Sermon 3/5/23. The Choices that We Make: Playing the Divine Lottery

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2 Lent

Genesis 12:1–4; Romans 4:1–5, 13–17; John 3:1–17

So Abram went as the Lord had told him. Genesis 12:4a

Today, we find ourselves 11 days into Lent, that period in which we reflect deeply regarding our individual relationship with an unseen, intangible God.  And, if we had a wide-screen or white board before us, I should like to project onto it the parole: “The choices we make, will determine the stories we tell.”  This thought occurred to me, as I read the stories of Abram and Nicodemus which are recounted in our readings for the Second Sunday of Lent.  Because of decisions or choices which they made, their stories have been transmitted over millennia.  

This thought of mine, “The choices we make, will determine the stories we tell,” is about living life.  Even the choice not to do something, will influence the stories we tell, for that is a choice.  This is so true, so obvious, that we do not even give it a second thought.  This may well be so, because many things which we do, are repetitive, and thus we conclude that there is nothing to tell, that there is nothing of interest, of value, not even to ourselves.  We see those choices as routine, do we not?  However, think about the decision that Abram made.  It was not routine, but what a glorious story is told because of his decision.  Think about Nicodemus.  His choice, too, was far from routine.  But, what a glorious story did Nicodemus tell his family at dinner on the next day following his nocturnal visit with Jesus?

I shall return to Abram and Nicodemus.  However, I personalize for you my thesis that the choices which we make, influence the stories which we tell.  Because of a choice which I made, I found myself recently in a crisis of faith.  I questioned whether my special prayer to God had reached God, for we are taught that even in our silence, God knows our innermost thoughts. Moreover, had I not read somewhere in our Book of Records, that Jesus told his disciples, “And whatever you ask in my name, that I will do, that the Father may be gloried in the Son.  If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13 – 17)  I had asked.  And, so, I share with you my story.

On a whim, I purchased for two US dollars a Mega Million lottery ticket.  I am told, those two dollars would go towards education in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and as a staunch advocate of public education, I prayed to God that my $2.00 would reach those needy children.  However, those two dollars promised me even more if I but had faith.

I forgot quickly about the children.  I began to dream about all the things that I could do with my winnings: I itemized in rank order the schools and colleges that would receive a donation for scholarships for first generation students, medical schools that would receive support for research against sickle-cell anemia, breast cancer, and the HIV virus.  Closer to home, I even thought about underwriting the repairs of our stained glass windows, so desperately in need of attention.  I prayed.  I was feeling really virtuous.  My chest was bursting with pride, that I was to be conduit of good will, as is expected of a person of faith.  I pointed out to God that if someone had to win, why should it not be me, someone who would share the winning for very specific causes? 

Well, not only did I not win, neither did I did get even one of the six numbers posted.  Moreover, no one whom I knew could assure me which child, somewhere, would get my $2.00.  But that was not the basis for my crisis of faith.  My crisis was this: God had turned a deaf ear to my plea!  And lo! I have become, as the psalmist says, the derision of those who know me, and of those who say, “Behold!  He has called on his God, but God did not answer him.”  “I have become an object of derision to my accusers.” (Ps. 109:25)  My plans were specific, not superficial, not even primarily for myself.  Surely, my faith in prayer deserved a reward.  How could I continue to have faith, when God did not answer my pleas to become a millionaire?

It was the account first of Abram and second of Nicodemus which called me out.  Those two dollars reminded me that faith, trust in the belief that there is a God, and that God intends for the Creation good things for those who believe in God, is a risky business.  Faith is not for the faint of heart.  Faith makes one do strange things, where the immediate outcome is not necessarily that for which one hopes or imagines.  Abram and Nicodemus, centuries removed from my own being, posed to me a simple question: What are two dollars to you?

Take Abram, for example, in today’s first lesson.  All of us would agree, that Abram at 75 years of age deserved in his senior years a quiet existence.  No one of us, had we been Abram’s neighbor, would have faulted him, had his choice been not to pack up his belongings and set out on a journey which on the surface was open ended.  Retirement, peace, ease, comfort should be the order of the day.  Who needs a calling?  Abram could have said, “God, I am a senior citizen.  Let someone else do it.”  And no one would have faulted him.  But God ignores his concerns and says instead, “have faith.  Trust me!!” Abram gets a change in name.  Abram becomes Abraham, and his descendants grew in number, as God had promised.

Abram, now Abraham had won the divine lottery.  Sarah and Abraham, emboldened by the promise of a new land to call their own, discovered upon their arrival a land in the throes of a famine.  The land of promise turned out to be a land of desolation and death.  In fact, I can imagine Sarah turning to Abraham and saying to Abraham, across the dinner table, “Why in heaven’s name did you bring us out here, in our old age, when we had sufficient comforts in our native land?”  Lesson learned: if one can have faith only in that which brings comfort and ease, faith is shallow at best and hollow at worst.  God did not call Abraham to comfort, but to be instrumental in establishing a community that would right what had gone awry in Creation.  The choices we make, will influence the stories we tell, even when the outcome is not that which we may have wished or anticipated. 

We ask ourselves frequently, but especially during Lent the question: “How should I come before the Lord?” to paraphrase the gospel read during our Ash Wednesday liturgy.  Whereas records state that God sought out Abram/Abraham, in Nicodemus we encounter a different approach.  Aware of the promised made by God to Abraham, Nicodemus decides to investigate the validity of rumors concerning Jesus of Nazareth which had reached his ears.  Occasionally, the preacher of the day will cite him for cowardice, because he sneaked out after dark, in order to have an encounter with Jesus.  Not for one moment do I discern timidity or cowardice in Nicodemus, rather just the opposite. 

Nicodemus was a leader, conferring with others in power, and he displays those attributes which allowed him to rise to a position of authority.  Does it matter really at what hour Nicodemus sought out Jesus?  If indeed Nicodemus is a leader, did not his obligation to his profession require him to tend first to the needs of the people in his charge and those whom he desired to help?  Where in our Book of Records does it state that God holds office hours or that one may seek out God in the light of day?  Indeed, the psalmist reminds us: “Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” (Ps. 121:4)

What Nicodemus had, was a curiosity, a desire to discover, to get to the bottom of rumors, good rumors, challenging rumors of a man outside his circle.  Precisely because he was a leader of the upper crust, the ruling elite, Nicodemus had an obligation to see what the commotion was about.  He made a choice to see for himself, a choice which influenced the story which he would later tell.

With his choice, Nicodemus risked his status in the community.  He risked being outed by the paparazzi camped on his doorstep.  He gets to Jesus and comes away convinced of the rightness of his cause.  What moves me about Nicodemus is his inquisitiveness and the very real statement that God makes through him, a statement which is essential for you and me, as we seek out the Divine Spirit: There is more than one way to get to the Messiah and God is ready to receive us at any hour, for God who sees in secret will reward openly.  We are the descendants of Nicodemus who dared to play the Divine Lottery.

Nostalgia can insulate us from the opportunities of the present and obstruct our view of the possibilities of the future.  Sometimes, in retrospect, we can see God’s wisdom and trace the straight line of God’s intent through the crooked paths of our lives.  But at the time, the divine blessing may not be clear, and God’s wisdom is hidden from our eyes.  From childhood onward, without articulating it, we are aware that the choices, both small and large, we make carry with them the potential of uncertainty.  Our “yes” to the call is a risk of faith.  Nevertheless, none of us would be here today, had Abraham and Sarah not risked believing that promise that “God has greater plans for us than we can imagine, and that God was offering the crucifixion and resurrection as the means of realizing those plans.  Where would we today be, if we were to shutter our curiosity for fear of failure or ridicule of those whom God has sent us to serve?”

Where would our great institutions of learning be, if their morally imperfect founders, holders of slaves and indentured servants, had not had faith and taken the risk of investing their talents, monies that could have been used for their comforts, in faculties, students, buildings, laboratories, if they had not had a faith that propelled them away from complacency, but instead into the future,  Those men were not without fault and nor was Nicodemus.  But the Divine Spirit had motivated them to seek a way that was different from that which they had known.

The choices which you and I make, will determine the stories that we tell.  The word of God, the Good News of Christ, requires us to move on, not to stand still, as if bolted to one place or beholden to one worldview.  It is uncomfortable, but true that as soon as we settle down and stop taking risks, our spirit diminishes.  It is uncomfortable, but true that when a church settles for what is safe and what feels good, and is unwilling to explore the frontiers of theological thought, it ceases to be a community of faith, and becomes, rather, an entity solely of archival interest.  Jesus put it rather bluntly: “If you lose your life, you will find it.  But if you hold on to your life, you will lose it.”

It seems to me that if we Christians are to claim, even reclaim that right to speak and act as Christians in our era, in our modern times, and not allow another large or small vocal group to say who can or cannot be Christian, we must be willing to take a risk, a risk that says, Jesus has called us to go beyond our selves, beyond our limiting and limited thoughts and structures, into a world of possibilities, where we may not always be comfortable, where uncertainty may the currency of the day, but where at the end of the day, God will still be God, there to assist us as we move toward God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven.  The choices we make will influence the stories we tell.  AMEN