Sunday, May 27, 2018

Breaking Free to a New Beginning (A sermon from John 3:1-10 on a day we honor graduates)


Our story begins with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a religious leader, coming to Jesus by night. He comes by night possibly to avoid being seen in the day. He is a Pharisee, and the official Pharisaic position about Jesus is very negative. I suspect he doesn’t want to risk his reputation and position and standing with his group, where he is recognized as a leader, where he has status and clout. The power of the group to tell us who we are and keep us in the dark, in the night is powerful.

In his book, Letters to a Young Doubter, the late William Sloan Coffin says that when he was chaplain at Yale, he would sometimes get requests from seniors to write a letter of recommendation to some highfalutin school like Harvard Law or Columbia Medical School. He mostly wrote about their character and integrity rather than their academic achievements or potential, which to some students was not totally satisfactory. Coffin describes it this way: “Never mind that I enumerated some sterling extracurricular qualities. Never mind that in order to be accepted into Harvard Law or Columbia Medical School you had to be in the ninety-seventh percentile and to graduate ninety-eight. Just because I didn’t say they would be in the ninety-ninth percentile, they felt they had somehow failed.” Coffin ends by concluding: “Such is the power of higher education to tell you who you are!”

I would say, “Such is the power of the group to tell us who we are.” Nicodemus was fearful of being judged by his group. We all struggle with those fears. What gives us the courage and the spiritual, moral strength to pursue what is good and right and just and loving regardless of the pressures to conform to the group is the mysterious power we call Holy Spirit. It’s the power and grace of God that supplies us with the courage we need.

Before Jesus began his healing, preaching, and teaching work he heard the voice of God say to him when he was baptized by John, “You are my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” That’s the voice Jesus heard and heeded. Jesus faced all kinds of accusations and criticisms and charges of condemnation from the Jewish leadership, but Jesus kept listening to the voice of God, and his life and work were shaped by that voice – not group think, not the expectations of others, not even his family or his church, but his God. The Spirit of God formed Jesus’ life and values. I pray that our graduates and all of us here would be shaped and led by the Spirit of God, rather than fear, or group pressure, or ego, or the need to be honored or recognized, or anything else.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Night is a reflection, too, of where Nicodemus is at this stage in his life journey. He is in the dark. He is blind to the truth of God. However, and this is the really important thing, he comes seeking truth. I doubt if he knows at this point how blind he is, but he senses a need to know. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be coming to Jesus. And, unlike many of his colleagues, who see in Jesus only a threat to their power and place, Nicodemus sees in Jesus a man who radiates something special. A crack has opened somewhere. He sees in Jesus a  person who is authentic and compassionate, honest and courageous, and who seems to really know God. So Nicodemus may be thinking: I don’t know God the way Jesus knows God. So he seeks Jesus out.

Now, let’s be clear on this. We are all like Nicodemus. We are all in the dark to some degree. There are shades and degrees of darkness, as is true with the light. There are degrees in our experience of darkness and light. And all of us are blind in some area of our lives. I’m sure I am. Of course, I can’t tell you what it is at this  moment that I am blind to. If I could tell you, I wouldn’t be blind to it would I?

In the final book of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis there is scene where a group of dwarfs are huddled together in a tight little knot thinking they are in a pitch black, smelly hole of a stable. In reality, however, they are out in the midst of an endless, grassy green countryside with sun shining and blue sky overhead. Aslan, the Christ figure, is present with them, but they are not able to see him. When Aslan offers them the finest food, they think they are eating spoiled meat scraps and sour turnips. When Aslan offers them the choicest wine, they mistake it for ditch water. Lucy, the youngest and most tenderhearted of the Narnian children, feels compassion for them. She tries to reason with them, but to no avail. Finally, frustrated, she cries out, “It isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs. Can’t you see? Look up! Look round! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers!” But they can’t see. I remember a time in my life when the college professor who taught my New Testament Introduction class tried his best, through reason and logic and common sense and theological reflection, to get me to see. But I couldn’t see. I was not in a place where I could see.

Why are the Dwarfs so blind? Why can’t they see? The one constant refrain on the lips of the dwarfs, their incessant cry is: The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. They lived by that mantra: The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. They could not see beyond their own self-interests; they could not see beyond their group. It was all about the dwarfs.

Now, one of the main reasons we get stuck in the darkness and cannot see, is because we get stuck in the limiting, confining views of our own ego and our group. The group can be our family of origins. It can be the religious group (church, denomination) we were converted into later in life or indoctrinated into as a child. It can be a social group. It can be a political party, or even our country. Sometimes what we label as patriotism is simply blindness.

We remain in darkness as long as we can’t see beyond our group’s limitations, biases, prejudices, and self-interests. The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. Christians are for Christians. Baptists are for Baptists. Americans are for Americans. Our group idolatry, which we often mistake as loyalty, keeps us stuck in the darkness and prevents us from seeing the beauty, wonder, mystery, and immensity of God, and the truth that could really set us free.

For the first part of my life and ministry I was as blind as these dwarfs. I really was. I carried my New Scofield Reference Bible into my first college Bible class and was determined that the professor, who I had already labeled liberal, wasn’t going change me. My mind was made up. I had the truth. I had the answers. I was certain. Actually, I was arrogant and didn’t know it. I was blind to my arrogance. But I was loyal to my group – of dispensational, premillennial, biblical inerrantists.

So what happened? What prompted change in my life? As I have reflected on my journey, I have come to the conclusion that God used three sets of experiences to get through to me, to open a crack for the light to get in. And please don’t misunderstand. In no way am I implying that God caused these experiences. God used these experiences to break open a crack in my ego. One set of experiences had to do with the birth of our second child, another set of experiences around the same time as Julie’s birth involved an advanced level Greek class that dealt with New Testament textual criticism that sparked all sorts of questions for me. And the third set of experiences occurred during my first three years of ministry post seminary teaching High School Bible and being a mission pastor at a very conservative Baptist School and Church. Those experiences opened the door of my heart and mind, and prompted me to pursue truth beyond my group. And once the crack opened, light flooded in.

New beginnings are possible for all of us, no matter what age we are, if we are open to change and growth. New beginnings are possible if we are willing to let go of our pride and certitude, and seek truth beyond our group, beyond our loyalty to family of origins, or our religious group or church or denomination, or political party or social club or pier group. And until we are willing to pursue truth beyond our ego and beyond our group, like Nicodemus was willing to do, we will remain in darkness. It is our stubborn ego that is the real obstacle to growth.

Quaker author and educator, Parker Palmer explains how he took a yearlong sabbatical from his work in Washington to go to Pendle Hill, outside of Philadelphia, as dean of a Quaker living-and-learning community of some seventy people. During Parker’s tenure as dean at Pendle Hill he was offered the opportunity to become president of a small educational institution. He visited the campus, spoke with administrators, trustees, faculty, and students, and had been basically told that the job was his if he wanted it.

Initially, he felt certain this was the job for him, but in the Quaker tradition, he called upon a few trusted friends to form a “clearness committee” to help him with his decision. In this process the group, though refraining from giving advice, asks open, honest questions to help the seeker discover his or her own inner truth. The process is that the clearness committed helps clear away the obstacles so the person who called the committee can hear God’s voice and discern God’s will.  

Parker said that at first the questions were easy: What is your vision for this institution? What is its mission in the larger society? And so forth, which questions  he handled with ease. But then about halfway into the process, someone asked him a question that initially sounded simple, but then turned out to be very difficult: “What would you like most about being president?”

In Parker’s words, the simplicity of the question loosed him from his head and lowered him into his heart. (By the way, that’s the work of the Holy Spirit and often the Holy Spirit has to do this through the words and deeds of other persons.) Well, Parker thought about it for a full minute before he could respond. Then, very softly and tentatively, he started to speak and launched out into this litany of what he would not like about it: “Well, I would not like having to give up my writing and teaching. . . . I would not like the politics of the presidency, never knowing who your real friends are. . . . I would not like having to glad-hand people I do not respect simply because they have money. . . . and on and on. Finally, the person who had posed the question gently, but firmly interrupted Parker to remind him that the question was about what he would like about the job, not what he would not like. Parker said that he was working toward an answer, but then resumed his litany of things he would not like: “I would not like having to give up my summer vacations. . . . I would not like having to wear a suit and tie all the time, and so forth. Once again the questioner called him back to the original question. And this time Parker felt compelled to give the only honest answer he possessed. In a low voice he said, “Well, I guess what I’d like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word president under it.” He was finally honest enough to speak the truth.    

These seasoned Quakers knew his answer was laughable, but they didn’t laugh. Because they also knew this was serious stuff. So after a long and serious pause, the one who posed the question broke the silence and evoked laughter from the group when he said, “Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?” Of course, by then it was obvious to Parker that his desire to be president had much more to do with his ego than what he calls “the ecology of his life.” So often, it is our ego that keeps us stuck in the darkness and prevents the Spirit from forming Christ in us. The way we break free from our ego is by admitting we have one and owning up to the desires the ego generates. And like Parker Palmer sometimes we need the help of others to get to that place.

I want to conclude with a word directed particularly to our graduates. In order to find your way through the night out of the darkness, there are two things that are absolutely necessary. First, you have to come to the place where you realize that  life is not just about you – your group, your plans, your agenda, your interests, your happiness. Those things are important, I know, but if you never develop a wider interest in the good and well-being of others and the common good of society, you will be trapped in your own ego and will remain in darkness, blind to the truth. And second, when you realize your need for change, you will need to listen to some voices outside your group. So these two things are necessary. You must nurture an interest in the well-being of others and the common good. And two, you must be willing to seek truth beyond the limited confines of your group. If you can do these two things, then you open your life to the transforming grace, truth, love and compassion of the Spirit of Christ, and you can be born again and again and again and again. You can experience many new beginnings in your life.

Our good God, be with our graduates today as they begin a new chapter in their lives. I pray they will experience many new beginnings as they open their lives to your grace and truth. Help all of us, Lord, to seek truth wherever truth can be found, that our lives may be changed by the power of your Spirit. In Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

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