Let us pray: Tear back the veil of mystery that separates us from you, O Lord. And grant us the courage to draw near. With the power of your Word and Spirit, guide us through the fear that divides, and lead us into love that bridges holy union with you and your purposes. And now, may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in Thy sought, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
The idea for today’s sermon came to me many months ago, but true to the subject matter, I finished it this morning. Today we celebrate the graduations of friends and members of this community who, in their academic triumphs, have inevitably learned a thing or two about procrastination. We have all been there: soaring in the clouds of noble intentions to begin a project, only to find ourselves starting the work due to a the haunting persistence of a looming deadline.
Blogger Tim Urban playfully describes the brain of a procrastinator with illustrations in his recent Ted Talk. He explains, aided with the projection of childlike drawings, that each mind has a “rational decision-maker” inside of it. This is characterized as a stick figure behind the steering wheel of a boat. It makes rational decisions about where to steer us. And normally, that rational decision-maker leads us to get started on time for our work. But, Urban says in the mind of a procrastinator, is also an “instant gratification monkey,” which he portrays with a cute drawing of a monkey. The instant-gratification monkey continually distracts us and prevents us from getting to work because it always chooses what is easy and fun. The problem however, is when the mind gives in to the whims of the monkey, a person finds himself at play on the “dark playground.” The dark playground isn’t really fun because it is unearned play, and it is fun filled with guilt, dread, anxiety, and self-hatred—all of those good procrastinator feelings.
What then eventually causes the instant gratification monkey to knock it off and allow the rational decision-maker to take on the hard work that moves us forward? So it turns out, Urban holds, that procrastinators have a guardian angel called a “panic monster.” The monster is dormant most of the time, but wakes up when a deadline comes, and it happens to be the only thing the instant-gratification monkey is afraid of. The panic monster scares the monkey enough to let the rational decision-maker get us to work. After creating this scenario to describe how our minds procrastinate, Urban shows a large picture filled with thousands of tiny boxes he calls a life calendar—4,680 boxes to be precise. He describes each box as one week in the life of someone who lives for ninety years—which is ambitious, since the current expected life span in the Unites States is closer to eighty. He closes his presentation on procrastination by saying with regards to the life calendar: “It’s not that many boxes, especially since we have already used a bunch of [them]. I think we all need to take a long hard look at that calendar, we need to think about what we are really procrastinating on because everyone is procrastinating on something in life. We need to stay aware of the instant gratification monkey. That’s a job for all of us. And because there are not that many boxes on there, that’s a job that should probably start today. Well, maybe not today, ya know, but sometime soon.”
Procrastination is a word often associated with academic and work deadlines, but today, I am using it in relationship to faith. Like other areas of our lives, faith is something that many tend to procrastinate. That goes for people active within churches as it does for those without a faith community. There is a common phenomenon of people who find value in being a part of a worship community ducking out for a stretch of life because it is easy to put off. Maybe they stop going to church in college and then come back to raise the children in the church. Someone in those circumstances might say, life is going great now and is full, so I do not need a community until something changes with my current situation—definitely when I get older. But there are also those of us in the church also procrastinate. We may attend, listen, pray, and enjoy fellowship, but we do so from a spiritual distance. We see the value of the wisdom of scripture and the importance of community, but we still find ourselves not really engaging them or the rest of our lives as a spiritual journey.
Today is less about putting off going church as it is putting of engaging the spiritual depth of life and faith. The procrastination involves skimming across the surface of the deep stuff and getting comfortable sitting on the metaphorical spiritual sidelines. I of course am one to advocate for the value of being a part of a healthy faith community. It can provide important elements that lead to an abundant life and things that our spirits need: community, a sense of belonging, an ethos of caring for others, and a perspective that the reality is so much bigger than each of our personal realities. But, today, I am most concerned about addressing a type of faith procrastination that our instant-gratification monkey can make us all fall prey to. In Romans, the book of scripture that Kay led many of us through on Wednesday’s, Paul might call it choosing to live in the flesh, while procrastinating life in the Spirit. Some might call it, choosing to live deeply rather than superficially. It could be called living abundantly rather than living unfulfilled. Author James Hollis, in his book, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally Really Grow Up considers procrastination, when it comes to big life stuff, as an evasive tactic to avoid our fear of being overwhelmed by the world. He believes that many of us as children, we are taught to believe the world is too big and powerful for us, so we develop protective stances.
In the passage that Ron read this morning, we learn about how scripture addresses this spiritual issue of faith procrastination. For those with a grasp of the liturgical calendar, you may recognize our passage as an Advent text. It seems like every year, we hear a Gospel lesson in late November or early December that tells us to be ready—be ready for the birth of the Christ-child. But our text and ones like it, remind us of a fundamental aspect of the Christian faith. Our passage from Luke is surrounded by a section in which Jesus gives exhortations and warnings. In it, he teaches his disciples, and anyone who would listen, important life and faith teachings. And he often delivers with his teachings helpful one-liners that we can keep with us. Phrases like: Do not worry about your life… can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?, or, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
And the one for today is, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit… You…must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” That is a consistent aspect of the faith when the Christian church formed. We are to live watchful and ready for God to come again. Now this could mean a final coming at the end of time. But it normally may be best understood and being ready for the ways that God breaks into our lives all of the time. Maybe we are presented with a special opportunity in life, or grace and forgiveness, or maybe God extends us a blessing, or gives us guidance, but if we are not ready, not paying attention—if we are too wrapped up in ourselves, our pursuits or our fears, we will miss it. I believe we miss divinely granted opportunities, grace, blessings, and guidance all the time because we are not being watchful.
So how can we best be watchful? How can we be dressed for action and keep our lamps lit? Much like we might approach trying to live with less worry or living without fear, we practice. Faith does not come as a lucky shot in the dark. Faith comes through humble effort and practice. We have to work at it. God may break into our lives simply because of God’s love and goodness. But for us to behold the blessing, we have to be ready. We have to tend to the work of faith. I am reminded of a line from the American classic novel, A River Runs Through it. Speaking of his Presbyterian Minister father, the narrator states, “To him, all good things - trout as well as eternal salvation - came by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy.”
Two of the strongest motivators in life are fear and genuine desire. A little fear can be a good thing, but too many in the church have used fear over the centuries as a manipulative motivator—used in ways that ignores the love and grace of Christ. But fear also motivates when we experience a serious life disruption and the floor seemingly falls out from under us. This could be precipitated by a sickness, conflict, or a loss—or when unexpected troubles assail us or someone we love. These times can propel us toward God and community for help. But there is something to be said for not putting of turning to faith. Even when life is good, Jesus says, be ready. Be ready every day to experience grace and blessing and to share it with the world around us.
If there is something you are procrastinating with regards to your faith journey, or if you are putting off really getting on a faith journey in the first place. There is no time like the present. Don’t be held back by fears or old hurts or the overwhelming sense of this world. And we don’t even have to be scared into action by the panic monster—or a fear of death or of hell. There is an ethic and essence to faith that calls us to choose life, abundance, hope, goodness, connection, and love—and share it non-stop. We can put off things until it is too late. Or, we can “Be dressed for action and have [our] lamps lit.” Not because we are scared as hell that God may show up, but because we are excited that God is with us on an unforgettable journey!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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You will find sermons preached by Rev. Robert Woodruff and guests preachers.