One afternoon, one of my colleagues, Pastor Rachel McGuire, was walking through Toronto, through Chinatown. The streets were all packed full. Toronto inspires walking and everyone walks, fast and focused. It was commuting time and everyone was off getting their errands done, running off to streetcars or picking up things from various stands. They were all kind of felt packed close together and yet they kind of felt anonymous. Have you ever had that experience? It’s like your so close to so many people but you feel alone and anonymous. Rachel was that way too … she was busy storming along her way, working over her to do list. Then she became aware of something different around her … there was this man slipping through the crowd, just slipping back and forth … and he was saying, “I’m invisible, you can’t see me,” he was moving, “I’m invisible” … “You can’t see me” … and everyone was walking and he was gliding pas them… and when he got right over by Rachel’s ear and she turned around and said, “I can see you!”
And he smiled at her and he winked, he didn’t say a word, but it was kind of conspiratorial, like “don’t tell anyone” and then he was off, “I’m invisible” … “you can’t see me.”
There is something about seeing in the Gospel of John and in our text today. The Gospel of John is a poetic Gospel spun with themes of light and darkness, sight and blindness, Spirit and flesh. If we read it too fast, we miss this poetic beauty; if we are too hasty, like the busy people in the streets of Toronto, we are blind to that which is right in front of us.
That is exactly what happens to our friend Nicodemus, Jesus’ conversation partner in today’s Scripture.
To back up, Nicodemus has come to Jesus under the cover of night. Already, the fact that Nicodemus comes under the cloak of darkness gives us a clue about what will happen during the exchange. The Gospel writer John equates darkness with blindness and a lack of understanding, so, before the conversation has even begun, we already know that Nicodemus is going to have trouble understandings.
Before Jesus’ speech in today’s Scripture, Nicodemus and Jesus have this banter back and forth. It’s a great conversation, because of the way that they talk on these different levels … it’s almost comical.
When Nicodemus first comes in, he starts off well. A Jewish leader himself, Nicodemus approaches Jesus with reverence and calls him Rabbi and a teacher who has come from God.
Yet, that is where Nicodemus’ clarity ends. One part of the story that conveys Nicodemus’ confusion is that there is a greek work – anothen – that means two different things, it means “from above” and it can mean “again”…
When Jesus responds to Nicodemus, saying, if you want to know God, you need to be born anothen, Jesus is actually saying, hey Nick, you need to be born from above.
But, because of the dual meaning, Nick hear Jesus saying, hey you need to be born again and Nick sits there, trying to figure out logistically in his head how one comes out of a womb a second time, which is a rather awkward thing to contemplate. He says, wait … how on earth is it possible to enter the mother’s womb again??
Jesus responds patiently, to know God you need to be born of water and the Spirit and must be born anothen.
Meaning, you need to be born from above, but what Nick hears again is, “You must be born again” and he still can’t quite make the logistics work of how he is going to fit in his mother’s womb a second time, an impossible medical feat, so he asks, “How can these things be???”
And that is his last speaking part in the Gospel of John.
Jesus goes onto to wonder how Nicodemus will understand the heavenly things that Jesus talks about if he can’t even understand the earthly things. Nicodemus comes in the dark and leaves in the dark.
Why do think that is? What is holding back his understanding?
Jesus ends this conversation by talking about how much God loved the world and how God sent God’s only Child and then wraps up by coming back to the theme of lightness and dark.
Jesus says: “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come into the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
This seems like an ironic end to a conversation held under the cloak of darkness. Yet it got me thinking about how difficult it can be to step out into the light. There is a certain safety to staying under the cover of darkness, of not having to let God or others see us. That’s how it was for Nicodemus, wasn’t it?
Because he came in the night, he never had to risk his reputation as a “good” leader, a leader without question or doubts, shortcomings or struggles. Maybe like Nicodemus, we play at this whole keeping up appearances thing. After all, isn’t faith about being good?
But, the interesting thing about today’s text is that, yet, the striking thing about today’s text is that Jesus doesn’t contrast being good with evil, no, instead Jesus contrasts truth and evil.
No one can truly be good or perfect … but there does seem to be a long tradition of faking it, of seeming like we are happy and successful, good and nice.
But that’s not what Jesus calls to in this passage, instead, Jesus calls us to the truth, Jesus calls us to be honest, to admit that as hard as we try, we let down ones that we love, that we fail to love our neighbor as ourselves and that –for goodness sakes – forgiveness is hard. There is something freeing to confessing the truth, that we are human and that sometimes we fall down and mistakes or struggle with doing the right thing. In sharing the truth, we step into the light, experiencing God’s grace and mercy, allowing Jesus to take a handkerchief and scrub the dirt off our faces.
Jesus calls not to pretense but to truth. One national Christian figure put this way: there is a difference between preaching success and preaching resurrection. Our path, as people of faith, she says is the muddier one. This truth is one that I think about as I prepare my sermons. If I think of a story of my life that is relevant and helpful, I try to share it, even though I would rather keep the muddy moments to myself. I share these stories with you because I know that I am not called to preach a story of perfection and pretense rather I am called to preach a story of truth and of grace, of mud and of new creation.
I called to preach the truth that God is at work and present in the midst of our everyday lives, no matter how messy or muddy they might be.
That is one reason that I love author Anne LaMott so much. She tells the story of real life and resurrection. In her book Small Victories, Anne tells the powerful story of how she walked in the darkness for many years. She grew up in a home with troubled parents who were always trying to pretend – they pretended to be good family people, peace warriors, worker bees and activists changing the world. And so, Anne became a young adult and went on pretending, hiding herself in her busyness, work and serial relationships.
Then, one day in her thirties, she just couldn’t do it anymore. She was exhausted. And some women reached out to her in support and so she told them all the ways that she had messed up … and they said to her, me too. She told them about all the ways that she had committed crimes against the innocent, especially herself and they said, yeah, we know, welcome.
Their kindness at first was a nightmare for Anne, but over time it became healing.
And so slowly, Anne steps inch by inch into the light and began to embrace this radical truth that she was a human being who had made mistakes but was still worth of love and welcome and forgiveness. As she inched toward the light, she learned that wounds and scars can makes others feel welcomed because our wounds are like their own.
She learned to change her response to the phrase your welcome. Anne had always diminished what she had done by saying, don’t worry about or it’s nothing or it’s not important. Now, she has learned to accept gratitude, look people in the eye and says, “You’re really welcome.” She might touch their cheeks with the backs of her fingers.
This small habit has changed her. Recently, she dreamed her brother was helping her move to a new cottage by a beach where they had spent their childhoods walking with their parents. After unloading the stuff, they decided to go to a 12 step program. So they climbed into Anne’s 1959 Volkswagen Bug and head to the old time library. After the program, an ancient German woman, whose groceries Anne had been carrying because she seemed frail, opened Anne’s VW by sharply wrenching the door handle, which had apparently been stuck.
She said to Anne, “Oh, this sometimes happens to my cars, too. It will be fine for the time being. Thank you for your help.”
Anne said, “You are quite welcome.” And she awoke.
Jesus calls us to truly see each other, in all our fragility and beauty; Jesus calls us to forgive each other and help each other back, brushing the mud off each other faces, that we might be able to say to each other, with startling clarity, “I can see you. You are a child of God.” “That happens to my cars too.” “Thank you for your help.” “You are quite welcome.”
Come step into the light, experience the truth sets you free, the truth that out of mud and water, stuck doors and midnight visits, God is at work forming us, redeeming us, making us into a new creation.