Faith at Night

sermon on John 3:1-21


You thought you were sending me on vacation to enjoy the warm rays of the Florida sun. But for a guy with my fair complexion, that’s dangerous. No, I was actually going to research night.

See, in this week’s reading, evaluating the night may get us far enough: “There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night…”

Sure, as the reading goes on, we could contemplate newness of life and baptism and the strange work of the Holy Spirit and offer some gracious balance to diatribes about the necessity of born again conversions. There’s the odd hair of the dog with a story from Numbers 21 about holding up fiery serpents or poisonous seraphim and how Jesus is like a Florida cottonmouth viper (which I did not get to research, much to Acacia’s relief).

And, of course, there’s the Gospel in miniature, that single verse that captures the core of our faith, of what we hold dear, those memorable words we in some way spend every Sunday and maybe the whole of our lives trying to comprehend and absorb, “for God so loved the world that God gave the only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Yes, there’s much for pondering and exploring in there. But still I don’t think we do poorly to get hung up already a verse and a half in. And on vacation in Florida last week, I didn’t get beyond pondering and exploring the night, that the night could be beautiful, scary, vast, mysterious, simple, disorienting, and re-orienting.

For the beauty, I waited each evening as the sun set for stars to reappear, to be revealed one by one in the expanding darkness. They’d been there the whole time, of course, but I couldn’t see them until it began to be night. For more, I crawled out of the tent a couple of times each night to gaze up at the billions of wilderness stars. As a tiny sliver of crescent moon reflected, dancing on wavy water, I gaped and gasped at brilliant Orion cartwheeling after Taurus the bull and was stunned as Jupiter and Mars glistened brightly amid bejeweled Scorpio. Even bits of cloud drifting past unveiled more, beauty.

Maybe such beauty is what brought Nicodemus to Jesus by night. Maybe he was eager to behold a sight he couldn’t from his usual perspective, where his sightlines were stuck amid the center of his society, his vision too obscured by the haze of daily life. Maybe looking clearly at Jesus in the dark made it all more resplendent, awe-inspiring, reawakening than his dullness of the usual daylight hours. Maybe everything appeared too plain to Nicodemus by day, so he ventured into the night for little glimmers of beauty, for Jesus as a perspective on God that he was unable to find in the broadness and brightness of day’s commotion.

And maybe you come to church searching for beauty, something other than what you see day, by day. Even though it’s morning, still you may come to enter the darkness, to step out of the blinding glare of your regular routines and patterns, again to notice the rich beauty you were unable to see because of your surroundings. Maybe as you venture here today, you’re expecting a peek at what’s been there the whole time, but was obstructed or hidden. Maybe you’re re-attuned to God who usually gets lost in the mix. And as you come to experience this sporadically apparent subtle beauty, maybe you’re again able to delight in life, to be fascinated, to offer thanks.

Or, slightly differently, maybe you feel you’re actually seeing less when you come to worship, that we in some way don’t look at the whole picture.

In the dark, while shapes you’d normally make out fade and blend into a solid black amalgam, night becomes an opportunity to focus, to simplify perspective. In the night, there are few distractions. I watched the flash of a red beacon buoy offshore. Occasionally a plane crossed overhead. There was one nightlight shining for a young person sleeping nearby. Occasionally a bit of noise, an owl, rooster, or cat, but mostly quiet and with a limited view.

You may come to worship precisely so the other stuff you ordinarily have to pay attention to and the concerns in front of you fade somewhat into the background, to dwell for a bit in silence. You might end up feeling like this is boring, like there’s not enough here, like we’re limited in scope and too quiet. Still, you may find that the daily distractions somehow disappear, and you can focus on a narrow perspective and attend to what you need to, with Nicodemus to ask the big questions. Somehow the quiet of a night sky prompts enormous questions.

And the dark presents smaller risks, as well. We can’t pretend the darkness is all clear beauty. I observed on vacation that, being out at night, when there isn’t much light, the darkness is darn dark. Remarkable, right? I was made to realize that if trying to find my way to the outhouse, I could be easily lost, confused, nervous, or even scared.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. Maybe he thought he knew how he should proceed, but found his steps stumbling and leading the wrong direction, not so well ending up where he wanted or anticipated. Maybe that was frightening to him, disorienting.

And maybe for us, too, thinking we had it all figured out and were aware of the right path, still coming to encounter Jesus in the dark with only the small blinking beacon of his light, an oftentimes dim flashlight for the path ahead for our next steps, to see where we ought to go. And trying to maintain that faint focus doesn’t easily resolve the lingering trepidation whether Jesus is leading us the right way, toward our destination. Nicodemus must have been left to wonder. Maybe your wondering, too, still has a question mark and your awe is unresolved.

Further, in the darkest places on my trip, I peered eagerly for a glimpse of the stretching Milky Way, arcing across the dome of the sky, not only a rare treat of gentle and subtle splendor for our overly-illuminated city eyes, but also a reminder of the stretch and scale of the cosmos beyond us, of so many stars so distant they don’t seem to beam like the singularity of our sun but blend into an amorphous cloud. That marks our place in a spiraling galactic arm, which still more limitlessly is amid billions of other galaxies, far beyond our view or even our comprehension.

Maybe you get blown away and actually find yourself in worship on less solid footing than before, reminded of God’s grandeur and the utterly small significance of your lifespan, the incomprehensible enormity of scale—of God as Creator of all this universe and yet also as Creator of you, concerned about you, in love with you. Amid that infinite scope, for you to be chosen, important, cared for…well, that can be nearly unbelievable, that God would choose you, give you new life, love you, save you.

Or, again, that God isn’t bound to the insiders, maybe sometimes that’s the surprise, that God chooses and loves and strives for those who’d logically be left out. Jesus displaced Nicodemus from the center, from his position of prominence, shrinking his self-perception. Nicodemus couldn’t quite grasp that, couldn’t really fathom it. That was part of his shock. Even if he came trying to resolve answers, he came thinking that he as a teacher of faith would have an advantage and leg-up on figuring it all out, but was quickly left realizing he didn’t understand these things of Jesus much at all.

Well, as I stood outside my tent staring up at the expanse of night sky, I was left with some of that sense, or maybe I should say that senselessness, that inability really to get it all.

Our reading says God so loved the world. The actual Greek word there is cosmos—God so loved the cosmos. And, just as John uses this term, we may not be much surprised that God loves the beautiful twinkling of stars across the heavens, relentlessly and powerfully fusing elements that will give birth to new creations, or that God loves comets that stay inevitably on course in orbit, or even that God loves the mysterious invisible forces of dark energy that we can neither see nor yet explain—all of that seems plenty godly and right.

But the still greater mystery is when John uses this phrase and term, God so loved the cosmos, it’s that God loves us, when we forget we are loved and resist being loved and all too apparently use our energy for bad and still would perhaps prefer to be self-sufficient and go our own ways instead of following God’s paths of our orbit or ignore that we’re inextricably hitched to everything else in God’s good creation.

In this case, like Nicodemus we may need that re-placement, the mystifying awe and grace for our place of being loved. So maybe you find worship reorienting for your place in the world, the cosmos. Maybe it affirms your value, while also expanding your understanding.

In Florida, I kept searching for the Southern Cross and trying to get my bearings. I noticed that the constellations weren’t all the same, not located in the same section of the sky, and there were unfamiliar stars we’re not used to seeing in our northern latitudes.

Maybe Nicodemus and we have our awareness broadened in encountering Jesus, remembering that we are not the center of the universe, that there are others outside our usual field of vision and beyond our typical restricted narrow perspective who nevertheless are held in Jesus’ embrace. That may feel jarring, perhaps dislocating for our self-importance, but honest and also beneficial for us in understanding or at least witnessing the scope of God’s goodness.

God loves you, and God loves the cosmos. That reorders your understandings and is worth focusing on. It may seem strange, yet so simple and beautiful. And for that, maybe, like Nicodemus, in worship you come to Jesus by night.


Hymn: Joyous Light of Heavenly Glory (ELW 561)


Unclear Signs

sermon on John 2:1-11


This story gets me into trouble.

The first instance was when I was maybe in middle school, and with this Bible passage made my mom even more upset than she had been at me before. See, I had called her “woman.” She wasn’t too pleased about me referring to her that way. I pointed out that Jesus called his mom “woman,” saying “woman, what concern is that to me and you?” so she was discounting Jesus as my role model. That odd biblical trivia from a time in life when I wasn’t paying much attention surely is an indicator I’ve always been a smart… something. (A smart aleck.)

Now I have more reason to know Bible stories, and I find this one getting me into trouble for a different reason. See, this story of turning water into wine is the second most typical request or pseudo-expectation of what being a pastor might mean. With the odd presumption that I’m closer to Jesus (which I’m not), this turns to the playful suggestion that I also could liven up the party by conjuring some wine. If Jesus could suddenly make 180 gallons of primo wine out of stale water, well…I can’t. (If you’re wondering, in this sort of category the most typical request of pastors is to do something about the weather. I can’t do that, either.)

But how this story most gets me into trouble is because I just don’t get it. If this is the first of Jesus’ signs, signs are supposed to indicate something, to point us in the right direction. But what exactly is this miraculous sign pointing to? It’s not clear.

For me, there’s at least a hint here that Jesus loved a party and the delights of life, that following Jesus isn’t about struggle and cross-bearing all the time, but is also about celebrating loving relationships and enjoying plenty of good drink and making merry. I figure his attitude is some of why we ourselves celebrate at weddings.

Or maybe more than permission for us to cut loose, it could signify that God is not a God of stinginess but of abundance. The finest abundance, not to keep cellared but breaking it out to share flagrantly. That metaphor seems like it could fit our Creator.

Or maybe it’s more direct than God providing our general festivities. At the end of the next chapter, in his last appearance, John the Baptist will refer to Jesus as the bridegroom. So is this miracle supposed to be a celebration of us being wedded to Jesus (as it has it some places in the Bible)? As I hold onto those possibilities, I’m not sure exactly what the sign means.

And if I consider those might be what this sign is indicating, for the kind of Christian who would frequently put a lot more stock in miracles than I do and who would be eager to accept each word of the Bible as factual accuracy, they may actually point away instead of following this direction. There are some of those literalist and fundamentalist sorts of believers who don’t approve of drinking and so would have to explain away this first sign or ignore something of what it might be indicating.

It’s not only piety that could shape an aversion to this or that our sense of propriety seemed to be (rather backwardly) of a higher standard than God’s interest. There are good reasons to object, obviously foremost including too many instances of alcohol abuse, where an abundance of wine would not be so positive a sign. We distort gifts of God’s goodness in our lives by overconsumption. This sign has that ambiguity, other problems complicating the clarity of its goodness.

But, to reorient, this isn’t probably best conceived as a sign to tell us what God thinks about drinking wine.  This is a sign pointing to God in Jesus.

So maybe we are meant to see God incarnate in Jesus since Jesus can do God’s work of making wine, which we could superstitiously take as the magic of turning grape juice into a fermented beverage. Or maybe more scientifically we appreciate the aspect of God bringing rainfall and growth of grapes. Or God’s work in the mystical edge of how people fall in love. And so on.

But even before trying to figure that out, I can’t help but notice that if this sign is supposed to be showcasing something about Jesus, it seems to do kind of a lousy job. It says this revealed his glory, or made it manifest. Good words for this Epiphany season—reveal and manifest. After his arrival at Christmas, this is a season about helping us understand who Jesus is.

Yet within the story, he’s not really revealed. All of it happens behind the scenes. The closest is a parenthetical comment that the servants knew where the winey water came from when the chief steward tasted it, who then went to congratulate or praise the bridegroom. Jesus gets no credit. So much for his glory. Nobody really seems to know this miracle could be attributed to him. It could’ve just as well been claimed by Wanda the Wondermaker, seated across from Jesus at the banquet table. Maybe Jesus needed to work on his magician’s showmanship and throw some big Voilas and TaDas with a swish of his cape or something.

The thing is, this notion of signs is a pretty big deal in John’s Gospel, but it never really resolves to be clear indicators, at least in the way we’d expect. Signs get mentioned 17 times through the story, but mainly seem to add to confusion rather than clarity in revealing the work of God in Jesus.

The multiplication of bread and fish to feed 5000 is one of the signs, but mostly it increased the people’s appetite for bread rather than making them hunger for Jesus. The healing of a man blind from birth is described as something never done before, but that sign created an argument over whether Jesus was a sinner. And the final and greatest sign of Jesus’ life was calling four-day dead Lazarus out of his tomb, but this resuscitation from death didn’t resolve that Jesus was the giver of life; rather it made the authorities determine to kill him. Against the whole purpose of the signs, and of the Gospel of John itself—that these were so you may believe in Jesus—the summary word at the end of his ministry was “Although he had performed many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him” (12:37).

The reverse troubling side to me is that while they had signs that didn’t make a difference, we want signs we don’t get. We may say that if we could see, we’d believe. We just ask for a sign from God, a clear indicator, something that can make us know and trust. So people would like it if I could change water to wine. Following that advancing pattern in the Gospel, being able to multiply bread and feed the hungry could provide great relief. We deeply long for cures to our illnesses and infirmities. Finally, in a question of proliferating signs already asked in the Gospel story itself (11:37): if Jesus could call Lazarus out of the tomb, how come Jesus isn’t still doing that now?

I suppose there’s an edge of being able to say that we know from the story that he did it, so we are able to believe in Jesus, that it’s not about changing all the water to wine or about resuscitating every last dead person. Or maybe we say that these are isolated indicators of God’s larger work, that God is striving to feed the hungry and will indeed raise us all from death into eternal life.

I guess my final difficulty with signs is that I distrust them. That’s not where I want to hang my theological cap, since signs seem so much to be the opposite of what we’re up to here. Scripture says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Hope and faith don’t have clear revelation. They remain bound with doubt and uncertainty, as unsettling as that is.

It may rightly make us wonder how we can be so assured and convinced when we have no proof, no clear sign. With that surprising sense, I want to share words from Martin Luther King. He said:

In recent months I have also become more and more convinced of the reality of a personal God….In the past years the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category which I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. Perhaps the suffering, frustration, and agonizing moments which I have had to undergo occasionally as a result of my involvement in a difficult struggle have drawn me closer to God….In the midst of outer dangers I have felt and inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give. In many instances I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose.*

There’s surprise in that for me, because Dr. King’s sign pointed the opposite direction we’d expect. He doesn’t say that he can believe and trust God because the efforts for justice in the Civil Rights movement were advancing so well, much less because he was inexplicably saved from the assassin’s knife. It wasn’t in abundance or what we call blessing that he was convinced of God and confident in hope, but rather in suffering, frustration, and agonizing moments.

I wouldn’t try to commend struggles to you so that you could have a sign of God. But I suppose that with Dr. King there are many of us who admit that that can be the case, who know that when the going gets tough, that’s exactly when faith is such a strong and apparent resource.

Maybe that’s also why the Gospel of John doesn’t find Jesus manifest in glory as one whom everybody understands and likes, where it’s a party whenever he’s around, and who does just what we want and gives us everything we ask, but instead says that the clearest sign of God is as Jesus is lifted up on the cross. That is glory. That is our sign.

So might it be that we usually look the wrong direction? We figure the sign points to an end result. But maybe these stories aren’t that the sign is more wine, more bread, more health, longer life. Maybe it’s that through Jesus we’re also supposed to see God showing up in the lack, when we’re in tears and confronting death, amid the exclusions and disabilities of our bodies and of culture, when we’re hungering for more, and even amid the shame and social distress and hospitality failure of a spoiled party when the wine has run out. At those moments of despair, large and small, maybe we’re realizing God’s presence comes to those low and hurting and deadly places.

And further in that way, rather than a faith that goes hunting to discover God in each little glimmer or that tries to attribute the coincidences of fermenting yeast and healing of cells and averting of death, rather than that guesswork and chasing after our own imagined signs or their lack, I trust the God who is with us in sorrow and torment, who isn’t waiting to show up in odd phenomena, but who has promised to be found fully and infinitely present in a remarkably small tidbit of bread and non-abundant sip of wine, in the water of the font joining you to death and the hope of resurrection, and this Word of God—that was from the beginning—speaking to you even with the voice of a wisenheimer who was rude to his mother. That’s our revelation, the sign of this hidden God, as unspectacular and unclear as it may be, and those very regular and inglorious places are just where we need God to be found.


* in A Testament of Hope, p40


a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Earl John SchoffThumbnail

December 16, 1943 + December 28, 2017

Matthew 2:1-11, Psalm 23


My two tasks in this sermon are, first, to remind us the good news of God with us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and that his life, death, and resurrection are connected to and blessing for John’s own birth, life, death, and what is still to come.

My second task is to keep it short. Because in a worship service John always had the timer running, pointing to his watch, and so it wouldn’t be right if I failed to honor that sense of him now at his service.

So before the clock ticks too much, I’ll jump straight in with my first task. It probably seems like an unusual Gospel reading to hear about the wise men and baby Jesus at this funeral service, so I’ll explain why it seemed fitting to me. See, today is January 6, the 13th day after Christmas. You may be more familiar with the 12 days of Christmas. That’s because the season stops on day 13 with a new festival called Epiphany. And Epiphany is marking the visit of the wise men and how Jesus is made known in a shining star and adored by these gift-bearing visitors.

I suppose I have to admit I’m kind of a church nerd and since this used to be one of the biggest celebrations of the year, outshining even Christmas, but since it passes with almost no attention these days, well, you might think I’m just inflicting this on you since you happened to show up today for a church service here at the funeral home.

But it’s not that I’ve got a captive audience. No. With this coincidence of the calendar, I was thinking that this story applied well for John, that those gifts that the magi brought, of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, fit with his life and his relationship with God.

So an easy place to start is with frankincense. It’s often understood that the wise men brought it as a religious symbol, representing the holiness of this baby Jesus and how he would be a priest on our behalf. The frankincense was marking the sacrifices of the temple and prayerful devotion. “Let my prayer rise as incense,” it says in a Psalm. Such religious devotion was apparent in John. Always identifying with his family’s Catholic background, I recall him sitting in the back row of the congregation during the Lutheran church service, quietly praying the rosary (which Lutherans don’t normally do!). Like a wise man bringing a gift of frankincense, John showed holy devotion to God.

That brings me to the second gift: gold. This one we don’t need to think of as a metaphor for something else; we can take it as plain old gold or wealth that the wise men brought as a gift in adoration of Jesus.

Since we’re keeping track of John’s timer for the service, I can tell you that as he pointed to his watch, telling me even before the service got started that I should be quick to wrap it up, sometimes John’s timekeeping came with an observation something like, “Those slots won’t play themselves.” If you’d say that in addition to his devotion to participating prayerfully at church that he was a dedicated participant in the casino, it also came back around and the two meshed together because he’d also report back that he was going to be adding to the offering plate as it went by because he’d had a good day of winning. John didn’t value wealth only for its own sake but understood its place amid his commitment to God, as a response to God’s blessing and goodness for him.

That brings us, finally, to myrrh. Of the gifts that the wise men brought, this one may be the strangest. If you don’t really know what myrrh was, you’re in a pretty good place to understand it, here at the funeral home. Myrrh was used as an embalming oil, an aromatic ointment to anoint the dead. Within the story, from his birth it is a marker that Jesus would go on to face death, and that he would suffer for our sake, but that not even that could separate us from the love of God.

For John, it marks in another way the finger pointing at the watch, that our days are numbered and eventually our time is up. We in some ways can cherish that with him because he survived through some pretty desperate medical moments in the decade I most knew him. But we are also confronted with it now because his life was over too quickly and suddenly.

And yet, with that reminder of myrrh, we remember that even in death, as much as that has temporarily severed our relationship with John and we consider it a terrible loss, it has not cut him off from God and, therefore, not finally separated us from being reunited with him. John is bound to the death of Jesus, and also to his resurrection. The anointing of myrrh, the embalming of death, is not the end. In baptism, where John was anointed as a baby with the chrism oils by the priest, in that was a gift from God to him. We repeated something of that long ago baptismal promise as we voiced together our Psalm: You anoint my head with oil, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

That’s about the shortest sermon I’ve managed to give, and with that, I’d better stop, because otherwise somebody will tap their watch. But remember, the best is yet to come.