May 30, 2021
If today’s gospel passage sounds vaguely familiar to you, like we read it just a couple of months ago during worship, that’s probably because we did. Actually, we read overlapping verses, so it wasn’t quite the same, but I chose to spend a good deal of time talking about Nicodemus during the sermon, who of course is the focus of today’s reading.
It’s funny how at my Tuesday morning lectionary group there was a collective rolling of the eyes when we noted that here we are again with a passage we just recently dissected. My colleagues quickly announced that they were preaching on other selections this week.
But, it’s different being on the preaching side verses the parishioner side. Who knows if you heard the message, or if you remember it, and maybe there was some stuff in it that’s worth hearing twice, especially if you are finding that your memory isn’t what it once was.
I’m not going to give you the same sermon, but I do want to lift up a thought that came to me last time. That is, Nicodemus, this tangential character who resurfaces in John’s gospel three times is a powerful representation of the slow progression that is the journey of human faith. In and through the unknown events of his life – unknown to us, that is – Jesus had been working in his mind and heart all along. With Nicodemus we get a sense of sacred activity gently and deeply moving, along with the reality that the interior lives of others are complex and often hidden, even to themselves, but never to God. Nicodemus moves from a questioner who comes to Jesus under the cover of night in chapter three, to a voice of reason in mild defense of Jesus a few chapters later, to a person of faith anointing Jesus’ body for his burial at the end of the gospel. It’s notable to me that the evidence of his faith at the end isn’t some act of heroism, a proclamation of defiance against those who killed Jesus, for example, but rather a simple act of grief and love. He anoints Christ’s body and prepares him for his burial, which in the face of death’s permanence and the heartbreak of Christ’s loss, is also a dramatic expression of hope in the unknown wisdom and providence of our God, but it’s also something any single one of us could very easily do.
A similar thought occurred to me on Thursday evening as I worshiped via Zoom with the Fairfield East Association. The Southport church led the service and focused our thoughts on matters of mental health. They shared the story of a recent Confirmand who bravely stood before their congregation and told them all how the church had literally been saving her life. She was hurting and alone. Bullied in school and then when school went remote she was bullied online. She was falling between the grip-less walls of depression. She didn’t know why she was the way she was, why she felt so paralyzed, why just getting out of bed was such a monumental struggle, why she felt so horribly sad. But, these were her truths, and the only truth powerful enough to give her hope while holding such weight was the truth she received from her church each week: God is love, God is with you, God knows you by name, sees who you are, will never let you go, will always love you, will always call you near, will always live and love within you.
What gave her the hope she needed wasn’t some innovative church program. It wasn’t special knowledge or unique expertise. What the Southport church offered is exactly what any church could offer, and ultimately it’s the only thing the church really has to offer, and that is the love of God – the sincere, heartfelt, commitment to the promise of God above all things.
“Very truly I tell you,” says Jesus to Nicodemus, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Other translations say, “born again,” which of course is a matter of some difficulty for many of us because the notion is often used as a kind of litmus test to see if we “get it,” if we’re “saved,” or somehow on the right side with God. I was just reading a fairly dramatic story about an angry young boy whose unhappy parents made him attend a gospel choir concert one night as part of their efforts to keep the family together. He went, but he was resolved just to get through it. As an adult he writes, “I sat there, arms folded, determined to grit my teeth and ride it out untouched. My parents could make me be there, but I didn’t have to like it. I built a wall around my heart that nothing could penetrate.
Yet as the music played, I met Jesus. I didn’t want to. I didn’t believe I needed to. I came with no other agenda than making it through the night. I came with no curiosity, and certainly no love. I had no expectations. It never occurred to me that someone might be there waiting for me.
I met Jesus, and he touched me. He unfolded my crossed arms and held me to himself. Jesus walked right through the barrier around my heart. I can still feel it, that moment when I realized what was happening. I started to cry. I couldn’t help myself, so Jesus came and helped me.”
The many says that’s when he was born again. The story made me think of my own Jesus moments, and I’ve had a few of them. Moments of intimacy and intervention. Moments of reorientation and realization rooted in an unexpected presence and grace. But, the story also made me think about the fact that these moments aren’t really the norm. I live with their memory, though even that changes a bit. The truth is that these moments and the testimonies of others give us a sense of the character of God. They give us insight into God’s heart, but they do not tell us how God will act at any given time or how it is that we’re “supposed” to experience God in this moment or the next.
The truth is that we’re born again, not into knowledge but into trust. We’re born again into being the kind of people who can trust the promise of God’s love. Most of the time that means not so much apprehending God’s action in a certain way but believing in it, believing that God is love, that God loves us, that God is with and within us, at work through us whether we know it or not.
In our first reading today Isaiah thinks he’s in big trouble. He’s had a divine vision, but at the same time he knows he’s a sinner. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the Lord of hosts.” So, a seraph flies down, touches his lips with some hot coals, and tells Isaiah that his sins are forgiven. In the past that’s sounded like a cleansing to me – in order for Isaiah to become the prophet that he became. But, this time around it sounds like an appeasing. Isaiah thinks he’s doomed; he thinks he needs to be better than he is – holier than he is -, and it’s getting in the way of his ability to step up and be the Isaiah God and everybody needs him to be. God’s sends the coal for Isaiah’s sake, not for God’s sake. “There,” says God, “Now can we get on with the important stuff?” “Who is it that will go for me?” And Isaiah says, “Here am I. Send me.”
God’s mission isn’t rocket science. You are already up for the task. You already have what you need because whether you know it or not God is at work with and within you. So, why not say it with Isaiah, “Here am I . Send me too.” Then, just be the YOU you really are with all the love you have to offer and see what it is that God does.
 The Christian Century, May 27, 2015, page 20.