Saint James Fordham • Lent 2a • Tobias Haller BSG
What is born of the flesh is flesh, what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.+
As you know, this is Black History Month, and various programs on TV and elsewhere have been sharing some of that rich history with us. Another way you can look into that history is by going on-line to the Archives of the Episcopal Church, where you can visit an exciting exhibition called “The Church Awakens: African Americans and the Struggle for Justice.” (You can find the internet address in today’s bulletin.)
However, this year, due to Lent starting so early, and overlapping with Black History Month, we are also given the opportunity to reflect on some powerful Scripture lessons in the context of our heightened awareness of race and kinship. These are the matters of flesh and blood that offer so much promise and yet have caused so much division and led to so much injustice and anguish down through the years.
And the problems with racism are apparent from the very foundation. For right there in the book of Genesis, we are shown God choosing Abram, making him the father of a great nation, a “chosen” people — a clan to be given God’s special care and attention, who would pass that inheritance down in the flesh of their bodies, carrying the blessing in their blood, and literally marked in their flesh with the sign of circumcision. As to the Canaanites who live in the land that Abram’s people will possess, well, they’re expendable second-class citizens in this view of things. They will be wiped out as inferior people, pushed aside to make room for the chosen ones, the blessed ones who will spring from the seed of Abram. For it is to his offspring, and to his alone, that God promises the blessed land.
This was a view that many Israelites found comforting in the years that would follow. Surely it is true that believing yourself to be blessed is a comfort when you actually find your life not going well. When you’re down and out the memories of a golden age when your ancestors were on top can help salve your wounded pride. Race pride, pride in your kin and your heritage, in this sense, is a sort of consolation prize.
And this promise of being chosen comforted the people of Israel through their slave years in Egypt; it kept them going in their captivity in Babylon, and it inspired them when the time came to rebuild the temple in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.
But something else began to happen to the Jewish people while they were in Babylon. Slowly some of them began to find their perspectives broadened as they saw new things in this bigger world, beyond the old borders of the Holy Land, and their minds were stretched by a small group of inspired men and women who were touched by God’s spirit and given the gift of prophecy.
Now, as I believe I’ve said before from this pulpit, prophecy is not about making predictions like a psychic friend or supermarket tabloid! Prophecy isn’t something you can get for $1.95 for each additional minute! On the contrary, prophecy is about being able to see the world clearly, to be able to see the truth and to speak it boldly, even when it means getting into trouble for it.
And the truth that began to dawn in the minds of the prophets, most especially the prophet Isaiah, was that there had to be more to God’s plan for the earth than just blessing this small tribe of Israelites. The prophets began to see that Israel was not to be the end of salvation, but the beginning, and that from Israel light would spread to enlighten all the nations of the world. The prophets began to see that it wasn’t a matter of just one race and clan, but of the whole human family — whose common kinship after all traced its way back to Adam and Eve. It wasn’t just one people who were the object of God’s redeeming love and care, but all people everywhere.
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Such was the message of the prophets, but, as we know, the words of prophets are often ignored. And sure enough, after the end of the captivity in Babylon,
when Israel got back home and started rebuilding the Temple, they soon fell into the old “us-versus-them” mindset that has plagued racists and nationalists of whatever complexion or clan from the very beginning. One of the first rules they put in place, for example, was “no intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews.” Laws as strict as the old anti-miscegenation laws of the American South, Nazi Germany, or Apartheid South Africa were put in place, to restrict and nullify such “impure” marriages, such “race mixing,” especially when Jews had married women from the hated remnants of the Canaanites and Moabites who still eked out a sad existence on the fringes of Jewish society.
It took another anonymous prophet to raise a voice at that point in history, and we only know this prophet from the story this wise person recorded, a very short story in one of the shortest books of the Bible, so small it is easy to lose it between Judges and Samuel— the story of Ruth. This wise prophet told that story to remind all those so keen on stopping intermarriage that Ruth, the grandmother of the great king David himself, had been a Moabite.
Sadly, this beautiful story of love and inclusion was lost on the nationalistic zealots, and the racists had their way, rebuilding the Temple, ultimately defeating the hated Greeks and establishing a Jewish state once more, until the Romans dealt the final crushing blow to Jewish pride in Jewish ancestry and blood.
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And it was in those days of Roman rule that once more voices began to be raised, one voice in particular, that of a humble carpenter who lifted up the prophecies of Isaiah and dared to suggest that they were being fulfilled even then. Jesus dared to challenge those of his day who regarded Samaritans as less than human outcasts — and we’ll hear more about that next week! In today’s Gospel, one of the Jewish leaders comes to Jesus by night, curious to hear more about this radical message that seems to overturn so much that he held dear.
Now, to give Nicodemus his due, at least he makes the effort. Later in the Gospel he would be bold enough to speak out to defend Jesus, but at this point his confidence in Jesus is partial, so he comes to him in secret.
I can’t help but think of Nicodemus as I would of a well-meaning white liberal coming to visit Dr. Martin Luther King during the bus boycotts; some white Montgomery businessman with his heart in the right place, but worried about his reputation, offering to help — as long as nobody finds out!
But Jesus answers Nicodemus as I’m sure Dr. King would have answered such a well-meaning but fearful person. What is born of the flesh is flesh, what is born of the Spirit is Spirit. You must be reborn from above, from the Spirit. You’re still hanging on to that flesh of yours, full of pride in heritage and blood, when what is truly needed is liberation in the Spirit, freedom to move where you will and say what you think and stand tall and proud not because of who your earthly parents were, or where you were born, or where you went to school, or how much money you make, or what color you are — but because you have a Father in heaven who pours out his Spirit upon you.
This is the Gospel message: that salvation does not lie in race or in matters of flesh and blood and heritage; it does not lie in who your parents are or where you were born; it doesn’t even lie in the works you do or the laws you follow. Abraham showed us that, he whose faith — not his works — was reckoned to him as righteousness. No, salvation comes by grace through faith, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the new birth as a new person who is a child of God by adoption, not descent. Only one has come down from heaven, Jesus the Son of God, and it is he in whom all our racial, ethnic and national differences are swallowed up in salvation, when we are baptized into him by water and the Holy Spirit.
For in him there is no east or west, no north or south, black, white, yellow, brown or red. In Christ there is one great fellowship throughout the whole wide earth, in which, thanks to the grace and mercy of God, through the generosity and abundance of his Holy Spirit given in baptism, we have been blessed to find ourselves numbered. And so to him, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, to him be glory from generation to generation, not in the flesh, but in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.+