Sermon for March 8, 2020 -- Nic at Night

“Nic at Night”

 

Pastor Bill Dow

March 8, 2020

 

In retirement, Ruby and I have become “Wandering Methodists.” It’s not like we’re looking for the “perfect” church or anything like that…it probably has more to do with the struggle we are currently experiencing in the United Methodist Church…a struggle that you experienced in this community back in 1991. How do we deal with holiness when it’s linked to human sexuality? What’s acceptable? What’s unacceptable? Where do we draw the line? And once we draw the line how do we manage the relationships for those on the other side of the line?

The current struggles in the United Methodist Church go beyond issues of holiness. Rest assured that there are other real issues at play including ownership of real property and the power of bishops to appoint clergy to churches. Things are never simple, and never have been.

In the twelfth chapter of Genesis the message that came to Abram was to leave…leave your land, leave your family, leave your father’s household. If we dig a little deeper, we learn that Abram was a monotheist living with a father who was a polytheist. One God… or many gods? The Spirit informs Abram to leave. “I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2b). As Christians we are included in the blessing of that covenant. 

There are about 7.7 billion people in the world. Depending on your sources, roughly 32.8% (a little over 2.5 billion) are Christian, 22.5% (a little over 1.7 billion) are Muslim, and about .2% (15.4 million) are Jewish. So 55.5% of the world population is linked to the monotheism of Abram who later becomes Abraham. When you consider that 11.8% of the world population identifies as atheist or agnostic it leaves about 32.7% practicing religions other than the movement started by Abram. That’s respectable. But competition moves us away from the respect intended by God.

We are drawn to exclusives. We like the idea that we have something that others do not. We gravitate to the notion that our tribe is superior and deserves the privileges it takes. If you need convincing, consider the westward movement of white Europeans in North America. This last week a nazi flag was displayed at the rally of a Jewish candidate in a disgusting show of disrespect. Monotheism is losing its way in a wilderness of self-promotion and competition for the world’s resources.

And that brings us to Nicodemus, educated in the Law of Moses, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, a tribunal, a judge, a man of power and status with all the privileges that go with it. He’s beginning to feel a shift in the religious landscape and needs to plumb the source of this feeling. 

But he’s also a cautious man. He knows politics and risk management. Nighttime. Darkness. Under cover. Risky to go out at night, but even more risky to be seen with a man who might be trouble. 

Nicodemus comes to Jesus seeking answers. Instead, he gets mysticism…and a message that earthly things and spiritual things are interwoven with eternal threads of grace…threads of salvation…threads of light and truth.

Debie Thomas writes about her adolescence as a preacher’s kid. Her father pastored a church where testimonies were offered between the opening singing and the sermon. Children were invited to go first, and she was called upon by her parents to “set a good example” and start things off. If she was slow to stand up, she could feel the eyes of her mother burning holes in the back of her neck. So she would jump up every Sunday and deliver a “testimony” at what she describes as a thousand words a second. 

“The Lord has been good to me this week so I want to thank him for all of his loving kindness and tender mercies because he helped me with my schoolwork and protected my parents and blessed my family with everything we need so all I want to do is serve him all the days of my life so please uphold me in your prayers this week and I will do the same for all of you praise the Lord Amen.” (“The Christian Century” Feb. 26, 2020, Faith Matters)

As she grew older and moved away from churches that promote what she calls “loudmouthed Christianity,” she found it difficult to actually express her faith without relying on code words and patterns established by others.

She writes:  “So I’m taking a fresh look at the concept of testimony. What does it mean to bear authentic witness to God in our time and place? Is it possible to be reverent and honest at the same time? Can I offer testimony respectfully, in ways that honor diversity? Must faithful testimonies always end in uplift?

I ask these questions because my childhood recitations were unerringly pious but very often dishonest. They hid a great deal of uncertainty, fear, brokenness, and anger. They jumped to praise before honoring pain, and they resorted to platitudes that fell flat even to my own ears, because they cost me nothing…”

Nicodemus came to Jesus looking for answers. He received the same spiritual gift offered to Debie Thomas…rebirth. 

The writer of John has given us a special gift. Nicodemus re-enters the narrative two more times. In the matter of Jesus, he reminds the Sanhedrin that a man must be heard before that man is judged. And after Jesus is crucified, he brings nearly 75 pounds of myrrh and aloe to anoint the body for a proper Jewish burial. Nicodemus starts giving testimony in the light of day.

Winter is fading. The warmth of the sun is stimulating new life. “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8 CEB).

“God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes.”

We should remember this when we attempt to define God’s presence with theology and church law…particularly when it affirms our own convictions and maintains our status within a group of believers.

We as, white Europeans, have grown accustomed to majority status. Yet in 2013 babies of color outnumbered white babies. Our schools are starting to look different. We also know that the number of Christians in the world is trending downward while the number of Muslims is trending upward. We are nervous and anxious.

Our schools are changing. Standardized testing. Some with abundant resources…some with minimum. Churches are changing. Less talk. More action. The landscape is shifting. So what happens when we go to Jesus for answers and the Spirit responds with a challenge to binary thinking…for or against…this way or that…male or female…Christian or Muslim…aren’t we forgetting a few? Are we hiding uncertainty, fear, brokenness, and anger in our sound-byte exchanges? Are we harboring anxiety as our membership declines?

Lent is an excellent time to reflect upon the great witness we have inherited. The saints of this church didn’t sacrifice in vain. We are stewards of a great faith rooted all the way back to Abram and affirmed by over 55% of the world population. 

I say to you that the Spirit of God is alive, and we are offered opportunities each day to respond as a continuation of the historic testimony this church has offered to the community of Pardeeville, Wisconsin for so many years!

There is no question that testimony is a vital part of the faith journey, but so is listening…deep listening…while acknowledging our bias and self-serving ideologies. Perhaps we might relax our grip… just a bit… as God’s Spirit moves us deeper into a mature faith that understands how our spiritual being is equally important as our physical being. 

Our history and experience points toward establishing and maintaining majority status. 

Our Savior leads us into eternal life by faith…a faith that is alive with actions that establish and maintain respect. Risky business. Agape love. 

It’s March. The wind is blowing. New life is waking up. Thanks be to God!

 

 
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