Lections (RCL): St. Michael and All Angels, Albuquerque
Genesis 12:1-4a The Very Rev. Douglas Travis
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Now 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 in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
Wouldn’t it be nice to be one of God’s chosen? To have God come down and tell us exactly what to do with our lives? And of course, implicit in the idea that God’s going to tell me what to do with my life is the notion that, if I’m obedient, everything’s going to work out just fine and I will be blessed! I will be happy, content, serene. And life will rarely be a challenge . . .
But let’s think for a moment about what really happens to Abraham.
He’s 75 years old when he gets the word from God that he’s to leave his country, everything he’s ever known and loved, to set out for a new country! Imagine setting out on such an adventure at 75!
God assures Abraham that he will be the father of a great country, but somehow he and Sarah keep failing to have a child! How is he to be the father of a great nation if he has no progeny? As it happens, God waits till Abraham’s about 100 – just to be sure Abraham gets the message! – before Sarah finally conceives . . . at the age of 90! And then later, as we all recall, God requires of Abraham that he sacrifice Isaac, their son! [Now, the story of Isaac’s sacrifice is probably God’s way of prohibiting the ancient Israelites sacrificing their children – something they were inclined to do. But as the story is told we nowhere see Abraham deriving any message other than that obedience to God required the death of his beloved son. What a horrible decision to have to make!]
ARE WE FEELING BLESSED YET? The fact that God calls us scarcely means that the journey is going to be simple or easy!!
Now let’s lay Abraham aside for a moment and think about Jesus. Let me unpack a little today’s Gospel.
“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” [Interesting – a Pharisee – a 1st century Episcopalian – comes to Jesus by night because he doesn’t want his fellow Pharisee’s to know what he’s up to, but he can’t quite deny that there’s something going on with Jesus because he keeps doing these things that only someone from God can do. Nicodemus’ experience requires that he take Jesus seriously] Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can SEE the kingdom of God without BEING BORN FROM ABOVE.”
Those of us raised in the evangelical south were taught to think that being born again was a matter of going to a hot August night revival, having a dramatic experience in which we personally encountered Jesus, to whom we gave our lives in that moment, and thereafter were able to rest assured that we had purchased celestial life insurance. Now hear me very clearly. I believe in the born again experience, but with this twist. Whenever I’m asked, “Have you been born again?” my response is always, “Which time?”
To be born again is to have a conversion, to be lifted up to higher and broader horizons, to see things in an altogether new way as God touches and molds our lives. And it’s going to happen again and again and again, if we’re truly open to experiencing God’s influence in our lives. God is nothing if not surprising!
“Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ [Notice that Nicodemus does what we all do – he automatically goes to the merely physical world – Jesus has to lift him up to give him a new vision.]
“Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can ENTER the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [In Hebrew, Greek, and Latin the word for “spirit” is the same as the word for “breath” is the same as the word for wind.” God breathes God’s Holy Spirit into us, and we’re lifted up into a different, broader, more meaningful world – a world we’re disinclined to believe really exists.] Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen.” Jesus is referring to an experience, an experience he had and an experience he ushered in for his followers – the experience of God. This matters. All human desire is ultimately the desire for God, the desire for communion with God, and without providing that experience no religion can long endure.
In 1960 there were 3,444,265 Episcopalians in the United States. In 2011 there were 1,923,046. We all know about our statistical incline, but now let me share a statistic that will blow your socks off.
In 1962 22% of Americans reported having had a “mystical experience”. In 1976, just as I was commencing my seminary career, 31% reported such an experience. In 2009 48% of Americans reported having had a mystical experience!
In other words, in the last 50 years, as the mainline denominations have reported a 40 to 50% decline in membership, the percentage of Americans who report having had a mystical experience – a direct experience of God – has risen from 1 in 5 to 1 in 2, nearly half the population! What’s going on!!!!!
Jesus said, “We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen!” Jesus said, “Let me tell you about my experience of God!”
We are all Abraham, called on a journey into the mind of God, called on a journey to know ourselves in God. The great Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, wrote: “There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace, my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.”
And as surely as we are all Abraham, so are we all Nicodemus, coming to Jesus in the night, hoping that it’s all true, that God really is there for the asking, but suspicious and more than a little bit inclined to want to keep our cards close to our chests. And yet the deepest appetite every human being has is to know God – not to know about God, but to directly know God.
I am convinced that many of the people who have wandered from our churches have done so because we appeared to offer no path to actually knowing – to actually experiencing – God.
Let me sing the praises of this parish. From everything I know of you, you’ve done more than just about any parish I know of to foster your members actually having a relationship with the living God. Keep it up! I’m convinced that’s the church of the future.
We are all called on the journey. We are all called to be born again . . . and again, and again. We all want to know – to really know - God. And so we are all pilgrims. But pilgrims spend great amounts of time walking in the dust, putting one foot in front of the other, again and again and again, before they arrive at their destination.
I’m a great friend of 12 Step Programs and Alcoholics Anonymous. Are you aware that as surely as there are 12 Steps so there are 12 promises! And to my mind, the last promise is the greatest:
WE WILL SUDDENLY REALIZE THAT GOD IS DOING FOR US WHAT WE COULDN’T DO FOR OURSELVES.
Continue the wonderful work you’re doing as a parish. Continue the wonderful work you’re doing as individuals. Continue on your journeys, continue your lives as pilgrims. Continue to seek to be born again . . . and again and again. And invite everybody to join you on the pilgrimage we’re in fact all called to.
 Cf., Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 3.
 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 36.
 Alcoholics Anonymous (“The Big Book”), p. 83.