What's Tony Thinking

In Lieu of Church


We in Seattle and King County are experiencing an older form of “cancel culture.” Not the drubbing, shaming and consigning to the outer darkness of the Internet age, but the old-fashioned type, as in, “Cancelled,” not happening. Lots of stuff has been cancelled: classes at the University of Washington, the schools in the Northshore District, college basketball games, community meetings and church worship services. People over 60 have been especially urged to not go out. (I’m a little anxious about getting pulled over for “driving while old.”)

Some of the churches that aren’t open for worship are streaming a service on-line. But not all are geared up for that option. So I thought I might provide a post “in lieu of church,” with a reflection on the gospel lesson for the second Sunday of Lent.

But first a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, one that I have been praying during this Lent.

“Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan, come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.”

Instead of foreseeing a time of temptation as a future possibility, the prayer tells it like it is. We are “assaulted by many temptations” right now. True don’t you think?

Turning then to the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, March 8, it is the first of a series of encounters between Jesus and four memorable people. All are from the Gospel of John. This first is Jesus’ encounter with a religious leader, Nicodemus (John 3: 1 – 17). Next week, a Samaritan woman, then a man born blind, and finally dead Lazarus, whom Jesus calls forth from his tomb. Through the ages this series has been used by the church to prepare catechumens for their baptism at Easter.

Each encounter is multi-layered. You often have the feeling, in John, that you are seeing through a glass darkly, as Paul says elsewhere. It is not always clear quite what is going on or what Jesus’ words mean. It’s a bit as if mist or fog were rolling in and out as these conversations take place.

This is accentuated by the fact that Jesus and those with whom he speaks seem to be on two different planes, now intersecting. (Fans of “intersectionality” please note.) Jesus is “from above,” from another dimension. Those with whom he speaks are “of earth,” meaning they take most everything literally and do not take seriously any power or ways not their own. Where Jesus sees multiple possibilities they see one only.

Nicodemus, a religious leader, comes to Jesus “by night,” which is less a point in time, than a kind of time. It is a darkened world, caught in shadow of unbelief and distrust. Religious leaders, especially in John, are creatures of it as much as anyone else. Hence, while Nicodemus is a faith leader, he seems to know only one, a worldly way, to think. He wants Jesus to “explain” his “signs” (miracles), which kind of misses the point (if you have to explain a joke . . . ). And yet, there’s something about this Jesus that is nagging Nicodemus, pulling him, even compelling him. Nicodemus doesn’t want to be seen publicly with Jesus, but he does want something, even though he doesn’t know what it is. (I like to say the job of the church was “to teach us to want things we didn’t know to want.”)

So when Jesus speaks of being “born anew from above,” one-dimensional Nicodemus asks, “how can these things be?” “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” He is taking it all quite literally, while Jesus is speaking of something more mysterious, metaphorical and elusive. Something we don’t control, like the wind which “blows where it will.” Try controlling the wind. Let me know how that goes.

Where Nicodemus wants explanations and evidence, “How did you do that thing with water and wine over there at Cana?” and others in the gospel will insist that Jesus do further signs to authenticate himself, being born anew from above seems far less about explanation, evidence or proof, and far more about trust and a grace that is as beyond our control as the wind. Life, the kind of life that Jesus talks about — abundant and eternal — isn’t something to be achieved. It is not something that is gotten, but something that is given. (Further note: “eternal life” isn’t about a quantity of time, as in living forever; but a quality of time and life. In John it’s not something that starts when you die, but starts when you have faith.)

One of the best “born again” stories I ever heard was told by my friend and colleague Jim Gorman, a UCC pastor with long time contacts in Germany and the church there. After the Berlin Wall fell, a young girl, 12 or 13, who had been sold into prostitution at a young age by her mother, found her way to a Christian community. She had taken refuge there as the world shifted on its axis.

One day there was a baptism. As the pastor poured the water she spoke of “being born anew,” of “being born again.” Later, after the service, this child, who had already lived through hell, shyly approached the pastor and asked, “Can I be born again?” In a way her question is heart-breakingly naive; in another way it is the voice of true faith. To such as these little ones, said Jesus, belongs the kingdom of God. Despite the darkness of that child’s life, she believed in the light.

Lent can be a time when we try to do certain things to “get right with God.” Truth is, we are put right with God not by our efforts or achievements, but by God in Christ coming to and for us, seeking us and finding us when and where we are holed up, lost, ashamed or alone. As someone remarked, “It’s less about our search for God, than God’s search for us.” “Jesus” is the name of God’s search for us, each and every one of us.





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