20th Feb, 2005

The Second Sunday of Lent

The Sign of The Cross”
Rev. Dr. Gwynne M. Guibord

Lections:
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalms121
Romans 4:1-5,13-17
John 3:1-17

This morning as we gather to worship together on the second Sunday in Lent, the church is veiled of its glory. The Christ figure lies hidden out of sight. Each and every icon, each of the windows to God, is covered as liturgically we seek to replicate the intentionality of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the Cross.

God calls us into pilgrimage: “Follow me” and more profoundly: “Trust me”. The way will be difficult. The problems will be many. Pilgrimage is a process of transformation – of building and deepening our relationship with God – of seeking and finding God in our relationships with each other.

In the Church calendar this is the time of deliberate ego blinding, of soul-full obedience, of moving inward: stretching up and reaching deep at the same time – immersing ourselves in God’s overwhelming mystery and Love.

We seek Jesus’ unshakeable faith rooted in the certainty of God’s Love.
The Love that carries us forward during this time is the deep recognition
that everything we are and aspire to be and can possibly have and become is available to us only through the Loving Grace of the One who creates and sustains and redeems our lives – every minute of every day. Lent is our opportunity to give to God by choosing deliberately to live in love and non-violent faith, in obedience and humility, through the desert, through the blindness, through the rain and floods that seem like they’ll never end,
- through the pain and the doubt – and the fear and the discouragement that are an essential part of the journey – the Lenten Journey – of preparation to meet and to serve the meaning of our lives.

This is our time for spiritual training, for soul strengthening, for discerning more directly God’s Will for us – realizing not only what God gives to us but – as importantly – as painfully – as joyfully – what God asks of us.

We in the Church carefully create this opportunity for ourselves to wrestle like the Pharisee, Nicodemus, to get beneath what we know, beneath our beliefs and our habits to the truth that continues to be bigger than the facts.

Nicodemus was a good and learned man, a leader of the Pharisees, a group of devout Jews who practiced their faith in strict adherence with Religious Law. Nicodemus came at night out of the darkness to learn from the light that Jesus offered. He recognized that Jesus must be of God or he could not have done the miracles Nicodemus knew him to have done.

Nicodemus knew there was something more, something profound and of God that lay behind what Jesus did. He recognized that Jesus acted in accordance to God’s will but he had no comprehension of why, or what the larger picture he sensed but could not visualize, might be. He came that night to learn more. The problem for Nicodemus (and for all of us as well)
lies in the fact that he could not get out of his own way – he could not get beyond the limit of his own understanding of how things are in this world
to be able to grasp what Jesus offered. How blind we can be when we think we already know the answer!

What Jesus proclaimed that night – and what all of us two thousand years later continue to struggle to take in – is the vastness of God’s Love for the world.

The Gospel of John was originally written in koine Greek. The astonishing Nicodemus passage can only be fully understood when we grasp the scope of two simultaneous – yet very different meanings of the same Greek word, anothen . The NSV, which we read from this morning, translates it as “anew”. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” . This is the linear meaning:” Do it over.” “Do it again.” It carries a sense of time and direction that is horizontal. The NRSV translates the same word as “from above”: “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Both translations are necessary in order to unpack the richness of what is being said. Each is incomplete without the other. The two of them together create something larger than we can comprehend.

What Jesus is saying has a stunning deliberate meaning that blends both linear and vertical – from above and anew – into a truly transformed, brand new creation! A whole new world that never existed before is being made manifest through God’s love.

We experience God “from Above” in our individual lives and “anew” (made manifest in the world) through Jesus and each other. For those of us who are Christian, God comes “from Above” into the horizontal – first through Christ and then with our baptism through each of us.

We are able to see the kingdom of God only when – Spirit – is brought down into Matter which makes it into something new. Jesus told Nicodemus the deeper meaning of the sign of the Cross.

Jesus proclaims that God sent him to bring God into the World to make the world into something it had never been before. And that God did this because of God’s Love. Nicodemus was unable grasp the second meaning, the reality of Spirit seeking to enter into our lives. He came from a religious tradition where it would have been inconceivable to think that God would enter into a personal relationship with individual human beings. God was above and humans below.

Nicodemus had no way to conceptualize the enormity of God’s Love. He was so steeped in his beliefs of how to do it right that he couldn’t grasp
such a radically transformational experience of God. He is not the only one who has had such struggle around the wonder of God’s love.

“I am not worthy. I am too small, too messed up, too selfish, too sexual, too sick, too sinful, too scared to matter to God.” We all have our baggage that gets in the way – that we let matter in this realm of matter – that needs the Grace of God’s Love from Above to lift from us. Lent finally allows us – as Sister Joan Chittister puts it: to get “to a ‘Beyond’ beyond ourselves.”

How scary it is to truly open ourselves to God’s will in place of our own
yet each and every time we make the sign of the Cross we affirm and evoke the power of God’s presence here in the world where we dwell.
God seeks us here.

Jesus brought Spirit into the world that we might – through the Holy Spirit – make The World into The Kingdom. “Thy Kingdom come, thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”

We will only do so by loving God and one another as Christ taught us to do.
If we who call ourselves Christians are going to represent Christ in the world
then what we do here has to come from Above, from something greater than ourselves. We must seek – as Chittister challenges us: ” to find the holy in the human”, and further “.. not simply to see Christ in the other but to treat the other as Christ.” The problem and terrible danger lies in our tendency toward confusing our own agenda with God’s.

On December 26th when those of us here at St. Thomas were enjoying our Christmas celebrations, half way around the world the floor of the ocean shook and shuddered. That shrug of the earth began a surge which would progressively suck the ocean minute-by-minute and mile-by-mile back into itself continuing to grow in power and ferocity into a monstrous mountain of water that rose in places over fifty feet in the air.

A smaller wave struck first. A harbinger. The second and third were moving nearly five hundred miles an hour when they reached land obliterating everything in their path. In seconds the lives of millions of people through out the area were destroyed. We have no human way to comprehend the scope of the devastation. Within hours relief organizations began to mobilize. Episcopal Relief and Development was one of them. Countries around the world sent money and supplies, disaster teams, heavy equipment, cadaver dogs, and clergy. Within days of the tsunami The Fourth Wave struck.

In the predominantly Buddhist country of Sri Lanka where the damage was the greatest, many villages were simply gone. Survivors straggled in and were gathered from outlying areas and islands. Among them were three hundred orphans. The Fourth Wave was the well-meaning but distorted effort of a group of Evangelical Christians who viewed this tragedy as an opportunity that God had created to swoop in to save souls.

The group involved offered the country of Sri Lanka seventy thousand dollars of relief funds in exchange for the three hundred orphaned children
who they would take back to the United States to raise as Christians.

The Fourth Wave flattened and enraged many – including other Christian groups – who balked at the audacity of tearing these children from their homeland and heritage in the name of Christ. The group eventually dropped the idea and also withdrew the seventy thousand dollars of relief funding. Did this religious zeal bring Christ to Sri Lanka? I doubt it.

Christianity is the living out of God’s love into the world. We do not own God’s Grace. We cannot claim the Spirit as ours alone. We can only offer ourselves to God through our earnest inviting and allowing of the Holy Spirit to enter us through our surrender to Christ.

Christianity is an act of humility and obedience manifested by that which is Above being allowed to re-birth us, to make us anew. God is within each of us all the time but we often fail to recognize that dimension of ourselves – or of the other. Jesus came to help us love Spirit into matter. When we are true to that calling we manifest love into the world.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta began each day with Mass because it allowed her to be filled with the spirit of God’s love in Christ. And then she went out into the streets of the city seeking Christ in all whom she encountered knowing that her sacred task was to reflect God’s love in every interaction with every person she met. She brought spirit into matter by living her faith every day. And when she died she was beloved throughout the world and claimed by every faith group. We need to claim one another in love and respect for God and in the recognition that Jesus brought to us that God dwells within and between each of us and seeks to be found there.

The first time I entered this church was when Lent was ending. Palm fronds covered its columns and it was filled to over-flowing with excitement and expectation. Lo and I had met with Bishop Bruno following one of those
the-floor-gets-ripped-out-from-underneath-you times that change the direction of your life. He had suggested that we might check out this place among others while we began the rigorous task of having my priesthood
“re-tread” as Anglican and of finding a faith home. That was three years ago.

That first Sunday the church was filled with a family of strangers.
Lo and I each wept through the service. The music and the liturgy worked their magic on my heart. I fell in love. I knew that I had come home.
The kindness of the congregation moved me deeply. My tears were of joy. Lo’s were of an acute allergy to the incense. We were both given the red bag of welcome and the cherished St. Thomas coffee cups. And strangers began to become friends and colleagues and mentors and a remarkable faith family.
I remember Lo saying after we got home that afternoon long ago: “If we do what God asks and let ourselves really love these good folks, the leaving will tear my heart out when it’s time to go.” She was right. As I look out over this congregation, I see an ocean of friends and colleagues and mentors whom I love dearly.

It is nearly time for us to go. This will be my last sermon until I am invited back as a guest. I leave later this week for travel on behalf of the Bishop and will be on back-to-back-to-back trips for the next three weeks. The vestry and Father Ian have generously allowed me to stay with you through Easter when the funding and my assignment here will run out. The Bishop has made it clear that I am then his. My full-time work will be to go wherever he sends me on behalf of Ecumenical and Interfaith work.

I hope that you each know what a part of me you have become – how much your kindness and generosity have strengthened and deepened me – how much your love and your prayers and your companionship have healed and inspired and taught me. Whenever we meet in the spirit of God’s love, we become a part of each other’s lives that are bound together. Love matters. You have become part of our lives forever.

(And with the sign of the Cross)
In the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

AMEN

Rev. Dr. Gwynne M. Guibord
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
20 February 2005

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