Rob Grabill, Director of Religious Education
How’s your Lent? Has anyone wished you a happy one? It’s not the sort of hijacked holiday season that inspires store clerks to wish a you politically-correct, “have a good holiday!”. It’s not even a holiday. Lent is one of those in-house religious seasons that is bracketed by days of observance (Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday) which themselves barely fall under the modern rubric of a holiday. The lack of cultural reinforcement outside of these walls makes it easy to let Lent slip into the background from Sunday to Sunday. Fasting and deprivation are inconvenient, and resolutions made on Shrove Tuesday wither even faster than the ones many make on New Year’s Eve. That’s fair game, perhaps. Here’s what a real critic of apathetic attitudes about Lent has to say: Rev. Jeffrey MacDonald, writing in the Boston Globe last Sunday, made a compelling case against those who have left Lent in the dust:
“How did Christianity’s most serious season become a joke in this supposedly religious country? We let desire become our master, and desire has no use for sacrifice. For centuries, Christianity sought to temper primitive desire for addictive pleasures, dominance of neighbors, hoarding or resources, and other idols that ruin lives. But the boarder culture has persuaded us to cut loose, and obey our lowest passions, lest they fester into perpetual frustration.
Now religion is desire’s handmaiden. Americans routinely quit churches that fail to please them. And churches, anxious to survive, vie to offer what congregations want: happy, clappy celebrations; entertaining multimedia shows; supportive gatherings of like-minded people. Meanwhile, they jettison the harder and more edifying parts of Christianity, such as practicing repentance, sharing in others’ sufferings, and observing Lent.
In purging self-denial from the tradition, American Christians play into the hands of corporate merchandisers, who hope we’ll spend more and more year-round to quench unquenchable desires. Yet the highest price we play is spiritual. Self-denial for a season fosters humility. It blunts the insidious delusion of entitlement. It shapes compassion for the poor and hungry by raising at least a measure of awareness of their circumstances. It breeds courage as we tell our lowest desires: No, you are not my master. I answer to a higher authority. With God’s help, it opens a way for higher desires to take route – for the creation of a new heart, in biblical parlance. To trade the inherited wisdom of this way for the cheap platitudes of self-help therapy is costly indeed.”
MacDonald lands some telling blows on American religion in general. And he makes a particularly good case for the waning of the individual acts of self-denial and sacrifice during this time of year. But the shoe he asks happy, clappy churches to try on doesn’t seem to fit here. He forgets one of the most important elements of Lent, the need to reflect, and pray, and learn. This is a congregation that empathizes, and reaches out, and takes a stand. And during Lent, this is a community that knows how to engage in those activities. Next Wednesday, we have the chance to gather and examine ways to enrich our prayer lives, culminating a process of several months of learning. On the following three Wednesdays Carla will present “Who do YOU say that I am?” Who is Jesus to you? Based on a new UCC publication called “The Jesus Diaries. Last Sunday, we started our latest Bible study series with Rev. Fred Berthold. Does the phrase “Bible study” sound boring and born again to you? I can see how that might be the case. But these Bible studies are anything but that. Fred, who confesses that he made a practice of confusing the young minds of Dartmouth students (those are his exact, self-descriptive words), takes great delight in leading slightly less confused adults in all sorts of intellectual directions that to orthodox types might seem even heretical. Historical and literary criticism of the Bible restores vibrancy to a text that in some hands has become a canon so closed that it’s nothing more than an inerrant roadmap to a narrow world of the chosen few and the excluded, judged “others”. That’s another sermon for later.
Our scriptural studies started last week, with an examination of the roots of the Christian church in the chaotic times after the execution of Jesus, and how the many accounts and interpretations of his life and teachings and death and resurrection gave rise to the practice of a new religion. One of the groups we have been discussing is the Pharisees, the observant Jews who have become poster children for rigidity and opposition to Jesus’ “way”. Fred makes a compelling case for the fact that Jesus himself was a Pharisee. He was a rabbi who by his own testimony came to fulfill the
Torah and the prophets, not replace them. He quarreled with the Pharisees, and clashed with them, but it was a family quarrel. Jesus was a Jew, and a rabbi, and we considered the idea that he was also a Pharisee.
That makes it interesting to consider this week’s Gospel reading. Please notice that for the first time in eight weeks, and only the third time since November, our text is from John, who sometimes had a very different spin on the meaning of Jesus’ life. In John 3, early in the story of Jesus’ ministry, Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews, comes to see Jesus. If he’s described as a “leader” it very likely means that he is a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews who eventually conspired in his death. Nicodemus comes by night, and that carries a great deal of meaning. His motives here are not sinister, but self-protective. A man of his standing can hardly be seen seeking the counsel of an itinerant charismatic. But he approaches Jesus respectfully. He calls him “Rabbi”, and even more importantly acknowledges that he comes from God. He’s curious. He wants to know more. He says “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God”. Jesus answers him with the famous phrase “no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” The Greek word for the phrase “from above” is translated several ways. It means more than one thing. It also means “born anew”. This is where the evangelicals get “born again”. This is the source of the acid test for true believers who want to know whether or not you have been saved. “Tell me brother or sister, have you been born again?”. To answer that question in the negative to a biblical literalist is to unleash a torrent of attempts to convert you. I was talking about this the other night with Corinne Fortune, who grew up in Georgia, and was asked that question hundreds of times at Baptist bible camp when she attended as a young girl. She reports that she doesn’t hear that query now that she is a member of this congregation.
Nicodemus is a literalist, however and Jesus’ words baffle him. He can’t figure out how one can be born after growing old. Can one enter a second time into a mother’s womb and be born? John’s intent with Nicodemus is clear. He is an archetype for the unknowing and unbelieving, and he’s merely a foil for Jesus. John quotes Jesus at his most profound and poetic, describing the necessity of being born by the Spirit: “Do not be astonished that I have said to you, you must be born from above. 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 born of the Spirit.” With the perspective of thousands of years and an appreciation for John’s mystical nature, we sitting here can at least pluck at the meaning of John’s words, just as we marvel at the opening of his book two chapters earlier, when we are bathed in the magical concept of Logos, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”. But Nicodemus was lost. “How can these things be?” he stammers. Jesus mocks him. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” And then Jesus continues to respond, although by now he is no longer talking to Nicodemus, but to John’s wider audience. “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.” The latter use of the word you, translated from the Greek, is second person plural. Jesus is speaking to us. And remember, since this is John doing the reporting, it is not just not just Jesus talking, but God incarnate. And the verses which follow are the buttresses of John’s theology. Nicodemus has served his purpose. He is not mentioned again in this encounter. He fades into the darkness from which he came, having provided the necessary counterpoint of Pharisitic cluelessness that allows John to espouse the Word.
Have you figured out yet that we are Nicodemus? Sure. We are leaders in our communities. We are successful, confident, curious. We’re rational, and maybe a bit risk-averse. Perhaps we aren’t ready to go public with our questions for Jesus, so we
approach him in the middle of the night, and keep our faith under wraps. We’re not ready yet to profess that we are born anew, let alone born from above. Nicodemus is not ready to declare his faith in the light of the day, or prepared to let it change his life. Yet there is much to praise about a faith that thrives in the dark. It is genuine, heartfelt, personal, and often deep. The point is not that this hidden faith is somehow faulty – as far as it goes: The point is that it is too small. In this text Jesus suggests that Nicodemus’ faith is incomplete, even immature. He likens his midnight encounter to a child still safe in a mother’s womb. You are still gestating, Jesus implies. You must be born anew, and declare that faith in the light of day. Jesus seems impatient when he talks with Nicodemus. He is annoyed when Nicodemus does not immediately understand the metaphor of rebirth. He even mocks the Pharisee. But he is also inviting him. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to be born anew by water and Spirit, he is asking Nicodemus to let God work in his life. Nicodemus isn’t ready at this time, but this is not the last time we see Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. Nicodemus reappears at a crucial moment in the seventh chapter, and seems to come to Jesus’ defense in a contentious conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities. And then, after Jesus’ death, it is Nicodemus who joins with Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, to help with the burial of Jesus body. There is still some ambiguity here. Joseph and Nicodemus bring with them huge amount of spices to anoint Jesus. This is certainly a sign of respect, and possibly even acknowledgment of Jesus as King. Has Nicodemus finally come out of the dark? Or is he weighing Jesus body down so that it will remain in the tomb? Given his complicated character and his uncertain status in John’s writings, this is a complicated issue. We’ll revisit this in a moment, and we have to since what we discover about Nicodemus may inform how we feel about ourselves.
Today’s reading from the Hebrew bible, describing God’s first and perhaps most pivotal encounter with Abraham, is highlighted in the lectionary as the main reading. With good reason. In this spare passage there is a call and a promise to Abram and Sarai that defines God’s relationship with his chosen people. Abraham responds faithfully, a point emphasized by the Apostle Paul in today’s epistle. Paul makes critical use of the Patriarch Abraham as a role model of faith necessary to gain God’s kingdom. Upon receiving God’s call, Abraham trusts that the maker of the promise will be a keeper of the promise, and so he goes, to a place he has never known, away from his family, unhesitatingly. We know from scripture that the one who calls is the one who equips. The one who equips always leads the called to become more than they are, a more complete expression of the person they were created to be. So if the call is from God, the answer is yes. A faithful response is the embrace of what God has already called into being – a newness of being – and the release from what is known for what is promised.
Does the idea of embracing newness and leaving behind a settled, secure life remind you of anyone in Johns Gospel lesson? To be born from above, or born anew, is to embrace nothing less than God’s call, and to leave the life that one has known. To leave the comfort of a safe, secure surrounding for the promise of the unknown is nothing less than a rebirth. This is the challenge that Nicodemus was facing. And most importantly, we don’t know how his story continues. Nicodemus served his purpose in John’s Gospel, but we can only guess what happens after he carefully, respectfully buries Jesus. Will be he like many of the Jews in that time who watched and waited before embracing The Way? Will he be like his fellow Jew, Saul of Tarsus, who vigorously attacked the followers of the Apostles of the Christ, until his dramatic conversion made him a believer, and caused him caused him to invoke Abraham’s faith in a new life as the way to salvation? I intend to ask that question this afternoon in Bible class with Professor Berthold and my classmates. I will carefully consider how this Wednesday evening I can find answers like these in prayer, and try to shake off my self-consciousness and self-doubt about my prayer life. I will eagerly embrace the Lenten learning opportunities that may help nudge me out of the darkness, where I am currently meeting Jesus, and into the light. I will pray like this, a meditation by Bruce Sanguin:
Holy One, we hear stories:
Of Abraham and Sarah loading up the U-Haul
With nothing but an old armchair and an unlikely promise.
Is this the kind of stepping out you ask of us?
We hear stories:
Of Nicodemus stealing away in the night, risking reputation and academic pride
For nothing but a fireside chat with a peasant rabbi
And a long-forgotten promise reawakened by his presence
Is this the kind of stepping out you ask of us, a walking way from the trappings of life toward the trembling Mystery of Life itself?
We confess, O Holy One,
An inclination to cling to the self we have carefully constructed,
to the life we have inherited,
to the beliefs that keep it all going.
But sometimes in the night, in the rare in-between moments,
The Life within our life beckons, the Holy within the hectic quickens,
the Sacred within the scared stirs.
Help us to trust that the wind at our back is your spirit,
Nudging us toward the Nazarene,
In whom your promise to the bold and open-hearted is realized.
Today is the first day of spring. But we know that there will be dark days ahead in Lent, before we glimpse the hope of Eastertide and the promise that comes with being born by the Spirit. Let us be open to the learning and the living and the small sacrifices that remind us of the journey that really can belong to us. From that willingness to embrace uncertainly, we can truly have a happy, happy Lent.