Sunday, June 24, 2012

"Who Then Is This...?"

My thanks for insights into this week's Gospel reading go to the tidbits and thoughts provided by Lindy Black on the always delightful blog page "Sermon Nuggets."

Mark 4:35-41
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I always read this and thought about how bone-weary Jesus must have been, to be able to curl up on some cushions and sleep through a storm at sea. I mean, think of it: he’s been preaching all day to a crowd so large, so uncontrollable that, for his own safety, he had to get in a boat and sit just offshore. This is, of course, following the part where he heals on the Sabbath, calls the Twelve, and has to listen to his mother and brothers call him a nutcase, and that is in addition to all the other healings and exorcisms and preaching that he’d been doing, all running at a breakneck pace, every day some new experience, some new crowd, some new town. So he has to be tired!

But, of course, the point is not that Jesus is tired, or that he slept through a storm.

Storms on open water were not uncommon at all, and on lakes like the Sea of Galilee, they had a tendency to pop up out of nowhere, capsizing boats and killing the fishermen. But these were seasoned veterans, these disciples, many of them had known nothing but fishing their entire lives. They had been through these surprise storms before. Terrifying though it may be, I’m betting that, at first, the disciples simply hunkered down and did what they knew to do when storms happened: rely on their experience and expertise to get them though. Perhaps they didn’t give a second thought to who was sleeping in the back; after all, they knew to turn the bow into the waves, to bail the water from the boat, to row with all their might and make for land. They had this covered, thanks.

Yet as the minutes wore on, everything was going wrong. The waves crashed from all sides, the wind whipped madly, as if the very forces of nature themselves had decided that this one tiny boat was an insult, a fly to be swatted from the face of the earth. Rowing and bailing to the point of exhaustion, somehow these hardened, experienced lifelong fishermen couldn’t keep ahead. The wind and the rain and waves filled the boat until all hope was lost.

We aren’t told which disciple first realized that they had someone on board who had the power to command demons to leave those they possess, or whose wild imagination convinced them that this slumbering rabbi could do anything at all about rain in the first place. What we do know is that, rather than waking Jesus up with a plea for help, there is only a cold accusation: “We’re dying, and you don’t care!”

Back in the first chapter of Mark, Jesus was preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, and drove a demon from a man. The words he used against that demon were the same he used against the storm – In both cases, Jesus rebukes, and in both cases, he demands “Peace,” or “be silent;” and “be still,” or “be muzzled”… and like the demon, the storm has no other option than to obey.

In the dead calm, I imagine one or two of the disciples still wildly bailing, so bent on trying to stay ahead of the waves that it takes them a moment or two to realize the storm was over. The rest are standing, slack-jawed. One of those who had been bailing asks, “what happened?” Someone whispers in reply, pointing at Jesus, “he happened.”

And as Jesus lays back down on the cushion to resume his nap, he asks these stunned disciples, “Why are y’all so scared? Don’t you get it yet?”

There’s another parallel to the story of Jesus casting out the demon in Mark’s first chapter. When the demon departs, the people are amazed, and ask, “what is this?” – wondering at the great power God had bestowed upon this itinerant preacher, who had authority over unclean spirits. Standing in the dead calm, the boat gently bobbing, steam rising from the wood as the sun began to bake it dry, the disciples ask, “who then is this…?” – the realization dawning that this ability was not simply a power at work in Jesus, but an indication of who Jesus was… who Jesus is.

While it is always tempting to simply treat this account as a comforting story of how God will deliver us from the storms of life, the message is much deeper. Yes, Jesus slept through the storm, but like I said earlier, that isn’t the point. And I almost want to say that the fact of Jesus calming the storm isn’t really the point, either.

After all, storms happen –Physical, visible storms like those that devastated parts of Alabama in April of last year; and storms that few people outside can see, storms that may not destroy homes or level towns, but which wreak havoc on families and individuals, quietly ripping hearts and relationships to shreds.

Storms happen. The point of the reading is not that, by asking loudly enough, by accusing God of not caring, we can avoid the storms. After all, isn’t it true that Jesus had to go through storms? Think of it: Jesus endured the storm of being rejected by everyone at one time or another. Jesus endured the storm of the Cross, where even God the Father turned away from God the Savior. There was the storm of Gethsemane, the storm of the Cross, and the storm of death and the tomb. There were most certainly storms, worse storms than you and I could imagine. Even to Jesus, storms happened.

The point of this reading is the question the disciples ask at the end: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

The storm of the cross led to the Resurrection, where Jesus rebuked, silenced, and muzzled Death, hell and the grave, ripped open the curtain separating humankind from the God who loves them, and drew the circle of forgiveness, acceptance, and reconciliation with the Creator wide, leaving no one out! What seemed like a storm of utter destruction instead became the springtime rains that call the flowers forth to bloom in new life!

Our storms can lead to destruction, yes; we can staunchly rely on our own experience and expertise, and when these fall short (as they often must). We can give in to the terror of loss and lack, convinced that the God who loved us enough that the only gift good enough for us was God’s only son does not in fact care that we are dying!

But when our storms push us to the end of our rope, they can also lead us to awaken our God, or, better said, to awaken to our God, to draw close to our Savior, and to answer, for ourselves, the only question that truly matters: “who then is this…?”

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mustard Weeds...

When I was young, and I would ride to see my grandparents in Tuscaloosa, there was a long stretch of road through Coaling where the hillside, the buildings, the billboards, even the telephone poles were covered in kudzu. It was at once breathtakingly lovely, and a little frightening. If we slowed, if our car broke down, would the kudzu overtake us, consume us, smother us in its deep and beautiful green?

I wonder today: if we were to slow down our breakneck pace of forever working, forever striving, forever consuming, forever chasing stimulation and entertainment and immediate gratification, would the Kingdom of God overtake us, consume us, and smother us in its lovely, graceful embrace?

Mark 4:26-34
He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

This is the Word of the Lord.

There are, in this world, words that don’t seem to go together. I’ve always been fascinated by the phrase “jumbo shrimp,” for example. And in today’s Gospel reading, we have another example: “the greatest of all shrubs.”

A shrub, great? Really? And what’s the big idea of associating the Kingdom of God with a bush, anyway? Why not a mighty fortress, like the hymn by Martin Luther? Why not a flash flood that covers the whole land, or a bright white cloud that expands from horizon to horizon? A mountain whose summit pierces into outer space! Something big!

But no. A shrub.

And it gets worse from there, really. In our culture, we think of mustard as a condiment: something that comes in a bright yellow bottle that you put on a burger or a hot dog or a soft pretzel, or if you’re like me, on everything humans consume. For the adventurous there’s spicy brown mustard, and for the truly daring, Chinese hot mustard.

But to those first-century Judeans gathered and listening to Jesus speak, it’s a bit of a comedy routine from the moment Jesus says that the mustard seed is sown. Planted. On purpose! Hilarious, because the mustard plant was a pervasive and despised weed. It popped up everywhere, encroaching on carefully tended land, offering no benefit whatsoever to the hardscrabble subsistence farmers who were listening that day. It was an insane comparison, the mustard seed would never have been sown! They spent a good portion of their energy keeping it from growing in the first place, for cryin’ out loud!

It would be exactly like going and cultivating kudzu, or seeding your lawn with dandelions.

But, you know, the more I think about it, the more this parable makes sense.

John Dominic Crossan suggests that “The point [of the parable]… is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like.”

This Kingdom of God began gathering in small groups of prayerful people, huddled in the dark corners of synagogues or dusty courtyards, men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile and Samaritan. The rich and the influential were few and far between in these gatherings; rather, the message of new life in Christ tended to attract those who had nothing to love about their present existence of servitude and poverty. There were no towering cathedrals, television preachers, or building campaigns. Not a single pane of stained glass, no organs, no bulletins.

To the outside world, there was nothing attractive or useful about this ugly little band of slaves and women worshipping their crucified god, these pesky birds attracted to the shade of this mustard weed bush of a church. In fact, the idea that these little nobodies would dare to ignore all the perfectly sensible gods that kept the Empire safe and prosperous was offensive to the rich and powerful Roman authorities. They slashed and burned, cut and destroyed, dug up and decimated the weed of the early church, determined to stamp it out once and for all.

Yet the Kingdom not only grew but thrived, spreading even while its citizens were being tortured and killed by the rulers of the known world. Send one to the lions, and three hundred pop up over here. Crucify another, and three thousand show up over there. Like the mustard weed to the first-century Judeans, or the kudzu to you and me, the Kingdom of God was uncontrollable, unstoppable, pervasive.

It’s amazing, isn’t it? The very idea, that a shrub could be such a dynamic force.

And now here we are, two thousand years removed from the morning that Christ walked free of the tomb, dropping the chains of death like a discarded napkin. Christianity become first legal, then mandatory, then institutionalized, then fragmented.

And is that all there is to it? Is the Kingdom of God reduced to a jumble of fractured, disparate denominations, constantly warring within and outside themselves over points of doctrine or how wide to draw the circle of acceptance, alternately condemning or ignoring one another’s existence? Is this all that is left of the wild, offensive, unstoppable Kingdom of God?

Oh no. There is so much more.

Take away every church building, every pew and pulpit, every hymnal and offering plate, erase every doctrinal statement and theological treatise, and in the end you will find that you’ve removed nothing at all, because the Kingdom of God transcends all of these things.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God – this tiny mustard seed – is within us. And for this Kingdom at work within us, there is no limit. The words of the parable, planted within us, have the power to alter irrevocably not only our spiritual existence, but the trajectory of life for all those we impact with our words, our talents and treasures, our love and grace.

The Kingdom is alive and well, still rampant and rude, still persistent and inescapable.

The Kingdom within us calls out to each of us to realize that our lives are more than the sum of days lived and dollars earned. Life has meaning beyond the walls of home or church or workplace. Life means so much more than our own self-interest and ego. After all, we humans, we seedbearers, live in relation to one another and to the world around us. And in that relationship we find the meaning of the kingdom and the worth and value of our lives.

Annie Dillard once observed, “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

This is the picture Jesus draws with the parable of the mustard seed. Even today, the Kingdom of God is exploding around us, and we seedbearers are called to sow God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s Word, to spread the branches of the mustard weed and draw the circle wide, to strap in, pull our helmets down tight, hang on, and live the adventure!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Part Of The Family!

Thanks to the Rev. Delmer L. Chilton for his insight, as well as the story about the funeral of Emperor Franz-Josef I of Austria. 

1 Samuel 8:4-11:15
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the LORD, and the LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only — you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
So Samuel reported all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”
But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship.” So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the LORD in Gilgal. There they sacrificed offerings of well-being before the Lord, and there Saul and all the Israelites rejoiced greatly.

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture — “I believed, and so I spoke” — we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Mark 3:20-35
... and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I imagine it was just another day at the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth, James busy planing a board, Mary in the corner sewing, when the door burst open. Jude came stomping in, and sputtered, “You would not believe what he’s done now!”

James sighed and put down his plane. Mary laid aside her sewing, concern in her eyes. No one had to ask who Jude was talking about. It was Jesus. It was always Jesus. Mary’s firstborn, James and Jude’s older brother (well, half-brother, if the story they’d heard growing up was true), he’d been a carpenter for most of his life, until the day when he handed his tools to James and walked out. Just like that, up and left.

There were stories about a baptism and a long stint out in the wilderness alone, and word came that Jesus had become a rabbi and had gathered a band of disciples. That was all well and good, I suppose, that kind of thing was accepted in polite society.

Soon enough, though, things began to get odd. Someone came through town saying that Jesus had been in Capernaum and had cast a demon from a man right there in the middle of the synagogue, why he’d been going around healing people and casting out demons ever since, and my how the crowds loved him, goodness the man can’t even eat in peace anymore, isn’t that something?

Now, of course they had nothing against healings, but James and Jude had reason to be worried about the family name. In our modern culture, we don’t really have the same sense of the importance of one’s lineage and family honor to the first-century Jewish people. Back then, whose child you were and your lineage was not just important, it was everything. Jesus wasn’t just a former carpenter turned rabbi. He was Jesus, son of Joseph, of the house and lineage of King David, a descendant of Abraham. To the first-century Judean, without a family name, without an ancestry, you were less than nobody. Further, Jesus’ words and actions reflected not simply on himself, but brought either honor or shame to this proud family name.

But what Jude said now was the final straw! “He healed a man on the Sabbath, right in the middle of the synagogue! And, he’s been arguing with the Scribes and the Pharisees, making fools of them!”

James stared at Jude, gape-mouthed, and said, “The boy done gone and lost his mind.”

You see, it was bad enough that Jesus would flout the Law like that. No, healing on the Sabbath wasn’t specifically prohibited in Scripture, but you certainly could do no work whatsoever on that one day a week! There had, over the years, been much discussion and debate amongst the scribes and the scholars about what the definition of “work” was. If you couldn’t do something, you see, knowing exactly what that thing looked like meant you knew exactly what not to do.

So there were rules about how far you could walk, how much you could carry, and so on. The rule that applied to Jesus’ healing in the synagogue stated that you could act to save a life, but you could do nothing beyond that to improve their condition or quality of life.

So of course James and Jude were scandalized. But what really worried them, and brought Mary to her feet, was the idea of Jesus openly disputing the teachers of the Law, making fools of very powerful and influential men in public! This was downright suicidal! The scribes and Pharisees were already saying that Jesus was an agent of Satan, doing his miracles through the power of the devil, how much longer before they actively sought to kill him, and to destroy their family?

There was only one thing to do: go and get Jesus and bring him back home, tied up and kicking and screaming if necessary. And I mean that literally, by the way. Where Mark writes, “…they went out to restrain him,” it’s the same Greek word for when the authorities come to arrest Jesus in the Garden. It can mean “seize,” “grab,” or “arrest.” “Thanks but no thanks” was not an option.

But as they neared the house where Jesus and his disciples were, the crowd was so thick that James and Jude feared that their mother would be crushed. So Jude pushed his way into the crowd and out of sight. James and Mary waited for him to return with Jesus so they could take him home for a stern talking-to and some much needed rest. Put the carpenter’s tools back in his hands, set him to work in a nice, quiet corner of the workshop, and he’d be just fine…

And I’m going to leave James and Mary standing there, waiting for Jude to come back, because we’ve read the account, we know what happens… Jesus looks around that circle, at the misfits and ne’er-do-wells, the fishermen and tax collectors, the former prostitutes and healed lepers and the people who once entertained demons, and he chose them over his own flesh and blood.

Or did he?

It’s perhaps too easy to see this passage as Jesus rejecting his biological mother and his half-brothers in favor of his disciples and friends.

But while there’s a certain element of rejection there, we have to balance it with the greater message of the Gospels. Jesus was, after all, supremely concerned for the welfare of his mother as he hung dying on the cross. And though this is a question that cannot be answered, I have to wonder – if this had been a rejection of his family, would James have overcome the anger at this rejection? Would he have had any likelihood of becoming one of the leaders of the early church?

I want to suggest to you that what Jesus was rejecting was the message that he had to respect the status quo, draw inside the lines, respect authority, even if it meant ignoring his mission and calling to do the will of his Father.

And rather than disowning his family, Jesus, in that one statement, redefined the term “family” forever.

We humans have a lot of relationships, and we are known by a lot of roles and titles within those relationships: Mother, father, brother, sister, granddad, grandma, cousin, aunt, uncle, friend, student, graduate, doctor, musician… and there are situations where these roles change. Moms and dads become grandparents. Students become graduates. People come into our life and sometimes leave our life.

But there is one overarching relationship that will not change, a relationship that supersedes and defines all other relationships: whoever we are in this life, highborn or low, woman or man, black or white, American or European or Middle Eastern, king or pauper, through the water of baptism we are first and foremost sinners saved by grace, the beloved children of the most high God, and the adopted brothers and sisters of the One who is our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.

For more than 600 years the Hapsburgs ruled much of Europe. When, in 1916, Emperor Franz-Josef I of Austria died, a procession of dignitaries and elegantly dressed royal mourners escorted the coffin in a torch-lit procession as it made its way down winding narrow stairs into the catacombs beneath the Capuchin Monastery in Vienna.

At the bottom of the stairs were great iron doors leading to the Hapsburg family crypt, and behind those doors stood the Cardinal-Archbishop of Vienna.

The Commanding officer of the procession rapped on the door and cried out. “Open!” and the Archbishop replied, just as loudly, “Who goes there?”

The Commander took a deep breath and said, “We bear the remains of his Imperial and Apostolic Majesty, Franz-Josef I, by the grace of God Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, Defender of the Faith, Prince of Bohemia-Moravia, Grand-Duke of Lombardy . . . .” And so it went, through the entire list of his 37 titles.

Finally, a pause, and the Cardinal responded, “We know him not! Who goes there?”

The officer spoke again, using the informal title this time: “We bear the remains of Emperor Franz-Josef I of the Hapsburg line.”

Again, the Cardinal responded, “We know him not! Who goes there?”

This time the officer replied, “We bear the body of Franz-Josef, our brother, a sinner like all of us.” And at that, the doors at last swung open and Franz-Josef was welcomed home.

Whoever else we may be, whatever other relationships we may have, there is one title and one relationship that can never be taken away from us; we are always children of God, born out of the waters of baptism and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.

That means that wherever we go on earth, whatever we do, and by whichever name or title or reputation we are known, we are always welcome and at home in the family and kingdom of God.

And for that we say, thanks be to God!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Heretical Orthodoxy...

Thanks to Mark Suriano and Kathryn Matthews Huey for their insights on today's readings. The term "heretical orthodoxy" is from Peter Rollin's "How to (Not) Speak of God."

Isaiah 6:1-8
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Romans 8:12-17
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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.
“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.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

In his book on the emergent church, How (Not) to Speak of God, Peter Rollins talks about something he calls “Heretical Orthodoxy.” The idea is that, rather than having, as Christians, to choose between an orthodoxy of absolutism (where we know everything about God, we have all the answers locked safely in our creeds and doctrines and theologies) or an orthodoxy of relativism (where we pick and chose our creeds and doctrines and theological beliefs like we choose our favorite soft drink, and it’s OK if you like Coke while I like Pepsi), there is a third way.

“Orthodoxy” is defined as “right belief”… but Rollins’ “Heretical Orthodoxy” asks: What if the Christian faith is not about right belief, but about believing in the right way? What new things could we learn about God, about one another, about ourselves, and about the ways in which the Triune God is alive and active in the world today?

In our Gospel reading, we meet Nicodemus, a man whose entire life revolved around careful, stringent orthodoxy.

The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism dedicated to carefully following every letter of the Law of Moses without deviation which, in their view, was the proper method to honor God. This translated into hundreds of laws governing every facet of life, from how far one could walk and how many things one could carry on the Sabbath to which races and nationalities one could associate with. All of this was in an effort to have lived a life acceptable to God on the day of resurrection.

The Pharisees’ polar opposite were the Sadducees, the elite and powerful group who emphasized the sacrifices and rituals of Temple worship above all. They associated with the Roman governors, adopted ever more of the food, dress, and habits of Greek culture, and did not at all believe in the resurrection. Where the Pharisees would be called absolutists, the Sadducees were the fist-century equivalent of relativists.

What these groups held in common was the fact that they had succeeded, at least in their own minds, in successfully defining God: What God expected, what God enjoyed, what God hated, who God hated, and how God reacted to specific external stimuli: do this here, and that happens over there. You get the idea.

The problem is that, in the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick, “God defined is God finished.” Once we are convinced that we know exactly what to do and say and think to get the desired result from the Divine, we in effect replace the Divine with the self.

So when our Gospel introduces Nicodemus as one who comes to Jesus by night… it isn’t just talking about the time of day when the sun is down. Nicodemus lives in the darkness of cold, idolatrous certainty, of an orthodoxy that has become an object of worship unto itself.

We aren’t told why Nicodemus came to see Jesus. In John’s chronology, this is not long after Jesus cleared the Temple, overturning the moneychangers’ tables and driving them out with a homemade whip. Perhaps this was actually something that the Pharisees appreciated, since they were constantly at odds with the elite leadership of the Temple, the Pharisees. That and the signs we are told that Jesus performed while in Jerusalem may have compelled Nicodemus to visit Jesus and invite him to join with the Pharisees. Certainly, Nicodemus’ opening words, “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,” sounds like an official pronouncement of approval.

At the same time, Jesus’ words and actions may have had an opposite effect on Nicodemus. Perhaps this Pharisee had been having misgivings about the effectiveness of his faith journey. He saw how the Pharisees neglected God-created humanity in favor of cold conformity to religious expectations. He saw that, rather than God blessing the faithfulness of the Pharisee sect with a restoration of God’s favor to Israel, the boot of Roman oppression ground harder down on the necks of the oppressed Jews with each passing day. He felt the darkness of idolatry, the worship of rules and regulations, freezing his innermost being, his very soul, to death. In this light, Nicodemus’ opening words could be seen as a plea for help.

If Nicodemus is there to make pronouncements, though, Jesus isn’t interested. If Nicodemus is there to plead for help, Jesus is quick to cut to the chase – to turn Nicodemus’ carefully orchestrated belief system, his painfully precise way of defining who God is and what God does, completely upside down.

And Jesus will do the same thing for us, if we let him.

Think of it: our reading features the most well-known verse in the entire New Testament, perhaps in all of Scripture: John 3:16. We see “John 3:16” signs at sporting events, we see its words featured on everything from billboards to bumper stickers to coffee mugs. But for many who both promote, and who read, those words, rather than understanding John 3:16 to be a joyous pronouncement that God loves all of us – every single one – so much that the only gift good enough for us is God’s only Son… the words serve as a dividing line between those who are acceptable – believers – and those who are unacceptable.

Further, “belief,” especially in a culture so heavily influenced by Evangelicalism, is at least functionally defined as mental and verbal assent to a specific set of doctrinal statements.

If salvation were so simple, Nicodemus wouldn’t have visited Jesus, because Jesus would have had no reason to come and die and rise in the first place. We’d have it all figured out.

But what if our faith journey isn’t a daily struggle to believe the right things? What if our faith journey is a process of learning how to believe in the right way?

What Jesus says to Nicodemus, and to us, is that our faith journey is not predicated upon what we know; rather we are brought into joyous relationship with the living God though being known by God. God cannot be quantified, God cannot be photographed, God cannot be predicted. God is not a crossword puzzle, a thing to be figured out. In his First Epistle, John makes the simple, bold statement that “God is love,” and love is a mystery: wild and bold, joyous and unpredictable, one does not determine the chemical processes by which love occurs, one simply jumps in and enjoys the ride.

Marcus Borg writes in The God We Never Knew about what it means to “believe.” Rather than strict intellectual assent to propositions and claims, he speaks of belief as trust, as faithfulness, and, “in a very general sense…the belief that there’s something to all of this.” Borg says that faith that “believes God” is not something we can simply will, on our own: “we are led into it. It grows....It is not a requirement that we are to meet but a quality that grows as our relationship with God deepens.” But we do have to “take the first step,” he says, “and then another (though sometimes we are virtually pushed into this by desperation or lured into it by example or experience).” So there it is, the mystery of grace and our response, however limited, however sincere. This is where we see the difference between classic orthodoxy, “right belief,” and Peter Rollins’ “Heretical Orthodoxy,” daring rather to believe in the right way.

Believing the right way means that, rather than consulting a doctrinal checklist to make sure we are “in with the in crowd,” we are open to see where God’s Holy Spirit is blowing today. Believing the right way means that, rather than drawing the circle of acceptability closer in each day, jealously guarding our glossy sheen of righteousness, we throw the circle wide, and watch who the lifted-up and glorified Son, Jesus Christ, brings in to the fellowship.

Believing in the right way meant that Phillip was blown by the wind of the Spirit to share the Good News with the Ethiopian eunuch. Believing in the right way meant that Peter was blown by the wind of the Spirit to bring the Good News to another outcast, a Roman soldier, a centurion named Cornelius.

Who, in our life, is waiting to hear that God loves them? Who desperately needs to see and hear that the only gift good enough to fully express the depth and breadth of God’s wild, unbridled grace, God’s ebullient, irrepressible love is God’s own Son? Which way will the wind of the Spirit blow us today?