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.

Schrödinger’s God (sermon 5/31/15 – Trinity Sunday)

heresykitten

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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Well this is kind of a double-whammy for preaching in the church calendar. Last week, we had to try to understand what exactly was going on at Pentecost, and now, just one week later, it’s Trinity Sunday and I guess we’re supposed to clear up the mystery of the Trinity. The idea of the Trinity, that in some indescribably way, God is simultaneously one, and three – the exclusive one, indivisible, eternal “Being,” or Essence, of God; while simultaneously the three distinct “Persons”, or Identities, or whatever. We heard this particular gospel text today because it’s one of the few places we find where these three aspects of the Trinity are referred to so closely together. The problem, of course, with this indescribable mystery is that it can’t be left indescribable. In order to explain what it is you’re trying to say about God, and in order to teach people in the faith what it means, you have to try to describe it. You have to find some kind of parallel or illustration to explain it. You’ve probably heard some of these illustrations: The Trinity is like water, which is one thing that can exist in three different states of solid, liquid, and gas. Or another one is that God is like a single actor who plays three different parts in a play, who steps onto stage in one of three different costumes and one of three different masks, at different times in the production. Or, God is like salad dressing: take some oil, some vinegar, and some water; shake them all up together, and you’ve got a single tasty thing.

You could go on listing illustrations like this all day long that people have used to try to explain the Trinity, but every single one of them ends up misrepresenting some theological concept that the doctrine of the Trinity is trying to affirm, or deny, about God’s nature. Every one of them will either overemphasize the “Threeness” of God over the “Oneness,” or vice versa; or it will violate some other theological concept about God. The early church fathers looked at what the scriptures said about God’s oneness, and what they perceived about Jesus. They saw Jesus praying to a God he called Father, and yet when asked about seeing and knowing this Father, Jesus told people if they’ve seen him, they’ve seen the Father. They looked at what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit, and they came up with this doctrine of the Trinity to explain it. In doing so, they created a doctrine where you have to believe two things that contradict each other both exist simultaneously. You have to believe that X, and the opposite of X, are simultaneously true. If you saw this week’s Westminstergram, you saw that it included a funny picture about the preacher’s dilemma every Trinity Sunday. It’s impossible to try to explain the Trinity without falling into one misrepresentation, one heresy, or another. So as the picture suggested, maybe the best thing a preacher could do is to not even try – to just throw up their hands, keep their mouths shut, and just distract the congregation by showing pictures of cats doing cute things.

If pushed to explain the Trinity, most Christians would describe an arrangement where God the Father is the President and CEO of Eternity Incorporated, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are God’s two Executive Vice Presidents. But that’s heresy according to orthodox belief, which says they’re all equal. In theological terms, most professing Christians are actually functional Unitarians. And we might as well be honest with ourselves and admit that a lot of Christians, whether they admit it or not, have chucked the whole idea of the Trinity, saying it’s just an outmoded way that ancient people tried to explain God that wasn’t even very adequate from the start; that if a concept is so impossible to really explain, then that’s a pretty big clue that the theory is wrong and that you need to go back to the theological drawing board. There are many modern Christians, and many people who have rejected the Christian faith specifically because of the doctrine of the Trinity, who say that God gave us brains and intellect for a reason, and that God-given reason points pretty strongly to the conclusion that the whole idea of the Trinity is nonsense. Two things that are by definition opposites can’t simultaneously be true. Something just can’t simultaneously be two opposite things, the way the Trinity requires.

And yet… that same God-given intellect has given us the science of quantum physics – the study of matter and energy at their smallest, even subatomic level that began in the early 20th century which has shown that at this smallest scale, objects don’t function according to the same set of rules of classical physics. One of the things that quantum physics pointed to was that, in fact, some completely contradictory things were able to be simultaneously true. Quantum physics suggested that matter could somehow move from point A to point B without ever having moved through the space between them. It also predicted that subatomic particles could actually, literally, be in two places at the same time. Understanding the world through the lens of quantum physics, everything seems less real and solid, and things become a series of probabilities, something that goes against the way we’d always thought reality works. When all this was first proposed back in the early 20th century, the noted physicist Erwin Schrödinger thought at least part of the idea was ridiculous, and he formulated a thought experiment to illustrate his objection. Now bear with me, this is going to get a bit tricky…Take a hypothetical cat and place it in a hypothetical sealed box, he said, along with a vial of poison gas, a Geiger counter, and a single atom of a radioactive material that had a half-life of one hour – in other words, in one hour the subatomic particles of the atom would be expected to decay under the laws of conventional physics. When the atom decayed, the Geiger counter would register it, and it would trigger a hammer mechanism that would break the vial of poison and kill the cat. But according to quantum physics – and I’m skipping over a whole lot of detail here – because it’s impossible to say how the subatomic particle will react – whether it will or will not decay at the one-hour mark. This is what the quantum physicists call subatomic indeterminancy. That would mean that at the one hour point, the atom would have to be said to both have decayed and not decayed. And if you extended that same logic to the larger things, Schrödinger argued, it would be just as logical to say that you couldn’t know if the vial had been broken or not, so it existed in a state of simultaneously being broken and unbroken, and ultimately, that while it was still sealed up in the box, unobserved, the cat was simultaneously dead and alive.

It was a ridiculous idea, to be sure. And yet, since Schrödinger’s day, scientists have proven that at least at the atomic and subatomic levels, matter and energy really do behave that way – things that are opposites actually can be simultaneously true; something can move from point A to point B without actually transporting through the space between; something actually can be in more than one place, I more than one way of existing, at the same time.

And if the laws governing existence at the smallest levels can be different from the way we exist in our visible world, why couldn’t the way God exists violate the laws that apply on our own level? Why couldn’t the God who created a cosmos where quantum physics in in force in the micro level exist under similar parameters in the macro level of divine being? Maybe in the doctrine of the Trinity, the ancient church fathers accidentally got closer to the truth of God’s existence than they could have ever known.

Whatever your own understanding about the Trinity might be, personally, I think it comes down to this: If you can conceive and believe in a God who is the ground and source of all creation, who has acted to be in loving relationship and reconciliation with that creation; and who continues to penetrate into and dwell within, and guide, and inspire, and comfort the beings in that creation; and that this God has eternally, constantly been doing all those things simultaneously; then I think you believe the theological underpinning that the early church was trying to convey in the doctrine of the Trinity.

In the end, that’s the best explanation I can offer. That’s the best I can do. If that isn’t good enough, and I have to resort to distracting you all with pictures of a cat, I guess it will have to be Schrödinger’s – now, all I have to do is figure out whether the darned thing is dead or alive.

Thanks be to God.