace? For that matter how can each of us face the darkness in our own lives with grace and courage? Paul’s answer is Romans 8, an extended meditation on the Holy Spirit, and Love at the heart of God.

“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba, Father,” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.”

There’s a lot of crying and groaning in this passage, and that’s true to life. We wish we had seen it sooner, been able to help before it got this bad. Mothers sometimes tell me about the fierce love they have for their children, which often surprises themselves in how instinctual and almost animal it is; it gives mothers’ prayers for their kids a solidness and a force hard to reckon with.

There’s a pressure in our spirits about these kinds of things, which surpasses words. And when we direct it towards God, the Spirit himself joins in and offers the whole thing, with our selves included, up to God. This prayer, this offering, this love, is the unfolding of the new creation begun in us at our baptism, begun in all the world at Jesus’ death and resurrection. And it liberates us from the impossible tensions both of past and present. This kind of prayer, this kind of beginning, is oriented not towards the past or even the present, but towards the future: towards its logical conclusion, towards the consummation of creation’s purpose, when all things are made new in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

Don’t miss how revolutionary this is: the Gospel makes our primary reference point not the past, nor even the present, but the future. And the Good News of the Kingdom of God is that the future is breaking in all over the place. It’s great inauguration was the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, but it continues now: in the life of the Church, all over the world, in you and me when we pray, and in the Eucharist, when we are fed not just with bread and wine from the altar, but with the very life of God from heaven itself. All of these moments are the future Kingdom of God breaking in on us, and they reconfigure what we think of the present, as well as what we make of the past.

The Kingdom of God is always unfolding, not yet complete. And because of that, you and I have no need to be bound by our pasts. There is no blame to be assigned for missing the pattern the crisis revealed, there is no inescapable conclusion we must draw about our society or our world, no hand of fate inexorably dragging us to destruction, no sin which cannot be forgiven, no death without the possibility of resurrection. It means that every moment is pregnant with the opportunity to begin again, fresh, new, in the Kingdom of God, his children, the heirs of eternal life.

As we approach the communion rail this morning, may we remember the future. May we be nourished now in the present by the foretaste it offers of the culmination of all things, united by the Holy Spirit in the eternal offering and receiving of Love.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.