When I was on vacation in Los Angeles last summer I had a minor, but really annoying, traffic accident. My unasked-for upgraded rental car was a Nissan Xterra, a gigantic SUV type assault vehicle. When attempting to parallel park in front of a store on Pico Boulevard in West L.A., I crushed and obliterated the left front fender of a Porsche Carrera. The accident really was my fault, but it was my misfortune that the car I damaged was owned by an Iranian attorney from Beverly Hills, who was standing next to the vehicle at the time.
After I extracted myself from the series of screeds that ensued, all that day and the next, I berated myself with the phrase, "If only". If only I had turned down the Xterra upgrade. If only I had not tried to parallel park on a busy street. If only I had actually been able to see the Porsche from my rear view mirror when backing up.
I don't want to suggest that I am comparing my "If only" with Martha's remark to Jesus. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Crushing a Carrera is not the same as losing a brother. But the human impulse to look back in remorse is universal. Who among us has not asked this question after a bad event? If only I had . . . fill in the blank. We want to take it back. We want to return to a lost pre-catastrophe past.
This desire to go back before the "if only" is an expression of nostalgia. As the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says, "It’s a kind of nostalgia, not for the past as it was, but for the present that could have been, if only the past had just been a little bit different." I wouldn't have spent an afternoon being yelled at by an angry lawyer if I hadn't tried to park in front of his car. Martha would not have had to bury her brother if Jesus had only showed up on time.
One of the mysteries of being human lies in the way we find ourselves caught within the flow of time. St. Augustine described time as a "concord of past, present, and future—three dreams which, as [he] said, cross in our minds as in the present of things past, the present of things present, and the present of things future." [Frank Kermode, The Sense of and Ending, p. 50 quoting Confessions Book XI]
We live in a concord of three dreams. When the dream of the present turns sour, we often retreat to a comforting dream of the past. The life of a faith community, like the life of a person, is a concord of dreams, an interweaving of the streams of past, present, and future. Every parish, seminary, or school I have served can tell you the story of its founding, its glory days, its tribulations. The robust ones have a vision of their future at least as vibrant as their sense of their past. The dying ones seem caught in the trap of "if only."
In some respects, Washington National Cathedral finds itself in the same spot as Martha and Mary after the death of Lazarus. We are often tempted to say, with Martha, "If only": If only the earthquake hadn't happened, if only trends in American religious giving, membership, and attendance weren't going in the wrong direction, if only younger people loved traditional worship as much as we do, if only our average donor weren't 76 years old. We find ourselves beset with many challenges, most of them economic and demographic. Our first response, like Martha's, is often to turn from the bad dream of the present to a happier dream of the past. If only that past had continued, our present would feel different than it does.
Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.' . . . Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ [John 11: 21, 23]
When Martha says "if only" to Jesus about Lazarus' death, Jesus replies, "Your brother will rise again." Martha wants to point Jesus toward correcting the past. Jesus declines to look back but instead invites her to step into a radiant future. But not only that, when Jesus invites her into that future he shows her how she can live even now as that future is being brought forward into the present. "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." [John 11:25-26] This invitation to live not a life oriented toward the past but toward a future made present now is a move Jesus makes in much of his teaching. It's a move that God with us makes every time we gather at God’s table in Eucharist.
The singing of Psalm 96 earlier reminded me of St. Augustine's observation that the best model he could use to represent our experience of how past, present, and future intersect lay in the recitation of a Psalm. We remember God's activity in the past. We state our situation in the present. We ask for God's saving activity to bring us into a new future. Christians look to the past not out of nostalgia but for signs of hope. We look to the future in expectation, not in dread. We face both past and future so that we may live abundantly in the present, which is the only dream that finally matters.
We gather tonight as a community in a historic liturgy of Evensong and as a cathedral community perched, as always at the intersection of these dreams of time: our shared past, our lived present, and God’s future. And we gather as a cathedral chapter community saying goodbye to one member (Rich Bland) and welcoming into its life and ministry two new members, Michele Hagans and Steve Knapp. As we simultaneously bless and welcome, let us give thanks for the great past of this historic institution. Let us face into the present with all its mixture of opportunities and challenges. And let us, like Martha, hear Jesus’s call to go with him into a future which opens before us even now and transcends all that we can ask for or imagine. The time for “if only”s is over. God’s future breaks in upon us even now. Amen.