Text: James 4:13-5:6
Little Orphan Annie sings,
“The sun'll come out
Bet your bottom dollar
There'll be sun!
Just thinkin' about
Clears away the cobwebs
And the sorrow
'Til there's none!
When I'm stuck with a day
I just stick out my chin
The sun'll come out
So ya gotta hang on
Come what may
I love ya tomorrow!
Annie, in her dreary orphanage, gazes out the window, always hoping that tomorrow will be better. Something good is bound to happen, but for her, tomorrow gives her reason to hope.
In contrast, the internet is filled with memes about procrastination. I saw one about a meeting of the Society of Procrastinators being postponed. There are quite a few about doing school projects are term papers the night before they are due. After all, why do today what you can put off until tomorrow. We end up scrambling to meet deadlines, and claiming that we work best under pressure – which is not really true. Early in my ministry, a friend told me that the best sermon inspiration was Sunday morning sunrise – which is also definitely not true. We are much more likely to make mistakes and say dumb things when we wait until the last minute to “prepare.” And then we don’t have time to correct our mistakes or be certain we have the correct resources. Tomorrow becomes our deadline, and our source of stress.
There’s the other kind, the kind that James talks about, who plan tomorrow. They’ve got their business plans. They will do this, promote that, make this business trip, invest in that project, and “tomorrow” they will make a profit. And that’s all they talk about. Next week, we’re going to Chicago, where we’ll meet with investors to promote this business scheme. It will be highly profitable, and in five years, we’ll have a multi-million dollar business going. But, it’s always about what’s going to happen tomorrow, as if their plans are destined for success. And, by the way, as if they themselves are indispensable and, perhaps, immortal. We count on tomorrow.
There are those, too, who live in anxiety over what tomorrow may bring. Will we have enough? Will there be sickness? What if some tragedy strikes? I need more insurance, more money, more food stored up, against the inevitable tragedy. I’ve told you, I think, about a friend, and I discovered that he was one of many, who spent a great deal of money preparing for the predicted “devastation” of Y2K. For those of you born since, computers used to be programmed to assume the 19 part of the year, say 1977 or 1989. So dates were programmed with two digits for the year - ‘77 and ‘89. Someone, somewhere, decided that when the year 2000 came along, all the computers would grind to a halt, satellites would fall from the sky, banks would lose records, governments would collapse, because computers would not know the new dates. Microsoft even issued a “patch” for it. And Y2K, January 1, 2000, became a source of anxiety for the world. People stocked up on water, food and gasoline, in preparation for the eschaton, the end of the age. And then, on January 2, feeling a bit foolish when the world did not end, banks did not close, and governments did not collapse, they began to look for ways to dispose of their excess.
Tomorrow may be a day of hope for Annie, a day of deadlines for students, a day of profit for businessmen, or a day of fear. But we live as if tomorrow were the only thing worth living for. Jesus told his disciples not to be anxious about tomorrow – “Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). And James reminds us that tomorrow is not guaranteed.
That does not mean that we should take the fatalistic view of the Roman gladiators, quoted by Paul: “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). And it does not mean that we should not prepare for the future. I don’t believe that was the intent of either Jesus or James. But it does mean that we should not depend on tomorrow, and that we should focus so much on the future that we miss out on today. It is always ironic to me, I suppose, to see people so busy recording their presence at an event rather than enjoying the event, or snapping selfies at scenic places instead of enjoying the scenery. We wrap ourselves up in making memories, not a bad thing in itself, storing up for the future, instead of enjoying where we are. The best memories for me are things we did, not things we photographed. It is better for your children to sit and read to them than to take pictures of them. God wants us to be present in the present rather than preoccupied with the future.
But, what is really at play here is that old worldly arrogance. It’s the focus on what I’m going to do, my plans, my success. As if I am the expert, the measure of all success. I’m not only the center of my universe, but also the center of yours. And so we set ourselves up, in our own wisdom and our own power, and try to make the world revolve around our plans. We strive for fame - or notoriety - to establish our own immortality. We don’t want to be ignored, and we don’t want to be forgotten.But James reminds us that life is short. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. In spite of Annie’s hope, tomorrow is not guaranteed. In spite of our anxieties, tomorrow may simply not happen. Life, James says, is a vapor, a mist that appears for a moment and then vanishes. Today, this moment is what we have, and we ought to be grateful for it and live in it. Tomorrow is really up to God. So, James tells us, we ought to face tomorrow by saying that if God wills, we will do this or that other thing. He doesn’t tell us not to plan, but to recognize the sovereignty of God. We plan to go to the coast on Monday. God may have other plans for us. We plan to take a vacation in November. God may have other plans. We prepare for our retirement, but know for a certainty that God may have other plans for us.
James has already had words for the church about preferring the rich and giving them places of honor. Now he has words for those who are rich. And I remind you that James was talking to the church. He was not scolding the secular rich, those outside the church. Folks, this ought to grieve us. Maybe, whenever we begin to wax nostalgic about “the New Testament church”, we should re- read James’ letter to the church. This is church people doing this.
Those rich Christians were hoarding their wealth. They were withholding the wages they owed to their employees. They were refusing to pay their vendors. Those people harvesting your crops, cleaning your clothes, cooking your meals, writing your books, deserve their pay. They were using the excuse of their precarious future. I see a person in need, but what if my roof needs to be replaced. I see a hungry person, but what if my wife needs new glasses. I see a lost child, but what if I’m late to church. I can’t help the poor because my car may need repair next month. We live on maybes and mights instead of what is. Paul’s words to Timothy about paying those whose work is preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17-18) suggests that there were churches who refused or were unable to pay their pastors, possibly because of this attitude in the church, that we can’t tithe because we might need the money for something else. That was in contrast to the commendation he gave to the Macedonian churches, including Philippi and Thessalonika, who in the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity, Paul says, for I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability (2 Corinthians 8:1-3). They saw a need and, at great cost to themselves, did all they could to meet the need.
James accused rich Christians of living on earth in luxury and self-indulgence, fattening themselves in the day of slaughter – that is, taking advantage of the tragedies of others to enrich themselves. Instead of helping the poor, they were taking advantage of them. He goes so far as to accuse them of murder, perhaps not by intent, but by neglect. By refusing to help, you have condemned some to death. You have caused others to go hungry because you were intent on fattening, not just feeding, yourselves. You have caused others to freeze, not because you kept your house warm, but because you added luxuries to your warm house. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. It was not your enemy, but a child who could do you no harm.
Without going off on a tangent (too far), this is the corrupt reasoning behind abortion. A child is inconvenient, might interfere with my chosen lifestyle, ties me down, or costs me money I could use to buy a new house. For the sake of our own indulgence, our own convenience, we murder the innocent. We destroy today because we fear what might happen tomorrow.
We had a really odd thing happen in our family. When Marsha’s grandparents passed away, her dad was going through his parents’ things. He found that they were “preparers”, having stored five-gallon bins of flour, sugar, and other staples. They had planned against a coming catastrophe. But when the bins were opened, the flour had bugs and the other staples had gone bad. All that could be done was trash it all. We’ve looked through the accumulate detritus of several lives in recent years, wondering what to do with the accumulated “wealth” – not money, but other ephemera. We have a box of old photos and scrap-books from a favorite aunt. But they have no value to anyone else. No one seems to want them.
James reminds us that our wealth rots, our clothes become moth-eaten, our possessions corrode and fade away. We have focused our lives on things that are temporary, passing, and fading, and neglected things that matter. And all our focus on tomorrow’ fears, anxieties, hopes, and possibilities causes us to neglect today. We miss out on the good of today because of our fear of tomorrow. And we miss out on the good we might do this day because of our worry over what might happen some other day. You probably have a really good example of this in your kitchen or garage (as I do) – a drawer that my dad calls “the idiot box.” It’s filled with miscellaneous nuts, bolts, screws, wires, rubber bands, bits and pieces that “only an idiot would keep, but only an idiot would throw away.” Our conundrum, and our rationale for this drawer filled with junk is, “I might need that someday.” So we take up space, certainly useful space, in our lives today because we might need it someday. I can’t get rid of it, because I’ll probably need it the day after I throw it away. And that becomes our excuse for not doing a lot of other things we might do.
You may have noticed that I skipped a verse. James 4:17 adds to our understanding of sin. Sin is not only the wrong things we do – sins we commit. James tells us that sin may also be the things we leave undone, the good we didn’t do. Theologians call this “sins of omission”. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. If we know we should feed the hungry, and don’t, we sin by omission. If we know we ought to rescue a child, and don’t ... If we know we ought to pray, and don’t ... If we know we ought to share the gospel, and don’t ... Jesus gave his disciples a great commission - to make disciples of the nations. He told us that we would be his witnesses beginning in [our] Jerusalem. He told us to love one another. If we don’t ...
And the reason that James included this dangerous statement here is that, in our rush, our fear, our anxiety, our preparation, our preoccupation with the what ifs of tomorrow, we pass by opportunities to represent Christ in our world today. In our focus on what might happen some day, we sin by omission today. We know we ought to do good, and don’t, because, well, tomorrow.
A personal story: This past January, driving home, wearing a jacket in my warm car, I saw a young man waiting to cross Fourth Plain. He was wearing only shorts and a thin t-shirt. I sat there wondering what I could do, actually knowing what I should do. But I didn’t. The light changed, he crossed, and I went on my way. My jacket would have made a difference to him, and I have others. My lack of action has bothered me since. I want a second chance. For me, that was sin. I did not do what I knew I ought to have done.
You see, every day we are witnesses - either for Jesus or against him. Our lives either reflect his love, or our selfishness. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. Our opportunities are fleeting. Jesus calls us to represent him today, to show his love today – not to wait for a better day ... tomorrow.
1 Songwriters: Charles Strouse / Martin Charnin, Tomorrow lyrics ©1977 Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., Used with permission.