Sunday, March 16, 2014
Here's today's homily: not one of my best, I think, but, as Gary says, it's solid and gets the job done. Several people at church said they needed to hear this message today -- funny how that always happens -- and quite a few folks were very intrigued by the Kansas story. So it's a good-enough homily, even if it's not a great one. And good-enough's very fitting for Lent, isn't it?
The readings are Genesis 12:1-4a and John 3:1-17.
Our Scripture readings today begin with a long, arduous journey. God tells 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.” Abram’s travels will include famine in Egypt, the terrifying destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the heartbreaking test of being commanded to sacrifice Isaac. Through many of these trials, he must have wondered if he wouldn’t have been better off just staying where he was. He had only his faith to assure him that he was indeed moving towards a better place. Although God had promised him a great name, he could not have foreseen that, under his new name of Abraham, he would become the forefather of three of the world’s most enduring and influential faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
This morning’s Gospel also describes the beginning of a journey. Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, has come to Jesus at night to attest to his faith. “Rabbi, we know that you are a great teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus’ response is more than a little puzzling, and Nicodemus proceeds to ask a series of questions. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? How can these things be?” Nicodemus’ bewilderment about the spiritual birth of baptism reminds us of the literal, astonishing births granted to Abraham and Sarah, who were given children in their old age.
We don’t know if Nicodemus was satisfied with the answers Jesus gave him, but we do know that his faith remained firm. He appears twice more in the Gospel of John. The second time we see him, he’s defending Jesus to his fellow Pharisees, this time in broad daylight. The third time we see Nicodemus, he’s helping Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus’ body for burial. He brings almost a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes, and wraps Jesus’ body with the funeral spices in linen cloths, and lays the body in the tomb. That’s the last time we meet him in the Bible, but it’s not the end of his story. Christian tradition holds that he was martyred during the first century; the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches venerate him as a saint.
Nicodemus’ first journey, to visit Jesus at night, ultimately led him to the Cross. The Cross, in turn, leads to the glorious rebirth of the Resurrection, the birth that undoes death forever. No one who journeyed with Jesus could have foreseen that outcome. They didn’t believe it even when he told them it would happen; they couldn’t imagine it. But they believed in him, and they stayed with him. On Good Friday, they must have wondered if they wouldn’t have been better off staying where they’d been, working as fishermen and tax collectors. Easter swept all of that away. Once they had witnessed Jesus’ rebirth, once he had broken bread with them and fried them fish for breakfast, they knew the journey had been worth it.
Every year, Lent asks us to set out a hard journey through difficult terrain. Unlike Abraham and Nicodemus, we already know our ultimate destination, and yet we may still find ourselves beset by questions. Isn’t life already hard enough? Does it really need to be harder during Lent? Can’t we just skip to the good part, to Easter?
One answer to these questions, of course, is that since Jesus couldn’t skip the hard parts, we can’t, either: if we truly want to be his followers, we have to follow him all the way, even into deserts and darkness. Perhaps the most fundamental truth of Lent, the paradox at the heart of Christianity, is that we can’t reach Easter without first enduring Good Friday. And that is ultimately a promise, a reminder during all the other Good Fridays of our lives, whether they fall in Lent or not. Where there is death, God also promises resurrection. Our job is to look for it, and not to succumb to despair or turn away before it arrives.
My homily preparation process usually involves some browsing on the Internet, Googling key names or phrases to see if anything interesting comes up. When I Googled the name Nicodemus, I discovered a town called Nicodemus, Kansas. Mildly amused, I clicked on one of the links, and found a story that fits perfectly with today’s Scripture lessons.
Nicodemus was settled in 1877 by a group of African-Americans who had traveled west from Kentucky, trying to escape the oppression of the Jim Crow laws after the Civil War. The 160-acre town was named for a legendary slave, the first who bought his own freedom. The trek to Nicodemus was sparked by W. R. Hill, a white land speculator, and W.H. Smith, a black homesteader, who visited black Kentucky church congregations with the simple question, “Why stay here?” Some in the pews responded to that question, drawn by a vision of a town where they could govern themselves.
It was a difficult journey. Angela Bates, the great-great-granddaughter of one of the original settlers, talks about what a shock Kansas was after Kentucky, where the land was “lush with trees, rivers, and streams. Nicodemus was . . . what they called then the Great American Desert.” The first pioneers lived in dirt-floored dugouts roofed with sunflowers and weeds. Bates recalls the reaction of a great-cousin, Willianna Hickman, to her first sight of the town: “I looked with all the eyes that I had and I still couldn’t see Nicodemus.” When she got to the town site, she broke down and cried. Dozens of other settlers turned back, returning to Kentucky or to eastern Kansas.
The town grew, though, only to face further setbacks during the Dustbowl and the Great Depression, when the population fell to forty people. Nicodemus continued to struggle; its post office closed in 1953, its school in 1960. But in the 1970s, former residents donated money to repair damaged town buildings, and in 1976, Nicodemus was named a National Historic Landmark. The town became a retirement destination for former residents. Today, in partnership with Kansas State University, Nicodemus sponsors agriculture and history summer camps for kids. In July of this year, it will celebrate its 136th Emancipation and Homecoming Celebration, a reunion of the town’s descendants that draws visitors from around the country.
Williana Hickman, even looking with all her eyes, could not have imagined this history from the seeming wasteland that greeted her when she arrived in Kansas. Abraham, even looking with all his eyes, could not have imagined what would befall him when he accepted God’s call, or the many consequences of those events. And Nicodemus, even looking with all his eyes – peering through the darkness at the prophet he had come to visit – could not have imagined the end of his own long journey.
Lent and crucifixion, burial and rebirth, are not one-time events. The cycle of the church calendar requires us to make this journey every year, but it occurs in many other forms in our lives. This sequence happens to everyone, and it happens everywhere. Even looking with all our eyes, we cannot always imagine how or where it will occur; even looking with all our eyes, we cannot always see where it has occurred. Like Abram facing famine in Egypt, like Nicodemus bewildered by questions in the dark, and like Williana Hickman sobbing in the Great American Desert of nineteenth-century Kansas, we are called to have faith. We cannot see everything, but the One who sees and knows everything knows that we are where we need to be, and will guide us on the long, difficult journey to rebirth.