Sermon March 13, 2016
Psalm 126 and John 12:1-8
“The Perfect Tense - Past, Present and Future”
While this is a strange thing to say, I know I am not the only one when I say, “I like grammar.” I always loved grammar in school. I wish I could speak Spanish, but I am not the least bit bilingual. The times I have tried, I learned some vocabulary, but everything fell apart when I had to do something about verb tenses. I could barely get the right word, much less figure out what the past or future tense would be. Learning English is no picnic because there seems to be an exception for every rule. How does one ever get it right if the rules are a moving target?
I realized this week that we have past, present, and future tenses in both of the readings. I began to think about how past, present, and future are always at play in our lives. How many of us get stuck in the past replaying an event or trying to heal from a betrayal? How many of us are worried about our future and wondering if we will be ok? How many present moments have we missed because we are stuck in the past or anxious about the future?
The Psalm seems to jump all over – looking back to the moment of freedom from exile and how dreamlike that time was, then asking God to restore their future because the drought has caused great despair. As the Psalmist vacillates between past and future, there is a deep sense that God is with them in this present moment. There is great trust that they will be fine, as God will turn their despair into a fruitful harvest.
But the Psalm isn’t alone in jumping from tense to tense this week. John’s reading begins with a rather extravagant scene. The intimacy and vulnerability in this text make people uncomfortable. Why Mary would give Jesus such a costly gift? One only has to look to the previous chapter to see Jesus bringing her brother Lazarus back to life to speculate that perhaps she is so full of gratitude, that she brings the most precious gift she can fathom to express her thanks. So this moment may be deeply grounded in the days before as Mary’s brother Lazarus has died and is restored to life. But the puzzling part of this text is the last line where Jesus says, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
This line really hangs people up because it doesn’t sound like something Jesus would say. A modern snarky version would be “Forget the poor. It’s all about me!” But listen to what Jesus is saying… “I am going to die soon. It will be brutal. Mary was thinking ahead when she bought this. She decided to use it while I am here instead of waiting until I am gone.” In that moment, we have the future in the death and burial, the past when Mary bought the perfume, and the present: “I am here with you now.” Why is it so difficult for us to be here now? Why do we continue to work through our past or worry about our future? We are the product of all the tenses of our lives.
Ann Wells wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times years ago called “What Are You Saving?” She said,
“My brother-in-law opened the bottom drawer of my sister’s bureau and lifted out a tissue-wrapped package. “This,” he said, “is not a slip. This is lingerie.” He discarded the tissue and handed me the slip. It was exquisite; silk, handmade and trimmed with a cobweb of lace. The price tag with an astronomical figure on it was still attached. “Jan bought this the first time we went to New York, at least 8 or 9 years ago. She never wore it. She was saving it for a special occasion. Well, I guess this is the occasion.”
He took the slip from me and put it on the bed with the other clothes we were taking to the mortician. His hands lingered on the soft material for a moment, then he slammed the drawer shut and turned to me. “Don’t ever save anything for a special occasion. Every day you’re alive is a special occasion.”
I remembered those words through the funeral and the days that followed when I helped him and my niece attend to all the sad chores that follow an unexpected death. I thought about them on the plane returning to California from the Midwestern town where my sister’s family lives… I’m still thinking about his words, and they’ve changed my life. I’m reading more and dusting less. I’m sitting on the deck and admiring the view without fussing about the weeds in the garden. I’m spending more time with my family and friends and less time in committee meetings.
Whenever possible, life should be a pattern of experience to savor, not endure. I’m trying to recognize these moments now and cherish them. I’m not “saving” anything; we use our good china and crystal for every special event such as losing a pound, getting the sink unstopped, the first camellia blossom…
“Someday” and “one of these days” are losing their grip on my vocabulary. If it’s worth seeing or hearing or doing, I want to see and hear and do it now. And every morning when I open my eyes I tell myself that this is a special occasion.”
Churches must strike a balance between remembering where they came from without getting stuck in the good old days when they were bursting at the seams and couldn’t build fast enough to keep up OR focusing so much on the future with either anxiety or great dreams that they somehow miss what is happening in their midst right now. In the last year, as we celebrated our 135th anniversary, I found reading our history fascinating. It gave me some context and some courage when I saw that people pushed through difficult times and continued to grow. I find it helpful to dream about our future and where we are going. But I also find it important to be where I am right now. The lesson from Isaiah 43, which we did not read this morning, says it well. This text was written to the Babylonian exiles. Hear the words of God from Isaiah 43: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
The promise is for us today. God is with us right now, doing something new. Can we see it? But it is the future as well. It reflects what God will do with us in the days and months to come.
We live in this strange time called Lent as we approach Jesus’ death. What makes this strange as the tension mounts, is that we know how the story ends. Yet as we hear this ancient story, we still have the opportunity to see how it plays out in our world today.
Philip Simmons writes about living with ALS in his book, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. Philip knows he is dying and he finds that frees him to live now. He says, “The present moment, like the spotted owl or the sea turtle, has become an endangered species. Yet more and more I find that dwelling in the present moment, in the face of everything that would call us out of it, is our highest spiritual discipline. More boldly, I would say that our very presentness is our salvation; the present moment, entered into fully, is our gateway to eternal life.” (p. 145)
In Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town”, Emily has died and is given the chance to re-live one day from her life. She chooses her twelfth birthday. She is terribly disillusioned when she discovers that they don’t have time to look at each other. She asks, “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”
The trick for us is to be grateful for what God has done. It is the awareness of God in the past that gives us the confidence to trust God as we look to the future. One commentary said that people of God always live by memory and hope. (New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Volume III, p. 1196) It is that beautiful balancing of the tenses – past, future, and present that helps us to find that exquisite moment where God dwells. God is in our midst calling us to be present so that we don’t miss the new thing.
God is in our midst – past, present, and future. God sees a way when it seems that there is none. God opens the door and shows us the way. We have the opportunity to move forward as we drink deeply right now. God is here now doing something amazing. Will we see it?