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Fifth Sunday in Lent | Rev. Vicki Kemper

Isaiah 43:16, 18-21, from The Message
John 12:1-8, Common English Bible

Years ago I was on a house-church retreat in the Shenandoah Mountains of West Virginia when Bob, our resident mystic, walked in the door and asked of no one in particular, “When is now?” He’d been thinking about it and wanted to know.

Really? “When is now?” We all laughed and shook our heads. “Oh, that Bob,” we said, and went back to whatever we were doing.

But it’s a good question, really. Or at least it seems that way to me now—whenever nowis. (And there’s nothing like the first day of Daylight Saving Time to reconsider our understanding of time and place and past and present!)

Because memory is a funny thing. Or maybe time itself is the trickster.

Truly it’s hard to know, given how our experience of the present colors our memories of the past, how our fears or hopes for the future influence our sense of the present, and how often we live not in the here and now but in our sanitized, dramatized, glorified version of the way things used to be.

Oh sure, living in the moment has become a thing—but that doesn’t make it any easier. Indeed, one of the few things about time we can say with any certainty it that it’s almostalways been hard to live in the present. But, oh, how we live for those experiences in which we lose all track of time—because the best way to live in the moment is to forget that the moment is even there.

But those golden, in-the-flow moments are the precious exception to before and after, past and future, running late, never-enough time, and rushing to make it on time. And then there’s change, so much of it out of our control. Change, and the uncertainty it brings, can make us want to stop time in its tracks—or, better yet, to turn it back to what we think were better days.

This is nothing new. Our scriptures tell us that the Hebrews had barely made it through the Red Sea, they’d hardly been in the wilderness long enough to get tired of manna, when they started longing for the good old days. And by “good old days” I mean generations of back-breaking, soul-crushing, death-dealing slavery in Egypt.

I’m not making this up! They were hungry and thirsty, their feet were tired, and how long were they going to be in this wilderness anyway? Their liberator Moses? They wanted to kill him! And why? Because he had taken them away from the security of slavery and led them into the uncertainty that freedom brings. At least in Egypt they always could count on having something good to eat.

Well, probably not, but that’s the way their growling stomachs and fearful hearts remembered it.

But time has a way of changing things. Several hundred years later, after the temple had been destroyed and Israel’s best and brightest had been exiled to Babylon, the people had all but forgotten the challenges of those wilderness years so long ago. By then—I’m still not making this up—they would tell their children stories of the glory days: how Moses had parted the sea, how their ancestors had walked on dry land through walls of water, and how those waters had come crashing down on Pharaoh and his horses and chariots.

God did that for us, they would tell their children wistfully. But their children hardly knew who God was, so far removed were they from Jerusalem, their places of worship, and any sense of community. Even the elders feared that God’s favor was no longer with them. They were pretty sure God had stopped speaking. And sometimes they worried that they were not even a people any more.

“How can we sing our own song in a strange land?” they would say, longing for the good old days, longing for their good old God.

“When will God make us great again?” they would wonder, equating greatness with military might and economic prosperity, equating God with temple and state and a packed synagogue on every corner.

When it came to the future, they looked only to the past.

When it came to the present, they knew nothing but fear.

When it came to faith, they were of mixed minds. Some considered it old-fashioned. With the temple gone, God seemingly absent, and their homeland in ruins, they would have to make their own way. Others created God in their own good old days image, and used that to justify their oppressive and hateful ways as they tried to re-create something that never really was.

“Make us great again,” they shouted. “Make us great as in the days of old,” they prayed.

But God had not stayed in the old days. God was not limited to their  old ways.

And yet.

There were some things that hadn’t changed: God’s steadfast love. God’s in-dwelling, life-giving Spirit, as close and universal as breath, as real and active as the wind. God’s never-ending mercies, made fresh to order every morning. God’s tender heart. God’s way-out-of-no-way deliverance. God’s faithfulness. God’s still, small, still-speaking voice.

If only the people would stop looking backwards. If only the people would trust God with their future. If only they could be still and aware of God’s presence with them. If only they could imagine new structures, new ways of being God’s people, new ways of seeing God working in their unjust, fear-filled, ever-changing world.

“Be alert,” the prophet told them. “Stop focusing on the past. Live in the moment. Ground yourself in the now. God is about to do something brand new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it? God is making new pathways through new oceans. There are new rivers flowing in the desert. You are still God’s people, you and all people.”

The prophet appealed to their faith. The prophet appealed to their imagination. The prophet appealed to what was best in them. And the people who had gone out weeping were brought home with shouts of joy.

But that was then.

When is now?

How do we live now?

There is much that our tax-exempt status prohibits me from saying, so I will try to make some observations and ask some questions:

It seems to me that our country is in a very scary place. Now is a  scary time.

I wonder if we, with God’s help, can ground ourself in this frightening now long enough to try to understand it rather than simply recoiling from it and resisting it? Can we ground ourselves in the present reality and the perspectives of the tens of millions of people who may feel like exiles in their own land? Can we try to understand the real fears they have, the economic squeeze they’re in, the anger they feel, and how racist attitudes and institutions are the air they breathe and the privilege they were born into and cannot see?

Can we love them as neighbors? Can we love them as ourselves? Can we ground ourselves in God’s love for them—right now? Can we commit ourselves to pray for our enemies?

Can we make a distinction between their struggles and fears and the self-serving fearmongers and false prophets who appeal to their desires for safety and security? Can we make a distinction between what is a natural human fear and what is evil?

Can we be honest enough about our own fears of where this is leading to ensure that our opposition comes out of love and a desire for justice and equality rather than hatred and fear? How might forgiveness, compassion, and self-examination help us stay grounded?

Can we stay so grounded in God’s goodness, so grounded in our role as God’s partners in loving this world into wholeness and justice, that we support one another in the struggle rather than turning on each another?

Can we trust God to bring something new and good out of even this, to makes streams of justice and mercy, hope and love flow here in this wasteland of righteous and unrighteous anger, misplaced blame, empty promises, unbridled loathing, dangerous bullying, and an unhealthy lust for power and control?

Even as our hearts are filled with grief and fear, can we create a path to safety for countless refugees fleeing violence and starvation? How can we make sure every black life matters as much as any other? How can we support our Muslim citizens and protect immigrants?

What does it mean, in this now of heartbreaking division, political violence, and civic demise, to trust that God is doing something new, even now? How do we stay open ourselves to see what it is? How do we keep our hearts tender? How do we prepare the way of the Lord?

What if part of being grounded in the now, what if part of learning to trust in God’s ever-newness, is as simple—and as radical—as following Jesus? What would that look like?

I don’t know the answers to all those questions. But I want to trust that God is doing something new, and that we are part of it.

I don’t have the answers but I do have a story.

Times were hard. People’s backs were up against the wall. They lived in fear, though it was hard to know what they feared most: that nothing would change, or that the desperation and tension that kept building and building would finally explode in a cataclysmic wave of violence and repression. The stench of death was everywhere.

But in the midst of it there was hope of healing and liberation. In the very thick of it new, if fragile, life was taking root. Yet time was short.

So when Jesus came to her house for dinner, this woman held nothing back. She responded to the present moment with all she had, breaking all the cultural rules and shocking her friends and family in the process. She was extravagant with her love. She spent it all. She opened her heart for all to see.

You may think it made no difference. You would be right to say they killed him still.

But no one who saw her act of flagrant, fragrant love ever forgot it, and we tell her story still.

That moment was all she could be sure of. This moment is all we have. So let us fill it with our love. Let us allow our hearts to be broken open until the Love within leaks out. Let us love until the whole world reeks of it.