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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Nicodemus and Wild Air

“Wild air”  
A Sermon for Lent II A -  March 20, 2011
Genesis 12:1-4a  Psalm 121

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17  John 3:1-17
St. John’s Bowdoin Street, Boston, MA
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Please pray with me: “Wild air, world-mothering air / Nestling me everywhere. . ./ Fold home, fast fold thy child.” In the name of the Triune God whose name is Love, whose life is Beloved, who spirit is Lover. Amen.

I beg your indulgence as I begin with a personal moment of nostalgia. I haven’t had the privilege of gracing this pulpit in almost 25 years.

I was a seminarian here, for two amazing years and was privileged to serve the beginning of my diaconate in this sacred space, under the tutelage of Emmett Jarrett and Margaret Rose and Ted Mellor.

I can still hear the giggles of our six children resounding off these walls, along with those of Mary and Peter Chen and Nathan and Sarah Jarrett. This was the altar where I presided at my first sung Eucharist as a newly minted priest.

Everywhere I have ever gone since I left this place, I have introduced myself in this way, “Hi, I’m Elizabeth Kaeton and I’m a missionary from St. John’s Bowdoin Street”.

So you will understand and please forgive me if I stand here in my proper Episcopal flats (and not my ruby slippers) and click my heels three times as I say, “There’s no place like home.”

Something wild is in the air. Can you feel it?

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the air this week has been wild. I think it was Thursday night when the wind was so strong it blew the branches against the windows of what I like to call my third floor lonely writer’s garret on the campus of The Episcopal Divinity School, where I am presently privileged to be Proctor Scholar in residence.

The noise kept me up half the night.

Last night was the beginning of the celebration of the Jewish holiday, Purim, which commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people in the ancient Persian Empire from destruction in the wake of a plot by Haman, as recorded in the Book of Esther.

In addition to reading the entire scroll of Ester (yes, they read the ‘whole megillah’), wherein, whenever the name of Haman is mention, the congregation will jeer and stamp their feet and make noises with graggers (noisemakers), everyone will feast on hamantachen (cookies that look like Haman’s hat), and meat kreplah, and drink vodka infused with jelly beans. It’s a wild party.

If you looked out your window last night, you might have noticed what NASA called a “super moon” and not just because it was the last full moon of Winter (If it weren’t Lent I’d say the A-word!), but because the elliptical path of the moon’s orbit brought it closer to the earth than it has come in eleven years, so it appeared much, much larger than normal.

So, maybe it’s Purim, or maybe it’s the Super Moon, or maybe it is because, after a long and particularly harsh winter, new life is beginning to emerge from the cold, hard ground.

Late last night, I heard peepers serenading the spring night. Early this morning, I saw a few crocus poking their bruised, purple heads up through the cold earth and the birds were singing a most enthusiastic Hosanna to the Lord of Creation.

March winds. Purim. Super moon. Something wild is in the air. Can you feel it?

Meanwhile, the people of Japan, still recovering from an earthquake and a tsunami, fear the wind carrying radiation from several nuclear reactor plants which were destroyed in the aftermath of the environmental double-whammy.

People in Haiti, still recovering from the earthquake that hit them a few years ago, fear the wind blowing cholera their way.

And the threat of war with Libya hangs heavy in the no-fly zone, as the rest of the Middle East – from Tunisia to Tripoli – clings to the fragile winds of hope to bring a dream of freedom and justice and peace.

Earthquake. Tsunami. War and rumors of war. Something wild is in the air. Can you feel it?

I wonder if there was ‘wild air’ the night that Nicodemus and Jesus had their talk. Jesus said, “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.” J

esus talks with Nicodemus about the gift of a new birth – a birth from above, a birth of the Spirit – Ruach, Shekinah – that brings new life out of chaos. This new birth is a complete transformation, as traumatic and significant an event as our birth as newborns.

The story of Nicodemus blows through our previous assumptions about our relationship with God. It shatters the illusion of safety under which we might have sought shelter from the unshakable truth that a relationship with God costs no less than everything and leaves no part of the body, mind or spirit undisturbed. Entering into a relationship with God causes an earthquake in the soul and a tsunami in the spirit.

In the Genesis reading we discover with Abraham that the gift of the spirit – the breath, the wind – of God carries with it the gift of vocation – a calling that is always and everywhere bound up with the calling of a whole people. We are blessed that we might be a blessing to others.

Paul assures the people of Rome – as well as us today – that the spirit – the breath, the wind of God – also carries with it the gift of faith which is accessible to everyone in a way that the law is accessible only to Jews. Faith is a gift to people of every nation, says Paul, and those who are given – and receive – this gift of faith are reckoned as righteous before God.

New life. Faith. Vocation. Something wild is in the air. Can you feel it?

Yesterday, it was my privilege and my delight to gather on retreat with your Wardens, Vestry and Priest at the Convent of the Society of St. Margaret in Roxbury.

It will, no doubt, be among the last retreats to be held in that place. The Sisters have sold the building to a Charter School and will be moving to their Convent in Duxbury. Change is in the air. Everywhere.

We talked of many things, your community of leaders and I, but mostly about community. How they were a learning community of leaders who incarnate – embody – the vision and the mission of this church. It is from them – this incarnational learning community of priest, wardens and vestry – that the community which gathers to worship God in this sacred space learns how to live into – and out of – what you know about who you are as a Body of Christ.

We talked about the foundational issues of your spiritual life – individually and corporately – in terms of identity and intimacy, mortality and vocation.

Toward the end of our time together, as is often the case, we began to talk about how the Wardens and Vestry, together with your Priest, might envision new ways of being together that will more authentically live out your mission to “challenge yourselves – and the community around you – always to celebrate God’s love, beauty and grace in everyone and everything”.

I submit to you that, in order to do that, they – and you – like Nicodemus, must listen closely to the words of the Rabbi from Nazareth in this morning’s gospel passage.

While you are every bit as learned a people as Nicodemus, don’t try to think your way out of the challenges that are before you.

It didn’t work for Nicodemus.

It won’t work for you, either.

How can we be born again and revitalized as a congregation when we’ve got this old building and utility bills and not a whole lot of people?

Here’s my question to you: What if these are the people God has sent you to do the work Jesus asks you to do? What if this IS your ‘critical mass’? Will you still wait, twirling in the wind, for the transformation God has waiting for you?

What if this place, this building, this sanctuary is as good as it gets? While I don’t think you are in danger of an earthquake or a tsunami, what would you do if, God forbid, this place were destroyed by what we euphemistically call a ‘natural disaster’ or a ‘tragic accident’?

Would the destruction of this building destroy this community? I know you better than that.

Yes, I have moments of nostalgia and I have fond memories, but I don’t need this building to contain them. Indeed, this building can’t contain them. I carry them with me in my heart. Always. No one can take them from me. As the Fox said to the Little Prince, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

I know that you know that Jesus says, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Jesus says that new birth will come not ‘from below’ but ‘from above’.

Here’s the good news that was once proclaimed to Abraham, which is now our inheritance: You have been blessed so that you can be a blessing to others. Be faithful to the blessings you have received of faith and vocation so that more blessings will come. And, they will.

Wendell Berry said that the vocation of all Christians is to ‘Plant Sequoias’. So, plant some Sequoias. You won’t see them grow in this life. But, have faith! Seeing what you have planted in faith is not the point for those who have inherited the gift of Life Eternal.

So, plant Sequoias.

Something wild is in the air. Can you feel it?

Jesus says, “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."

Those who are born of the Spirit hold fast to the promise of eternal life, leaving behind that which is not essential.

Listen! Do you not hear it? A wild air is blowing through, bringing with it a climate change – a change that will bring about a transformation in the environment of this place – one that will remove the toxins and elements from that past which have been pollutants, and bring with it the wild winds of vitality and the smoldering embers of faith and vocation and new life.

A wild air that will one day soon bring with it cause to celebrate your own wild and crazy form of Purim on a night whose sky is filled with a Super Moon.

A wild air that will change and transform you, so that you will never again be the same, even as you are kept safe and sheltered from harm, so that you might grow to the full stature of Christ to stand upright before any disaster that befalls you – natural or unnatural. Or, wars or rumors of war.

A wild air that, even now, is whispering these words of assurance in your ear from the lips of Jesus: "For God 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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

And you – and you – and you – and YOU – are the Body of Christ! Not just your priest, wardens and vestry members. YOU are the Body of Christ. You know that.

The question is: what are you going to do about it?

I leave you to consider one of my favorite poems, written by one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manely Hopkins. You may have caught wind of it in the opening prayer of this sermon. “Wild air, world-mothering air / Nestling me everywhere.. . .”

It is his poem to the Mother of God, which may sound odd to invoke in this time of Lent. I assure you, it is not. I leave it with you as prayer and inspiration.

I leave it with you as hope for new birth.

The poem ends in this way:
Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;

My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;

Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky.

Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God's love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:

World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,

Fold home, fast fold thy child.


Fran said...

Oh wild air, very wild air. It is all around and stirring in ways that I can't have predicted or imagined. Ways in perhaps I wish it had not.

What words. While not present or part of that community, that sermon resonates still. Thank you, thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Fran. It was beyond wild and wonderful to be back in that pulpit.