The Guest Star

Sermon for Sunday, March 12, 2017 || Lent 2A || John 3:1-17; 7:45-52; 19:38-42

The Pharisee Nicodemus is not a member of the main cast of the Gospel according to John. In the parlance of television, he would be known as a recurring character. If each chapter of John’s Gospel were an episode of a TV series, it would fill one standard network season, and Nicodemus would guest star in episodes 3, 7, and 19. We meet him at the beginning, middle, and end of Jesus’ ministry, and each time we drop in on him, Nicodemus is somewhere new in his own journey towards an active faith in Christ.

The Gospel writer makes clear that the intention of the Gospel is to help the reader believe by telling the story of Jesus in a certain way. The writer uses Nicodemus’s three-part journey as a stand-in for our own, as we, too, journey towards more active faith in Christ. The world of Nicodemus and our own world share some striking similarities. Nicodemus lived in a world that had yet to be steeped in Christian tradition; people around him were either confused by the message of Jesus, hostile to it, or ignorant of it. Today’s world is similar; the Christian worldview no longer permeates Western culture, while confusion, hostility, and ignorance to the message of Jesus are in long supply. Today, we’re going to go on the journey of our guest star Nicodemus to see what his participation in the story of Jesus has to tell us about our own. Continue reading “The Guest Star”

Kosmos

Or the Epic Story Hidden in John 3:16

Sermon for Sunday, March 15, 2015 || Lent 4B || John 3:14-21

kosmosWe Christians often make the mistake of making God much smaller than God is. There are generally two major categories that this mistake falls under. First, the limits of our language make describing God in any accurate way impossible. No word or combination of words that has ever been invented can do justice to the sublime combination of power, grace, and harmony that is our God. Whenever we say something true about God, we always have to add, “Yes, and…,” lest we think we summed up God’s character with what we said.

Second, we tend to remake God in our own image and likeness instead of the other way around. It’s true that the Genesis creation story says God created humankind in God’s image and likeness, but turning the mirror the other way around doesn’t work. God is not an old white-haired man floating on a cloud in the sky, despite Michaelangelo’s depiction on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. God is not like our own fathers or mothers, no matter how good and loving they were…or weren’t. Whatever good qualities we see in those we associate with holy living, those qualities are but a pale shadow to their perfected forms in God’s nature.

So because of the limits of our language and our self-centered inclination to see a drab facsimile of God when we look in the mirror, we Christians often make the mistake of making God much smaller than God is. And nowhere is this mistake made more often than when folks interpret the most famous verse in the Bible. I read it just a few minutes ago. Do you remember what it is? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Growing up in the Deep South, I saw the citation for this verse all over the place. “John 3:16” was emblazoned on bumper stickers, T-shirts, billboards, and signs at football games. Always without the actual words of the verse, the citation alone was something of a brand or logo for certain expressions of Christianity around which I grew up. Throughout the years, many well-meaning friends asked me if I were saved and when I had asked Jesus to become my personal savior. At the time, I got quite irked whenever anyone asked me this because it made me feel like my Episcopal expression of Christianity was worth less than theirs. But looking back from a vantage point of 15 to 20 years in the future, I bless their efforts – they were concerned enough, after all, about the state of my soul to invite me to meet Jesus in the same way they had been taught to meet him.

One night at the Fifth Quarter, which was held at Valley View Baptist Church after high school football games as an alternative activity to the hedonism that resulted when the Patriots of Hillcrest High School won, the church’s youth minister invited all the attendees to sit down. He then talked to us about Jesus, quoting from several verses of John 3, including the famous 16th verse, and in the end, prompted each of us to pray, and to ask Jesus to enter our hearts. So I did. I asked Jesus to be my personal savior. I now had a satisfactory answer for those acquaintances seeking to save my soul.

But while it was satisfactory for them, it wasn’t satisfactory for me. It felt too small, somehow. It felt like I had asked Jesus to be mine, sort of like a divine version of a valet on Downton Abbey. My personal savior. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this ritual formulation of asking Jesus to enter my heart was one way to discover he had been in my heart all the time and was in fact the one prompting me to ask in the first place. Thus, he wasn’t my personal savior. He wasn’t mine at all. I was his. The gift was that he wanted me to be his.

But to understand this gift God has given us, I had to thinker bigger than my own personal salvation. I had to read John 3:16 with a greater scope. But it wasn’t until my first semester Greek class in seminary that I had the tools to do so. (We haven’t had an ancient Greek lesson in a long time. I’m so excited!) The key to the verse is in the first couple of words: “For God so loved the world…” When we read those words in English, it sounds like God loves this planet we find ourselves on, this “fragile earth, our island home,” as Eucharist Prayer C says. Sure this love encompasses more than just me and my personal salvation, but we’re still not thinking big enough.

The Greek word that’s translated in this verse as “world” is kosmos. Do you know what English word we get from this? Yes. “Cosmos.” Not just this rock 92 million miles from the sun, but the whole universe! Space, the final frontier! All that God has created or will ever create is wrapped up in this word, kosmos. The Gospel of John thinks big; that’s why it has the temerity to start, “In the beginning…” and continue with the founding of Creation.

To even begin to understand the depths or heights of God’s love, we first must understand what God loves. It’s everything that has ever existed or will ever exist. It’s every atom in every cell in every organ in every being on every planet in every solar system in every galaxy in this universe that is still rapidly expanding, for all time past, present, and future. Nothing at all would exist if the love of God were not animating existence.

For God’s love of the kosmos, God gave the supreme gift – God’s own self in the form of God’s own Son. Thus, the gift God gave included an experience of the perfect relationship, which we name the Trinity: the Parent, the Child, and the Love between them. By giving Creation this experience of perfect relationship, God repaired the broken relationship between God and Creation. This is the epic story being told in those first few words of John 3:16.

The second half the verse and the verses that come after invite our response. Will we walk in the light of this great love or in the darkness, where we can hide in self-imposed exile? Will we choose to do all that we do “in God?” Will we choose to acknowledge that we belong to Christ, that we wish to shine in the light of the perfect relationship of the Trinity? I pray the answer to each of these questions, for each of us, will, with God’s help, always be “Yes.”

I began this sermon saying that we often make the mistake of making God much smaller than God is. Even though I’ve tried to use as expansive language as I could since then, these words still fall pitifully short of their target. But the good news is this: no matter how small we make God, no matter how much we reduce God to our level, God is always and forever seeking to expand us, to excavate more space within us for God to fill. The kosmos exists because the love of God animates its existence. That existence includes you and me, who are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, the love of God causes us to exist. And the gift of God – God’s only Son – causes us to love.

*Image: Detail from Nasa Daily Image, March 8, 2015 (Susan Stolovy (SSC/Caltech) et al., JPL-Caltech, NASA)

Shattered Certainty

Sermon for Sunday, March 16, 2014 || Lent 2A || John 3:1-17

NicodemusFull disclosure: the chapter of the Gospel I just read to you easily makes my Top 5 list of favorite passages of scripture. Nicodemus is my favorite recurring character in the entire Bible. Even the name of my website – wherethewind.com – has its roots in this chapter. I love John 3; I’ve read these words many hundreds of times over the years. I barely needed to look at the Gospel book while reading just now, because these words have carved out a space within me. I know them by heart. I knew what they said before I even sat down to work on this sermon. I was certain of their content; just as certain of their content as Nicodemus is of his knowledge at the outset of his conversation with Jesus.

But such certainty comes with a price. Such certainty is dangerous. The moment I declare I am certain about what this wonderful story says is the same moment I stop looking for new wisdom within it. The moment Nicodemus says, “We know,” at the beginning of the conversation is the same moment he signals to Jesus he has no desire to listen to Jesus’ teaching. For his part, Jesus hears this “We know” and starts rolling up his sleeves. He has his work cut out for him. As their conversation progresses, Jesus shatters Nicodemus’ certainty and replaces it with a tentative, yet ardent, curiosity – an uncertainty that will lead to new ideas, new growth, and new life, an uncertainty that will lead Nicodemus from darkness to light and deliver him to the foot of the cross.

Like Nicodemus, we all crave certainty. It’s biological. Our ancestors moved from hunting and gathering to farming and homesteading because the latter was so much more predictable. We follow the same instinct when we allow the salesperson to tack on the three-year warranty when we buy new electronics. And who hasn’t gotten annoyed at the meteorologist who was certain it wasn’t going to rain the day of the big game?

We crave certainty. But each of us learns sooner or later that nothing in life is certain. The crops of our ancestors surely suffered droughts. The computer sometimes breaks the day after the warranty expires. And there’s a reason there’s an expression: “As variable as the weather.”

We crave certainty, and yet we live with uncertainty each day of our lives. What then should our prayer be? Should we pray for more certainty? Or should we pray for peace amidst uncertainty? Judging by Jesus’ side of today’s Gospel story, he invites us to walk hand-in-hand with him into the ambiguity of the uncertain, only to discover there truer, brighter, and more abundant life.

But let’s get back to our friend Nicodemus. As a Pharisee and leader of the Jewish council, Nicodemus would have been something of a judge or arbiter for his people. Rather than asking questions, Nicodemus would have been used to answering them. Rather than embracing uncertainty, Nicodemus would have seen it as his duty to project an air of certainty about everything, for the noble cause of keeping public morale high in the midst of foreign occupation, if for nothing else.

And yet, there’s something about Jesus that penetrates Nicodemus’ certainty. After all, this Pharisee undertakes a scandalous nighttime journey to rendezvous with such an upstart rabble-rouser as Jesus, who has just recently made a spectacle of himself in driving the moneychangers and animal sellers out of the temple with a whip. But Nicodemus comes just the same. Something compels him to come. Even the desire to see Jesus must have made a small chink in Nicodemus’s certainty.

But when he arrives, his programming kicks in, and he projects that ingrained air of certainty. Even though he calls Jesus “teacher” twice in his opening statement, he proceeds to try to teach Jesus something: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Right away, Jesus attacks Nicodemus’s certainty. He might as well have said, “You know, do you?” What he actually says is this: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Well, that’s sort of what he says, because the same words might mean this: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”

In this response Jesus reaches for intentional ambiguity in order to start breaking Nicodemus out of his certainty. Jesus’ words could mean either thing, and I think that’s just the way Jesus wants it. His ambiguity achieves just the result he’s hoping for: Nicodemus asks not one, but two questions! If you’re certain you don’t ask questions. Perhaps there’s hope for this fellow yet, I imagine Jesus thinking.

And so Jesus feeds him more ambiguity: “The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” Not only do we not know from whence comes the wind, but even Jesus’ choice of word – wind – could mean breath or even Spirit. Jesus pulls Nicodemus deeper and deeper into delicious ambiguity, and disused synapses begin to fire in Nicodemus brain. When Jesus is finished, there’s a new fire in Nicodemus’s eyes as he asks the most sincere and uncertain question in the entire Gospel: “How can these things be?”

In one short conversation, Jesus shatters Nicodemus’s unrealistic and leaden certainty and replaces it with the true and natural uncertainty of life. When next we meet Nicodemus he is testing out his newfound uncertainty. He takes a risk in speaking out against members of the council, who want to break their own rules to put Jesus to death. He doesn’t quite declare himself as a follower yet, but he’s on his way. The third and final time we see Nicodemus, he is standing in the broad light of day helping Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus from the cross and bury him in the tomb. In that moment, nothing is certain. Nothing is sure. Because their Lord has died. And yet they serve him anyway.

From his first appearance to his last, Nicodemus models the life of faith. He sheds the armor of certainty when he meets Jesus and pulls on the armor of faith – for certainty, not doubt, is the opposite of faith.

We crave certainty, but in this life we will never achieve it. Jesus knows this, and so he offers us something even better than certainty. He offers us the gift of himself. A good friend of mine once defined “peace” as the “deep and abiding presence of God.” This is the gift Jesus offers us – his abiding presence, his peace, a peace that thrives in the midst of shattered certainty.

When you feel the uncertainty of life threatening to overwhelm you – what the Book of Common Prayer calls the “changes and chances” of this life – I pray you might remember Jesus teaching Nicodemus to embrace such uncertainty because in such uncertainty we discover our faith. And when we discover our faith we also find the promises of God for our lives – the promise that the deep and abiding peace of Christ will always and forever be traveling with us along the way.

*Image — Nicodemus and Jesus, sketch by Rembrandt

Five Years Ago

Five years ago today, I navigated to WordPress.com and sat for an hour just staring at the computer screen. I had recently received some advice from an editor at a publishing company that I might consider starting a “weblog,” whatever that was. My seminary thesis  reader, Brian McLaren, had put me in touch with this editor (for the life of me, I can’t remember his name), and I’m so glad he did. The editor gave me the best practical advice imaginable for a young writer.

“You need to write,” he said. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it?

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“You need to write every day,” he continued. “And that means you need someone or something to be accountable to.” Then he turned me on to the idea of blogging, which was still not quite mainstream in 2008. Thank you, Mr. Editor! (Was it Kevin? Ah well. I really can’t remember.)

So there I was, five years ago today, staring at my computer screen. I was stuck trying to make a decision– namely, what to call my blog. I tried many names, also things I can’t remember now. I was listening to music, and in the moment of greatest despair that I would never come up with a name I was satisfied with, U2’s song “Kite” came on.

“Who’s to say where the wind will take you?
Who’s to say what it is will break you?
I don’t know which way the wind will blow.”

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The words Bono was singing bore into me. It was like I was hearing them for the first time ever. The chorus hung in the air. I could have grabbed the word “wind” and held it in my hand. As I looked at the words in my mind’s eye, they reformed into a verse from the Gospel According to John: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” So says Jesus to the Pharisee Nicodemus. This encounter is one of my favorite in the Gospel. In it, Jesus shatters Nicodemus’s preconceptions — his entire worldview, in fact — and rebuilds it with himself (Jesus) at the center. Over the course of the Gospel, we see Nicodemus first tentatively and then boldly step into his own re-creation.

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For Nicodemus, and for me, it starts with the wind of the Spirit (which, handily, is the same word in ancient Greek). The words from U2’s song shimmered with meaning from the Gospel, and I knew I had found the name of my blog.

Ever since, these words have guided me. I do not know where the wind will take me. But I believe that wherever it is, God will be waiting when I get there. The last five years have confirmed this belief over and over again. Through the blog, I made connections with The Christian Century and EpiscopalCafe. Then, about a year and half in, I came to the attention of the United Methodist Publishing House, and my second book with them comes out this summer! The blog is also partially responsible for the way I met my wife (as well as giving her mother something to find when she googled me). Above all, this website has kept me writing and reflecting on how God is moving in my life and how I am moving in God’s.

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Over the month of June, I plan to have a five year anniversary celebration for wherethewind.com. I will re-post some of my favorite entries, along with ones that marked significant moments and connections. (If you have a favorite post you’d like me to re-issue this month, let me know!) I look forward to the next five years of wherethewind.com, and I’m so profoundly grateful to all of my readers for taking this journey with me.

I leave you today with some of the first ever words I posted on this website, five years ago today.

Adam, a follower of Christ,

to all those who find this blog through the Series of Tubes.

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

The Apostle Paul really nailed the beginnings of his letters, so I thought I’d borrow his intro formula to begin my blog. Paul journeyed all over the Mediterranean following the little dotted purple and blue and red lines you see on the maps in the back of your study Bible. I’m afraid I can’t afford the airfares to Thessalonica or Ephesus, so I will have to rely on the Interwebs to make a new set of dotted lines from my MacBook to your computer. Since you’re probably in modern day Scranton or Lubbock rather than ancient Greece, I think the Internet is the way to go.

[…] Who’s to say where the wind will take me? Who’s to say where the Spirit is leading me? In this blog, I will reflect on the movement of God in my life, the movement that dances on the wind of the Spirit. I invite you to follow my reflections and discern how God is moving in your own life.

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Guitar Lessons

(Sermon for Sunday, June 3, 2012 || Trinity Sunday B || John 3:1-17)

Playing at VBS in 2003 after my sophomore year of college. That was less than three years in to my guitar playing. It would have been seven or eight if I had never quit.

When I was in seventh grade, my parents bought me a three-quarter sized guitar and procured the services of a guitar expert to teach me the basics. At the first lesson, I learned the names of each of the six strings and how to play notes by plucking them. At the second lesson, I learned how to arrange my fingers on the strings so they made special shapes called chords. At the third lesson, I learned that I would have to practice if I wanted to improve my guitar playing. There was no fourth lesson.

You see, I was a bright kid, to whom pretty much everything came quite easily. I was a good athlete, so baseball and soccer were right up my alley. I really didn’t have to work much to make good grades in school. I had next to no challenges in any of my classes. And so when I was confronted with something that I couldn’t immediately master with no effort, I decided not to try. I put the guitar in the case, and the case sat unopened in my closet for years.

Now, as most of you know, I am a guitar player. So what happened? I picked up the instrument again my senior year of high school, and, being a tiny bit wiser than my seventh grade self, started practicing. I’ve been playing for over eleven years now, and I’m not half bad, but a wistful part of me always wonders how much better I would be at the guitar if I had not quit after three lessons back when I was thirteen years old.

My seventh grade self fell victim to a psychological epidemic that affects the vast majority of the population. Exactly one symptom characterizes this epidemic: people have difficulty agreeing to perform tasks that fall outside of their recognized competencies. This is still true for me: you’ve never seen me do ballet or fix the central heating in the church because these are two things that I don’t do very well. I have no training in either of these areas, and so the likelihood that I will agree to pirouette across a stage or put together an HVAC system is next to zero.

I’d be willing to wager that this fact of life is also true for you. I’m sure each of you could come up with a list of things you are unwilling to try because you know that you aren’t going to be good at them. You know that if you tried, failure would be in your future, and who wants to feel like a failure? And so the psychological epidemic keeps us from attempting new things and keeps us safely ensconced within the borders of our comfort zones.

For us this morning, the trouble comes when the list of things we are unwilling to try includes speaking openly about our faith in God. Why should this be any different from playing the guitar or doing anything else, you might ask? The simple answer is this: becoming an expert in guitar playing is possible. Becoming an expert on God is not.

Today’s Gospel reading teaches us this reality, which is an appropriate lesson on a day when we celebrate the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish council, fashions himself such a God expert. He comes to Jesus by night, and at the outset of their conversation, tries to display his knowledge of how God operates. “Rabbi,” says Nicodemus, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Nicodemus’s “we know” sets him up as the so-called expert on God. The irony is that his statement is true. But Jesus isn’t interested in whether or not Nicodemus speaks correctly; Jesus is solely interested in moving this so-called expert into the unfathomable depths of God’s interaction with God’s creation. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” says Jesus in response to Nicodemus’s opening remarks. Jesus’ statement is intentionally ambiguous. The words could mean “born from above or born again,” and I think Jesus means both. The very ambiguity of the phrase shows Jesus’ attempt to push Nicodemus out of his comfort zone where “we know” is his default position.

For his part, Nicodemus latches onto the more mundane of the two possibilities: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he asks. This response might sound a bit sarcastic, but at least the Pharisee, who has always been the expert answering questions, is now beginning to ask some of his own. The question is the small chink in the armor of Nicodemus’s expertise. Because of Nicodemus’s willingness to ask a question, Jesus sees that there is hope in showing him the expansiveness of all that this so-called expert does not know.

And, boy, does Jesus show him. Jesus opens Nicodemus’s mind and heart to the mystery of how God creates God’s people, and of how God moves in the world like the wind moving through the trees. When Jesus is done, Nicodemus’s opening “we know” now sounds laughably empty in comparison to the mysteries Jesus reveals to him. To begin to walk in and among these mysteries, Nicodemus must change his empty “we know” into an “I don’t know” full of desire and curiosity. And he takes the first tentative steps along this path with the sincerest question in the entire Gospel: “How can these things be?”

In just one conversation, Jesus shows Nicodemus that being an expert on God is not only not possible, but also not the best way to be in relationship with God. Only by acknowledging his lack of understanding can Nicodemus hope to begin to hear the sound of the wind blowing, this wind of the Holy Spirit that breathes life into creation. Nicodemus’s job is no longer to try to explain what makes God tick. Jesus gives him a new job: to bear witness to the mysterious movement of God in his life.

We see Nicodemus twice more over the course of the Gospel. In his next appearance, he puts one tentative foot outside his comfort zone when he reminds the rest of the council about their own rules when they want to put Jesus to death. And in his final appearance, we see that Nicodemus has fully embraced the new life that Jesus revealed to him. In broad daylight on the afternoon of the crucifixion, Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimethea take Jesus from the cross and bury him in the tomb.

This so-called expert on God had his world turned upside down that night when he went to see Jesus. Jesus showed him that expertise is neither possible nor desired when relationship with God is concerned. There is not a person on this earth who is competent to talk about what makes God tick. While you and I might have difficulty agreeing to perform tasks that fall outside of our recognized competencies, we can take heart in the reality that Jesus released us from needing to be competent in this particular area. We will never be good at talking about God because God is far too glorious, far too mysterious and majestic for our puny words. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. Releasing us from the need to be competent means that Christ rejoices in even our most halting attempts, in even the simplest expressions of feeling God’s love.

My prayer this morning is that each of us might feel released from the need to be competent when we have the opportunity to speak to someone else about our faith. Don’t be like my seventh grade self who gave up the guitar because he wasn’t an overnight expert. Rather, acknowledge that expertise has no domain where God is concerned. The simple word about how you feel God’s movement, spoken from the heart, is worth more than any treatise on the inner workings of the Holy Trinity. The halting word about not understanding God’s movement is worth more than all the “we knows” like the one Nicodemus speaks when he first encounters Jesus. The good news is that God uses our incompetencies as much, if not more, than our competencies. So I challenge you and I challenge myself: live into our incompetent ability to speak of God’s movement, and perhaps through our witness, someone new might start seeing God’s wind blowing through the trees.

Choosing the Light

 (Sermon for Sunday, March 18, 2012 || Lent 4B || John 3:14-21)

I’d like to go to a Red Sox game and hold up a sign that says, “John 3:17.” Perhaps, a row-mate would ask me why my sign is wrong and I can say that the sign’s not wrong, but a different verse entirely. The verse after the most famous verse of the Bible says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Now, before we really get down to the business of this sermon, let’s talk about this “world,” a word John uses three times in this one verse. For John, the world is the creation that rebelled against God – the good works, which God made, but which fell into disrepair because of bad human choices. One of the reasons that John starts his Gospel with, “In the beginning,” is so we readers might make the link back to the story of creation in Genesis, in which God created the heavens and the earth. Three chapters into Genesis, things start to fall apart because of Adam and Eve’s dreadful choices.

Fast-forward to John’s time or even to our own, and the broken state of the world is evident – there’s no need to list all of the broken things in relationships or in society or in the environment (for we know them all too well). Much of the brokenness stems directly from bad choices made over and over again. And because these decisions are made again and again, they become part of the system, the machinery of brokenness, and we feel helpless in the face of a crumbling world. Nevertheless, God so loved this world that God chose to send God’s Son into the brokenness in order that he might show us what is broken. And in showing us, he gave us the gift and duty of helping him restore the broken world to wholeness.

But even though John expands the Son’s salvation to include the whole world (literally the “cosmos” in Greek), the restoration starts taking place in the hearts of God’s children – in us and ever other person who has every walked the earth. The brokenness began in the hearts of Adam and Eve; thus, the healing, the saving of the world takes hold at the origin of the brokenness, in the hearts of all people.

Just like Adam and Eve had the choice to obey or disobey God, each of us has a choice, which Jesus names using the imagery of darkness and light: “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil,” he says. “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

We have a choice to stumble in the darkness or to walk in the light, to be part of the problem or part of the solution, to add to the brokenness or to participate in the healing. And we don’t make this choice just once. Rather this choice is part of every single decision we make. Every decision either pulls us back to the darkness or pushes us further into the light. Perhaps you can remember a choice you made that turned out to be the wrong one – failing to stand up to a friend’s bully or taking out your frustration on your spouse or deliberately not noticing the homeless veteran on the street or knowingly purchasing a product that was fabricated under unbearable conditions, or…or…or — the list is endless. I don’t know about you, but when I make a choice the pulls me towards the darkness, I feel just a little bit unmade, like a little bit of me has eroded away. If I continually choose the wrong path, if I continually embrace the darkness, I wonder — will there be anything left of me?

This question points to the condemnation that Jesus talks about. God does not condemn; rather, we condemn ourselves when we choose the darkness over the light. Indeed, each time the verb “condemn” happens in the middle of our passage, the word is passive. God takes no active part in our condemnation, but only patiently and constantly calls us back to the light. And I firmly believe this call is what keeps us from eroding away entirely, what keeps us from total annihilation (which is another way of talking about hell). God’s constant call back to the light gives us a beacon to turn to, a lighthouse, if you will, that can guide us through the darkness and keep us from breaking up on the rocks. God does not force us to choose the light, but rather invites us to steer toward the harbor of God’s radiance.

As we answer God’s call and choose the light over the darkness, we discover that we can be part of the healing of the world. In our own experiences of the darkness, in our own vulnerability, we find the common ground of brokenness that Christ found when he came to earth and when he was lifted up on the cross. When we choose the light, we choose to be partners with Christ in healing the brokenness of the world even as Christ is healing our own brokenness.

So how do we translate the imagery of walking in the light into our everyday lives? What does choosing the light look like on the ground, in our day-to-day lives, at the office or at school or at home? Everything comes back to inviting God into our decisions, about orienting toward the light in each choice so that we do not feel like we are being eroded away to nothingness.

Here’s one practical way to help make decisions. Margot and I have been participating in a Lenten devotional series done by the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Boston. Each day, a brother of the order talks about a piece of their Rule of Life, and about how each of us can benefit in our walks with God by writing a Rule for ourselves. A personal Rule of Life helps you to figure out how to be the best version of yourself, the version that God created you to be. When faced with a choice, remembering your Rule can help you walk in the light.

Writing out a Rule for yourself could be a simple as praying for clarity about the five things that are most important to you, then writing them on an index card and trying to live with those priorities in mind. Or perhaps, you might feel called to write out a longer, more in-depth set of guidelines for how you relate to yourself, to others, to the world, and to God. I’ve been working on my own Rule, and I’d like to share a few short passages with you so you can see how I am, with God’s help, trying to choose the light.

“I will nurture my relationship with God through praying, listening, serving, and loving.

“I will love my family. I will be loyal, honest, caring, and present to my wife and our (future) children.

“I will live my life with an attitude of thanksgiving, always seeking to choose abundance over scarcity, trust over fear, and relationship over isolation.

“I will live my life with an attitude of invitation, always seeking to choose engagement over apathy, encouragement over criticism, and listening over selling.”

In each of these pieces of my Rule, God has given me guidance for how to choose the light over the darkness. Does this mean I will always choose the light? Of course not, but the Rule will help me see when I have failed and help me turn back to the right paths. I invite you to consider making your own Rule, so that you may more effectively choose light over darkness. Please come see Margot or me if you’d like guidance in doing this incredibly fruitful practice.

Speaking of practice, spring training is going on, which reminds me of my sign from the beginning of this sermon (like that segue?). John 3:17 – “God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Christ’s saving of this world began in his life, death, and resurrection, and continues in the hearts of all people. When we choose the light over the darkness, we choose to be part of the healing of this world, we choose to show the world that God is moving in our lives. In this witness, we bring God’s light into the darkness of this world. And do you know what happens when light is introduced into darkness? Darkness flees.

Schooling Nicodemus (or) “Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow”

The following post appeared Sunday, March 14th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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In the film Men in Black, Jay discovers that aliens exist and many of them live on Manhattan Island. When he confronts Kay about this unnerving new detail, of which he (Jay) was previously unaware, Kay deadpans: “A thousand years ago everybody knew, as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on it. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

The season of Lent invites us to examine what we know, or, put more precisely, what we think we know. When we tackle this examination, we open ourselves up to encounters with Christ, which tend to augment, rearrange, and expand our knowledge with the addition of deeper faith. The Gospel contains myriad stories of Jesus blasting people with new knowledge,  so we should expect nothing different in our own lives. One such story co-stars the Pharisee Nicodemus (read up on John 3 before you continue).

As a general rule, if someone in the Gospel besides Jesus says “I know” or “we know,” then that person either knows a small fraction of the whole or, more commonly, nothing at all. Strangely enough, knowing nothing at all can even manifest itself when the statement made is quite true and correct. Such is the case with this leader of the Jews, who comes to see Jesus one night.

Nicodemus uses his “knowledge” displayed at the beginning of the conversation as a weapon to corner Jesus into a particular set of expectations. The Pharisee says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Apparently, so far so good. This statement is true: Jesus has come from God and most definitely stands forever in the presence of God. But there’s irony in the statement, also. Nicodemus calls Jesus “teacher” twice — once in Hebrew (Rabbi) and once in Greek (didaskalos, from which comes the word “didactic”). But at the same time, Nicodemus’s conversational opener allows no room for Jesus to teach. Instead, Nicodemus is the one attempting to teach Jesus, to pigeonhole him into what Nicodemus and his colleagues have labeled him.

But Jesus refuses to be put on the defensive. In usual fashion, he completely ignores Nicodemus’s opening salvo and immediately expands the conversation to a depth and height that Nicodemus is not expecting. Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above/again.” There’s a delightful ambiguity here: in Greek, “from above” and “again” are the same word (anothen). They both work in the context, and Jesus probably means both when he says the word. How better to jostle someone loose from his rigidity than with a small helping of ambiguity?

But Nicodemus grasps at the more mundane of the two meanings and responds: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” This may seem like a sarcastic response, but at least this Pharisee, who has always been the one answering questions, is now (albeit haltingly) beginning to ask some of his own. But Jesus doesn’t seem interested in staying on the terrestrial plane, so he ignores Nicodemus questions and pushes him to a new level of understanding. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” At this point, I imagine Nicodemus’s brain starts hurting.

But Jesus keeps pushing him. Nicodemus’s opening “we know” now sounds empty in comparison to the mysteries Jesus is revealing to him. To begin to absorb these mysteries, Nicodemus must turn this empty “we know” into an “I don’t know” full of desire and curiosity. With his next words, Jesus gives Nicodemus license to let go of what he thinks he knows: “The wind/Spirit blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (Here’s another delightful ambiguity—in Greek, “wind” and “spirit” are the same word, pneuma.) Nicodemus must now consent to trusting in things he can never quite figure out. Indeed, he must realize that the truest things that have ever been or ever will be can be believed without being adequately explained. In a word, Jesus asks Nicodemus to have faith that the words he speaks are true, no matter how difficult, preposterous, or confusing they may sound.

And Nicodemus takes a tentative step into the shallows of faith in Jesus. He asks one of the sincerest questions in the Gospel: “How can these things be?” With this question, Nicodemus allows the cognitive dissonance that has been cresting to break on him like a wave. This dissonance is the necessary distress that happens when he realizes he doesn’t know something he thought he knew. But dissonance isn’t a bad thing. In music, dissonance is the interesting part, the part that pushes the piece onward. A pleasing harmony (called “consonance”) can hang in the air indefinitely, but a dissonance begs to move forward to the next consonant chord.

So it is with Nicodemus and anyone who opens up himself or herself to the possibility of the unknown. Allowing the cognitive dissonance to enter our comfortable worldviews pushes us to grow into the next consonant chords in our lives. When Jesus confronts us, like Nicodemus, with the mysteries of the faith, we can either step backward into the comfort of what we think we know or step forward, fully expecting the boundaries of possibility to be far wider than we can perceive. This confrontation goes by another name: revelation.

Every encounter with Jesus, whether in the text or in life, promises an opportunity for revelation, which obeys no boundaries of possibility. Revelation is that thing you know, but don’t know how you know it. Revelation is visceral as well as mental because the brain alone is ill-equipped to handle it. Revelation infuses us with an odd mixture of peace and exhilaration—peace because we know God is there, exhilaration because we know God is calling us to serve. Cognitive dissonance is the birthplace of such revelation. The dissonance reminds us that what we know is far less than the whole. When we can acknowledge that we don’t, in fact, know where the wind comes from or where it goes, we are primed for receiving the revelation of God’s love that Jesus is forever revealing to the world. This is a scary proposition, for if we do, indeed, remain attentive we might actually hear God calling us to serve in a way that doesn’t fit our plans.

But revelation bursts our ability and our desire to control because it blows where it chooses on the wind of the Spirit. When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “We know,” he is seeking to control the conversation that will follow. But he immediately discovers he’s in over his head. When we acknowledge that Jesus has things to reveal to us that we couldn’t possibly imagine, we discover we’re also in over our heads. The trick is to learn to breathe in the wind of the Spirit while underwater (to grow gills and fins) and to find a new natural state submerged in the revelatory love of Christ.

When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “How can these things be,” he allows the possibility for revelation to strike him in his head and in his gut. His cognitive dissonance jettisons his need to control. He is open for Jesus to reveal new and wonderful things to him. And Jesus does — things about the Son of Man ascending to and descending from heaven, things about the Son of Man being lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, things about eternal life and self-giving love and believing and salvation.

I imagine Nicodemus left his encounter with Jesus in a daze, his heart and mind on overload attempting to process all he had seen and heard. Is he able fully to put his trust in Jesus, to allow the dissonance to resolve into a new and deeper consonance? Not quite yet. But we are lucky enough to meet Nicodemus twice more in the Gospel (check them out! John 7 & John 19). His journey towards the consonance of a life of faith following Jesus models for us our Lenten journeys of self-examination. If we open ourselves up to encounters with Christ during this season of Lent, then (as Kay says), “Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

Inspiration (Davies Tales #3)

The irony was unbearable. A theology paper about the Holy Spirit due in less than twenty-four hours, and Aidan Davies had less than nothing. No topic. No thesis statement. No inspiration. No inspiration for an essay about the Spirit, the source of in-SPIR-ation. Davies snorted and shook his head. I hate irony. He focused again on the glow emanating from the screen in front of him. He and his laptop had been engaged in a staring contest for the better part of the morning, and the blank document on the screen was winning handily. He reached into the empty bag of pretzels, forgetting about the last half dozen failed attempts to discover untapped sources of pretzel crumbs from the bag’s darker recesses. No thesis statement. No inspiration. And now no pretzels either.

Davies stood up abruptly. Black spots appeared in the corners of his eyes. He swayed and grasped the back of the chair to steady himself. He shut his eyes, willing the oxygen to double time it to his brain. A deep yawn built in his chest, which he exhaled in a frustrated groan. Then he stretched, and his fingertips brushed the ceiling of his dorm room. He looked up and pushed the square tile with his middle finger. He knew that by evening he wouldn’t be tall enough to touch the paneling above him. No oxygen in my brain. No inspiration. And I’ll be getting shorter for the rest of the day.

Davies looked down at the screen. “You win,” he said aloud to the blank document before shutting the laptop with perhaps more force than normal. He stuffed the computer into his messenger bag and cast around for his trainers. He laced up his shoes, slung the bag over his shoulder, and stalked from the room. He didn’t know where he was going. He had only a vague notion that he might walk a bit before lunch. He passed Mark Riley’s room, whose door was ajar as usual. Mark looked up from a comic book (He calls them ‘graphic novels,’ Davies reminded himself) and said, “Where you off to, brother?”

Davies poked his head into the room, “I dunno. It’s just this Holy Spirit paper. I’ve got—” He cupped his hand into a zero. “Zilch.”

“Same here,” Mark said grinning. “That’s why I’m doing some background reading.” He held up the graphic novel and tapped the title: The Spirit. Davies grinned back, appreciating Mark’s ability to justify his procrastination.

Leaving the dormitory, Davies drifted up the twisting sidewalk. He inhaled the perfume of freshly-cut grass and felt the early spring sun warm his hair. He wandered past the library, down the stairs behind the academic building, and across the parking lot. He watched a pair of squirrels zig and zag up a tree trunk before losing them in the budding canopy. He followed his shadow to the sporting field, its rolling expanse dotted with the stragglers of the flocks of migrating geese.

The moment he stepped onto the field, the geese took flight. Davies watched them until he could no longer distinguish their honking from the ambient noise of lunch hour traffic. As his eyes lost the geese to the distant clouds, a sharp breeze reminded Davies that winter hadn’t quite given up yet. He watched the breeze spiral through the trees, the new leaves spinning and dipping with their unseen partner. Words echoed across Davies’s empty mind: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”*

Wind and Spirit, Davies thought, remembering his Greek class from the first semester of seminary. They’re the same word. When Jesus tells Nicodemus about the wind, he could be talking about wind or Spirit or both. Wind and Spirit act the same: you can’t see the wind until it moves the leaves. You can’t see the Spirit until it interacts with us. You notice the Spirit when you see the change, the movement in our lives.

Davies raced back up the hill, his messenger bag bumping his back with each stride. He reached the bench outside the administration building and put his hands on his head. His breath came in ragged gasps as his lungs and heart protested the sprint after a winter of idleness. Several minutes later, he was able to catch his breath. Catch your breath. What a strange phrase. It’s not like a baseball or anything. More words echoed in Davies’s mind: “Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ ”**

Breath and Spirit, Davies thought, reaching all the way back to high school Latin. Respiration comes from the same root as Spirit. When Jesus breathes on the disciples, they ‘catch’ the Holy Spirit. Every time I take a breath, the Spirit is breathing life into me. The Spirit is always with me, changing me, moving me, giving me life. ‘Giver of life’ – that’s what the Creed says.

Davies sat down on the bench and opened his laptop. No staring matches this time. He looked up at the leaves pirouetting in the wind. He took a deep breath. And he began to write.

Footnotes

* John 3:8

** John 20:22

The Sweet Six Billion

(Sermon for March 22, 2009 || Lent 4, Year B, RCL || John 3:14-21)

Last week, the annual rite of spring commenced. Sixty-four college basketball teams began competing for the NCAA title. My apologies for bringing this up. I wrote this introduction before Dayton upset our own West Virginia Mountaineers. The field has been cut in half, and WVU is, unfortunately, in the wrong half. Soon, the field will be halved again, and there will be sufficiently few teams left for SportsCenter to analyze them as the “Sweet Sixteen”: only one quarter of the teams will have survived. Presumably, this fact makes them “sweet.” After this third round of games, the sportscasters will chatter on about the “Elite Eight.” A mere 12.5 percent of teams will advance to play in this fourth round, making them (sure enough) “elite.” Notice how the sports media doesn’t have a term for the first and second rounds of games; there’s no such thing as the “Snappy Sixty-four” or the “Thrilling Thirty-two.” The field just isn’t small enough to qualify for such exclusive epithets as “sweet” and “elite.”

In our society, we often associate success and value with exclusivity. Only a handful of doctors can perform that neonatal heart procedure. Only a few original 1977 Luke Skywalker action figures exist still in the blister packaging. Only a couple dozen baseball players have accumulated over three thousand hits in their careers. As a culture, we assign value to these exclusive objects and groups. If every baseball player had over three thousand hits, such an achievement would certainly not make one a shoe-in for Cooperstown.

fruitrollupvspuddingcupOf course, our society operates in this way because of Econ 101. From a young age, we are socialized to think in terms of supply and demand. If only one kid in the cafeteria has a strawberry fruit roll-up, the demand for that delicious snack will be high. You might have to trade a week’s worth of pudding cups for that fruit roll-up. The same market forces apply outside of elementary school. If OPEC cuts oil exports, you know what happens to the price.

Sadly, the exclusivity model, on which the doctrine of supply and demand is founded, has infiltrated the Christian religion. Too many Christian groups attempt to define themselves as the exclusive repositories of the faith, as the exclusive holders of the keys to heaven. If you don’t interpret the Bible exactly as they do, then you are excluded. If you disagree about the way worship is conducted, then you are excluded. If you don’t subscribe to the same set of social values, then you are excluded. This exclusion provides for these groups of Christians an illusory feeling of certitude, and, consequently, a “my way or the highway” approach to outsiders.*

Over time, a single severely misinterpreted verse of scripture has developed into the brand for such exclusivist, cliquish Christianity. We heard it this morning in the Gospel. Perhaps, your ears perked up because you recognized the verse from a bumper sticker or the television or the half-forgotten memory of Sunday School. Homemade signs at ballgames give the citation: John 3:16 in big, block letters. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Cliquish Christianity has so thoroughly branded John 3:16 that the verse rarely appears outside its exclusivist shrink-wrapping.  Here’s one plausible line of reasoning employed to co-opt John 3:16: Supply and demand teaches that for something to be valuable, it must be limited. Eternal life is valuable. Therefore, eternal life is limited. If eternal life is limited, we must figure out who’s got it and who doesn’t. Let’s see: “everyone who believes in him.” Okay, that’s seems clear enough. If you believe in the only Son of God, you may have eternal life.

But cliquish Christianity ignores two major problems with this logic. First, the major premise of the syllogism** (for something to be valuable, it must be limited) is altogether false. One of the wonderful things about God’s love and grace is their utter repudiation of basic economic theory. The counter-economics of the Gospel are well-documented. All the workers in the vineyard receive the same pay no matter how long they labored. The five loaves of bread feed a thousand times their number with twelve baskets to spare. God’s love abounds when it is freely offered, rather than becoming scarce like the bills in your wallet when you give your cash away. Likewise, eternal life cannot be limited. That’s what makes eternal life eternal.

Second, cliquish Christianity mistakes the minutiae of adhering to particular doctrinal positions for belief in the only Son of God. Disagreements about what constitutes the correct method of making someone wet during a baptism or what instruments are approved to be played in church have driven some Christians to deny eternal life to others. Such disagreements are akin to thinking that ketchup, rather than ground beef, makes something a hamburger.*** History and experience have shown that there are many paths to belief in Jesus Christ. The early leaders of the church recognized the need for four accounts of the Gospel to speak to the widest audience possible. In sixteenth century England, two competing groups struggled for doctrinal dominance, but Queen Elizabeth saw value in each position and accepted both into the Book of Common Prayer. As Christianity spread throughout the world, missionaries fused the message of the Gospel with local custom, creating unique expressions of the Christian religion.

But cliquish Christianity disregards both counter-economics and the substitution of particularity for belief. The misinterpretation of John 3:16 has become inviolable, an idol in blister packaging. And this packaging is necessary for cliquish Christians to use the verse as validation for their exclusivism. You see, the shrink-wrapping protects the sixteenth verse from all the ones surrounding it. But scripture has never been intended to be taken a verse at a time. Indeed, judging by the age of the Bible, verse numbers are downright innovative, having debuted in the 1550s.

So, let’s reattach verse 16 and see what happens: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

In this context, we notice the object of God’s love: the “world.” God gave his only Son because God loved the world. God sent the Son into the world to save the world. In just these three sentences, the “world” appears four times. God’s loving gift takes on cosmic proportions and comprehends the whole creation.

God doesn’t give the gift of the Son to an exclusive group of people but to the entire world. The Son is not the exclusive property of those who believe in him. He is not trussed up in the backroom, ready to be ransomed in exchange for compliance to doctrinal particularity.  Rather, those who believe in him are the property of the Son, in whose presence eternal life gushes up like a spring.

God loved the world so much that God gave the only Son to be lifted up on the cross and to die and to rise again and, in so doing, to lift us to the light of eternal life. If this sublime story of sacrifice and salvation were meant only for an exclusive few, then there’s no reason to believe it. But the world is the recipient of God’s loving gift, a gift so extravagant and precious that an exclusive few could never hope to unwrap it completely.

In our fallen society, we measure success and value by exclusivity. But in God’s family, we measure success by our ability to include. We measure value by our generosity and hospitality. We invite others to discover God’s loving gift just as we have discovered him. We welcome everyone to celebrate the joy of an abundant life illumined by the light of God’s Son. We do not play the role of the gatekeeper to God’s house, checking credentials and barring entrance. We do not play the role of the bouncer with the clipboard. Our role is simple and humbling. We go out into this world that God loves so much and we meet our brothers and sisters and we say,  “Look at the gift I received from God, this gift full of love and grace. Come and see. God offers the gift to you, too. Come and see. God gave the gift to the whole world. Come and see.”

Footnotes

* In recent years, to the detriment of the work of God in the world, various members of the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church included, have exhibited a variation of these exclusivist tendencies.

** My focus group (read: my mother) advised me to remove this word from the spoken version of the sermon, which I did. But, this is technically the correct word for the context, so I figured I could sneak it back into the written version. A syllogism is an argument that has a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. Here’s an example: “People who use the word ‘syllogism’ in sermons are pretentious goobers. Adam used the word ‘syllogism’ in a sermon. Therefore, Adam is a pretentious goober.”

*** Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo have written about this. Check out their Adventures in Missing the Point