Thursday, March 31, 2005

2 Lent A

Genesis 12:1-8; Psalm 13:12-22; Romans 4:1-17; John 3:1-17

“In that direction,” the Cheshire Cat said, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction….lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Perhaps Nicodemus’ Pharisee friends thought he was a little mad, a little crazy for coming to see Jesus. Jesus, the son of a carpenter, without a penny to his name, friend of tax collectors and prostitutes and smelly, sun-baked fishermen. Jesus, of whom John the Baptist had said, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” How absurd. Jesus, who had somehow turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana. How strange. Jesus, who had made the extraordinary claim, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” How odd. The March Hare and the Mad Hatter might have seemed quite sane by comparison.

But Nicodemus, sharing something of Alice’s spirit, felt curiously drawn to this strange and remarkable man. Like Alice running after her White Rabbit, he set out to find Jesus, only I don’t think Nicodemus ever saw the rabbit hole coming until he had already stumbled in.

Once he was inside, things just got madder, crazier, even more strange. Jesus’ words made so little sense that he seemed not even to have heard Nicodemus. Nicodemus tried to follow along, but got lost somewhere around you must be born from above and he finally had to throw up his hands and cry out, How can these things be?

How can these things be? Perhaps Abraham’s relatives and friends thought he was a little mad, a little crazy for packing things up and heading out of town because someone named God told him to. Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. How absurd. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great. How strange. In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. How odd. But Abraham and Sarah set out, leaving behind their family, their land, their livelihood – everything on which their lives literally depended. God promised them a new family, a new land, and a new livelihood, and so off they went. Years later, perhaps thinking she was crazy to have ever believed, Sarah laughed when she heard three strangers announce she would soon have a child. After I have grown old, and my husband is old? she wondered. How can these things be?

How can we make sense of a world in which none of the usual rules or categories apply? This was Alice’s problem, and it was Nicodemus and Sarah’s problem. How can we be born again? How can that which has so long been barren produce life? It is also our problem. How can we make sense of a world in which God might break in at any moment and tell us to leave behind everything we know and venture into the unknown?

It is madness. Our lives are so carefully planned, down to the last minute. Whether we want to be busy or not, it seems the world demands business of us, and so we spend our days rushing from one meeting to another, one event to another, one deadline to another, one soccer game to another….we know exactly where we need to be and when and for how long, and which way we need to go to get to the next place…..

Well, that’s how I tend to work, anyway. I like to be organized in my business, or at least to think I’m being organized, to such an extent that sometimes, I’ll admit, if I do things that aren’t on my to-do list, I’ll add them just so I can cross them off. I know I’m not the only one!

When I arrived here last summer, I sat down at my computer and typed into Outlook Express all the recurring meetings and church services I would need to be at. Morning prayer, bible study, vestry meeting, healing service….Each day I would add in the various meetings and appointments and other obligations, complete with the color-coding for “in the office” or “away from the office” and occasionally the little alarm that can warn you a few minutes early that you’re about to miss something you’re supposed to not miss….There was something deeply satisfying, comforting, about knowing I could scroll to any day of the week and see right there, on my computer screen, what the day was going to hold.

Yeah, right. I quickly learned that there’s no color-coding for the phone call from your son’s daycare that he’s just gotten sick and needs to go home. There’s no alarm to warn you that someone’s been admitted to the emergency room and you need to go. There’s no timetable for folks who walk in off the street cold or hungry or hurting and hoping that the church can help. I don’t use Outlook Express anymore.

Can you imagine what Nicodemus’ Outlook Express calendar might have looked like? Daily prayer, worship at the temple, meetings with other religious authorities….and then Jesus pencils in, late one evening, Be born from above….Yeah, right. And when Jesus retraced it in ink, Be born from above, born of water and spirit….Nicodemus couldn’t figure out how to fit that into his categories, the color-coded options and alarms, and the momentum of his life was ground to a halt. Jesus, how can these things be?

Despite our best efforts at managing our never-enough time, we all get interrupted in our daily rushing about. But today’s readings aren’t about just getting interrupted – they are about completely changing the course of our lives just because someone named God told us to. It is madness.

Or is it faith? Or a little of both?

I’m not surprised that Paul was drawn to the example of Abraham, who answered without hesitation the call of God to become something entirely different in one moment than he was the moment before. Perhaps Paul’s friends thought he was a little mad, a little crazy when he announced that Jesus had spoken to him through a blinding light and told him to stop murdering Christians and start making them instead. Someone named God told Abraham and Paul to start over and so they did – it looked, and probably felt, like madness. It was reckoned as faith.

Most of us, I suspect, are more like Sarah or Nicodemus. Even like Mary, who, when she was told she will bear the Son of the Most High, said, how can this be? We are so locked into the rules and categories by which we define and organize our world, our lives, and even our faith, that we forget God is not so bound. How can these things be? They can be because it is God who is doing them in us and around us and through us.

In the season of Lent, I believe, we are called not just to interrupt but to change the course of our lives. We tend to turn Lent into sort of a time outside time, when we are especially intentional about remembering our dependence on God, with whom things are possible that for us are impossible. We are especially penitent for the things we do that separate us from God. Many of us give something up or take something on as a Lenten discipline, to help us be especially aware of the presence of God in our daily rushing around lives.

Sure, it’s important during Lent to interrupt our routine, our rushing about, to make ourselves take a long hard look at how far we’ve drifted off course. But if we look at where we’re headed – at the events of Holy Week and beyond….a master washing the feet of his disciples, a cross for God to die on, an empty tomb….It’s madness. How can these things be?

They can be because it is God who does them, God who 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. During Lent we are called to change our routine, our rushing about, not just for a time but for all time. We, like Nicodemus before us, are invited to be born into a new life.

Nicodemus was so confident in his rules and categories of what was possible that, in the presence of the light of the world, he stood in darkness, unable to see. Unable to see Incarnation, God with us – how absurd, anyway. Unable to see perfect sacrificial love – how strange. Unable to see life after death – how odd. When you think about it, what about Jesus makes sense?

It is madness, surely, to give up everything the world has taught us to be, to do, and to believe, and to follow Jesus instead. But then, we’re all a little mad, right, a little crazy? A little mad and a lot faithful? We must be, or we wouldn’t have come here.

In this season of Lent, may we, like Nicodemus, make what is at first a strange and disconcerting interruption in our way of life become a life change. For the next time we see Nicodemus in John’s gospel, he speaks briefly on Jesus’ behalf before the religious authorities. And the last time we see him, he is gently placing in a tomb the dead body of one who once spoke to him of new life. How can these things be? They can be because it is God who does them in us and around us and through us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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