A couple of days back I stopped at the cemetery.
Fifteen years after he died we finally got around to getting a Veteran’s marker for my dad’s grave. Perhaps you know what I’m talking about — the kind you simply push into the ground that holds a flag.
I stopped by as I wanted to get it in before Memorial Day. Normally when I stop I’m alone in that vast windy place. This time though, a couple of afternoons before the holiday, there were others. An older man and a couple of older women were kneeling at a gravestone several yards away from my dad’s, cleaning it off and putting new flowers into the vase. And just two stones down from my dad’s was an old man. I glanced in his direction as I adjusted the flag in the stand. And then I looked again for I realized that he was down on all fours and he wasn’t getting up easily. So I stepped toward him and asked if I could give him a hand. He hesitated as he looked up at me but finally he rather sheepishly agreed that he could use some help. Only even between the two of us we couldn’t quite make it. After several attempts, I asked him to wait and I ventured over towards the threesome and asked if they wouldn’t help. They quickly dropped what they were doing and the gentleman walked ahead and using both arms managed to steady the old man and get him to his feet. One of us reached over and handed him his cane and the two older women began clucking over him assuring him that the same thing sometimes happens to them as well. As they went back to their own loved ones’ graves I paused to visit with the old man before we parted ways. He showed me the silk flowers he had placed on the graves of his aunt and uncle and on those of his parents. Then he walked a step away and showed me the grave of his wife, Ruth. As I looked down at the place where he would someday lie beside her and noted the date on the gravestone, I realized that he was 96 years old. And then he said it aloud, “I guess I must be getting old. I really do know better than to get down like that anymore…”
I’m not quite there, of course, for he has more than 40 years on me, but there are days when I find myself rolling over to my knees when I’m getting up from the mat in my exercise class for my joints are also simply not what they used to be. In fact, I can’t imagine that even knee replacement (which, no doubt is somewhere in my future) will make them as resilient as they were before I started regularly hitting the gym floor with them in high school volleyball. No, while we can delay aging with regular exercise and a healthy diet, the years do still catch up. And much of the time it appears there is no turning back.
And so it is we meet up with Nicodemus in our Gospel lesson for this Holy Trinity Sunday. Nicodemus who is sneaking around in the dark trying to get to Jesus without anyone else seeing him. Nicodemus who is so curious he can do no other. Nicodemus, who is apparently not so young himself, whose knees might just be creaking, too. Nicodemus who responds to Jesus saying “How can anyone be born again when he has grown old?” when Jesus says, “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” Indeed, is it any wonder that Nicodemus wonders?
To be sure, Nicodemus’ question was entirely logical. There is a normal progression to things. In fact, contrary to all appearances, I’m told we begin to age as soon as we first breathe on our own. We know from hard experience that knees and other body parts wear out and there comes a time when there is no turning back. We know that where I met a 96-year-old tending his family’s graves is where we all one day will be. Indeed, what Jesus speaks of here doesn’t begin to fit with much of what you and I know to our very bones. The hope he offers us runs contrary to most everything else in the world has taught us to be so.
And so it is that Jesus’ promise today is impossible for us to comprehend if part of us hasn’t already begun to come to terms with the truth that this is not our own doing, but God’s.
For being born again, whether it be that first physical birth we all experience but can’t remember, or the small and large re-births that happen along the way in minds and hearts and spirits, this ‘being born’ is not something we do, but is something that must be done to us and for us. It is always, ever, the gift of God.
We know something of this in the cool breeze that breaks the heat and humidity of a summer’s day. We know this is as gift that comes from beyond our own doing.
We know something of this in the easing of pain after a long suffered grief…. To be sure, we can do all we can to heal, but in the end we know it is a gift far beyond our own doing.
We know something of this in the wonder of physical wounds healed… for we can follow doctor’s orders, but we know the healing comes from far beyond our own doing.
And I expect I knew something of this last Wednesday afternoon in a cemetery when I was lifted out of my own private thoughts and saw the plight of another. And perhaps others experienced something of this as well as they were invited to tend to the simple needs of a stranger, reminding them that we are all bound up with one another in ways both simple and profound. Some sense of hopefulness was born again between us in that moment as a simple kindness was shared and it seemed all beyond our own doing, our being together for that purpose in that moment in time.
And this gift, this being born from above? It’s more than a hand up to stand on legs still weakened by time and age. It’s the gift of new life and renewed hope and fresh beginnings. Not only in the next life, but in this one right now today. Births and rebirths? We can only receive them, celebrate them and seek to lead lives worthy of them.
Even so, it’s no wonder that Nicodemus wondered for we all do at times. And yet, with hearts reborn to see and understand, we are among those most blessed if we can begin to move past wondering and simply give thanks.
What do you make of Nicodemus’s question? What questions might have popped into your mind should you have been engaged in that conversation with Jesus that night?
Who are the curious ones, like Nicodemus, who risk to come to hear about Jesus where you live and serve? What words are needed to help make sense of these gifts of God for those for whom this story might be new?
What does ‘being born from above’ mean to you? When and where and how have you experienced this gift of God?