Inherit the Wind

(sermon 4/23/17)

inherit the wind
Spencer Tracy, Frederic March, and Harry Morgan in the 1960 film “Inherit the Wind”

 

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But 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.

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In 1955, two playwrights wrote a play called “Inherit the Wind.” It would become a hit on Broadway, and in 1960 it was also turned into a movie. The story is a memorable one, and apparently a timeless one, too – it was remade as a movie made for TV in 1988, and again for theaters in 1997. It’s become a favorite of regional and community theater, and even returned to Broadway as recently as 2007, more than 50 years after its first run. If you know the story, you know that it’s a dramatized version of the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial” that took place in Dayton Tennessee in 1925, when local high school science teacher John Scopes taught his students the theory of evolution, which was against a recently passed state law. It was a landmark case that was really the high-water mark in society’s debate between modern science and education, and specifically evolution; and Christian Fundamentalism and biblical literalism, including the belief that God created the earth and the entire cosmos in six literal days some 6,000 years ago. We’re living too close to the Creation Museum and the recreated Noah’s Ark to think that there aren’t still people who hold onto that Fundamentalist belief, but after the Scopes trial, our society and most of our churches turned more and more toward accepting this scientific reality and more modern ways of understanding scripture.

As good as the story of the play and movie is on that surface level, though, the playwrights made clear from the beginning that their real point wasn’t really the Scopes trial at all. Rather, it was intended to be a parable, a criticism of the nightmare of McCarthyism that the country had been enduring for the previous handful of years, which had been destroying people’s lives simply on the basis that their thoughts and beliefs weren’t consistent with the mainstream, majority viewpoint. The story line was meant to be a statement that we should all have the right to freedom of conscience, the right to our own beliefs and living them out even if they’re unpopular. The story makes the point that to do so can unfortunately come at personal cost, as it did with John Scopes, or Bert Cates, his fictional counterpart in the movie. In fact, the story’s title, “Inherit the Wind,” is actually part of a quote from the Book of Proverbs that’s mentioned in the story – that those who trouble their own households will “inherit the wind.” In other words, people who stir things up or go against the grain within their own group are likely to receive nothing for it – or may even receive personal chaos, opposition, even destruction.

I think there’s a connection between that and today’s gospel text. Surely, this is the “Doubting Thomas” passage, but there are several other important things going on in here too. One of those things is Jesus’ breathing on the disciples and telling them to receive the Holy Spirit, having it dwell within them. We’re all probably familiar with the story in the Book of Acts, where the disciples receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but in John’s gospel, we get this earlier and less earth-shaking version of it. In the Greek language, there’s a word “pneuma” – it’s part of our language too, in the word “pneumatic” and similar words, having something to do with air or wind. This Greek word has several meanings, including air, wind, breath, and spirit. This is what Jesus was telling the disciples to receive. So yes, it may be a little corny to say so, but in a real way, in this event the disciples were “inheriting the wind.”

I think there’s a deeper connection between the play’s story line and this gospel story than just that play on words, though. We believe that the Holy Spirit dwells within us. It’s that divine presence, that divine spark, that we sense when we’re aware of God’s real presence in our lives. It’s that presence of God within us that in other parts of the gospels, Jesus calls the Advocate – who gives us comfort when we need it the most, and challenge when we get too comfortable.

It’s that breath, that wind, that Spirit that Jesus gave those disciples, and by extension to us as well, that causes us to step up and take bold, courageous stands for the kingdom of God. To stand for equality in our world, whether over race, gender, religion, economic status, or anything else. It’s that Spirit that causes us to work or justice for all as a matter of the kingdom of God, as a matter of our faith, which Jesus said boils down to love of God and love of others as we love ourselves, and because as Dr. King said, justice is really nothing more than love in action. It’s that Spirit that leads us to work against bigotry and ignorance and fear of any kind in this world because our faith is one of peace, and these things always inevitably lead to violence.

And sometimes, when the Spirit leads us in those directions, they’re going to go against the grain of some people around us – whether in society in general, or even within the church itself. Sometimes, just as happened to the evolution-teaching John Scopes, when we have to stand up for what’s right, we’ll be “troubling our own house,” and as a result, we’ll “inherit the wind” in that negative way, in the form of pushback and opposition.

Sometimes, that wind of opposition can make us want to give in, give up, go with the flow. Don’t take the tough stands; don’t make the tough choices. It really can be tempting. But friends, we can’t give in to that temptation. We have to step up, to stand up, to speak truth to power and truth to lies, because if we don’t do it, who will?

All of us can feel like it would be easier to not follow where that Spirit is leading, that it would be easier to not make waves. Are there situations in your own life that are like that? It’s true, *sometimes* having received that Spirit can cause us difficulty, challenge, tough choices. But despite the fact that it will *sometimes* cause that, remember that it will *always* mean that no matter where we go, no matter what we do, no matter what approval or opposition we encounter, God will *always* be traveling the journey with us, always comforting, always encouraging, always challenging, and always strengthening us to do the right thing – we’ll never be facing the wind alone.

Thanks be to God.

The *Something* of Resurrection

(sermon 4/16/17 – Easter Sunday)

Mary Mag2 by bruce wolfe - old mission santa barbaraMary Magdalene, bronze, Bruce Wolfe, sculptor

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

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Mary Magdalene’s world had spun out of control. Everything she’d come to believe, everything she’d put her faith in, had come crashing down. Jesus was dead. Since Friday, she’d been nearly crushed with grief, and now, early Sunday morning, when she must have thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. Now, not only was Jesus dead, something had happened to his body. She couldn’t even give him a decent burial.

She was almost paralyzed in her grief; she couldn’t even pull herself together enough to walk back into town with the others. She just slumped down on the ground, seeming to weigh a ton under the sadness, the dread, the fear.

And then, everything changed. There, at the tomb, Mary encountered the resurrected Jesus. There, in that moment, Mary experienced the power of resurrection – the resurrection of Jesus, and because of that, the resurrection of hope. In an instant, everything was new again – and not just as good as things were before Jesus was killed, but even better, exponentially better. You can just picture Mary making her way back into the city, laughing, giggling at the impossibility of it all, part walking, part running, part dancing, part flying, hurrying back to tell the others what she’d seen; what had happened.

That’s what this day is all about. That’s what we celebrate today – the great truth that we see in the resurrection that no matter how dark things may seem, no matter how much it seems like the wheels are falling off of everything, no matter how bad things might appear, God will never let Jesus’ message of love be defeated. God will not allow darkness, or fear, or evil, or even death, to triumph over love, not in this world and certainly not in the next.  And so today, we proclaim “Christ is risen!” and “He is risen indeed!” and we hold fast to the hope and joy that comes with the resurrection, in good times, and especially in bad.

Resurrection is what our faith is all about. Resurrection is what our faith hinges on. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote, if Christ hasn’t risen, then our faith is just a fairy tale, a pipe dream, and we Christians are the most pitiful people on the planet.

And still… still… we really are basing our faith, our hope, on what appears to be a pretty incredible story. People in Jesus’ time certainly knew that people didn’t just come back from the dead, and we’re far more sophisticated than them. We aren’t stupid; we know that things like this just don’t happen. Just this past week, someone said to me that the one real thing they had problem with in the Christian scriptures was the “miracle stuff.” It would all be so much more reasonable, more logical, more believable, without all the miracle stuff. And yet, here we are today, celebrating the granddaddy of all miracles – rising from the dead, and not just in spirit, but in body, and not just the old, normal body, but a new improved one, a transformed one; one that can apparently change appearance so even your closest of friends might not recognize you if you don’t want them to;  one that can seemingly appear out of nowhere or move through walls or locked doors. I mean, really, this is quite a story that we’re being asked to believe. And somewhere, in the middle of singing all the great Easter hymns, and cheering “He is risen!” a voice within us – I suspect within all of us, at some point, or in some way, asks, “Really? Is this really true? Or did someone just make all this stuff up, to feel better after Jesus was killed? Is all this just a house of cards, built on the foundation of this impossible thing?”

I know I’ve asked myself those questions. As I’ve thought about them, I’ve come to a few conclusions.

First, even though I know it’s illogical, and to put it mildly, highly improbable, to believe that a person could physically rise from the dead, I believe Jesus did. I suppose I believe it in part because the scriptures say it happened, but I believe it at least as much because based on my understanding of God, I believe that God is capable of, and maybe even enjoys, pulling off the impossible every now and then.

But even though I believe it, as odd as it might sound, it really isn’t the bedrock, ultimate deal-breaker of my faith. In other words, if tomorrow, some archaeologist in Israel stumbled across a first-century tomb, and inside it they discovered an ancient ossuary, a bone-box, and the box said, “Here are the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph, who claimed to be the Messiah, and the Son of God;” and if inside the box, in addition to his bones, there were Jesus’ original, long-form birth certificate, his high school yearbook, and his Social Security card – if it proved beyond all doubt that Jesus’ physical, earthly body wasn’t resurrected, I asked myself, would it destroy my faith? Would it significantly change my faith? I have to admit, it really wouldn’t. It wouldn’t substantially change my faith, because I know that, whatever it was, *something* amazing happened on that first Easter Sunday. Something that could only be described as miraculous happened that instantly turned Mary Magdalene’s soul-crushing grief into absolute joy. Something turned her life completely around and made her dance all the way from the tomb into the city. Something otherworldly happened to a bunch of demoralized, terrified disciples to make them believe they saw and touched the one they saw dead as a mackerel just days before, and to turn them into an emboldened, supercharged bunch ready to tell the world about the risen Jesus they’d encountered.  Something very real, and transforming, something life-changing and life-giving. That something – whatever its details – was resurrection.

I believe in the resurrection because of what happened to Mary Magdalene and the other disciples, and because of what I’ve experienced of God within myself. I believe in the resurrection because in the kingdom of God, sometimes what sounds like a fairy tale is actually the truest thing, the thing to really believe. I know that just as happened with Mary and the other disciples, the hope, the truth, of the resurrection has the power to change lives. To turn the deepest sorrow into the greatest joy. To turn the most hopeless of situations into the most hope-filled moments of our lives.

So this morning, if a piece of you – whether a small piece, or a large one – brings doubts and cries for logic on this, the most illogical of Sundays, that’s OK.  You don’t need me to tell you that there’s plenty of doubt within the Church, in pews and pulpits alike. But remember that even where there is  doubt, there’s still  faith. The two are absolutely inseparable. And even if our faith is imperfect, that’s OK, because Jesus’ faith is perfect, and it’s Jesus’ faith, not our own, that reconciles us with God. Remember that something that changed Mary Magdalene and the disciples. Remember that something that ended up changing the world – and that eventually has changed, and will continue to change, and give hope, and joy, and life, to you, and to me. Remember the something of resurrection – that indeed, Christ has risen! – and for that, we can all say

Thanks be to God!

Public Statement

 masontown municipal center  taj-mahal-agra-3
Someone is having difficulty telling these two buildings apart. In fairness, I can see that there is a striking resemblance…

 

April 15, 2017

Yesterday, someone pointed out to me that an anonymous person was making charges on a social media site regarding Masontown, Pennsylvania, that I was a “Taj Mahal Architect.” I haven’t actually been an architect for seven years now, but in one sense, I’m kind of amused by the claim. At some point in their careers, any architect worth his or her salt will have been been called out by some critic as being a “Taj Mahal architect.” It’s late to the party, to be sure, but at least I can know after the fact that before I left the profession, I’d apparently arrived.

The charge was based on the fact that my former architectural firm was selected to design the renovation of the former Gabler Drug Store in the heart of the Borough, converting it into a new, much-needed Municipal Center including Borough offices and meeting rooms, Police Department, and separately, space for the relocated District Magistrate’s offices. The “Taj Mahal” reference is intended to be a charge that the project was lavish and expensive, a waste of money. On the social media site, copies of my invoices for the project were presented as if the fees were excessive, and the claim was made that the Borough Council acted improperly in retaining my firm for the project because at the time, Harry Lee, my father, was serving as Council President. The anonymous person making the post implied that there was some impropriety in this process. They also criticized the Council, claiming that instead of retaining a local architect, they unreasonably went to “a guy in Ohio.”

I’d like to make a few initial statements of fact. The project budget and cost to renovate the building into a new Municipal Center was actually quite modest by construction cost data for similar projects. Further, the amount of my fee on this project was not at all unreasonable – quite the contrary, actually. It’s relatively easy to find architectural fees for building renovation projects of similar scope and budget performed for public entities. If anyone would care to do a simple search of this data, they would find that my fees were actually on the low end of the reasonable scale for work of this type. That’s because of the personal pride and commitment that I have for Masontown, which I’ll discuss later. Further, while I’m no longer in architectural practice and don’t have the exact numbers at my fingertips, a significant portion of the fees charged were paid to my consulting engineers – Fayette Engineering, as local a firm as could be found. Finally, the question of my selection as architect was an issue that was reviewed by the Borough’s legal counsel from the very first moment it was suggested, and it was determined that there was nothing improper being proposed.

Beyond those facts, I’d like to offer some extended comments about the claim that I am – or at least, was – just some “guy in Ohio,” because the facts I mention above are all easily shown and the accuser’s claims dismissed, but this is the charge that most leaves me scratching my head.

I recognize that as each year goes by, there are more and more residents of Masontown who may not know me. Still, I know that there are many people there who were adults – teachers, parents of friends, etc. – and a number of people roughly my own age who I grew up with, who still live in town. If you remember me from those times, you probably remember me as the nerdy “smart kid;” the kid who had no noticeable athletic skills at all, who was sure to be the last kid picked in sandlot games; the kid who got really serious about his religious faith – sometimes, maybe too serious – during his high school years. But beyond those surface impressions, I suspect and hope that most people knew me as a normal, average Masontown kid, who was certainly no saint but who was overall a decent person and a good friend.

Both sides of my family have long history and deep roots in Masontown and the surrounding area. I was born in the Uniontown Hospital. As an infant, I was baptized in the long-gone Presbyterian Church in Ronco. When I was very young, my parents and I lived in Fort Mason Village. When I was eight or nine, my parents built a home on Columbus Avenue in the West End, the home that my mother still lives in. It was during that time that I became fascinated with the drawings and construction of the house, and decided that I wanted to be an architect.

I attended Masontown Elementary Schools, both Central and West End, and Masontown Jr. High School. I then went on to the original Albert Gallatin Sr. High School. I have fond memories of teachers too numerous to mention for fear I’d forget some. I was a band geek, playing trombone in both Gibby Rockwell’s band in Masontown, and Stan Burns’ in high school. I’ve performed dozens of halftime shows at the old AG football field; played countless renditions of the “Washington & Lee Swing” whenever we scored a touchdown. I still know all the words to the original Albert Gallatin Alma Mater.

As a youth, I played Little Knights baseball – poorly, for the most part, but to this day I’m proud to have been a member or the Giants, and an old black-and-white team photo, taken when I was ten or eleven, is still proudly displayed in my living room all these years later. I’ve eaten more hamburgers at the Savoy Restaurant, Mojock’s Corner, and DJ’s Fiesta, than I could count. To this day, wherever I go, I judge every pizza I eat based on whether it’s as good as one of the Dolfi’s pizzas from back in the day, bought out of the take-out window at the back of the building. As a teen, I stood on the street and watched the façade of the old Leroy Hotel crash into Main Street after the fire that destroyed it. Throughout my youth, I cheered for Masontown’s successes, and felt its losses as my own. Together with all the people of Masontown, I mourned the tragic loss of my friend and classmate, Emmett Diamond, just days before our high school graduation.

After graduating high school, I attended Penn State University, majoring in architecture. During the summers, I continued to live in Masontown, and I worked as an intern in local architecture firms in both Masontown and Uniontown. After graduation, I continued to live in Masontown while working for a firm in Uniontown. During those years, I worked as a draftsman on a number of local projects. I did drawings to renovate the now-demolished Central/Jr High School. I provided similar service when Dolfi’s Restaurant was expanded to its current configuration, back when it was owned by the Lofstead brothers. I also did some of the architectural drawing for the J Lynmar manufacturing building on Route 21, which, I believe, is now occupied by Hotronix. In an odd twist, I even did some of the drawings for the Gabler Building when it was originally built. In addition to that, I worked on a number of school projects, including the complete renovation and addition to what was then the Lafayette Jr. High School, as well as the Benjamin Franklin Jr. High School in Uniontown. There were many other local projects that I was involved in, including renovations to many public housing developments, several small renovations within the Fayette County Courthouse, and others.

Just as has been the case for the vast majority of people growing up in Masontown for many, many years now, I had to leave the area in order to pursue a living. That pursuit took me to Columbus, Ohio. After relocating there, and establishing my own architectural firm a number of years afterward, my connection to Masontown continued. When the late Bob Berish contacted me, asking if I would be interested in doing the design work for a small amphitheater “stage” at the German-Masontown Park, I couldn’t have been more proud to do something, even if this very small thing, for my hometown. Later, my firm would do the design work for the renovation of the Masontown Volunteer Fire Department, another project that gave me great pride to be part of. And yes, when I was asked by the Borough Council to offer a proposal to serve as the architect, I felt a great sense of pride in being able to truly do something positive for my hometown, and to help in bringing life, and frankly, business traffic, back to one of the key corners in town.

Eventually, I left the practice of architecture and entered the ministry; I currently serve as the pastor of the 300-member Springdale Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. When I left the architectural practice, I donated all but a few volumes of my personal library of architecture books to the German-Masontown Public Library. As a boy, I remember climbing the stairs and tugging on the god-awful heavy front doors of the old library building, and reading through every single architecture book that they had at that time In donating my own books, I enjoyed the thought that maybe my books would help to inspire some other Masontown boy or girl to pursue a profession in architecture as I had.

That’s all a very long-winded way of making clear that no matter where I go, or whatever I do, I carry a bit of my hometown in my heart, and I still proudly tell people that I’m a native of Masontown. I could go on and on with memories about growing up there, but suffice it to say that I am so very much more than just “a guy from Ohio,” as that anonymous person called me online.

I don’t mind admitting that I’m both angry and hurt by the attempts of this ignorant person on the internet who won’t even have the courage to post under his actual name, trying to erase my love and commitment to my hometown, and to make my service to Masontown something dirty, inappropriate, or improper. It makes me even more angry to think that this person is trying to use me in order to hurt my father – a man who has dedicated decades of his life to service to the Borough, both as a member and former Chief of the Fire Department, and as a long-time member of the Borough Council. Masontown should be proud of him. I can tell you that I certainly am.

Of course, I’m aware that this person, who not-very-successfully enjoys the anonymity of the internet, really knows that my Masontown roots run deep. In fact, this person talks out of both sides of their mouth – first complaining that an architect with local connections should have been hired for the project, and then complaining and criticizing the Council because they did.

The fact is that given my past and present ties to Masontown, there simply was no more logical, reasonable choice to be the architect for this project. There was no other architect, regardless of where they lived, who had the capacity to perform the services and who had such a deep connection to, pride in, and love for, the Borough of Masontown.

I’m also aware that this anonymous person doesn’t really care about me, or about the actual facts of the matter. As previously mentioned, they’re simply using me as a vehicle to attempt a smear campaign against my father during an election cycle. This person throws mud and innuendo around, in the hopes of deceiving enough people to reach their intended political goals. I hope that there are still enough people in Masontown who do still remember me, and know enough about my past, my present, and my character – and more importantly, the character of the man I proudly call Dad – to see through the maliciousness and ignorance, and to understand that there’s nothing of substance in this person’s attempted smear campaign.

Rev. Dwain Lee
Louisville, Kentucky

The Green Mile*

(sermon 4/9/17)

John_Coffey
Actor Michael Clark Duncan portraying John Coffey in The Green Mile

 

*This week’s sermon is actually a reprise, with just a few technical and theological updates, of one that I first delivered at the Frankfort (Ohio) Presbyterian Church for Palm Sunday in 2008. To my knowledge, this is the first time in  ten years that I’ve more or less repeated a sermon. After reading it, I hope you feel it was worth the revisiting. 

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” – Matthew 21:1-11

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I imagine most of us here have seen the movie “The Green Mile.” Maybe some of you have read the Steven King novel it was based on. If you’re familiar with the story, you know it really isn’t a typical Steven King story, filled with killer puppets, demon-possessed Plymouths, or Jack Nicholson running around scaring people with an axe. This is the story of a man named Paul Edgecomb, telling about some of his experiences while working as a prison guard on Death Row in the 1930s. All the cells on Death Row looked out on a central corridor that led to the death chamber, and the electric chair. It was actually just a short distance, but the prisoners considered it the longest walk that they’d ever take in their lives – they called it “the Green Mile;” green because of the color of the linoleum floor.

The population on Death Row was made up of the usual prison mix – guilty people, innocent people, people who had just been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Good people, evil people, and people somewhere in between. This same mix could be seen in the prison guards watching over the prisoners, too.

One day, a new prisoner arrived on Death Row. John Coffey was a huge, quiet, gentle black man who was the innocent victim of a racist judicial system that had convicted him of a crime he hadn’t committed. For the most part, John Coffey never bothered anyone. Most of the time, he sat in his cell crying, because he said he could feel all the brutality and evil in the world, and it was almost too much for him to bear. The amazing thing about John Coffey was that he had an amazing, miraculous ability to heal people – and if you know the story, not only people – with his touch. When Paul Edgecomb asked him how he did it, he said he just took the illness and evil back onto himself; he just drew  it all out of them and took it upon himself. It was a process that made him physically ill until he could expel it out of himself and back out into the world. Once, he’d even used his healing ability to save Edgecomb’s life, curing him of cancer. The plot of the book and movie goes in various other directions, but if you know the story you know that eventually, John Coffey’s execution date came, and he had to walk his Green Mile.

Back in the present time, Paul Edgecomb explains to a friend that John Coffey’s healing had not only healed him, it also caused him in some mysterious way to age very, very slowly – and based on the rate he was going, he was on course to live several normal human lifetimes before he would eventually die. His friend told him he’d been blessed, but Edgecomb said he wasn’t so sure – that to outlive everyone you’ve ever loved, and to outlive the world you’d been born into, often didn’t seem like much of a blessing at all. Thinking about it all, and of his own ultimate, if long-delayed death, Edgecomb says “We each owe a death; there are no exceptions, I know that – but sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile seems so long.”

This movie always comes to my mind on Palm Sunday, when I read today’s gospel text – the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem the week of his crucifixion. Jesus rode into town from a little village on the Mount of Olives. It was actually a very short trip he was making – about a mile or so, definitely no more than a mile and a half; just about the distance from here to Ballard High School. Even though it was a short trip, the importance of its point of origin wasn’t lost on people, inside or outside of Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives was where the prophets were going to reappear, and the Messiah would first appear, proceeding into Jerusalem and ushering in the age when God would rule on earth, not the Romans or anyone else, for that matter, and that everything was finally going to be set right. With all they’d seen and heard about Jesus, the people had great hopes that he really was the Messiah, and when he arrived in Jerusalem all this was going to unfold.

At about the same time that Jesus was riding into town from the Mount of Olives, over on the other side of town another procession was moving through the streets. During the time of the Passover, Jerusalem grew to a city of over a million people with all the religious pilgrims flowing into town for this major religious festival. It was a time of heightened religious passion, and it was also a time of heightened political unrest directed against the Romans who held the jews under their thumb. During this time each year, and in the midst of all that heightened unrest and potential for violence, the Romans staged a large, impressive procession, a parade through the city. Officially, it was billed as a sign of diplomatic respect for the Jewish people and their religion. In reality, though, with all its pomp and circumstance, with all the flags and banners and soldiers and trumpets and drums and horses and chariots, it was meant to send a not-very-subtle message just who was in charge. The message that they were delivering to the Jews was clear: your quaint little religious observations are all well and good, but if you get out of line and start any trouble, if you give us Romans any grief, we can, and will, squash you like a bug.

Knowing that, we can see Jesus’ own very different parade into the city in a deeper context. Its timing, its simplicity, even Jesus riding into town on a humble donkey instead of a big, impressive Roman war horse, carried an unmistakable, inescapable – and downright dangerous – political message. It was a rejection of the Romans’ claim to be in charge. It was a mockery, it was poking a stick in the eye of the Romans and their parade and all their ideas about power and empire unfolding on the other side of town. It was a protest at city hall, a prayer vigil at the Statehouse, a march on Washington. And behind it all, it was making the alternative, contrary point that there was only one ultimate power in the universe, and it wasn’t Rome; there was only one God, and it wasn’t Caesar.

As Jesus arrived in town, the people of Jerusalem understood this – that’s why Matthew tells us that “the whole city was in a turmoil.” They didn’t know what was going to come out of Jesus rocking the boat in this very public and unmistakable way, but they were pretty sure that nothing good was going to come of it.

Still, the crowd gathered around Jesus as he rode toward the city, ecstatic over what they thought would was the beginning of the end of all their problems. So they shouted and sang out ahead of him, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Save Us!” And as we know, they laid branches out in front of him, giving him their equivalent of the red carpet treatment. Except this carpet, with all the branches in the roadway, wasn’t red; it was . In a very real way, this was Jesus’ Green Mile.

Here was an innocent man. A man of miraculous ability, who had healing power, even the power of life over death, who knew he was soon going to his own death. As the donkey plodded along, Jesus looked at the people thronging around him. He knew they didn’t have a clue what was about to unfold. He also knew that even as enthusiastic as they were now, in just a few short days they’d desert him. Some would even hate him. And yet, he loved them. His heart ached for them. He could feel all the brutality and evil in the world that they had to endure, and it was almost too much for him to bear. He felt all their joys and knew all their sorrows. He’d come to show solidarity with them, to be one with them, to open the ways of the kingdom of God for them. Yes, he loved them, maybe in spite of himself, certainly in spite of themselves. Still, as he made his way closer to Jerusalem, just like Paul Edgecomb he must have been thinking, “Sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile is so long.”

Of course, in a real way, we’re all walking our own Green Mile. Along the way, we’ll all know joys and sorrows, victories and losses. As we get closer to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and as we continue to consider what it really means to be a follower of Jesus, one of the great joys that we know we can have, one of the great comforts that we know we can have, is that because of the faith and love of Jesus on that first Palm Sunday and beyond, wherever we find ourselves on our own Green Mile, and whatever its own particular twists and turns, we know that we’re never, ever, walking it alone.

Thanks be to God.

Vision

(sermon 3/26/17)

eyes

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

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There are a lot of different ways to prepare a sermon. The way I generally start out it is to read the scripture several times and try to find, out of any number of different possibilities, the one key point, the one single message that God seems to be drawing me toward, that I want to emphasize in the sermon. I work on that thought until I can come up with a single “Sermon in a Sentence” that captures the real essence of what I want to stay focused on, and then that guides me as I develop the sermon, so I never get too far away from that point. I told a parishioner one time that that was the way I did it, and he said to me, “Well if that’s the case, on Sunday mornings why don’t you just tell us that single sentence and save us all a lot of time?”

That led to a whole different conversation about why that wouldn’t work, but in a way I wish it would this morning – because our gospel text this morning, as wonderful and intriguing as it is, is very long, and it doesn’t lend itself to cutting down without losing a lot of its meaning, so by the time you read through the whole thing, there isn’t a lot of time to preach about it if you want to get out of church on time. And that’s a shame, because this is such a rich story, and there are so many great themes that you could preach about it. There are just so many great theological points; the characters are so interesting; the story has a number of interesting aspects, of this story that plays out after Jesus’ initial healing of the blind man. There’s the disbelief of the townspeople; the division and outrage of the religious leaders; the fear of the healed man’s parents and their trying to cover their own butts; the healed man ridiculing and throwing shade at the religious leaders; and his ultimate profession of faith that Jesus was Lord.

And it all flows from Jesus giving the man his vision – vision that, we see as the story moves on, goes beyond just the physical, but was much deeper – he could see through the hypocrisy and all the rabbit holes that the religious leaders were trying to get him to go down. Just as a side note, notice that Jesus didn’t ask the man a bunch of qualifying questions before healing him. It doesn’t even appear that the man was even looking to be healed; he just happened to have been at the right place at the right time. Jesus just healed him.

It seems to me that at the core of this story is the idea that just as with the blind man, God loves us and works to heal us, and continually working to give us that same kind of vision that he gave the blind man – wherever we might be in our lives, even without our expecting it, or frankly, maybe not even wanting it.

I suspect that all of us have experienced sometime in our lives when we didn’t feel whole. Something was missing. We were out of sync with the universe, or with the people around us. Maybe you’re lonely. Or you’ve lost a relationship, or you’re broken a relationship – with a spouse, a partner, a parent or child, whatever. Maybe you’re been in the middle of a health crisis – you just got a discouraging diagnosis, or you’re facing a risky surgery. Maybe it’s a financial situation – you’re constantly living paycheck to paycheck, knowing that you’re always just one emergency expense away from financial disaster. Whatever the details, in the midst of the situation you feel almost suffocated, almost drowning in dread and depression. Everything is dark; everything is just grey. There’s no joy. There’s no hope. And you just can’t see any way out.

And then, in some inexplicable, unexpected way, something happened. Some little thing, or a series of things, fell into place, and led to a way, some way, out of it. It was like your eyes were opened, and you saw the situation in a new and hopeful way. And you found wholeness again. The truth for us is that out of love for us, God is continually working this way, restoring us, bringing us more and more into wholeness.

If that’s happened to you, maybe tight in the middle of all that you clearly sensed the divine. Maybe you immediately recognized it as a “God Moment.” Or maybe it was only over time, after you looked back on the situation with perfect 20/20 hindsight, and you recognized God in the situation.

Or then again, maybe you didn’t. Sometimes we can’t, or we don’t, allow ourselves to admit that when things like that happen, that it’s evidence of God’s presence, and God’s working within us. Comparing it back to the story, it would be as if Jesus healed the blind man by putting mud over his eyes and told him to go wash it off, but he never washed it off to realize he’d already been healed.

This Lenten season, we’re all called to refocus and reflect on our faith. As part of that, this week, I invite you to think about these things. Ask yourself if there are things in your life that you want to ask God to heal; things that you would want God to restore within you. Think back over your past, and ask yourself if in hindsight, you can see that God was at work within some situation and had healed or restored something in your life. And consider, too, whether maybe there’s something in your life right now that God actually is working to restore, to heal, but you’ve just got to recognize it and accept it – that you’ve got wash in the pool of Siloam, as it were, and regain your vision, and see how God has already been working within you.

I said I always start to develop a sermon by first coming up with a “Sermon in a Sentence.” But I never share that sentence with anyone, because honestly, a lot of times the point that other people draw out of a sermon isn’t anything at all like what I think I’m preaching about. In reality, everyone has to come up with their own “Sermon in a Sentence.” This morning, out of all the possible things that could be drawn out of today’s long gospel text, I chose to focus in on the one small thought of God’s ongoing healing work in our lives, and inviting us all to examine where God may be working in our lives, healing something within us, too.  But it’s OK if the story takes you in other directions. As you hear this story, try to ask yourself what part of this story speaks to you. What do you hear God calling your attention to, when you read how Jesus reached out in love and compassion, and told the blind man – and by extension, tells you – “Here’s mud in your eye.”

Thanks be to God.

Nevertheless, She Persisted

(sermon 3/19/17)

Jesus and Samaritan woman with pussyhat

[Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” – John 4:5-26 (NRSV)

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It was a bit of an odd meeting, really, this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, since the Jews and Samaritans had been at odds for hundreds of years. Ethnically, the Samaritans were a mix of Israelites and the people of surrounding kingdoms, and they worshiped the God of Israel as well as at least four other pagan gods; while the Jews, centered in the region to the south of Samaria, saw themselves as the truly ethnically pure Hebrews, whether that was factually correct or not, and as the keeper of the true faith and worship of the God of Israel. They were really racial and religious cousins, if not sisters, but the Samaritans saw their Jewish siblings as a bunch of stuffy, exclusive, elitist prigs who were allowing religious rigidity to obstruct true worship of God. The Jews saw the Samaritans as Gentiles every bit as unclean as any Roman or other pagan, if not worse, since based on their history, they supposedly should have known better than to live and believe the way they did. The differences weren’t just left at talk, either; there was sporadic violence between the two groups, with the Jews often seeing the Samaritans as dangerous, uncivilized thugs.  

In order to avoid being made ritually unclean by associating with Gentiles, not to mention watching out for the security threat they saw in the Samaritans, the Jews engaged in a first-century version of Jim Crow segregation. They kept separate from the Samaritans; Jews wouldn’t be under the same roof as Samaritans – they wouldn’t eat under the same roof; they wouldn’t sleep under the same roof; they wouldn’t travel in the same settings. In fact, if the Jews had to travel to the north, somewhere beyond Samaria, they’d go miles out of their way, completely around the region in order to avoid mixing with the supposedly inferior and dangerous Samaritans.

And that’s what makes today’s gospel story so striking even before a word of dialogue is spoken. Here’s Jesus, traveling right through the heart of Samaria instead of going around it like he would have been expected to, and mixing with the people there, sitting at a well and speaking with a Samaritan woman. I was as unexpected scene that was as out of place as a white man in 1960 standing in line to drink out of a “Coloreds Only” fountain in Selma. It was shocking.

It shocked the woman he spoke with, too. By the way, you’ve probably noticed how very often, the names of women in the Bible aren’t documented, compared with the men who show up in the stories. Whether intentional or not, that sent, and continues to send, the message that the women just aren’t as important as the men, in the kingdom of God or otherwise. The Eastern Orthodox church has a tradition that this woman’s name was Photina. Who knows what her actual name was, but out of respect for her, and the idea that women’s lives and names matter in the kingdom of God, that’s what I’m going to call her too.

Once Photina got used to the idea that Jesus was really engaging with her, she ran with it, and they had a deep and important and what likely for her was a life-changing conversation.

Last week, Jesus told Nicodemus that God’s love was for the entire world, not just one group of people; and that God’s Spirit moved where God willed it, across all national or racial or religious or any other human categories – stoking embers and kindling fire in the hearts and souls of all manner of people. This week, just a few verses later in John’s gospel, we see Jesus putting those words into practice with Photina, and we can see the Spirit working within her as she’s intrigued by his words. She understands right away that there’s something special about Jesus, even if she doesn’t get the whole picture right away. But she persisted in their conversation, asking him about particular details about worshiping God, and leading into a conversation about the messiah that she’s waiting for to arrive, and with Jesus ultimately telling her that he is the messiah, God’s chosen one.

But this story, Photina’s moment of fame, doesn’t end here, just with her knowledge and belief that Jesus is the messiah. The story continues beyond where we read today. Emboldened by the Spirit of God working within her, Photina persisted, telling the people of the city about her encounter with Jesus, that she’d found the messiah. And because of her persistence, a lot of them went out to meet him, and many of them believed in Jesus, too.

The same Spirit that moved in Photina, and led her to persist in her encounters with Jesus and with the townspeople, is moving in the lives of people today, too. God’s Spirit is present with us today, and moving in our midst, moving in our lives. Some of those times, God is drawing people, leading people, calling people, to particular forms of service in God’s kingdom. We’re recognizing that this morning, as we ordain and install elders to serve and lead the church. Yes, we voted for them, but it really isn’t us who has ordained them, but God, and our voting is really just recognition of what God has already done, calling them to this particular ministry.

Today, we recognize that God is stoking the embers of their faith, and kindling a fire within them just as real as the one that was kindled in Photina.

New elders, you’ve been called to serve and lead this congregation, in all the many ways that we love and serve God and others. In everything that you do as an elder, remember that you haven’t just been voted into something, like joining the Rotary or the athletic boosters club. God has called you to this service. God has placed a hand on your shoulder, and not just called you but equipped you with all the skills, gifts, imagination, and yes, persistence, that you’ll need to do what you’ve been called to. And that isn’t just true with our new elders, but it’s exactly the same with all of us. God has called and equipped each of us here today to some particular form of ministry, too, whatever that ministry might be.

Whether elders or not, I predict that as you carry out your particular ministry, even though you’ve probably known God’s presence in your lives for some time, you’re still going to experience God’s moving within you, guiding you, inspiring and challenging you, in totally new and unexpected ways. I believe that as you follow and serve God, you’ll occasionally feel as surprised by the hand of God in your life, just as Photina was. When that happens, be amazed. Be inspired. And be persistent in being, and doing, what God has called you to. And when you do feel that surprise, and that undeniable knowledge of God’s presence, always be sure to take a moment to recognize it, and to say

Thanks be to God.

Where the Wind Blows

(sermon 3/12/17)

glowing embers

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.  – Genesis 12:1-4

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Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “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”  – John 3:1-17

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He drove past the house as slowly as he could without drawing attention to himself, paying close attention to where the door was, but not just that, also taking in the other buildings around the house – where their doors were, and especially their windows, where people might glance out and see him. At the next corner he turned, then turned again, doubling back toward the house and finally parking his car two blocks away. If anyone saw his car where it was parked, and recognized it as his, there would be plausible deniability – they’d assume that he was in one of the nearby restaurants enjoying dinner. He got out of the car and started to walk toward the house, nervously paying attention to the cars and people on the sidewalk, watching for anyone he might recognize, or more importantly, who might recognize him in the glow of the streetlights. As he got closer to the house, he adjusted his pace, a little slower, a little faster, trying to time his arrival so there wouldn’t be anyone walking or driving by when he got there. As it happened, he timed it right, but still, as he reached the house, he kept his pace until it almost looked like he was going to pass it by, and at the last second, and looking over his shoulder, he quickly darted inside the door. He had to be careful. He had a reputation to keep. A lot of people knew who he was – a well-known religious mucky muck, and it wouldn’t look good at all, it wouldn’t go well for him, if people saw him in a place like this, talking to a person like this.

Still, there was just something inside him that drew him here. He’d seen Jesus around town in recent days, and he’d heard about him for a good while longer. Almost in spite of himself and his religious position and education, Jesus’ words stirred something deep inside him; so much that he took this personal risk to meet him and talk with him personally on this particular night.

He sat there with Jesus in the back room of the house, far from the noise from the street, as the cool of the evening gradually settled in. He was caught in that uncomfortable place where he wasn’t sure which of the two of them was going to have the upper hand, if he were the teacher or the student in their discussion. It didn’t take long for him to realize which was the case, as Jesus told him that no one can see, no one can comprehend the kingdom of God unless they’ve been born from above. Nicodemus’ brain went into overdrive at this point, so he started asking questions: what does that even mean? We’ve all come into this world the same way; how can a person be born in some new, different way? And just what do you base that claim on, anyway? Where in the scriptures do you find that?

In imagining this scene in his own way, Frederick Buechner wrote that at this point, a strong breeze blew down the chimney, fanning all the embers in the fireplace into a hot, bright red, and they burst into flame again. Being born from above was just like that, Jesus said. It wasn’t anything you did. The wind did it. The Spirit did it. It was something done by God, and for God, and where, and when, and why, and to whomever God wants. And just as the wind doesn’t stop at the city limits, or the synagogue door; God’s Spirit trespasses across all artificially set human boundaries and limits.

Nicodemus battled sensory and intellectual overload at this idea; it was more than he could process all at once. But bit by bit, he started to tease out the implications of what Jesus had said. And the more he thought about it, the more he recognized how radical, how heretical – how dangerous – Jesus’ words were to the established order of things; certainly the religious order but also the political order. He kept asking questions: So… the kingdom of God is for any and all people that the wind, God’s Spirit, blows on? Yep. But… the Spirit doesn’t blow on everyone, surely. Surely there are some limits to this, right? Well, I don’t know; what do you think? The Spirit is like the wind; are there people out there who have never felt the wind on their face? Personally, I don’t think so, but if there are, I can’t imagine there are very many of them. So… God is stirring up the lives, birthing them from above, all over the place? All over the place. Even the Samaritans; even the Romans? Even them. Even people from other religions, or from nor religion, people who have never heard of the God of the Israelites, or the Law and the Prophets, or frankly, who have never heard of *you*? What am I supposed to make of what you’re saying?

Jesus smiled and got up from where they were sitting, and put a compassionate hand on Nicodemus’ shoulder as he walked over and put another log on the dying fire, because they’d been talking or some time now, and the coolness of the night was settling in more deeply. And as Nicodemus sat there trying to sort out the implications of their conversation, Jesus added fuel to both the fire in the fireplace and the one in Nicodemus’ mind, as he told him that he’d come into the world so that everyone who believes in him, in what he was saying, would be part of that kingdom of God – that that it was God’s intention that Jesus’ message, his mission, his purpose, wasn’t to condemn, wasn’t to keep people out of that kingdom, but instead, to bring the whole world – the cosmos, the whole chaotic, good-bad-and-in-between, sometimes God-denying, sometimes even God-hating world – everyone – into that kingdom of God. Nicodemus wondered to himself, if that’s God’s intention, is there anything or anyone who could thwart God’s plan?

He started to ask more questions. But… but… what does that mean? You’re talking in mysteries. How can anyone save the whole world? How would you save the whole world? How do you do that, specifically?

As his mind was racing, though, Nicodemus noticed the time on his watch. It was much later than he’d thought, and he knew he had to go. He’d told his wife that he was going to a committee meeting at the synagogue, and if he got home too late, she’d know he must have been somewhere else. So with all those unanswered questions – or maybe they really had been answered – still bouncing around in his head, he quickly said his goodbyes, peeked out the side of the curtain in the front window, and when the coast was clear he quickly slipped back out in to the night, and down the street, and into history by virtue of his story becoming part of John’s gospel.

“For God so loved the world as to give the Son, so that everyone who believes in him 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.”

During this season of Lent, while we take time to refocus on just what exactly God’s good news for the world really is, on just what it is that we believe, we can listen to these familiar words again, and maybe wrestle with them as much as Nicodemus did. Hearing them as if we’d only now heard them for the first time, without all the historical and cultural baggage that’s gotten attached to them over time like barnacles on the bottom of a boat. From the earliest days of the faith, people have debated exactly what Jesus was saying in this conversation. And everyone from the early church father Origen, to St. Augustine, to John Calvin, to the great 20th-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth, to Southern Baptist Albert Mohler, to John Shelby Spong, have all offered up their opinions of what Jesus meant – how Jesus reconciles human beings and God; and determining who’s supposedly in, and who’s out, of that eternal club. In other words, is the kingdom of God for a select number of people, or in some mysterious way, just as the wind eventually brushes across everyone’s face, will everyone eventually become part of God’s kingdom? Has that been God’s plan all along?

For my own part, I believe somewhere along the lines of Karl Barth. When someone asked him if he were a universalist – if he believed that everyone would ultimately be part of the kingdom of God, and no one would end up in hell, Barth famously answered that he couldn’t categorically say that everyone was going to be saved and be part of God’s eternal kingdom, but that if hell existed, he suspected it was very sparsely populated. And to be honest, the older I get, the more I see, and the more I think about whether God’s will could ever be thwarted; the more I think about the nature of God’s grace and mercy and love, I’ve started to wonder if hell is actually less populated than even Barth thought.

Jesus’ words stuck with Nicodemus. The scriptures tell us that after Jesus had died and was pried off the cross – at a time when it would have been the most potentially dangerous to identify as a follower or even friend of Jesus, Nicodemus came out of the closet, as it were, with his trust and faith and love for Jesus. Along with Joseph of Arimathea, the scriptures say, he laid Jesus in his tomb, affording him all the dignity that he was denied in his death. In the end, what conclusions did Nicodemus reach regarding Jesus’ words that night? We don’t know. But hearing these words again today, and given all that people have written and said since then, and adding considering current events as an underlay to the question, what conclusions about Jesus’ words do you reach? Who’s in, who’s out? I anyone out? Is Hitler in heaven? Is Ghandi in hell? And what effect do your beliefs have on how you live your life? On how you view the world? On how you view the full spectrum of humanity, whether it’s someone you encounter in this congregation, or this city, or on the other side of the planet? What do Jesus’ words mean to you?

Thanks be to God.