The head and the heart
SERMON: 2 Lent A 3 8 2020
Gen12:1-4a;Ps121;Rom4:1-5,13 -17;Jn 3:1-17
If you or I heard Jesus was in town, we would have gone and sat outside his door and waited for an appearance or a sighting, or any physical sign of his presence. We would have been so glad he was in Poughkeepsie. We would be thinking about all the people we'd like him to meet and help and heal. We wouldn't wait for the night, like Nicodemus did.
We would just like to draw near to him, to be as close as possible. We'd want to help him. We'd be like acolytes, not groupies or paparazzi. We wouldn't want anything more from him than we've already received because we've already had the benefit of 2,000 years of Christian teaching. Unlike Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was just picking up his first bits and pieces of Jesus' teaching. Although he was clearly intrigued, he was disturbed that Jesus' ideas clashed so sharply with his own education and ideas. He was having a hard time digesting what Jesus was telling him.
It seems obvious that Jesus felt Nicodemus was sincere in his pursuit of Jesus' teaching and desirous of a complete understanding of it. Of course Jesus was quite accustomed to leaders of the Jewish faith trying to trap him with their own Biblical knowledge and questions and trick him into a confession with which they could bring charges against him. Jesus had many times challenged his questioners as to their motives, so transparent were there schemes.
But Nicodemus was different. And although it sounds a little like Jesus was dressing him down, actually Jesus was giving him the key to all that Nicodemus was seeking.
Jesus is giving Nicodemus a crash course in the nature of the Almighty. He is suggesting to Nicodemus that when remarkable things happen that we don't fully understand, which are unpredictable and, often, unsettling, we can choose to look at such experiences with fear or with a different view. The different view is that God's will is being fulfilled in the world without our having anything to do with it. Nobody asked us. Nobody cares what we think about it. It is happening and we can take a moment and be awed by the wonders of the world we observe and experience attributable to the will of God. In truth Jesus was such a wonder. But unlike the wind, he stuck around to explain himself and his amazing powers and his genealogy.
Jesus is suggesting to Nicodemus that the answers to his questions concern his relationship with God. If all his authority and education have brought him to the point where he has to rely on them alone and not open himself to new thoughts of spiritual principles, then Nicodemus is trapped by his background, his education, his faith. What Jesus has done which has become fairly well known in the region cannot be explained logically or conventionally. He has healed hopeless cases. He has raised the dead. He has walked on the water. He has--thus far--avoided being trapped and taken prisoner by the civil and the religious authorities.
Jesus points out to Nicodemus that he's not gonna get it until he opens up to these new ideas. "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?"
In "Are We There Yet?" the booklet of Lenten meditations we're using this year for our Wednesday Lenten Supper Series the image of pilgrimage is introduced. The book asserts that pilgrims find "the furthest distance we will travel is the eighteen inches between our brains and our hearts."
Jesus goes on. And since it's the Gospel of John he goes on and on. But he's made his point. It appears Nicodemus got that point. Later when the authorities attempt to convict Jesus without a hearing, Nicodemus points out their own rules prohibit it. And when Jesus has been crucified and has died, Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea in embalming his body. Nicodemus wouldn't have done these things if he hadn't believed Jesus. He wouldn't have put himself in the position of a sympathizer if he hadn't come to terms with this born from above business. We have no evidence or record of Nicodemus' baptism, but evidently he had adopted and absorbed Jesus' spiritual teaching.
Unlike Nicodemus, we have been baptized. Unlike Nicodemus we have recited the Baptismal Covenant countless times, most recently last weekend. But we are ever so like Niocodemus in other important ways. For example, we are bashful about declaring our faith, except when circumstances are just right, when people ask the right questions, when we know we won't get jammed up for stating the facts of our faith. Or we are happy to help if it's convenient, but not if it's too much trouble. Or we're faithful when it doesn't interfere with other choices, sometimes seemingly higher priority choices than actively living into our faith.
So if that describes us, clearly Nicodemus has passed us in the realm of spiritual growth. We might keep that in mind when we chuckle at his spiritually ignorant questions for Jesus in today's reading.
Because there are times when we are just as dense about spiritual things as Nicodemus was when he met Jesus. We can ignore all kinds of signs and symbols and sensations--like a serious digestive ache--as we ponder a choice that clearly contravenes God's will. Whether it's violence or gluttony or just willful ignorance we fantasize about, we know it's contrary to the will of God. Yet we often live in the choice or even the poor option long after recognizing, in the popular phrase of a couple of decades ago, "What would Jesus do?"
There was a book of that name that was loaned to me about 30 years ago by the Episcopal priest in Seward Alaska. He had mentioned it in his sermon and I asked if I could borrow the book. It was a slim volume that told the story of a depression-era railroad town in the dumps which decided--by resolution of the City Council, as I recall--to make civic decisions on the basis of their discernment of the answer to the question in each situation: "What would Jesus do?"
I will admit to being a sucker for a happy ending, so a story with a happy middle as well as a happy ending is even better. This was such a book. But it implied that the only reason that cities all around the world--the entire world, actually-- hadn't taken up this plan and become utterly peaceful and loving in all areas is that individuals abandoned the idea of checking in with Jesus when it suited them, when they thought it was advantageous to do otherwise.
This may seem rather hopelessly simplistic to you. I should just admit that it is. But it moved me very deeply. It shone a light for me on memories and regrets and sadnesses that resulted from just that kind of forgetfulness, forgetting to consider what Jesus would do in all situations. I had perpetrated unhappiness through such thoughtlessness and I had been grieved that way as well.
But that's the situation Nicodemus found himself in in the Gospel lesson this morning. He knew if he did as Jesus said he'd be putting himself at risk, even if he did the right thing and followed Jesus. But he did it anyway.
When we prayed in our Collect this morning, " Be
gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them--we meant bring us--again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ," we were asking God's help. We were asking God to help us hang onto the notion of what Jesus would have us do, and let go of the willful and often ridiculous ideas we come up with on our own.
We want and we need the mind of Christ, a minute at a time.All the time. Amen
A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Lent, March 8, 2020, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church,
Poughkeepsie NY, by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector.