Scripture: Psalm 19 and John 3:1-21
Will you pray with me, as today’s Psalm teaches us: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen
We have all had them, I imagine. Those moments before sleep, alone with our thoughts. When our frontal lobe — that source and voice of our better reason, that organizes and orders our thoughts (and on a good day keeps them from running wild) — is tired from it’s efforts. When our thoughts and imagination start to run amok — sometimes down paths of joy or excitement; but just as often down paths of worry or grief; or replaying and trying to sort out conversations, events, or ideas that burrowed under the skin and won’t let us be. I’ve had more nights lately when my mind go down paths of thought that aren’t always helpful but are born perhaps of concern and not-knowing… I don’t want to overstate it, but it does seem we are living in challenging times — some of us personally; (perhaps) all of us collectively. So many places, systems, ways of doing and being, ideas that once felt solid, safe or intractable are shifting — some in good and needed ways, but some in ways that are more troubling. There is a lot of noise coming from so many directions, so many places of need, and when I look out into the world, I wish I had the lens of history to guide me — about where to put my energies, anxieties, focus. I think about our kids (a lot) and want to imbue them with courage, faith, resiliency, compassion, open eyes to the real problems in the world, but without making them anxious or cynical about the beauty and goodness of people and God’s creation. I don’t want to be over-reactive, but I also don’t want to miss the call of the moment in front of me. And there are moments big and small in front of all of us … A small example, but one from our life – is a moment from October, not long after the events of Charlottesville, when the (my son’s words not mine) most popular kid in the 4th grade class took aside my son and the only other child in his class with a Jewish last name, and told them that maybe they should dress up as Hitler for Halloween this year. One moment in a school day, with kids who may or may not know what they are saying, and yet…. and yet…
Yesterday was Holocaust remembrance day, and I listen to and value the voices of people like that of survivor Dr. Anna Ornstein, when she says, “Why do I think it is important to remember the Holocaust? It is because people didn’t think it could possibly happen. … It is the ultimate of lessons [of] hate.” (CLICK HERE FOR VIDEO)
I like to have a plan, a sense of control, clarity about what to do next. The truth is my vision of the world, what to do in these moments, and my sense of the future right now feels cloudy — dark if you will — and yet I know this moment requires something new of me/us — and that many of the ways of doing, being and thinking that felt solid, comfortable, and functional are no longer apt.
And here we meet Nicodemus: A Pharisee, a learned, religious man. There’s speculation about his motivations for visiting Jesus, but I think most evidence points to him being faithful, good and curious. He’s a man who had built a life believing and living according to today’s Psalm: “The law of the Lord is perfect; the decrees are sure; the precepts are right; the commandments are clear.” And yet he had come upon something he couldn’t explain — where things weren’t CLEAR or SURE. He was up late. As would have been fairly routine for the pharisees, he was probably up studying, reading. He had witnessed or heard about what Jesus has been up to — turning water to wine, turning over tables in the temple, and he was on the edge of a theory about how this all could fit neatly into the structures of his faith and understanding, but he’d hit the limits of his own learning and ideas and needed to go to the source. It wasn’t exactly the kind of conversation that would go over well with his fellow pharisees (particularly after that whole temple incident), and so, just to be safe, he thinks night might not be a bad time to seek Jesus out. Nicodemus finds Jesus and proposes his ideas about the presence of God, and Jesus responds, not by affirming his years of religious learning and practice, but with an answer that makes absolutely no sense –and that has nothing to do with good, sure and clear precepts and laws. Jesus responds with an answer about being born again that sounds downright… messy. Especially when being born again of water and Spirit means being tethered with a Holy umbilical cord, if you will, to a force that, as Jesus says, “blows like the wind where it chooses.” If Nicodemus came — metaphorically and literally in the dark — unsure about what God was doing in his life and in the world, Jesus does not shine the kind of Light on the matter that Nicodemus may have been hoping for. In fact, Jesus leads him into even deeper unknowing, upending all that had seemed sure, good and clear for him. Jesus brings him to a place, as the Rev. Mary Luti says, “at the end, when all Nicodemus can do is throw up his hands” In this moment, she says, “Nicodemus lives in everyone who has ever come up against the limits of reason.” In the death of a loved one, in addiction, in the derailment of how we thought our lives or relationships would turn out; “Nicodemus lives in all who have come to the end of our convictions and assumptions”, about our world, our ideas and pictures of God, our own knowledge, skills or self-confidence. Nicodemus lives in each of us who look out on an uncertain world and future wanting to be faithful, searching for the WAY forward, but seeing (only) darkness. (https://sicutlocutusest.com/2014/03/13/now-you-can-begin/)
It is in this moment of true and truly humbling unknowing that Jesus gives Nicodemus, and us, a new kind of HOPE and PATH — because Jesus did come to save and not to condemn. It isn’t always easy or clean, it isn’t without its risks and its own demands, but Jesus’ answer is a promise that no matter how old we are, how much we know or think we know or don’t know, however broken our heart, or the world around us, feels, we can begin again. We are offered the chance again and again to be changed, reborn, remade in the WAY of God’s Love shown to us in Jesus. We are invited again and again to tether ourselves and go for the ride of our lives (to save our lives!) to that Holy Spirit that blows where it will, but always blows in the right, good, true and needed direction. It is an offer not for the faint of heart; it is a rebirth into a life that requires trust and courage, but that offers a path of freedom, peace, light for us — for the world.
As we remember the Holocaust this week, a story has been making the rounds again about Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds -who, in 2015 became the only American soldier, and one of just five Americans, named Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (http://www.yadvashem.org/righteous/stories/edmonds.html), a special designation for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jewish people in the Holocaust. In WWII of course the Germans often segregated Jewish POWs from non-Jews, sending them almost always to their deaths. As the highest-ranking officer held in one POW camp, when a German officer ordered him at gunpoint to identify the Jewish soldiers under his command, Edmonds, in turn, ordered the 1,292 Americans captives to step forward with him and pronounce: “We are all Jews here. You’ll have to shoot us all.” It was a moment of courage and clarity that saved the lives of more than 200 men. In 2016 Jewish Foundation for the Righteous additionally honored Edmonds with its “Yehi Or” (Let There Be Light) Award. Edmond’s son who is a minister, said that it was his father’s deep faith that gave him such moral clarity in the moment — saying “(My father’s) story is a clarion call to love one another regardless of our choices, or faith. He stood against oppression. He stood for decency. He stood for humanity. This thing we call life — it’s about all of us, not one of us. This award is called ‘Let There Be Light.’ Dad would light up a room.”
We are far from facing the horrors and hardships faced by Edmond and we can all pray we will never see them again. But we do not forget what hatred can do; nor do we forget the examples of people like Edmond, who tethered and remade so fully in faith that he, filled with God’s light, became a light-bearer, and life-saver for others.
Nicodemus went to Jesus by night — his vision and understanding both obscured. He seems to leave his visit in equal darkness, and yet we know there is something in this visit that changes him — and prepares him to respond to the upheaval and violence to come in his time in ways he could surely never have imagined. The next time we see Nicodemus in the Gospel of John, he is speaking up among his Pharisee peers against the process by which Jesus is being tried. And the last time we see him is at the foot of the cross, in broad daylight, with Joseph of Arimathia, lifting Jesus’s crucified body down, and providing myrrh and aloe, enough for King, to anoint and prepare his body for burial. When the moment came and it mattered most, the Holy Spirit sent Nicodemus right out into the light to do the courageous, right and Loving thing.
We are about two and a half weeks away from the start of Lent — it starts on Ash Wednesday, which is on Valentines day this year (a beautiful confluence). Lent is a time when we are invited to go deeper — to leave the confines of our own reason and sense of control, and to venture out into the darkness with curious minds and open hearts to walk and wonder with Jesus. These weeks (of so-called ordinary time) before Lent invite us to consider how we might answer this call of Lent with intentionality. For me, this year, as I sit in this place of uncertainty about the future — personal and collective– as I feel the swirl and shifting of the news, systems and world around us, the pull of moral questions confronting us, I have sense that it is particularly important to tend to the well-being of our souls. To, with open-hearted wonder and courage, tether ourselves firmly to that Spirit that will guide and remake us, birthing us into what God needs us to be now — for our own sakes, and the sake of the world that God loves so much.
Who knows what the future will bring. But if we tend to our soul; walk into the darkness with all our questions and wonder, and allow the Holy Spirit to blow where and how it will in our lives, we will be ready.