The theme of light and dark runs through much of the Gospel of John and we all know, at a very primordial level, that there is safety and goodness in light. That “super moon” last night was something else, wasn’t it–making even the night as day. In short, the light is our friend.
The Gospel reading today is about Nicodemus. An interview between a couple of professors at Yale helped me imagine how this story would go today: Nick was the dean at Yale Divinity School, a wise and learned man. He was steeped in the theology of the Hebrew Scriptures, studying them daily, publishing about the minor prophets, teaching and helping shape the ministry of several generations of clergy people. Although students from many different denominations attended the divinity school, it was rooted in the Anglican ethos and the dean was an Episcopal priest. He had always loved preaching and celebrating the Eucharist. He was still filled with wonder when he looked down at that simple host and not-so-fine wine in the chalice as he invoked the Holy Spirit upon these gifts. He was looked up to and respected.
One day, a family of Mormons moved in next to the house he and his wife had owned for year. Nick and his new neighbor spent hours talking about faith and over time, the dean became more and more fascinated, more drawn into the story of Joseph Smith and the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Under the pretense of doing some research, he flew to Utah and spent time with the President of the CLDS. It was a holy, deeply meaningful encounter for him. Flying back east, the dean was keenly aware that the life he had known and lived was balancing precariously. He was so profoundly moved, convicted and converted by the time and conversation of the past two days. He was now thoroughly convinced that the Book of Mormon was as much revelation as the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Testament. When–no, IF–he confessed his new-found conviction, he would have to resign from a position that had defined him for over 25 years. His wife of 30 years would probably not understand what he was doing. Their marriage was already fragile and he wondered if it would withstand the changes that would come with becoming a Mormon. The thoughtful and good life he had built for himself, bit bit by, simply would not accommodate who he had become. Flying through the night, he was overwhelmed with the losses he faced. He got back to New York, the Limo service was waiting for him and with little traffic on the road, he was back in New Haven shortly after midnight. Nick was bone tired, scared and achingly glad to climb into bed in the dark. He dreaded the morning, which would surely come.
In a faith culture that values the sudden “conversion” experience that leads people to proclaim to the world that “once I was blind, and now I see” and that they have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior, there is something distinctly unsettling when we draw this modern-day parallel to Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus. Notice that all of a sudden, about 2/3 of the way into this story in John, Nicodemus simply disappears. He is no longer there. Was it all too much for him? Did the writer try to be protective of his friend, not telling us that Nicodemus was not able or willing to follow out to the places of wilderness and newness that Jesus was calling him to? Why did he just slip back into the night?
Much as we proclaim that the light is our friend, this encounter also tells us something about the nature of light, something we would like to ignore. Light shines clear and unwavering–it defines edges and contrasts. In the light of day, what we had hoped was blurry is exposed for what it is. In the dark, we walk carefully, trying to avoid bumping into things. The clarity we are given with the light compels us to make choices, decisions and commitments.
The problem, the reason why sometimes it is so hard to look at things in the light of day is that we humans move so easily from clarity to judgment and from there to condemnation. Today’s reading from John is a deeply moving contradiction to that sequence.
“De-nial” may be a wide river for us humans to swim across. But for God that doesn’t exist. I love the line from Psalm 139 “My frame was not hidden from you when I was being made in secret”. We are known for who we are from the beginning and God has not fled from what was there.
Not fleeing from those parts of ourselves that rob and diminish us is not the same as acceptance and resignation. God want us to drink form the living waters, God wants us to have life and have it abundantly. God loves us and when all that prevents us from accepting that love is exposed, God yearns for and invites our lives to be different. Certainly, there is judgment in that desire. But when we understand and accept that God’s judgment is inseparable from God’s love, that in fact, love is the judgment, we understand the light, which we thought was so glaring and harsh, in a new way. Not only is the light our friend. It is our only hope.
I am deeply moved by the passage that has been used so much that it verges on the trite: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the word, but in order that the world might be saved in him. You and I slip way too easily from clarity to judgment to condemnation. When we come face to face witha part of ourselves that robs us of the ability to live in the fullness of grace, we are very quick to assume that surely God has found us so wanting that we have been cast into the abyss. You and I would quickly agree, I hope, that the folks who protest at military funerals, claiming that the deaths of extraordinary young men and women have it wrong about God. But over and over again in my ministry–and in my own self–I see that same theology operating in a more subtle and insidious way in our community. To engage in honest self-examination, naming what hurts, offends, or breaks us and others is very dangerous in that theological framework. If we are not perfect, then we cannot possibly deserve forgiveness, redemption or restoration. No wonder we put up such careful edifices to hide ourselves and others from the unvarnished, unspun reality of how we are both so broken and such a blessing in the world.
For anyone who has ever been tempted in this way, the Gospel today answers in a clear and unequivocal voice: God did not send his son into the world to condemn it but to love it. Being in a relationship of love with God means that even the worst in us and of us can be a point of grace and new hope. God is always ready to move love into the tattered and torn spaces of our lives and of the world. There is only one requirement: we must freely choose to go with God into those spaces. That means being willing to go out to the wilderness, the arid and parched landscape in our soul that makes it hard to hope. Like Abram and Sarai, we must be willing to put aside cynicism and bitterness. We also must have a certain kind of courage . We cannot come listen in the dead of night, where there is no risk and then, when a lot is asked of us, disappear. We have to cast our lot with God. We are invited to say “yes. Here I am”. Abram and Sarai discovered a fullness of life they had never imagined possible and through them, countless generations have been blessed. No less is offered to and asked of us.
As you prepare to move into the third week of Lent, what are the pieces of your life that you have not pulled out into the light. Is there even one single one you are willing to stop and examine? Are there hard decisions you’ve been postponing or maybe even denying that need to be made. I pray for you and for me, as we receive communion this morning, as that translucent and so ephemeral disk of wheat is placed in our hands, that we will be willing to receive God’s love as well. May we allow the love to walk with us in the week ahead, surrounding, upholding and challenging us to reach for what is beyond what we already know and have been given.