Just last week I heard a talk given by a Minneapolis businessman named Ward Brehm, who with no warning at all began to see his life being turned upside down. It all started when his minister stopped him after church one day and asked him if he’d like to go to Africa. “He might as well have asked me if I’d like to go to the moon,” Brehm said.
Seeing his resistance, the pastor asked, “Will you pray about it?” Brehm looked him square in the eye and said, “Arthur, you’re the minister, you pray about it. I’ll think about it.”
About two months later this businessman found himself at an airport with a ticket booked to Ethiopia. But there were more surprises ahead. When he finally met up with the group he would be traveling with they were surrounded by a group of “church ladies,” as he called them, there to send them off. “This isn’t looking good,” he thought. Then just before they boarded the group decided to hold hands and pray, right there in the airport lounge. Brehm said he prayed all right, but his prayer was that none of his clients or business partners would walk by and see him.
Well, off he went for ten days in Africa. And, he says, he’s never been the same. “The moment I stepped onto African soil,” he said, “my life was altered.” He saw a world that before had only existed for him as a set of statistics. In Ethiopia he listened to surviving family members telling stories of loved ones lost during the years of famine; in Uganda he saw people everywhere dying of AIDS. For the first time, the senselessness of people starving to death overwhelmed him.
In Brehm’s talk he recalled a subsequent Africa trip hiking into parts of Kenya where no one had ever seen a person with white skin. At one point he was lying exhausted in a tent when a scrawny boy crept in and stole a protein bar from his backpack. He of course let the boy snatch it away, but when he peaked out of the tent to watch the boy eat it, he saw him feeding it to his two-year-old emaciated brother with a distended stomach.
Brehm’s experience began to scramble the ways he had put his life together. As he puts it in his book, White Man Walking, everything he thought he knew about the world, his life, and God was up for grabs. God seemed intensely close, much closer than back home. Back there, he thought, with all our comfort and privileges, we are usually only able to see God when things fall apart.
And he recalled an old saying, that sometimes God uses a pebble to get a person’s attention. If that doesn’t work, sometimes a larger rock. And for those who refuse to pay attention, God resorts to a brick. “Africa,” he said, “was my brick.” Since that first trip in 1992, Brehm has traveled to Africa regularly taking groups, especially of business executives, getting to see and experience what he had discovered.
I said his name was Ward Brehm. But I believe his real name is Nicodemus. Poor Nicodemus in our gospel lesson today. He is an upstanding leader of his community—prominent, respected, well-educated. His career has gone well. He goes to synagogue, he prays regularly, probably has well-behaved kids to boot. But for some reason he’s restless enough with his life to slip out under cover of night to find this rabbi named Jesus.
It’s by any standard a bizarre conversation. There’s a lot of talk but not much communication. Nicodemus leads off with a little cozy familiarity: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…” “We know…” You can almost hear the smug pretentiousness. After all, he’s a ruler of the synagogue. ‘You and I know the deal. Everything is under control.’ And what are they supposed to “know?” Probably that God is nice and safe and not very interesting or creative. People are supposed to keep the rules, be responsible. Live a good life. That’s about it.
But Jesus blurts out, “You’ve got to be born from above, born anew”—which confuses Nicodemus completely. What does that mean? So Nicodemus tries to get a grip: ‘But how can anyone be born after having grown old? Can somebody go back into the mother’s womb and start over?’ Our friend is a little literal-minded, you have to say.
And then Jesus just makes it worse when he says, ‘The wind blows where it chooses, you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going.’ What kind of god is he talking about? Jesus uses two of the most uncontainable, uncontrollable phenomena—birth and wind—to talk about God. In both, something has to happen to you. We don’t get ourselves born; a birthing process does it to us. We don’t generate the wind; it drives us. Nicodemus can’t find God, or the kingdom of God, on his own. He has to start over, be born again. He can’t plan it, achieve it, or put it on his resume. It has to come “from above,” Jesus says, from beyond him.
This conversation was Nicodemus’s brick. God got his attention in a confusing exchange he would never forget. We aren’t told what happened to Nicodemus after his night meeting. Apparently nothing immediately. It must have taken some time for it all to sink in. But something shifted somewhere, because he turns up two more times in John’s gospel. He’s in the Temple later when Jesus is accused by crowds demanding that he be arrested. One man stands up to defend him. His name is Nicodemus.
And at the very end, Jesus is dead, crucified, and there is Nicodemus. This time he isn’t there at night as a seeker, but as a disciple, helping to take Jesus’ body away.
Whether it’s a pebble, a rock, or a brick, God wants to get through to us, but that’s not so easy when we are all so competent, goal-oriented, and efficient. It isn’t easy for God to get some time on our calendar, to get our full attention, to get us to take a chance on a deeper, different life. I believe that deep down most people would love to have God change their lives, but they either don’t expect it, or are afraid that if that started to happen it would ask too much of them.
If you’ve been to any of our Sunday forums lately, you know there have been lot of bricks flying around. Several weeks ago, Tony Hall, who was a Congressman from Ohio for twenty-four years, told us about a trip to Africa that changed his life. From the moment he stepped on the ground in 1984, like Ward Brehm he saw a world he never imagined. He encountered a crowd of some 50,000 who had hiked as much as 100 miles in hopes of getting food and water to keep them and their families alive, only to find that no supplies had arrived at all. “I began to hear the moaning in the crowd,” he said, as adults and children were dying all around him. “I never got over that,” he said.
For this deeply committed Christian, the fight against hunger became the passion of his life, and for two decades he visited the most desperate places in the world and was an unstoppable advocate in the Congress for stopping the scourge of hunger.
Then just two weeks ago, Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church in California and in many ways the most prominent Protestant pastor in America, told us the story of his and his wife Kay’s conversion to the cause of global poverty. It began with something as simple as Kay’s reading a magazine article about AIDS in Africa. The photos of the victims were so graphic, she said, that she covered her eyes and peaked through just enough to read the words. There was a box in the middle of the page that read, “12 million children orphaned in Africa due to AIDS.”
“It was as if I fell on the Damascus road [like St. Paul at his conversion] because I had no clue. I didn’t know a single orphan.” For days she was haunted by the fact: 12 million orphans.
“Leave me alone,” she prayed to God. “Even if it is true, what can I do about it? I’m a white, suburban soccer mom. There is nothing I can do.”
After weeks, then months of anguish, she realized she faced a fateful choice. She could either pretend she did not know about the AIDS pandemic, or she could become personally involved. “I made a conscious choice to say ‘Yes.’ I had a pretty good suspicion that I was saying yes to a bucket load of pain. In that moment God shattered my heart.”
“That’s not my work, Honey,” Rick Warren replied, when Kay told him about all this. But within months, they had traveled to Africa together, they had dedicated 90% of the $100 million Rick had then made on his bestselling book, and mobilizing churches to fight AIDS and poverty in Africa had become their new calling.
When God throws a brick, anything can happen. The wind blows, the Spirit moves, people start getting born from above into whole new lives.
Here at the Cathedral we have been hosting a remarkable work of art, the Keiskamma Altarpiece, that shows what a community can do when an immense brick comes their way. It all began in the rural village of Hamburg in South Africa, where AIDS had taken a terrible toll.
Here are some facts. AIDS is the largest health crisis the world has ever faced. When the bubonic plague swept through Europe it killed some 25 million people, about a fourth of the population of Europe. Now 3 million people die of AIDS each year. That’s the equivalent of 20 fully loaded 747’s crashing every day of the year. It attacks people in the prime of their lives and leaves their children abandoned. In some countries in Africa a third of the population is infected.
In little Hamburg, within a few short years a whole generation of young adults was dying. Hamburg became a village primarily of grandmothers and orphaned children. How could such a devastated community find a way through the grief and despair?
By the grace of God, an extraordinary doctor moved into their community to serve the AIDS victims. Dr. Carol Hoffmeyr brought with her a love of art, and as she made her rounds to the homes of her patients she developed an idea: to invite the women of the village to join in creating a massive altarpiece, an immense work of art and faith to which everyone could contribute.
It was to be shaped in the exact proportions of one of the great works of Western art, Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, which had been painted in response to a terrible plague in 16th century Europe. Only this new work would be created in a women’s idiom, embroidery, and it would be filled with the real images of people in their village woven into the stories of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. One hundred thirty women joined together to weave the stories of their tragic losses into this magnificent tapestry. Over months of work the altarpiece became a testament to their suffering and loss, and also to their deep faith that God would carry them through. The creation of this work became the turning point of this community in facing their terrible tragedy.
AIDS was that community’s brick. In creating the altarpiece the women of Hamburg affirmed a crucified and living Lord had been holding them through that terrible time.
Well, as I said, bricks are flying these days. God is getting our attention in more ways than we can count. Nicodemus had been hit by a life-shattering conversation that didn’t make any sense at the time. But slowly a new way of seeing and thinking began to get through.
And Ward Brehm, Tony Hall, Kay and Rick Warren, and the people of Hamburg found God coming to them, calling them to new work, new ways of living, new relationships, new experiences.
Have you noticed God tossing any pebbles your way lately? Or stones getting your attention? Maybe there’s a brick coming at you right now. All these Nicodemuses we heard about today discovered that our God is a restless, relentless God who won’t turn us loose. God wants us to be born anew, to let the wind of the Spirit blow through us and fill our sails.
I don’t know how God will get through to you—
Through a trip to Africa, or Honduras, maybe—
In a health crisis that shatters old plans and makes every day count—
Through a conversation, a book, a friend, a sermon, a hymn, a course—
I do know, though, that really to know God’s love means letting go and making room and being ready to be born anew, only this time with God at the center.
And I know one other thing…God wants you. All of you. And wants us to loosen our grip, open our hands and eyes, and go where God needs us to go.
“I pray that each of you will find your Africa,” Brehm writes. Africa is the place where you need to go so that God can find you—whether your Africa is a faraway continent or in Anacostia, whether it is in Springfield or Silver Spring, in your longtime job or heading off in a new direction.
You must be born anew, from above.
Where is your Africa? Where is your Africa?