Tuesday, November 17, 2009
The importance of living in the moment
A Sermon for Pentecost XXIV (B-RCL)
The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine
15 November 2009
The Rev. Canon Thomas P. Miller
Lord, teach us to number our days, so that we may apply our hearts to wisdom, Gloria Patri.
Every time I mail a letter or pay a bill, I am reminded of how confident and irrepressible we Americans can be. I am referring, of course, to that little patch of postage called the Forever Stamp, which is supposed to be good and hold its value for ever, no matter how much the postal rates increase. In fact, it’s marketed as a prudent purchase. And as postal rates increase over time, the Forever Stamp may even be a shrewd long-term investment.
Just think about it. Theoretically you could pass down forever stamps to your grandchildren and they to their children and sometime in a hundred years or so, when the cost of a stamp has reached astronomical levels, your heirs could make a killing on a future Forever Stamp exchange on Wall Street. The Forever Stamp could prove to be a gold mine down the road. Nevertheless, in the short term, the concept is not without peril. I can just imagine the faces of my next of kin when the lawyer reads my will in which I’ve left each of them 50,000 Forever Stamps.
Now, as a minister of the Gospel, I am not unfamiliar with the notion of forever, or its theological cousin, eternity. We usually think in terms of eternal life. The letter to the Hebrews talks about the eternal priesthood of Christ, and in the psalms we ascribe to the Lord honor and glory for ever and ever, amen. These are rather big and heady concepts, so I get a perverse little kick out of affixing my Forever Stamp with its eternal value onto the envelope that contains my check to Time Warner Cable.
The trouble with forever is that it tempts us to forget about today. And the irony is, it’s today when we encounter the forever of God. It’s here and now that the God of forever acts in our lives and in the life of the world. It might be said that, on one hand, nothing is forever, and yet forever is always at hand.
Consider today’s Gospel story. Jesus and his disciples are coming out of the great temple, which seems to the disciples to be just about as permanent, or forever, as anything on earth could be. “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings,” the astonished disciples cry out to Jesus, as if to say, “Here is something built to last.” And Jesus, with an eye to history and a rather more developed sense of forever, replies, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
From our perspective two thousand years later, we can verify that Jesus was right. The temple that so astonished his friends was dismantled and destroyed within 40 years – and then for the second time in history. And we know what happened to Rome, then the capital city of the occupying power, unparalleled in monumental architectural bravura, now in our time a romantic vestige of lost imperial splendor.
The disciples, of course, consider the destruction of the temple to be a disaster, nothing short of the end of the world. Already looking ahead and speculating about something so cataclysmic, so apocalyptic, it is natural for them to ask, “When, when will this terrible thing happen and what will be the sign of the end?”
To which Jesus, with his feet on the ground and his eyes wide open, offers not a terrifying prediction – though this passage is often interpreted as a warning – but rather a fair description of how life always is: war, the upheaval of nations, earthquakes, famines. In any case, the end that they fear is perhaps not that unfamiliar. And curiously enough, as the disciples are asking about the end, Jesus tells them that this is just the beginning. These conditions of life on the planet are birth pangs in which the kingdom of God is continually arising from the world as we know it in all its threatening complexity and danger. All is passing away, even as God continues to renew creation.
Things are passing away, but that doesn’t make them unimportant or unworthy of out attention now. The times in which we live are passing away, but our times are the ground on which we encounter God. Jesus was born into this world, not another. Our lives may be passing away, but every moment is precious as a gift from God, and every mortal breath we take is a conversation with the divine. And that may be the key to this business of forever: we can know forever in every moment of time.
And seeing God among us is something of the essence of our faith in Jesus Christ, who was born into the human family in this world; who was acquainted with sorrow and knows what human suffering is, and what death can do. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ, who joined heaven to earth and earth to heaven, is confirmation that God works in and through history. We can encounter God even now. And, in fact, here and now is the only means we have to enter into that fullness of life with God, which is truly forever.
T. S. Eliot expressed this sublimely in the “Four Quartets:”
A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
And in that moment, God arises, for Eliot and for all of us who live our particular pattern of timeless moments.
I find the idea of a Forever Stamp at best naive, and at worse more than a little delusional. I mean, there is no guarantee that the United States Postal Service is going to survive rapid changes in communication and information technology. And though I might be branded a party-pooper by super-patriots, it is reasonable, given the history of the world, that even the United States will at some point in history, even thousands of years down the road, cease to exist or even be remembered, along with whatever remnant of the Post Office might still exist. So, the idea of this little stamp of mine keeping its value forever is just silly. I’m not even remotely tempted to think this little patch of petroleum by-product is going to endure forever.
But that doesn’t really matter at all. We are here now. This is our time, our only time, and what a time it is! History is now, and God is now. As it was in the beginning is now, and the present moment is all we know, or need to know, about forever. And so, to bring Eliot back to mind, while the light shines on an autumn morning, in a not-so-secluded Cathedral, history is now and New York, and God is now, only and always now.
With that in mind, you may want to pay particular attention to the second verse of the Offertory hymn we will sing in just a few minutes:
Mortal pride and earthly glory
Sword and crown betray our trust
Thou with care and toil we build them
Tower and temple fall to dust
But God’s power
Hour by Hour
Is my temple and my tower.