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Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Second Sunday in Lent – International Women’s Day
March 8, 2020
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘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.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
The scripture seems to be focused on aging today – Abram is seventy-five when God calls him to uproot himself and his whole family and move from Haran to Canaan. And though we never learn his exact age, Nicodemus is getting on too – when Jesus says, you need to reinvent yourself, to be born again, Nicodemus is plaintive: how can anyone be born after having grown old? It sounds as if he is just too tired to imagine something new and exciting.
And to give him credit, he may have a better idea of what a big change might entail than Jesus does. Jesus is only about 32 here – he has no family responsibilities, no wife or children, no duties as a leader of the religious community. He is just wandering from place to place, offering advice and healing, sometimes chiding the people, more often sharing God’s love. Jesus is footloose, able to do what he wants, choose his friends, speak his mind.
Nicodemus, on the other hand, is a prominent man in a close-knit society. As a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court, he has to get publicly involved in disputes about religious practice, and property disputes, and divorce cases. Knows everyone’s business and everyone’s politics. He is constrained on every side – to the point where he has to come to talk to Jesus at night, in secret. When Jesus suggests a type of re-birth, it just seems impossible.
The season of Lent is a time when in our own small way, all Christians are put in the place of Abram or Nicodemus. No matter what our actual age, we are invited to leave behind some of the trappings of our life and find the spiritual rebirth that we need. It’s an offer to become new, to reset. The ways we respond may be symbolic – small changes in diet, like abstaining from chocolate or French fries. Or sometimes people pick up a habit of prayer or reading or even singing something like our Lenten Reflections, or other devotional material. You can take the time each day to look up into the hills, as the Psalmist recommended in the Psalm that Garnet read, and the choir sang. You can find a way to step out of the daily hurly-burly for a few moments, and remember, even briefly, that as Jesus said, the wind blows where it chooses, and you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. Meditation and contemplative prayer are methods of calling that to mind. Every new day is an invitation to leave your life behind, to set out from Haran, or to be born again.
There are other ways too, in which we have the experience of leaving our lives behind. Sometimes very concretely – leaving behind places, and people, and belongings. People do this for school, or for work, or as refugees. Some people move to a whole new country and have to find their way, have to create a new life in a strange land. This can be thrilling but also disorienting and difficult. When the change isn’t by choice the loss of the old life may be painful, and almost impossible to manage. And yet, as we know, and some of the congregation from personal experience, the task of building a new life also evokes remarkable resilience and creativity in people.
Less dramatically, I imagine a few of us have had the experience of decluttering or downsizing a house or apartment. Of course, it’s a trend right now, as people try to cut through the piles and piles of stuff that seem to accumulate in our homes and offices. There is a minimalist aesthetic in magazines and TV shows – an aesthetic that most of us can’t hope to achieve. But we do know the strange combination of challenge and sadness and satisfaction that comes from tackling a pile of old clothes, or files of papers. You revisit your life – remember when you wore this? Remember what you were thinking when you wrote that, remember how interested you were in the other thing when you found that book, or that grow-light kit, or bread-maker? Remember who you loved when you dried that flower? Even if you are a young student clearing out your dorm room, it’s all those questions. The messy bookshelves and filing cabinets and closets are like an external hard drive of our interior lives. In a way, you could say that the work of leaving things behind is a form of autobiography. And autobiography as we know is a spiritual task. We ask the question, who have I been, who am I?
It happens in offices too. In the last week or two I have begun clearing out files in my office – still had some of Linda’s, and some old redevelopment files. (The originals are all in the archives, so don’t worry, historians). But it was illuminating to dip into the story of thinking and decision-making that this congregation has done over the last twenty years. I was reminded of the particular sense of humour of a couple of people whose lives have come to an end in the years since, and the remarkable effort in many areas of social justice and outreach that all kinds of people have made over the decades – so many different activities and accomplishments that have brought the congregation to this point. And of course, I have reams of old sermons of Cliff’s and David’s, and Bruce’s and Don’s. They aren’t going out, at least not yet. A congregation has an autobiography too. And bringing it to consciousness is a spiritual task. Part of that autobiography is captured in our Lenten Reflections this year. We ask the question who have we been, who are we?
And Jesus answers, well, you have to be born again. This can sound daunting, as if it is an order – you must be born again. That is the way Nicodemus takes it. He feels it is a command he won’t be able to follow. But it’s really an offer, an invitation. Jesus says to him, and to us, your true self will emerge, a self that is known and loved by God, a self that is perhaps more open to God’s love. It’s an invitation not to be defined by the clutter of the past, or even by your fond memories. Jesus says, you are more than your autobiography. Moreover, says Jesus, it is exactly this that is the key to eternal life. Jesus says that God’s love for the world is such that our destiny lies beyond all the accumulations of our lives, beyond our accomplishments and our failings, beyond even our own hopes and dreams. Figuring out how to live precisely in that space of openness, learning to live knowing that the wind blows where it will, without our help or our understanding: this is what Jesus invites us to. Being born again, born from above, is a lifelong journey for each of us as individuals, and for the church as a body. We are invited to follow Jesus, always open, always ready to see what comes next. It is a journey in which we are not alone, and for this we give God thanks. Amen.
Photo Credit: Artem Beliaikin