March 20, 2011
Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Lent
March 20, 2011
The Rev. Bradford A. Rundlett
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
I was born four years after World War II finally ended, and lived in a cozy little neighborhood on the Northwest side of Atlanta. We didn’t have air conditioning; we didn’t have a TV, microwave oven, or computer - no one did. We had one car – a light blue Chevy wagon with wooden sides and white-wall tires. Our house was small – two bedrooms: one for my parents and one for my grandparents – and one bathroom. I slept in the attic with my two older sisters. Our spirits ran high in those days, though luxuries were scarce, as this country was getting back on its feet after a long and very costly war. So every child in our neighborhood learned to ride on the same bicycle, which was passed from family to family as one child or another came of age. By the time I got it, that sturdy little two wheeler with fat tires and a squeaky saddle seat had a dozen or more coats of paint, and more dings and dents than my grandfather’s sweet old face. My dad painted it silver . . . the tires too.
I watched the older kids ride; they made it look so easy and effortless I was sure I could do it on my first try. I memorized what they did: (1) stand next to the bike on the left facing forward, (2) grab the handlebars, (3) with your right foot push the kickstand back, up, out of the way (I actually omitted this step because my bike didn’t have a kickstand), (4) swing your right leg over the bike like the Lone Ranger does to get on his trusty stallion Silver, (5) push off with the left foot, (6) get your feet on the peddles, start pumping, and zoom! You’re off! No problem - or as we used to say “No sweat.”
I also watched kids who were just learning to ride, and while they struggled with balance and gaining momentum a thought came to my mind; gravity could give me a hand. Wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier if I started uphill?
Longwood Drive was about a third of a mile long, flanked by Northside Drive and Bobby Jones Golf Course to the West, and Howell Mill Road to the East; my home was a little more than halfway toward Northside Drive. The Howell Mill end of Longwood Drive was considerably higher than the Northside Drive end. And that’s where I planned to launch.
I remember it was a hot summer day because back then the streets were patched with tar, which - when it got hot enough (as it always did in June, July, and August) - turned soft and formed bubbles, tar bubbles. One of my favorite pastimes was stomping on those bubbles and hearing them pop, oblivious to the fact that a good bit of the tar stuck to the sole of my shoes and by dinner time became black tracks on the pine wood floor of the neat little house at 692 Longwood Drive.
So, I grabbed those handlebars and walked that little bike past one house after another, ever steeper and higher, popping every tar bubble I could along the way, until I finally reached the summit. I was at the top, farther and higher than I’d ever been, except in the back seat of that old blue wood-sided Chevy.
I turned the bike around to face downhill, and paused for a moment . . . . it’s funny how much higher and steeper things look from the top.
It occurred to me at that moment, that it was one thing to know the rules for riding a bike. But it was another thing entirely when I actually threw my right leg over the seat, and pushed off as hard as I could with my left leg, realizing as I approached the speed of light that this old bike had no brakes! And there I was hurdling down the street so fast that the blood-curdling scream I let out was already somewhere behind me and my hair was ripping out by the roots!
But whoa! What a rush!
My heart pumped double-time for more than a week!
Now if you were expecting disaster, I’m sorry to disappoint you (I am, after all, at this moment standing here). The thrill of rocketing down Longwood Drive lasted only a few minutes. But I am here to tell you that my very first attempt at riding a bike was one of the most exhilarating things I have ever done. For a while I was flying! I was free!
And I want you to know, my friends, that poor Nicodemus may have known all the rules about “religion” as I thought I knew how to ride a bike before I actually jumped on the saddle. But according to John, Nicodemus didn’t know the first thing about faith, about letting go and letting the Holy Spirit take over. . “Nick” didn’t realize he could grab hold, push off, and feel the exhilarating wind of God in his face. He never experienced the holy pneuma, the divine ruach, to push him beyond all the stuff he had in his head, into a brand new life, a brand new world. He didn’t want to give up the security of his carefully configured religion and launch off into faith. God bless him and have mercy on him, Nicodemus would never know anything about what’s “out there”, because he was so firmly stuck right here. Heaven was ready to receive him, but he was too earth-bound to let that happen.
Now, please, I have a word of caution. My story about learning to ride a bike is a parable, not a literal lesson. I am not an advocate of fool-hearty behavior (God knows I’ve never done anything fool-hearty) though our journey to faith does involve some risk. Specifically, the abundant life that Jesus longs to give us, the life of complete joy, requires total submission, a willingness to lose our lives as we know them. To become the unfettered people God yearns for us to be, that we ourselves yearn to be, we have to let go, and let the Spirit of God takeover.
Nicodemus needed a Spiritual infusion - we all do - but his devotion to religious rules would not allow it. Jesus came to save us from our small, exclusive, self-serving notions of God, and give us faith in the Lord of unlimited love, of everlasting life, of unbounded joy.
The message we have in today’s Gospel is this - to take off and fly, we must let go.
By the grace of God Abraham and Sarah let go; Paul let go. Eventually all of the disciples of Jesus let go too. And when they did, they discovered the renewing power of faith. They came to know the God who would not abandon or betray them, who had bigger and better plans for them than they could ever design for themselves. They came to know the God whose love and mercy and power are beyond anything on earth, anything in the entire universe. They came to know the God who became human, and the human who became God. They came to know the man who died on a cross, and walked out of his tomb three days later. They came to know that with God nothing is impossible, and if we had faith even the size of the tiniest seed, we could – as they did - change the world.
Certainly we should study and learn everything we can about Judaism and Christianity – other religions too. But there’s a great deal more to being a person of faith than showing up on Sunday, and learning all the “do’s” and “don’ts.” The very nature of faith is there are things we simply cannot understand, there is truth that defies all the rules. Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich, Perpetua and the Martyrs of Uganda, Sojourner Truth and Francis of Assisi, realized when the Spirit of God pushed them past their limits, that religion cannot save us, only faith can, for faith makes saints of us all.
And faith, Paul discovered, is a gift – a Divine, freeing, life-giving gift, that is available to everyone who is willing to accept it, to each and everyone of us willing to receive the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit of God . . . and let go.