Lent 4

Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 14, 2021 – Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

First of all, you need to know that it’s Jesus who’s talking in today’s gospel. The lectionary people omitted some important context when they separated the eight verses that we just heard from the preceding 13.

This passage from John captures only the latter part of Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus. Nevertheless, you may be familiar with how the conversation begins. It’s nighttime when Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says, “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.”

Some commentators are critical of Nicodemus’ assertion. By emphasizing the words “we know that you are…” they cast Nicodemus in the role of a self-assured expert who flaunts his status as a “teacher of Israel.” Others suspect that Nicodemus meets Jesus under the cover of darkness in order to avoid being seen with him.

It’s true that we can glean from the text that Nicodemus is an educated man, a “pillar of the community,” we might say. Likewise, themes of darkness and light play a role in this passage and throughout John’s Gospel. But I don’t think that these details are meant to throw shade (pun intended) on the Pharisee.

Furthermore, if we immediately cast Nicodemus in such a negative light, we might be tempted to hear the remainder of his conversation with Jesus as an adversarial one when, actually, I think the opposite is true.

In fact, as Becky Wright noted in Bible Study earlier this week, Nicodemus shows honor to Jesus by coming at night, on his own time, after a full day’s work, which may indicate that he is motivated by a genuine desire to learn more, rather than a selfish need to impress Jesus with what he already knows.

If we understand their encounter this way, then the Nicodemus we encounter in this story is less a self-righteous teacher preparing to go head-to-head with a colleague and more an eager student visiting his teacher during office hours in order to clarify his understanding.

And so, in search of clarity he says, “It seems to me that we know that you come from God because, otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to do the things that you do.” However, Jesus’ response is anything but clear. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

If I’m honest, I’d prefer Jesus was a bit more affirming of Nicodemus. If you’ve ever been in a class with me, you’re probably familiar with my tendency to quickly affirm participation. “Yeah, yeah, I think that’s right . . . Great point! Very well put!”

Couldn’t Jesus say something like, “Yes, Nicodemus. I think that’s a great way to begin to think about who I am, but there’s more to it than that.”? Alas, that’s not really Jesus’ style. Another example immediately follows.

Nicodemus asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Again, we could read Nicodemus as adversarial or sarcastic, but I hear the question as an example of honest curiosity. Still, Jesus doesn’t exactly simplify things.

“Very truly, I tell you,” he says, “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I 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 who is born of the Spirit.”

Jesus’ response may sound confusing to Nicodemus, and to us, but maybe that’s the point. Jesus is doing what a lot of good teachers do. Instead of providing a simple explanation or answer, he challenges his student to think more about it for himself. 

Perhaps you can remember a teacher in your life who didn’t answer your questions directly or simply so much as they helped you to develop the skills necessary to answer them for yourself.   

“Teach a man to fish,” right? That’s exactly what Jesus is doing for Nicodemus here, and the result is a first-class theological discourse.

Yes, like all theological discussions, it’s confusing. Jesus is attempting to reframe Nicodemus’ understanding of his relationship with God, and that’s not something that he can explain to him in simple terms. Jesus needs Nicodemus to be able to make sense of it for himself, and so he uses another tried and true teaching—and preaching—tactic: a real-life example.

You can’t see the wind, but you know it’s there because you can hear it rustling the leaves of the trees and see the branches bend and sway. Where does the wind start? Where does it go? I don’t know. It’s intangible, abstract. 

It’s the same with “being born from above.” How does that work exactly? It cannot be explained with a piece of chalk or an overhead projector. (Or a dry erase marker or “smart board,” for that matter.)

You can’t always see God working in your life or the world around you, transforming hearts, changing minds. But, if you begin to pay attention, every once in a while, you will realize that it’s happening.

This is precisely what Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to do: start paying attention to the presence of God in his life. This is especially important because Jesus won’t always be with Nicodemus, at least, not in the same sense that he is on this night. 

Jesus hints at this very reality in the first verse of today’s passage. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

As 21st Century Christians, we hear Jesus’ words (which are an allusion to this morning’s reading from Numbers) in full knowledge of his death and resurrection. We can easily draw a parallel between the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness and Jesus being lifted up on the cross.

Nicodemus obviously doesn’t know what’s going to happen to Jesus, but he will find out. And when he does, he will learn for the first time the answer to his question, “How can somebody be born from above?” Because Jesus died and rose again. 

Jesus himself is the answer to Nicodemus’ question. That’s what Jesus is trying to teach him. But Nicodemus will not–and cannot–completely understand this until he develops a relationship with Jesus. For that matter, neither can we. 

Developing a relationship with Jesus doesn’t happen overnight. There is no simple how-to guide for the process, no matter what anyone says. It requires taking time to pay attention to Jesus the Risen Christ’s presence in our lives. That, my friends, is a central task of the Lenten season. 

Remember the words (from our prayer book) that we heard on Ash Wednesday. “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” 

We tend to focus a lot on self-denial, but the rest is important, too. If we use the remaining days of Lent to lean into a period of self-examination, prayer, and scriptural meditation, then we will be walking with Nicodemus into a deeper relationship with the Risen and Living Lord. 

If you read through the rest of John’s gospel account, you will get a sense of Nicodemus’s own journey with Jesus. In chapter seven, he speaks in Jesus’ defense, even after several have turned against him. And in chapter 19, he joins Joseph of Arimathea, this time in broad daylight, to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. 

Remember, when he helped lay Jesus in the tomb, Nicodemus didn’t know what would happen in just two days’ time. We do. That’s all the more reason for us to be on the lookout for Jesus’ presence in our lives. If we do that, we will, right alongside Nicodemus, experience the joy of that beautiful Sunday morning all over again, even as if for the very first time. 

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday – June 16, 2019 – Trinity, Winchester

Today is Trinity Sunday, a principal feast of the church and the titular feast of Trinity Episcopal Church in Winchester. It is a deep joy to be a part of a congregation so steadfast in faithful witness to God’s work in the world. 

I’m not sure that a sermon is the best place to expound upon complicated doctrinal teaching, even on Trinity Sunday. In-depth exploration of the doctrine of the Trinity is probably best suited for adult formation, Bible study, and late-night conversations with nerdy friends. 

We can’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Trinity in next 10 minutes. The Trinity was yesterday, is today, and will remain tomorrow a great mystery. 

Even scholars who devote their lives to studying Christian theology will never quite grasp it. This is not to say that we shouldn’t ask questions about it, study it, or discuss it. In fact, we should!

Labeling this core component of our faith a “mystery” should not be an excuse not to think about it, wrestle with it, or intelligently argue about it. Quite the contrary, our beliefs are strongest when they are joined with knowledge. Learning and holiness must be linked. Prayer and study. Faith and reason. 

But look who I’m telling… You know what it means to critically engage your faith. During the program year we meet weekly for both Sunday School and Bible study. A couple of weeks ago, when Amy and I suggested taking a summer hiatus, you told us you didn’t want to.

You said you wanted to keep meeting each Tuesday afternoon to talk about God and explore your faith. What’s more, you chose to forgo our typical lectionary-based Bible study in favor of a more challenging course that involved reading a scholarly book about biblical narrative. 

Trinity Sunday may be the only day on the liturgical calendar that focuses on a complex theological doctrine, but at Trinity Church in Winchester we have challenging, mind-bending, faith-fueled conversations all year long. 

When you think about it, it’s fitting that we are called “Trinity.” To be named for this inexplicable doctrinal mystery says something about us. It says that we are ready and willing to have challenging conversations.

This is not new to Trinity. Some of you remember that more than a decade ago you had one of the hardest conversations of all. When some members of the parish walked away to start a new venture outside of the Episcopal Church you made sure that Trinity parish remained steadfast in faithful witness. You remained committed to one another and committed to exploring your faith. 

Today is about more than making sense of a complicated theological doctrine. Today is about remembering who we are together and why you—as members of Trinity Episcopal Church— are in relationship with one another. 

The Trinity—one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is in itself a divine model for relationship. God is three, constantly relating to each other, in one. We are constantly reminded of this divine relationship in our liturgy, from “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” all the way to “The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

The Trinity reminds us that Christianity, before it is anything else, is a relationship. Before it is faith, or belief, or creed, or doctrine, or catechism, or morality, it is first and foremost a relationship with God who knew us and loved us before time and who knows and loves us still. 

Christianity is a relationship with God who came as the Son in flesh to sanctify our human nature and who lives among us still. Christianity is a relationship with God who as the Spirit fell in tongues of fire on the disciples and who sustains the church still.  

Christianity is a relationship with God who teaches us what it’s like to be in a relationship with each other, and the rest of creation. Without God we couldn’t live this life together. We couldn’t tolerate each other’s quirks or deal with each others’ personalities. 

Without God we couldn’t have kept this little ship afloat. Without God we wouldn’t be greeting new faces at the door or welcoming back old friends. Without God we wouldn’t be able to gather in the Parish Hall for heady conversations and faith exploration. 

No, without God we would not have this wonderful parish. 

And without God we would not be equipped for the ministry of the future. We would not be equipped for our growing food pantry, or our renewed commitment to evangelism, or our close relationships with our fellow STEM congregations. 

Without God we would scarcely have the courage to walk into each new day, calling this community’s attention to the signs of God all around. 

I guess it’s a good thing we have God, then—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—because I, for one, would hate to miss this. 

St. Justin

Feast of St. Justin – June 1, 2019 – St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

I know a lot of people with PhDs. 

In college, in seminary, and even out and about in the Episcopal Church, I have met (and even come to like!) a lot of folks who went to school for a long, long time. 

Funnily enough, most of the folks I know with PhDs won’t admit to being smart.

When I was discerning my call to the priesthood a college professor on my parish discernment committee told me, “With each degree I earn, the less I feel like I know.”

Her admission makes a kind of sense. 

Advanced degrees are about specializing in certain disciplines. The deeper you dive into a specific subject area, the less time you have to focus on other things. There is a whole world of knowledge that you are not studying. 

My other high-achieving friends agree; earning a PhD is humbling. It makes one keenly aware that there is always something more to learn, a different question to answer, a new problem to solve. 

Today we celebrate Justin Martyr, another learned man. Sort of a PhD in his own day. His appetite for knowledge was immense. He was educated in various schools of Greek philosophy including stoicism, platonism, pythagoreanism, and peripateticism (whatever that is!).

Alas, even with such a strong command of philosophical knowledge,  Justin did not find wholeness until one day when he met a disciple of Jesus who revealed to him the testimony of the prophets. Following this encounter, Justin became a Christian and dedicated himself to God.

He even founded a school in Rome and wrote ardent defenses of the Christian faith. His faith in Jesus became so strong that he refused to renounce it, even when it meant the loss of his mortal life. 

This is all to say, Justin found wholeness only when his quest for knowledge was complemented by his encounter with the divine.

There is always going to be a vast amount of knowledge yet unknown to us. That’s a good thing. It keeps us motivated to learn by considering new perspectives. Faith benefits from the expansion of the mind. 

Another holy man of the calendar, John Wesley, used to talk about the union of knowledge and vital piety. That is, knowledge and faith. Learning and holiness. Truth and love. It’s not one or the other. It’s both of them together.

Knowledge alone cannot save us. Salvation is found in our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. That relationship, both individually and corporately, gives our pursuit of knowledge order, discipline, and focus. 

In Christianity Justin did not simply find the knowledge he was looking for. He also found a communion with the One who put his quest for knowledge in perspective and gave his life deep meaning.

In Christianity Justin found the God who established with him—and who establishes with each of us—a bond so strong that Becky Wright (one of my favorite PhDs) might even call it “absolute, rock-solid, covenant loyalty.” In response to that loyalty, Justin went all in. Even to point of death. 

As mere mortals, like Justin, there is no way we can match God’s loyalty to us, but we can do something. We can take the knowledge we do have, the knowledge of our life-giving relationship with Jesus, and we can share it with all whom we meet. 

For that there is no PhD required.