Sermons

"What is your testimony?"

A pastor I knew many years ago asked me this question after dinner one night.

"What is your testimony of Jesus?"

Funny enough, no one had ever asked me this question before.

So I told her.

I told her I wasn't a "traditional kind" of Christian.

 

I told her about night journeys.

I told her about lying awake at night as a child,

and wondering about souls

I told her about finding myself in a thousand-year-old church in the middle of nowhere staring

all night

at an icon

I told her about the divinity

that I find in silence

I told her about poetry

I told her about acts of mercy that I could not explain.

She looked at me for a long moment. And then shook her head.

"No no no," she said. "Your testimony."

And then she pulled down from a shelf a bible, opened to the passage that we just read, and pointed to the words:" 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."

"Do you believe this? Have you been born again? Tell me that story.”

***

This passage from John’s Gospel sounds also like a story we’ve heard before, and know how it ought to go. A Pharisee, wise and widely respected in the community, shows up to challenge Jesus. There are trick questions aplenty, and it looks like Jesus is about to be made a fool of. But Jesus being, y'know, Jesus, has this in the bag. Jesus proceeds to absolutely embarrass whomever challenges Him, swiftly deflating book-smart arguments with REAL wisdom, exposing the myopic, legalistic concerns of Pharisees that don't account for the simple truth of a new covenant of God's love that is right in front of them, if only they would get over themselves to see it. The Pharisee gets, as the youths say, "schooled."

Mic drop.

The end.

There are two problems with that.

The first is one that has been preached many times from this pulpit,

but when Jewish cemeteries are vandalized in 2018, it bears repeating:

to hear an 'us' v 'them', 'Jesus v. the Jews' comes perilously close to tapping the vein of anti-Semitism that runs all too deeply in the church, a not-quite-original sin that we, and all who will preach the Gospel long after us, must reckon with, and treat as though we are playing with fire, because we are.

The second problem is that the Gospels are so full of stories like this that the pattern can obscure the exception.

We can be so primed to hear one thing, to hear anyone who talks to Jesus as a foil, like an audience plant in an infomercial, that we miss what's actually being said.

Did you notice what's different here?

Did you notice, perhaps, that as far as the text tells us, Nicodemus comes alone, under cover of night, not looking for a public disputation?

Did you notice that he is not sent packing, shamed by Jesus' superior knowledge?

Did you notice that Nicodemus calls Jesus 'Rabbi'? That he comes seeking Wisdom?

Did you hear in his question, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” a profoundly silly literalism, like a caricature of a Pharisee? Or did you hear almost sarcasm in his voice, knowing that Jesus was obviously speaking in a metaphor, and pressing to understand?

Did you hear in Jesus’s talk of a new birth in "Water and Spirit" baptismal water that our traditions and teachings have taught us to read into that, or the waters that proverbially break in birth, that this new birth is both 100% body and 100% spirit?

"Born from above"--probably more widely known as "born again" from other translations--is a charged thing for a lot of us. There's lots of reasons why, surely, but a big part of it is that it has come to be this triumphant transformation; when we pass from the night that cloaks Nicodemus' visit into the clarity of day; As the song goes,

"was blind, but now, I see."

There is a telling of this with a before, and an after.

And you either get it, or you don't.

You accept all of it, or you don't.

See it, or you don't.

Believe, or not.

In, or out.

"What is your testimony?"

But what if you don’t have that kind of story? I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that that describes a lot of us, and we might get very nervous around this kind of language. We rightly dislike drawing in-or-out binaries and lines around us, sure, and right, wrong, or indifferent, to speak about "being born from above, or again" is language that has been owned by a certain segment of the church for a long time. That "Born Again Christian" is something you can say, and people will conjure an image of a certain kind of person, is proof of that. And the result, maybe, is what I found when I was asked whether I believed this; that whatever isn't clear, and succinct, and fits into an easy narrative doesn't seem quite authentic to some.

And deeper still, we might doubt then our own authenticity.

If we can't say it with certainty,

then just how strongly *do* we believe?

Or maybe, maybe, we turn the page, on to something that does ring true.

Or we say that we're not a "traditional kind" of Christian.

If our faith is more, to paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of a faithfulness to the moments when we've felt faith,

If we have only a glimmer, a sense that defies words of what we're talking about,

If we have no Eureka moment, but an intuition, an inference, or at best just a longing, then what kind of new birth is that?

Nicodemus's kind.

Nicodemus seems as surprised as anyone to find himself here, in the middle of the night, speaking to Jesus. He's here because he has seen strange things that he cannot deny, nor can he explain except to say that somehow, they are holy. Nicodemus has no direct question, or demand, or plea for help. What would he ask? He has darkened Jesus door because that’s all he can do, because he must draw closer to whatever it is that has upended his plans, and what he thought that he knew.

The spirit, you have to think, must have been part of that.

It came.

And so did he.

You can picture him pacing around, wondering how good of an idea it is to track down this preacher. What face he might lose if anyone found out; what he might learn.

And yet, he set out into the night anyway.

Did he understand what he was doing there? Did he understand who Jesus was? Did he have any notion of the Word Incarnate, let alone the doctrine of the Trinity that this day celebrates?

Almost certainly not. He didn't even know the half of it.

But he showed up.

The spirit, you see, is annoyingly indifferent to our calculations and plans.

It does not give you time to read the fine print.

It does not come with an owners manual.

It goes where it will, and often we know that it has come only

by the trail of creative destruction, inconvenient upending and new growth in its wake, like a rampaging prairie fire.

The text does not give us a clear sense of how this encounter ends, but Nicodemus' visit doesn't seem to be a journey from night into day and confusion into clarity, either. Does he understand "The Son of Man must be lifted up" means more than an ascension? Does he understand precisely *how* anyone is saved through Christ? Was his life set on a different path from that day forward? I don't know. We have very little to tell us.

But we do have one clue: At the end of John's Gospel, in the 19th chapter, as Jesus's body is being taken off the cross, you know who's there, by name? Nicodemus.

And the stranger thing still is that according to the text, he shows up carrying literally seventy five pounds of myrrh. That, to be clear, is, like, a lot of myrrh. Like, a lot. Way more than you'd expect, or would need to cover up the scent of a decaying body. And scholars suggest that it means one of two things: that either it was meant as a show of tremendous respect, or that he wasn't so sure how this whole resurrection thing was going to go down. It seems to me, though, that it could be both. And it seems to me that that’s the same thing that happens in our Gospel text today. Even acts of faith and reverence can be shot through with uncertainty and hedging. And amid that, Nicodemus showed up. When all the disciples had fled, when there seemed to be nothing at all exalted about the manner of Christ's death, confused, frightened, grieving, and unsure of what, exactly would happen, or unable to explain why he was there, he showed up. Seems to be a pattern with this guy.

If you don’t have a born-again story, then, there’s something here for you. Because what if being born again isn't only in the understanding of what Jesus says, but the act of Nicodemus darkening Jesus' door in the first place? What if it's not only the climactic and eternal moment of baptism, but moving toward the things that confuse and mesmerize us all at the same time? What if it is the subtle rearrangement of your priorities and habits when you disregard the sensible, normal, easy thing and venture into a confusing night? The moments that always leave you just a little different--that is to say, new? The Spirit is all about God's love, but as a monk once told me, what does love mean if not a willingness to be surprised? And if you've ever watched a child take their first steps, or feel rain drops, or hear thunder for the first time, you know: what does new birth mean if not the certainty of being constantly surprised?

So when I hear people say that they aren't sure if they're the "traditional kind" of Christian, or that they aren't sure they resonate with being "born from above"--and, to be clear, I'm among them--I wonder what they mean.

Because if we mean that we're not sure about the Trinity; or only sort of relate to one aspect of it;

if we mean that we're not sure we understand all there is to know about Christ;

If we mean that we don't have a succinct answer for why we're here;

If we mean that we don't have an easy testimony, or a Eureka moment

If we mean that we walked through these doors because the world seems like it has caught fire; or because we just noticed it'd been that way for a long time, and somehow, just being here makes it a little easier.

If we mean that prayer is really, really hard to do;

If we mean that biblical allusions go flying over our heads;

If we mean that discerning God's call seems harder than it does for all the other people we love in our lives;

If we mean that some Sundays, all we can do is just show up;

If that's what we mean by "non-traditional Christian"?

Then I look at Nicodemus, and those named as Disciples, and, well, pretty much everyone that Jesus encountered and spoke with, who followed without really knowing what they were getting into, and who knocked on the door anyway…

Beloved, that is the "traditional" way.

And this is a Gospel for you, because it is a Gospel for all who would take a nighttime stroll because they are willing to be surprised.

And I'll testify

to that.

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