Venturing Out Beyond Our Fears – March 8th, 2020

The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In our Gospel reading, we find Nicodemus. He was a good man, a teacher, and a keeper of the law, yet, even though doing so much that was right, he still struggled with a need that he had. We are not told specifically what it was, but when you need something, in a sense, it doesn’t matter why or what, it just matters that you feel the need. Whatever it was, it was pressing enough that he ventured out in the dark, at night, alone, looking to have a conversation with Jesus. There is something so AD 30 about this story. In 2020, he probably would have asked his phone, right? Or maybe, after calculating the rick of encountering the Novel Coronavirus, he would have stayed home Googling for answers?

Something we, people of 2020, lose track of is that there are truths that we can only learn from other people. We can’t learn everything from machines. And there are needs that we have that can only be met by people no matter how great and impressive our computers become. This is because we are people. I was reminded of this a few years back when I was serving a really vital Episcopal church, much like this one, that had so many new members joining, that we would have a dinner only for people who had joined the parish in the last year or two. And during that event, the newer members would share their stories with each other of what brought them to our parish and why they have chosen this particular parish. Those of you who are new to All Saints or newish, look for such an event in the future, and I look forward to hearing those stories.

     There was one mother, when it was her turn stood up and recounted how when she first came, she told Rev. Paul that she was only coming because of her six year old daughter. She wanted her daughter to have some moral framework or compass that she would never get from our culture in general (A good reason to come as a parent.). But she was quick to add that she did not believe in God. She then said that I said to her that “not believing in God is no reason not to come and join our church, because ‘God’ is just a word.” As she said this of their priest, I grew quite uncomfortable worrying what people might think because that doesn’t sound right. She went on to say that I explained that what we mean by that word can only be known by joining us and worshipping in our community for a period of time. She declared that she was happy to say that she now believed in God even if she couldn’t quite explain in words what she meant by that. She now came to church with her daughter not just because of her daughter. Knowledge of God is likely one of those things you can only learn through human beings. Nicodemus ventured out alone into the night looking for a person, looking for Jesus.

        At this moment in our common life where we are all doing our best to make good decision about our own and each others health with this scary virus out there, it is tempting to hide from other people and only see them as vectors of disease. There are robust conversations going on worldwide about which of our Christian practices may need to be temporarily modified. There are some of our Christian practices that are making us a little uneasy. This is because what has become unmistakingly clear is that Christianity at its very core connects human beings to one another in a special way that expands hearts and minds and meets any number of deep human needs. For one, during every communion service we extend our hands toward each other, usually shaking hands while making eye contact, embodying Christ’s love person to person in exchange after exchange. The ancient name of this exercise is the “kiss of peace” because in most centuries it was a more intimate gesture still. It was and is a gesture that says to all those who are invested in division, strife, and hate that they will not find that here.

        We use bread and wine for much the same reason and this is to where the kiss of peace leads. The many individual grains of wheat scattered across fields and hills and brought together into the one loaf that we share. The many individual grapes scattered across vineyards make one wine as we share a common cup. Division and estrangement are named and overcome as we weekly contemplate in this visible way Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, and by making it our own, eating it as it were, we become Christ’s body in the world. The many isolated Nicodemuses going this way and that become one community united in love where we learn from one another what we could not know otherwise.

        Love of God and love of neighbor mystically inform each other in every moment of our life together as Church. They are like the vertical and horizontal beams of the cross (as seen behind our altar). The more the arms are extended horizontally in love, the higher its reaches upward and the deeper it is planted in the earth. The vertical and the horizontal dimensions combine so that the more we love God the more we have for human beings and the more we love human beings the more we learn of God. Or in the words of our Bible in 1 John (4:19), “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

        Even though some of our Christian practices are making us uneasy when we are worried about the effects of human contact, we can be proud of the way our faith–again and again–calls us out of individual selves and brings us together. When so many seek to divide, when so many forces promote 3 isolation and withdrawal and stoke our fears, when love seems like a dream and hate the only thing real, when hope seem like a luxury, and only cynicism remains as a kind of survival mechanism, Christianity–worldwide–says “No” everyday in our deeply personal, connecting rituals. Whatever we are facing, no matter what the fear is, we prevail together not apart. That is what human beings do at our best. Christianity has been here before and has faced worse than this. Christian togetherness is not the threat. It is a key part of the solution.

        In our Gospel, what specifically is our solitary Nicodemus seeking? Does he even know? What we can see is what Jesus says to him. Jesus explains to him, “Nicodemus, this can all be different. Your life can be better. Each moment of it. It can like you are born anew!” Nicodemus is utterly baffled. Flabbergasted, he says, “How can it be any different? It can’t can it? No one is ever born again? “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” In other words, how can I be me, but in a whole new way and still be me? Jesus insists, “Yes. That experience of you, maybe the only one you have had, can be transformed! It can be reborn, but not the same. Born not again, but from above (The word in Greek means both things, Nicodemus hears one thing “again”, Jesus means another, “from above).

        Have you ever had a an experience where you see a situation coming that you have been in before, but it didn’t go well last time? When this happens to me, I say, “Oh no, Oh no, Oh no.” And then there are a number of times later, when everything goes completely fine. This happens to me a lot and I wonder about it. What has changed from last time when things went so badly to this time when it all worked out? It’s usually not the situation that is different. It is me. Between the last time and this time, I have been as it were reborn, born anew, born from above. I continue to be myself, but I am different than before. And by bringing something different to the situation, my part in it, what I bring to it, means that I experience the same thing in an entirely new way.

        Jesus sums up what Nicodemus found famously declaring, “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.”

        The story of Nicodemus is an experience for all of us. John’s gospel begins here, with the searching self finding what its most needs because it ventured out and was found by Jesus. Whatever you most need this morning, let the you that you bring to every moment of your life take courage, look for Jesus, connect with others, and trust that it will find what it needs. May you have 4 this experience of being born anew, born from above, born through Spirit, and may you also have the surprising discovery that you are not the only one who has that experience, but it is one that connects you to a whole new family that extends throughout the world and embraces you. Amen.