Sometimes, when I just look at my life, I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been. That I was born at the time I was born, and not during the dark medieval ages, for example. That I was born in Germany, and not a country where there is poverty or constant conflict – or a country where women are seen as inferior and not given the same chances as in most developed countries. Today is the International Day of Women, and this is not only a day to celebrate all the accomplishments made by women, but also to be mindful of the fact that most women on this planet today are still disadvantaged.
I am extremely lucky that I was born and grew up in a country, where I, the granddaughter of penniless WW II refugees and of day laborers, was given the opportunity to get a higher education – with the help of a government program that was part gift and part interest-free loan. I am sometimes wondering if I had had the same chance if I had been born even here in the U.S.
Sometimes I wonder: am I lucky to have the skin color that I have? I know that there are many perks and privileges that come along with white skin, and there is much prejudice against people with darker skin hues, be it in Germany or be it here in the U.S. Sometimes I wonder: am I lucky that I was born with a body I am absolutely comfortable with (except for the usual weight issues), and with a sexuality that isn’t questioned or even vilified by society?
It’s not that I didn’t have to go through trials and tribulations and even trauma in my life. But, heck, compared to the vast majority of people in this world, even compared to many people in this country, I got it really good. And it’s only partly due to the fact that I worked hard. I was born into a lot of favorable circumstances that helped me along.
And almost daily I ask myself: why? Why am I so lucky? I could have been born in famine-stricken Niger, or in a gang and violence riddled neighborhood in El Salvador, or in an impoverished area of Mexico. I could have been born in Syria and currently be caught between a rock and a hard place on the Turkish/Greek border with no place to go except back into violence and death. But I am not. I am lucky.
I don’t know if you consider yourself lucky. Maybe you are not. But when I look around here, I think that most here are doing quite well, right?
And of course I know that many here had a time in their lives when it wasn’t easy. As a pastor of a church with such strong ties to German culture and language – of a church that, for most of its 125 year history, has been an immigrant church – I’ve heard quite a few stories of hardship. I’ve heard harrowing stories of war and its aftermath. I’ve heard stories of hunger and abuse and loss and death. I’ve heard stories of displacement after the war, of people having trouble finding their place, in their very own country whose territory had shrunk immensely. I’ve heard stories of making it in the New World, through hard work and ingenuity and tenacity.
As the pastor of a church in a neighborhood that borders on the Castro, I’ve also heard stories of people wrestling with their sexuality, people growing up somewhere else and realizing that they have to leave and come to a place where there is more acceptance.
But what amazes me again and again: many had an opportunity to change, to start over new, to build a new existence. Some of you are a great example for that. But, if you think about it: how lucky are we that change is an option for us! The freedom and power to choose and make decisions. Again, that wasn’t an option for the majority of people on this planet throughout history, and it still isn’t an option for many today.
There are many societies in this world to this day where you are born into a certain class and remain there for the rest of your life. The Indian Caste system would be a prime example. In many societies still today, being born as a girl means a life of oppression and abuse. If you end up homeless in the streets, it’s very hard to get back to a settled life. Many are stuck – that’s just a reality.
And it seems that this was also the reality for many folks during biblical times. In biblical times, the status of the family you would be born into also would have determined your status. In Latin, status means standing, or to remain – think of stationary, something that cannot be moved, like a stationary bike. In biblical times, people usually remained or stayed in the place or the circumstances they were born into. No choice.
Although it seems that this wasn’t God’s idea. God repeatedly called people out of their circumstances into something new. I don’t want to know what Abraham’s and Sarah’s family thought when God called them to leave their home, to go out, to start anew. 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. Abraham’s father, mother and siblings probably thought, are you nuts? This is where you belong! Why take any chances?
And yet, without this daring enterprise, this journey into the unknown, God’s promise to Abraham wouldn’t have been fulfilled. And Abraham became the father of many. Jews, Christians and Muslims alike claim Abraham as their ancestor in faith. Without the daring journey into the unknown, the following of the seemingly foolish call, there wouldn’t have been the blessing, passed on to endless generations all over the world.
Nicodemus, the man who comes to Jesus in the darkness, is a man of a certain status in Jewish society. His name alone, which is Greek and means “victorious among / above the people”, shows that his parents had a lot of confidence about his destiny at his birth. Nicodemus was born into the elite of Jewish society, as the son of one of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. He would inherit his father’s job and status. Seems he lucked out. He definitely has a privileged life, being raised and educated in the shadow of the temple in Jerusalem. There’s no doubt about it: he got it made, Nicodemus is a man with status, money, honor and a good reputation.
And yet he comes to Jesus with questions – maybe expecting to get an easy and straightforward answer. He is looking for God, and he somehow sees God at work in Jesus. Maybe his burning question is, are you the Messiah? But then we can also sense some doubt – how COULD someone like Jesus, a carpenter’s son, from the backwaters of Galilee, be God’s chosen one? Jesus’ status, according to the standards of the society of his day, is definitely questionable.
And this may be Nicodemus’ greatest issue –that he just cannot comprehend how it could be God’s idea that a status, a life, is changed. That someone could be called away from their former life in order to go on a daring journey, to become a blessing. That God may give new chances, a new life, which transcends every human experience here on earth.
That’s why Nicodemus has so much trouble with the notion of a ‘birth from above’, a new birth granted by God. He’s stuck in the notion that we are who and what we are, and that we have very little wiggle room with that. How can someone be born again, been given a second chance, given a new existence, if their life is pretty much mapped out?
And why would someone like Nicodemus want his life to be changed? Would you want your life to be changed? I think most of us are pretty comfortable where we are. Ask people in the developing world, however, ask the people who are currently protesting in their countries or fleeing their countries because of civil war and violence and injustice and oppression and economic hardships, and you’d probably hear: yes, I want a new chance. I want a life that’s changed.
And that’s why Jesus was so successful among the peasants, the landless, the poor, the oppressed, the women. His message of a new life, a new existence in God gave hope to those stuck in circumstances. And Jesus message was and still is: it is not God’s idea that you have a lowly status here on earth. You, who maybe have nothing now, shall experience a new birth and new life; you shall be children and heirs of the kingdom of God. That’s radical and revolutionary!
But I have to be fair. It wasn’t only the underprivileged who were open to God’s call into a new existence. Sometimes even people of an elevated status throughout history felt that a life of wealth and privilege didn’t fulfill them. A prime example would be Saint Francis, the man this city is named after, who was destined to inherit his father’s trading business, but chose a life in solidarity with the poor instead.
And Nicodemus? We remain in the dark about the outcome of the encounter between the leader of the Jews and Jesus, which is fitting given the story’s setting. We don’t know if Nicodemus eventually accepts the offer of a birth from above and if he surrenders to God; all we here is that he, after Jesus’ crucifixion, helps Joseph of Arimathea with the burial of Jesus and contributes the insane amount of 100 pounds of very costly nard for the embalming process – much more than is needed. We don’t know whether Nicodemus overcompensates due to a guilty conscience – or if he accepts this new life from above.
Nicodemus was lucky in life. Many here have been lucky. However, being lucky is not the same as being blessed. It is one thing to make something out of ourselves; it is another to allow God to give us a new life, to allow God to call us out of our status, our existence, and to send us into those places where we, those born anew in and through the Spirit in baptism, those who are blessed, become a blessing ourselves.
We are not stuck. Ever. God gives us a new chance each and every day to be born anew from above and through the Holy Spirit. God has the amazing power to overcome whatever stigma we may carry here on earth. God elevates us to the status of children and heirs of the kingdom, no matter what our status is now. That is a blessing.
But, as heirs we have a responsibility. We have to take care of the Father’s estate, so to speak. We have to take care of everything and everyone created. We have to represent our heavenly Father. And as we have been blessed, our responsibility is to go out and be a blessing.
There is not a lack of opportunity for being a blessing. From aiding disaster victims in places all over world to supporting the less fortunate to standing up for the dignity of your fellow human being to being a loving presence for someone who is sick or lonely – there are many places where God’s blessing is needed. There are many places we are called to go to in order to bring healing and a new birth.
Paradoxically, our status as God’s children, born anew, is to be moved by the Spirit.
May our moves be in the direction God would have us go. May our moves be blessed. May we discover anew, during our journey through the wilderness of Lent, what it means to be blessed -and to be a blessing.
Picture by Alex Hockett on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German