Sunday, June 3, 2012

Nicodemus and Conversation

I preached at St. Mark's on-the-Mesa Episcopal Church in Albuquerque, NM, this morning. The readings at today's Eucharist were Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; and John 3:1-17.

            In the name of God the Creator, who makes everything and says it is very good; in the name of God the Reconciler, who redeems us from our broken relationships and brings us back into God’s fold; and in the name of the Sanctifier, who calls us into relationship with God and each other and anoints us with the Holy Fever of faith, peace and love; may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts always be acceptable to our Triune God, now and forever; Amen.

            Good morning. Thank you for the invitation to be with you this Trinity Sunday. My training partner, Pamela Kandt from Casper, Wyoming, and I spent Friday and Saturday at the Cathedral Church of St. John, with some people from both the Diocese of the Rio Grande as well as from the Navajoland Area Mission, in Anti-Racism and Train the Trainer workshops. We were also very pleased to spend time with a few of your congregation’s members in the workshops.

            Anti-Racism Training is one of my main ministries in The Episcopal Church. I am humbled to be invited to many dioceses to conduct these trainings and to support participants in learning how to recognize the sin of racism and its intersections with other forms of oppression such as classism, sexism, ageism, homophobism, ableism, and other isms, and to teach on how we can each do our part to dismantle racism and racist institutions, including racism within the Christian church.

            I also have the privilege of serving the church as a member of Executive Council, and will complete my term in 2015, as the lay representative from Province VI. Additionally, I am a Lay Deputy from the Diocese of Colorado to General Convention and am serving as Vice Chair of the Legislative Committee on Ecumenical Relations. In this past triennium, I have been blessed to serve as the Ecumenical Partner from Executive Council to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Church Council and to observe first-hand how our full communion partner conducts its business and how it faces the changing religious, economic, and demographic landscape – a landscape that challenges all our churches to reaffirm our core identities and to seek to be a light and a balm to God’s people.


            Let us turn now to today’s Gospel.

            I wanted to see what other people picture, what they imagine, when they hear the story of Nicodemus. So, I went to the Internet and looked up images of Nicodemus. I was curious about how artists over the centuries have depicted Nicodemus and his meeting with Jesus.

            Here is a man, a learned rabbi, a leader in Israel, who steals from his home, late at night, under the stars and perhaps under a full moon, to find this other great teacher, the rabbi Jesus of Nazareth, of whom there has been great buzz. “He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God . . . .’”  In The Message Bible, writer and pastor Eugene Peterson says, “Late one night [Nicodemus] visited Jesus and said, ‘Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God . . . .’

            The images I found on the Internet showed Nicodemus and Jesus talking to one another, in deep conversation. In some of the images they were gazing into one another’s eyes, intense attentiveness showing on their faces. In other pictures Jesus’ hands were shown in gestures of explanation or emphasis, making a point. Other times, Nicodemus was painted, obviously deep in thought, his hands steepled under his beard, or a hand held over his heart, or his hands in a prayerful clasp in front of him. There were some images that showed Nicodemus leaning forward, reaching out to Jesus, as if inquiring some further explanation from Jesus. There were also images that showed Jesus touching Nicodemus on his shoulder or arm. These two rabbis were having a moment. They were connected in conversation.

            I do not mean to diminish the importance of the content of the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. What was asked and answered between the two men was important. That’s why the Gospel of John has captured the content of that conversation about being “born from above,” “being born from water and Spirit,” the Son of Man being lifted up, and the words that every child learns from John 3:16, “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.

            However, I want to focus for the moment on the conversation itself, on the fact that Nicodemus and Jesus were talking to each other, and the importance of them having a conversation, rather than solely on the conversation’s content captured in the Gospel of John.

            So often, in contexts where there is disagreement between people about content, or where there is confusion and misunderstanding about content, that’s as far as things go. No one reaches out to ask for a conversation, to speak directly to the one or ones who might be able to shed light on the subject. No one digs deeper, going to the source, to learn not only what was really said, but to learn what was really meant in the discussions about the subject matter. This is the part of the story of Nicodemus that I find compelling – the fact that Nicodemus had such a deep, abiding, fire-in-his-belly passion to find out the truth from Jesus himself, that he sought Jesus out in the middle of the night to have a conversation.

            Among the things Nicodemus had figured out from what he had heard about Jesus is that “no one can do these signs that you [Jesus] do apart from the presence of God. [NRSV]” The Message Bible by Eugene Peterson says it this way: “No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.

            And Jesus replies, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. [NRSV]” He says in The Message version: “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to – to God’s kingdom.” At this point, poor Nicodemus goes all literal on Jesus. He asks Jesus, rather indignantly, “How can anyone be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk? [The Message]” And Jesus, perhaps a little bit exasperated with Nicodemus, answers, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. [The Message]”

            How many of us as parents have said that? “You’re not listening. Let me say it again.” How many of us have said that to our good friends, as we’ve talked about serious topics? “You’re not listening. Let me say it again.” These testy words are evidence of a real, honest to goodness, engaged conversation, with give and take, questions asked and questions answered, evidence of connection with another person.

            Now, let me ask a question that I once heard Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori ask in a large town hall meeting in the Diocese of Forth Worth. She asked, "How is conversation different when it starts with belovedness?" She had just told the story of Jesus’ baptism by the shores of the River Jordan. The Gospel of Matthew says, “. . . when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ [NRSV] Jesus is beloved of God the Creator, and we are beloved of Jesus the Redeemer. The Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove when Jesus stepped from the baptismal waters of the Jordan, just as we each received the Spirit in our own baptisms with water and the words of the Trinity, being baptized “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

            Surely, Jesus, when found by Nicodemus in the middle of the night for a little chit-chat, saw Nicodemus as a beloved child of God. Jesus stopped whatever he might have been doing and sat down to have a conversation with this beloved, Nicodemus. Jesus thought it was important to respond to Nicodemus’ seeker’s questions, to the extent of even finding, at some point in the conversation, the need to chide the rabbi that he wasn’t listening and that he was going to say it again to Nicodemus.

            Having just come out of two days of Anti-Racism Training in which we talked about interrupting racism and dismantling institutional racism, I am reminded again of the over-arching importance of having deep conversations with people who are different from us. In our trainings, we look at the sin of racism, focusing in on building a common vocabulary with which to have these conversations, and delving into examining the elements of prejudice, privilege, and power. 

            Talking about prejudice, privilege, and power is hard work. The topics are tough topics. It’s not easy to talk honestly and openly about how we are prejudiced against each other, judging before we get to know each other, and how we use privilege to get our way and power to get the upper hand – how we don’t love each other in the way that Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

            The conversations challenge us to look deeply into ourselves, each other, and our society. And as we begin to talk with one another, we begin to expose some of the brokenness and hard-heartedness inside ourselves. As our conversations deepen, becoming more intimate and more confessional throughout the day of training, we find our hearts and our minds, our very souls, broken open, becoming vulnerable to each other, becoming vulnerable for the Holy Spirit to enter us once again, so that we are born from above, born again, and made new.

            Early in each training we spend time doing two things:  the first is focusing on our baptismal identity, getting in touch with our core identities as Beloved Children of God and Members of the Body of Christ. The second thing we do is sharing some personal storytelling with each other. The goal of the storytelling is to build relationships, because we know from our Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, that it is through relationships that we become reconciled with God and with each other in God through Jesus. We suggest some simple reflection questions that anyone can ask in conversations with other people. Questions like “Who are your people?” and “What did important people in your life, people in positions of respect and authority, tell you about people who are different from you?”

            The point that Presiding Bishop Katharine made in the town hall meeting was simple:  We must converse with one another, even when it's hard, asking the image of the beloved in the other person, "what can this image of God teach us?" We begin by listening, seeking to see the image of God in the other.

            Bishop Katherine further pointed out, "You need to listen with the expectation you will learn something." Think about that:  expect to learn something when you engage in conversation and listen to your conversation partner sharing his or her story. Bishop Katherine continued by linking that listening to evangelism, which begins with hearing someone else's story, and only then, after listening, sharing your own story of the Good News of God in Jesus Christ in your life.

            Bishop Katherine made the point that we need the diversity of all of us, from cultural differences to differences in theological perspectives, because none of us has the whole truth. We need all the diversity in order to reflect the image of God . . . even when it's hard.

            In Anti-Racism Training, just like in the conversation that Nicodemus had with Jesus, we seek to talk openly, honestly, and deeply about the important issues in our lives together as the Beloved Children of God. Depending on who we are, the topics of conversation will vary; they will be different. That’s okay, because ultimately, it’s not the topics in and of themselves that are most important. It’s having the conversations that is most important. What’s important is building relationships based on telling our stories and getting to know one another. What’s important is making the connections, building the bridges that help us to see each other as beloved of God and as worth our time and effort to get to know and connect with.

            In Anti-Racism Training, we do a lot of repetition, sharing the same message in different ways so that the core message of Cooperate, Collaborate, and Communicate gets laid upon the hearts and minds of the workshop participants, just as the Holy Spirit laid the core message of Jesus our Reconciler and Redeemer upon our hearts and souls, to love our neighbors as Jesus himself loves us, because by this, we will be known as followers of Jesus. Amen.

No comments: