Do you remember a time when you realized that a place was no longer home? Maybe you left for reasons like college or a job. Or maybe home ceased to be a place where you could grow into who God you created you to be. Home ceased to be the place that made you who you are and became a place that felt constrictive, even unsafe. Maybe home was not just a place, but a community or something else that formed who you were.
Sometimes leaving home is necessary in order to create one’s own home. There is no doubt that in some way home remains part of who we are, but I believe God calls us to a new home which tells us just as much about who we are. I experienced this in college, when I left my parents’ home, but the long and difficult journey really began when I realized I was no longer at home within myself. The struggles and doubts of younger faith grew into adulthood at a Southern Baptist university in Mississippi and burst my faith at the seams. The terrifying part for me was that I entered college agreeing with some of the beliefs that came to appall me most, and even when they disgusted me in others, I feared to what extent they were still a part of who I was. Knowing people excluded from the faith I loved pushed me out, but it also convinced me to cling to the beauty of this faith. I began to search for a home built not by its borders but by its roots.
In Lent, we search into the roots of who we are. We dig deep to discover who God has created us to be, stripping away all that inhibits us. In returning to our roots we find sustenance, but our roots also propel us to live outward the abundant life for which we were created. Our texts today are fundamental roots in the story of who we are, and perhaps, we should not be too surprised when we return to them and find a command to leave home and be expelled from a womb to new living.
Let’s look first at the call of Abram. Prior to this, Genesis has talked about the creation of the whole world and the fall which made brokenness infiltrate every corner. God has not turned away from that universal story, but shows how it will be done: through blessing one person and calling him to be a blessing to all of creation. In these four verses, a lot is lost in translation. Without being too technical, I want to dig into the riches of this call.
The great rabbi Rashi explained that Abram’s command to go is a call for his own good, so that he may become more of who he truly is. This is actually ironic, because in the ancient world, his home, where he was from and his people determined his identity, who he was. So he is called to leave what makes him who he is to become who he truly is. This new call automatically involves loss, a loss of something fundamental to who he is.
Then God promises to bless Abram. However, these blessings are not just for Abram’s pleasure. There is a reason, and that reason is incredibly important: so that he will be a blessing for others. In the Hebrew, this is an imperative, so the translation is literally “Be thou a blessing.” Go, be a blessing!
Next, “Those who bless you, I will bless, those who curse you, I will curse.” This acknowledges the deep reality that those who affirm and take part of God’s plan to redeem the world will be enveloped in the blessing of the world also. In the Hebrew, literally, those who take lightly this covenantal blessing, or hold it in contempt, will remove themselves from being part of it. In essence, God tells Abram: Go away from who you are so that you may become who you are. I will bless you because I long to bless everyone. So with every fiber of your being, embody blessing for all people. By living this blessing, you will invite others to join my love, and to live as I created you all to live. Go away from home and I will take you home.
In the Gospel, Nicodemus is told something equally confusing: Be born again and be who you are (who has already been born). Actually, this idea is not so far from Abram’s call to go to a new land. The idea of rebirth would have been familiar to Nicodemus: rebirth was a common theme in the ancient world. When one converted, all previous kinships and relations were dead because the person was born into a new family and kingdom. It was considered a process of naturalization, leaving one’s land and people to become part of another, like Abram was called to do. The strange part for Nicodemus was that he, a descendant, could possibly need this rebirth to be part of the kingdom of God. Though to be fair, it seems that Nicodemus might already have it—after all, he starts off by saying he has seen what Jesus claims one must be born again to see. The normal boundaries of the new kingdom are not what we have made them, and so some, like Nicodemus, are already living in the kingdom without articulating it, and others who think they are in, might not be.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that being born again is an invitation to life in a new kingdom, which is eternal and already here among us. This is the world God has been working to bring since the beginning, the world God called Abram and his descendants to be part of bringing on earth as it is in heaven.
Now Jesus makes clear that it is why he came too. Not to condemn the world by comparing his righteous life that we cannot live up to, but to save the world. And so this is the nature of how God loved the world: he sent his only Son that we may live in the reality of the new kingdom of God, which is breaking into our world. Because of the ever-expanding love of God, Jesus comes and continues to invite us to live as we were created, now and eternally. John 3:16. I think this passage is so close to us that often our eyes cross so that we cannot clearly focus on its beautiful message.
So often this beautiful message is used to create borders, to determine who is in and out of a heavenly kingdom that one enters after death, instead of being read in the context of the larger story of what God is doing through Scripture. God has been working to bless all people on earth, working to draw all into an ever-expanding kingdom that we were created for, and God has even come among us as Jesus, as the Son, to do that.
Especially in the Gospel of John, eternal life and the Kingdom of God are not futuristic realities or part of a world different from this one. Life in the kingdom is something that begins now, if one chooses to believe in it. And believing in something that exists now is not an action of simply thinking differently, or feeling differently – believing in this kingdom means participating in it here and now.
From Abraham to Jesus to us here at St. Paul’s, we are called to participate in the kingdom of God around us, in making that kingdom of heaven come around us. We are called by God to be part of expanding heaven here among us, but responding to that call is our choice, and that choice has everything to do with our lives and our world today.
Heaven is already in our midst, and the other side of that is that hell is already in our midst too. And we can be, we are, part of creating either of them, of using our lives to turn our world into more and more of heaven or more and more of hell.
I believe we know this, deep in our bones. We see these realities every day if our eyes are open. How often do we describe situations in our world as ‘a living hell’? I think of the picture of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi on a beach, of all the people forced to choose between the likely death of their children in war or possible death escaping the war. I think of people struggling with the effects of a cycle of poverty that has gone on for generations, who cannot see a way out of the darkness.
And I also think of my friends who are helping settle other refugees, of the pictures of sheer joy of people who know their children are safe for the first time in their young lives.
I think of moments of connection that have caught me by surprise, of lingering over shared food and wine with old friends or new friends, when I knew that we were connected by something larger than ourselves, something good and true, caught in moments that feel they could last forever.
I’ve seen the realities of hell when I watch someone I care about spiral down a cycle of abuse or addiction. I’m sure you’ve seen it—they constantly are chipped away until they appear like an empty shell.
But then I compare that to glimpses of heaven when I watch people I care about fall in love. You know how it is—they change, but in some beautiful mystery, it’s like they are becoming more of who they are?
It’s all around us. All the time.
Heaven and hell. Promised land and old land. New life and old life.
In every fluffy cloud, every flame, in the love in our eyes, in the cracks in our hearts.
It’s here. It’s now. It’s always been. It’s forever.
We all have so much to be saved from: the hells we create, the hells we build, the hells that we cannot break down on our own, and the hells we have been left in alone. But those hells are not the only reality around us.
In love, God is creating and inviting us into a new world.
Is it really surprising that we must leave home, must be born again to live in this new kingdom? We were created in the image of God deeper than all else, but so much of who we have become is shaped by the hellish realities around and in us, and they cannot be at home in the kingdom of heaven. All sorts of destructive tendencies get their claws in us and begin to become part of us in such a way that we cannot tear them out without losing part of who we are.
To enter the new world, we will have to learn to be human all over again, which is both a new way of being and more true to who we really are.
Are you ready now to live in a world where you don’t have the option of not loving our neighbor? A world with absolutely no fear?
It would mean learning to love friends and family as if we will never hurt them, never be let down by them, and never lose them.
Can you imagine learning to fall in love when there is no fear the falling, because you can be certain that whatever comes of it will be good, because it is a world where there will never be any tears?
The longing in my heart tells me I was made for that home, but today’s reality tells me that much that is still part of me cannot live there.
No, I am not ready for this world—but I would love to live like I am.
Imagine if we take Abram’s promise for ourselves and trust Jesus’s story of our new birth. In this story, the truer we become to who we were created to be would be to love like God more and more every person we encountered.
The journey is from one land to another, from one way of being to another, from an old home to a new home.
In this season, may we be blessed on that journey, and may we be blessings. May we all dig into our roots and find there the incredible love of God. May we be born again and go to the home to which God is calling us, the kingdom for which we were made.
And may we begin to live and love there, today.