Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2011. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, MA

Genesis 12:1-4aRomans 4:1-5, 13-17
Psalm 121John 3:1-17

We are all in this together

“I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1-2)

Just over a week ago, the earth opened up near northern Japan. Everything shook for miles around. Triggered by the earthquake, a wall of water three stories high slammed into coastal villages and farmland, sweeping away just about everything in its path and killing what this morning’s newspapers report as nearly twenty thousand people. Visible danger from the earth and ocean was followed by invisible danger from the air. Reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant began to leak radioactive gases, and this weekend engineers, scientists, and technicians continue their desperate struggle to prevent total meltdown in what has become the worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl twenty-five years ago.

These events are unfolding half a world away, and yet their images sear into us. If we are willing to stay with them and to ponder them a while, they have the power to break our hearts. A man kneels in the snow, grieving in front of the wreckage where his mother was buried alive. An old woman covers her mouth as she weeps for her husband who died in the quake. A little girl stands up staunchly as a worker in a haz-mat suit scans her for radiation exposure. A 20-something young man rummages through his damaged house to gather up the few possessions that remain: a basketball, a jacket, a pair of gloves, a pair of sneakers, and some photos. That’s it. That’s what’s left.

Multiply these images many thousand times over, and maybe we can begin to take in the scope of this tragedy. It is hard to comprehend so much loss, to get our minds around it, and yet on a visceral level we sense our connection with our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world. Like them, we, too, want stable ground beneath under our feet. Like them, we, too, want the sea to keep its borders, the air we breathe to be clean, and our food and water to be free of contamination. Like them, we depend for survival on the basic elements of life, and we want to keep our loved ones safe. Never mind that a continent and an ocean separate us from the people of Japan — their fear is our fear, their suffering is our suffering, and their hope is our hope, too.

What can we do? We can pray, both as a worshipping community and in solitude at home. We can pray for the happiness and safety of the people of Japan, and if the whole situation seems too big or too complex to pray for all at once, we can choose one photograph to pray with, and lift up before God the particular person or persons in that scene. We can gather this afternoon at 4 o’clock, when representatives from diverse faith communities — Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim, Lutheran, Congregational, Episcopal, and Unitarian — will hold a vigil for Japan, as we pray together in word and silence and with the haunting sound of a Japanese bamboo flute. It is good to make a space to grieve, a space in which to lament and to express our hope, for that is how the heart stays open and how the divine life can flow through us with power. At the center of every religious tradition is an experience of compassion that flows out to everyone, to all human beings and to the whole of creation. Now is a good time to join that flow.

And of course it is not only the people of Japan who need our prayers. As the little band of parishioners just back from Haiti can tell you, people on that island still suffer from the effects of a different earthquake and are grateful for our help. So we open our hearts today to the people of Haiti, and to those suffering from the earthquake in New Zealand, the floods in Australia, and the oil spill in the Gulf. We pray for those fighting for freedom in the Middle East, and for a just and peaceful outcome for what has suddenly become an international military intervention in Libya.

As for the crisis in Japan, what else can we do? We can express our care very tangibly by making a donation to any of many charitable organizations that are racing to help, among them Doctors without Borders, the American Red Cross, and Episcopal Relief and Development.

We can learn all we can about nuclear power, and take part in a revitalized and rigorous debate about whether or not nuclear power is a safe source of energy, whether it really makes sense for this country to become more reliant on nuclear power, and how to develop alternative sources of energy that are truly renewable, clean, and safe.

Here’s something else we can do. We can go outside and sing — sing with gratefulness for the return of spring, sing for the quiet earth beneath our feet, for the sound of birdsong in the morning, the renewed warmth of the sun, and the enormous full moon that is shining at night. We can hug the people who are dear to us, and smile at strangers on the street. On TV this week I learned that many Japanese people now greet each other not with the usual word for Hello — konnichiwa — but with another phrase — gambarimasho — which translates roughly as “let’s strive together,” or — a phrase I like even more — “we are all in this together.” Apparently that is what strangers now say to each other as they pass on the street: gambarimasho. “We are all in this together.” I can’t think of a better phrase to live by.

Above all, in these perilous times we can open ourselves to encounter Jesus Christ. Our Gospel reading for today — and for every Sunday during the remaining weeks of Lent — is a story about someone encountering Jesus. This morning we hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus; in the Sundays ahead, we will hear the stories of Jesus encountering a woman at a well, a man born blind, and a man named Lazarus. Why is encountering Jesus Christ so important? Because whenever we meet him, we become more fully alive. Because in his presence we are set free to love fully and to create a life that transcends death. Because through him we learn at the deepest level of our being that we are the Beloved of God.

Of course, like Nicodemus, we may be perfectly respectable people; we may be pious and law-abiding citizens, even leaders of our community, but at a deep level of our being we may be longing for something more. Like Nicodemus, we may come to Jesus by night, that symbolic darkness that represents our confusion as we search for the light. Like Nicodemus, we may already know a thing or two about Jesus — we may believe, for instance that he comes from God — yet we may yearn for a direct encounter with him at a depth that we have never known before.

What does Jesus say to our friend Nicodemus, who really stands for all of us in our search for God? “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above…No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” [bbllink]John 3:3,5[/bbllink]. What does this mean? As Christians, we naturally think of baptism, that immersion in water and the Spirit through which we enter the community of faith and begin our life in Christ. It makes sense to speak of baptism as the moment of our second birth, when a new way of life opens up for us. Our baptism is a decisive moment, a once-in-a-lifetime event, but it marks the beginning, and only the beginning, of the ongoing transformation of consciousness that is possible as we grow up to our full stature in Christ.

So I invite us this Lent, especially in a time that seems so precarious and unpredictable, to find practices that deepen our awareness that we are the Beloved of God. Knowing at every moment that we are God’s beloved is what sets us free to love generously and boldly, and to live through a time of turmoil with creativity and even joy. That was the experience of Jesus, and I want to quote from my husband Robert Jonas, who writes in his recent book, The Essential Henri Nouwen: “From his deep center of belovedness in God, Jesus could see and undergo the most painful human experiences and still emerge radiant with mercy, beauty, and love. Because he was secure in his knowledge that he was the Beloved, Jesus was able not only to tolerate extreme suffering, but also to undergo it in a way that brought new hope and life to others.” 1

One way to let Jesus encounter us is to let ourselves bring to mind and consciously absorb our encounters with everyone who has ever loved us. Every person who has loved you, everyone who has in some way conveyed to you that you are significant and wanted, is a doorway to the love of God. So I encourage you to take some time to try out this exercise, and to give it a good long try — a full ten minutes, say — for it is so easy to brush love away, to say to ourselves, “Oh, I didn’t really deserve that; that wasn’t real; that didn’t matter; there’s no need to let love in.” Well, the love that we push away may be Jesus himself knocking on our door, urging us to come out of the darkness and into the light. “Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing oneself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted.” 2 That is what Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a while back, and I think he is right. So can we suspend for a while our strenuous refusal to let ourselves be seen with eyes of love?

Here is the exercise. It is very simple. Begin by taking a few minutes in silence to center yourself. Then ask yourself: Who has helped me know that I am significant? That I am wanted? Don’t hurry or strain for anything, but just wait patiently and let images arise. See the faces or sense the presence of people who have believed in you…. who have valued you…. who have let you know that you matter to them…. They may be family members or friends; neighbors, co-workers, or strangers; they may be living or dead. They may be people that you have known for a long time or people that you only met in passing. As each person comes to mind, let yourself rest in the warmth of his or her gaze. How do you respond? Can you let the love in? Notice what comes up for you.

That’s all there is to it, but it is a powerful practice. As we take in the love that has been given to us over the years, and as we take in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, given to us by God in Christ with such tenderness and at such great cost, we come to perceive and know not only our own belovedness, our own chosen-ness, our own blessedness by God, but the fact that everyone is beloved, everyone is chosen, everyone is blessed. Everyone and everything is part of a sacred whole, and everyone is kin.

Gambarimasho. We are all in this together.

1. Robert A. Jonas, editor, The Essential Henri Nouwen, Boston and London: Shambhala, 2009, p. 59.

2. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in “Body as Grace,” Our Selves, Our Souls and Bodies: Sexuality and the Household of God, ed. Charles Hefling (Cowley, 1996), p. 59.