For the past couple of weeks, Kathy and I have been ruminating on an essay that appeared in the New York Times Magazine two Sundays ago [Justin Horner, “The Tire Iron and the Tamale”, March 6, 2011, p. 54] In this piece, a graphic designer named Justin Horner tells the story of what happened when he had a blowout on the freeway in Oregon. He was driving a friend’s Jeep, and it turned out that the car did not have a jack. In Horner’s own words,
I was on the side of the road for close to three hours with my friend’s big Jeep. I put signs in the windows, big signs that said, “NEED A JACK,” and offered money. Nothing.
He was about to give up and start hitchhiking when a van carrying a family of four stopped and the driver got out of the car, offering to help. The driver was a Mexican immigrant migrant worker who spoke no English.
As the story unfolds, we learn that the man had a jack that was too small for the Jeep. He solved this problem by sawing a log from the roadside brush to make a brace for the jack. When the narrator tried to take the tire off, he broke the tire iron. The man’s wife then drove into a nearby town and bought a new one. Here’s how Justin Horner tells the rest of the story:
I tried to put a 20 in the man’s hand, but he wouldn’t take it, so instead I went up to the van and gave it to his wife as quietly as I could. I thanked them up one side and down the other. I asked the little girl where they lived, thinking maybe I’d send them a gift for being so awesome. She said they lived in Mexico. They were in Oregon so Mommy and Daddy could pick cherries for the next few weeks. Then they were going to pick peaches, then go back home.
After I said my goodbyes and started walking back to the Jeep, the girl called out and asked if I’d had lunch. When I told her no, she ran up and handed me a tamale.
. . . I thanked them again and walked back to my car and opened the foil on the tamale (I was starving by this point), and what did I find inside? My $20 bill! I whirled around and ran to the van and the guy rolled down his window. He saw the $20 in my hand and just started shaking his head no. All I could think to say was, “Por favor, por favor, por favor,” with my hands out. The guy just smiled and, with what looked like great concentration, said in English: “Today you, tomorrow me.”
This is a powerful and moving account. A man has been helped in a jam, not by the respectable people who pass him by but by a poor migrant worker family. And perhaps the most important part of it comes next. The narrator says, “I sat in my car eating the best tamale I’ve ever had, and I just started to cry. It had been a rough year; nothing seemed to break my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn’t handle it.” As he reflects on it, though, he realizes that this act of kindness demands some kind of ongoing response from him. He concludes by saying,
In the several months since then I’ve changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and once drove 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won’t accept money. But every time I’m able to help, I feel as if I’m putting something in the bank.
Justin Horner’s story of being helped on the road in a surprising and generous way is like the two Bible stories we heard this morning: it’s the story of a new beginning, a second chance. Because the help he received called him into a new way of being towards others, the narrator experiences more than an act of random kindness. He is personally transformed. His life was going one way, but then he was dramatically addressed by the universe, and this interaction changed him and his behavior forever.
This, with some slight variations, is what happens to two of our biblical figures this morning. In our Old Testament reading, God picks the Chaldean nomad Abram for no obvious reason at all and tells him this:
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you . . . and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”*
Why Abram? Why this move to a new land? Why this call for a nomadic tribesman to give up his two most precious connections—to his kindred and to his country? None of this is explained. Later, of course, Abram’s name will be changed to Abraham, and his wife Sarai’s name to Sarah. They will become the primordial ancestors of Israel. But for now: God addresses them and they respond in faithful obedience. The rest is history.
And in our Gospel for today, Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, comes to Jesus by night clearly intrigued by Jesus and the community he has gathered around him, though not able to say so publicly. Jesus tells him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus says 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?" In this exchange, Nicodemus sounds like the Homer Simpson of the New Testament: he doesn’t have a clue. Jesus patiently responds that he is talking not about a literal but about a spiritual rebirth. In Abram’s story, we had a divine demand followed by immediate, unquestioning obedience. In the Nicodemus account, we follow an interchange where it’s clear that this Pharisee just doesn’t get it.
But that is not the end of the Nicodemus story. We meet him twice more in John’s Gospel: in chapter 7, he is the one who prevents the Temple police from arresting Jesus during the feast of Tabernacles. In chapter 19 he assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’s body for burial. Over the course of the Gospel narrative, Nicodemus evolves from a curious (if thick) inquirer into a tacit ally and finally into a devoted follower. It’s a different trajectory of faith and action than the one followed by Abraham, but it has a depth and integrity of its own.
Abraam was seventy-five years old when Yahweh told him to pick up and go to a new place. Nicodemus was an adult man with a defined civic and religious role when he cautiously came to Jesus by night. I don’t know how old our Portland graphic designer was when the Jeep broke down, but he clearly already had a life before his encounter with the migrant family on the freeway. Though they all might not have put it this way, what we’re dealing with this morning is stories of three people who have been changed by encounters with God. In the first story, Abram encounters God directly. In the second, Nicodemus meets God in the person of Jesus. In the third, God is revealed in the compassionate outreach of another human being. What do these stories have to say to us?
The season we observe now—Lent—is organized around the idea of transformation. For centuries Christians observed it primarily as a penitential time, but in its origins it was about much more than that. In the earliest days of Christianity, Lent was a time when converts to the faith were prepared for Baptism at Easter. It was also a time when those who had fallen away during persecutions were allowed to repent and return to the church. Gradually, this penitential aspect of the season took over. But in its deepest meaning we observe Lent not for its own sake but for the sake of Easter. We engage in self-examination, ministry, study, and self-denial as ways of getting ourselves in personal, psychic, spiritual shape to be ready to take in the depth and grace and blessing of the resurrection.
And it is Easter—the feast of the resurrection of Jesus—that both Christianity and this season are organized around. In raising Jesus from death to life, God has transformed not only Jesus but us and our world. We Christians often talk about resurrection as if it’s primarily about eternal life, but it’s about more than that. Resurrection is also about transformation here and now. In raising Jesus, God will say yes to Jesus and the way he lived. In raising Jesus, God will proclaim that death, the thing we humans fear most, has no final power over us and those we love. In raising Jesus, God will announce that you and I are free now to live lives of fearless love and compassionate generosity.
Seen in this way, Easter will be for us not only the end of the Lenten process. Easter will be for us an offering of personal, social, cosmic transformation. It will be our Abram, Nicodemus, broken-down-Jeep-on-the-freeway moment. We often treat Lent as if it’s like hitting yourself over the head with a hammer: it feels so good when you stop. But Lent is not about punishing yourself so that Easter will feel like blessed relief. Lent is about preparing a place, a space, a zone in your life and heart and mind that you will be able to take in the radical offer that God will be making to you at Easter. You and I are like Abram before the call, Nicodemus before he went to see Jesus, the guy in the Jeep before it broke down. We are in the midst of something deep and gracious and good and on the verge of something better. What shape will God’s address to you and me take? How will we know when we have been met and chosen and called into new life?
There is no one size fits all answer to that question. Some of us will be met in the midst of Lenten self-denial, in taking in how it is possible to live abundantly without the things we thought we had to have. Others will be met as we take on a ministry of service, of outreach—feeding, tutoring, visiting someone who is sick or lonely or in jail or otherwise up against it. Still others will be met as we delve more deeply into our interior lives and see the signs of God’s activity in our deepest fears and highest aspirations. Whoever you are and wherever you are on the journey of faith: God is coming to find you. Whatever you’ve done, whatever you’ve failed to do: God is coming to find you. However your past has been, as unclear as your future appears: God is coming to find you. You are not lost. Where God is present, you are in the process of being found. This Lent, may our time together, our time alone, our time with others in the world prepare us to respond in joy and readiness when we we, like our biblical heroes, like the guy in the Jeep, have been found. Amen.
Here is the link to Justin Horner's essay: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/magazine/06lives-t.html?scp=1&sq=Justin%20Horner%20Tire%20Iron%20and%20the%20Tamale&st=cse