Saturday, February 16, 2008

Sermon: 2 Lent (17 February 2008)

2 Lent: 17 February 2008
(Genesis 12:1-4a/Psalm 121/Romans 4:1-5, 13-17/John 3:1-17)
The Power of Wrong

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Being right exercises great power over weak minds – over strong ones, too. So does being wrong. You notice it in education. There’s the kid in the front seat of the center row whose hand pops up to answer every question, bouncing in the seat, body language screaming, “Pick me! Pick me!” – a real life Hermione Granger. Her self-esteem is dependent on being right, on being right first, on being right always. Then there’s the kid in the back seat of the far-most row, head down, eyes averted, engaged only in trying to be invisible. This kid lives in constant fear of being noticed, of being called on to answer a question or make a comment or venture a conjecture, because this kid is terrified of being wrong. One kid is a little hollow inside, the other a little fragile. Perhaps you were one of those kids, or even are one of those kids. And honestly, there’s a little of each one of them in each one of us, isn’t there?

I read somewhere – I wish I remembered where – that one of the most difficult things for any person to do is to admit being wrong about a deeply held belief, especially if he’s taught or defended or just held that belief passionately and publicly. I believe it; I’ve seen the anguish this can cause. Why is it that being right is so important? Why is it that being wrong is so devastating? Being right exercises great power over weak minds – over strong ones, too. So does being wrong.

People will die to keep from being wrong and kill to prove themselves right. It’s true on a personal level and on a national level. If there were ever any doubts about that, 9/11 and its aftermath in Afghanistan and Iraq should have erased them. Wherever you stand on the war, the battle is clearly one of ideologies: Radical Islam versus decadent Western culture or the inalienable right to freedom and democracy versus religious totalitarianism, depending on your point of view. It’s right there in our own Christian tradition, too, in the witness of the martyrs – men, women, and children, slave and free, ancient and modern, who would sooner die that admit they were wrong about Jesus, and in governments like Rome and Russia and China and Viet Nam and North Korea who are only too ready to oblige them. Being right exercises great power. So does being wrong.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night (John 3:1-2a, ESV).

This is John writing the account of Nicodemus, a real literary stylist who wastes no words; everything is important. So, when John writes, “Nicodemus came to Jesus by night,” we should pay careful attention. Light and darkness are recurring themes in John’s gospel (cf John 1:1-10), symbols of good and evil, of knowledge and ignorance. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, in the darkness, in his ignorance, bound up in his sin and the sin of his people. That’s the truth of the situation as John wants us to understand it. But that’s likely not what Nicodemus was thinking about. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night to avoid being seen with Jesus. Why? Because Jesus was wrong, and to be seen consorting with the wrong people, well, that just won’t do, will it? Every major cultural group in Israel would have considered Jesus wrong. To the Zealots, the first century Jewish equivalent of the Taliban or Hamas – the freedom fighters/terrorists who slit Roman throats at every opportunity – to these Zealots Jesus was a collaborator, as was anyone who refused to violently oppose the Roman occupation. To the Zealots, Jesus was wrong. To the Sadducees – the priests in charge of the temple and the true Roman collaborators – Jesus was an upstart who challenged their status quo, questioned their authority, and himself assumed religious prerogatives reserved for the priesthood and the temple. To the Sadducees, Jesus was wrong. To the Pharisees – the self-appointed watchdogs of Torah and the keepers of the flame of righteousness – Jesus seemed all too lax in his keeping of the Law and much too ready to feast with “the wrong sort of people.” To the Pharisees, Jesus was wrong. And the list goes on. In the eyes of every important first century Palestinian group, Jesus was wrong. Except for the common people, of course: the poor, the lame, the sick, the widows and orphans, the lepers and outcasts, the tax collectors and prostitutes and not a few Samaritans – these loved Jesus. But, little matter: they were wrong, too. And two wrong don’t make a right.

So, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, saying

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2b, ESV).

Unless these words are pure sarcasm – and I don’t think they are -- they cut right to the heart of a dilemma that Nicodemus seems to experience: If Jesus is wrong, as all his colleagues assume, then why does God apparently work so powerfully through him? The Jewish leaders had their own answer for this: Jesus is demon possessed and is in league with Beelzebub, the ruler of demons. It’s not God working through him at all. But Nicodemus apparently doesn’t agree, or is at least willing to entertain the notion that maybe Jesus isn’t wrong, after all. And that makes Jesus’s answer to his greeting all the more significant.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, ESV).

I’ve watched Clare this last week performing a real act of Lenten charity; she’s knitting part of a blanket to be given to a ill colleague from the members of her department, a gift of time and concern, the work of hands and hearts. Now, Clare can knit, but this particular pattern is much more complex than she’s attempted before. I’ve seen her agonize over a small mistake: Should she just leave it and continue – my answer is yes – or should she rip out several rows and start them over? In knitting it seems, some mistakes can be ignored, some can be fixed easily, and some – well, for some, things have gone so wrong that you just have to start over.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, ESV).

With these words Jesus turns the tables on Nicodemus as surely as he had turned the tables on the money-changers in the temple. Nicodemus, you are so wrong, that you must be born again. You must start over from scratch if you hope to see the kingdom of God. You can’t ignore this wrong and you can’t easily fix it. You just have to start over.

How hard these words must have been for Nicodemus to hear. How hard it is to admit you’ve been profoundly wrong about a deeply held belief, especially if you’ve taught or defended or just held that belief passionately and publicly, as Nicodemus surely had. Nicodemus is a ruler of his people, a member of the Jewish Council, a recognized religious authority, and this upstart rabbi who everyone else knows to be wrong, tells Nicodemus that he, Nicodemus, is wrong and must start over.

No wonder Nicodemus is stunned and confused. His response shows how little he understands or perhaps how hard he’s trying not to understand what Jesus said.

Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born” (John 3:4, ESV)?

This isn’t a biological question. Whatever Jesus means Nicodemus knows it isn’t about re-entering the womb. No, I think we need to see this as a cry of the heart and not of the mind, as a profound question from the depths of his being. How can I, a leader in Israel, a teacher of the law, a member of the Council, admit that I’ve been wrong all along and start over? How can you ask that of me? How can I possibly do that?

Do you remember the rich, young ruler who came to Jesus seeking eternal life – the one who left sorrowful when Jesus told him to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him? “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said to his disciples as the young man walked away. “Who then can be saved?” they asked, just as confused there as Nicodemus is here. “With man it is impossible; but with God, all things are possible,” Jesus explained. And he says the same to Nicodemus.

“Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8, ESV).

How can you admit you’ve been wrong and start over again, Nicodemus? You can’t – not on your own; but with God all things are possible. This new birth is a gift of the Spirit, a blowing of the divine wind; it’s the breath of God. How can you admit you’ve been wrong and start over again, Nicodemus? Get in the water. It starts there with baptism, which is in every sense a complete death of self, a total admission of wrong, a ripping out of the stitches to start over. You must be born of water. Then comes the Spirit – new breath, new life, a wind blowing where it will, a wind that you will never fully understand. You must be born again, Nicodemus, of water and of the Spirit.

It wasn’t easy for Nicodemus then. During Jesus’s life it seems likely he became a secret disciple like Joseph of Arimathea, still afraid of being seen as wrong, still afraid of associating with the wrong people. He did once screw up his courage and defend Jesus’ right to a fair hearing when the Sanhedrin was ready to summarily condemn Jesus. And finally at Jesus’s death he came fully out of the closet, when he saw the wrong done to this good man by those whose opinions he once had valued. It wasn’t easy for Nicodemus then and it’s not easy for us now. We are resident aliens in a culture which seeks its life in so many places of death: in the accumulation of wealth, in the exercise of power, in the temporary self-gratification of shallow sensuality. And it is tempting and easy as resident aliens to assimilate, to put down roots, to worship these gods of the nations. Even here in the buckle of the Bible Belt where there’s still a veneer of faith, it’s not easy to come to Jesus and admit you’ve been wrong. It’s easier to come to Jesus only by night, afraid of being seen with him. He is, after all, slightly disreputable and somewhat scandalous in the eyes of the movers and shakers of the world. And even then we’re afraid that when we do come under cover of night we might just hear him say, “You must be born again.” Then what will we do?

Nicodemus knew that keeping company with Jesus would be disruptive, risky business. He opted for secret discipleship. Nothing much has changed through the years. Keeping company with Jesus is still disruptive, risky business. And many of his followers still opt for secret discipleship. It’s funny: we can be secret disciples and yet openly attend church, wear Jesus t-shirts and plaster our car with Jesus bumper stickers. The only real requirement for secret discipleship is that we keep Jesus in his place, confined to church or t-shirts or bumper stickers, compartmentalized and not free to roam the world, much less to rule it. As long as we don’t take Jesus too seriously; as long as we don’t place him at the center of our marriages, families, professions, politics, and finances; as long as we don’t let him make demands on our world we are secret disciples. But plant the cross of Jesus in the center of our being and at the center of our being in the world, and suddenly we find ourselves hanging out with the wrong people.

Whatever you think about this particular issue, let a pharmacist refuse to fill a prescription for RU486, a pill designed to abort a very early term fetus, refuse because she’s become an open disciple of Jesus, and suddenly she’s seen as associating with the wrong sort of people. Let a soldier lay down his arms because he’s become an open disciple of Jesus, and suddenly he’s seen as associating with the wrong sort of people. Let a prosperous business woman sell her company and move into an inner city neighborhood to live with and serve the poor all because she’s become an open disciple of Jesus, and suddenly she’s seen as associating with the wrong sort of people. And the list goes on.

At it’s very best the church is comprised of all the wrong sort of people, led by the worst of the bunch – Jesus himself. Life in the Spirit is this upside down, topsy-turvy world that Jesus warned Nicodemus and us about: the first shall be last and the last shall be first, the right shall be wrong and the wrong shall be made righteous. The Spirit blows where it will, and we hear its sound, but don’t always know where it comes from or where it’s going.

So, we in the church must be willing to be wrong in the way Jesus was wrong: wrong by reaching out to the marginalized and excluded – to the sinners and tax collectors among us – wrong by talking to Samaritans and assuring them that the day is coming and now is when God seeks all those who will worship in Spirit and in truth, wrong in feasting with those who have been excluded from the table of fellowship, wrong in associating with people who may be wrong in different ways than we are.

Ironically, being wrong in this way is actually being right in the only way that really matters. I’m willing to be wrong in the eyes of the world as long as I’m wrong in the company of the one who said,

“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” (John 3:16).


No comments: