Looking back, Worrying Forward.

People everywhere are obsessed with endings.

I think it’s part and parcel of life in this messy world that our focus naturally tends to be on things coming to an end.

As we go through struggles – big and small, as communities and as individuals – our minds and hearts drive us to ask “when will this end?”

Ugh. When will this pandemic be over so life can get back to normal?”  “When will the news finally talk about something besides the election and the virus?”  Or, “with nations so divided on politics, race, and economics, what’s going to happen?  How will this end?

When will our struggles be over?

And it’s not just struggles that cause us to focus on endings. 

When something that is great, something that we’ve enjoyed and has done much good is coming to the end of it’s course, our first instinct is to focus on the ending.  Our gut reaction is to cling on to things until the bitter end, to become defensive or maybe even put on a mask of denial, as we become so focused on preventing the end of a good thing that it’s no longer good anymore.  So often we become so wrapped up in clinging on to good things that they’re no longer enjoyable, and our human instinct turns the victory, the “well done” at the end of a race into a bitter, dreadful defeat instead.

Our human instinct is to focus on endings; our human instinct is to grasp at things, to cling on to things that are passing away.

And sometimes we become so focused on the ending that we miss the blessing right in front of our eyes, like someone with their family gathered around the table, laughing and telling stories over a feast of good food and wine, yet the host is so focused on the end that they can’t help but to get up, rush to the kitchen and do the dishes, rather than enjoy the real blessing of family, friends, and food that is right in front of them.  Focusing on, even worrying about endings always draws us away from the blessings – and opportunities – that God has given us today.  I was going to insert a Bible verse about not being anxious about tomorrow, but there were just too many to choose from – at least 24 times in scripture we are told not to worry about what the future will bring, but to instead focus on being faithful today, here and now.

We like to focus on endings.  But God isn’t the God of endings. 
No, He is the author of new beginnings.

A Lesson from Thessalonians

In First Thessalonians chapter 4, the church there had written to Paul, anxious about endings.  Some of their members had died, their mortal lives had ended, and that was consuming their energy.  They wrote to Paul with great anxiety, consumed by grief, and when they came together, their focus, their conversation, their only concern was thinking about the good old days, and longing for the day when they would see those loved ones again. 

Their obsession with endings became a temptation, as they turned away from the blessings God had given them – and the work they had been given to do – and instead became a people gathered to look back and worry forwards.

And Paul writes to them and says, ‘yes, grieve – absolutely!’  “But don’t grieve as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).  Of course endings are painful, but we’re not a people of endings.  The entire story of Salvation – your Bible, cover to cover – is the story of those who have messed up, who have missed God’s blessings, who have forgotten their God-given task of drawing others in, who have gotten themselves into a situation where the only earthly response is to dig in, put up your defences, and wait for defeat.

But if we read scripture as the message of God presiding over endings, our eyes have been clouded by our human instinct to look back and worry forwards. 

No, “behold, I am making all things new”.  “Even heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word will not pass away”.  Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane, “but the word that proceeds from God’s mouth will not return to Him empty; it will accomplish what God desires, and it will achieve the purpose for which He sent it.”[1]

God gives new beginnings – time and time again.  In every situation we may see an ending, and yes, it may be painful, but if we can focus on the moment in which God has called us – not yesterday’s successes or failings, not grasping on to tomorrow, but trusting God and, most importantly, living faithfully here and now, we will come to see that yes, this sinful world and the consequences of past actions bring endings, but God presents us new opportunities each morning, if we’re willing to change our focus.

…and that proper perspective changes everything.

Even this week, as we celebrate Remembrance Day, there are those who would follow that human gut instinct, and focus on the dwindling number of veterans, on the shrinking number of people who are willing to serve their community in even the smallest ways, let alone answer the call of duty and lay down their lives for their friends.

But when we look to the past, we only become defensive and lose the opportunity God has given us in the present.  Remembrance Day – originally Armistice Day – was never about the end of fighting; it was about the beginning of peace.  We don’t need any help to focus on fighting, but to begin to work for peace – that’s a different matter, and one that calls all of us to put aside past glories and past differences, give up defensiveness about tomorrow, and instead, make a difference today.

The Gospel, God’s story of salvation, is a story of new beginnings, new opportunities every day, with every step as we follow.  But only if we’re willing to re-focus.  As Jesus calls us to scatter seeds and grow his kingdom, he gives a stern warning.  In Luke 9 he says straight up: “anyone who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for service in the kingdom of God” (vs. 62)

Our instinct is to see – and fear – endings, but God offers new beginnings.

Finish Lines and New Beginnings

My friends, this church is entering a season when we are called to re-evaluate and re-focus our mission and ministry.  What have we built on the foundation we inherited, a foundation once so overflowing that they poured a new one to expand, but which now, on the best of weeks, welcomes in 1.5% of our town… or, to put it another way, doesn’t reach 98.5% of our neighbours.

As those called to make disciples, as we look around this very room at our 3 services today, who have we raised up who will not just carry on, but grow and expand the spread of the Gospel in Fort Smith 10 years from now, or even 5 years from now? 

And there’s real grief in that: some of us, some who have done so much, won’t be here.  But as Paul says, don’t grieve as those without hope.

This is not about the past, and it’s not about the future, but who are we forming today to build on our foundation, to pick up the torch, and continue our God-given task as we as individuals come to the end of our race.

These are important conversations, and they challenge us because our instinct is to focus on endings.

Our instinct is to look back and cling on with all that we have to put off the ending that clouds our vision.

Our human instinct tells us that we need to balance the budget, so we should fundraise: but God never called us to fundraise for the Kingdom: he called us to grow the Kingdom.  Fundraising is looking back and worrying forwards, a distraction – or even an excuse – to avoid carrying out the work God has given us to do.

Our human instinct tells us to draw someone younger in so they can learn to do what we do and keep it going.  But again, that’s looking back and worrying forwards. 
God’s will is that old people would dream dreams of a future bigger and brighter than we could even imagine; not that the young carry on in our footsteps, but that they have a vision and follow in Christ’s footsteps, and we rejoice as each generation of faithful followers reach out to a confused and changing world and draw them in, not to rebuild what once was, but knowing that the God of new beginnings will always do something more glorious if we can stop worrying, get out of the way, stop looking back, and follow where he leads.

…But we have to be willing to put aside our focus and fear of endings, and instead trust that every day, every moment, is an opportunity for a new beginning.

An End of an Engagement or the Start of a Marriage?

In Matthew 25 there were 10 maidens going to a wedding.  Five of them were focused on endings – they filled up their lamp so they wouldn’t get lost in the dark, walked to the banquet hall, and focused on when the wait would be over and they could go in.

Five of them were focused on new beginnings.  They came with their lamp, but they knew it wasn’t about the wait.  Their focus wasn’t on the engagement being over; no, their focus was on the all night party that the master had planned.  They brought their lamp, but brought an extra flask of oil so they could party all night long in the light!

Those who focused on the ending got the ending they were hoping for, but weren’t prepared for the reward.  What should have been the victory at the finish line became a bitter end as the lamp went out and the guy at the door couldn’t even tell who they were anymore.  Those who knew that the Master always goes over the top and does more than they can imagine didn’t get an ending, but the start of something amazing, not just through the night, but spilling over into the bright new day that followed.

Friends, as we look around, as we come to the end of the budget year and prepare for an Annual General Meeting in January, we begin a season of conversations, not about budgets, buildings, traditions, the past, and the fear of endings, but about mission and ministry, about an inheritance that we received, and our task to raise up and grow the Church so that God makes it even more than we can imagine; as we do that, I call us, as your Rector, to remain focused.

Let’s not look back and worry forward.  Let’s not defend what we have and work to prevent endings.  No, let’s get to work, let’s enjoy every new opportunity.  And when something nears the finish line, as will happen to each of us, and every program, and every group, and every kingdom and nation under heaven, let’s celebrate what God has done, and grow from strength to strength as those who know, with full certainty, that God is the author of new beginnings, and it’s He who makes all things new.

To God be the Glory, now and forever more.   Amen.


[1] Revelation 21:5, Matthew 24:35, “Onward, Christian Soldiers”, Isaiah 55:11

Photo from BeachFellowship.com

The Clothes Make the Man (or Woman)

Colossians 3:1-11

When I was a boy in Sunday School, there was a song that we would often sing.  It goes like this:

            Oh, be careful little eyes what you see;
            Oh, be careful little eyes what you see;
            For the Father up above is looking down in love,
            So be careful little eyes what you see.

Maybe you’ve heard it.  The other verses go on to warn little ears to be careful what they hear, little hands to be careful what they do, little feet to be careful where they go, little minds to be careful what they think, and little hearts to be careful who they trust.

It’s a simple song, but in spite of it’s childlike simplicity, it shares much in common with what we read in the scriptures today. 

In Colossians, we are told that we are a new creation, remade as those baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, and, St. Paul goes on to teach us, as those who now share in the life of Christ, we are to put off the thoughts and actions that define our world full of pain, grief, and shame. It’s a list of vices that isn’t news to any of us: sexual immorality, lust, evil desires, greed, anger, rage, slander, filthy language, lying to get ahead, and creating divisions amongst ourselves.

To borrow the extended image used by St. Paul, these are things that worldly people carry around with them, wearing these thoughts and actions as a garment, as clothes as they walk about.  And, to some extent, whether we like it or not, the old saying holds true: the clothes make the man.  Our identity is shaped by the image that we project to our friends and neighbours, and that image then shapes our attitudes, our thoughts, and our actions.  It’s like the kid who knows she has the coolest clothes, and allows that to become who she is, and shape how she treats other people.

Today’s lesson tells us to strip off that worldly clothes; to strip off that impurity, greed, anger, those lies and divisions, and instead to clothe ourselves with thoughts and actions that imitate Christ.

The implication, of course, being that we aren’t stuck in those sins as though they define us.  As comfortable as we get in well-worn clothes, and as much as wearing that favourite old shirt becomes a habit, if we choose, we can change them, and put on the garments of righteousness given to us at baptism.

Now this list, sexual immorality, greed, anger, filthy language, there are no surprises there, this is nothing new.  These are all things that, at some point, our parents, other family members, our clergy, and our teachers taught us, even if, in some cases, they didn’t practice what they preached.

A stumbling block

Yet, it’s this same list that becomes a stumbling block for so many who have left the church.  We’ve all heard it, I’d say especially from men who have wandered away from the church: “The church is full of hypocrites.  He’s selfish, she’s a gossip.  That one’s as greedy as you can imagine, and if that other one has a drink, you’d never believe the words that come out of their mouth.  Christians?  If that’s a Christian, I want nothing to do with it.”

All of us, as children, were taught to keep away from these worldly desires; all of us, one way or another, were warned to be careful of what we see, do, or say with our little eyes, hands, and mouths, often with the stern message that “God is watching”.

Many of us, for better or worse, were taught that purity – right actions, proper gratitude, good manners – would buy us favour with God.  Many of us were taught that it’s as though God was keeping a tally, like an eternal, heavenly “swear jar”, where we have to throw in a quarter for every curse word that crosses our lips, or do a good deed to make up for our failings.

And, if that’s the case, then those outside the church are right – the church is full of hypocrites.

Because the truth is, once we strip away the glossy exterior, every man, woman, and child alive continues to struggle with impurity and greed, with anger and rage, with filthy language, dishonesty, gossip, and divisions.

The reason for purity.

Oh, be careful little eyes what you see.

The problem, though, with that Sunday School song is that it has the message backwards.

So many, both inside and outside the church, think that the Gospel message is that we are to do good, live the best life you can live, and earn heaven as the reward.  So many think that living a “Christian life”, living a pure and righteous life buys us eternal life.

But that’s to have the message bottom up.

Yes, and it’s so important that the scriptures tell us in multiple places, we’re to avoid immorality and adultery, impurity, and greed.  Yes, we’re to avoid divisions and lewd speech and drunkenness.  Yes, we’re to refrain from anger and dishonesty.

But we don’t do that to earn our place in the church or in the family of God.  And, our place in the family of God doesn’t depend on some heavenly tally, whereby any one of us could pat ourselves on the back and say, “wow, aren’t I a good Christian”.

No.  We do our best to live in imitation of Christ because all of us – no matter what we’ve done, or whether our struggles are invisible or open for all to see – all of us have been invited to take off our worn-out earthly clothes and instead clothe ourselves with the grace of Christ.

I don’t try to live a pure life to earn heaven.  It’s the opposite.  Because Jesus loves me, I will live my life in a way that honours him. 

And if our neighbour’s struggles are more public than our own, we reach out to them in love, knowing that it’s only by the grace of God that we haven’t found ourselves in their situation in this broken and messy world.

Indeed, the Church – our church – is not called to be a museum for saints.  The church is a hospital for sinners, a home for the beloved children of God who have accepted the invitation into God’s family.

Yes, be careful little eyes what you see; and be careful little ears what you hear. 

But remember, it’s our Lord himself who says that it isn’t what goes into a person that makes them unclean; it’s what comes out of a person that makes us unclean.

It’s our Lord himself who raises the bar, saying that even just looking at another person with lust in your heart is to commit adultery.

And by the same token, if we pat ourselves on the back for our clean living, what have we done but allow pride to puff us up, allowing us to see ourselves as better than a brother or sister struggling with sex or drugs or drink or gossip or gambling.

We choose to take off those worldly habits because we love God, not to earn God’s love.

God is Watching… but that’s not a threat.

We have to remember, too, that God is watching.

But, even there, I fear sometimes we’ve got the message bottom-up.

For the Father up above is looking down… in what?

Too often, “God is watching” has been used as a threat.  But that goes back to that whole mistaken understanding of God as the great tally-keeper of good and evil.

As we heard in the Old Testament, yes, God is always watching.  But he watches as a loving Father; he waits patiently like a parent ready and willing to welcome a child back with open arms, no matter the mess we’re in – ready to take off the dirty, stained clothes we’re wearing and clothe us in his love.

Yes, God is watching, but he’s looking down in love, calling us to put off the ways of the world.  Not because our impurity makes him love us less, but as any loving and patient parent, he wants to spare the wayward child from learning lessons the hard way.

Being a disciple means to be one who is studying a discipline.  The scriptures use the image of a runner training for a race; no athlete who wants to win the race sits around eating donuts when they should be training on the track.

A disciple of Christ is one who is learning, studying, training to be like Christ.  And while no amount of failure can change the fact that he loves us and that he sees our value and our worth, it’s hard to say you’re training for the Olympics if you never go to the gym.  If we’re disciples, if we’re studying the way of God, that means we have to learn to love what he loves and to hate what he hates.  It means we live lives that keep things in perspective, not allowing our desires or pleasure to become the driving force in our lives.

Our Witness in the World

Be careful little eyes what you see?

Yes.  Because, at the end of the day, it’s not just about you.

God’s plan for every church is that it is not just the place where people gather to praise and be fed and to fellowship and to have their wounds healed.  It’s the place from which we, you and me, are sent out to share that healing, that belonging, that love with people who are desperate to hear it, who are desperate to be invited to belong, and to be told that they are loved. 

There are people – even our own neighbours – who are desperate to take off their worn-out, dirty clothes, and to put on the garment of God’s love and forgiveness as they accept their place in his family – this family.

But, for better or worse, in the eyes of the world, the clothes make the man or woman

If we’re to do that work God has given us, to be his messengers, his hands and feet in our community, we have to live lives that reflect his forgiveness, that reflect that, every time we mess up, he stands ready to re-clothe us as we commit once more to be his disciple.  

We’re to live lives not to show how pure or righteous we are, but to show how good God is, as we live for him instead of for ourselves.  The worn-out clothes of self-righteousness won’t get us far.  But, by the grace of God, with minds set on things above, clothed in forgiveness, and following the way of Christ, our lives themselves will preach the Gospel to a world that is desperate to hear it.

May God give us grace to live as his disciples.  Amen.