Gen. 12:1-4a and Jn. 3:1-17
Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket, RI
The Rev. Gillian R. Barr, Priest-in-Charge
This is St Patrick’s Day weekend. But while nowadays St Patrick is associated with shamrocks and green beer and Irish nationalism, he first gained renown as a monk and bishop and evangelist. Patrick and the other Celtic saints, such as Columba and Brendan, were responsible for much of the spread of Christianity throughout Ireland and Scotland and Wales. They were able to spread their faith so widely because they understood that one of the central things in biblical faith is to be called to go on a journey, to be willing to be a de facto exile from one’s family and homeland in order to follow God’s call and spread the Gospel. Patrick, who was English, journeyed away from his home and settled in Ireland; Columba journeyed from Ireland to Scotland. Celtic monks of all types would sometimes put themselves into a small boat, a coracle, and simply set out on the sea and go wherever the wind and currents took them.
When they took these journeys, when they submitted themselves to exile for the sake of spreading the Gospel, they were following the example of Abraham, in the story we heard in today’s first lesson. Abraham, who at this point in the story is still called Abram, is part of a clan which has flourished in the land we now call Iraq. But he hears God’s call to leave all that he and his relatives have built up and to go to a place that God will show him. To leave behind security and routine and safety and kinship networks and a way of life that was working well, and to go forth into some new land, just because God said so. The Lord said to Abram, “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.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.
This is what is meant by faith, by belief. Not intellectual understanding of various claims, but trusting in God. Trusting that God is a promise-maker and a promise-keeper. Trusting our future to God.
There are many times in life when we are called to do the same thing that Abram did. To leave behind what feels familiar and safe and predictable and go to a new place. Sometimes we are called into a new physical location. To move for a job—oh, say from Norfolk to Rhode Island—or from one company or department to another. Or to move from one country to another. Or to move with a military spouse on a new tour of duty. At this time of year, many high school seniors are waiting for acceptance letters from colleges and trying to determine where they will journey to in August. Sometimes instead of a geographical move, it is an emotional move. The move from being single to marriage, from independence to committing yourself to another person for life. The journey from full-time work to retirement. The journey from health through illness or disability to a new normal. Or the journey of grief and loss when we lose a parent or a spouse. There is always the pattern of having to leave something behind, moving out into the unknown, trusting that the new location will ultimately be a place of blessing for us and a place where we can be a blessing to others. The journey is not always short or easy, there are often very rough and scary parts. There is almost always grief for what we leave behind. But as Christians, we go on such journeys trusting that God goes with us, and that when we do reach a new place, it will be someplace we can flourish.
Abraham is our ideal: to realize we are being called and to just go, immediately, in faith and trust. But this morning we also heard the story of Nicodemus, and I think that perhaps Nicodemus’ experience is one we are more familiar with. Nicodemus was a leader of the religious community, someone with spiritual training and wisdom. He sees Jesus healing people and hears him teaching, and recognizes that there is something new, something of God. But he’s not sure of exactly what. So he approaches Jesus at night—because this newness is already threatening to the religious establishment. Jesus tells him that indeed he is being called to something new. He is being called away from a life centered on institutional religion and the status of his role and to a life grounded in faith, trusting in the Spirit and a personal relationship with God. Jesus speaks of being open to the Spirit of God which blows where it will in unpredictable fashion, of leaving one’s old understandings, one’s old life, behind, and being born into something new. But Nicodemus cannot, at this point in his life, understand what Jesus is saying. He literally cannot follow Jesus’s wordplay, of which there is a lot in this passage, and he cannot follow where Jesus is asking him to go spiritually. It is too big a change—to give up his previous understanding of how God will act, and his place in the religious establishment, and be willing to live a life of faith that is subject to change and newness and unpredictability.
I can more easily relate to Nicodemus than to Abram. Sometimes we sense we are being called into something new, but we don’t understand exactly what it is. Or we can’t imagine leaving our secure, predictable life behind. So we hesitate.
Today’s passage is thankfully not the last we hear of Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. When the religious establishment begins to turn the heat up on jesus and sends officers to arrest him, Nicodemus speaks up to urge moderation, and begs them not to act until they themselves have spoken to him and questioned him. For this he is mocked. And then we see him again at the Crucifixion—after Jesus’s body has been removed from the cross, he helps Joseph of Arimethea bury Jesus. Nicodemus brings the spices, a huge quantity of them, an extravagant amount. It seems only reasonable that when the tomb was found to be empty, those who had helped bury Jesus would be among those who would seek to know what had happened, and join with those who said he was raised. So it would seem that Nicodemus did in fact enter on a journey. He may not have gone forward at once, as Abram did, but he did step out in faith, slowly, perhaps not with huge courage, but with some, a courage which led him to defend Jesus in front of the authorities and to be with him at his death, and very probably to join with those who encountered him after his Resurrection. He did eventually come to know what it meant to be born anew.
What new thing might God be trying to call us to, as individuals or as a community? What journey? What new understanding of our relationship with God?
One journey we are being called to go on is a new way of being Church. The old ways, assuming that folks will seek us out and want to become involved, just aren’t working any more. The whole church is being called to leave behind old structures and assumptions and find new ways of living the Gospel. We don’t know what that will look like yet, and it’s scary for all of us, but following the lead of Abraham and Nicodemus, we can step out in trust.
The Spirit is definitely blowing in this diocese. Bishop Knisely is encouraging people to be bold and to try new things, to listen and watch to see where the spirit might be blowing and to move with it. One writer says, “We are free to be creative because the Spirit is not predictable, and God’s redemption is sure,” and that is exactly what I hear around the conference table at staff meetings.(1)
One example is what’s happening at Episcopal Camp & Conference Center. The director, Meaghan, thought it would be nice to offer an evening worship experience for those who have been connected with the camp but who have not been able to find a local church. The first week she expected to have 20 people at most. 70 showed up. The next week she figured it would be fewer, as those who had come the first week just to support her, like her mother, dropped out. But that week she had 75. The next week 85 gathered. Now the diocesan maintenance crew has been sent to fix up the church building near the camp because that many people cannot fit around Meaghan’s dining room table. Meaghan has suddenly found herself being a church planter. No one knows what will grow out of this, there are no objectives or agendas, but the Spirit definitely seems to be up to something.
The Spirit is also at work growing parishes in Barrington and Cumberland. Even the shuttered and dark Cathedral has a sign on it, “God isn’t finished with us yet!” and the brainstorming sessions have led to a very exciting, but totally unexpected, new direction for the Cathedral. It’s still in the early stages and not public yet, but it is something no one would have predicted.
How are we as a parish being called into new things? I honestly don’t know yet. Is it through an expansion of our community garden? Is it through our relationship with Winters School? Is it in some other way? I don’t know where we are being led, but I can say with confidence that we are being called forward on a journey, into something new, for which our past has prepared us. Where are you perhaps being called as an individual? What new ways of living, new habits, new patterns are you being invited to? What new dimensions to your relationship with God?
I will close with an ancient Celtic blessing for those who are setting out on a journey. May we as individuals, and we as a parish, trust in the presence of God, always calling us forward and accompanying us to new places, where we shall both be blessed and be a blessing.
The Gospel of the God of life
To shelter thee, to aid thee;
Yea, the Gospel of beloved Christ
The holy Gospel of the Lord;
To keep thee from all malice,
From every dole and dolor;
To keep thee from all spite,
From evil eye and anguish.
Thou shalt travel thither, thou shalt travel hither,
Thou shalt travel hill and headland,
Thou shalt travel down, thou shalt travel up,
Thou shalt travel ocean and narrow.
Christ Himself is shepherd over thee,
Enfolding thee on every side;
He will not forsake thee hand or foot,
Nor let evil come anigh thee.
1. David Lose, “Dear Working Preacher” for 3/9/14, at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?cat_id=36 . Accessed March 14, 2014.
￼2. From Carmina Gadelica, III, 191. As quoted by Esther deWaal in The Celtic Vision, Ligouri Publications. Kindle Edition locations 1662-1670.