Starting Over

Tabernacle United Church, Philadelphia, PA
February 28, 1999 (Lent)

John 3:1-17 is read by the liturgist.

[Communion table has a big celtic cross (which is always there), bowl of ashes (for lent), candle, and a row of misc books.]

A reading from the Hebrew scripture: Psalm 121: 1-2

I lift my eyes to the hills
From whence comes my help?
My help comes from God,
who made heaven and earth.

[Amy, who is visiting, gets up from her pew.  Walks to the communion table.  Shoves all the books onto the floor.  Pauses. Approaches the large cross.  Moves it to the center of the table. Returns to her seat]

A reading from the Persian scripture.  The prophet Rumi.

Today, like every other day,
we wake up empty and frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the Beauty we love be what we do.
There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Please pray with me.

God of compassion and grace, open our hearts this morning.  Open our minds.  Open our spirits to your wisdom.  And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight.  O God, Our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

     In some ways, Nicodemus is a very typical disciple.  He comes to Jesus, begins a conversation, and quickly gets confused. Jesus gets frustrated with him, gives him a lecture, and presumably sends him on his way.  Nic is a typical disciple, in that he just doesn’t seem to get it.  But Nic is also different.

     We usually talk about the fishermen.  Working class guys with dirty boats and dirty fingernails.  Whose livlihood is at the mercy of the elements.  A bad current or a storm on the sea. Might quickly find them in dire straits.  We talk about the prostitutes and tax collectors.  Outcasts, grudgingly tolerated at the margins of acceptable society — often at the mercy of an impulsive mob.  And we talk about the lepers and parapalegics. The sick and the blind.  People who find themselves vulnerable. At the mercy of their own bodies — or any able-bodied person who chooses to take advantage.  We usually talk about people who come to Jesus in search of restoration, dignity, hope.  And Jesus reaches out to welcome them, to heal and empower.

     But Nic is different.  He is a devout, well-intentioned man of privilege and means.  Right with God, respected in the community.  Nicodemus is at the mercy of no one.  In control of his own life.  With no concern about where his next meal will come from. He’s a professional class Jew.  Who works in the Temple.  A scholar and teacher.  A community and religious leader.

     And he never does drop everything to follow Jesus.  Not in the way the rest of the disciples appear to.  Joining the throng in search of miracles or armageddon.  Leaving jobs and family behind.  Nic remains a devout, well-intentioned man of privilege and means.  Who continues to go to Temple and sit on the high council, just as he did before Jesus came.

     In short, Nicodemus is a lot like us.  Good folks.  Right with God.  Respected in the community.  Professional class people.  Scholars and teachers.  Community and religious leaders. Devout, well-intentioned people of means and privilege.  Jesus has come and we go back to work.  To sit on committees and do our jobs.  Nicodemus is a lot like us.

     We meet him in the Gospel of John, right after Jesus clears the Temple in a rage, weilding a whip, overturning tables.  And there are oxen and sheep roaming free in the temple.  Money strewn on the ground, mingled with animal droppings in this sacred space. A deliberate premeditated act on Jesus part to shake things up.  For the scripture says, he made the whip of cords himself.   This takes time and forethought.  This was a planned disturbance.

     This is not the Jesus I would expect.  This Jesus comes into our comfortable worlds, jars our expectations. Puts the sacred places of our lives into chaos.  Jesus rocks our world.  Like Nicodemus, we go to church and pay our taxes.  We try to do the right thing and genuinely pray with deep concern for the ways the world around us seems to be falling apart.  And Jesus comes into these decent and well-intentioned Temples of our lives and overturns our tables with rage and diligence.

     The last couple of weeks, I’ve had a hard time sleeping.  I go to bed and sleep for maybe 4 hours. Then wake up… Restless. My mind churns over events of the day.  Estranged relationships. Jarring circumstances.  And the demands and responsibilities that the next day may bring.  I lie awake for hours because I am anxious and preoccupied.  Trying to make sense out of disturbing situations which feel beyond my control.

     Maybe you’ve had this experience too.  In the dark of the night.  The wee hours of the morning.  Anxiety and unresolved conflicts that keep you awake.  A dream — or perhaps a reality — that leaves you feeling completely out of control.  Or trembling with fear or grief.

     Well, this Nicodemus is perpetually referred to as the one who comes to Jesus at night.  And he is often assumed to be a coward because of it.  A self-serving bureaucrat who sought out Jesus in secret, when no one else would see.  We attribute a shrewd political mind, unwilling to commit fully to “the movement.”  We question his character.

     But I’m afraid that Nic and his motivations have been sadly misunderstood.  Indeed, I think Nic’s arrival by night shows a vulnerability and openness that we should consider carefully.  I think Nic was in the Temple when Jesus came with his handmade whip.  And Jesus rocked Nic’s world.

     And perhaps Nic laid awake that night.  Sleepless.  Anxious. Turning over the events of the day.  Preoccupied with this prophet (or renegade) who made chaos of Nic’s life.  Who spoke of the destruction of his beloved Temple — destruction of his very best intentions.  Perhaps Nic was up in the middle of the night because he was trying to make sense out of this disturbing confrontation.

     And even if the midnight arrival did represent some political expediency, it still took a lot of guts.  For a leader from that same Temple to come to this Jesus of the overturned tables to listen.  For Nic to put himself in relationship with someone who had already challenged the very foundations of his life in a very public way.

    In fact, I think he showed a great deal of courage and character.  The kind of character that shows up several chapters later we find Nic confronting his peers on the high council about their rabid pursuit of Jesus arrest.  Nic puts his own privilege on the line to speak truth to the powers.

     I think Nic’s character beams forth courage and integrity. For in the end, when Jesus had been crucified and all the disciples had fled in fear and despair.  In those terrible three days when “the movement” had been utterly destroyed.  Nic joins with Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus body.  An action which could have dramatic repurcussions on his livlihood and life among his peers.  This good Jew contributes over 100 pounds of myrrh and aloe, to honor the unclean body of an outcast.  100 pounds.

     In that moment when there is nothing to be gained, no crowd of disciples to join with, no wandering prophet to follow, Nic risks his reputation to stand with and honor a condemned criminal, convicted blasphemer and political renegade.  To hold close the body of a man who has been cast away from his own people.

     And so as I read this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, I bring this background as our context.  That Nicodemus is much more like us than we might want to admit.  He comes to Jesus looking for explanations.  He comes asking questions, looking for insight and understanding.

     And Jesus words to Nicodemus are a challenge to us as well. Words that may make us uncomfortable. Do not marvel that I say to you, “You must be born again.”  For, indeed, we must be born again.  With a radical rebirth — that shakes the foundations of the world as we know it.  A rebirth that makes the sacred places of our lives tremble in fear.

     We must dare to venture out of the safety and security of the womb where we have been nurtured.  We must be reborn.  To begin again.  Like a little child.  Vulnerable.  Open.  We must be born again.

      In the dark of the night where we struggle with ourselves, we are invited to relinquish the privilege and control we might otherwise cling to.  In order to open ourselves fully to the mysterious movements of an unpredictable Spirit.

     And each morning, we must start again.  Reborn to a new day and the mystery of what it may hold.  Reborn with nothing to lose.  And nothing to gain.  But new life to be lived.

     And as I read this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, I hear Jesus turning our world upside down.  Challenging us to let go — in order that we might accept this grace freely given

“The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of
it, but cannot tell where it comes from or where it goes.
So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.”

    The Spirit blows where it will and you will hear the sound of it. You can recognize its presence, but you will not be able to predict it’s coming and going.  And you certainly won’t be able to control it.  The Spirit will surprise you relentlessly and interminably.  Demanding transformation.

     Jesus says you may not find me in your Temple — in the decent and orderly places of your lives.  Instead, look to the places that trouble you.  You may find me in the dirty gutters of back alleyways, surviving on scraps of food from trash cans.  In prisons and mental institutions, challenging your definitions of propriety.  You may find me in after hours night clubs, reaching and longing for life.

     I will not ask your forgiveness, when I leave you feeling disturbed.  You will find me in the deep dark places of your soul.  I will rock your world.  Get used to it.  Jesus challenges us to accept this unpredictable Spirit as a gift freely given.

     Jesus confronts Nicodemus in his privilege, “We speak what we know and testify to what we have seen.  And you…

[And I would note that this “you” is plural.  Probably in reference to the church and political institutions which Nic represented in his professional class life]

    “We speak what we know and testify to what we have seen.  And you.
And you [collectively] have not received our witness.”

     Jesus confronts us.  Are we open to the spirit in her many forms? If we speak from the vulnerability of our experience rather than from the security of worldly authority, will we be received?  If we are given a mystical truth that may seem improbable, illogical, or outrageous, will we still accept it? Does our faith provoke us to risk reputation to make our way with misunderstood prophets consumed by the Spirit?  Will we dare to be powerful, speaking the truth with all our strength, even when it may be disturbing to peers or authorities?

     Jesus challenges us to receive him even when it is difficult.  Will we recognize the Spirit moving, when we are confronted by our own privilege and asked to give up some of our own power?  Will we receive the witness of those who challenge us about our own fears?  About the ways we cling to mind games, our books and doctrines, and all sorts of things that help us feel comfortable and numb.

     Nicodemus shows us great courage.  Because he took Jesus challenge to heart.  Without denying or running from his identity as man of privilege and means, he put it all on the line.  And we are confronted with a challenge that demands no less of us.  To be reborn at our very core.  To enter into the mystery of the journey with vulnerability and openess.  To seek out the Spirit in unexpected and disturbing places.  And to set aside concern for our power and privilege if it prevents us from receiving the full witness of that Spirit.


Wade in the Water
Wade in the Water, children,
Wade in the Water
God’s gonna trouble the water.

[speaking again]

     The Gospel is as disturbing as it is liberating.  And indeed God will trouble the waters of our world.  The waters of our lives.  But let us wade in nonetheless.  And receive the blessings and joy that this unpredictable, irrepressable Spirit brings.

     We may be misunderstood.  And we will be vulnerable.  But in this season of Lent, Nicodemus and Jesus both challenge us to evaluate our middle-class priorities.  To put into perspective all those things that give us control and privilege.  To be ready to relinquish them if the time comes to stand with integrity before the powers of this world.

     And we must let go of any remaining sense of deserving or earning God’s love.  This grace is freely given.  To fishermen and prostitutes.  To lepers and to us.  Let us give ourselves over to that passionate embrace fully and completely.

     And in the morning, when we are empty and frightened.  Cold and alone.  Let us not run to the study.  To books and papers, struggling to find answers.  Let us not cling to propriety and middle-class security.

     No. Take down a musical instrument.  Sing a joyful song. Dance in your own living room.  Let the beauty we love be what we do.  Let the Spirit of Life be that which we cling to.

     For in the dark of the night, dreams and prophets are born. In the desert places of our souls, fresh living water springs forth.  In the struggle to love ourselves, we will find peace in the world.  Indeed, Christ, the human one, who overturns tables, came not to condemn, but to show us life.  Abundant life.

     Blessed be.  Amen.

© 1999 Chris Paige.  All rights reserved.


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