A Meditation for 21 February 2016, the 2nd in Lent (Year C). The meditation is based on Genesis 15: 1 – 12, 17 – 18, Philippians 3: 17 – 4: 1, and Luke 13: 31 – 35
There is something of a paradox in the Old Testament reading for this morning. God tells Abram to look in the sky and count the stars and he, Abram, will know how many descendants he will have. In other words, as Abram looks at the stars, he will be seeing the future. Of course, we know today that when we look at the stars, we are, in actuality, looking into the deep and far past.
And I believe that qualifies as a paradox. If a paradox is a statement that apparently contradicts itself, then one cannot look at the stars and see both the future and the past. I would think that it is somewhat similar to the Schrödinger’s cat problem.
This is a problem in quantum physics derived by Erwin Schrodinger in 1935 to illustrate some of the problems dealing with the topic of quantum mechanics (or the workings of the atom) in physics. Essentially, one had to make a choice about what was to happen and nothing happens until one makes a choice.
How do we see the world today? Are we more interested in the past when the pews were filled, people were joining the church without much effort, there was a Sunday school class for every grade from kindergarten through sixth grade, there were programs for the junior high and high school students. The adult choir sang every Sunday and the children and youth choirs sang once a month. The stewardship campaign always ended with enough pledges to meet the goals of the budget, the bills were paid on time, and there was even enough money left over each month to support some actual mission work.
Now, if there was ever such a church or its counterparts, it doesn’t exist today. With few exceptions, most churches are losing members and Sunday school programs are almost non-existent. Instead of discussions on growth, church financial discussions focus on where to cut expenses in order to pay the bills; mission support is often an after-thought and membership plans are very seldom discussed because no one is moving into the area. It becomes very difficult to look to the future when looking at the present is difficult enough.
But if you went back and looked at the plans of those churches which are thriving today, you would see that their focus was not on the past or the present but, rather, the future.
I know of one church in my home town of Memphis that saw the future very clearly. The church leadership knew that the majority of members lived outside the traditional area in which the church was located and more and more of the membership was moving away from the city. So this church made the decision to buy property in the area where the members lived and sell the city property (ironically, to a church of another denomination seeking to expand its presence in the city).
And then there is the story of the Clifton Presbyterian Church. In a sermon I gave several years ago (“What Do We Need?”) I spoke of how the members of the Clifton Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, responded to the issue of homelessness in their local community. From the simple beginning of offering a few homeless individuals a place to stay for the night, it became a shelter and home where some 30 individuals at a time found a way out of their homelessness and back into society. The interesting thing was that the Clifton Presbyterian Church no longer exists; the congregation voted to disband and become parts of other Presbyterian churches in the area. But the ministry of the homeless stayed in the building that once was the church, continuing the ministry that was begun by the congregation (The link to the story about the Clifton Presbyterian Church in “What Do We Need?” no longer works but you can go to “Clifton Sanctuary Ministries” to find out more about this ministry).
I also talked about a woman who wanted to help local high school students and during a high school assembly gave the students the church’s phone number. If the student wanted to talk with someone about a problem they might be having, all they had to do was call the church and someone would be there to listen. The next day, the church had over 300 calls from local students. (Adapted from “A Different Sense Of Community”)
Side note – I have been part of something similar called the InterFaith Hospitality Network. It is a program that offers homeless families temporary housing while the families seek suitable housing. These are families where both parents work and yet do not earn enough to have suitable housing. The sad part about this is that the churches of which I was a member were covertly opposed to the idea of providing shelter for homeless families. Let us just say that the vision of these churches where I was a member was rather limited and short-sighted.
As long as we are fixed on the past or if we try to stay in the present, we will never be able to do the same. If the church we seek is a church based on the past, we will never achieve it. Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher, once said, “no man ever steps in the same river twice”, which would say that we cannot even maintain the present state of the church, for that too quickly passes.
Now, we know that when the Pharisees come to tell Jesus that Herod is looking to kill Him, Jesus responded in a way that suggested He was more worried about the future than He was the present.
What we have to understand is that Christ never had anything but the future on His mind. His mind was always fixed on what it would take to complete the mission.
Paul makes the same case for the future, imploring the Philippians to look to the future and not be distracted by those whose focus is on today (or perhaps yesterday). As Paul pointed out, it is very easy to focus on the present because it is right here, right now. And it is easier to focus on the past because we know (or we think we know what is there).
It is much harder to focus on the future because there is a large amount of uncertainty or doubt about what the future holds. And following Christ, as Paul points out, is not exactly an easy thing to do.
If we think that we can somehow maintain the status quo, then we will be quickly swept downstream by the river of time. And if we focus on the past, then we will quickly lost sight of the present. Only by focusing on the future are we able to move forward.
Either through ignorance or fear, there are those who will do whatever it takes to maintain the status quo. But they will quickly find the forces of time working against them.
Our hope for the church and for ourselves is know where we are today, what resources we have, and then determine how we can accomplish the goals of Christ’s mission on this earth today.
The paradox is that if we do not look to the future, then it is very likely that we cannot see the present. Jesus understood very clearly that His future would lead to the Cross. Our future lies beyond the Cross, if only we choose to look in that direction.
If we choose to look to the past or solely at the present, then we will be among those who are lost.