Believing in Tomorrow
Language is a wonderful thing, and we do wonderful things with it! We learn early in life that some things said to us are to be taken quite literally, while many others must be understood figuratively. So when our mother said, “It’s raining outside, bet-ter go get your umbrella,” we understood that real drops of water were falling and that she had in mind the blue-and-yellow object hanging in the hall closet which would keep the raindrops off our heads. But when she looked out the second time and said, “Oh, my! It’s raining cats and dogs out there!” we understood that she was not speaking literally, but poetically by way of hyperbole, and that all she really meant was that more raindrops were falling than before. Not a single day passes, even in adult life, when we are not sub-consciously decoding language constantly and decid-ing whether what we hear is factual or metaphorical. If we annoy a colleague who then says to us, “Go take a hike,” or “Go soak your head in a rain barrel,” we under-stand we are not expected to do either one of those things, literally….that they are poetic remarks which mean, “Stop bothering me.”
This is almost embarrassingly simple stuff which you might get in some early lecture in Linguistics l0l, but I have to mention it occasionally because it has so much importance for understanding the Bible. We talk sometimes about people who read the Bible with extreme literal-mindedness, and how that literalism can make them miss the whole point of the message, and this is true, but it is also true that there are no total literalists, that even those who gladly describe themselves as literalists are more selective than they may wish to admit. What actually happens is that they (or their mentors) decide which verses to take literally, and which to take figuratively, and the ultimate results of those interpretations is that we have Baptist churches and Episcopalian churches, Waco, Texas cult followers and Congregationalists. Let’s see how it might work:
Last week I shared a sermon under the title, Living in the Moment, and I felt you agreed with me that the Bible supports that idea, that in one very real sense today is all we have and we should make the most of it. In fact, we heard this emphatic remark from the Sermon on the Mount: “Don’t worry at all about tomorrow. Tomorrow can take care of itself!” Language can hardly be more straightforward, but I have never met anyone, not even the most extreme literalist, who took those words at absolute face value. The man who tells me that the fish story in Jonah and the sun-stopping episode in Joshua are literal fact and must never be interpreted poetically will, in that very moment, be busy buying stock, putting money away for college tuition, exercising at the health club to ward off arthritis….in other words, being concerned about tomorrow no matter what Jesus said, beause he has interpreted Jesus to mean something different. But let’s just suppose for a moment that he reads that advice literally, the same way he reads the creation story in Genesis 1, in which case he might become the founder of the FIRST FORGET-THE-FUTURE CHRISTIAN CHURCH , whose distinguishing doctrine is based on a literal reading of the words, “Take no thought for tomorrow.”
There is not such church, of course, because common sense tells all of us that Jesus had to be using a figure of speech called hyperbole when he said that, and that he did not mean to be taken literally….that he has used the literary strategy of over-statement to say, “Listen up, my friends. Don’t spend so much time getting ready for tomorrow that you miss living in the moment. Get some balance in your lives.” That’s the interpretation we make, and I think it’s the right one, but I would remind any Bible student that it is not what he said, and that many of our hangups about what the Bible teaches come from our decisions about what to read literally and what not to read literally.
Now, all of that business is by way of getting to the theme of this morning. When I said last week we should not linger overmuch on the past or dwell overmuch on the future, that we should make today count and live in the moment, I meant every word of it. But the world of ideas is filled with paradoxes. The New Testament is filled with them, because it is impossible to teach without realizing there are two sides to almost any idea: you save your life by losing it, Jesus said, or those other oxymorons, the first shall be last, and the truest freedom is found in bondage. So part of the truth, from last week, is Live in the moment, but another part is, Look ahead, think about the future, and so I complete these twin sermons by talking about the need to believe in tomorrow and how total preoccupation with the present moment can be disastrous.
I realize this is not earth-shattering news, but I also realize that we often need a reminder of things we know in theory but may forget in practice. We’ve been told forever to take some thought for tomorrow. 500 years before Christ, Confucius warned that if we take no thought about what is distant, we will find sorrow near at hand; Nietsche told us that”the future influences the present just as much as the past,” and Coleridge reminded us that “in today already walks tomorrow.” And closer home there was Charles Kettering who said sensibly, “My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there.” So we turn over the coin of last week’s sermon and remind ourselves that if we should be sure to live in the moment, we should be equally careful not to be trapped by it, to be infected by “nowness,” barely able to lift our thoughts beyond the present. I have a dear friend in California whose wife tells me has become a news junkie, glued to CNN and so obsessed with everything happening right at the moment that he has no time left for savoring the past or reflecting on the future, not way of putting the present in perspective.
We do that by letting yesterday interpret the present moment, and believing in tomorrow if the present moment is not so good. Those of us with children have all said, at one time or another, “The kids know nothing of the past and never think of tomorrow; all they live for is the moment,” and we mean it as a criticism. They need a link with a yesterday older than they are, and a conviction that tomorrow comes and may be worth waitiong for. They need the sense of time we get through reading, or hearing older people talk, or by experience…like visiting some wild unspoiled country where everything we see is old and where humanity itself seems a newcomer. I had an extraordinary sense of time once in an enormous box canyon in the Powderhorn range of Colorado, sitting alone one long sunny afternoon and hearing the millenial sounds of erosion as little rock slides loosened every once in a while on some remote cliff face. I would hear a faint rattling whisper and start looking for the cause, and sometimes find it….a small, cascading river of rocks and pebbles, far off….and I would think of the millions of years that happened with no human to hear it and how my brief self fit into that long, slow scheme of things.
More than once I have felt “forever” on the edge of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, listening to the awesome silence that broods over that place. And I have felt it any time I have walked alone by the edge of the sea and watched the waves roll in exactly the way they have since that lost time when humanity was only a tiny whisper of promise. But one doesn’t have to go to the canyon or the sea; a sense of forever hovers closer home, over the Flint Hills and over the high plains country. Robert Louis Stevenson followed Fanny Osbourne across 6000 miles to marry her, a hundred years ago, and part of that time he was on a slow trip across Nebraska. He reflected in his diary on the “huge sameness” of that country. A man, he wrote, “may walk five miles and see nothing; ten, and it as though he had not moved.” I’ve driven at 70 mps for hours through that big sky country and thought of what it must have been like on foot, on a horse, in a wagon. And if we can’t find anything else, we can always look at the night sky, with the same constellations and wandering planets Jesuswatched as a boy, and Moses, and primitive cave people before either of them. You may have seen a Barbara Streisand movie called, “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever,” which says in a single sentence what I want to say in this sermon. What makes a bad day is when we lose sight of forever, when all we see is a moment, and the moment is bad, and the vision is maddening. All depression and hopelessness are related to the disease of nowness, when now is the outer limit of our vision. We sometimes say in church that God heals, which is really a way of saying that all release from murky emotions is somehow tied to the eternal, to the past and to the future.
Children begin to have some sense of who they are when they have a past to refer to, when they know where they have been, what they have won or lost or been afraid of. We are the only animals defined by memory and hope. Some of you who have come among us recently have learned to love this beautiful place, but think what it means to those who have been here since the first day, through all the bright sunlit mornings and the cold gray ones of winter, who see dear faces now vanished, who hear the words of a funeral or the songs of a wedding, whose hour here on a Sunday morning is enriched beyond measure by those memories because it is good to look back so long as one is not trapped or crippled by the looking. I shudder sometimes when I read a newspaper story of a body found in an alley….no kin, no ties, no past.We need desperately to have our fingers tangled in the strings of yesterday, or identity is gone.
And it’s just as true that without a sense of tomorrow, today might be unbear-able. The flavor of this moment is enhanced by the belief in great things still ahead of you, in words that may change your lives, in prayers that may speak more deeply to your hunger than any heard yet, in friendships unimagined at this moment. Some-times, when no one is here, I sit by myself in the balcony and see the lost faces and hear the vanished words and wonder about what it will be like someday when I no longer can love it, and I hear the whispers of destiny and I feel the humbling touch of forever.
It’s been fashionablefor a while to talk of identity crises, of the many who say they have no idea who they are. Well, when we know where we have been, and where we are going, we take care of that. If we sit by a stranger on a long train or plane ride, and we want to communicate, how do we start? We ask, “Where are you from?” and the answer ties us to a past, and then we ask, “Where are you going?” and the answer links the person with a future, and when you answer the same questions, the two of you suddenly have a past and a future, and you can begin to relate. The present has a frame, and you begin to “get the picture.”
I suppose I’m like you in confessing I bog down occasionally in nowness. I feel trapped by old routine and trivial repetitions, even anxiety, and there can be a few days of this until suddenly I remember the beauty I’ve seen and the friendships I’ve enjoyed, and the comforting truth that each sorrow passed, that dawn came after the darkness, that in the lovely words of our Scripture text, “Tears may flow in the night, but joy comes in the morning.” And I have no embarrassment at all in saying what I’m sure is obvious, that my sense of the past and of the future is deeply colored by religion. When I stop to think about it, I realize that every really serious dilemma of my life has ultimately been settled on religious terms. My final answers have not come from the world of entertainment or commerce or athletics or secular scholarship, but from religion. In insist on believing that we are something more than machines, that we have sudden bursts of insight, of rare and wondrous goodness, of moments when we feel a wholeness and a joy that lie beyond explanation. And I believe we always need something more than the moment, good as it may be.
Which is why you’ve come, isn’t it? Hoping for a glimpse of something beyond the noise and rush of so much of life, a glimpse — however fleeting — of something eternal. I hope so much that you find it here at times, in a song or a prayer, in the words of somebody’s sermon or in the laughter you share with friends. It is gray and cloudy this morning, with hints of winter in the air, but if you have caught a glimpse of forever in this place, everything is changed. The day always clears up for people who become the masters of time.
Open our hearts, gracious God, to the knowledge that only a sense of the eternal can make sense of our little moment in time, and then remind us that even that moment is enough , if we do not waste it, to bind ourselves in love and loyalty to each other, and to you. Amen.