I’ve always been someone who thinks a lot about the future, but not in any sort of a responsible way, not like saving for a rainy day or trying hard in school, nothing like that. I’ve always just sort of daydreamed about what things will look like for me. Where will I live, who will I marry, what will my house look like, what will my job look like, and of course my favorite, what will people think about me? This last one usually creeps into some sort of a daydream in which I create a new identity for myself through some interesting new hobby that I’ll master in the future. You can imagine how excited someone like me was when my brother gave me his password to this thing called “Masterclass”. It’s an online catalog of classes taught by some of the best chef’s, the best comedians and writers and artists in the world. With access to all of this, I thought the potential my future self has to become interesting is now off the charts!
A few months ago I watched the class by Aaron Franklin, the most famous BBQ pit master in Austin, Texas. Hours and hours of videos talking about wood and smoke, pulled pork and brisket, I couldn’t get enough of it. When I finished it I spent days researching the very best smokers to buy online, big ones that would take up our entire driveway, but that would be ok because in my mind this is who I am now, or will be, I’m going be the guy who makes BBQ to impress all his friends at every single function. This is who I am now. But then an Amazon package arrived with the book that I ordered about how to write poetry and of course I haven’t thought about BBQ once since then!!…and I haven’t written a single poem either.
Our identities can feel like a work in progress. We place our hope in the future by placing it on a future version of ourselves that’s a lot more appealing than what stands before you today. But there are also times when we consider the future with a sense of helplessness or worry. Maybe you’re not sure that you can pull off the transformation that you’re hoping for, or maybe the present problem that’s making you anxious about the future is simply far greater than you yourself can tackle on your own.
Some of you know what I’m talking about in theory, and unfortunately some of you know what I’m talking about specifically. These past few months have caused many to worry about what the future might look like, will we ever return to schools, to church, to normalcy? And the past few weeks and the horrific murder of George Floyd have shown the world that for some of us, what they are anxiously awaiting is a future that is anything but what they have come to experience as normal.
Into this mess crashes in the Gospel message for us all to hear afresh today, to hear loud and clear. And the Fifth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans is 100% percent Gospel.
Paul tells us that we have been justified, that we’ve been made worthy of love and claimed as Christ’s own forever, not by what we’ve done, or what the world has become, but by what Jesus Christ has done. We’ve been given the promise that divine grace has been given to us when we least deserved it, and the promise that our future is one that He will determine and gift to us through His mercy.
While preparing this sermon I did a simple Google search for quotes about the future. It’s a nice little trick for preachers to hopefully pick up some gem they can insert into their own writing, but more often than not what you’ll find is a lot of quotes saying the opposite of what you’re trying to say. What I saw online about the future in almost every quote I read was something close to what Ghandi said; “the future depends on what you do today.” Or essentially, the future is all up to you. Quotes like this have undoubtedly inspired millions of people over the years to take action and responsibility for their own lives and the well-being of their community. In a time like the present moment, when the horrible truths of individual and institutional racism have been painfully and loudly highlighted, this push, this law to take action can in some cases move us to do just that. But it doesn’t always, and when it does it doesn’t always last.
Many of us are hungry for action. We want to fix things, to change things and we want to do it today. We want to stop the suffering of others or we want to see some justice. But sadly, what we learn, time after time, is that we can’t save ourselves. We can’t will the future we want into existence. The future isn’t up to us. Despite what we tell ourselves. We want to do something but we realize we aren’t actually able to do much at all about the things making us anxious, or maybe we’re actually part of the problem more than the solution. We feel helpless to stop a spreading virus, and whether we speak out or not we recognize that we’re already complicit in the sin of racism.
It’s a feeling that isn’t fun, becoming aware of this truth that we can’t snap our fingers and fix this, that we aren’t God. In fact, we’re all pretty ungodly as St Paul says. So what if this year that we’re all hoping to soon forget or get past is actually a year in which we remember a simple truth about ourselves and about God; “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person– though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
This is it, the whole Gospel in a nutshell. In the face of an unknown future, Jesus Christ died for us. In the face of a bleak and daunting tomorrow, the promise of divine grace breaks in and grabs ahold of us. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the thing that has secured our futures and gives us hope not only for the future, but also for today. Because as people whose identity and future doesn’t rely on our social or economic status, on how interesting our hobbies are, or even on the color of our skin, because we have received the promise of grace and the promise of a future we are free to respond with love. Fear not because I am and always will be with you Jesus tells us. The promise of grace and the promise of a future is the only true and hopeful source of change. It’s the only thing powerful enough to move us to do the uncomfortable and scary thing, to listen to one another and above all else, including even our own self-interest, to love one another. To walk freely into the good works that Christ has prepared us for.
Our hope for the future can’t ultimately be a hope in ourselves, but instead it’s a hope in Jesus Christ and His promise to us all, that while we were still sinners, while our lives and the world we live in was in turmoil, Jesus died for the ungodly.
Theologian Robert Jenson once said something like this; “when an individual, a body or a community, when it’s dead it no longer has a future. But when an individual, a body or a community is alive it’s something that has a future.” This may seem like a simple or obvious observation, but it was made with Jesus’ own death and Resurrection in mind. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us all on the Cross, and the Resurrection of his body and ascension into heaven, we as Christians who have been baptized into His death and Resurrection have been given the assurance that we too have a future. No matter what comes at the end of these uncertain times, be it the death of relationships, the death of financial security, the death of the status quo that protects some at the expense of the less fortunate and the historically disenfranchised, or the death of our very bodies, we have a future with Jesus. We have a future that is more beautiful than we could ever imagine.
When I was in seminary, Presiding Bishop Church Michael Curry came to speak to a group of us, and he was asked what he thought the most important thing about church is. Bishop Curry said, unsurprisingly, that he thought the grace of the gospel message was best expressed through the church’s hospitality in communion. And he told us this story about his parents going to church in his hometown of Buffalo, New York before he was born. Curry’s mother brought his father with her to an Episcopal church one day. He was Baptist and had never been to an episcopal church before. So he anxiously sat in a back pew with his wife, an African American couple, sitting in a mostly white church. And when it came time for communion, Curry’s mother went forward, but his father stayed in his seat, skeptically watching the strange ritual unfolding before his eyes. But what he saw was something that forever changed him, it changed the way he thought about his own future, and it certainly altered the future of his unborn son Michael. What He saw was men, women and children, black and white, kneeling together side by side, hands opened in unison to receive the promise of grace in the body and blood of Christ.
The communion table, that thing that so many of us miss so desperately in this age of quarantine, that is the symbol of healing, of community, it’s the foretaste of the heavenly banquet, when all of us beautiful, and yet ungodly and broken children will kneel together in unison, and receive the promise of divine grace.
Not one of us is God, but we’re all in need of God, and God has come and died and risen again for all of us. You have a future. It may not be a known future, but it has been promised to you by a God who is known in the grace of Jesus Christ.