Never too late (with God)

Just after the cornerstone was put in, May 31, 2015.

Just after the cornerstone was put in, May 31, 2015.

A sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015, when All Souls dedicated its new wing for accessibility and hospitality and laid the cornerstone.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17, and John 3:1-17.

I’ve been thinking a lot about time, recently. Especially, I’ve been thinking about running late.

A few weeks ago I was late for several appointments before I realized that my watch battery was dying.

Not long before that, here at the church we almost deliberately began a funeral later than the time appointed because our friend and parishioner who died was almost always late to church. We thought a late start might be a fitting memorial.

And now, today, in a very obvious ways—our construction project is running late. The stonework in the garden is still taking shape and those odd concrete tubes and things in the back parking lot need to go underground, with a new parking lot put over it. As you peek into the new space, you’ll notice that some of the details still need to be done.

We’re running late—because of winter weather delays, permitting, inspections, and the reality of building something new onto something old. But all that is ok, because we’ll get there.

We’ll get there together and we’ll get there with God. And with God, there’s never too late.

“Late” is not a concept known to our God.

“Being late” exists for us, of course. It’s that fact of arriving after a set time, but it’s also that emotional feeling of having arrived too late at the party, after the heyday, too late to help, or fix, or save. It’s that feeling of being too that late can obscure the presence of God.

A lot of things can make us feel like we’ve arrived too late, gotten too late a start, or even been born a little too late. As the General Convention of the Episcopal Church draws near at the end of June, there’s a lot of anxiety bouncing around about the future of the church, the future of Christianity, models of ministry, ways of worshipping. Some of the conversation is creative and useful. But some is based in a kind of generational self-doubt, the idea that our forebears somehow served a church stronger and more faithful than ours. We can feel that way at work or in just about any area of life. A little voice creeps in saying, “It’s too late. There’s not much you can do. Give up. It’s pointless. You’ve missed your chance.”

That little voice, I think, is the voice of the devil—the accuser, the one who questions everything and tries to argue with the Holy Spirit. That voice of doubt can prevent a person from learning a new skill, changing an old habit, pursuing a new friendship, getting medical or psychological advice, trying a different job, or following God in some unclear but compelling direction.

With God there’s no such thing as “too late” and that’s exactly what Nicodemus begins to learn in today’s Gospel.

We don’t know how old Nicodemus was, but clearly he had “arrived.” He was a respected religious leader and he was well-established. He’d had a good career, had family and friends around him, had made a few mistakes, and had enjoyed a few successes. He “was who he was.” He knew it and the people around him knew it. We know people like him.

But then something happened to Nicodemus. He heard Jesus and something shifted within. Maybe everything wasn’t as settled as he had imagined. Maybe there was some old grief or resentment that suddenly resurfaced. Maybe there was the sense of “something more.”

Even though Nicodemus must have had a lot of information in his head—he knew about religious culture and history and himself—but until his experience with Jesus, he had never really FELT God’s presence.

When he first heard Jesus, Nicodemus probably stood at the back and stayed in the shadows, not quite ready to commit or be a part of the group. But he took it all in, considered what he heard, and lived into his questions. Nicodemus wants to find out more and when he comes to Jesus at night, he hears about more than he can get his mind around. Jesus tells him about being born again, or “born from above.”

We should pause for a minute on that phrase of being “born again.” That phrase has almost been ruined in our time by those parts of the church that make it sound like it always has to include lightening striking, or some dramatic affair—angels and trumpets, or the sense of the presence of God completely overpowering you. For some, it happens that way. But for most, I think it’s slower, gentler, and quieter. Being born again, or born from above is less certain, less emphatic. If you think about it, if being born again were really a once-for-all kind of thing, why would God even be needed afterwards? Being born again is not some inoculation of faith that rules out any possibility of doubt or sickness or despair or death. Instead, being born again—and again, and again and again—it’s the way God works with us and within us. It’s God’s way of reminding us that, by God, in Christ, with the Holy Spirit, there is never any such thing as “too late.”

C. S. Lewis, the great Christian writer, lost his mother when he was ten years old. That and other events created an early life of doubt and agnosticism. But Lewis came to know Christ in a new way and began to call himself a Christian when he was 33. He married at met the love of his life at 57. Mother Teresa didn’t hear a clear vocation to serve the poorest of the poor until she was in her forties.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the wildly successful Little House in the Prairie, didn’t publish her first book until she was 64. And of course, Pope Francis is just getting started. Having begun his new job at the age of 76, he is busy offending all the right people as he lives out what it means for him to be born again (and again, and again.)

We have stories closer at home: the 75 year-old man who realized that his wife and children were probably alcoholics, and so he joined Al-anon, being born again. Or the woman who stopped smoking on her 80th birthday because she “wanted to have nice breath when she met God.” Or our own Mother Orens, who (in her spare time) has begun as a student in the Doctor of Ministry program at Virginia Seminary.

One of the most famous born-again people is, of course, Saint Augustine, the fifth century bishop and theology. After spending much of his youth following other religions, fashionable philosophies, using women, and social climbing, Augustine was born again. He recalls the experience in beautiful words,

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace. –Confessions of St. Augustine, bishop (Lib. 7,10,18; 10,27: CSEL 33,157-163,255)

Our Gospel story of Nicodemus is a good one for us to think about this day that we give thanks for our new addition, dedicate it to God, and allow our church to be born again in God’s mission. First, there’s the obvious way in which Nicodemus urges us to be open always to God’s love and life, whatever age, whatever condition, whatever place we might think we’re at—because with God, there’s no such thing as “too late.”

But Nicodemus also encourages us to continue and get better at being a church that welcome the Nicodemuses of our world— those people who might approach God through our church, from the edge, from the shadows, or from a side door. They might approach us through a conversation, through a mission project, or through a musical event. It might be 20 year-old who has never been exposed to Christianity. It might be a person who has heard a few things about Jesus, but has never known a vibrant, loving, welcoming form of Christianity. Or perhaps it those who thought they had it all worked out until a crisis or a question came along and rocked their world. We need to welcome all.

Our construction project has been about accessibility and hospitality. Part of that description is obvious: an elevator, two accessible restrooms, a new patio and garden that everyone can reach. But hospitality is also a part of our ongoing mission. Henri Nouwen explore this when he writes that

Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” (Reaching Out)

“To offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” I love that phrase and suggest that it’s a great addition to the wise words that founded this church. In 1913, the founding rector preached a sermon in which he hoped for a “neither a broad church nor a narrow church, neither a high church nor a low church, but a church of All Souls.” (quoted from the Rev. James MacBride Sterrett, founding rector of All Souls, in a sermon of 1913).

Today we celebrate God’s grace and generosity, God’s allowing us to do a great thing for the future of All Souls. And even though we’re not quite finished with the building—nor is God finished with us, with God, it’s never too late.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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