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Exodus 17:1-7 & John 4:5-42
“How the Spirit Moves”
Rev. Tina Walker-Morin
Pilgrim Congregational Church, UCC
March 12, 2017
This morning I have a message for you about faith.
Wow these winds the past few days have been something. The howling as they wrap around the house. The bitter coldness that stings your nose and cheeks. No matter how long I live here in New England, I am not sure I will ever get used to the bitter cold winds.
Down in Virginia we would have violent winds, but they came in the form of hurricanes. The winds would be driving, wet, heavy but warm. I never remember hearing the whistle and howls that the winds up here seem to make. I do remember one time during a hurricane, my entire college team was staying at my parents. Just when one of my teammates said, “this doesn’t seem too bad” a tree came crashing down knocking out our power. Thanks Melissa.
It was in that same house but many years earlier that as a child I grew up with the idea of a punishing God. A God who maybe created the hurricane because of something we or someone else had done. A God who I worked hard to please. A God who terrified me of doing something wrong and not making it to heaven. I even remember one night lying in my bunk bed thinking, “it is okay, I will be saved because I believe in Jesus. That’s all I have to do.” And like a mantra I would repeat this to myself, calming the inner anxiety and worry that would stir. “It I okay because I believe”.
It was terrifying wondering if people I knew here on earth were going to make it to heaven and was I going to make it to heaven?
Our scripture this morning is the first time we meet Nicodemus. Later in chapter 7 before Jesus is arrested, Nicodemus stands up and says Jesus should not be dismissed or arrested until they hear from him personally since their “law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing” (7:51). And we once again meet Nicodemus after Jesus’ death when he joins Joseph of Arimathea (the one who asked Pilate to take Jesus’ body) and brings “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds”. Nicodemus and Joseph then wrapped Jesus’ body with spices in linen and placed it in the tomb.
So who is Nicodemus? He is a community leader, a respected official in his religion, a man who comes to see a young Rabbi in the night. The Gospel of John, in which this story occurs, is full of symbolism and metaphors. If you recall the opening verses of the Gospel begin:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
Jesus is referred to in this passage as both the “Word” and “Light”. There is a stark contrast between light and darkness throughout this gospel. So it is no surprise that Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night when he has questions.
Imagine this: Nic comes over to Jesus in the night, maybe because he does not want to be seen or maybe because it is during the time when he is to study scripture. So why not go have a study session with a rabbi? Nic comes to Jesus and says, “I know you are a man of God because I have seen all of your great works. You changed the water to wine at the wedding in Cana, you gave sight to the blind etc., etc.” Jesus responds to Nic with listen to me, “no one can see the kingdom of heaven without being born from above.” (v.3) Nic responds like you or I would, “what in the world do you mean?”
Jesus goes on to tell Nic that you must be born from above, born of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of heaven. Nic’s second question is simply, “How can these things be?” Jesus gives Nic a little sermon which includes a reference to Moses and then we get what seems to be an editor’s note, John 3:16 “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.”
I have struggled for many years with this popular verse from the Gospel of John: “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”. You see it everywhere, particularly down south. At most football or basketball games you will see a sign waving in the crowd with John 3:16 written on it. Some football players have written it on their black eye patches or on athletic tape that is wrapped around their wrists or ankles. It is on billboards and bummer stickers and even mentioned in a new country song by Keith Urban, which has a verse referencing: John Cougar, John Deer, John 3:16.
For me, this extremely popular scripture has always held a negative view of God. It describes a God who punishes people who do not believe at all or not strongly enough. It holds onto a belief in heaven and hell, a God whose love for us is conditional.
It is easy to imagine that type of god, a god who loves us conditionally because that is the type of love we practice here on earth. However this is only one way to understand John 3:16.
After diving deeper you will find that John’s gospel does not include the notion of substitutionary sacrifice, that Jesus died on the cross as a substitute for others. No, it is not a Jesus died instead of us, it was not a one or the other. Rather the “giving” of Jesus Christ has to do more with the love God has for us. Marcus Borg suggests the giving of the Son (of Jesus) in this verse “refers to the incarnation as a whole and not primarily the death of Jesus. [So] How much does God love the world? So much that God was willing to become incarnate in the world.”
Now that I can get behind.
God loves the world so much that God would do anything to make us see and understand that love. So much so that God would come in the form of a lowly man, take all the abuse and beatings, take on all the questions and doubts, be sacrificed and crucified just to show Her love for us.
Did you notice? I used the feminine pronoun, I usually avoid pronouns when referring to God because I believe God is greater than our language and our ideas of pronouns. Yet even our beliefs are simply our own constructs of God. Our beliefs about God are how we imagine God acts. Our beliefs are what our minds create, which is limited.
Faith on the other hand is beyond our comprehension, beyond our thoughts and ideas. Faith is believing and trusting even when we have no logical reason to do so. This is what happens to Nicodemus as he gradually he gains faith.
God loves us and the world (which God created so much so that God was willing to join us in the human form, as Jesus. It is not about God willingly giving up, or killing Jesus but rather about God loving us so much that God gave us Jesus to follow and learn from.
I no longer worry about “making it to heaven” or that my God is sending down punishing, howling winds. I believe the reason we follow Jesus and do good work here on earth, is not for a reward in the afterlife, but rather to make this life better. To make earth as it is in heaven. After all in John’s gospel, eternal life is used to refer to the present experience, while also being something to hope for.
So what does it mean to believe?
Marcus Borg states Believing is about “beloving Jesus, giving one’s heart, loyalty, fidelity, and commitment to Jesus. [That] is the way into new life”. I would also add believing is trusting and allowing the winds of the Spirit to move with you.
Easier said than done. It can be so hard to completely love Jesus and to allow the Spirit to move us. It can be so hard believing and keeping faith. We all get blown into the darkness at times while at other times we stand solidly in the light. And that is how faith is. It is hard and it is never a done deal. “Faith is not a possession, not something that one gets, not something that one has--it is something that one does.” We live out this new life and our faith through our actions here on earth. We all make choices every day. We get to choose how to act, how to treat others, how to treat ourselves and we choose to believe and have faith.
As we continue to move through Lent. I invite you to have faith in the Holy Spirit and to sit, see, touch and feel it move around you. Take notice where the Holy Spirit is working and when you are moving with the Holy Spirit.
Keep faith my friends and trust that light will always overcome darkness.
“Yelling at God”
Pilgrim Church, UCC
Rev. Tina Walker-Morin
February 26, 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
This morning I have a message for you about ‘where’s God?’
Have you ever seen Ellen DeGeneres’ standup comedy act where she calls God on the phone? She first performed this act on Johnny Carson’s tonight show. On the show she comes out from behind the curtain, styling a nice mullet (it was the late ‘80s afterall) and says:
“so here's the thing, I feel like that everything on this earth is here for a reason. That’s just my opinion, I think that there are no mistakes and I think that even if you don’t understand why one thing is here, you find out later that it works with the ecosystem somehow.
I don’t understand why we have fleas here though because fleas do nothing at all beneficial. But I thought at times like this, when we can’t figure it out for ourselves, wouldn’t it be great if we could just pick up the phone and call up God and ask him these things?
Just pick up the phone and call up God.... yeah hi God its Ellen.. Ellen.. DeGeneres.. De-Generes. …. She goes on...listen if you weren't too busy--- yeah sure I’ll hold (somebody's at the gate). Onward Christian soldiers marching--- yeah. No just singing along to your tape. It’s not a tape?! They're good!
Listen, God, there are certain things on this earth that I just don’t understand why they're here.... no not Fabio. No. … I was thinking about insects. No, bees are great.. the honey. That was clever. You’re welcome. No, I was thinking more about fleas.. they seem to have no benefit--- no, I didn’t realize how many people were employed by the flea collar industry. Not to mention sprays.. well I guess you're right. Course you are! Oh well you got a little cold, God bless you! Bless yourself! You could just bless yourself, couldn’t ya.
Ellen continues and finishes with it was good talkin to you too. And ill see---I’ll talk to you later. Alright. Buh-bye"
What if we could just call up God? What if we could beckon God to show up and God did. Mary and Martha are thinking the same thing. They too called God…well, they sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was dying and begged him to come.
Jesus hears Lazarus is ill but stays two days longer in the place where he was. Eventually Jesus heads towards Bethany. When Jesus arrives Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. Martha is the first to get word that Jesus is on his way and she runs out to him and says to him if you were here Lazarus would not have died. We called on you and asked you to come save him and you were nowhere to be found.
Martha leaves and Jesus remains there and waits for Mary to appear. Mary also says, “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died” (v. 32). Mary falls at Jesus’ feet…not down on her knees as if to worship him but literally falls to the ground. Jesus seeing Mary and others weeping also begins to weep as he is led to the tomb of Lazarus. Some who were with Mary said “could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Why didn’t Jesus show up in time? Why did God not answer when God’s people called?
The people of Jesus’ time asked these very questions; questions that we also ask. Where are you God? God where are you when an innocent child dies? God where are you when I am personally struggling? Or simply, God, where are you?
The other week while at work in Waltham, my boss and I were sitting at our work table when she heard something. She said to me, “do you hear that?” As she walked over to our second story window at Christ Church, I too heard a man yelling. I could not tell what he was yelling, was it English or in Spanish? My boss said, “I think he has been drinking” as the yelling continued.
Looking out the window she saw a man sitting on the bench near the bus stop surrounded by snow, yelling up to the sky. My boss turned to me and said, “I think he is yelling at God, do we know him? Someone is sure to call the cops.” I came over to the window. At first I could not tell who it was sitting there under a red, white and blue knit cap. As I watched this man he turned again towards the church yelling to God and I realized that is Marco! I know Marco.
We quickly grabbed our coats and headed outside. As we came out the church door, walking towards Marco, I waved and motioned my hand to face, as if to ask if he was on the telephone. He was not. I said, “Hey Marco, are you okay?”
He said “I am so mad! I am so mad at God. I don’t know why he did this to me… why he makes things so hard. I just got fired and they took half my pay because I did not have my shirt with me and then I went to McDonalds to grab something to eat and I lost my last eight dollars. So now I have no money and I need to catch the bus to get into Boston for a doctor’s appointment. Why is God making it so hard? Why is he doing this to me? Why can’t he give me a break?”
We stood there listening to Marco and he apologized for yelling and for yelling at God, he was so upset. I told Marco it is okay to yell at God. God can take it. I also said, “what if God did not do this to you? What if God did not make those things happen, but instead is here with you now and here with us. God is here trying to help you when things go wrong and is looking out for you? What if God heard your cry and sent us to come be with you?” Marco looked a little puzzled and said, “I do feel calmer now, thank you”. We talked for a minute or two longer. My boss ran upstairs to our office and grabbed Marco a T-pass so he could get into Boston and a McDonald gift card so he could get some dinner that night. As the bus pulled up, Marco continued thanking us and talking (I was worried he would miss the bus). He asked if he could call and talk with us some time, we of course said yes. As he got on the bus, he turned eyes bright, smiling and said, “thank you and God Bless You.”
Like Marco, Ellen DeGeneres was also going through a tough time. She wrote that comedy shtick after tragically losing her partner in a car crash. You see, they were having difficult time in their relationship and Ellen had temporarily moved out. They both met up at a concert one evening where Ellen’s partner was encouraging her to come home. Ellen pretended she could not hear her partner. Ellen, leaving a little while later, saw a crash on the side of the road with the car split in two. Not realizing it was her partner she drove on. The next morning on learning that her partner had died she was filled with grief and while sitting in her basement apartment thought this “basement was infested with fleas. There were just fleas everywhere, and I remember thinking, ‘It just seems so ridiculous that this young, 23-year-old girl who I was just living with [is] gone, and fleas are here,”’…”it would be great to just pick up the phone and call up God and talk about this.”
It would be great to have a phone line directly to God and we do through prayer. However, it is hard because it often feels like a one way radio. Yet God does show up and God’s presence is in community. Marco, Mary and Martha expected Jesus and God to show up in one way and yet God comes to us at a different time and in a different way. God comes to us in community. Jesus came with his followers to Mary, Martha and all who were grieving. Jesus came in community and God’s power and presence is know when we join together.
As shown by Jesus, we are called to be and help one another. When we do this God is present and is showing up. We are not meant to do it all on our own.
So where is God? God is in our relationships and in our community. God is in the seeing and knowing, God is in the comfort we bring to each other.
Lent begins this Wednesday. This year I invite you to join us in community as we seek and experience God together. God is here walking, singing and joining with us through all the good and the bad.
All sermons posted are written by Rev. Tina Walker-Morin. All rights reserved.