Twenty-five years ago this month, I moved from Portland, Oregon to Reno in the high desert of Northern Nevada. I had never lived in the desert and it was a shock to my system. I felt completely exposed by the lack of the tree cover or an overcast sky. I felt as if a giant hawk could swoop down and pick me up as they do small mammals. In every direction I could see for miles to distant hills and mountains. The air was so dry that my lips and skin cracked within a few weeks. There was essentially nothing green, nothing of any color but blue sky, snowy mountains and brown desert. It was a completely alien landscape, dry, barren and dangerous. I wasn’t sure how I would survive it.
I answered the call to come and be the first female Rector in the state’s history. I didn’t know a soul who lived in Nevada and was only there briefly once, when we went around Lake Tahoe to the Nevada side from California. I was single, newly ordained, a native of the Northwest and really out of place.
In my seven wilderness years, I learned a lot. I leaned into the stories from the Bible. So many of them are about wanderers, pilgrims, exiles, and immigrants – strangers in a strange land. Many went on walkabout, summoned by God to leave all that is familiar, safe and comfortable for an unknown future.
Our first ancestor in faith, the founding figure of the three great monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – is Abraham, or as we hear about him first in the book of Genesis, Abram. With his wife, then called Sarai, they leave home and all that is familiar based on a promise, a word from God that propels them on a journey.
I never noticed it before, but the land they left was Haran, which wasn’t their original home. Abram, along with Sarai and the rest of the family had come to Haran from Ur of the Chaldeans because his father, Terah answered a call from God to go to the land of Canaan. Terah didn’t complete the journey. He got stuck in Haran and settled down. He died there without seeing the fulfillment of God’s promise. Abram stayed put until God renewed both the call and the promise.
We don’t know why Abram left. But we do know that Terah’s family line was dying out. Abram and Sarai were without an heir. Once they died, there would be no descendants. They were at the end of the road, barren, dry, with an irreparable hopelessness. Leaving was their only chance. Trusting God was their only hope.
This is the turning point in the history of a people. Until Abram and Sarai leave everything for a risky journey to an unknown land, there are no descendants, no nation of Israel, no great monotheistic faiths.
Nicodemus is born into this amazing tradition, the history, resilience and faith of the Jewish people. It is a rich, treasure trove of narrative, history, poetry, music and practice. He is part of those who share the responsibility for being God’s people in the world, a light to the nations, the gift of faith.
But Nicodemus has become dry and barren. His faith is lifeless. He has lost sight of God and his faith had become identified with the structures of religion, the following of the law, and the image he was trying to uphold. There was no freshness, no life, no satisfaction in his religious practices. He was stable, comfortable and secure, but he was spiritually dead.
When he hears of Jesus and the signs and wonders that were happening around him, he wonders if this man could show him or teach him something about what it means to be in the presence of God, to be spiritually alive. Nicodemus goes on a journey. He doesn’t leave his home, but he leaves the familiar norms and expectations of his life. It was so risky for him that he came at night, in secrecy so that he would not be discovered by anyone who knew him.
And of course Jesus knew what was going on. As usual he never answers the question that is asked of him. Instead he calls Nicodemus out of dry legalism and fruitless obedience into a wild life of the Spirit, with a wind that will blow him in unanticipated directions, a new birth that will reshape his identity and a baptism in water that will transform his dry barrenness into fruitful new life.
It’s completely overwhelming. Jesus offers a hope and a future that calls Nicodemus to risk everything – his standing in his community, his security, even his own sense of himself in exchange for a wild ride to an unknown destination.
It’s no wonder that Nicodemus leaves without making a commitment or joining the disciples of Jesus. It’s all a bit much. Later we find Nicodemus standing up for Jesus in the face of the religious authorities who want to arrest and kill him. And finally we see Nicodemus after the crucifixion, providing the necessary herbs and ointments for the care of his corpse. There is still a longing in Nicodemus for the life that he has seen in Jesus of Nazareth and perhaps he was on that journey after all.
You don’t have to go out into the physical desert to experience the barrenness and dryness as well as the call and promise. The desert is sure to find you at least once or twice in your life. Those who enter into a Lenten practice may find some affinity with the experience of desert. This is an experience of spiritual revolution, not personal retreat. Desert times are ones of inner protest, rather than outward peace. The desert leads one into deep encounter rather than superficial escape. These experiences lead to repentance rather than recuperation, the turning in a new direction rather than the comfort of rest and stability.
In the desert, we may hear God’s voice, the voice both of a calling to a new future and the promise of God’s provision. Certainly Jesus had his own journey in the desert wilderness and from that was called to proclaim God’s Kingdom.
This call is to a life and destiny that is greater than we are humanly capable of creating or living into on our own. We will draw on the resources of the Spirit to provide direction and living water to sustain us through it all.
God calls us out of the place where we are settled and stuck and starts us on a fresh pilgrimage to a new destination, perhaps even a new name or identity.
God calls us out of our fixed assumptions and our inherited prejudices by blowing our minds with new experiences, information and encounters.
Both Abram and Nicodemus leave secure lives, set norms and expectations, old labels and names to become born anew, renamed and reformed. They leave, not trusting in their own strength and capability but in the promise that God will be present with them on the journey. Neither of them have yet to experience resurrection, but that gift of eternal, renewed, unimaginable life is what waits for them.
As the theologian Walter Bruegemann writes, “To stay in safety is to remain barren; to leave in risk is to have hope.”
I have no idea what God is calling you to but I’m confident that God will go with you and will give you what you need to reach the destination. You will be changed along the way. We all are. The only thing required of us is the willingness to go, to take the first step, to say yes to the way of Jesus, to follow the Spirit.
For some time it has been clear that the model of church that is familiar to many of us is no longer sustainable. COVID revealed that by changing the ways in which people choose to walk their spiritual path. Many no longer gather in community with other Christians in what we have come to know of as church – a building and sanctuary with comforting and familiar structures. It’s so tempting to hang onto the ways things have been. And yet, without change, without the fresh wind of the Spirit and the living water of Jesus, we become stale and stuck.
St. Luke’s has chosen to leave what is familiar for a risky journey. To abandon the buildings we have known and to walk for a while without our own place. We are following the vision we shared together during our year-long visioning process in 2019. We are staying true to the mission that drives our care for the most vulnerable. We are holding true to our core values, which have never been defined by our structures.
We believe that God will be faithful to God’s promise to sustain Beloved Community that is welcoming and diverse with Christian worship and service at its heart. Regardless of the changes in our neighborhood, city or even the Episcopal Church, we are building a house for love to dwell for generations to come with affordable housing and community space.
We’re in good company. Our ancestors in the faith have taken risky journeys in answer to God’s call. I’m a pretty big fan of Psalm 121. When I did burials in Nevada in the old, historic cemeteries in the high desert, I often suggested the reading of Psalm 121. “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.”
It ends with a promise for any journey, whether that is to your true identity, into a community of love, a new vocation or even the final journey of death and grief. “The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; it is God who shall keep you safe. The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.”