In the name of the Father, and of the son, and of the Holy spirit. Amen.

When I was in college at Denison University, a few of us started talking one night about going skydiving. Central Ohio is very flat, perfect for skydiving, and a group of us got into a discussion about whether or not we could actually jump out of an airplane. Well as you might imagine, youth, chutzpah, and a not fully developed frontal lobe, got the better of us and before we knew it, we were signed up for the following weekend.

When Saturday arrived, we spent our morning in training. This was in the days before tandem skydiving where you are tethered to a jumpmaster and you both jump out of the plane together. We had to learn how to jump from the plane, pull the ripcord, cut away if the chute failed to open, deploy our reserve chute and land. They made us sign scores of papers relieving the company of any liability and as I was literally signing my life away, I looked at the old beat- up planes spread around the field and thought, “you are an idiot to even fly in one of these things much less jump out of it.” I can still remember our training – “Arch, look, reach, pull! One thousand, two thousand, three thousand! Look up! Is the chute open? If not then- cut away, pull your reserve and punch it free.” We were idiots, but we were idiots who were too proud not to go through with our dare.

I remember being in this little airplane with all of us crammed together as they opened the doors at 10,000 feet. The wind rushed in like a freight train and the jumpmaster instructed me to take my position. For this particular airplane, “the position” didn’t mean standing in the door, the plane wasn’t big enough, it meant climbing out below the wing with my feet on one of the wheels and both hands holding onto the strut. How I actually got there, I will never know but I can still see the grinning look of our jumpmaster’s face as he gave me the thumbs up. I remember looking back at him with his thumb sticking up in the air and thinking – “You actually want me to let go of this airplane.” But I knew he would not let me back in. They had instructed us that it was too dangerous to try to climb back in the plane. Once you were holding onto the strut, if you didn’t let go, they would kick you off. So, after two more smiling “thumbs up” from the jumpmaster, I let go. It was terrifying and absolutely thrilling. I don’t remember going through my instructions, I only remember falling for what seemed like an eternity. Then, my chute opened perfectly, and I floated down to earth surrounded by the most incredible silence I have ever known. After hitting the ground, I remember getting to my feet and thinking – “You are a big fat idiot. I can’t believe you did that. But my goodness, was it fun.”

What I remember most about that day is that I took a risk and gave up control. Perhaps stupidly, inappropriately, unnecessarily, but I gave up control. I put my faith in the expertise of a bunch of people I did not know. I let go, dependent only on a single piece of very flimsy nylon to save my life. Perhaps that was a crazy thing to do, an unnecessary risk to take. Perhaps I was being reckless to give up that kind of control and not keep my feet firmly planted on the ground. But, if you think about it, even when we are not jumping out of airplanes, we in fact have much less control over our lives than we think we do. In fact, much of the control we think we have in this life is actually an illusion.

Things happen all the time for which we are not prepared, for which we had not planned. Anyone who has gotten that horrible phone call in the middle of the night or found themselves rushing off to the emergency room or had their spouse simply walk out on them one day knows this truth. Life can reach out and smack us when we least expect it. However, most of the time we live in a world of denial where we make our beds, straighten our homes, dress our kids and go off to work thinking that life will go just as we planned it. And usually it does, but then something rips apart our illusions and reminds us that our sense of security is actually quite fragile. I mean think about it, we have no control about when we come into this world and very little say about when we leave it and everything else in-between is only fleetingly ours to control. We fool ourselves into believing that we are the masters of our destiny and God’s role in our lives is to simply confirm our already good decisions.

There is an old saying – “If you want to make God laugh just tell him your plans.” I think Abraham new this truth. His plans were probably far different than the plans God had in store for him. I can imagine Abraham living on his ranch in Haran with his large herds and his servants. In those days, he was known as Abram and at seventy-five he probably figured he was pretty settled in life. He had no children but Abram and his wife Sarah, then called Sarai, loved each other deeply. Everyone must have thought he was crazy to pick up and leave home. They must have thought he was nuts to walk away from his established life, his secure living and his good reputation and risk so much to follow some God into the wilderness based on nothing but a promise. His neighbors must have whispered among themselves that at 75 Abram was a madman not to hold onto everything he already had.

But I think the greatness of Abram stems from the fact that he realized the true nature of his life. He realized that all he had – all of his possessions and all of his security were not really his to hold onto, they were gifts from God and if God wanted something different for his life, then who was he to hold onto what wasn’t even his. And so, Abram left home dragging his wife and his nephew Lot and all his possessions on some crazy journey into the dessert. He left on faith because what else did he have. Everything in his life was God’s to give and God’s to take away. Why hold onto what you can’t control, he must have thought. Let’s just trust the giver of the gifts. To the world, Abram was a fool to give up so much, to people of faith he is the father of a great nation because he placed his faith in God and in God alone.

In our Gospel lesson for today, we hear from one of my favorite figures in all of scripture. Nicodemus the scholar, the Pharisee, the community leader, and a protector of the Jewish faith. Brilliant, pious Nicodemus who had spent a lifetime studying the rules of religion and a lifetime mastering those rules. Nicodemus was the epitome of someone in control. He was not only in control of his own life, but he was responsible for helping others keep control of theirs as well. Just follow the rules, just keep track of the law, just do as your told and everything will be fine. For Nicodemus, faith came from considering the evidence and drawing logical conclusions. For Nicodemus, everything he needed to know was written down in the law and if he stuck to the law then life could be kept predictable, his fate was his to control

And yet, I think Nicodemus knew something was amiss. He had heard Jesus and witnessed his teaching and healing. He knew that in this man there was a reflection of God. However, Nicodemus could not admit this openly, because as a Pharisee to do so would be to risk losing everything he had gained. And so, he goes to see Jesus by night, in secret, to have it out, to argue his points, perhaps even hoping to have Jesus validate his beliefs about the world and his role in it. But Nicodemus was not prepared for the message of Christ. “’You must be born again,’ Jesus tells Nicodemus. When you give up your own will to follow the will of God, you are made new. Instead of having control, you give up power. Instead of knowing your destination, you try to be faithful during the journey. Instead of being sure of yourself, you become sure of God.”1

But Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He is trapped in the idea that salvation is dependent on how well you complete your religious “to do list.” Jesus wants him to know that salvation isn’t about following the rules its about letting God be in charge of your life, giving your life to God, letting go of the illusion of control. What Nicodemus doesn’t understand is that salvation is a gift from God given to us through faith. And all one needs to do when receiving a gift is to say – thank you. What Nicodemus doesn’t understand is that being born from above means dying to self and finding your new life in God.

The truth of the matter is, you and I are not in control, we never have been, and we never will be. Abraham understood this, Nicodemus didn’t. But when the crisis hits the illusion of control is always stripped away. The larger truth is that everything we have in this world is gift. Love, family, health – everything that really matters is gift. We can be here today and gone tomorrow and so can our jobs, our fortunes, and our reputations. We aren’t ultimately in command of any of it. And no matter how tightly we hold on, it can all still slip through our fingers. The trick is to let go and live in faith. Both of these lessons for this morning wrestle with the need for faith, the longing for faith, the mystery of faith. We can’t make it on our own we have to follow God; we have to follow the giver. The trick is to wake up each morning and go to bed each day with a thank you on our lips and the knowledge in our hearts that every day, every moment, everything, is gift from God. Amen

1 Nurya Love Parish, Christian Century, February 10, 2017.


The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith