Family and friends, beloved of God: grace to you, and the peace that passes all understanding, from God our Creator and Jesus the risen Christ.
How can these things be?
An old question stings with new power as we gather here in the wake of the sudden, senseless, tragic, unspeakably sad death of John Steil Jr.
Like Nicodemus, we approach Jesus in pitch darkness, grasping for answers, desperate for a way to make things right, to undo what is conclusively done.
Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?
Can John and we have a second chance?
Nothing short of the impossible can overpower the pain.
John is gone, and the night is deep, and the morning will come without him, and nothing we can say or do can change that, which is infuriating and heartbreaking and horrible.
Now, in the dark face of death, Jesus speaks cryptically of birth ... and breath.
The Bible translators chose other words for it: spirit and also wind, which blows when and where it chooses, as impossible for us to control as our own birth.
Surely John understood this only too well.
Skateboarding and surfing where the Santa Anas blow teach you the power of wind, and the limits of our power.
So does golf: the wind will play havoc with your seven iron, rescuing your partner's terrible shots and ruining your perfect ones, and when it switches on you mid-swing, you have a better chance of being born in two than reaching the green in one.
To the eternal frustration of many people and every golfer, there are things we can't control.
There are forces mysterious to us that have more power than we do, all around us and also deep within us, that push us off target, sometimes with extreme and deadly results.
The Bible uses a term from archery to describe this: amartia, missing the mark.
The translators render it as sin, a loaded word we usually reduce to personal misses and mistakes, which keeps in tact the bigger illusion of our control.
But like spirit—breath—air, sin isn't just inside us, it's also all around us.
Sin not only poisons our imperfect backswing; sometimes it also pushes our perfectly struck shots into sand traps.
Sometimes we are at fault, and sometimes we are at the mercy of merciless fates.
The wind blows where it chooses, and other breathing beings make choices, and we cannot fully understand or time or tame them.
We cannot control others, and Saint Paul would add, we can't even control ourselves.
He sounds in Romans seven like so many of us on the back nine:
I do not understand my own actions.
For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...
I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.
Wretched man that I am!
Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Because he cannot help or rescue himself, because none of us can.
That is the sad, dark, desperate starting place for the good news coming in Romans 8 and later in Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus in John 3.
The wind we cannot see will save us.
The birth we cannot achieve will give us new life beyond death.
For in hope we were saved.
Now hope that is seen is not hope ... and the Wind helps us in our weakness.
The Spirit pushes our prayers back on target, carrying our cause to God, even from beyond the end of the road, even from over the edge.
And God, Jesus eventually tells Nicodemus, so loves the world (including John and all of us) that God sent his only Son not to condemn the world, but to save it—the same world that murdered that Son so young with such senseless cruelty.
But God's love would not be denied: refusing to condemn us or give up on us, God raised Christ from the grave instead, opening a new way home for us all, turning the tomb into the second womb, death into the second birth canal.
That is the love Paul is convinced has ultimate power: neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor depths, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
No darkness is too deep, no reality too raw, no situation too tragic or hopeless, no circumstance too desperate to deny the Easter love of God which is our invisible and invincible hope.
You have a better chance of being born two times a week and one-putting every hole and micromanaging the wind than you do of cutting yourself or anyone else off from the love of God no matter who you are or what you do.
How can these things be?
Right now, and right here, it is far too dark to see that.
So we hope for what we do not see.
And we thank God that now, at last, eternal morning has broken for John, and he finally gets it because it's got him, and that fierce, forever love will never let him go.
A reading from Romans:
For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The word of the Lord.
Before he died, John left us with this written prayer:
O Lord and Giver of Life, may we all recognize the great value of the life You have given each one of us. But look in a special way on those who no longer find any meaning in the life they are leading. You can see every movement of the human heart and You know what depths of despair, discouragement, frustration, loneliness or self-hate have led them to the edge they are standing on. Have mercy on them, and open their eyes to see that the road has not ended. Fill their hearts with new hope. Place people in their lives who love them, with Your own love, and who give them a reason to live again. Make them know they are worthwhile and needed. And Lord, if You wish to use me as your instrument in touching someone, feel free to do so. Amen.