Nicodemus and Spiritual Curiosity: Sermon for May 27, 2018

A few weeks ago I told you that this is trout season. Most Saturdays this time of year I’m out fly fishing. Saturdays are also the days when I’m thinking through my sermon for the next day, usually looking for that one last sermon illustration. So I told you there might be some overlap between sermons and fishing stories for a while.

Today is no exception. Yesterday I was thinking about what it means to be curious. I meant spiritual curiosity, but I started to think about what I was doing at the moment. So much of fishing involves finding the fish, and that is often harder than it sounds. 

Once they have found a good fishing spot, a lot of people won’t share it with you. And so, you have to find your own. So you look around at these quiet, shallow creeks full of rocks and plants, with not a fish to be seen, and you think to yourself, “there’s nothing there”.

IMG_0511But sometimes, you try anyway. You put your line in the water, and lo and behold, a fish pops up. And you marvel at the fact that the fish was there the whole time, in this piece of water that you maybe drive by every day, and all it took was enough curiosity to try.

I tell you that story because I believe in the power of curiosity, and today’s story is one about what it means to be curious. It all revolves around a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a religious authority, and Jesus was not well-loved by the Pharisees. They were trying to find ways to discredit him and reduce his growing influence, which they felt was a threat to their own power.

But Nicodemus was starting to get curious. There was something about Jesus that made him ask the big questions. And so, one night he decided to put his line in the water. He had to be careful, he couldn’t let his Pharisee friends see, and so he snuck out in the dead of night and went to find Jesus. 

He probably woke Jesus up. But Jesus, being a better person than I, talks to him. Nicodemus says, “I know you’ve got to be a teacher from God…how else would you know all you know…but who are you.”

And Jesus, as usual, doesn’t give a straight answer. Jesus starts talking about being “born from above” or “born again”. And Nicodemus has no idea what he’s saying. He’s like, “Am I supposed to go back in my mother’s womb, Jesus?” But Jesus starts to explain what it means to be spiritually reborn, to have something new happen inside of you.

Now, where I come from, a lot of people talk about being “born again”. I got asked so many times growing up whether I had been “born again”. And I had friends who had these amazing stories about how they had been born again. They’d tell you the exact moment when their lives had changed and they had quote “accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior”. 

That always confused me, because I never had one big moment like that. Instead, I had a lot of little moments. I had times when I got curious, and I opened myself up to the big questions that were brewing inside of me. Those questions got me into books, and into conversations, and later into church. Slowly curiosity opened the way for me to come to know God. Like Nicodemus in the night, I cautiously approached Jesus, and started to wonder whether he might be worth following.

I think that’s how it is for many of us, especially if we are the kind of people who are cautious but curious. Our particular religious tradition teaches us that it’s not only okay to ask big questions, but it’s actually a good thing. We don’t believe in leaving our brains at the church door.

And yet, I am struck by the fact that if you are here, your curiosity somehow brought you to those church doors, and right through them. That’s not true of everyone. You are here because God is working in you, helping you to be spiritually reborn again and again and again. And so long as you remain curious, so long as you remain open to wonder, your rebirth will not stop.

That’s one reason why our sermons this summer are going to be inspired by your questions. If you are here, in this church, you probably have questions. And so, this is a chance to get curious, to put your line in the water, and to go just a little further in your spiritual rebirth. So please, fill out those forms. Ask the questions that keep you up at night. I’m not Jesus…that’s for sure…but I’ll do my best to be a companion on the journey, trying to wrestle with these questions with you. Because we are all Nicodemuses in some ways.

That’s good news. And that’s also unsettling news. And I mean “unsettling” in the best possible way. Because it means we will be forced out of our settled places – we will be unsettled – and made to evolve spiritually…just like Nicodemus was. 

Martin Luther King once used the story of Nicodemus to talk about being born again. He said that Jesus hadn’t given Nicodemus easy instructions or said “stop doing this” or “stop doing that”. Instead, Dr. King said, Jesus told Nicodemus “your whole structure must be changed”. This was nothing less than a total shake-up.

Dr. King was talking specifically about how America had to be “born again” and deal with injustice. And that’s a good example of how we as people, and as institutions and communities, must also sometimes be born again, and do what is right and what is good, for the love of God and for the love of the world.

On this Memorial Day weekend, I’m thinking about that, and I’m thinking about what it means to be an unsettled American Christian. I grew up in a deeply patriotic family full of people who gave their whole lives to military or government service. I’m in many ways the exception in my family in that I chose to serve the church instead.

But I remain a believer in the American experiment. That doesn’t mean that I’m naive, though. I believe in this country’s potential to be better. I loved my country even when I had to file my federal taxes as a single person despite the fact I wore a wedding ring on my left hand, but I knew that the work of this country being spiritually reborn again and again was not over. 

I’ve been thinking about that this week as we prepare to help welcome a family of refugees to New Hampshire. I am so struck by the courage this family is showing. To be legally designated as a refugee is a high bar. It means that they are fleeing something so horrible that coming to this country, a place where they no know one and have no connections, is worth leaving everything behind.

There are real risks. That’s why it cannot be shared publicly where they are from, how many are in the family, or when they will arrive. Right now they are preparing for an incredibly dangerous journey. And right now, they are probably asking themselves, “Will America be worth it?”

I hope the answer is “yes”. I fear that there will be nights when they question it. We are in a time in this country, this country that is populated by so many of us who are the great-grandchildren of immigrants, where xenophobia is at a new peak. The irony should not be lost on us. 

And yet, there are signs that curiosity can indeed bring change. There are signs of hope.

About eighteen months ago, when it became clear that immigrants and refugees were facing new attacks in our country, people started asking me about whether the church would respond somehow. A few wanted to know if we could sponsor a refugee family. Eventually we got all of the people who were asking in one room, and they started trying to figure out what we could do.

They didn’t know anything about the system. They didn’t know about resettlement agencies or others who might want to help. They didn’t know what it would involve. And yet, here we are, ready to help our first family to move to this state. All because we were unsettled enough to get curious. All because we were willing to throw our line into the water. 

The last time we see Nicodemus in the Gospels is when he dares to help bury Jesus. Nicodemus is there at the end for Jesus, even when Christ’s own disciples had fled in fear. In the end we see that Nicodemus had indeed been reborn. 

On this Memorial Day, I see what our church is doing as an indication that maybe we are being reborn as people and as citizens. I think of our ancestors in this church who took stands like this over the past four centuries, and I think about how maybe their questions and curiosities, their daring, are the things that have kept this church alive and evolving for so many years. 

And I think about us, about our call to be followers of Christ, and about our call to transform not just our own lives but also our communities, our country, and our world. I believe it is possible, but I also believe it will take good, curious people who are open to having their lives shaken up. 

And so, what will your Nicodemus moment be? What big questions or possibilities are keeping you up at night? And how un-settled are you willing to be if it means that you might just be reborn, and the world might just be better for it? Christ is waiting for your curiosity, and Christ is ready to use it. Put your line in the water, and get ready for what’s about to bite.

Born Again. And again. And again.: Sermon for March 12, 2017

There are some things that define the differences between generations. There are young adults who have never known a world without the internet, for instance, and others for whom this is still a pretty recent phenomenon. Or, there are those who remember rotary phones, and others who would have no idea what to do if one was put in front of them.

There’s another one, and my generation is sort of right on the dividing line for this: library card catalogs. Do you remember having to write papers using a card catalog? You picked your topic, went to those big wooden stacks full of drawers stuffed with index cards, and you looked up all the different books you would need.

That changed while I was in college. Most libraries don’t have those anymore. Now you can use a computerized system, and maybe even pull up what you need at your home. But I’ll never forget being about elementary-aged and being at the library with my friends. And we had some questions. Questions of the type that our parents weren’t ready to answer.

You get where I’m going here.


Photo credit, Dr. Marcus Gossler, wikipedia commons image.

So you could innocently enough go to the card catalog, pretend you were looking for something else, and find that card that would send you to a book that would explain everything. And there’s no shame in natural curiosity, but even still, your heart was pounding the whole time, right?

Library card catalogs answered a lot of questions that we couldn’t ask others back in the day. Today we might turn to the internet. But, what if you were a Pharisee, a religious leader, back in Jesus’ day? And what if there was this guy who kept doing these things you couldn’t explain? And what if all the other religious leaders you worked with didn’t like him at all, but you were curious? And what if you needed to find out who he was for yourself?

That was the situation that Nicodemus was in. He was a Pharisee, a religious leader, and he was expected to toe the party line. And the party line was that this guy named Jesus, who kept doing things like turning water into wine and running money changers out of the temple, was bad news.

But Nicodemus was curious. He thought there might be something more to this. But there was no card catalog, no webpage, for figuring out Jesus. And so, he did the only thing he could think of…he went straight to the source. But, like a kid looking in the card catalog, pretending to be doing something else, Nicodemus didn’t go in the bright of day and just ask. Instead, he snuck out under the cover of night, and went to Jesus while everyone else was asleep.

Can you imagine Jesus? He was probably sleeping himself, and now this Pharisee was waking him up asking him questions. He says, “Jesus, I know you’ve got to be a teacher from God, because otherwise you couldn’t do these things. Who are you?”

And Jesus, as usual, doesn’t answer the question. Instead he starts talking about being “born again” or “born from above”. And Nicodemus is like, “What do you mean ‘born again’?” And he actually asks if he’s supposed to reenter his mother’s womb so she can give birth again.

But Jesus tells him, “that’s not what I mean”. And Jesus explains about being “born of the Spirit” and how we have to have a spiritual rebirth, one that changes us. And Nicodemus doesn’t know this at the time, but Nicodemus himself is in the midst of this second birth. He is having a sort of birth pangs brought about by a curiosity that he cannot ignore any longer. He is being changed.

There’s an old saying: “Curiosity killed the cat.” And I have vet bills to attest to the fact that curiosity can at least cause very expensive injuries to the cat. And we humans sometimes take this saying to heart in order to discourage our own curiosity, and sort of keep our heads down.

And, though he wasn’t a cat, Nicodemus’ curiosity was indeed dangerous. If his friends had known what he was doing, it would have cast suspicion on him. It would have changed the way he was seen. That’s why he had to look for answers in the middle of the night.

But curiosity, while generally bad for cats, is actually a really good thing for humans, especially in our spiritual lives. Asking questions is a sign of deep faith. Nicodemus knows there is something about Jesus, and so he goes and tries to learn more. And that’s what we do too.

We get curious, and when we do we sometimes have these encounters with God’s love and grace. We wrestle. We grapple. We try to work out who we think Jesus is, and what that means for our lives. And that work doesn’t always go quickly, or end neatly.

This text is the same way. Nicodemus just sort of disappears in the end. He doesn’t get this big “aha” moment where it all makes sense. Instead, he probably walked away from Jesus more confused than ever before.

That’s not surprising…Jesus can be infuriating like that.

Down South where I grew up there were a lot of people who would talk about being “born again” the way Jesus does here. And, for them, it was often this one, shining moment when all of a sudden they believed and their lives changed and everything made sense.

But I never got that moment. I had times when things made a little more sense, and I felt God’s love, but the curiosity and questions never ended. And like Nicodemus I’ve had that same pattern of getting curious, seeking answers, and then ending up with more questions. And sometimes I’ve had to wrestle with faith and doubt, and fight my way out of the safety of the womb and into new life.

I actually think that’s a good thing. I don’t want my spiritual life to ever come to a terminal point where I have all the answers. That would be boring, intellectually and spiritually.

Instead, I like the idea that we are continuously and gradually being born again. We are living lives of change, in a world full of change, and that means we are constantly having to go back to Jesus and ask the questions that keep us up at night. And we have to keep being born again, maybe not just once, but over and over and over again in many ways.

Martin Luther King once used the story of Nicodemus to talk about being born again. He said that Jesus hadn’t given Nicodemus easy instructions or said “stop doing this” or “stop doing that”. Instead, Dr. King said, Jesus told Nicodemus “your whole structure must be changed”. This was nothing less than a total shake-up.

Dr. King was talking specifically about how America had to be “born again” and deal with injustice. And that’s a good example of how we as people, and as institutions and communities, must also sometimes be born again, and do what is right and what is good, for the love of God and for the love of the world.

And it is the love of the world that Jesus is talking about. If you’ve ever watched a football game you’ve seen signs with a verse written on them from this very passage. John 3:16: For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but should have eternal life.

There’s a real irony in the fact that this one line, that comes in this passage about the kind of faith that is not easy or simple, has become emblematic of easy and simple faith. Because he whole story of Nicodemus is a little too long for a piece of poster board. But that’s fitting, because our faith journeys cannot fit onto one sheet of paper, or one bumper sticker. They require nothing less than the full length and depth of our lives.

That’s true of all of us, and that’s true of Nicodemus too. We see him only two more times in the Gospels, but in those two appearances we see a man who is in the process being born again. The next time we see him he is making a sort of tentative defense of Jesus when Jesus is in trouble, trying to save him, trying to keep the religious authorities from killing him.

And the last time we see him, he is one of the two men who takes Jesus’ body after his death, and buries it, putting it in the tomb.

I think there’s something meaningful about that. In mourning Jesus death, Nicodemus was showing that he had been reborn. And when Jesus rose again, that new life took on new meaning.

Sometimes curiosity doesn’t kill the cat. Sometimes it saves him. For God so loved the world, that God would want nothing less for us. Amen?