The Only Thing You Just Cannot Earn!

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a young man named Andrew. At the time of our meeting Andrew was just beginning his freshman year in high school. Like everyone who has ever met Andrew, I was immediately struck by his outgoing nature, his warm smile, his accepting nature and the joy he exuded when meeting you. By Andrew’s sophomore year at West Genesee High School, he was nick named the Mayor of West Genesee, because unlike so many outgoing people who can often make you feel like the most important person in the moment and then it is “out of sight, out of mind,” Andrew honestly considered you a friend and eagerly engaged with anyone and everyone he encountered while walking the halls of West Genee. 
What made Andrew even more extraordinary, is that he was not born a typical child, he was in fact, atypical having been born with Down’s syndrome and all the challenges that come with it. He was also, however, blessed to be born to parents who, as they do with their son who is typical, focus on Andrew’s abilities while working with him through his struggles. I believe it is because his parents have the ability to accept Andrew’s weaknesses while helping him capitalize on his strength that Andrew is now the accepting human being all of West Genesee has come to know and love. 
When I think about Andrew and his ability to embrace and unconditionally accept everyone into his life, for me, he is an icon, or a window through which I understand how God has chosen to love us. In this morning’s Gospel we read perhaps the most famous and often quoted verse from John’s Gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” In that one sentence, St. John sums up the whole purpose of Jesus’ life and ministry as one of demonstrating God’s love for this world and each and everyone one of us. 
Knowing God loves us is one thing, actually believing and accepting that God CAN and does actually love us is a completely different matter. I don’t know why it is with human nature that makes being loved and accepted by God so difficult.  
At the beginning of this morning’s Gospel, the Pharisee, Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the darkness of night seeking a way to enter the Kingdom. How interesting it is that a Pharisee comes to Jesus asking how to obtain the Kingdom. A Pharisee, one who has studied and has basically memorized the Law, one who has devoted his life to keeping all the laws, who is part of the Temple aristocracy which has established the standards of righteousness, the right relationship with God, for all to follow. . . It is he who travels through the darkness and the chaos of night seeking the light of God and the key to the Kingdom. And it is he, who struggles with the answer, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  
The answer Nicodemus encounters has little to do with keeping the law, but more to do with trusting in God’s love for him. How frustrated and confused Nicodemus must have felt when he left Jesus that evening, as he struggled between trusting in God’s love and trying to earn it. Like the Rich Young man of the synoptic gospels, Nicodemus returns to the darkness struggling between how he knew how to love God and what he needed to do to be loved by God. 
Nicodemus’ struggle is our struggle too. We know in our heads that we are unconditionally loved by God, and we know that God’s grace is not predicated on works but on faith alone as St. Paul explains in his letter to the Roman’s. Like Nicodemus, we struggle because there are few opportunities in this life in which we experience true unconditional love, or places where we can experience a sense of grace freely given. The messages of this life are primarily predicated on a consumer model in which everything comes with a price and must be earned, purchased or obtained by merit. Oh how I wish today’s Old Testament reading was the story of Jacob at Peniel instead of the calling of Abraham. As I think about Nicodemus leaving his encounter with Jesus struggling with being born of water and the Spirit, I often picture him returning to the darkness in the same way Jacob stops to spend the night at Peniel before returning to his brother and taking his place as the patriarch of his family. It is in the darkness of night that Jacob wrestles with God. It is in the darkness of the night that Jacob wrestles with his past, his stealing of his brother’s birthright, his own darkness and imperfections until morning comes. In the new light Jacob discovers he is wrestling with both God and God’s dream for him. Come morning, when he is finally exhausted and tired of wrestling with God, Jacob is ready to move forward with God’s dream for him and as proof demands the blessing of the Divine. 
Whether it is the need to be born of water and the spirit, or to give all that we have away or simply to just stop wresting with grace, the answer to that which we seek is always the same, grace is predicated on trust and trust alone. Grace is predicated on us being able to accept that despite our brokenness, despite our imperfect reality, we are loved and and through worthy of God’s grace.
I was blessed to be able to follow Andrew through his high school years. His mother and I were both founding members of the West Genesee Specal Education PTA and I would often see Andrew when he came to St. Luke’s on Sunday afternoons when he came for music lessons. With every passing year, Andrew grew more and more confident. There was very little that Andrew didn’t accomplish. By his senior year he was advocating in Albany on behalf of children with special needs. As I walked into local shops and businesses, Andrew’s picture greeted me as the ambassador for the Special Olympics as part of their efforts to raise money.  
In the fall of Andrew’s Senior year, he received what many saw as promotion. He went from being the Mayor of West Genesee to being the Home Coming King. I am not sure why anyone in town was surprised when this was announced. After all, the title of Homecoming King is often given to the most popular and well known Senior male student. Andrew was truly popular, but not because of his athletic skill, or physical attributes as is usually the case. Andrew was popular because he understood that he was worthy of God’s grace despite the ways he was broken or imperfect, but simply because, he knew and trusted in the redeeming love of God and chose to share that love with all whom he encountered.

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