When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a cat when I grew up. I knew a few cats, and they seemed to have a pretty good time of it, so I figured that was the right path for me. I spent time practicing being a cat, which (if you’re curious) mainly consisted of choreographing solo dances to most of the songs from the Broadway musical of the same name as my chosen profession.
Then I got a little older, and I realized that maybe being a cat wasn’t a viable career choice. So I decided that I wanted to be a zookeeper instead. I went to zookeeper camp, where I realized that cleaning up monkey droppings wasn’t quite the glamorous life I was looking for. So I decided to become a fantasy writer. That lasted until I realized that I liked reading books more than trying to write them, so I decided to become an editor. And then I decided I wanted to be a professor, like my dad. And then I wanted to open a bakery. And then I wanted to start my own theater company.
In fact, I can’t remember a time in my life when there wasn’t something I wanted to be when I grew up. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have some vision of the future. And I think that’s a pretty common thing; I’d be willing to bet that, if you were to ask anyone else in this room what they wanted to be when they grew up when they were a little kid, they’d have an answer. My brother wanted to be a frog. One of my cousins wanted to be a retired banker, which I still think is a pretty good answer.
There’s something so human about that insistence on looking towards the future, on figuring out what and who we want to be when we get older. And for those of us who are still students, figuring that out is almost a full time job. It often feels like everything I do is about finding the answer to that ever-present question: What do I want my life to be? It’s as if I’m living life looking firmly at the future, working backwards from the life I want to live through all the steps I’ll need to take to get there. If I can only figure out how the things I do now will impact my future self, I’ll be able to build that perfect life, that life that I will love.
Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel reading that “[t]hose who live their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. As we all spend so much of our time struggling to build the lives that we want for ourselves, what are we to do with a statement like that?
Jesus reminds us here that the time we have on this earth are short. Our lives may seem long as we’re living them, but from the perspective of eternal life they’re peanuts to space. And our sight into in the future is even shorter. In reminding us that all the time and energy we use trying to be the architects of our own futures is, ultimately, wasted, Jesus calls us to live lives that aren’t oriented towards the future.
Thankfully, he doesn’t end there. He continues, saying: “Whosoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there my servant will be also.” More than calling us to follow Him, as He so often does, Jesus asks us to be present with him. But what does that mean for us? It must have been pretty straightforward for Andrew and Philip, who could see Jesus in front of them. Be where Jesus is? Done. But it’s not quite so clear-cut for us. We don’t have a physical being to follow, as the disciples did.
I’m reminded of the parable of the sheep and the goats: Jesus tells of a time when the people will be separated as a shepherd separates sheep and goats, those who helped the Lord in His time of need on his right and those who didn’t on his left. Those on His right don’t remember having helped Him, so He tells them: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus’ point, for once, seems pretty clear: Jesus is present in those around us who need us. What we do for them, we do for Him, too.
By that logic, to be present with Jesus is to be present with other people. And not just any people: the least of these brothers and sisters. The hungry, the imprisoned, the afraid. These brothers and sisters in need. These brothers and sisters who probably don’t live in the beautiful futures we imagine for ourselves.
Because the funny thing about our imagined future lives is that we are necessarily alone in them. They may include imagined versions of our loved ones, to be sure, but other people can’t really live in our imaginations. Our imagined lives are necessarily about us. Other people live in the present. Other people need help kindness and love in the present.
So when Jesus says that those who love their lives will lose them, I take that as a call to stop putting so much of my energy into imagining my perfect future. A life full of richly imagined futures is of no use to anyone. It’s the things done in the present that are of use to those in need.
The Buddhist monk Tich Nhat Hanh wrote in The Miracle of Mindfulness that “[m]any people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive.” I think that miracle is right now. It’s all of us exactly as we are now. It’s each bit of kindness and tenderness and love that exists in this present moment. It’s what we do for each other. For as we do to the least of each other, so we do to God.