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As many of you know, my husband Gary was in the military for 27 years. When we first started seeing each other I was in college and he was on a ship, so we dated long distance. After a year of this, we agreed that it was important for us to live near each other before committing to marriage. Gary said he’d try to get a position where I wanted to live, so I said I’d go wherever he was stationed. It turned out to be California. Now, as a Connecticut Yankee, my idea of California was based on old episodes of “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun”- and I had only been as far west as West Virginia, so this was more than a bit out of my comfort zone. But I was determined to try and Gary was extremely patient, encouraging me to “think of it as a vacation. Just stay two weeks and if you hate it you can go back home.” He was also patient about putting up with the things that I insisted I needed to do to make it through the trip: driving only six hours instead of the 12 per day that he’d imagined; calling home daily; and, most importantly, wrapping myself up in the comforter from my childhood bed and playing the Bing Crosby Christmas tape – over and over and over – in July.
It’s a funny story now, but at the time it almost ended our relationship, which would have been a tragedy for both of us – not to mention our two children. But that’s what we do with stories that make us sad or anxious – we turn them into something funny. After all, humor is a very high level defense mechanism and one of the best ways to deal with the things that upset us most. And, while we all have our own triggers for emotional upheaval, some things seem to be almost universally anxiety- provoking – things like road trips. Which is probably why one popular website lists over 100 Road Trip movies – because, really- don’t we all have a horror story in which we set out in a car full of dreams (or family members) for an exciting new destination only to experience disastrous consequences?
Migration – especially when it is forced and, even more importantly, when it requires you to leave behind things and people you love, is a hard thing. For Abram, who lived almost two thousand years before the birth of Christ in a culture in which your family was not just your support system but your assurance of survival, leaving his father’s house was not just brave, but arguably suicidal. And yet it is the very first thing God asked Abram to do; God didn’t tell Abram why he wanted him to do it or how it would work out, God just said that if Abram went, he would be blessed. So Abram took his nephew Lot and answered God’s call – for the simple and almost unfathomable reason that Abram believed God’s promise. He left almost everything he had and risked everything he had left because God told him it would be okay. Now that’s a leap of faith – perhaps the most famous leap of faith in religious history.
Today’s reading doesn’t say anything about how Abram felt – if he was confused or scared or even, potentially, enthusiastic. The same is true of the Israelites who spoke to God through the words of Psalm 121, known as “A Psalm of Ascents” – ascent as in “going uphill.” Commentators suggest that Psalm 121might not have been a spoken poem, but a song – done in the call and response style familiar to us from gospel music – sung by either soldiers before battle or by a community embarking on a long journey – a trip from which they might not return. Similar to the rituals used by athletes and performers to pump themselves up prior to a big game or show, this psalm may have been used as a way to calm their jitters and strengthen their resolve – a way to remind the people that no matter what happened, they would be okay, because the Lord God would keep them safe.
The question is why God continued to do so. Scholars aren’t sure about the circumstances of this psalm, but there’s no suggestion in it that these people earned God’s protection. And neither had Abram. This story represents the first time Abram appears in the Bible, so we don’t really know anything about him or, more importantly, why God chose him to be the patriarch of what would become three major religious faiths. We only know that God’s actions in this narrative are consistent with how God behaves throughout human history: God gives things to his people and the people destroy or misuse them. After getting angry and reprimanding the wayward people, God gives them another chance – and we mess it up again – and again and again. But this particular opportunity is special, because this time, instead of cursing them for their disobedience, God promises to bless them – if only they will choose to remain in relationship with him. God tells Abram that if Abram chooses God, God will bless him and through him all of humanity. This, according to Frederick Niedner, is how God stays in relationship with us. God simply provides us with the chance to choose God.
That’s what it means to be born again- not, as Nicodemus understandably wonders aloud, to come out of your mother’s womb for a second time – and not, as many Christians believe, by being baptized. Baptism is a human ritual which uses water to invoke the Holy Spirit, but it doesn’t necessarily change who you are. It is, according to the Episcopal Church, initiation into what we think of as Christ’s body on earth, the church. It is a sign of membership, not of transformation. The Greek word that follows the word “born” in this passage from the Gospel of John “anothen” – can be translated three ways – as “again,” “anew,” or “from above.” But no matter how you read it, there is nothing in what Jesus says that suggests that any physical action will fulfill the requirement that Jesus sets for eternal life. In fact, Jesus very clearly tells Nicodemus that what he’s saying has nothing to do with our flesh at all.
What Jesus is talking about is the rebirth of our spirits – the renewal of our souls. He is talking about something that no human idea or action can achieve. In his interaction with Jesus, Nicodemus was looking for a prescription for salvation, a path that he could walk to reach the kingdom of heaven. But Jesus told him that it’s not that simple, that changing our behavior means nothing if we do not change our hearts – and changing our hearts is not a procedure, but a process. Having faith is not just one leap, but an ongoing journey – a long and difficult passage of trying to believe in something that on its face is completely unreasonable and irrational – the idea that there is something – someone – who cares more about us than we care about ourselves. Faith is a road trip.
And it requires us to embrace an even stranger notion – that God’s completely unselfish, constant, and saving love is free and unearned. It simply requires us to accept it. In fact, according to today’s reading from Roman’s, it is actually offensive to God to try to earn it. It is not up to us to give birth to a new and better world. We have shown time and again that we are incapable of doing it alone. “It is God who will give birth in water and Spirit. Rebirth is God’s gift to give, God’s work to accomplish, and it is God who labors to bring us new life.”
It is up to us to accept that new life – to attempt to live as Jesus has shown us – to risk -as Abram did -everything we have for everything we might become. It is up to us to trust, as the Israelites did, that when we lift up our eyes to God, help will come. It is up to us to believe – to believe that God so loved the world – so loved us –that he gave his only Son, so that we may not die to sin, but live to complete our journey to eternal life. AMEN.
Frederick Niedner, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Second Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 50.
Deborah J. Kapp, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Second Sunday in Lent), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 72.