For those of you who were here on Ash Wednesday, you know why our altar is uncovered this Lent. If you missed that, here’s the recap. About 15 years ago, Grace Church experienced violence in its walls. There was a break in and vandals desecrated the church. In their rampage, the Blessed Sacrament was dumped out on the rug at the high altar and crushed under foot, candlesticks were smashed and this altar’s marble top was smashed. When you come up for communion, take a moment to look at it … run your hands over the damage. It was a day when a small group of people poured out contempt on Christ and his people. This community was violated. It was an act of evil.
We speak of evil in our prayer of confession and Lent is a time for us to face evil: the evil we do, the evil done to us and the evil done on our behalf as our confession prayer states. Evil and sin are intertwined and they manifest through our broken lives – broken like this altar, broken like Christ on the cross. Our readings thus far have talked about our broken nature. Last week’s readings were about the identity theft that temptation causes – the ways that our true identity as beloved sons and daughters is stolen when we are tempted to break relationship with God and others and “go it alone” in our lives. The contrast was between Eve and Adam who fell for the temptation to “be like God” and go it alone and Jesus who completely trusted God and stayed in solidarity with us.
Today we are given another set of contrasts – this time about trust. While the word “faith” and “belief” run rampant through these readings (especially in the Epistle), I’m using the word “trust” intentionally. Too often, we fall into the trap of thinking “faith” and “belief” are intellectual assents to a set of propositions. That isn’t how the early Christians experienced this. It was about what you gave yourself over to completely – a complete act of trust: trust of body, mind and spirit. And trust is something with which we struggle, isn’t it? Anybody have “trust issues?” Of course we do. Our experience is that people have let us down and we are wary of trusting, giving ourselves over, to the care of someone or something outside ourselves. Abram and Nicodemus are both put in the position of being called into complete trust.
The Torah portion from Genesis is known by our Jewish sisters and brothers as “Lech, Lecha!” – or “Get up and Get out of here!” It comes from God’s call to Abram – “[Get up and] Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Notice that God does not say, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to this lovely little condo I have picked out for you in Haifa. It has a great ocean view – you’re gonna love it!” No … God says, “Go … to a land I will show you.” Abram had no clue where he was going – but he had to go – and he trusted this voice and acted upon it as if it were true.
Now you might be thinking Abram was nuts and you would never be able to trust God at this level. Admittedly, God doesn’t tend to speak with us directly like he appeared to do with Abram. Perhaps it would be easier if God did do this. But we often hear the voice of God calling us through the mediation of regular old human beings … which brings up those trust issues again, doesn’t it? But think for a moment about a time when somebody called you – speaking something to your heart that you just knew was true. Now you may not have wanted to hear the truth – and it was painful to face. Truth isn’t always fun but it is always healing – always healing! Gloria Steinem is said to have riffed on this: “The truth shall set you free … but first it will piss you off.” This kind of truth is a place where Christ’s light shines into the darkness of the evil that may be enslaving you – it’s an invitation to drop the pretense, get real, and be free. And when you trust that truth, you begin to live as if it were real – even if you don’t really fully trust it yet.
It may be that a deep, heart penetrating truth gets spoken to you and it calls you to do or be something that you never imagined yourself to be. Think about that for a moment … did you ever have a moment when somebody believed you were capable of more than you thought? And because they had trust in you, you began to behave as if it were true even if you didn’t totally get it yet? The Saturday before Ash Wednesday, Wendy made a trip over to visit Lila and Bill Wenner. She asked me, “Is there anything I can take to them?” I said, “Yes … Holy Communion.” My response just came … and I think Wendy was a little taken aback as she asked me, “Can I do that??” I told her, “Of course you can. Let’s get a kit and I have a book for you.” And … she did. She took Communion to Lila and Bill and, reports have it and as we say in Brunswick, she “done good.” Now Bill did put her at ease by telling her that if she made a mistake, God would just laugh anyway. But here was a place where God called Wendy … oh sure, I was the mouthpiece, but I am persuaded God called her to this. She hadn’t seen this in herself up to that point – but when I said she could, she believed … she trusted this was true and acted as if it were true and she went. It was an Abram response.
The Gospel reading tells us of another response. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night – out of the darkness to encounter the light of Christ. Forget your preconceived ideas about Pharisees – Nicodemus isn’t a bad guy. He’s genuinely interested in Jesus and acknowledges that he sees God’s power working through him. Jesus then tells him that no one can see the Kingdom of God unless you are “born from above.” The phrase “born from above” also can mean “born again.” I think it’s a both/and – born again from above. He’s speaking of the death of our egos and our preconceived ideas of God and ourselves. This has to die for us to turn over our trust completely to God and thus be spiritually resurrected. This is totally going over Nicodemus’ head – essentially he says, “You can’t go back into your mother’s womb! That’s just crazy talk!” Nicodemus’ knowledge of scripture and his own attachment to his identity becomes a stumbling block – he can’t see the God behind the words of scripture. He can’t quite understand that no words, no Torah, no earthly container can possibly limit God’s power. Trusting Jesus’ words just is beyond him. Perhaps it’s because God’s call is being mediated through what appears to be a mere human being (we’re not the only ones with trust issues). Or maybe it is just seems too good to be true.
Abram and Nicodemus are two sides of our ability to trust God. There are those grace filled moments when we hear something that just cuts to our hearts and we know it is true – we know God is behind those words (even if we don’t really want to hear them) and we step out as if what was said was actually true. And then we have times when our preconceived ideas, our egos, our addictions and attachments, seem to get in the way of God’s call to us for a healed and resurrected life.
Now before we “flat Stanley” these two characters as “Abram who is faithful” and “Nicodemus who doesn’t get it,” we need to remember that Abram will doubt God’s call on more than one occasion (the folks w.ho journeyed through Genesis with us at our Coffee Talk Bible Study will remember that). Nicodemus does not disappear from the Gospel of John after he stumbles in his trust – he shows up again to defend Jesus’ legal right to a fair trial … and he shows up again with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
Our ability to trust God’s call in our lives is, admittedly, a mixed bag and our challenge is not necessarily to always “get it right” but to keep struggling and wrestling with it. Our trust may be broken, like this altar, but it is the broken Christ who meets us in order to heal us and make us new again.