8 March 2020

"Chaos and Clarity" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday March 8, 2020
Scripture:  John 3:1-17

Have you ever traveled to a place where you don’t speak or understand the language that is spoken?  It is a disconcerting experience to be surrounded by words and language and not to be able to understand a single thing that is being said, and to not be able to make yourself understood.

I remember when I first moved to Tanzania, where the national language is Swahili, we as volunteers were given two weeks of language training before being sent out to our placements – mostly to make sure that we wouldn’t starve or insult our neighbours too badly.  And two weeks later, there I was in rural Tanzania equipped with my introductory Swahili lessons, immersed in a rural community where I was surrounded not only by Swahili but also by the local tribal language of LuHaya.  I still remember those first few weeks – surrounded by words that I couldn’t make any sense of.  After a bit, I came to realize that if I was able to pick out an occasional word, the person was probably speaking Swahili, whereas if I couldn’t catch any words at all, the person was probably speaking LuHaya.

As the weeks and months passed, and I used the language more and more, my vocabulary and understanding started to improve.  There was a long stretch of time where I described my fluency as having pockets of language – I had my pocket of hospital and physiotherapy vocabulary; I had my pocket of church vocabulary; I had my pocket of shopping and market vocabulary.  As long as I was in one of these contexts I could manage, but as soon as someone started talking about something else I was lost.

Six months in, we were offered two more weeks of intermediate language training where we learned the rest of the grammar; and it was probably somewhere between the year and a half and two year point that I really started to feel comfortable understanding and using the language.

But I still remember the chaos and confusion of those first few weeks and months.  I remember the frustration of the neighbourhood children when I just couldn’t understand what they were asking.  I remember the fear that I felt when I had to make a phone call to make a reservation at the guest house in town.  Are they going to understand what I am asking?  Will I actually have a room when I get to town?  I remember sitting in church with the sermon and the prayers washing over me, not able to understand a single thing.

And if I had left at that point in time, if I had succumbed to the confusion and walked away, if I had stopped engaging with people and insisted on speaking only English, then I still wouldn’t understand or speak Swahili.  It was only by plunging in to the confusion, living with the lack of understanding, embracing the chaos, that I was eventually able to understand.

Nicodemus, in this week’s scripture story, is also confused – he just doesn’t understand.  He is one of the Pharisees, a leader of the Jewish people.  This story takes place in Jerusalem.  Jesus and his disciples have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover at the temple there; but while they are at the temple, Jesus has caused a bit of a commotion when he made a whip out of some cords, overturned the tables of the money changers, and drove the animals that were intended for sacrifice out of the temple.

So, as you can imagine, the temple leaders, including Nicodemus, probably weren’t very happy with Jesus at this point in time.  But Nicodemus seems to be curious about Jesus – curious enough that he comes to Jesus to ask some questions.   But he comes to the place where Jesus is staying at night-time, under the cover of darkness.  Maybe he doesn’t want his companions at the temple to see where he is going; or maybe the literal darkness outside represents the fact that Nicodemus is figuratively “in the dark” about who Jesus is.

He is curious though, and he opens the dialogue by praising Jesus – “Rabbi, Teacher, 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 replies with a statement that seems designed to confuse rather than clarify – “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew.”  And so Nicodemus, confused, asks Jesus to explain.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”

And Jesus again seems to confuse Nicodemus even more, instead of offering clarity – talking about being born of water and Spirit, and the wind or Spirit blowing where she chooses.  Finally, in verse 9 we hear Nicodemus for the last time, still confused, asking Jesus “How can these things be?”  And then our dialogue turns to a monologue with Jesus teaching about eternal life.  It is almost as if they are speaking two different languages, neither one being able to understand what the other is saying.

Nicodemus just fades out of the scene.  We don’t hear any more from him, we aren’t told whether or not he has left the room, we don’t know if he starts to understand what Jesus is saying or whether he is still confused – it almost feels like he slipped out the door while Jesus was still talking.

Now the primary focus of John’s gospel is discipleship.  If you flip ahead to the end of John’s gospel, you will read, “These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  And so as you read the stories that the narrator is telling, it is always interesting to ask, “What does this story tell me about being a follower of Jesus?”

And on the surface, if I were to read this story of Nicodemus, I would probably have to say that he isn’t a follower of Jesus.  He comes to Jesus in secrecy, at night; he asks questions of Jesus; and then he just seems to slip away, back into the night, still in the dark.

But fortunately, this isn’t the last that we hear from Nicodemus in John’s gospel.  His story doesn’t end here.

If we were to flip ahead from Chapter 3 to the end of Chapter 7, Nicodemus makes another appearance.  The authorities are trying to figure out to do with Jesus, who keeps on kicking up a commotion and challenging the authority of those in charge.  They talk of arresting Jesus, but our friend Nick stands up for Jesus.  Nicodemus says, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing.”  Hmmm… Maybe what Jesus has been saying has had an influence on Nicodemus after all.

And we get to see Nicodemus one more time.  At the end of Chapter 19 of John’s gospel, after Jesus has been tortured, after Jesus has been crucified, after Jesus has died; Joseph of Arimathea asks permission to take his body away to be buried.  And when he does so, he is joined by another person – Nicodemus.  Nick shows up for Jesus in the end, bringing a hundred pounds of burial spices – myrrh and aloe – to help prepare Jesus’ body for burial.  Together, Joseph and Nicodemus wrap Jesus’ body along with the spices in linen cloths, and place it in a tomb in a garden.  There, at the very end, Nicodemus serves Jesus with love.

And so, in the end, it seems as though Nicodemus was able to wade through the chaos and confusion in order to become a follower of Jesus.  He was willing to take that first step into the shadowy chaos; he was willing to become even more confused, in order to reach clarity on the other side.

And so this week, I encourage you to be like Nicodemus.  Is there a faith step that you’ve been considering taking, but have been too afraid?  Do you feel yourself called by God to do something new or different, but that something seems too overwhelming and chaotic and scary?  I encourage you to take a page from Nicodemus’ book and step into the chaos.  Ask Jesus your questions.  Don’t be afraid of the confusion.

And trust that Jesus is there somewhere in the chaos, that Jesus hears your questions; and trust that the shadowy confusion will eventually clear until you find the clarity you’re looking for.

For God is everywhere, yes, in the places we expect, but especially in the surprising places, the unexpected places, the chaotic places.  And God is just waiting to welcome us home to love.

Thanks be to God.

Some of the kids who struggled to make themselves understood
when I moved to Tanzania;
but a smile is a universal language!

1 March 2020

"Turning Out the Light" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday March 1, 2020
Scripture:  Matthew 4:1-11

I lived in Montreal for 4 years while I was doing my undergraduate degree; and during those years I was a Girl Guide leader with a group that met on the edges of downtown Montreal.  Several times a year, we would take the girls camping – usually once in the fall, once in the mid-winter, and again in the spring.  There were a couple of Girl Guide camps north of Montreal in the Laurentians, and that is usually where we would go, heading up on a school bus on Friday afternoon, and returning to the city on Sunday afternoon.

I remember, several times at one of these camps, coming across one of the girls at night, absolutely entranced by the night sky; standing there staring up at the expanse of stars – the Milky Way, the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia – too many stars to be able to name or count.  And what really struck me was that some of these girls had never seen the night sky before.  Since I grew up in the country, in a part of the country that isn’t too different than this corner of the world, the stars had always been part of my life.  I couldn’t imagine reaching 9, 10, 11 years old without seeing the night sky.  But to these girls, growing up in the city with glowing streetlights blocking out any other light source, this sort of night sky was completely new to them.

This year, as we move through the season of Lent, we are going to be exploring the idea that sometimes we need to turn out the light in order to be able to see clearly.  This can be a literal turning out of the lights, like moving away from the city in order to be able to see the night sky; but it can also be a spiritual turning out of the lights.

The light is such a powerful metaphor in our faith.  We talk about the light of Christ; Jesus called himself the Light of the World; scripture tells us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never overcome it; we like to sing,
            This little light of mine,
            I’m going to let it shine…

But what might we be missing if we only focus on the light?  What might be missing in our lives if we are afraid to go in to the shadowy areas, and instead remain in what author Barbara Brown Taylor refers to as “full solar Christianity”?[1]  Are we missing the awe-inspiring expanse of the night sky?

In today’s scripture story, Jesus ventures into those shadowy places.  He is led into the wilderness, and he fasts there for 40 days.  Now Jesus’ wilderness isn’t the same sort of wilderness that we have here in New Brunswick.  The wilderness that Jesus went in to was a desert wilderness – a brown stony landscape with not much by way of vegetation aside from the occasional oasis; hot and dry during the day with no trees to take shelter under, and so cold at night that the nights are actually more dangerous than the days.

Jesus has left behind him the comforts of a bed to sleep on and a roof over his head.  He has left behind him the very human need for the companionship of other humans.  He has left behind him the pleasure of a meal, getting only just enough food and water to keep his body alive.  He has moved in to the shadowy places.

And as he stays there in the wilderness, he begins to see himself clearly, and he begins to see God more clearly.  Today’s story falls immediately after Jesus has been baptized – immediately after he has seen the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove, and heard the voice of the one whom he calls “Father” call him beloved.  And at the end of the forty days, he is able to articulate his relationship with God when the tempter tries to draw him away, and he is strengthened to begin his ministry in Galilee and beyond.

We, as humans, are very good at distracting ourselves from our spiritual lives.  Or perhaps I should speak only for myself and say that I, as a human, am very good at distracting myself from my spiritual life.  I carry a phone with me everywhere that lets me play games or scroll through Facebook any time I might have the opportunity to just sit and be.  I watch TV on my iPad as I do the dishes, rather than simply being present to myself as I do the dishes.  I listen to the radio or to podcasts as I drive, rather than being alone with my thoughts.

I wonder why we have this tendency to distract ourselves?  What are we afraid that we might find if we were to go into those shadowy places?

And so as we move in to the next 6 weeks of Lent, I encourage you to consider leaving some of these shiny, sparkly distractions behind.  Like Jesus did, venture into the shadowy unknown.  And as you do, ask God to meet you there in the shadows.  Ask God to show you the things that the bright lights might hide.  And prepare yourself to be surprised at the things that you will be able to see; prepare yourself to be overwhelmed by the night sky, once you turn out the lights.

Thanks be to the God who created both light and darkness.  Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 2014).

The Center of the Milky Way