Yesterday, it was my pleasure to worship with the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle for the second Sunday in Lent.
Genesis 12:1-4a (God calls Abram)
Psalm 121 (“I lift up my eyes to the hills”)
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 (“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”)
John 3:1-17 (Jesus and Nicodemus, “You must be born from above.”)
I do not work for my own salvation. I work for yours, as I hope you will work for mine. As we enter the second week of Lent, we get two obscure passages of scripture, both frequently cited, both difficult to understand: Paul talking about Abraham and Jesus talking to Nicodemus. Both passages ask us to shift our perspective, indeed to shift our priorities; to stop thinking about helping ourselves and start thinking about God helping others. Let me say that again: to stop thinking about helping ourselves and start thinking about God helping others. It can be easy to stop halfway there. It can be easy to focus on God helping me, or even me helping someone else, but the truth is more wondrous than that. William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during the second world war, put it this way: “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.” And yet, when I say this, I recognize that I am involved in the process. It is not enough to sit still and let God do everything, for sitting still is also an action I might chose. The choice to do nothing means I have focused on myself, said, “I will do nothing so that God may do something.” Perhaps there is a time for that, but more often, we must attend to God and neighbor, forgetting about ourselves so that, through us, and with us, and in us, God may continue to work as God has worked from the beginning. This is the challenge, to let God be God in me. Or, if you prefer more traditional language, to be born of the Spirit, to rest on grace and be reckoned righteous. When God first came to Abram, the Lord promises to bless him so that he will be a blessing to others. We see this as the greatest gift, the ability to be a gift to others – to have such an abundance of faith, hope, and love that they overflow onto others. Nor can we have faith, hope, and love in any other way. By their nature, these gifts are shared. We must have faith IN, hope FOR, love OF something beyond ourselves. I might add joy, for we take joy in the world as well. It is more than simple happiness or pleasure, but delight in our role in the world. It is a recognition that we are a blessing. And so Abram becomes Abraham. One letter, but one very significant letter. Abram becomes Abraham so that his very name reflects the presence of God in his life, in his identity. In the same way, Samu-EL, Micha-EL, and Rafa-EL contain “El,” the Hebrew word for God. It seems no accident to me that God uses the letter ‘He.’ Like our ‘H’, it is a breath or aspiration. Abram becomes Abraham because the breath of God has become part of his identity. Sarai becomes Sarah. God breaths on them, and in them, and through them, making them Godly, making them a blessing to others. Which brings us to Romans, one of my favorite letters, but arguably the most abused book of the Bible. I strongly encourage you to read it beginning to end, and form your own opinion. For my part, the theme is this: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” [Rom 3:23] You, me, and everyone else. We cannot recover through our own works, through the merits of our flesh – that is our individuality – or through the law – that is our ability to follow rules. We can only recover by the power of the Spirit, the same Breath, breathing in us that breathed in Christ Jesus. “You must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” [Rom 6:11] “Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself.” [Rom 15:2-3a] It is important to read from beginning to end to see the arc of the argument. We are each sinful; we recover together. In this context, the passage about Abraham begins to make sense. He did not earn the title Father of Nations. He did not become the touchstone of three faiths, one half the people on the planet Earth, because he was a really good guy. Remember Genesis: Abraham was a bit of a schmuck to his wife, Sarah, to his consort, Hagar, to his son, Isaac. We remember many disturbing stories of Abraham. And, though he did many important things, many righteous things, it was not his good conduct or good intentions or luck that made him great. It was the Spirit of God, moving in him. It was the ‘He’ that changed him from Abram to Abraham – It was the ‘He’ that changed Sarai to Sarah – that brought about Israel, Islam, and Christianity. His greatness did not come from any belief that he possessed, any motion of his hand, any word on his lips, or any thought in his mind. This is the mistake so many make, to make of faith an action of the mind: assent, will, choice. Those are important to be sure, but they are not grace. Grace comes by the will of God alone, acting in us, stirring up the dust, and making us live. Grace is the overflowing of faith, hope, love, and joy, through Christ into us, and through us into one another, and through us all into the world. Grace is the gift of the Spirit, which is, after all, nothing more than the Greek word for breath. [Gk: pneuma; Latin: spiritus; English: breath] God’s breath works through us, that same breath that was in Christ Jesus. My greatest hope comes from the chance that I might be, in some way, like Abraham, God’s gift to the nations. I do not work for my own salvation. I work for yours, as I hope you will work for mine. There is, of course, nothing I can do, in and of myself, to bring this about. It is all God working in me. And yet I hope… I hope that some small action of mine might contribute. I hope that some small will of mine might be the will of God. I hope that I might be for someone, in some small way, what Christ has been for me, and what so many others have been for me: the very image and likeness of God. I do this without believing in my own power. The only power I have is God working within me. I do this without concern for personal gain, but only for that which benefits us all, the re-creation of the world, the coming Kingdom. It is a strange business, this hope that places no confidence in self, that has no focus on self, but only the life of the world. It is a strange business, seeming foolishness, and yet it works. It brings about miracles. It is not about trying, though it is good that we try. It is about prayer, letting God be God, and giving thanks every moment of every day, that we participate. It is about the harvest, watching faith rewarded with spiritual growth, watching hope rewarded with endurance and maturation, watching love rewarded with deeper love, and watching joy abound. It is about the choice to turn to God, not just with our whole lives, but with each moment. This is what Jesus tells Nicodemus. It is good to follow the rules of your religion. It is good to be a good person in the world. But it is better to put your trust in God. God is not an idea or an identity. God is not an action. God is God, and we see God in the Spirit that flows out from us into the world. We alone are nothing, we together, in that Spirit, are everything. “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.” Our hope cannot be planned. “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” [Rom 8:24-25] We wait, and we act in love, and we pray that when the wind blows, it will blow through us. Can I be still enough, that I will not get in the way? Can I be light enough on my feet, that when the wind blows, I will flow with it? Perhaps. I have hope in Christ, and in a multitude of saints, through whom that same wind has blown. It is as close as my breath, despite blowing over many nations. So, I will not ask you to start having faith. I will ask you, this Lent, to consider what within you, gets in the way of the faith that already stirs you to action. I will not ask you to start having hope, but to loosen your grip on that which holds hope down. I will not ask you to love, but to see the love within you, and flow with it – to the benefit of the world. Wherever you can, stop thinking about you, and start thinking about the light, life, and joy that makes you more than dust.