Sunday, January 28, 2018

Nicodemus and the Invitation to Surrender

John 3:1-17                                                                                                                                                         

In the gospel of John so far, we’ve heard cosmic poetry about the beginning of the world—“All things came into being through God, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life…” then, we saw Jesus’ baptism, the call of the disciples with the invitation, “Come and see!” Then, we heard about a behind-the-scenes miracle where there was more than enough wine for the wedding, a surprising abundance… and then Jesus encountering and overturning a temple system that said people had to buy God’s love and favor—of course that could never be true… and now, today, we overhear a leader who comes to Jesus by night.

I don’t know exactly how things are at your house, but for me, nighttime is often a time when deep questions emerge. Maybe it’s because through the day, we’re going at such a fast pace, moving through our routines, serving others… it’s at night when finally all is still, that we wonder.
Matthew Kelly describes our wondering this way, “a common yearning in people’s hearts for something more or for something that has been lost…” a yearning that we try to satisfy in a variety of ways—through a partner, through our belongings, through our work, through our service—
“we take journeys hoping to discover something about ourselves… people pursue personal development, turn our attention to health and well-being, financial independence, to improving a relationship, and some turn to spirituality…” But Kelly says, “The hunger is really a desire for connection with God.”[1]

I can just imagine Nicodemus—someone whose name means “conqueror of people,” the “man on top”[2]—being filled with this kind wondering, which may or may not have been familiar territory for this important teacher. This Jesus was certainly a force—who just goes into the temple and turns over tables? Nicodemus had his own questions about how things were done, but he would never have done that… on the other hand, Nicodemus had seen the faces of the people, especially the people who had brought their whole life savings for a couple of doves. Their faces had been filled with a different kind of wonder than his—no doves needed, according to Jesus, God comes to us and does not desire that kind of sacrifice.

So, Nicodemus ventures out at night, when others will not see or question him, to bring his questions to this Jesus, to see if he’s for real or just one more puffed up trouble-maker.
He comes with a compliment—or maybe it’s a test—“We know you’re from God, no one could do these things apart from God…” But then Jesus tells Nicodemus that actually God is inviting him into a whole new life; an opportunity to be born again.

One of my colleagues around our text study table reacted this way. “To be honest, I’m 58 years old, and I have no desire to start all over again.” And you know, I think most of us can get that… as young children, we want to grow up. In adulthood, we spend most of our time trying to move forward in our own ways. Even when we are old, we might wish we could go back to some cherished moment or go back to repair something broken, but very few of us are looking forward to being as vulnerable as a newborn, or having to learn all over again; not many of us are up to the invitation to begin again… really. We ask with Nicodemus, when faced with the charge to become new, when faced with the invitation to trust in the Holy Spirit which is like wind that blows where it chooses and water that flows where it will—how are we supposed to navigate that? How could we?

The writer of our Bible study this past Wednesday wrote:
Surrender. Vulnerability. Faith in an uncontrollable Otherness. That seems an odd recipe for salvation. It’s no wonder that after hearing all this, Nicodemus’ last words are: “How can these things be?” The story seems to be hoping that our last words will not be the same.

But here’s where I want to remember a little more of the story of Nicodemus. “How can this be?” was not the last word we hear from Nicodemus. In the trial of Jesus, Nicodemus speaks up:
50Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus* before, and who was one of them, asked, 51‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’[3]
And after Jesus’ death, in the gospel of John, it is Nicodemus who joins Joseph of Arimathea, who was a secret disciple of Jesus, and who got permission from Pilate to bury Jesus. Nicodemus brings 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes and together they prepare Jesus body for burial in a garden tomb.[4]

And this is one reason I don’t worry about Nicodemus’ questions and Jesus’ questions back to Nicodemus… we don’t have to fear the conflict because the story is still ongoing. 

Maybe we’re also worried because we as church also share “a common yearning…for something more or for something that has been lost…” Over the past weeks, including at last Sunday’s pre-meeting before today’s annual meeting, the topics of what we’re yearning for and what we think has been lost have come up in small ways over and over again.

Some are looking back at days when we were actively reaching out to our neighbors, under Pastor Sandness or Pastors Dave or Sue or Gary. We’re looking back at days when this sanctuary was full under Pastor Johnson. We’re longing to find new ways to be accessible to neighbors, serve food in environments that bring people together, and engage young adults, high school youth, Confirmation students, and children in ways that they find meaningful.
And sometimes, when these topics come up, I have to admit that I wonder… how can it be? Because I’m beginning to know that all these yearnings for something more or something that has been lost, all these can only be satisfied by deep relationship with God.
 -  A new youth leader will not solve our longings for something more for our youth (although those who dedicate themselves to real relationships with youth will find that amazing)
-       Filling every pew will not solve our sense of loss (although actually, we have had larger numbers every year for the past five years)
-       Doing amazing charity and justice work will never solve all the problems that surround us (although it can bring relief from desperate loneliness, depression, and anxiety to work together with others)

As we turn 150 years old as a church, we’re asked to do something that might look impossible, and that is to begin again—to look to God who birthed us and be willing to be dependent on Christ again, to be willing to have the Holy Spirit blow us where she chooses and bring us new life. It’s probably not going to look like a re-do of any hallowed era of the past; because God is up to new ventures with us, but we don't have to worry because even as we ask, “How can this be?” just like Nicodemus, our story together is not yet complete…. Here we are, ready to begin, in the dark, fertile soil where roots are going deep, and branches are resting in the cold winter, ready for a springtime burst of healing leaves.

Our story begins and ends in Jesus, the Tree of Life, the One who so completely showed us who God is in the world that we know now God did not come into the world to judge us but to save us through immense love—love that gives us all we need to be open to the joy, depth, and connection we long to experience for ourselves and together.

[1] Kelly, Matthew. Perfectly Yourself: Discovering God’s Dream for You.
[2], Accessed 1/25/2018
[3] John reference
[4] John reference

Thursday, January 25, 2018

There's more to the story

To Honor the Death and Life of Donald Brekke                                                            
John 2: 1-11                                                                                                                                                       
How did this happen? I received a call last week from a young adult who grew up in this congregation. She had been grieving since she received news of Don’s death. She said something like this, “I thought he was fine and now, he’s gone…” I asked her how her life had overlapped with Don’s over the years, and she described how he had been like a grandfather to her, greeting her every Sunday. They had served in teams together, including a Call Committee, and after each meeting, he walked her to her car on his way to “my beautiful Shirley,” as he put it. She remembered that well. Even after Shirley and Don moved to Lyngblomsten, they still made it here on Sundays (in spite of the effort that took on their part), and they promised this young adult they’d be at her wedding, a promise they kept.

This was the Don that people at Christ knew, the Don who was present. He loved singing in the choir, although he stopped when it became too difficult. He painted alongside Clayton Knutson. He was a faithful part of the Men’s group, saying “it’s good for men to get together and talk with other men,” and he loved to go golfing with various men over the years. When he served on my Call Committee, he mentioned that although Christ has had very good pastors over the years, it’d be nice if someone would stay for awhile. That was a deep value—staying, showing up, and he didn’t really talk about his faith, not really at all… but week after week, he was present.

Now, people at Christ were also aware of another side of Don—the difficult side. Some remember his fierce arguments when he was a younger man, some remember his high standards and unfair critiques, and as I gathered with you, dear Shirley, and Mimi, Thomas, David, Jane… and two of your spouses and two grandchildren, this is what bubbled up—what we wish Don had been able to say, even just once—“I’m sorry for the hurtful things I’ve said and done. I love you. I’m so proud of you. I love you.” Out of this deep pain, finally expressed, here’s what was emerging, a deepening of your shared commitment to let this watershed moment be a new beginning, a moment when God might offer healing. In these times, we’d like it to happen all at once, a miracle of forgiveness and letting all the pain of the past disappear… and that may happen, but it may be also that we simply have to keep showing up for one another, sharing the words of love we longed to hear, practicing new ways of relating to each other, love without condition.

It occurred to me during this week of thinking deeply about Don, and a certain kind of Norwegian cultural heritage, that the whole world changed around Don. Expectations around what it meant to be a man and father all changed dramatically from the time he was a child to the time he was a great-grandfather. Here, in church, he was reassured that in baptism, God claimed him as his own, marked him with the cross of Christ, forever… and so as he laid with hands crossed over his chest last Wednesday, we spoke that same promise. Just as Christ died and was raised, so for you… you are beloved, child of God, not because of what you have done or failed to do, but because of God’s actions… the one who brings new life out of death, the one who mends all that’s broken, the one who heals broken hearts even daring to bring joy in the middle of grief.

Jesus, in the very beginning of the gospel of John, is at a wedding. He’s a young man, and when the party is running out of wine, his mother Mary turns to him and tells him to do something. Two weeks ago, when we heard this gospel, I noticed how sometimes, we need a nudge from someone who loves us to do greater things… but this time around, I’ve wondered, did Jesus look at his mom and think, “Really, will I ever live up to your expectations?” The only thing Jesus said to her sounds kind of rude, “Woman, you must not tell me what to do…” However, they both knew that in their culture, running out of wine would have been a terrible shame for these neighbors, and they both knew Jesus could do something about it… Jesus doesn’t say the words we wish he would, but what Jesus does is to go and quietly, behind the scenes, make a miracle.

In a time and place where water was typically not fit to drink (that’s at least one reason for all the wine…), Jesus took water meant for washing feet, probably gathered from a stream, not particularly pure, and he tells the servant to take it to the wine steward to drink. There’s the first totally surprising act—that the servant did it. I would think that person took it with trembling hands and a furrowed brow, and then, she got to be first witness to the miracle! Somehow through Jesus’ presence, something very ordinary became the very best gift that wedding couple could have received—more than enough wine for all their guests to experience joy at their wedding.

When my own grandfather died, I received a copy of a family Bible, and I really didn’t want it… I get a lot of Bibles, and then within the pages, I found a treasure. My grandfather, who was very hard on his own children, told this story about his life—that he had been abandoned by his mother & then by his father. This bitter story meant that there was a passing on of bitterness… but in the Bible, here’s what I read in his aunt’s handwriting, “George E. McDonald, adopted…” I had just read a book about how we get to decide how to craft our memories, we actually have far more choice than one would ever expect about how we shape the patterns of our brains, and we get to write our stories the way we choose.[1] My grandfather could have placed the emphasis in his story that way, and I like to think that now he does, now that he sees more clearly, face to face… But for me, this was a watershed moment, a moment when I began to tell my family story in a new way. See, it makes sense that now I am adoptive parent, there’s a precedent… my grandfather was adopted.

In a wonderful sermon by Thomas Troeger, he asks us to imagine more to the story. Just imagine… Jesus made literally a ton of wine, more than the wedding guests could ever have consumed. Just imagine… some kind person must have bottled all that excess of wine up for that couple, an amount that would have lasted their whole marriage. They would have shared it at their Sabbath table, and to celebrate each birth of a child, each milestone event along the way. And when they were very old, sharing the last bottle, and they looked back over the times of gladness and the deep griefs of their life, and how that wine had sustained them, just imagine this conversation.

Here they are on a chilly night. She is in front of the fire, trying to warm her feet and hands for they are always cold now. He pauses coming into the room where she sits on a bench pulled right up to the grate. He studies her in the light of the fire: the shape of her forehead, the deep creases in her face, and the lips he has kissed 10,000 times. All of a sudden, with a prompting he cannot explain, he blurts out: “Honey?” At first she does not hear him so he calls again, “Honey?” She slowly looks up, and he says, “Honey, what if we finish the wine tonight. The rabbi’s wine. There’s just one little bottle left.  It might warm you up a bit.” “Sure, sure,” she says, “that would be good.” So he goes and gets the wine and brings it back to the fire with the only clean cup he can find. He sets it down and uncorks the wine speculating: “I wonder if it will still be good, after all these years.” “Always has been,” she says. “the rabbi's wine has never gone bad, it's as amazing as the way he provided it.” The husband pours the first serving and hands his wife the cup. She sips and hands it to him. They look at each other and nod their agreement: the wine is as rich as the day they were married.
 They drink very slowly, and as they drink they start to tell stories.
She says: “I remember when Sarah was born. You would have thought nobody had ever been a father before, the way you carried on, calling in the whole neighborhood, they drank an entire crate of this wine, as if it were our wedding all over again.” “Well, you did just about the same, when Benjamin and Rebecca brought home our first grandchild.” The wife laughs a hearty laugh, “Yes, I did, didn’t I? Oh, those were such good times, good enough to want them never to stop.”
He pours some more wine, and they each take a sip and he stirs the fire, and they sit absorbed in the flame. She sees him out of the corner of her eye and notices he is trying to hold back tears. She knows what he is thinking: He is remembering when the third child died. Been terribly sick. Tried everything. But he died anyway. All she could pray for weeks on end was “My God, my God why have you forsaken us?”
They were both so distraught, and God didn’t seem to answer, they didn’t know what to do but blame the other one. One evening he came home and she had supper ready, and they set things out on the table without saying a single word, going through motions that had become rituals of habit, the only thing holding them together day by day now. When they sat down they realized she had not gotten water from the well and he had not brought home any wine from market. So he got up and found one of the bottles of wine from their wedding.
Might as well open it now. No sense saving it for special occasions anymore. So he opened it and poured some wine for each of them. And when the wine touched their lips they tasted grace in their hearts, and they broke down and sobbed together. The grief of their loss never went away —how could it— but the strength to carry the grief together, that was what the wine of Jesus gave them.
And now sitting in front of the fire, he turns to look at her, and hearing him move she turns toward him and they look at each other, and she takes his hand saying, “Yes, Honey, I know, I know.” He is silent, then holds the bottle upside down over the cup. There are a few last drops. He hands the cup to her: “Here you finish it,” She takes the smallest sip and hands it back to him pointing out there is still the tiniest bit at the bottom. He puts the brim to his lips and throws back his head holding the cup straight over him, then slowly brings it down and holds it between them. “That’s it,” he says with a voice that sounds both satisfied and sad. “All gone. None to pass on to the children or the grandchildren now.
Just the story of our wedding at Cana, and the rabbi who blessed us with wine. Just the story. But no wine.” “Not to worry” responds his wife. “Not to worry. As long as people come to his table, there will be more.”[2]
Today, we are gathered, in this moment of grief… and Don’s life is done, with all its joys and sorrows, with all that was done and all that was left undone, with all that was broken and all that was good.
And today, we’ll gather in just a few minutes around Jesus’ table and share Holy Communion. We’ll take a piece of bread, a sip of wine, and we can know that in this wine, we receive not only a little wine to warm us but the presence of Jesus, who brings forgiveness, re-connection, and the strength to carry the grief together. Here, today, is a new beginning, an opportunity to remember that we get to shape the stories from here on out, and that at Christ’s table (at all those tables where Jesus is guest and host), even if the wine appears to have run out… we don’t need to worry. As we gather around Jesus’ story and Jesus’ cup, not to worry… there will be more.

In closing, this is a prayer that some of us know from daily practice at Holden Village, and some of us know from Evening Prayer. I know it’s a prayer that you, Shirley, know by heart. If any would like to join with us in praying it, you can find it on page 317 (Evangelical Lutheran Worship).

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending… by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

[1] Remembering the Future, Imagining the Past: Story, Ritual, and the Human Brain by David A. Hogue.

[2] Troeger, Thomas H: 10 Strategies for Preaching in a MultiMedia Culture, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996