Our Mothering God in a World On Fire

John 6:51-58; Luke 1:46-55; Proverbs 9:1-6

There’s a prayer I pray every Monday as I read the lectionary texts for the week:  “Lord, what is it that you want to say to these people in this time and this place through these texts?”  I hold that prayer in my mind and heart all week. And then I listen.

I listen to the life of the congregation.  I listen to the world.  I listen to theologians, commentators and scholars in the things I read.  I listen to my colleagues.  I listen to my own heart.  I listen for the Holy Spirit.  I learned a long time ago that God speaks to us in a multitude of ways as we walk through the world.  So I listen.

This week, we had a choice between two different sets of lectionary readings. In the texts for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, the focus in the Gospel lesson was on Jesus saying, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”   But this Sunday is also a day set aside to remember and lift up Mary, the mother of Jesus.  As I bounced back and forth between the two different themes and the two different sets of texts I found things in both that tugged at me, things that opened doors to things we need to think about and talk about as a community and people of faith… and, frankly, as a nation and as a world.  But I didn’t feel a definite pull to go with one over the other.  

So I kept listening.

One of the problems that pastors face is that there is just so much going on in the world and in our churches that God has been calling us to address that it’s hard to know where to start.  As one of my colleagues said in a meeting this week, the world is on fire, and I don’t know where to start to put it out.  

The world is, quite literally, on fire.  And we, the human race, collectively, can’t seem to find the will to put out the fire that threatens to destroy us and all the rest of the earth along with us.  With droughts and fires and floods and hurricanes, the change in our climate has become so manifestly real that anyone who still denies it sounds like they’ve been living in an alternate reality.  We have the science.  We know what needs to be done.  But the changes we need to make are so substantial, pervasive and dramatic that we can’t find the will to make a meaningful start.  We know that we need to radically change the way we live, in ways that are going to involve each and every one of us.  No one can sit this one out.  The change that has to happen if our children and grandchildren are going to have half a chance of living in a habitable world are scary.  And expensive.  So we’ve been dragging our feet.  We’ve been rationalizing.  But we can’t afford to do that anymore.  The world is on fire.

Our relationships are on fire, too.  In our purple church, our purple nation, our purple world, we keep trying to find the middle path between red and blue, but there’s been so much friction from the two sides rubbing each other the wrong way that the middle ground has become scorched and unstable.  So many bridges have been burned.  And if you try to discuss that simple fact, the finger-pointing starts all over again and plans and hopes for new bridges are set ablaze before foundations can even be laid.  

Red and blue, black and white—these are the binary patterns we know, and any suggestion of a world that’s broader and more colorful, a world that doesn’t fit the patterns we’re used to living in, raises our hackles.  There are whole states in our country right now where politicians are working to make sure that teachers are not allowed to address the historical fact that within our nation’s history one race of people held another race of people captive and brutally enslaved them.  That’s a wound that our nation will never recover from if we can’t open it up and cleanse it.  But it’s too hard to talk about.  There’s too much guilt festering in it.  So even though that wound is on fire with infection, we can’t seem to find the will to do what it takes to heal us.  We can’t seem to find the will to simply speak truth to each other with grace and humility.

Fear has such a hold on us that we stand frozen even as our world is on fire.  Fear—it gets expressed in denial, and greed, and in an aggressive assertion of individualism, an assertion of so-called “rights” at the expense of our mutual responsibility.  

We have bought into the lie of limitation.  We have bought into the idea of scarcity.  We have been taught to look out for number one first and let others take care of themselves if they can.  And all of this is a profound contradiction of what Jesus taught.  

In his book A Gospel of Hope, Walter Brueggemann wrote, “We baptized people are the ones who have signed on for the Jesus story of abundance.  We are the ones who decided that this story is the true story, and the four great verbs—he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave—constitute the true story of our lives.  As a result, we recognized that scarcity is a lie, a story repeated endlessly in order to justify injustice in the community.”  

Gandhi said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need.  But not for everyone’s greed.”

Jesus gives us a living example of how it can be different.  He calls us to take, to bless, to break and to give—to take responsibility and treasure the resources God has placed in our hands, to recognize the goodness that God has provided, to divide things fairly among those who need them, and to give, to share, in order to meet the needs of the world.  

When Jesus called himself the bread of life, he was inviting us to take his way of thinking, seeing, living and being in the world into ourselves.  To swallow him whole—all that he is and all that means—his way of doing life in all its fullness.  His language was graphic and shocking so we would pay attention.  “The bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world…Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life.”  For the life of the world.  He was telling us that he was all in, willing to pour out his life for the life of the world.  And he was inviting us all to be all in, too.

He didn’t talk about his “rights.”  He embraced a responsibility.  He didn’t complain about his discomfort.  He embraced the pain of a broken world and endured unspeakable torture in order to heal it.  He personally volunteered to show us in no uncertain terms that scarcity thinking—greed, fear and an insatiable hunger for control and power—lead inexorably to the innocent being crucified.  

When he called himself the bread of life, Jesus was also reminding us of the abundant generosity of God.  Jesus was reminding us of all the ways that God nurtures us and provides for us.  He was reminding us that everything that sustains us comes from God, that God is constantly mothering us.

On this day when we also remember Mary, the Mother of Jesus, it seems appropriate that we should stop and think about all the ways God has mothered us.  

Some people are uncomfortable thinking about God as our mother.  But the scriptures aren’t.  In Deuteronomy 32, God chides the people of Israel saying, “You forgot the God who gave your birth.”  In Isaiah 42, God compares Godself to a woman in labor.  In Isaiah 49 God is compared to a nursing mother.  In Isaiah 66, God says, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”  

The scriptures describe God as a mother bear and a mother eagle.  Jesus likened himself to a mother hen protecting her chicks and told a parable in which God was like a woman looking for a lost coin.  

Some of the saints of the early church returned repeatedly to the image of God as a nursing mother.  Saint Augustine wrote, “When all is well with me, what am I but an infant suckling your milk and feeding on you?”  Ephrem of Syria wrote, “He has given suck — life to the universe.”  Teresa of Avila exclaimed, “Oh Life of my life!  Sustenance that sustains me!  For from those divine breasts where it seems God is always sustaining the soul there flows streams of milk bringing comfort to all the people….”  Mary, herself, in her Magnificat sang out, “He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”

In the late 3rd or early 4th century, a collection of hymns called the Odes to Solomon had this verse in it:  

“A cup of milk was offered to me

And I drank with sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.

The Son is the cup,

And he who was milked is the Father,

And she who milked him is the Holy Spirit.”

The world is on fire.  And one of the flames we need to extinguish is the domineering inferno of patriarchy that has needlessly silenced and oppressed half of humanity for far too long.  God long ago gave us the imagery to go another way and the colors we need to paint outside the frame of male domination in the church and in the world.

In our first reading this morning from Proverbs, we heard this:

“Wisdom has built her house…

She has sent out her servant girls, she calls

                  from the highest places in the town,

         “You that are simple, turn in here!”

                  To those without sense she says,

         “Come, eat of my bread

                  and drink of the wine I have mixed.

         Lay aside immaturity, and live,

                  and walk in the way of insight.”  –Proverbs 9:1-6

The world is on fire.  But God, our mothering father, our fathering mother, has given us the everything we need to put out the fire, to live with cooler heads and warmer hearts.  We have Jesus, the bread of life, who gives his life for the life of the world.  We have God, our mothering father, our fathering mother who gives us all good things to take, to bless, to break and to share.  We have the Holy Spirit who guides us with the voice of Wisdom:  “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.  Lay aside immaturity, and live.  And walk in the way of insight…”  for the life of the world. 

Time for a Feel-Good Friday the 13th

Mitch Teemley is a writer, film producer, and mentor to a lot of bloggers. He’s also really good at reminding us that the world is still full of goodness.

Mitch Teemley

Most of us aren’t terribly superstitious, but some people are, and Friday the 13ths are particularly terrifying for them. As for the rest of us, well, while today may be the only Friday the 13th this year, the never-ending pandemic and other disheartening events have steeped many of us in doubt about the future of life as we know it. So maybe it’s time for a few reminders that, to paraphrase Mr. Twain, “our death has been greatly exaggerated.” Hope, kindness, courage, and compassion are still alive.

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Asking the Wrong Questions

John 6:24-35

When I read this morning’s gospel lesson, I couldn’t help but think of something Annie Dillard wrote in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  It’s a wonderful and thought-provoking little book, by the way, full of wisdom and pithy nuggets that get right to the heart of things as she thinks about life, and nature, and God.  Anyway, here’s the part that came to mind as I read this morning’s gospel.  She had been listening to a mockingbird singing from her chimney, and she found herself wondering, “What is she saying in her song?”  But then she paused and thought,  “No; we have been as usual asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing. If the mockingbird were chirping to give us the long-sought formula for a unified field theory, the point would be only slightly less irrelevant. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful?”  

Why is it beautiful?  That’s a transcendent question.  That’s a question that leads us more directly into an encounter with Christ’s presence in the song the mockingbird sings.  Why is there something in me that finds that lilting melody beautiful?  Why is there something built into me that thrills to life when I encounter beauty?  Why does anything that’s truly beautiful—the song of the mockingbird, the colors of sunrise or sunset—why is it that something that’s truly beautiful creates in us a sense of longing?  If you start to ask those kinds of questions, you are on your way to encountering the sublime presence of Christ that surrounds us all the time and everywhere; you’re on your way to what Richard Rohr calls “falling upward” into the Ground of All Being in whom we live, and move and have our being.

You can’t find the right answers if you’re asking the wrong questions.  

That’s one of the things that’s happening in today’s gospel.  The crowd is asking Jesus the wrong questions.  They had followed him across the lake to the outskirts of Tiberius, and when they got hungry, Jesus fed them—the whole multitude—by sharing out 5 loaves and two fish that a young boy had brought with him.  At nightfall, Jesus slipped off into the hills to be alone for a while and the disciples quietly sailed off for Capernaum.  

The next morning, when the crowd saw that Jesus and the disciples were gone, they headed back across the lake to Capernaum to look for Jesus.  When they found him, the first thing they asked him was, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”

It’s the wrong question.  It doesn’t lead to anything—at least not to anything Jesus is interested in discussing.  So he cuts to the chase. “I tell you the solemn truth,” he says.  “You are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate the loaves and had all you wanted.”  

He sees right to the heart of their motives.  Our motives.  How often do we seek out God, how often do we come to Christ saying, “Take care of my needs.  Satisfy my hunger.  Fulfill my desire.”?  We may not be saying it out loud, or we may be saying it in very prayerful language, but how often when we come to Jesus are we basically saying, “Jesus do the magic again.  Solve my problem.  Fill my belly.”

“Do not work for the food that perishes,” says Jesus, “but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Human One will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”  Change your focus, says Jesus.  You’re overlooking what matters.

But do they say, “Tell us more about that food that endures for eternal life.  What is that?  Who is the Human One—is that you?  What are you talking about exactly?”  No, they don’t say any of those things.  Instead, when they realize he’s not going to do the bread trick again and give them a late breakfast, they ask him, “What do we have to do to perform the works of God?” 

Once again, they ask the wrong question.  It’s a controlling question.  They want to know how they can get God to do what they want.  They want Jesus to teach them the magic trick.  It’s clear that they don’t really understand what they’re asking.  They ask how they can do the works of God, but they don’t even know what the work of God is.

So Jesus once again redirects.  “This is the work of God,” he says.  “Believe in him whom God has sent.” 

And now they’re finally starting to catch on that he’s talking about himself.  So they say to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?”  And then they go on about Moses giving their ancestors manna in the wilderness.  “Bread from heaven” they call it.   It’s more than a little ironic, really.  You want a sign?  Did you not eat your fill at yesterday’s picnic—that little miracle that started with 5 loves and 2 fish?  Have you not seen all the healings?  Once again Jesus has to redirect.

“I tell you the solemn truth,” says Jesus, “it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  

“Well then give us this bread all the time!” That’s their response.  And it sure sounds like they’re still thinking about, well, bread.  Magic bread, maybe.  But bread.  They asked for the right thing this time, but they’re still thinking of it in the wrong way.  They’re missing the point.  So Jesus spells it out for them.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; the one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty again.”

Blaise Pascal once said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.”  Jesus is the bread of life who fills that hunger.  Jesus is the living water who quenches that thirst.  But we won’t come to a useful understanding of what that means if we’re asking the wrong questions or getting distracted with trains of thought that don’t go anywhere.  If we’re just thinking about physical food, we’re going to completely miss the spiritual nutrition that Jesus is providing.

You are what you eat.  When Jesus says that he is the bread of life, he is telling us to swallow him whole, to take him completely into ourselves so that we can be completely complete in him.  That’s what the sacrament is all about.  It’s a sign—not merely a symbol, but a sign.  It points to Christ.  It tells us what to do.  Take and eat.  Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.  He wants the deepest level of intimacy possible with us.  He wants us to be completely infused with who he is and what he is about and how he lives in and loves us, and how he lives in and loves the world through us.  He wants to be part of our very cells so that wherever we go, he goes, too.

But we won’t get to that level of intimacy and understanding if we’re always asking Jesus the wrong questions or focusing on the wrong things.  Learning to ask the right questions is vitally important in your own relationship with Jesus, and it’s also hugely important in our life together as the church.

What are some of the wrong questions we’ve been asking as a church?   I know I’ve been asking, “Lord, how can we get more people into the church?”  Maybe what I really should be asking is, “Lord, how can we bring the church to more people?” or simply “Lord, who are we missing and why?”  

Or maybe we should be asking for something even more basic and broader than that.  Maybe we should be asking, “Jesus, help us to see you more clearly in, with, and under all things.  Help us to see the image and likeness of God in every face we face.  Help us to love them as deeply and completely as you love them.  Help us to fall upward into the fullness of you.  

And when we hear the mockingbird sing, help us to understand why we find it so beautiful and what it is we’re longing for.

A Deeper Kind of Seeing

John 6:35, 40-51

There are lots of things we can’t see, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.   Ultra-violet rays, viruses, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.  We can’t see them, but if we don’t protect ourselves from them, we’re in trouble.  Oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen—we can’t see these things, but we trust that they’re really there because we see the way they act on us and the world around us.   They’re invisible, but we know that we benefit from them.  We say we see the wind, but what we’re really seeing is the effect of the wind as it blows things around.

If you were to stand face-to-face with another person right now and really look at them—I mean really look at that person as fully and carefully and completely as you can—there is a whole lot of that person that you would not be able to see.  And I don’t just mean because they’re wearing clothes.   

For instance, you wouldn’t be able to see their microbiome.  The average person has about 30 trillion human cells in their body and somewhere around 39 trillion bacteria, according to Ron Milo and Ron Sender, researchers at the Weizman Institute of Science.  Even though you can’t see them, those 39 trillion bacteria play an important role in shaping that other person you’re looking at.  A change in the balance of the bacteria in that person’s biome can alter the condition of their skin and hair.  It can alter mood and personality.  A change in their biome can even lead to genetic changes.  Their  invisible biome has a profound effect on the person you’re seeing, even though you can’t see it.

You can’t see their thoughts, either.  You may see hints of their thoughts in their facial expression or body language,  but the thoughts themselves remain invisible. 

Have you ever gone to the refrigerator or the cabinet to get something and, no matter how hard you look, you just can’t find it, but then someone else takes a look and it’s right there in plain sight, right where you were looking?  For some reason, you really could not see it.  You had a mental blind spot.  Those mental blind spots, by the way, have a name.  They’re called schotomas.  

Sometimes we have a schotoma, a mental blind spot, a failure to see what’s right in front of us because we just don’t expect to see it or because it’s not where we think we should see it.  We can be blind to things that don’t fit our preconceived idea of how things are supposed to be.

In John 6:40 in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says a really interesting thing—a thing I didn’t really see for the longest time.  Jesus says, “This is the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”  I think we all catch the part about believing, but it’s easy to overlook the part about seeing Jesus.   

The word that’s used here for see in the original Greek is theôron.  It means “to observe something with enhanced attention; to perceive.”  In other words, to really see as completely and fully as possible.  Jesus wants us to see him.  That makes all the sense in the world, because to really and truly believe,  to trust him, we first have to see him for who he is and what he is.

That’s the problem the religious leaders who confronted Jesus are having in today’s gospel lesson.  They have a schotoma, a mental blind spot.  In spite of all his miracles and the wisdom of his teaching, they are simply unable to see Jesus for who he is and what he is.  Their preconceptions about God and religion and the way the world works just don’t have any room for Jesus as the Son of God, as Immanuel, as God With Us.  Their theology gets in the way of what God is doing right in front of them.

“Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph?,” they say.  “We know his parents!  How can he say he came down from heaven?”   Their skepticism is understandable.   It’s more than a little bit of a leap from “Jesus, the teacher and healer” to “Jesus, the divine presence in our midst who has come to us from heaven.”  It’s such a leap, in fact, that a lot of people try to put Jesus in a category with less outrageous claims.  They think of him as a great moral teacher or an important social pioneer.

But here’s the thing…C.S. Lewis said we either need to take Jesus at his word, or put him aside altogether.  In Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg — or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”  

To really believe in Jesus as the Son of God, first you have to see him that way.  But a lot of people—maybe most—just aren’t prepared to see him that way, and the most brilliant theological arguments in the world won’t change their minds.  Jesus understood that.  “No one can come to me unless the Father draws them,” he said.  And the word “draws” here, by the way, is the same word that’s used for hauling in a fishing net.  People come to faith because God draws them to faith.  Martin Luther wrote, “I believe that I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him by my own reason or strength, but instead, the Holy Spirit has called me.”

God can reel you in, but God won’t force you to believe.  It’s like they say about a horse and water: God can make us come to Jesus, but God can’t or won’t make us believe or trust.  God will lead us to the bread of life, but God won’t force it on us. 

Jesus is inviting us to a faith that’s anchored in love and trust.  Jesus wants us to believe in him because we see him for who and what he really is.  And Jesus wants us to learn to see each other as children of God, too—as persons who are created  in the image and likeness of God—even when it’s a stretch, and the person you’re looking at seems far removed from God or anything like God’s grace, generosity, compassion and love.  

Jesus wants us to really see him.  And he wants us to learn to really see each other.  That requires a deeper kind of seeing.  That requires us to put aside a lot of preconceptions that tend to create a schotoma—a mental blind spot—around Jesus, and frankly, around each other, because so often we seem to be truly blind to each other as children of God, shining in the image and likeness of God.  

Sometimes, in order to really see Jesus, we even need to put aside our creeds and theology.  The problem with them is that they make us think we understand what it means to believe.  They give us a formula to recite, boxes we can check off, things we can assent to in theory.  But that’s not what Jesus has called us to.

Creeds, professions of faith, theology, doctrine and dogma—these all have their place, and once we come to faith they can help us see more deeply the life we’re experiencing.  But it’s important to remember that God did not write a creed for us in words that can be debated or that change their meaning.  Instead, God gave us a living example.  God gave us a life that we can see—a mirror to show us how we are to be in the world and with each other.  Theology can be argued about.  Faith, as a life, can only be lived.  

Jesus is the bread of life who not only sustains us in a living faith, once we learn to see him, but who opens our eyes so that we can see him and each other more deeply—so that we can see God With Us, in him and in each other.

Will the real Jesus please stand up.

This is a wonderful description of how a skeptic with a questing heart and open mind came to find God. That Holy Spirit—she sneaks up on you sometimes.

Coffee with Carolanne

Dedicated to my best mate. I promised to be quiet, not absent. I cannot get there but I never left you.

Sat by a riverbank, soaking in the sunshine, in June 2017 I posed a question it took me another 18 months to answer: IF God were real, what would it look like?

It triggered a process that lead me into faith one researched step at a time. I didn’t grow up in faith, my best friend had pushed open a door for me to want to seek God. Slowly and painfully I began to claw fingernail holds into what others seemed to skim over with blithe assurance. When I finally stood on the first ledge and admired the view, I realised I had gone around faith backwards to most.

Friends who grew up with a Christian faith take for granted their closeness to Jesus Christ. As a child he’s…

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This Moment

Thoughts Along the Way…

I came across a meme today on Facebook that really made me stop and think.  The heading was Ancestral Mathematics.  Here’s what it said:

“In order to be born, you needed:

2 parents

4 grandparents

8 great-grandparents

16 second great grandparents

32 third great-grandparents

64 fourth great-grandparents

128 fifth great-grandparents

256 sixth great-grandparents

512 seventh great-grandparents

1,024 eighth great-grandparents

2,048 ninth great-grandparents

For you to be born today from 12 previous generations, you needed a total of 4,094 ancestors over the last 400 years.  Think for a moment—How many struggles?  How many battles?  How many difficulties?  How much sadness?  How much happiness?  How many love stories?  How many expressions of hope for the future?—did your ancestors have to undergo for you to exist in this present moment…”

Some of my cousins connected me to a website called Family Search.  I’m not nearly as involved in exploring our family tree as some of them, but I do find it interesting to trace things back a few generations.  I’ve become curious about the lives of these people to whom I am directly related.  I’ve heard bits and snatches of some of their stories, but I know nothing at all about most of them.  I’ve been surprised by all the surnames that I didn’t know even though their DNA is part of me and their story is part of my story.  Beckham, I know, of course.  But there is  also Curtis, Casey, Owen, Whitely, Moody, Maynard, Wayne, Stapleton, Lawrence, Malmgren, Davidson, Larm, Carlson, Andersdotter, Flykt…  The names take me on a journey not only back in time but to other parts of the continent and other parts of the world.   I have inherited something, however small, from each of them.  

As I thought about all of this, I realized two things.  First, the universe, and Christ who is in, with, and under everything the universe does, has worked long and hard to bring us here.  All the generations before us with all their struggles and all their joys have brought us, you and me, to this place and this time.  That’s got to mean something.  And if it doesn’t mean anything existentially in and of itself, then we can bring meaning to it.  We can bring love to it.  We can see the moment and we can love the moment.  And we can love each other in the moment.  We can love God in the moment.  That’s part of what being the Beloved Community is all about: honoring the moment and honoring everything it took to bring us here.

And that brings me to the second thing I realized.  We have inherited our faith, too.  Whether you grew up in a home where faith in Christ was part of the atmosphere or whether you came to faith in Christ in some other circumstances in some other context, by some unexpected path, faith was handed down to you by others.  It was a gift of grace.  It has been passed down to us in a steady succession of believers all the way back to the apostles.  “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received,” wrote St. Paul to the saints in Corinth (1 Cor 15:3),  and they in turn handed it on to their children and their friends.  And so on through the ages.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)   But first, let’s take a moment to appreciate all those who have given us this moment.

A Tale of Two Daughters

Mark 5:21-43

In her book The Dream of God, Verna Dozier writes,  “The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?”

In today’s Gospel lesson we have a dramatic story of two desperate people from very different circumstances who acted in faith.  They reached out to Jesus because they believed he could help them.  Both of them act on their desperate hopes in public, and take significant risks in doing so, but to understand what’s at stake for them, we need to understand more about two important dynamics in  their culture.  

Ancient Palestine, like most of the ancient world, operated socially as what cultural anthropologists call an “honor culture.”  Sometimes it’s called an “honor/shame” culture.”  This was a highly formal system based on one’s status in society.  Your position and place in society determined with whom you could associate and how you could speak and interact with them.  Male roles and female roles were governed by rigid boundaries and those boundaries were strictly observed.  Shame was the tool that was used to enforce those boundaries.   A person’s reputation and status were vitally important.  One could quite literally take them to the bank,  and if you had any kind of status and reputation at all you were always careful not to do anything to risk your standing in the community.

The other dynamic that’s important in this Gospel lesson is the concept of “clean and unclean” as it was defined by Levitical law in Torah.  I think after 15 months of “social distancing” and Covid-19 precautions we might understand this one a little better than we did in the past.

Most common things were assumed to be “clean” but there were a number of ways to become “unclean.”  Any scaly skin condition made one unclean.  Psoriasis, for instance.  Any discharge of bodily fluids, including menstruation, made one unclean.  Touching a non-kosher animal, touching a dead animal or touching a human corpse made one unclean.  Touching a clay pot that had been touched by an unclean person could make you unclean.  Touching a garment worn by an unclean person could make you unclean.  Unclean was contagious.  So persons who were unclean were isolated.  And persons who were long-term unclean, such as lepers or the hemorrhaging woman in today’s Gospel story, were outcast—they were forbidden to put themselves in any kind of situation where they might “contaminate” others.  

So now with all of that as background, maybe we can begin to see that these two stories, especially as Mark has woven them together, would have been absolutely shocking to those who were originally reading or hearing them.

The two main characters could not be more different, in fact, they stand in sharp contrast to each other.  Jairus is male, wealthy, president of the synagogue.  He is at the top of the “honor” ladder.  For what it is worth, he is one of the few characters other than the disciples who is named in Mark’s gospel.  The hemorrhaging woman is female, impoverished, excluded from the synagogue because of her condition.  She is anonymous. 

But both of them break rules and cross boundaries because they are desperate and they believe Jesus can help them.

When Jairus saw Jesus, he fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”  Remember those rules of honor culture and social standing?  A man in Jairus position would be expected to bow deeply to Jesus when making a request if he regarded Jesus as an equal.  With the whole crowd looking on, Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet and begs repeatedly for Jesus to come heal his daughter.  In doing this, he puts all his social currency on the line.  If things don’t go well, the crowd will remember how he put his dignity aside and shamed himself.  

For the hemorrhaging woman, it’s another story altogether.  She’s trying to remain invisible, blending into the crowd.  She’s not supposed to be there at all.  But after twelve years of being an outcast, after losing all her money to quack physicians who only made things worse, she had nothing left to lose.  You can imagine her thinking here:  “If touching my clothes can make someone unclean, maybe touching Jesus’ clothes can heal me.”  So she reached out as Jesus was passing by and touched his cloak.

Can you imagine how Jairus feels, what Jairus is thinking, when Jesus suddenly stops.  They’re on the way to his house so Jesus can heal his daughter.  “My little daughter,” he had called her, a term of endearment and affection.  My baby girl.  Time is of the essence.  She is “at the point of death.”  And now, suddenly, Jesus stops and says, “Who touched my clothes?” 

Poor Jairus has got to be going out of his mind.  He must be getting frantic.  He’s got to be thinking what the disciples are saying: “Look at the crowd pressing in on you.  Who didn’t touch you?”  

But Jesus knew that this touch was different.  This touch had faith in it.  And desire.  And hope.  And longing.  And Jesus isn’t taking another step until he knows who it was who reached out to him with all that in her heart. 

“The woman, knowing what had happened to her, came to him with fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.”  

Fear and trembling.  Even if she were whole and healthy, it was inappropriate in their culture for her to touch him.  As it was, in her condition, it had been a flagrant violation of the Torah.  Would he rebuke her?  Would he somehow revoke her healing?  Would Jairus, the president of the synagogue demand that she be punished? Would the crowd become indignant and drag her off and stone her?  

Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” 

He called her daughter.  He gave her status and identity.  She would forever be the one Jesus had called daughter.  A daughter of Israel.  A daughter of the kingdom.  A daughter of Jesus.  He told her to go in peace—a word not just to her, but to the crowd in case they had any ideas about punishing her.  He protected her with a word of peace, a safe passage.  He commended her faith and reaffirmed that she was healed.  He returned her to wholeness.  He returned her to community.

And that’s when the bottom fell out of Jairus’ world.  While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from his house to tell him that his daughter had died and there was no point in troubling the teacher any further.  I wonder what he thought, then, when Jesus turned to him and said, “Do not fear, only believe.”  Did he still believe at that point that Jesus could save his little daughter?

When they got to Jairus’ house all the wailing and weeping and noise of Palestinian mourning was already in progress, and when Jesus asked, “Why are you weeping and making all this noise?  She’s not dead, only sleeping,” they laughed at him.  But he shooed them all outside then took Jairus and the child’s mother in to where the child was laid on her bed.  

He took her hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means.  “Little girl, get up!”  And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about. And they were overcome with amazement.

There are all kinds of boundaries that are crossed in these two stories.  All kinds of rules that are broken.  All kinds of traditions that are ignored.

Jesus is on his way to help an important person from the top rung of the social ladder with a life-and-death emergency, but he stops to help a “nobody” who has been removed from the social ladder entirely.  

The hemorrhaging woman touched him, making him unclean.  But he ignores this law and restores her to health, restores her cleanness, and protects her with a word of peace. 

When he takes the dead girls’ hand, he is technically unclean yet again.  Yet again he ignores the whole clean/unclean business.

Jesus is teaching his disciples and teaching us that sometimes for the sake of healing, for the sake of compassion, for the sake of simply doing the right thing, boundaries have to be crossed, traditions have to be ignored, and laws may even have to be broken.  When faith reaches out in hope asking for help, then we do what we have to do, following the example of Jesus.

And that brings us back around to Verna Dozier’s question: “The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?”

Is your faith moving you to do what needs to be done for those who are reaching out in hope and asking for help, even if it means  you have to cross some boundaries?

Cross to the Other Side

Mark 4:35-41

  On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Welcome back!  Welcome back to the world!  Welcome back to gathering together!  Welcome back to seeing each other’s faces without masks—well in most cases anyway. Welcome back to church in church!  Welcome back to life as almost normal.  Almost.  

I think today’s Gospel lesson from Mark is a good one for us to think about as we sail into a new reality.  And let’s face it, we’re not going to simply sail back into our old reality.  Too much has changed in the past 15 months.  

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus and his disciples set out in the evening, of all things, to sail across the Sea of Galilee.  A great windstorm blows up and the boat is being swamped.  We know it’s a serious storm because even the fishermen who are out on this water all the time are frightened. Through all of this, Jesus is sleeping soundly on a cushion in the stern of the boat. Finally, the disciples cry out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?!?” At that point, Jesus gets up, rebukes the storm, the sea becomes dead calm, and the disciples are left wondering just who Jesus is, now that they’ve seen this new dimension of his power and abilities.

When we read or hear these stories, these episodes from the life and ministry of Jesus, it’s natural for us to ask ourselves, “Okay, what does that mean for me or for us?”  Yes, we’re also supposed to try hear it in its original context if we’re able, but we also hope there’s something in the story that we can take home with us, some lesson that fits our lives right here and right now.  That’s why we do this little exercise with the Gospel every week.

With this particular story, it has been far too tempting for far too long to personalize it a little too much.  And I confess I’ve been as guilty as any preacher out there in doing this.  That message goes something like this:  “When storms arise in your life, just remember that Jesus is in the boat with you…even if he’s taking a nap at the moment.  He has the power to quiet the storm.  Maybe he’s asking you, ‘Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?’  Muster up some courage.  Maybe it’s your turn to stand up and tell your storm, ‘Peace!  Be still.’”  I have preached that sermon.

Listen, there are probably worse ways to go with this story.  We’ve all had moments in our lives when we’ve wanted to join the disciples in yelling, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re perishing?!?”  I know I’ve been there a few times.  But the fact is, there is something greater at stake in this story than a bromide to help us face our fears.  There is something greater at stake here not just for them in their time, but for us in our time.  But to know what that is, we have to range beyond the boundaries of these six verses.

From the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been announcing that the Kingdom of God is imminent.  Actually, imminent is not quite the right word.  The Greek word is engikken.  It’s often translated as “has come near,” but there is an even greater sense of immediacy in the word.  Think of it as a train coming into the station.  It’s not all the way into the station yet but the engine has already reached the edge of the platform.  That’s the sense of it.  The kingdom of God’s engine has already reached the platform.  Get ready to board.

Everything Jesus says and does in the Gospel of Mark is said and done to demonstrate the power and presence of this new reality he calls the kingdom of God.  He is not just telling people about the kingdom, he is showing them what it looks like and how it acts.  When Jesus calls the disciples, he is recruiting them to build a new community, a Beloved Community, based on the ideals and principles of “The Way,” which is another name Mark uses for the kingdom of God.  

Another thing to understand about the Gospel of Mark is that everything that happens in the Gospel is heavily weighted with myth and symbolism.  That’s not to say that the events in the Gospel didn’t happen, but that it is important to pay attention to how Mark is describing and using them as he tells the story of Jesus, and what kind of language he is using.  We need to ask questions.  What other scriptural connections does he make—or expect us to be making?  What apocalyptic expectations and understandings are at  work in their culture?  What mythic stories are at work in the background as he tells the story of Jesus?  What cultural boundaries and expectations are being crossed?  If we don’t catch all these clues, then we might not get the point Mark is trying to make. We’ll get some other point instead.

When we see the disciples and Jesus set off from the shore in a boat in the evening, Mark wants us to be nervous.  We’re supposed to remember that in their mythic understanding the sea is the home of Chaos and Destruction.  Dread, unpredictable, cosmic forces hide in its depths and the only thing that could tame it at creation was the Spirit of God hovering over it.  That they are setting out as night falls with the intention of crossing all the way to the other side—well, if we were Mark’s first readers or listeners we would know they’re heading for trouble.

As the story unfolds, Mark assumes that somewhere in the back of our minds we are maybe remembering Psalm 107: “Some went down into the sea in boats…then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves were hushed.” (107:23,39)  When we read that Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat, Mark wants us to remember how Jonah slept as his boat was about to break up in a mighty tempest. (Jonah 1:4, 10).  Mark puts all these things together so that we will understand that this storm that the disciples face out there on the sea of Chaos is not just a metaphor for the troubles of life.  This is a Cosmic storm.  They are pitted against cosmic forces.  Some great elemental power wants very much to keep them from getting to the other side of the lake.  But what?  And why?

To understand that, it’s important to understand why Jesus wanted to cross the lake in the first place.  

The Sea of Galilee, was also called Lake Gennesaret or Lake Tiberias.  It depended on who was talking about it.  It served as a clear geographic boundary between the territories of Philip and Agrippa in the tetrarchy when the Emperor Augustus divided up the region between the sons of Herod the Great, and it continued to serve as a clear social boundary between the Jews of Galilee on the south side and the Hellenized Jews and Gentiles of various nationalities of the Decapolis on the north side. 

Why did Jesus want to go to the other side of the lake?  Quite simply because that’s where the gentiles were.  

Jesus was fighting racism.  He wanted his new kingdom community to embrace everyone—Jew, Gentile, people of all nationalities and types.  People who had differences in how they worshipped. So he took his mission of healing and exorcism and teaching across the sea to invite them to be part of “the way.” He also wanted to teach his disciples that in the kingdom of God there simply is no room for such nonsense as racial division or historical division or anything like that.  In the kingdom of God no one can call anyone else “unclean.”  

That storm that rose up against them was symbolic of all the storms that rise up to resist our attempts at reconciliation and renewal.  It was the elemental, cosmic something in our world that wants to resist healing and unifying humanity.  And I want you to notice something here.  The words that Jesus speaks to that storm are the words of exorcism.  Most of our translations make those words prettier than they actually are, but they are the same words that Jesus speaks when he casts out the demon in Mark 1:25.  “Peace.  Be still.”  Sure.  But the full force of the words is more like “Silence!  Shut up!  I muzzle you!”  

Maybe  this is how we need to speak to racism.  Maybe this is how we need to speak to the forces that try to dissuade and discourage us from reaching out to each other to make new bonds of friendship.  Maybe this is how we need to speak to those voices who keep dragging up tradition and history as reasons to preserve symbols of hatred and violence in public display.  Maybe this is the plain kind of speech we need to use with those who continue to pursue paths that have done nothing but separate us and poison us against each other.  Maybe instead of trying to be reasonable and persuasive against such divisive winds it’s time to simply say, “Silence!  I muzzle you. I will not let you speak hate.  I will not let you keep us from getting to the other shore.  I will not let you stop us from building the Beloved Community.”

We have had fifteen months to sit apart and consider all the things that are dividing us.  We have had fifteen months to witness as 600,000 people have died from a disease that could have been curtailed much more easily and much earlier if we had been more  unified.  We have had 15 months to watch as unreasonable political forces have assaulted the foundations of our democracy and truth, itself.  We have had 15 months to see racial tensions repeatedly exacerbated by hate and violence and unfortunate systemic conditioning.  We have had fifteen months to sit apart in our homes and miss each other and think about what it means to be friends, to be church, to be disciples of Jesus, to be people of The Way.  

And now the doors are open.  We’re back together.  We get to be “us” again.  But there are people “not like us” across the road, across town, across the lake.  And Jesus is saying, “Let’s go across to the other side.”  So how about it?  Shall we take this boat out for a ride?

Scattering Seeds

Mark 4:26-34

With what can we compare the kingdom of God…  

What do you think of when you hear or read that phrase: the kingdom of God?  I think it’s hard for us to really grasp what Jesus was talking about when he talked about the kingdom of God not only because he described it in metaphors and parables, but because a kingdom, itself, is a thing entirely outside of our experience for almost all of us.

Most of us think of kingdoms in terms of physical territory, but clearly Jesus is talking about something that transcends mere physical boundaries.  Kingdom can also mean a sphere of authority or rule, and that might be closer to what Jesus is getting at.  The rule of God.  The authority of God.  But most of us can’t relate too well to that because we have never lived under the authority of a monarch or a lord or a master.  And those monarchies that are still active in our world are either almost entirely symbolic or wildly dysfunctional or utterly despotic, and I don’t think we want to attribute any of those qualities to God.

Also, words like authority and rule can have a coercive edge to them, and the kingdom, as Jesus describes it, seems to be much more about influence, persuasion and cooperation.  It’s more organic.  It’s something that grows in us and around us and among us.  I have often used the phrase “kin-dom of God” for that reason—to try to capture some of the cooperative, love-based nature of God’s sovereign rule as Jesus describes it in the beatitudes and parables, and I think that might be more in the right direction.  Maybe.  But it’s also important to remember that the kingdom of God is not a democracy.  God is sovereign.  God’s rule is absolute.  Fortunately for us, so is God’s love, and that love is the very fabric of this thing Jesus is trying to describe as “the kingdom of God.”  The kin-dom of God.

When Jesus told these parables, and thirty-some years later when Mark wrote them down, trouble was brewing in Galilee and Judah and pretty much throughout all of Palestine.  Landowners were putting pressure on tenant farmers for rents they could barely pay.  Scribes from the temple in Jerusalem were demanding a crushing and complex levy of tithes from those same farmers.  Herod Antipas was demanding taxes from the landowners because Rome was demanding taxes from him.  Unemployment was high.  Bandits roamed the highways.  Soldiers patrolled everywhere.  Rome’s colonial government was heavy-handed and oppressive.  People wanted a heavenly anointed messiah to step in and fix things before they exploded—or maybe to light the fuse. It’s no wonder that the disciples kept asking Jesus, “Is this the time when you will bring in the kingdom?”

Jesus kept trying to tell them and all the crowds following him, “No, the kingdom of God is not like that.  It’s not what you’re thinking.  It won’t do any good to simply replace one coercive external system with another one even if the ruler is God!”  

The change has to be internal.  It has to be organic.  Seeds have to be planted.  Human hearts and minds have to be changed. It’s not about imposing a new kind of law and order.  It’s about implanting a new kind of love and respect.  That’s what will fix the world.

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”

For generations we had a family farm in Kansas—my  mother’s family farm—where we grew winter wheat.  Winter wheat is planted in late September or early October, depending on the weather.  Not long after it’s planted, it starts to sprout.    Beautiful little shoots that look like blades of grass start to poke their heads up out of the soil.  And then just as they’re getting started, the cold hits them.  And it looks like it’s killed them.  They slump back down to the dirt and go dormant, and they’ll just lie there all through the winter.  The ground will freeze.  Snow will drift and blanket over them.  And there’s nothing you can do.  All winter long you go about your business.  You sleep and rise night and day.  And then you get up one spring morning and notice that the weather is a bit warmer, and the snow is patchy or mostly gone, and you look out the window to see that you suddenly have a field full of beautiful green wheat starting to rise from the earth.  It’s an amazing thing to see, and if you have half a sense of wonder, you thank God for the natural everyday miracle of it and marvel at it for at least a moment before you get on with your work.  

The kingdom of God is like that, says Jesus.  It is seeds, scattered on the earth.  Seeds of ideas and vison. And sometimes it looks like they’ve died.  Or been crushed.  Or been frozen out or buried.  Or simply forgotten.  But they’re there, just waiting for their moment.  

The kingdom of God is seeds of ideas and vision and understanding.  They are ideas about fairness and justice and cooperation.  They are an understanding about fuller and more generous ways to love each other and take care of each other.  The kingdom is a resolve to make a world that is healthier for everyone.  It’s a resolution to embrace God’s vision for how the world is supposed to work—a world where everyone is housed and everyone is fed and everyone can learn and everyone is safe and everyone is free to be their true self.  The kingdom is a determination to repair the damage we’ve done and restore creation so that we and all the creatures who share this world with us can breathe clean air and have clean water.

The kingdom of God, the rule of God, the reign of God, the kin-dom of God is a commitment to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with God and with each other.  It is a continual correction of our vision so we keep learning how to see the image and likeness of God in each other—in each and every face we face so that racism and classism and every other kind of ism evaporate from the earth.  It is the seed of courage taking root in our hearts and minds so that we learn not to be afraid of something or someone simply because it or they are different from us or from what we know or what we expect or what we are used to.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?,” said Jesus.  “It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

The mustard seed!  That tiny seed that produces the most egalitarian, most democratic of plants!  That’s what the kingdom is like.  It shares itself and all it has most freely.  Given half a chance it spreads itself everywhere.  The mustard plant doesn’t care if you are rich or poor.  You don’t have to buy one.  It will come to you and give you and your family food and medicine and spices for your cuisine and healing oils for what ails you.  A most amazing, versatile and humble plant.  And it starts with such a small seed.

The kingdom of God is the planting of seeds. The seeds don’t have to be eloquent preaching or brilliant explanations of theology—probably better if they’re not.  “Preach the gospel at all times,” said St. Francis. “When necessary, use words.”  At a time when the city of Assisi was a rough and dangerous place, he would walk through the town from the top of the hill to the bottom and say as he went, “Good morning, good people!”  When he got to the bottom of the hill he would say to the brother who accompanied him, “There.  I have preached my sermon.”  He planted a seed—the reminder that the day was good and that they had it in them to be good people.

The seeds of the kingdom may be little acts of habit, like bowing your head for a moment to say grace before a meal in a restaurant, even if you don’t say it out loud.  That simple thing might remind those around you to pause, to be thankful, to remember all the connections that bring food to our tables, to remember the goodness of the earth, to remember the presence of God.

The seeds of the kingdom might be small acts of kindness.  When Oscar Wilde was being brought down to court for his trial, feeling more alone and abandoned than he had ever felt in his life, he looked up and saw an old acquaintance in the crowd.  “He performed an action so sweet and simple that it has remained with me ever since,” wrote Wilde. “He simply raised his hat to me and gave me the kindest smile that I have ever received as I passed by, handcuffed and with bowed head. Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that. It was in this spirit, and with this mode of love, that the saints knelt down to wash the feet of the poor, or stooped to kiss the leper on the cheek. I have never said one single word to him about what he did … I store it in the treasure-house of my heart … That small bit of kindness brought me out of the bitterness of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken, and great heart of the world.”

The seeds of the kingdom might be a word of affirmation and encouragement when it’s needed most.  Helen Mrsola was teaching ninth graders new math years ago.  They were struggling with it.  The atmosphere in the classroom was becoming more tense and irritable every day.  So one Friday afternoon Helen decided to take a break from the lesson plan.  She told her students to write down the name of each of their classmates on a piece of paper, then to also write down something nice about that student.  She collected the papers, and over the weekend Helen compiled a list for each student of what the other students had written. On Monday, she gave each student a paper with list of what the other students liked about them.  The atmosphere in the class changed instantly; her students were smiling again. Helen overheard one student whisper, “I never knew that I meant anything to anyone!” 

Years later, a number of the students, all young adults now, found themselves together again at a school function.  One of them came up to Helen and said, “I have something to show you.”  He opened his wallet and carefully pulled out two worn pieces of notebook paper that had obviously been opened and folded and taped many times.  It was the list of things his classmates liked about him.  “I keep mine in my desk at work,” said another classmate.  Another classmate pulled hers out of her purse, saying she carried it with her everywhere she went.  Still another had placed his in his wedding album.

The kingdom of God.  The rule of God.  The reign of God.  The kin-dom of God.

To what shall we compare it?

It’s like seeds scattered on the earth, says Jesus.  It’s like mustard seeds.  Seeds of righteousness.  Seeds of justice. Seeds of vision.  Seeds of kindness.  Seeds of help.  Seeds of hope.  Seeds of mercy.  Seeds of peace.  Seeds of affirmation.  Seeds of goodness.  Seeds of love.  

You don’t know how they grow.  But they do.

On earth as in heaven.

Dear Nicodemus

John 3:1-17

Dear Nicodemus,

I owe you an apology.  I confess that I have not always held you in very high esteem.  The fact is, in the past I thought you were—how to say this?—too cautious and, well, more than a little timid—and, if I’m being really honest, I sometimes thought that you were not the sharpest quill in the inkwell.  I’m sorry I was so quick to judge you.  I confess I hadn’t really read the story from your point of view. 

I realize now, Nicodemus, that it was actually very brave of you to seek out Jesus that night when you two sat down to talk.  Nothing timid about it.  Some people think you came at night just because you didn’t want to be seen talking to the “enemy.”   That’s the frame a lot of people put around your meeting with Jesus.  They see the antagonism and contempt that some of your fellow Pharisees had for Jesus—but to be fair, he gave as good as he got, better really—anyway, people see that enmity in his back-and-forth with your fellow Pharisees, so they assume that you came to that meeting that night with a little malice and a big agenda.   

I hadn’t really thought about it before, Nicodemus, but I can see now how much was at stake for you.  John says that you were an archon, a leader or ruler of the people.  And the language he uses indicates that you were a most highly respected teacher among your people.  Plus you were wealthy.  You had standing in your community as a righteous man, blessed by God.  You had a big reputation to protect, and you were putting all that at risk in order to have a meeting of the minds with a man who many of your community regarded as a troublemaker.  That could have badly tarnished your reputation, and I admire you for putting that concern aside so you could have an honest, personal discussion with Jesus, rabbi to rabbi.

Having said all that, I realize now that you probably came at night simply to avoid the crowds.  I see now that what you wanted was a real conversation with someone who cared deeply about the same things you cared about.

Some have said that your coming at night was symbolic.  They see you as a caricature of  “those who walk in darkness.”  That idea makes a certain kind of sense based on the ways that John’s gospel uses the themes of light and darkness.  But since you came to Jesus, who later calls himself “the light of the world,”  wouldn’t it make more sense to see you as someone who was moving out of darkness and into the light?  You remind us that faith is a process.  Understanding unfolds by degrees.  Too often we forget that.

I’ve also been thinking, Nicodemus, about that first thing you said to Jesus when you sat down to talk:  “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.”  It’s kind of sad, really, but in our time and our culture, when someone greets you with flattery like that, our first impulse is to hold onto our wallets.  But I’ve come to think you were really in earnest when you said it.  You showed him such respect, calling him rabbi and acknowledging not just the powerful things he had done, but the source of that power.  You acknowledged his relationship with the one he called Father, though you couldn’t possibly have understood the true nature of that relationship.  

But then, who does?  Oh, we have no shortage of doctrinal formulas and illustrations to describe that relationship—relationships, really, because the Holy Spirit is part of that eternal dance of love we call the Trinity.  But when you get right down to it, who can really understand the relationship between the Maker, the Christ and the Spirit?  We recite the illustrations and restate the formulas and then think that because we found some language to corral it, we understand that mystic communion of love that is God.  Our language, itself, betrays our lack of real understanding.  In naming them Father, Son, and Spirit, we insert a separateness between them and ascribe roles. That is the antithesis of their relationship, their existence, their being, where they cannot and will not be separate.  As Frederick Buechner said, they are the Mystery beyond us, the Mystery within us, and the Mystery among us—and it’s all one deep and eternal Mystery that gives us life.  The best we can do is enter the Mystery and experience it—and understand that we will never completely understand.  Saint Augustine said that it’s like trying to pour the ocean into a seashell.  

Speaking of understanding, I now understand that I have greatly misunderstood your conversation with Jesus.  When I dug a little deeper, did a little more homework, I came to realize that the dialogue between you two was typical of the way rabbis talked to each other and mulled over ideas in your time.  I didn’t realize before that you were actually inviting Jesus to elaborate more on “being born from above” when you asked, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  You gave the obvious “dunce” response to Jesus so that he had a reason to go deeper into what he was teaching.  It was a rhetorical device.  You are far from a dunce, Nicodemus.  I may be wrong, but your dialogue with Jesus now sounds to me like you and he were using a familiar and respected rabbinic method to engage in a kind of team teaching for the disciples.  And you, with grace and humility, played the role of the “not so bright” student.  

Even when Jesus says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things,”  it reads to me now as if he’s using you as a foil, and you great teacher that you are, you graciously play along.  You help him make the point to those gathered around and listening, that these are not simple, easy concepts to grasp, these things that you two are discussing.  Even a “great teacher of Israel” has to wrestle these ideas.  You help him spur the other listeners into thinking more deeply and opening their minds and hearts more fully to the Mystery of God in, with, under and around them.  You give them permission to have questions.

If you’re wondering why I’ve reassessed my opinion of you, Nicodemus, it’s because I took a good look at the two other times you are mentioned in John’s gospel, particularly that time in chapter 7 when the other Pharisees in the Sanhedrin are upset with the temple police for not arresting Jesus.  They throw shade on him because he’s from Galilee, which is just pure prejudice.  They say he should be arrested for misleading the people because “he does not know the law.”  But you stood up for him, and with perfect irony said, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  That one cost you, I know.  Somebody in that group tried to throw shade on you, too, when he said, “Oh are you from Galilee, too?  Nobody’s ever heard of a prophet coming from Galilee.”  But I think you were maybe beginning to suspect that he really was a prophet, and maybe something more than a prophet.  Even if he was from Galilee.

And then there’s that other thing you did—that beautiful, generous, heart breaking thing.  You were there when he was crucified.  When his disciples had deserted him, you stayed.  Right there at the foot of the cross.  And when you and Joseph of Arimathea took his body down from the cross, you brought a mixture of myrrh and spices—a hundred pounds of myrrh and spices—to prepare his body for a decent burial even though the scriptures said he was cursed for hanging on a tree.  Some have said that in preparing his body you were betraying that you didn’t really believe what he had said about resurrection.  Well if that’s the case it’s no shame on you.  Nobody else believed it either.  Not then, anyway.

No…that was an extravagant act of deep respect, one teacher for another.  That was an act of love.  And that is why, Nicodemus, I have had to revisit what I thought about you.  I realized that you were a person of profound integrity and generosity of spirit.  I realized that you were a righteous man.  I realized that I had no right to judge you to begin with.  

So please forgive me, Nicodemus.  And please know, teacher of Israel, that you have taught me a great deal.