The Private Intellectual
Ecclesiastes-Based Real Estate Advice

Monday, September 08, 2014  

Tomorrow and Today
Rev. Ben Dueholm
Isaiah 25:6-10a; selections from “Archaeology” by W.H. Auden; Matthew 6:24-34
Rockefeller Memorial Chapel
September 7, 2014

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God, creator of heaven and earth, and from Jesus Christ the redeemer and savior. Amen.

I want to thank you all for welcoming me to your community this morning, and I especially thank Bromleigh for the invitation. The University of Chicago, and this chapel itself, are places that I have no hope of untangling from the accounts I am sometimes asked to give of myself and my journey to faith. I didn’t go to church very much when I was a kid. I became a Christian while I was a student here, and church folk sometimes want to know how that happened. And while I ad-lib this story every time, there is always a pivot here: “well, I went to an Ash Wednesday service at the campus chapel,” or “I read the Sermon on the Mount in a bookstore in the basement of a seminary.”  This story, which I have often told and which is always different and yet always the same, is not one I am going to tell from this pulpit. If you should, for whatever reason, ask me for it after worship today, I will be abashed and reluctant and then I will, with relish, launch right into it. 

Because stories connecting the person we are with the person we were and the person we expect and hope (or fear) to be are essential to our lives. These stories give us something to cling to in tough times, when adversity challenges our identity. They give us a way to interpret things that happen to us and around us. This is not just a cultural thing. The capacity to make up stories is, apparently, part of our biology. We need it in order to make sense of a world that is throwing more stuff at us than our brains can process. 

And what’s true of us as individuals is true of our families and communities as well. We tell stories about our families that connect past to present and future. We identify with political ideologies that tell stories about the world: if you think of yourself as a “progressive,” you may tend to tell stories about how much power of growth and change and improvement is locked up inside of our world, waiting to be liberated. And if you think of yourself as a “conservative” you may tend to tell stories about how fragile the world is and how important it is to preserve those practices and beliefs that have carried us to this moment.

I know I’m not alone here in being a compulsive consumer of stories: stories about lives, about places, about civilizations, about the beliefs that have shaped me and all of us. It’s why country music is so awesome—it tells stories. If you’re anything like me you have been listening to a whole lot of Kris Kristofferson songs lately. I can’t get enough of “Me and Bobbie McGee,” the song about how freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose: “Somewhere near Salinas, Lord I let her slip away / Searching for the home I hope she’ll find / And I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday / Holding Bobbie’s body next to mine.” 

There’s just one problem with our innate urge to make the world into stories: it tends not to be especially accurate. I’ve seen it called “confabulation.” A writer named Will Storr describes it this way

We live, moment to moment, in an emotional reality of love, hate, feuds, sorrows and dreams. We spin seductive, reductive narratives of heroism and villainy, struggle and victory, to parse reality and give ourselves esteem and our lives meaning…In the chaos of the daily world and our irrational behaviour within it, our brains conjure the illusion of order; they wrench a plot from the chaos and then place us heroically at its centre. 

Stories have limits but life ignores limits. The song ends but life goes on. You found Bobbie McGee on Facebook and you see pictures once in a while, she’s had a little too much sun and some scary health problems. It turns out you’re just as content to be living in all those tomorrows you would have traded, once upon a time, for one last day with her. 

And, OK, there’s actually a second problem: religion is one of these confabulations, a story that imposes order on the chaos of life by turning it into a coherent narrative. We were in a garden and had everything and it all went to hell. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see. Things may be bad now. But in the words of the prophet this morning, “It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God for whom we have waited; this is the LORD for whom we have waited.” And we’d trade all our yesterdays for a single tomorrow on that mountain, at that feast. 

Now I love these stories. They’re good and they’re necessary. But even the best, holiest, truest, most beautiful story we tell ourselves has the potential to lie to us, to make the past from which we are coming or the future into which we are going way, way more important than they really are. And much more under our control. 

This is part of why Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which we hear today, is so challenging. Jesus was plenty fond of stories. His life is deeply entwined in the story of Creation and the story of the people of Israel. He told stories to interpret the world. A man asked him “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus answered “A certain man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho.” 

But when the time came to talk about ethics in the clearest way he could, the stories are gone. The appeal to yesterday and to tomorrow is gone. In fact, Jesus urges his followers not to worry about tomorrow at all, or about how we will be fed and clothed tomorrow. 

“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 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?” 

Don’t worry about these things, Jesus says, because Gentiles do that. “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

That last line is a rather pedestrian translation. The old King James is actually better: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” And here’s the thing: we are hard-wired to worry about tomorrow’s evil! We need to! Anxious people aren’t sick, they’re wise! At least that’s what I tell myself and my therapist. 

And it would be easy enough to shelve this whole passage as good advice about living in the moment, being serene and lily-like, and cultivating our inner peace. Advice that I’ll never take, but good advice, and if you can, by all means go for it. 

But that’s not it what this is about. That’s not why this is the most important sermon pretty much ever. Jesus is making a drastic, thrilling, maybe even frightening claim about the importance of today; the importance of Now. 

Not the importance of living into a brighter, fairer tomorrow. 

Not the importance of preserving what is good for a dangerous future. 

Not even waiting for the LORD who will act to save on that day, some day. But the importance, the eternal, infinite significance of Today.

And in this eternal now, our self-justifying stories and our heroic tales don’t matter. They no longer justify anything and they no longer explain anything. They can’t lie to us any more. There will never be a better day to open our hand in generosity. There will never be a better day to quit drinking or say those words that need to be said or to make amends or come clean or fall in love or tell the truth or speak up. You can’t serve two masters, both God and wealth—or, as I’ve come to think of it, the God of Today and the God of Tomorrow. Strive first for the Kingdom of God. Strive first for today, with its daily bread and daily troubles and daily mercies, and everything you need will follow. History, as W.H. Auden tells us today, is made by the criminal in us, that part of us that is enslaved to tomorrow. Goodness is timeless. Goodness is always in season, always right now. 

Underneath this whole awesome command to be good, to be fully and joyfully and un-anxiously good right now, is Jesus’s message that this timeless Goodness is capable of loving us back. The eternal Day that arrays the lily in unfading glory, and feeds the sparrow with perpetual abundance, is for us, too—we who have such little faith. In the heart of that day, in the silence where we hush the stories we tell ourselves, there justice, there is freedom, there is peace, there is heaven. There is the gracious voice of God.


posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:59 AM
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