"Came to Jesus by Night"-Sermon for Trinity Sunday, John 3:1-17
So, I want to begin with a story. It is one of John Bindel’s favorites of mine so I will dedicate it to him. I last shared it in a sermon back in the Easter season of 2016…though I want to make a different point with it today. And, the story takes us back to the beginning of my career in ministry…working as a Youth Minister in Houston…I was in my early 20’s and single…fresh out of college…and I had more or less no idea what I was doing…and it can, perhaps, refreshingly still feel that way from time to time. But, anyway, as a young single person, I spent many a Friday evening out with my friends at restaurants and pubs and concerts and movie theaters and the like…and I will never forget one night in particular. You see when my friends and I would inevitably meet new people along the way and get into conversations with those we did not already know…we would always begin…as these things go…with what I call the “get to know you” game…the basics…an ice-breaker of sorts…your name, where you went to school, where you’re from, who you know, and of course what you are now doing…what you do for a living. And, I was always a bit apprehensive about this last item…what I was doing for a living…because, you see, when I would say…well I am a Youth Minister…typically one of two responses would follow. Either those I had just met would work to avoid me for the rest of the evening. I suppose people wanted to avoid any guilt around what they intended to get up to with the rest of their Friday night…or…people would corner me for the rest of the evening wanting to either debate the existence of God or unburden themselves by sharing their trials and travails with faith or otherwise in life. I now see the later of these two responses as a tremendous gift…for any chance to talk about the love of God or be a safe place for another person to unburden themselves is indeed a tremendous gift.
Well, despite that wisdom that has come with time, I made the decision one day that the next time I went out with friends and we inevitably got into conversations with those we did not know…I was not going to be forthcoming about my vocation. I suppose I wanted to avoid the typical two responses…or just see how the other half lived…if you will. And, sure enough, the following Friday I was out at a place called Lizard’s Pub with friends and sure enough I ended up in a circle of strangers…and the game ensued. Well, when it got to me to share what I did for a living…I looked at the group…took a deep breath…and said…I am in commercial real-estate. I have no idea why I chose commercial real-estate…I suppose it was what my best friend at the time was actually doing.
Well immediately a feeling of deep sadness came over me. I am sure you could see it on my face. Without excusing myself, I stepped away from the conversation…walked outside into the night…into the darkness…and I literally wept. I had, in my mind, denied who I was at my core. I felt utterly inauthentic and very small, and worst of all I had denied my God…the very one I truly love more than words…and to whom I had dedicated my very self. Well eventually I pulled myself together and knew what I had to do. I walked back inside and individually told each person in the group that, indeed, I was a Youth Minister working in a church…and they, indeed, perhaps understandably in this instance, avoided me for the rest of the night. But, I’ll tell you what…in that moment I shared the truth, not just of what I did for a living, but really who I was as a person…it felt like I had been reborn.
I tell this story…perhaps partly as confession…but mainly as a background to our gospel lesson today from John. Perhaps you noted this curious notation at the outset of the passage…what could easily be perceived as a throwaway line…perhaps just intended to set the stage or some such…but here it is again…John writes, “There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night…”. He came to Jesus by night. So why by night? Maybe Nicodemus had a full day…and it wasn’t till after dark that he was able to shake free to get some uninterrupted time with Jesus…or perhaps that’s when Jesus could fit Nicodemus into his busy calendar…or perhaps this is John’s way of saying…this really happened…this encounter happened in history…in time and space…at night. Or perhaps there is more to it, and I believe there is.
You see, I think Nicodemus went to Jesus at night…under the cover of darkness…so that no one would know…no one would see him go see Jesus. You see, Jesus was not super popular among the religious leadership of his day…leadership of which Nicodemus was a part. Thus, Nicodemus was at the very least uncertain, or flat out knew, that he did not want to be associated with Jesus…like me that night at the Lizard’s Pub. What would polite society think of Nicodemus if he was a known associate…or worse…follower of Jesus. For Jesus represented a threat to the status quo…a rebirth into a new way of knowing and living with God…a relationship with God not mediated by human people wielding power…but through love…a personal, direct sort of love between individual people, any individual person…rich/poor, sick/healthy, Jew/gentile, woman/man…any individual person and God…a love that gives its attention not to placating the powers that be…but serving those most in need of our love. For Jesus did not say…when you mind the clergy and pay your tithe and worship at the temple some certain number of days a year…then you will come face to face with God. Instead, he said when you feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, spend time with the lonely, care for he sick…then, then you will come face to face with God. For Jesus said when you care for the least member of my family…then you are caring for me. This sort of relational faith that focuses its attention first on the least and the lonely and the lost…on direct and unmediated access to the God of love…is a threat to a centralized spiritual authority that demands attention and recognition and allegiance. Thus, again, Jesus was wildly unpopular with his own religious leadership…and Nicodemus was risking much to hear what he had to say…thus he went to Jesus by night.
Which leads me to the single thing I am inviting us all to ponder today, which is…so what about us…how do we hide our faith…like I did that night at Lizard’s Pub…leave it languishing in the dark? How and, if so, why are we failing to make an account of the faith that is alive in each of us…what embarrasses us about claiming our identity as Christians…what makes us uncomfortable about talking to others about what we believe…about our faith?
Now, our very presence worshipping in the daytime in a public park this morning suggests that we are willing to boldly proclaim that we are friends and followers of Jesus. In fact, the original conception of our Memorial Day Weekend service in the park, many years ago now, was both to do something special to celebrate the end of the program year and the coming of summer and…and to bring Christian community into a public space…to witness to our faith in a public space…and hopefully, by doing so, introduce ourselves to some of our neighbors who might just randomly be with us in the park. And, I don’t want to take anything away from that…but still I think, at times, we, and I include me in that we, we are timid when it comes to inviting others to join us on our spiritual journey. We feel unable or unprepared to talk about our love for Jesus when those opportunities arise. We are hesitant to offer to pray with a friend whose experiencing some sort of fear or anxiety. And, indeed, there is some risk in doing so…the risk of being lumped in with some sort of judgmental or exclusive or hypocritical expression of Christianity…and they do exist. There is a risk of being consider simplistic or un-scientific or anachronistic…a believer in fairy-tales.
But here is the thing…I don’t think our sacred stories, our faith, is a fairy-tale. Instead, I think it has the power to utterly turn this world right side up…to the good…with love on top. Further, I believe we are surrounded by people living quiet and at times very noisy lives of deep desperation. There are people all around us who are desperate to transcend our consumer culture. People who desperately want to know they are loved eternally and forever by a power greater than themselves…who will never let them go. People looking for meaning and purpose and direction. People looking for love and belonging and acceptance. People just looking for authentic friendship. And I believe, further, that our alive and active faith…and our community of faith…St. Julian’s…offers all the above and so much more.
And, finally, I believe we, you and I, are the ones that the God of love has chosen to use to invite them into the divine life of the Holy Trinity. Our God is 3 in 1…1 in 3…in other words…our God is community at God’s most fundamental essence. We are closing on 9 acres of land this summer just blocks away from where we now sit…and its purpose is not to just build esthetically pleasing architecture for us to enjoy…but to create space, more and more room, to intentionally invite and welcome more and more people…the church is always people not buildings…people who desperately need us and who we desperately need…invite them into our community, the family of love and belonging that God is forging among us…a living extension of the divine life of the Holy Trinity. But we shouldn’t and can’t wait till then to begin this good work of invitation, welcome and connection. It begins even now. For people are counting on us…they need us now. I believe we, and more to the point, the faithful life rooted in God’s love that we, and other communities like us, are cultivating together, are the world’s last, best hope.
When Nicodemus approaches Jesus by night, Jesus goes on to speak of rebirth…being born again into an altogether new sort of life…a life characterized by redemption and transformation and meaning-making and service and friendship and belonging. And, like I experienced that night in Lizard’s Pub when I went back and told those strangers what I do and who I was, I believe our own rebirth and that of those around us who are seeking a life really worth living…a fully alive sort of life…begins with courage…mustering the courage to, as our Rule of Life at St. Julian’s says, invite and welcome into our family of faith all people, all healthy forms of diversity, while boldly and unapologetically claiming Jesus as Lord and Savior.
A friend shared with me the statistic that the average Episcopalian invites someone to church about once every 37 years…that’s two people in a lifetime. I think we can do better, and I think that begins by leaning into those around us who are seeking meaning…seeking something new and life-giving…and then mustering, again, the courage to let our hearts speak…to tell our stories of hope and redemption…our faith in the God of love and his son Jesus Christ who holds the whole world in his hands. We must learn, through prayer and practice, to overcome our fear of rejection and invite those whose paths we cross to join us as friends and sojourners on the great adventure of faith. Doing so promises that we will be reborn together, more and more, into the divine community of the Holy Trinity…not just 3 in 1…but all of us in 1. For this we were made. A home found…restless hearts soothed…light shining in the darkness…communities transformed…the rainbow-colored people of God on the move…and the kingdom of God takes deeper root in our midst on earth…just like it is in heaven.
And it all begins with us…each one of us…being willing to boldly step out of the darkness and let our lights shine…a willingness to preach the Gospel, the Good News, always…not only with our lips but with our lives. Amen.