2 LENT (A)
MARCH 16, 2014
The Rev. Anne Wrider
When I first moved to Cincinnati, in 2000, someone who did not realize I was a newcomer asked me where I went to school. Not knowing what that question meant in this town, I naively told them where I got my undergraduate degree. The person gave me a strange look, and, of course, I quickly learned that in Cincinnati, that question refers to which high school one attended. This is a town with old names, old traditions, long-lasting memories. It’s pretty odd to someone coming here from somewhere like Chicago, as I did. But now, fourteen years later, I recognize a lot of the Cincinnati names, I know the neighborhoods, I even know where a lot of the high schools actually are!
But for all of our rootedness in tradition and name and neighborhood, we have nothing on the people of Abram’s time and place. For the people of that ancient time, family and land were all there were. If you wanted to know who you were, all you needed to know was your tribe and the place you lived. So imagine how bizarre it would have seemed to Abram to leave that. No one did that. And to leave country and kindred would be terribly dangerous. To venture out alone, or even with your immediate family exposed you to terrible risk. Family took care of family. If there were no family around, you could be in terrible trouble quickly. But God’s command is clear. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house…”
I imagine that Nicodemus felt equally disoriented when Jesus started to talk to him about being born again. We hear Jesus with 21st century ears. We know about being born again, or think we do! At least the concept is one we’ve heard before. But imagine never having heard that phrase before. And Nicodemus, who is probably not a poetic soul, has no clue what Jesus is talking about. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader of the community, but he is attracted to Jesus. He wants to know more, and so he sneaks out to see Jesus at night. But what Jesus says is clearly not what Nicodemus was expecting. God’s call to Nicodemus, like the call to Abram, means leaving behind everything that is known and familiar and going to a new, strange world. “You must be born from above.” What can that mean?
Unlike Abram, we don’t really know if Nicodemus took up Jesus’ challenge and invitation. John says that Nicodemus came to anoint Jesus’ body after he was crucified, so perhaps he did.
But the question that presents itself is “Why?” Why would people leave the safety and comfort of home and family or, as for Nicodemus, the safety and comfort of old beliefs, to answer God’s call? I think the answer lies in the promise that comes with the challenge. God says to Abram, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And Jesus says to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
The blessing of the whole world, the salvation of the whole world – these are God’s promises. One of the worst things we human beings have done with those promises is to try to make them private property. God’s promises are never just for us. When people talk about God’s promise to Israel as if it were just to Israel, they have missed the point. And when Christians take the first half of Jesus’ phrase and forget the second half, they have distorted what he said and what he meant. God’s love is for every creature, every person. There is no limit.
But if we are really going to know God’s love and the promise he holds for us, we are going to have to give up safety and comfort. That’s not something we want to hear. We want to come to church to feel safe and warm. We want music that doesn’t challenge us and we want to hear words that make us feel good. And sometimes, that’s okay. But that’s not all there is. Sometimes God has a challenge for us, a call to leave what is comfortable in order to help save the world. And the way we find that out is to ask. We have to spend time praying to know what God’s will for us is.
This season of Lent is the time to listen for God’s call. The call to you or me may be shocking or disorienting. God may have a challenge for you or for me that is alarming or frightening. If that is true for you, if you have been praying to know God’s will and find the ideas that are coming into your head disturbing, hooray! It means that you are listening. God’s call may be hard to hear, but what is important to remember is that it always carries promise, and that promise is the hope of the world. God calls us to great things, but God also always gives us what we need to do those things.
We think of God’s call as something that happened long ago and far away. But let me tell you a story that comes from our own time.
It was late Friday night, January 27, 1956. In Montgomery, Alabama, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., sat alone in the kitchen of his home. For the last month, he had been the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott. It was not going well. He had led mass meetings of the people involved in the boycott, he had tried, unsuccessfully, to negotiate with the bus company and with the white leaders of the community. He had even been put in jail for driving people who were supporting the boycott to and from their jobs.
As he sat in his kitchen on that Friday night, the phone rang. When he picked it up, a voice on the other end said, “Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.” Later, King described what happened next, (Bearing the Cross, p. 58)
I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born…She was the darling of my life. I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. And I sat at that table thinking about that little girl and about the fact that she could be taken away from me at any minute.
And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted and loyal wife, who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer. I was weak. Something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta, a hundred and seventy-five miles away. You can’t even call on Mama now. You’ve got to call on that something, on that person that your Daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.
And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I will never forget it…I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said,”Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.”
Then it happened:
And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world”…I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone.
We know what happened after that night. Martin Luther King, Jr. went on to be a witness and a prophet, a person who by his life and teaching showed the world what it means to follow Christ. He became a man of almost superhuman courage, able to love and able to inspire others to love, even in the face of the most vicious hatred. No matter how much evil he met, Martin Luther King responded in love and overcame evil with that love. On that January night in Montgomery, his fear was taken away and God made him strong.
We may not be called to be a great saint and prophet like Martin Luther King, Jr., but each of us called to dare to leave our comfort and safety and to journey to where God calls us. And each of us is called, in whatever small way, to make the world a better place.
“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And, because we belong to Jesus, through us.