For God So Loved the Wind

Gospel According to John 3:1-17

March 5, 2023, Lent II

The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Trinity Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, CT 

 For There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“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.”Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

This morning’s lectionery is a powerhouse!  It includes four of the most theologically fundamental readings in our canon.  All stacked up in one week!

*Genesis 12 – the fulcrum in God’s relationship with humanity. The moment when God’s approach changes from levying curses to offering blessings.  A brand new start with the blessing of humanity through ordinary Abraham.

*Psalm 121 – Short sweet and crystal clear that God is above all, our keeper. Not just our Maker. 

*Paul’s Letter to the Romans which lays out the fundamental kernel of Paul’s theology, which is grounded in chapter 12 of Genesis. We, and all of humanity, are heirs to God’s blessing through Abraham, not through Jewish law. Loosely translated, we do not need to be Jewish to belong to God.

*And the Gospel reading from John. Maybe the most recognizable piece of Christian scripture in our canon. For God so loved the world…… 

But this morning in the second week of Lent, we get the story that immediately precedes that familiar bumper-sticker of a verse. We get the context for our belief in eternal life.  The pre-requisite to our belief, says Jesus, is our willingness to ride the wind.

Anyone who wants to enter the Kin-dom of heaven must be born of the Spirit….also known as wind. And the Wind, also known as Spirit….is axiomatically wild. As in wilderness.

The wind/Spirit is on its own path. The wind/Spirit has a mind of its own. It observes no borders. It does not discriminate. We can measure the power of the wind/Spirit only by the displacement of that which it touches. And the kicker is that this agent of wholesale transformation is comprised of nothing more than ordinary air.

The same ordinary air that inspires our lungs every 2 to 3 seconds. The ordinary air that keeps is alive.

Which is why our ancient scriptures use the same word for breath, wind, and spirit. All three ideas are expressed with the same word. In Hebrew the word is ruach. In Greek it is pneuma. The translation is interchangeable.

The wind/Spirit/breath blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

So it is with everyone who is born of the wind.

So it is with everyone who is born of the breath.

All equally accurate translations.There is no distinct difference between the Breath of life that God breathed into humanity in Genesis.  And the Spirit that breathes new life into us as we open our hearts and minds to God as Jesus suggests this morning. That Breath/Wind/Spirit is what ushers us into the Kin-dom of God.

To which this morning’s title character, Nicodemus, responds: “How can this be?” It is the response of the religious elite in a nutshell. He does not understand the role of the wind/Spirit. For Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a “ leader of the Jews,” a “teacher of Israel.”  Nicodemus represents the best that the Jewish elite has to offer. And, not for nothing, the most polite. He calls Jesus Rabbi, and he admits that Jesus has indeed come from God.

But he cannot get his mind around the power of the Spirit. He is grounded in his commitment to the power of…Privilege. Education. Position. Piety.Earthly attributes. Not windborn graces.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dead of night. It’s a wonderful cinema-graphic metaphor for his total and complete ignorance.  For all of his learning and privilege and status, in the end,  Nicodemus is still in the dark at the conclusion of this passage. He just does not get it. 

He is too petrified in his perspective to allow the fresh air of what Jesus has to offer blow through his very starched and stagnant way of understanding the world. He can only think and see and understand in and through the lens of his learned logic. There is no room in Nicodemus for the wild and uncharted ways of the Holy Spirit. 

And I get it. I was a bit of a Nicodemus myself. Until one warm summer August morning a couple of decades ago. I was about half-way through the ordination process. And feeling a bit…uncertain about my calling. And uncertain about who was calling. Was it God calling? Or was it just a selfie?

I was about to begin my last year of seminary at the Episcopal Divinity School. And one of my theology professors had connected me with an Australian sculptor/priest/nun who was the artist in residence that year at EDS. Rev’d. Sr. Angela Solling.  She was a larger than life personality….a larger than life Spirit.  And she often felt like the wind incarnate!

And, she was a bit of a legend in her homeland as both a sculptor, having fashioned the pectral cross for the Archbishop of Canterbury Rumsey. And as a religious force of nature, having founded a convent in the outback and constructed its monastery out of nothing but mudbricks.

She was looking to resurrect a book deal that had fallen through with Random House Australia. Her biography was to be one of 12 published in a series about remarkable Aussies in the wake of 2000 Olympics hosted in Sydney. But Angela’s biographer had botched the draft, and her edition had been dropped from the line-up.

I had some experience as a ghost writer, and so I was introduced to Sr. Angela as a breath of fresh….biographer. We hit it off. She offered me the job.

And after some serious discernment, I was just about to pick up the phone and accept her offer when it rang in my hand. 

I remember that first gust of wind as though it were yesterday.

The voice on the other end of the line said: “Dahling, wouldn’t it be simply gorgeous if you and I took a trip to the Center [she was talking about Australia]. We could just sit there in the desert, with the Aborigines, and listened to the stillness. Wouldn’t it be gorgeous?!!!”  

I reiterate, I hardly knew Sr. Angela well enough to go around the block with her, let alone around the world.  But, I thought, why not. I’m an adventurous soul and a journey to the outback might be just what I need as a bridge from seminary to whatever comes next.

And then came the kicker – for she insisted, and I mean insisted, that we make the trip immediately. 

The breezy wind was beginning to gust!

Sr. Angela was adamant. But I was shell shocked.  I couldn’t go halfway around the world right now.  I had commitments…. school… family…… my discernment process…I had no time…no money….no one to take care of my dog. Did I mention she was 75 years old!? And it would just be the two of us! 

And although I was leaning….heavily, towards thanks, but no thanks, I learned in short order that the spirit rarely takes no for an answer. 

The Wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

I had mountain of very good reasons why immediately was not the best timing for this trip.

At the top of the list was that I was not likely going to get an official leave of absence from the fall semester at EDS in time for the trip. So I would be risking my academic standing if I just up and left without any formal approval or dispensation.

But even more problematic was the fact that neither Angela nor I could afford the trip…at least not a last minute trip. I was a student and she was a nun! And she was not just a nun, she was a Poor Clare nun.  She took not only a vow of poverty, but a vow not to have any means of support other than God. So even if her plan to provide for our lodging was failsafe, even if she could come up with a string of friends in Australia who might be willing to put us up on their couches (and I was not at all sure that she could), how would we pay for the airfare? For the exorbitant last-minute price of 2 airline tickets?

Maybe we should wait until next summer, I suggested. Spend the year planning the trip and raising the money and we can go next July….like reasonable people. But that, according to Angela, was out of the question. We had to go immediately. 

The gusts of wind were gaining momentum.

So, the next time we met, I said to her (confident that this would never happen), if you can figure out how we can afford the plane tickets, I’ll go. “Ahhhh, Great!” she said.  And she wrote a name and number on a piece of paper and handed it to me. The name was Liz Hall. I had never heard of her.

Angela said, “Call her and ask if she will pay for the tickets.” “You call her,” I said.  “No,” said Angela, “it will be easier for her to say no to you.  And I don’t want to put her in a box. All we need are the tickets. Just call and ask.”

So I waited a few days, talking myself in and out of calling this complete stranger to ask for what felt to me to be a small fortune. Eventually I dialed the number. I got her voice mail, thank God. “Hi,” I said….tentatively. “You don’t know me, but Sr. Angela Solling gave me your number and I am hoping that you know her. She wanted me to tell you that we are planning a trip to Australia next month to write a book about her life and ministry and she thought that you might be willing to help us fund the plane flight. I know this sounds ridiculous. But if you want to call me back, my number is blah,blah,blah.  If not, please no worries. And I’m sorry to have bothered you.”  

I know almost exactly what I said because I had scripted it. I wrote it down to make sure I did not ramble on about what a ridiculous thing I was asking for. 

Within the hour my phone rang. It was Liz Hall. “I’m so glad you called,” she said. “How is Angela? When are you going? What do you need?” Right off the bat I began to qualify what I was asking for. “Well,” I said, “for some reason Angela thinks we need to go immediately so it is a lot more expensive that it might be if we were not on this crazy cosmic clock. But we are thinking of the second week in September and two tickets are about”, I gulped, “$5,000,  which I know is so much but….”

She interrupted me “oh drat, I would love to come along but I can’t go in September. Never mind, give me your address and I’ll put a check in the mail. Have a great trip!” And sure enough, two days later, in my mailbox was a check for $5,000 from a woman I had never met, made out to me, a woman she had never met. 

The wind was reaching gale force. And all at once I realized, uh oh, Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw, you are not in Kansas anymore. You are on your way to Oz. To the outback. A thoroughly foreign land, half-way around the world with an elderly stranger who will be in your care.

But…..The wind blows where it chooses.

And so before I knew it, I was withdrawing from school for the semester, making travel arrangements , and packing for the wilderness. And I covered every base.

I reserved a 4-wheel drive vehicle to conquer the wild desert terrain. I rented an international cell phone to keep in constant contact with civilization at all times. I packed every conceivable necessity for a trip into the outback. I had a direct line to L.L.Beane – high tech hiking boots, Arctic caliber cargo pants, a battery powered mess kit, a solar powered flashlight, snake bandages, a first aid pouch out of which I could have performed an emergency appendectomy and triple bypass surgery. I was thoroughly, completely, comprehensively prepared and packed for the journey and the wilderness. I had made every arrangement. Tied down every detail. Anticipated every possible need. 

By the Monday morning before our Wednesday departure date I was ready to go…bring on the wilderness! That Monday was September 10th 2001. I was booked on the 9am American Airlines flight from Boston to L.A.,  Flight 11, on Wednesday September 12th 2001. Same flight. One day later than the tragic disaster of 9/11. The wilderness came to me.

Because despite my pleading with Sr. Angela that we cancel the trip, she insisted, and again I mean insisted, that we reschedule on the first available, allowable flight to LA.  And so as soon as Logan Airport opened up, which was Saturday, September 16th, I was on the first American Airlines flight to the West coast.

There were about 35 more-than-nervous people on a jumbo jet. With 6 US Marshalls, in khakis and polo shirts, armed to the teeth, sitting in the aisle seats of first class.

That whole trip to Australia was pure Wind. Pure Spirit. 

Five weeks later I returned home with a brand new sense of myself, and my purpose and my vocation. And my first order of business was a thank you note to Liz Hall….the wind that gave us wings. Liz Hall made it possible for us to go to Australia….immediately. 

And immediately made all the difference.

First, because had we not gone in the wake of 9/11, had I not come so close to being on the fated plane, the trip might have been a great adventure. But it could never have been the wholesale transformation that it turned out to be.

Without the fear and uncertainty and mysterious surrender that was absolutely required by the timing of our journey, I would never have let go of my…….Nicodemus. I would never have been liberated from my….self. I would never have been so thoroughly dependent on the kindness of strangers. I would never have been so utterly vulnerable to the wind and all of its whisperings. I would never have seen the depth of my own humility. I would never have let go.

And the second reason why immediately was so important is that Angela died of a massive stroke three months later, on January 22, 2002. 

I never hear this passage from John’s Gospel without remembering the mighty wind that blew me into my priesthood and the rest of my vocation. It was the single biggest contributing factor to my decision to continue to seek ordination. My trip to Australia with Sr. Angela, was a trip to infinity and beyond . A transformative breath of fresh and life-giving time and space. 

But it was such an unlikely happening, to say the least. It would have been so easy to just say no. Some of my most trusted friends and advisors tried to convince me that saying no was the only reasonable answer.  Because the thing about saying yes to the wind, is that we must be open to letting it move us. In ways that we cannot foresee or control. 

The only way to receive the wind is to let go and roll with it. But my experience tells me that if we are willing, God will be able. And as Jesus said in this morning’s passage: Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen.

And what I know; what I have seen for myself is that:

The Wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.


© March, 2023 The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

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