Faith United Methodist Church
March 12, 2017
Second Sunday of Lent
Rev. Kristabeth Atwood
Scripture: John 3:1-17, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Prayer for Illumination:
As we reflect on your word, O God, may your Spirit of Truth bring us wisdom to carry the message of the Gospel in our hearts. May we live according to your word that we might reflect your glory. Amen.
Sermon: Courageous Conversations
Misunderstandings happen all the time, right? Last Thanksgiving Gary, Ben and I traveled to Maine to be with Gary’s side of the family. Before we left I dropped the dogs off at the kennel while Gary packed up the car. When I got back to the house I asked, “All loaded up?” Gary responded, “Yup.” So we jumped in the car and took off. Around about the Richmond exit on 89 Gary said, “Well, I didn’t put your suitcase in the car.” What????? Needless to say we made a U-turn at the Waterbury exit and headed back to the New North End.
My Miriam-Webster iPhone app defines misunderstanding as, “failure to understand correctly; mistake as to meaning or intent.” Sometimes misunderstandings can be simple, even humorous. Other times misunderstandings can cause unintended, major consequences. Relationships have ended over misunderstandings. Wars have started over misunderstandings. There is the example of the War of the Stray dog when, in 1925, a Greek soldier’s dog crossed the border into Bulgaria. The soldier did what any good dog owner would have done and ran after the dog into Bulgarian territory. The soldier was shot and instantly the Greeks used this as an excuse to invade Bulgaria. A ceasefire was eventually declared over the misunderstanding, but not before 50 Bulgarian citizens had been killed. Hopefully our misunderstandings don’t have such severe ramifications, but misunderstandings can cause breakdowns in conversations, community and common life.
This is the second Sunday of our Lenten Series “Emptying our Plates,” our opportunity to consider how we fill our plates too full. We are not necessarily talking about food. Perhaps our plates are full with tasks or fears or responsibilities. Perhaps are plates are full with opinions or grudges or offenses. Perhaps are plates are full of broken relationships or nursed wounds or resentments.
When our plates are too full we risk missing out on the joys and miracles that life can unexpectedly bring. So, during these weeks we are invited to ask ourselves how we can empty our plates, even just a little, to make room for the miracles God places before us, not least of which is the miracle of Easter.
So this morning we explore one of the most familiar misunderstandings in the Bible. We don’t know much about Nicodemus, except that he was a Pharisee and a leader in his community. Yet he was a curious, wondering sort. And, having some specific questions for Jesus, he sought out Jesus himself.
Some say that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night so he would not be seen by his fellow Pharisees. He didn’t want his friends to misunderstand and think that he believed what this Jesus said. Yet Nicodemus acted courageously in initiating this conversation, even under the cover of darkness.
You may be able to tell that I like Nicodemus. I identify with his questions and wonderings and curiosities. He wanted to know the “whys” and the “how-comes.” And he didn’t get it the first time around, or even the second. When Jesus told him about the need to be born anew Nicodemus challenged him, “I am a grown man. How can someone be born again when he is old like me? Am I to crawl back into my mother’s womb for a second birth?” Nicodemus was focused on the physical, while Jesus was talking about the spiritual.
You could say that Jesus and Nicodemus weren’t on the same wavelength. They were talking at cross-purposes. Nicodemus just didn’t get it, and I can relate to that. He had questions. I have questions. Some have said that Nicodemus’ questions prove that he was dimwitted or hardheaded, but I don’t think that was the case. The truth is, there have been times when I haven’t gotten it the first or second or even tenth time. Times when, perhaps like Nicodemus, I have wrinkled my brow in confusion.
So Jesus tried again to help Nicodemus understand, “I tell you the truth, if someone does not experience water and Spirit birth, there’s no chance he will make it into God’s kingdom. 6 Like from like. Whatever is born from flesh is flesh; whatever is born from Spirit is spirit.” That clears things up, right? It is really not a surprise when Nicodemus admits, “I still do not understand how this can be.”
I think it is safe to say that none of us understand the Bible completely. While some might hesitate to admit it, I would assert that there isn’t anyone who understands everything in the Bible. And if someone were to claim to understand the Bible fully, we should be skeptical of that person. In fact, I suspect Nicodemus’ experience is quite common. In fact, Nicodemus’ words could be our own words, “I don’t understand. How can this be? That’s impossible!”
Yet, there is one thing Nicodemus understands completely. He understands that he does not understand. That’s half the battle, isn’t it? He doesn’t go into the conversation trying to persuade Jesus to his way of thinking. In fact, he affirms, “The signs you are doing are proof that God is with you.” Nicodemus is courageous in his approach of Jesus, and he acknowledges that he doesn’t know as much as he might think he knows. As Richard Lischer suggests, “Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus preserves a space for mystery…”
I’ve always felt that Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus doesn’t end in a very satisfying way, at least for us. We wonder if Nicodemus came to a better understanding, or if he went away scratching his head, perpetually perplexed? Did he consider Jesus that crazy teacher who speaks nonsense, or did Jesus words work within him to bring about that second birth that Jesus spoke about? And what can we learn from Nicodemus misunderstanding of Jesus’ teachings?
Nicodemus shows up again in the Scripture, you know. He is there at the cross to anoint Jesus with burial spices. Nicodemus came out of the shadows and, while Nicodemus doesn’t speak in this later scene, it seems he may have worked out some of his earlier misunderstandings and acted with the compassion and courage of a true follower of Jesus.
None of us can doubt whether misunderstandings happen. They do. Everyday. We are humans and what seems abundantly clear to us can be puzzling to someone else. What we can do is change the way we look at misunderstandings. Are they embarrassing, frustrating events that get in the way of life? Or are they opportunities to grow in patience and compassion and communication? We may get upset when someone misunderstands us. Even Jesus seems to have gotten frustrated with Nicodemus saying, in one translation, “You are a teacher of the law and you don’t understand these things?” Yet when we treat misunderstandings as the natural experience of life that they are, we can open ourselves and others to respond less with anger and more with curiosity.
What is God calling you to empty from your plate this week? What do you need to let go in order to make room for the Spirit? What certainties do you need to give up in order to live more fully into the life God intends for you? May God’s spirit work in you for transformation, and may our hearts be open for new understandings and insights into ourselves, those around us, and the God who is love. Amen.