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)
 

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Born and Bred for Love

­­­­­sermon on John3:1-17; Romans4:1-5,13-17; Genesis12:1-4a
There’s so much in these readings that I thought of just opening it up by asking, “So what do you want to talk about?” Why did Nicodemus come and Jesus respond obtusely? There’s being born again and the Spirit blowing, the odd serpent in the wilderness reference and Abram with issues of blessing and historical geography, the protective Psalm and the immensely dense but immensely vital stuff from Romans, which in its regular version describes being reckoned as sin vs. reckoned to you as righteous justification. There is so much, so many ways we could go.

Instead let’s sing a kids’ song. Stand up so you can join in the actions: Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you, so let’s all praise the Lord: (with a right, and a left, right leg, left leg, and the tongue, turn around).* Okay, you can sit back down. In the full version, each action accumulates verse by verse, but the whole sermon time with this kids’ song.

When I was younger and first sang it at camps and retreats, I thought it was about Abraham Lincoln. I hadn’t heard of him having lots of children, so I figured maybe it meant freeing slaves, which also helped break down the too often rigidly racial categories implicit in genetic parent/child relationships. I also realized as a young person that the song was deficient in saying he had many sons but leaving out daughters, so I figured it could be fixed a bit with he “had many kids.”

Those expansions to the song are necessary, since the broad vision from our Bible readings today has Abraham as the ancestor of many, father of nations, whose descendants are more numerous than the stars overhead, in whom all families of the earth will be blessed. Meaning: a lot.

Our Genesis reading is the start of this saga. Even while clinging to this promise from God, Abraham will ponder how in the world he could become the ancestor of many when he and his wife Sarah have no offspring at all. He’ll sleep with Sarah’s servant as part of their conniving toward the promise. He’ll hand Sarah off to sleep with kings (a big risk for the certainty of his bloodline and exactly contradicting a chauvinistic purpose of the Bible’s laws against adultery). When Abraham is 100 years old and considers his flesh as good as dead, and Sarah is laughing incredulously, then they’ll have a son. And then a pair of warped grandsons, one a trickster and the other a buffoon. Then the dozen great-grandsons, each with various idiosyncratic scandals, leading on through the grumbling of 12 tribes of Israel, and the struggles of identity getting passed down through the generations.

Originally these identifications are about being born into the group—family, tribe, nation. And we should be honest: such delineations of our lineage are intentionally exclusive in drawing borders. We first think of connections to whom we’re related, our relatives, of shared DNA, like how for her birthday my grandma is getting a gift on Ancestry.com to trace her (and my) family roots back to Ireland, Scotland, Germany and who knows what else. We expect ethnic origins have ongoing impact and stereotypes, that I’d have trademark Scottish thriftiness and like beer and that I’m skeptical of you Scandinavians. We draw these persisting identities, even as we sketch new boundaries to say I’m an American and I’m a Wisconsinite and I’m a Lutheran and I’m a Minnesota Twins fan and I’m a guy with a beard and these are my people.

Now, you might notice a couple of those involve self-selecting in or out. They aren’t the same kind of familial or tribal or ethnic or national identities, but are groups with more permeable boundaries. The offspring of Abraham and Sarah and getting tied into their family must be more that kind of merry mob. It can’t be just genetics. There must be room for adoption into this heritage, otherwise it wouldn’t be nearly so broad and most of us wouldn’t have a chance. If it were classified as a Jewish lineage or, more precisely, a Canaanite/ Palestinian/ Mediterranean/ Middle Eastern background, most of us would be excluded. From the start, they had to find ways to incorporate others, accommodate refugees, to “naturalize” the aliens (to use parallel terms still fraught with conundrums). So they extended status through distinguishing physical marks and by sharing peculiar practices. The men were circumcised, the defining characteristic of being an Abrahamic insider. They observed the sabbath and didn’t eat pork, a couple more distinctive traits.

The church pressed further, arguing that circumcision couldn’t serve as the brand, nor could it be flagged by national boundaries or religious practice. This needed to be a bigger group, explicitly available to foreigners, outsiders, those unlike “us,” and also very specifically in the early church that women needed to be able to be more centrally definitive. So most every old way of basing it—on patriarchal connections or genetic similarity or any physical characteristic—was gone. That stuff couldn’t count anymore as the basis for God’s family.

Yet it’s fascinating that the Romans reading emphatically connects us to Abraham and Sarah as “ancestors according to the flesh.” It doesn’t say spirit over flesh, but boldly recollects carnal connections. We can’t move it to some imagined higher purpose or purer potential. Indeed, even as it proclaims one big happy family, it rules out any sense of claiming especially pious qualities. It knows our usual motives are for reward, for payment, for what we earn or get out of the deal. It recognizes imperfections and family squabbles in saying the ungodly are included, as well.

In that, it deals with the difficult family conundrum of the will and inheritance, of who gets what and why. Yet rather than qualifications claiming “I should get more because he liked me best, I was the most responsible in caring for him, I’m most like him,” this chooses to spread the inheritance to all. It’s discouraging this is such a hard reading to muddle through (as legal documents tend to be) since at its core it’s plain astonishing. This language of a last will and testament is of God’s bequest to Abraham, and how that also is handed down to you, you who had no reason to be adopted into the family of that promise, who weren’t connected to the tribe, who didn’t bear the ethnic identity, who may not have even bothered to follow the rules or live up to the standards. So much for the northern European Protestant work ethic.

As God’s will and new testament is read, Holden Evening Prayer phrases it, “O Faithful One, you promised to Sarah and Abraham kindness forevermore.” The Word of promise became flesh in them, and it carries down to you. And no amount of legal bickering could dislodge you from your guaranteed inheritance. With Romans’ play on words, it isn’t based on your belief or trust, but that you’ve been written into God’s Charitable Trust. Quite simply, you and this enormous family of yours have been blessed with God’s goodness and entrusted with the earth itself, without so much as a wagging finger not to squander it. (Though we might notice amid our adoption as God’s children a couple chapters later on confiding that creation groans with eager longing for us actually to act like the children we’re revealed to be becoming.)

That moves us from language of death to birth and new life. For that we turn to the conversation portrayed in the Gospel. Nicodemus’ confusion has continued to cascade through the generations and made people think that spiritual rebirth disassociates us from these bodies. Yet when Jesus talks about the Spirit and about heavenly things, he isn’t pointing elsewhere, separated from the reality we know. Think with Jesus’ prayer, “your will be done on earth as in heaven:” this is about God’s way, God’s intents and purposes and about spreading them here and now. Jesus is striving to connect Nicodemus and all of us into that life. He wants it so dearly he moves deeper and more intimately than the language of adoption or inheritance and calls it a new birth. He declares that you are born not just into Abraham and Sarah’s family of promise and trust but into God’s own family. Simultaneously countering centuries of too much masculinity, these are delightfully rich images of a mother God, who carries you in her womb, who labors to bring you to life, who nurses and nurtures you in love.

This mothering God so loved the world that she gave her firstborn Son, the Son who was born into human flesh and had a human mother as well as this compassionate heavenly Mother, a Son who became flesh and dwelt among us—who, to bring the heaven-ish purposes to life among us, was sustained by an umbilical cord, entered this world through a birth canal, and nursed on breast milk, at the same time (again, in intimate maternal language from John 1:18) that he was held close to the bosom of God and was a Mama’s boy to the end. That is what Jesus is bringing to birth in you, as well. You are born of God and, in that, share the eternal life. In your flesh is the genetics of God. You are born and bred with the love of God, the blessing that extends beyond the confines of family, tribe, and nation to all the world and all creation.

 

* sort of like this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DiBZmz8CDE

 

Romans.   Nick’s Redone Version

1What can we say was found by our human ancestor Abraham? 2If Abraham became good by what he did,   then he’d have reason for pride. But he doesn’t have that in God’s presence, 3since it says in the Bible, “Abraham trusted God, and that’s why he was counted as good.” 4You do things for what you earn; that’s  what counts. And it’s not thought of as charity but as what’s owed. 5But what counts in becoming good—even without doing anything!—is the trust of the one who can count even the ungodly as good.

13See, the promise of inheriting the world didn’t come to Abraham and his descendants through rules but through trusting goodness. 14If we became heirs through rules, trust would be emptied and the promise  nullified. 15Rules mean punishment, but if there are no rules then they can’t be broken. 16So our inheritance comes through trusting, accomplished by charity, and the promise is enacted for all the descendants, not only those who follow the rules but for all through the trust of Abraham, since he is the ancestor of all, 17just as the Bible says, “I’m making you the ancestor of many peoples” in the presence of the trustworthy God who enlivens the dead and calls things that aren’t to be.

 

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Waiting on Good Friday

(a sermon for Easter people)

John18:1-19:42

Before we get too overwhelmed by the depressing, deadly seriousness of this, can I pause and ask: Doesn’t that point of the story seem like an annoying commercial break? They put Jesus there…for now. You can probably picture it, in part because of bad made-for-TV adaptations of the Bible, when we’d find more drama and more value in sticking to the book version. But there’s also the feeling because this break toys with our emotions, like producers and advertisers on television do. It’s not an ending, but leaves you in suspense for what comes next.

That’s in spite of this point in the story of Jesus being presented with so much tragic finality. He’s expired, dead, buried. And yet we can hardly help but hear it as a cliffhanger. As the big stone slams shut, sealing closed that new tomb, we can envision the camera angle panning backward. We know there’s something more to come, even before the screen goes black and switches to ads for cell phones and shampoo and all those other things that try to claim our interest.

Yet unlike the televised word from the sponsors, within the Gospel reading, we don’t have the benefit of distractions to fill the pause. Yes, I said commercials can be beneficial, for passing the time, even for making us believe that other things are more important. Instead, in this reading we’re left with no pleasant disruptions or musical intermissions. Just a long hard pause. From this whole huge reading today, the last words we hear are “the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” The next verse would resume “Early on the first day of the week.” So the crucifixion, the death, the burial of Jesus take place before sunset on Friday. It’s not until early Sunday morning (“while it was still dark”) that the time out is finally over and we get back to the story, to wrap it all up with the dramatic conclusion. That’s a terrible, miserable wait, if we were on the edge of our seats, holding our breath for how it would be resolved.

Now, we have seen this movie before. We know what’s coming. We may really like the ending, even if it’s not a surprise. But we don’t get to skip to the end. We have to suffer through the long wait, albeit with all kinds of nice distractions of real-life channel surfing to divert our attention instead to spring weather and yard work and family gatherings and fish fries and spring break vacations and, of course, a basketball game.

I’m not arguing against those other points of life. We believe the God-given-ness in daily details are exactly the reason why Jesus lived and died among us and for us. So it’s not that we should be sitting here quietly in the sanctuary waiting for Easter finally to dawn. Neither should we pretend amnesia. We do indeed wait to celebrate the resurrection, but it’s not like we don’t know that that’s coming. As important as Good Friday is, and central as the cross is for our symbols and the shape of our faith, still if Sunday hadn’t come then we wouldn’t be gathered on this Friday. This dark day can only be called Good in the light of what’s coming. The filled tomb is worth our attention because it will be emptied. We don’t need to ignore those outcomes today, or to act as if we don’t know what comes after the commercial break.

Yet here in this moment, we are confronted with the pause, with a moment for reflection. We might even say it forces us to ponder this part of the story, to face it and accept it. We can’t just quickly skip on to the resolution of a happy ending. We are Easter people always stuck on Good Friday. We believe and trust that we’ll be part of what’s coming, but we don’t have it yet. We’re still waiting.

In the meantime, in these last verses are two characters, one as a guide for us, the other as a model of what not to do. The first is Joseph of Arimathea, who takes the body of Jesus down from the cross. In that, we might notice that he obeys the law. He goes to Pilate and asks for permission. It’s an interesting detail, and an ongoing struggle for us. Pilate, after all, was the one in charge who executed Jesus. We mark him in infamy each time we say in the Creed that Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate.” He himself said he had power to release Jesus, but didn’t do that. And yet Joseph of Arimathea obeys him.

So we Christians who say that Christ is King, that Jesus is Lord, that we have no God but God and not Caesar, not the rulers and powers of our age, we who expect that our citizenship is in heaven and seek to dwell in the kingdom of God, we’ve got this ongoing struggle of how to respond when governments and authorities and society don’t live up to our standards, when they may be corrupt and do the wrong thing.

If we’re picturing this like a modern movie, it’s easy to imagine that when the hero gets killed—when the villain takes out the good guy—it could create an insurrection, a rebellion, an uprising, that all his followers would seize that moment of martyrdom, trying to avenge their fallen leader—what we might call “pulling a Peter.” Yet with the death of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, doesn’t pick a fight with the bad guys. Surrounded by wrong, he tries to do right. That may guide how we react and interact, in advocacy, or in trying to make bad situations better.

The other character and example for us may be more about our relationship with God in Jesus. Nicodemus first showed up on a Sunday in mid-March. As we were reminded today, he had come to Jesus by night. He was a leader of the Pharisees, a consummate religious insider, but he was in the dark, still questioning, wondering what Jesus was up to, trying to figure out how Jesus was making God’s presence known.

He’s still unenlightened with Jesus’ death. He’s trying to do the right thing and show extraordinary devotion, but he’s got it confused. He’s treating Jesus like a king, but like a dead king. This funeral ceremony that Nicodemus has planned is more lavish than the re-burial of King Richard III, who had to linger half a millennium for the honor. Nicodemus shows up with all kinds of embalming spices and a hundred pounds of ointments. He’s going to bury Jesus, and—by God—it’s going to be in style. It’s ridiculously elaborate.

But it’s also ridiculous because it shows Nicodemus absolutely doesn’t get it. The fool is squandering devotion on the past, while entirely failing to recognize what is yet to come. For him, this is the sad fanfare of the closing credits and not a commercial break before the real excitement resumes.

If we think that’s all she wrote for God’s story of blessing in Jesus, then we’ve got another think coming. We’ve underestimated God’s insistence on righting our wrongs, on persisting through our failures, on loving us beyond hatred, on renovating our brokenness, on showering grace on the tragedies of our sinfulness. We fail even to see that our sinfulness isn’t so much in being evil like Pontius Pilate instead of obedient like Joseph of Arimathea. The rotten core of our sin is that we don’t expect more from God. We misbelieve. We try to spray some air freshener in a tomb and perfume on the dead guy and say, “Oh, doesn’t he look so natural and peaceful.”

Jesus won’t put up with that, though, won’t lay in a casket, dressed up by an undertaker. And he sure won’t just rest in peace. So we’d better reset our expectations and keep our eyes peeled for more to come from him and for us.

There’s a phrase that fits well for this moment, for this long tragic pause, with uncertainty of what comes next and how to deal with it. I learned it at Dan Banda’s funeral last autumn. His mantra was, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried. But somehow it wasn’t goodbye, not the end. It was tragic and wrong, but the story wasn’t over. There’s more to come.

That seems easy enough to gloss past heading toward Easter morning with this old story. But even more, we should be expecting more of God right now. Because this is Jesus’ story, it is also ours. This message is hardest for us, in moments like for Dan Banda’s son. Josh was in college in upper Michigan when he was told his dad had died suddenly. It’s hard enough to see his own story continuing well after that terrible break. It’s a time when we’d content ourselves with looking back, with getting on with distractions of life. It is a miserable interruption.

Yet that pause is even more unsettling and breathtaking since the move with Jesus from Good Friday toward Easter means that sickness, separation, death, despair, resentment, injustice, the shattering of hopes—these may be terrible fractures and fearsome pauses, but still they are only commas. God in Jesus has more to come.

Waiting with that vision is how this time may be called Good.

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