Lent 2 March 20, 2011

Genesis 12:1-4a                                                                  

John 3:1-17                                                                            

Yesterday I was back in Illinois to preach at the funeral of a lady named Elizabeth Carpenter, who died at the age of 98. Liz was the last of the founding members of St. Charles’ Episcopal Church. That I be the preacher for her funeral was one of the things she requested. It was a significant request, because Liz Carpenter had a difficult time accepting me as her new rector. You see, I came on the heels of the beloved Fr. Ludtke, founding rector of the St. Charles’ parish, who had served it for 33 years and then retired. There was one interim Sunday and then I arrived: my first parish. I was the new guy, full of seminary learnings, and I liked to make changes. Fr. Ludtke was the old guy, who had liked things to stay the same.

But Liz was a serious Christian. She believed in that Benedictine vow of stability which we talked about last week in the adult forum. This was her church and she was going nowhere. So she’d come to my office, sit herself down, produce a list from her purse, and we’d go through it item by item: why did I change this, why did I change that? And what happened was that Liz Carpenter learned to accept change, indeed to change herself. The present rector of St. Charles’ told me a story. A few weeks before she died, Liz was in church, sitting in her wheelchair at coffee hour. She was looking around at the coffee hour crowd and she said to Fr. Nesbit, “I don’t know all these people any more.” And then, after a pause, she added, “But I guess that’s a good thing.” A good thing for her church to grow and change.

And for every church, for every Christian. The first reading this morning is about the call of Abram – whose name gets changed to Abraham – to leave his country and his kindred and his father’s house, all that gave him meaning, and journey forth to a land that the Lord would show him. “This weird faith walk,” as a young parishioner of mine once put it.

Then we heard the gospel, about Nicodemus. Nicodemus was sort of a Liz Carpenter, a member of the Jewish council, a conservative orthodox traditionalist. He comes to Jesus by night, under cover as it were, seeking the secret wisdom that Jesus seems to possess – the power behind the signs he’s performing. And Jesus engages in a sort of shadow boxing game with him, telling him he must be “born again” or “born from above” in order to enter this thing called the kingdom of heaven. Nicodemus is stuck on the literal level. He can’t let go. He’s caught in the safety of the familiar, his known routines, his religious certainties. There’s a tradition that identifies Nicodemus with Joseph of Arimathea, the “secret disciple” who comes at the end of John’s gospel and provides his own new tomb for the burial of Jesus. So perhaps in the end, like Liz Carpenter, Nicodemus was born again.

We can hope so. But more important is whether we can be born again. This isn’t a once and done for thing, you know. God requires it of us again and again and again. We have to keep leaving our country and our kindred and our ancestors’ house – setting forth to a land, a heaven, a new spiritual understanding based only on God’s promise. If we cling to the old, the familiar, it becomes idolatrous and spiritually we die. What this is about is learning to trust in the end only in God.

I heard a marriage counselor once say that all marriages last only about seven years. Either they then end in divorce, or in a kind of staleness that isn’t really marriage, or the couple renews their commitment and love on a new basis. Marriage changes when you have children, again when the children enter school, again when they leave home, again when you retire, and of course again when one spouse dies. Marriage requires us to be born again and again and again.

Same thing with other relationships. This is a wonderful moment for Holy Cross Church. God is calling you to set forth on a journey – this journey we call the search process. Somewhere there is a priest who will be called to journey too – to become your new vicar. Liz Carpenter was on the search committee that called me to St. Charles’. One of the questions I was asked there was how I would go about putting my new wine (I was freshly ordained) into their old wineskin (33 years with Fr. Ludtke) without bursting the wineskin, as one of Jesus’s parables says. And I answered them – on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, I’m sure – that I was also an old wineskin and to me they were the new wine. Together we would have to be born gain, renewed in spirit, if we were not to burst. And so it will be for you and for your new priest – and for me and Anne as we move into the new land to which God is calling us.

The gospels we hear week by week in Lent during this Year A of the Lectionary cycle have an ancient history.* They were chosen in the very early centuries of the Church to instruct catechumens, candidates for Baptism at Easter. After the gospel was read each Sunday, the catechumens would be taken out of the Mass and would discuss with their teachers, their catechists, what the reading said to them. How would they be born again? What did they have to let go of to enter the kingdom of heaven, their new baptismal life?

Several people in this room this morning will be baptized at our Easter Vigil. I will be asking them to reflect on such questions. But Lent is a good time for all of us to engage in this recollection. We are all stuck in old places. God calls us all to new lands. We all need to be born again, and again and again, to learn to trust only in God.

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*Actually, this morning’s gospel is not one of the original set. In the Roman Catholic lectionary, today’s gospel is the Transfiguration story Episcopalians heard on Last Epiphany. But the Nicodemus reading fits beautifully into the sequence of other Lenten readings from John’s gospel.

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