Calling All Prophets

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Have you ever been a part of something that didn’t exactly go according to plan?

Unless you live under a rock, chances are you have. Sometimes it’s fun, like when you come home from work on your birthday and all your friends jump out and say, “Surprise!” Sometimes it’s scary, like when you get that phone call with someone saying, “There’s been an accident.” Sometimes it’s a mixture of both exciting and scary, like when your wife says, “Honey, I know we weren’t planning on this for another year, but I just took a test and it says I’m pregnant.”

No matter what the circumstances are, whether it’s good or bad, no matter how well we’ve planned it out, it seems like life is always find a way to hit us with something unexpected. In fact, that’s the number one piece of advice I have for couples preparing for their wedding day: “The secret to the perfect wedding day is imperfection. Expect the unexpected. Something, somewhere will not go according to plan, so make up your mind now to just accept it when it happens.” As they said in Britain during World War II, “Keep calm and carry on.”

In theological circles, we like to quote an old Yiddish proverb: “If you want to give God a good laugh, tell him your plans.”

God seems to have a flair for the unexpected. Take, for example, our reading this morning from the Torah, the book of Numbers: It begins with Moses doing a very Presbyterian thing: electing and ordaining elders to help govern God’s people. And in good Presbyterian form, everything was being done “decently and in order.” The elders were called, chosen, and set apart for the work of ministry. These elders became mouthpieces of the Holy Spirit. Just like Moses, they proclaimed God’s word to the people. Just then, as this solemn ordination service was still going on, someone comes running up to the tent where they were meeting.

It was a teenager from the camp, a member of the next generation of Israelites. The biblical text doesn’t say much about who this teenager was, but I like to imagine him as a kind of punk: maybe the elders gave him the stink-eye because his robes were too short and his hair was too long. Maybe some of them had caught him smoking behind the camel-pen or writing graffiti that said “MOSES SUCKETH!” on the side of people’s tents. And all of a sudden, here he was: barging in to interrupt a solemn ordination service! My guess is that the elders were not amused…

But this wasn’t just any other punk kid, he was the voice of the next generation of Israelites. And he came with an announcement: “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!”

According to the story, there were two guys who were supposed to be there at the ordination, but weren’t. Eldad and Medad had stayed behind in the camp. The Bible doesn’t say why (maybe, like so many of our elders, they had already been recruited to organize the post-ordination church supper). For whatever reason, Eldad and Medad weren’t at the ceremony with Moses and the others, but that didn’t stop God from making things happen in their lives.

I find that very interesting: God’s will for Eldad and Medad did not depend on them being in the right place at the right time. The Holy Spirit was able to work in them and through them, no matter where they were. God loves working outside the box.

And how did God let Moses and the elders know that this extraordinary activity was going on in the camp? By sending one of the youth: the voice of the next generation. This young person’s job was to point the finger back at what God was doing in unexpected ways and unexpected places. We know from the text that some of the elders were struggling with what they heard. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, had a particularly hard time with it. He said, “Moses, stop this! We’ve got to shut this new thing down before it undermines our God-given authority!” We can’t really blame Joshua for what he was trying to do. He was trying to protect what had been entrusted to him by God. He was being smart.

But Moses, on the other hand, was more wise than smart. He was listening with the ears of his heart and heard something that Joshua didn’t. He said to Joshua, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all God’s people were prophets, and that God would put the spirit on them!” He recognized the Holy Spirit at work in the camp, even though it didn’t conform to his own expectations. Moses realized that God’s ultimate goal was to empower all people to be mouthpieces for the Divine, not just one or a few special chosen heroes: “Would that all God’s people were prophets, and that God would put the Spirit on them!”

Generations later, another prophet named Joel would echo this same hunch in his writing: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

The fulfillment of this prophecy, the coming-true of this dream, is what we celebrate today on the Feast of Pentecost: the day when God poured out the Holy Spirit on all flesh and all people became prophets – young and old, men and women, great and small. On this day, we are reminded that our God and the God of our ancestors has always been comfortable with thinking outside the box and coloring outside the lines.

On this day, we are also celebrating the anniversary of a time when another youth (four of them, actually) left the comfort of the camp and challenged the elders and leaders of the church with the news that God was at work in some unexpected ways.

In 1864, Eliza Valentine, with her friends Bertha Hilbert, Ada Haley, and Helen Reid (all of them 14 year-old girls) swiped some songbooks from the Sunday School room of First Presbyterian Church and, without telling their parents or their pastor, went and started a Sunday School class for kids living in what was then the woods north of downtown Kalamazoo.

This little adventure continued unnoticed for some time until the Superintendent of the Sunday School noticed that his songbooks kept going missing every Sunday afternoon and returning by evening. When he followed the girls to find out what was going on, he was shocked to discover an active Sunday School class of 30 kids being conducted outside in the woods, with planks placed over logs and stumps for seating. Now, the Superintendent could have done like Joshua and had the whole unauthorized project shut down on the spot, but he didn’t. Instead, he and the pastor, with the elders of the church, took the wiser path like Moses. They recognized the movement of the Holy Spirit and decided to support it.

Funds came in from the grown-ups of the church to support the newly dubbed ‘Mission Woods Sunday School’. They were soon able to procure a building and move their work indoors when the weather got cold. In time, the adults of the church started helping out and the parents of the neighborhood kids started coming as well. Pretty soon, a full-fledged congregation was in the works and by 1878 they were ready to call their first pastor. North Presbyterian Church was born! These girls, like that youth in the book of Numbers, pointed their elders to the truth that God was at work in some very unusual-but-exciting ways. The elders and pastor, like Moses, recognized it as the work of the Holy Spirit, blessed it, and supported it. Once again, the prophecy came true that God likes to color outside the lines, that the Holy Spirit speaks through all God’s people, and that even our young sons and daughters can be prophets.

This is no less true in our day than it was in 1864 or in the time of Moses. The same Holy Spirit that lived and moved in them is now living and moving in us. We are the prophets. Many of you here today have spent much of your lives in institutions like hospitals or group homes. Due to a diagnosis of mental illness, you’ve had to sacrifice your autonomy and sometimes even your dignity. You’ve probably been told, and maybe even started to believe, that you’re a charity case and therefore your voice doesn’t count. It might even feel easier sometimes to quiet down and just go along with whatever program your doctor or caseworker is prescribing, even if you have questions about it or different ideas about what might be right for you. You might even forget that God gave you a voice, but the Good News for you today is that you do have one. God has put the Holy Spirit on you and called you to be a prophet.

In the same way, it would also be easy for us to fall into that same trap as a parish. We’re small in number, many of our members are on a fixed income, therefore we don’t have a lot of money. Our operating budget depends on financial support from other churches in our presbytery. It would be easy for us to see ourselves as a charity case, but we’re not. We are prophets. And I believe that God has called us to prophesy to the other churches in the Body of Christ.

And here’s how:

It’s no secret that mainline Protestant churches in America have been declining in number, money, and influence for the past 50 years. Gone are the days of packed parking lots and overflowing Sunday School rooms. We no longer live in a society where we can assume that our neighbors go to church. This reality makes a lot of people nervous. They say that the church is dying, that God has abandoned our church, or that our church has abandoned God. Some say that Christianity’s day has come and gone, and that our religion will now fade into the shadows of history and mythology. But I don’t think any of those things are true.

Yes, it’s true that the church is shrinking, but I don’t think we’re dying at all. Jesus himself said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

I believe God is pruning us, as the Church, so that we might be more spiritually fruitful in generations to come. The Church of the next generation will not be an institution will massive buildings and budgets. The Christianity of the future will no longer be the civil religion of the American empire. We will no longer be beholden to the golden calves of money and power. We will be a community of prophets: committed believers who stand in solidarity with the “least of these” – the poor and oppressed peoples of the earth, the marginalized, the outcast, the scapegoats, the persecuted, and the forgotten. The Church of the future will once again follow in the footsteps of Jesus, our Lord and Savior, who walks the streets of this world, where hurting hearts cry out for healing and hungry souls cry out for bread. Christ is present there, and it is there that the Church will find him again.

Just like he said to us in his first sermon at Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” If that’s what the Holy Spirit did when she came upon Jesus, then we can expect the same thing to happen when she lands on his Church today. I look forward to that.

Here at North Church, I believe that we have a head start in that process. Ever since the days of Eliza Valentine, we have known what it means to have faith in the power of Almighty God over the power of the almighty dollar. We are already a community of people out on the edge, where those who have no place else to go can find a welcome, a home, and a sanctuary.

The rest of the church supports our ministry, not because we’re a bunch of charity cases, but because they recognize the work of the Spirit among us in this way. They realize that this ministry is too important to let die. They know that they will soon need in their churches what we have already discovered here. They need us, just as much as we need them. As it says in our New Testament reading, there are many gifts, but only one Spirit. I believe our gift, as North Church, is the gift of prophecy. We are speaking forth the Word of God and showing the rest of the Church what the future will be. Let us speak gently, boldly, and with all the faith, hope, and love that the Spirit of Christ inspires in our hearts.

Let us prophesy and tell the world the truth that has brought us together again and again, Sunday after Sunday for the last 150 years, and brings us together again this morning:

That I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Be blessed and be a blessing!

God Speaks All Languages

Fabulous altar setup for Pentecost. Image by FatherRon2011.

Acts 2:1-21

Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org

You folks know how I’m pretty weird, right?  For those of you who don’t know me yet: there’s probably not a normal bone in my body.  I say this in order to prepare you for my opening story today, because it’s another weird one.

Way back during my sophomore year of college, I thought it would be pretty cool to wear a long black cloak around campus instead of a winter jacket.  I was really into wizards, Jedi Knights, and other “science-fictiony” things like that.  So, I decided to make a cloak.  I went to the store and got some black felt, found a pattern on the internet, and set to work with the sewing help of my friend, Julie.  When it was done, I wore it proudly around campus, to my classes, and even to church.

One day, I was approached by two young freshmen girls, both nervously holding Bibles in their trembling hands.  “We saw your cloak,” they said, “and we thought you were a devil-worshiper.  But then we saw your cross [around your neck] and now we don’t know what to think!  What are you?”

I politely informed them that I was actually a Christian who was active in my church and a Christian student fellowship on campus.  “Oh,” they said, “that’s nice.”  And then they went on their way.

That’s the story about how I found myself becoming a victim of “spiritual profiling” when I was 19 years old.  I call it “spiritual profiling” because these girls figured that a “good Christian” would only dress and look a certain way.  Anyone else was obviously an agent of the devil (or so they thought).

People do all kinds of profiling these days.  We tend to categorize and even judge people according to certain qualities that have nothing to do with the content of their character.  Many people in our society are often made to feel less than worthy (and sometimes less than human) because of the color of their skin, their gender, the way they dress, the music they listen to, who they love, how they worship, where they’re from, or what language they speak.

During the past fifty years, people in our society, inspired by modern-day prophets like Martin Luther King, have begun attempts to overcome these superficial divisions, but we’ve still got a long way to go in this uphill battle against prejudice.  In fact, there are those who might argue that we’ll never get to the top of that hill because we’re fighting against something that is endemic to human nature itself.

We can even see all kinds of prejudice and profiling taking place within the pages of the Bible itself.  During the lifetime of Jesus, the Roman governors occupying the holy land looked down on the native Jewish inhabitants.  Within Jewish society at that time, the pious Pharisees excluded and ostracized those “tax collectors and sinners” who, for whatever reason, couldn’t observe the commandments of the Torah.  Going back even farther, to the legends of the very beginning of civilization in the book of Genesis, we read about the tower of Babel, where humanity was first divided into multiple language groups and scattered across the face of the Earth.

The differences between us are there.  That much is obvious.  The question for each of us to answer is: How will we relate to one another in the midst of these differences?

We already know how Jesus answered that question.  His hands of compassion reached out across the dividing lines of his society to embrace the hurting and welcome the outcast.  We his followers, in our better moments, have tried to follow suit.  The book of Acts in the New Testament chronicles some of our ancestors’ early efforts in this regard.

One of the major themes of the book of Acts is the ever-widening circle of the community of faith.  The book begins with Jesus leaving the earthly scene and promising his gathered followers that they would carry his message all the way “to the ends of the earth.”  As the story progresses, more and more people come into the church from various pedigrees and backgrounds.  The early Christians wrestle with the challenges posed by such sudden diversity, consistently conclude that God is guiding them to be an inclusive community that makes room for all people.

One of the most significant moments in this process comes near the beginning of the book, in the story of Pentecost, which we listened to in our New Testament reading this morning.  “Pentecost”, a word that basically means “fifty”, is the name of a Jewish holiday that comes fifty days after Passover.  It’s a spring harvest festival that celebrates the first ingathering of certain crops.  This “first ingathering” is important because it relates to the new meaning that Pentecost takes on as a Christian holiday.

On the particular Pentecost that we read about in the book of Acts, it’s not crops but people that are gathered together.  As Jewish pilgrims were making their way into the city of Jerusalem for the celebration, the story tells us that Jesus’ followers (still huddled together in hiding) suddenly experienced a “violent wind” blowing through the house where they were staying.  They saw “tongues of fire” floating over their heads and, suddenly, everyone started spontaneously speaking in foreign languages.

This scenario is also similar, in many respects, to the story of the tower of Babel, which we also heard this morning in our Old Testament reading.  In both stories, God’s people were huddled together in one place but were then “scattered” into the wide world by the divine gift of diverse languages.

In the book of Acts, Jesus’ disciples go out to bring Christ’s message to the world.  By the end of that day, according to the text, three thousand people had joined their community.  Their initial “scattering” became an “ingathering” or “harvest” of people.

My favorite detail of the Pentecost story has to do with the diverse languages.  As the people are gathered together, they don’t lose their separate identities.  Christ’s message comes to them in their own languages.  The Christian church, from its earliest days, is meant to be a diverse and multi-cultural community.  The people are gathered together in unity without uniformity.  They’re all different.  They’re meant to be.  That’s how God likes it.

We humans have a hard time with that.  We think that “birds of a feather should flock together.”  So we identify our differences and then make value judgments about them, ranking people into a hierarchy of dignity.  We don’t just do it with language either.  As I said before, we do it according to race, gender, music, dress, religion, political affiliation, and sexual orientation.  We identify some people as “us” and others as “them”.  We pick sides.  We want to be with people like us, but we have to be careful about that.  God does not want us to rob ourselves of the opportunity to participate in the Pentecostal ingathering of people from many different languages and cultures.

The beauty of Pentecost is that, even though there were many languages being spoken that day, the message was inspired by the one Holy Spirit.  In addition to the linguistic differences, those gathered pilgrims probably looked, dressed, ate, and smelled very different from one another.  However, they found the presence of God in each other.  The Spirit in my heart is the same as the Spirit in your heart.  In spite of our differences, we are one.

This revelation forms the bedrock for the rest of the book of Acts and beyond.  It continues to shape our lives today, if we’re open to it.  When we stretch ourselves to nurture the ties of affection and understanding between ourselves and those who are different from us, we experience another little Pentecost.  The moments when this happens are truly sacred moments infused with divine blessing.

We live in a world that remains bitterly divided by the differences between people.  We too often fail to honor one another as fully human and, in so doing, fail to recognize the presence of God in our own lives.  We demand uniformity when God desires unity.

I heard some news this week that drove this point home for me in a profound way.  Many of you will probably remember Josh, a high school student who attended this church about a year and a half ago.  He sang in our choir and played with our kids.

Josh came to Boonville during his senior year of high school through the foster care system.  This alone would have set him apart from his classmates, many of whom had known each other since kindergarten.  But that wasn’t the only thing that set him apart.  He was also one of the only African American students at Adirondack High.  Finally, Josh is also openly gay.

It’s a wonderful testimony to us as a church that we went out of our way to welcome him into our midst for the short time that he was here.  Our mission statement says that we are a church that is “open to all and reaching out to the world in love.”  I think we put those words into action in the way we loved Josh.  That’s a precious thing in this world where people who are different often get ostracized and cast aside by the majority.

Last week in Syracuse, Josh, this same young man who we came to know and love, was beaten in the street.  I found out about it when I saw a picture of him in an Emergency Room, wearing a neck-brace.  This wasn’t gang or drug related, nor was it an act of random violence.  Josh was targeted for this assault because he is gay.  A group of guys started verbally harassing him and his boyfriend as they walked down the street together.  Josh stood up for himself and they beat him so badly that he landed in a hospital.  Afterward, he said, “I’m sick of people making fun of me and the person I’m with.”

I’m thankful to be able to tell you that Josh is now out of the hospital and on the mend.  His foster mother and I have been in touch with him.  He even gave me permission to share this story with you this morning.  It looks like he’s going to be okay.  Thanks be to God.

I tell you this because I want you to know how high the stakes are.  We hear a lot about respecting diversity in this politically correct culture, but I don’t give a rip about political correctness.  I give a rip about Josh.  The consequences of exclusion have a real effect on us and the people we know and love.  People like the one who sat right over there and sang in our choir last year.  This stuff is for real, folks.

If we really want to be a dynamic, growing, and Spirit-filled church, then we need to let stories like this one blow through our lives like a violent wind.  We need to let our love for those involved burn like tongues of fire in our hearts.  It’s not enough for us to gather together each week and know within ourselves that we’re nice people and a welcoming church.  We need to throw open these doors and pour out into the streets like they did on that first Pentecost.  We need to shout our welcome out loud in terms that everyone in this community can hear and understand.  We need to get so fired up about it that they call us drunk or crazy, just like they did to the Christians on Pentecost.  We can’t afford to keep quiet or polite about it.  The future of this church and the safety of those we love depends on it.

Deeper than the many things that divide us, there is one Spirit that unites us.  May we be filled and empowered by that Spirit to love like Jesus did and bring his message to the ends of the earth.

We Are All Ordained

William Wilberforce, as portrayed by Ioan Gruffudd in Amazing Grace (2006)

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is Acts 2:1-21.

William Wilberforce had a problem.  He was trying to figure out what to do with his life.  Most youth and adults know what that’s like.  However, what makes this case different is that Wilberforce was already a successful member of the British Parliament.  In American terms, he would be called a Congressman.  To be where he was (especially in 18th century England), one would assume that he had already climbed the ladder of success!

The thing that had Wilberforce all worked up about his future is that he had recently experienced a profound and life-altering spiritual awakening.  His personal relationship with God had suddenly taken over his life to such a degree that Wilberforce was thinking of quitting politics for good and entering ordained ministry in the Anglican Church.  He was at a loss over what to do.

While he was in this state of mind, Wilberforce was introduced to a group of Christian activists who were campaigning heavily for the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain.  The beginning of Wilberforce’s involvement with this group (later known as ‘the Clapham sect’) is depicted beautifully in the 2006 film Amazing Grace.  Seated around his dining room table, they showed him examples of the irons used to restrain captured slaves during their journey across the Atlantic.  Conditions were so brutal that no one was guaranteed to survive.  They introduced him to Olaudah Equiano, a liberated slave who became an active abolitionist.  Equiano showed him the scars on his body.  While Wilberforce’s mouth was still hanging open in shock, Thomas Clarkson and Hannah More delivered what I believe to be the best line in the film:

Thomas Clarkson: Mr. Wilberforce, we understand you are having problems choosing whether to do the work of God or the work of a political activist.

Hannah More: We humbly suggest that you can do both.

And I think they were right.

The members of this group understood one very important truth that most Christians tend to forget.  It’s a truth that we celebrate every year on the feast of Pentecost.  And here it is: The Holy Spirit ordains all people to preach good news to the world.

Not just some, but all.  Have you ever noticed something strange about the early church in the book of Acts?  Most other radical movements in history emerge with a chain of successors once the initial founder is out of the picture.  There was even biblical precedent for this.  After the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire, people everywhere recognized his apprentice Elisha as his chosen successor.  They said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.”

But that didn’t happen in the early days of Christianity.  Jesus Christ had no heir or replacement.  The title ‘Messiah’ did not pass to a predetermined chosen one after his departure into heaven.  Instead, the Holy Spirit, the very power and presence of God, came to dwell within the entire community of faith.

We read, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

This kind of thing was totally unprecedented, although the ancient prophets had prayed for something like it to happen.  One time, when people complained to Moses about unauthorized prophets in the Israelite camp, Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”  Later on, God spoke through the prophet Joel saying, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

And that’s exactly what happened.  The entire community of believers on Pentecost was filled with the Holy Spirit and each one started “speaking about God’s deeds of power” to people from “every nation under heaven”.  There was no seminary course or board-approved examination.  They simply opened their mouths and started to speak “as the Spirit gave them ability.”

There was no single successor to Jesus’ ministry.  There was no special order of priests or prophets.  The only qualification for speaking forth good news in the power of the Holy Spirit is that you had to believe.  “Out of the believer’s heart,” Jesus said, the Holy Spirit would flow, like “rivers of living water”.  He never said, “Out of the apostle’s heart” or “Out of the pastor’s heart”.  No, Jesus said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”

Anyone with an open heart and an open mind about Jesus is a vessel for the Holy Spirit.  This is an important piece of good news for us to hear, on this day of all days.  Later today, a new pastor will be ordained in this church.  But, if we take the message of Pentecost seriously, then we must admit that there is a very real sense in which all of us are already ordained as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, each of us has a responsibility to answer God’s call on our lives and preach good news to the world around us as the Holy Spirit gives us ability and opportunity.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we all need to become experts at delivering sermons.  That’s only one way to preach the good news.  A single act of kindness can be a sermon unto itself.  You can even preach by listening while people tell you about their problems.  You might not have fancy theological answers to questions about Christianity, but the simple fact that you’re letting someone ask a tough question is sometimes enough to speak to that person’s heart.

William Wilberforce found his way to do the work of God and the work of politics at the same time.  He devoted the rest of his life to fighting slavery.  He sent petitions, lobbied Members of Parliament, spoke out in the House of Commons, and wrote legislation.  Finally, in 1807, he succeeded in ending the British slave trade once and for all.  He never became a member of the clergy, but this was his life’s work as an ordained minister of the good news.

In the same way, each one of you is an ordained minister of the good news.  You will leave this church today and go back to your neighborhood, your family, your school, your shop, or your office.  As you go, let this reality sink into your heart.  Let this mentality take over your brain:  You are a missionary.  The place where you stand is your mission field.  Be open to whatever ministry opportunities the Holy Spirit may bring into your life today.  Be faithful in your calling as an ordained minister of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Born Again… and Again… and…

Nicodemus?
Nicodemus?!

This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.  The text is John 3:1-17.

There’s a guy with whom my wife went to high school named John.  In many ways, John was a stereotypical rebellious teenager.  He was really into parties and some drugs.  He questioned authority on everything. He walked around with enough chips on his shoulder to fill a Dorito bag.  But there was one way in which John did not fit the stereotype: he went to church every week.

Let me be clear about a few details: First, his parents didn’t make him go to church.  He decided to go on his own.  Second, John didn’t put on a pious façade for his church family.  He didn’t pretend to be one person on Saturday night and another on Sunday morning.  In fact, John was just as bitter and cynical at church as he was at home or school.  When people asked him why he bothered to go to church at all, he openly told them, “I don’t practice Christianity.  I don’t believe it.  I don’t get it at all, but I keep thinking that someday I might, and I want to be here when that happens.”

In a lot of ways, John reminds me of Nicodemus in today’s gospel reading.  He doesn’t “get it” either.  Jesus talks to him about being “born again” (or “born from above”) and “the wind blowing where it chooses” but it all goes straight over his head.  If anything, Nicodemus walks away from Jesus with more questions than answers.

At the beginning of the passage, it says that Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night”.  Most biblical scholars agree that this isn’t just talking about the time of day.  Rather, the author is trying to tell us something about Nicodemus himself.

A little background information might help that make sense:

The author of John’s gospel has a lot to say about Jesus being “the light of the world”.  Light-imagery comes up again and again in John.  Jesus is the light, while the rest of the world, by contrast, is dark.  So, when John says that Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night”, it means that Nicodemus exists in a state of spiritual darkness.

That being said, Nicodemus doesn’t seem to be such a bad guy.  First of all, he addresses Jesus with an unusually high degree of respect.  He uses the title “Rabbi”.  This is not what one would expect.  Nicodemus was a socially prominent, educated, and pious Jew.  Jesus, on the other hand, was without formal education and hailed from Nazareth, a place not known for producing prodigies.  In today’s terms, it would be like a Harvard professor walking up to a country bumpkin and calling him “Doctor” or “Reverend”.  Listen to what he says to Jesus: “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.”

We meet Nicodemus again in John 7, when he defends Jesus against the attacks of the religious leaders.  Finally, he shows up in John 19, where he helps to bury Jesus and honors him with an expensive funeral fit for a king.  Nicodemus never has a distinct “born again” moment of conversion.  In fact, it’s unclear if he ever actually became a Christian.  Ancient legends indicate that he did eventually join the Church, but the scriptures themselves don’t state that explicitly.  Based on what we do know of him in John 3, 7, and 19, it seems like Nicodemus was on a slow and gradual journey of spiritual growth.

He feels genuinely drawn to Jesus, but he still struggles.  He’s curious enough to ask questions, but he’s not yet ready to make a leap of faith.  He wants to believe, but something inside is holding him back.  Does any of this sound familiar to you?  It does to me.

Like Nicodemus, I don’t have a distinct “born again” moment in my life.  I too have been on a slow and gradual journey of spiritual growth.  I’ve often been challenged with new ideas that go straight over my head at first.  I’ve had to go back to the beginning to reread and reinterpret my Bible so drastically that I felt like a kid in Sunday school all over again.  In that sense, you could say I was “born again… and again… and again.”

The NRSV translates “born again” as “born from above”.  When it says “from above”, it’s kind of like when a jazz musician says to the band, “Let’s take it from the top.”  It means, “Let’s start all over again.”

So, what causes this kind of “starting over” to happen?  We know straight away that it’s not the direct result of intellectual argument.  Throughout this passage, Nicodemus is trying to have a philosophical discussion with Jesus, but Jesus isn’t playing along.  Nicodemus keeps asking, “How can this be?”  And Jesus keeps throwing out these images that seem to make no sense.

In this way, Jesus is acting like a Zen master who is trying to expand his student’s consciousness.  Zen masters do this by presenting their students with something called a koan.  A koan is a kind of riddle that can’t be solved with rational thought.  The point is for the student to meditate on the riddle until she learns to break out of old habits of thinking.  For westerners, the most well-known koan is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”  Jesus’s words about being “born from above” and “the wind blowing where it will” are kind of like a Christian koan.  He’s trying to help Nicodemus expand his thinking to a spiritual level.

The realm of the spirit is far bigger than the realm of the mind.  On a spiritual level, people are able to grasp certain truths that defy rational explanation.  For example: Christians believe that God is both three and one; Jesus is fully divine and fully human; the bread and wine are also the body and blood of Christ.  These ideas are contradictions when we try to understand them rationally, but they make sense as spiritual truths.

Presbyterian and Reformed Christians have often emphasized this “more than rational” quality of faith and spirituality.  For us, “faith” is more than a list of doctrines to which we give intellectual assent.  We believe that faith is a gift.  Faith doesn’t come about from sophisticated intellectual arguments.   It grows in us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is God at work within us and around us.  The Spirit leads us in the direction of faith, goodness, and wholeness.  This is taking place, even before we profess our faith in Christ.  Look at Nicodemus: the text tells us that he was still in “darkness”, but something was attracting him toward Jesus, the light of the world.

There’s a particular image in this text that really stood out to me this week.  Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be “born of water and the Spirit” in order to enter the kingdom of God.  What does that mean?  Some scholars think that this is a reference to the sacrament of baptism, and they may well be right about that.  Other scholars think that Jesus is comparing two different kinds of birth: natural and spiritual birth.  We know that when a baby is born into this world, a lot of water is involved.  For the first nine months of its existence, a baby lives in the darkness of the womb, surrounded by this amniotic fluid.  The fluid (this “water”) protects the baby and feeds it with vital nutrients until it’s ready to be born “into the light” of this world.

In the same way, Nicodemus is kind of like an embryo in this passage.  He’s not ready to be born.  He still lives in “darkness”.  But the Holy Spirit is kind of like the amniotic fluid of a mother’s womb.  The Spirit surrounds him and feeds him with nutrients until he’s ready to be born (again and again).

This image gives me hope for myself and other people like Nicodemus and John, my wife’s friend from high school.  None of us totally “gets it” when it comes to Christian faith.  We’re struggling, we’re doubting, but we’re also growing.  Nicodemus is repeatedly drawn to Jesus.  John was inexplicably drawn to church.  I am continually drawn back to the scriptures, trusting that God has yet more light to shed on my understanding.  It’s comforting for me to know that none of us is alone in this journey.  You may feel like you’re constantly starting over.  You may feel like you’ve got more questions than answers.  You may feel like you’re just wandering aimlessly.  But let me give you some hope this morning: you are being nurtured by the Holy Spirit and led from darkness into light.

If you sense that attraction at all, I encourage you to follow it.  Keep coming back to church.  Keep searching the scriptures, even if you don’t understand them.  Keep on reaching out to God in prayer.  Keep on coming back to be fed by the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ.  I encourage you to follow this attraction and see where it leads you.  It might not happen all at once, but I have faith that eventually, you will “get it”.  We all will.  Thanks be to God.

Recognizing the Time of Visitation

Easter began with an explosion of beautiful, spring weather in central New York.  I can understand how someone might want to come back from the dead for this.  Needless to say, these meteorological phenomena have me itching to spend more time with my friends on the street.

As always, our ministry at St. James Mission is bizarre enough to evade all attempts at codification and programming.  The streets have become my school of the Spirit as I try to listen for what God is doing in the marginal spaces of our community.

As always, God is doing some strange and funny new things.

As I was going to bed on Palm Sunday, I had one of those moments where the Holy Spirit walks up and smacks you in the face with a sack full of reality.  The gospel text from the Daily Lectionary was Luke 19:41-48.  Jesus stood weeping over the city of Jerusalem, prophesying that they would be crushed by enemies “because [they] did not recognize the time of [their] visitation from God.”

Even though this sounds pretty harsh (and it is), it got me thinking about the “unrecognized” ways that God might be “visiting” me.  I prayed that my eyes would be opened so that I might “recognize on this day the things that make for shalom“, as Jesus said.

Immediately, I thought of this one guy who has been annoying me for months.  Somehow, he obtained my home phone number and would call several times a day to talk my ear off about nothing-in-particular for as long as I would let him.  It had reached the point that I would groan anytime his number came up on Caller ID.  Sometimes, I wouldn’t even pick up the phone.  How hypocritical of me to prattle on like I do about solidarity with the poor and relational ministry while simultaneously refusing to engage with the one guy from the street who wants nothing more than to establish a relationship!

Even though this guy has no interest in coming to church (he says it cuts into his “prime beer-drinking time”), he goes out of his way to introduce me to his friends who could use a pastor.  Even though he doesn’t like to talk about God or spirituality, he listens intently whenever his schizophrenic roommate corners me with this week’s pressing questions regarding theological minutiae.  Even though he doesn’t approve of the fact that I hang around with “scumbags”, he took me to a crack house to meet his friend who needed help getting a cat neutered.

When his dog Teddy underwent a serious medical procedure last month, he asked me to lay hands on the dog and pray for healing.

I was invited to a barbeque at his house on Good Friday.  I got to meet his neo-Nazi friend, who has swastika tattoos on his arms.  We shared pictures of our kids, who are about the same age.

This guy is one of those relational magnets who turns his home into a house of hospitality for the very “scumbags” he claims to despise.  He claims no interest in God, yet asks his friend the priest to stop by as much as I can during the week.  When I do, he feeds me chicken wings and cheeseburgers.

It’s amazing just how much my perspective on this relationship has changed during Holy Week.  The Holy Spirit has opened my eyes to see this same relationship in a new light.  As I continue to build relationships on the street this year, I have a sense that this guy will be one of those nexus points where God chooses to gather people.  It makes me think of Levi the tax collector.  His house was full of friends when Jesus showed up to party.  This guy’s house is the same.

Whenever I’m on the street now, I make sure to stop by his house.  When the phone rings and I see that it’s his number, I’m glad to pick up.  In fact, he just called as I was writing this post…

“Recognize on this day the things that make for shalom.”

“Recognize the time of your visitation from God.”