“I feel like I live with one foot in the past and one foot in the future.” That is how a man who came to see me described his life. He went on to tell me about events of the past, lost opportunities, wounds, and regrets. There was an emptiness about him. He sounded trapped and imprisoned by his own history, things that had been done and things that had been left undone. After that he talked about the uncertainty of his future and what might or might not be. He was scared. There were a lot of unknowns in his life. Even as he listed his hopes for what might happen and the way he wanted his life to be, he had to admit these were things he could neither control nor predict.
Of course his story, can so often be our story. With one foot in the past and one foot in the future we straddle and then completely miss the present. When I am brave enough to admit it, it describes some of the more underwhelming moments in the story of David Battrick. Perhaps that might also be true for moments in your life as well. The risk for all of us is that we can be so focused on the past (both the good times and the bad) that we are absent to God, others, and even our selves in the present. We can be unavailable – here and now – to those we love, to the needs of the world, and to the fullness of life that God offers. We can become captive to what was, frightened by what might be, and blind to or distracted from the gift that is today.
As I was reflecting on this very question earlier in the week, I received a telephone call from our local hospital, to let me know that someone was dying, asking if I would come to bring the Last Rites of the Church in blessing and assurance for her. Ten minutes later, there I was face to face with a beautiful lady, with her family and the staff around her bedside. Catapulted from reflections on living in the moment, (in the comfort of my study), to being in the moment, as Christ, for her and her family, on behalf of his Church.
Here we are this morning, in this moment, this wonderful moment of worship as we open ourselves to God’s possibilities for us, and as we become one together through the Sacrament of the altar. There is so much to distract us from being here: from being present and alive to this moment. We hope that the sermon will not be too long. We wish things in Church were like they were fifty years ago. We wonder what we might have for lunch. We wish it was not so cold… It is as simple as that, we are so quickly somewhere else, in the past or in the future, but not in the present.
This Gospel encounter between Jesus and his disciples focuses our attention on this very predicament this morning. “If you follow me,” Jesus says to those who he meets on the road to Jerusalem, “you will have to be satisfied to not look back to the home that you are leaving behind. If you follow me there is no time to go back and say goodbye, or even to bury the dead.”
Do not look backwards. Do not look forwards. Live with me in the moment, here and now. I think about that man, my new friend, who visited me the other day. One foot in the past, one foot in the future. I learnt a lot from him. I wish that I had had the wisdom to share this Gospel story with him. He is desperate to change the past. I know how he feels, I would love to change the past. You cannot change the past. He is desperate to have certainty about the future. I know what that is like, I would love to have certainty about the future. You cannot have certainty about the future. That is what Jesus says in this morning’s Gospel reading. Do not be conditioned or limited by the past, do not expect to know what will happen next before you begin the journey of discipleship. Follow me. Trust in me. Live in this moment. Find me in this moment, here and now.
At the heart of our Christian faith is the extraordinary realisation that God refuses to be God without us. It is not that God cannot be God without us. I am not suggesting that at all. But the pattern of the incarnation is this: Jesus refuses to be Jesus without his disciples. God refuses to be God without his Church. Despite our utter need for God, and the fact that he has no need for us. This is how God has chosen to do things. He has chosen to be limited by us. He has chosen for the revelation of himself in creation, and in the longing of our hearts to be announced by, and shared with others, lived out with others, through us. He does not need us. But he chooses to use us. God refuses to be God without you and without me – in this moment; in this parish; in the lives of the people around us; for the sake of humanity, and in the name of his Son – and if we are not living in the moment, searching for his presence, we can miss it.
The truth that Jesus is pointing to in our Gospel encounter is that it is often much easier to look back and live in the past, than to face up to the challenges of what lies ahead. Sometimes we can feel that we were more useful to God, in our youthful pasts than we are today. But God is not interested in our usefulness, he is not our employer: he is interested in the way that we live our lives for him, in whatever condition we find ourselves in. And that is what Saint Paul is talking about in our Epistle reading. It is no small thing to live for Jesus, to continually turn our back on sin, and to live with the fruits of his Spirit evident in our lives. We are called to persevere, today, as his disciples.
Jesus says that it is like plowing a field, you cannot spend your time looking back at the beautiful straight furrows that you have already ploughed, because whilst you are doing so the plough will be veering all over the place in front of you.
But living by faith, living in this moment, for this moment, is not to say that we leave behind what we have learnt from the past – both the good and the bad; and it is not to say that we do not have hopes and dreams and plans that we work towards for the future. Jesus is not physically here with us as he was with his first disciples. Jesus was calling his first disciples to stop being distracted about the past and the future and to follow him, literally in his footsteps. We have to work much harder to do that today because he is not physically here with us for us to follow him. We have to learn from the past, we have to dream for the future or we will simply stand still. But we have to do all of this whilst being alive and open to the immediate, to this moment, here and now, expecting God to be at work in our life each and every day. So as ever we have to hold both the past and the future in balance.
In our Anglican expression of following Jesus, we know more than many other Christians the importance of being attentive to the traditions and insights of those who have come before us. I am not suggesting today that we should stop celebrating the great times that we have had here in the past, or the accumulated wisdom that we have learnt from those experiences. In fact, in many ways the opposite is true. I have tried often to highlight in our minds, here in this Parish, all of the good that has happened before us. Those of you who were here last weekend were part of our celebrations of all of the faithful ministry in the past from Saint Barnabas Church in Victoria Street, and of course we believe that some of the seeds that were planted from that Church are still bearing fruit today, and we can learn from that. So there are good reasons to look back.
We also live in a time when we are acutely aware of some of the pain that has been caused in the past. As a Diocese we are preparing for the Royal Commission that will place a magnifying glass over the life of the Anglican Church in this Region in the past and ask painful questions about how we allowed vulnerable people in our church communities to be abused by clergy and church workers. There are good reasons to look back, because it is in facing the past, learning from the past, that we can begin to shape a healthy future. I would love to change the past. You cannot change the past. I would love to have certainty about the future. You cannot have certainty about the future. Jesus says to us, “Follow me. Trust in me. Live in this moment. Find me in this moment.”
No one sings a hymn reading again the line that they have just sung, they always need to read the next line in order for the music to continue. No one embarks on a journey looking at a map of where they have just been instead of a looking at a map of where they are heading. No one puts a hand to the plow and looks back if they are fit for the Kingdom of God.