Sermon for April 7th, 2019
All of your actions happen in the present moment.
That is a fairly heavy statement that probably needs to be unpacked a little.
Our actions, that moment when we either do one thing or another, they always happen in the present. Always.
You may say, well what about my actions in the past?
But those have all transformed into memories now, haven’t they? You may remember decisions you made this morning; you may remember actions you took, but they have moved out of the realm of action now, because you can no longer do anything to change them. You may have been hungry when you woke up this morning. You may have decided at that time that the best way to address that dilemma was eating a great big sugary donut…or two. You may have acted on that decision in the moment and scarfed down those donuts, and now that it is a few hours later you may be thinking: maybe that wasn’t the best decision. Maybe I should have had a banana instead. Too bad.
There is nothing you can do about it now. Nothing. It’s all a memory now. No action you take now can change the past. You can choose to think about it or not; you can choose to reflect on the memory of that donut (or donuts) with either fondness, longing, and gratitude, or with regret and shame. But the one thing you cannot do, is decide right now to eat something different for breakfast this morning. I’m sorry fellow humans, but even Cher cannot turn back time.
Then you may say, what about my actions in the future?
But those aren’t actions yet are they? They are just hopes and plans right now. Let’s just say, speaking purely hypothetically, that I did have something sugary for breakfast this morning, and that I do regret it and therefore have decided that I will make amends for that transgression by taking a five-mile walk this afternoon. Well as anyone that has ever made a new year’s resolution can tell you, deciding to do something, and actually doing it are two different things. I may get home and decide that a nap seems like a better plan. Or maybe it will be raining or cold. Or maybe, and this is always a possibility, maybe this afternoon will never come. Maybe my plans will come into direct conflict with God’s plans. What then? Hopes, plans, intentions, fears, they may all influence my decisions or my actions now, but the only actions I have real control over are the ones that are happening right now in this moment. I may intend to take a walk this afternoon, but until it actually happens it is just a plan, or a goal, not an action. It’s not a reality yet. It becomes an action when I actually put one foot in front of the other.
Now you may be tempted right now to put one foot in front of another and go to the bathroom until this philosophical sermon is over, but I urge you to press on through the desire to do or think about something else for a minute, because this is really important. You may use your memories of the past, be they good or bad, to influence your decisions now; and you may use your hopes and dreams, or your intentions or your fears of the future to influence your decisions now and your actions now, but ultimately, the only thing you have actual control over is your decision now, your action now. Your actions always take place in the present moment.
Why is this important? It’s important because the devil doesn’t want you to live in the present moment. The present moment is, in truth, the only place in your life where you have actual control or power, so the devil doesn’t want you to live there. So the devil will try to lock you away and keep you living in the past with shame and regret; he will make you relive past trauma over and over again, to the point where you become incapable of experiencing joy or love in the moment; a love that that might be right in front of you. Or better yet, the devil may try to lock you away in the future…he may do that through fear and anxiety, ruining your present life by making you perpetually afraid of something that may never happen, or he will fill you with the best of intentions and plans and dreams for the future, we all know what the road to hell is paved with, don’t we?…good intentions. Intentions and plans and dreams are no threat to the devil as long as that is all they are. Planning to read the bible, or pray, or serve God by helping out a poor stranger in need, is not the same thing as actually doing it. As long as our plans don’t affect or become our actions, the devil is in his glory. As long as we remain focused on what was, or what might be, we will never appreciate the joy and love that already is.
We have been reading C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters this Lent, and in this brilliant book which is so timeless it could have been written yesterday, Lewis makes this keen observation:
“Nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust and ambition look ahead.”
Lewis has one of his demons say this:
“We want a man hag-ridden by the Future- haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth- ready to break God’s commands in the present if by doing so we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other- dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now; but always read to sacrifice on the altar of the future, every real gift which is offered them in the present.”
And don’t we do it? We get so caught up in our plans and our schemes, that we can’t even see God when he is right in front of us. And that is what the devil wants. He wants us to live in a world of perpetual yesterdays, or perpetual tomorrows, not today. He doesn’t want you to serve God now, or to be happy or joyful now; or to love the person who is right in front of you now. He wants you to plot, and plan, and scheme, and fear, and regret. The last thing he wants you to do is actually take action in the present moment and show love to someone.
In John’s Gospel we are told that the devil entered into the heart of Judas Iscariot. It doesn’t say exactly when, but I suspect that by the time Jesus came to Bethany and had dinner at the home of his friend Lazarus, that the devil had already been working hard on Judas, getting him to focus all of his attention on the future. He says that Mary’s jar of ointment could have been sold to help the poor. The gospel writer tells us that he had other plans in mind. But either way, Judas is focused on the future. As long as Judas remains focused on plans, his plans, the devil gets what he wants, which is to turn Judas away from actually serving the God that is right in front of him.
In today’s gospel there is one person who takes action in the present. The devil has not trapped her in the past or in the future. She has the opportunity in the moment to show love to the person that is right in front of her and she has the strength to push past all of the devil’s distractions and take action. Mary acted out of love in the present moment, and in doing so, she touched God. Don’t let the devil trap you in the past or in the future, because God might be right in front of you, right here, right now.