“A Rabbi Asks A Question”

March 12, 2017: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard.  Amen.

Well, it’s Lent, so I am glad you all managed to follow this important commandment, as written in the sacred texts found on Mount Python: “Thou shalt set the time one ahead, no more, no less.  One hour ahead shalt the clock be set, and the setting of the clock shalt be one hour ahead…And so, it was. The clock was set one hour ahead, no more, no less. One hour ahead was the clock set, and the setting of the clock was one hour ahead, and all, rejoiced that the setting of the clock was one hour ahead, no more , and no less…SO, sayeth the keeper of the clock……..”  We all need a little Monty Python like silliness when losing an hour of sleep, right?[1]

In the gospel today, we don’t get silliness, but we do get the “Nick at Night” story – a favorite of mine for so many reasons, because it is a story of the Christian experience – or really, the experience of all people of faith. 

Nicodemus, goes at night to see Jesus.  Right there is a whole lot to talk about, but let’s get back to the story. And the first thing that happens is Nick says ““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.” And this is where it gets interesting.  This is where a dialog begins that is one of the two best metaphorical teachings we get…and the other one – we hear next week.  It goes like this (paraphrasing):

Jesus answered him, “Look Nick, I’m glad you came seeking the truth, but I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nick replied “What are you talking about?  Nobody can do that…what, crawl back into the womb?  That’s crazy” Jesus, thinking this might take longer than he thought, “Look, not that way. Think outside the box Nick, you know…midrash, metaphor…think about it.  You must be born of water and Spirit.  When we are born from the womb, we begin our human life.  When we are born of the Spirit, we begin our spiritual life.  Think of it this way, 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, right?  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nick replied, “How can these things be?” Jesus, doing a face palm, answered him, “You’re a Rabbi yourself, do you not understand what I am getting at?”

Now, I think Jesus does a face palm today too, every time somebody reduces this passage down to a slogan.  Every time somebody claims they are “born again,” and mean by that some sort of conversion to Christianity in which pure belief is marked by dogged literal interpretation of scripture and a fundamentalist world view.  Folks, that is NOT what this is about, and it would have been antithetical to how Jesus taught and how scripture and faith was understood in his time (and well, for centuries until the expansion into the new world in the US), not to mention getting the Greek of this passage wrong.  It is born from above, not born again.  I am reminded of what happened when one such person encountered a biblical scholar.

Dr. Alyce McKenzie, professor of preaching and worship at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas, once told this story:

“I was in the waiting area at our local Discount Tire store last week waiting for my new tires to be put on my car. I picked up a women’s magazine and was intently reading an article called, “How to supercharge your metabolism.” I became vaguely aware that someone had sat down in the chair next to mine. This seemed odd because I was in the middle of a row of empty chairs. I like my personal space while I’m waiting for my tires. Then a leaflet was put in front of my face with the heading: “How to be born again” and I heard a man’s voice ask, “Wouldn’t you like to read something of more eternal significance than this magazine? Have you been born again?”

I looked up into the face of an earnest man in his mid 40s who now sat next to me, looking at me expectantly. When I didn’t reply immediately, he asked, “Well, have you?” I said, “I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and I don’t think Jesus means ‘born again’ as if it were some emotional lightning strike that once it’s over, we speak of our salvation in the past tense, like, that’s done, now I have that checked off my to-do list. I think being born again calls for our participation, and I think it’s a lifelong process.” At that the man shook his head as if to say “Geez, lady, it’s a yes or no question. How hard is that?” He took his tract back and moved on.”

“Now, just in case you are planning a similar evangelism mission, I’ll give you a pointer. Do not ask a seminary professor if she has been born again. Unless you have time to listen to the answer…”[2]  And, as I mentioned earlier, if you are using that phrase, you didn’t do your research on that bible you’ve been toting around.  It may have been that our buddy Nick here thought it was born again too, or perhaps he was engaging in a bit of midrash with Jesus.  And, Jesus, for his part, was clearly trying to get him to understand that was not what he was saying at all!  It is born from above, born of the Spirit.  “So, if someone approaches you in the waiting room and asks if you’ve been “born from above,” at least you’ll know they’ve studied the Greek….”[3]  And, if they ask if you are “born again,” do a face palm, and do as Jesus did – try to engage them to question.  Unfortunately, the issue with literalism, besides that they get the literal wrong in this case, is the link to a fundamentalist notion that if you REALLY believe – you won’t have any questions.  Questions are scary…questions will make them leave.

But Jesus…Jesus invited questions. 

And so should we.

The renowned priest and theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor, once said at a preaching conference, “Since we are all here to pick up some tips from each other, I thought I’d lead with one of mine: whenever you come up on something about God, the gospel, or the life of faith that everyone knows is true, step back from the reverential crowd whose gaze is fixed on it and look in the opposite direction—because nine times out of ten there is something just as true back there, though largely ignored because its benefits are less obvious and its truth harder to embrace.”[4]

And what I love about our buddy Nick…he just kept asking them. He was a seeker – a person of deep faith (as his being a Pharisee would imply), but one not afraid to question, not afraid to venture into the darkness of the unknown to encounter something that just might rock his world. Nick is a model of faith.

Now, I know, you might be thinking – but he didn’t understand…he still had questions.  Yeah…and so do I.  Look, faith isn’t living without questions – faith is living into the questions. Or, in the words of the poet Rilke, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

And Nick did some day live into the answer, as described later in this same gospel.  So what does all this mean for us today?  Oh, so much.  So very much.

We need to model Nick, and we need to listen closely to Jesus’ answer, that we might live into it ourselves.

Jesus tells us that we need to be born of the Spirit as much as born of the flesh.  Now that might seem odd, but if we really think about it, it makes perfect sense. Throughout his ministry, no matter what gospel you read, Jesus drops a theme that Paul later runs with – that while we may live in the world, we belong to God.  Jesus was telling us that the kingdom of God was all around us – not some far off up in the sky thing – but present here.  And he taught us that in the eyes of all whom we encounter in this earthly existence, we will see him.  That, my friends, means also each one of you.  And like Jesus, we will be a light in a dark world, and we will be questioned about what we are doing.

And, like Nick, we will also be the ones doing the questioning.  We will be the ones stepping out into the dark world and questioning the powers we encounter.  Nick approached Jesus that night with questions because if Jesus was who it appeared he might be, something powerful was happening in the world, in this case, for good.  But, power, as likely Nick or anyone else living under occupation can tell you, isn’t necessarily a measure of goodness.

And so we must be Nick. And we must be Jesus. 

  We must be Nick, because right now, there are powers in the world that spread darkness, and we must go into that – question that – listen and then question again until we know the truth.  And one way to know the truth – whether or not questions themselves are allowed.

About a month ago on “Face the Nation” (2/12), there was an interview by John Dickerson, with Stephen Miller, a senior White House Advisor (well, senior by title – the guy is all of 31 years old).  It was shortly after the original travel ban signed by the President had been stopped in the courts.  Mr. Miller said something that should make everyone uncomfortable.  He said,  “The end result of this, though, is that our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”

“the powers of the president…will not be questioned.”

Folks, the moment ANYONE, including the church, says that something should not be questioned – that’s the moment to start putting on your Nick at Nite gear and asking a boatload of them! Truth is not afraid of being challenged.

And we must be Jesus too. The Jesus that welcomed Nick’s questions.  The Jesus that told Nick about the duality of who we are in this world – humans, yes, but also children of God, born to do great things – born to model Christ – the Christ who invited seekers in, the Christ who modeled power as humble servant, the Christ whose very ministry was a threat to the earthly rulers of his day.  Because that kind of living – according to the spirit – can be  threatening to those who do not understand it.

Last month, I told you about marching in solidarity with over 100 of my clergy peers as we stood with an undocumented immigrant, Catalino Guerro, facing deportation after being here for over 25 years, raising his family, owning a home, and paying taxes.  That event came from a simple question asked by a  local Rabbi, Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom, who when he encountered Catalino’s story wanted to know “What can we do?” 

Now, after that initial protest, we had a small press conference, but not a lot of local news.  And then I got a note from a priest friend in Baton Rouge who said that she was surprised to open the local Louisiana paper and see me and Melissa Hall (a colleague and mutual friend) on the front page of the religion section.  The picture of the clergy praying over Catalino before he went into the Federal building that day had made the national news wires.  And that changed everything.

This past Friday, Catalino had to report back to Immigrations and Custom Enforcement, or ICE, in the Federal Building in Newark – this time, with his passport, and we had committed to be there once more.  I drove through the snowstorm, leaving my house at 5:30 in the morning, to make it to Newark, to join with my colleagues in ministry.  There were fewer of us this time, about 40 or so, but we were strong in spirit. 

As we neared the Federal Building, I looked through the snow to see a human wall facing us – spread across the sidewalk directly in our path in front of the building.  The woman next to me said “is that another protest?”  I said, “No, THAT is the press!”  And meeting us there was Senator Menedez and the Roman Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal Tobin. As we stood with his family, we spoke, we prayed, we sang songs, we did what we could to keep warm (it was really cold).  We hoped he would emerge once more from the building…and he did – not with the one year stay, as his attorney had tried to achieve, but with a 2 month delay.  Still, he wasn’t in a deportation van waving goodbye to his little granddaughter through the window.  All of this was because one Rabbi asked “What can we do?”  Rabbis, by the way, are the descendants of the Pharisees. 

To be clear, Catalino is just one of many, and deportations were actually at their highest during the last administration, so this is not about political parties.  What this is about is understanding who we are and what we are called to do.  You see, in response, many, even some who claim a Christian identity, have said angry and hurtful things not only about Catalino, but about the clergy who stood with him.  They justify this by saying he broke the rules, he broke the law.  And that is true – he did – 25 years ago he entered this country illegally.  But that is also the answer born of water – coming out of the question of what is legal.  But the question that needs to be asked, the question born of spirit, isn’t what is legal, but what is just in the eyes of God.  Remember that at one point, slavery was legal, jailing LGBT people was legal…

Jesus calls us to go deeper, to ask the question born of the spirit, and to be ready to wrestle with what we hear.  I know I have, and I know I will continue to, or at least I hope I do.  Because the moment I stop asking questions is the moment I stay in the darkness, rather than enter into the light.  The moment we stop as a people of faith from asking questions about what we believe and how we live that out – that is when we begin to live according to the word of humanity, not the word of God.  It is also the moment when we fail to see in Catalino the Jesus we are called to love and serve.  Remember, it was Jesus who said “I was a stranger and you welcomed me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” He was teaching the tenets of his Jewish faith, recalling the words of God to the Hebrew people “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

These are dark times my friend, and there are days when we will not even know what questions to ask, much less understand the answers all the time.  And the answer we get one day, might just lead us to more questions the next – in fact, that is almost always the case.  But if we are to be a people Jesus calls us to be – we must. 

Christianity isn’t about easy answers, but about difficult questions. It isn’t about slogans, but about seeking.

Lent is about that journey – the Nick at Night journey – the one we will hear about next week too, so stay tuned.


For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here:

[1] This is not really what the Monty Python monks were saying, but honestly – who cares?

[2] Joanna Harader, pastor of Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, Kan., from her blog, Spacious Faith.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Festival of Homiletics.

Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge
March 12, 2017
Lent 2
1st Reading – Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
2nd Reading – Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Gospel – John 3:1-17