THE SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT, YEAR A
MARCH 12, 2017
ST. AUGUSTINE’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH
THE REVEREND BARRY GRIFFIN
Bishop Bennett Sims was the sixth bishop of The Diocese of Atlanta. He served from 1972 through 1983. In my opinion, he was a great bishop. One reason he was great was this: he was both humble and humorous. Did you ever notice that the words humility and humor begin with the same first three letters? So does the word human.
Anyway, Bishop Sims used to tell humorous stories about himself. Here’s my favorite.
One Saturday morning Bishop Sims led a group of children on a tour of our cathedral. As he led them through the vast space, he pointed out the significance of various architectural features. He drew their attention to several stained glass windows. He showed them up close the altar area and the organ console. He presented all these things using age appropriate language while offering his own age appropriate theological commentary.
Well, the kids were attentive. They were respectful of their bishop. But they had very little to say one way or the other.
Finally the tour came to an end. The bishop was feeling pretty good about his presentation. He asked the kids, “Are there any questions?”
There was a long silence. Then a boy raised his hand. “Yes?” Bishop Sims said, somewhat relieved.
“Bishop,” the boy said as he pointed to the great ceiling high above, “who changes the light bulbs up there?”
Sometimes kids get to the point. They point our practical concerns. They notice things we don’t, and they take us off guard.
I think Jesus had something to say along those lines. In Matthew’s gospel, chapter five, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 18:1-4]
For Jesus, humility translates into greatness in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus calls us to change and become like children. Jesus calls us to humility.
I share this with you today because today is Nicodemus Sunday. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. He was a Jewish religious leader and teacher who came to Jesus by night. Nicodemus was a good man. He was a good man who saw something good in Jesus, and he wanted to learn more about Jesus. But there was a problem. Nicodemus could not see the forest for the trees. He just didn’t get it. He didn’t understand what Jesus was trying to tell him.
After several exchanges, Jesus remarked, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and you do not understand these things?”
Reminds me of Matthew’s gospel: “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
When he came to Jesus, Nicodemus brought with him his own ideas and convictions about God. Who can blame him? I have my own ideas and convictions about God. Don’t you?
Children are more flexible. They don’t tend to think that way. They live more in the present moment. They are open to change when it comes their way.
As Matthew states: unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes about what he calls Beginner’s Mind. As I see it, Beginner’s Mind is what Nicodemus lacked. Jesus called Nicodemus to adopt a Beginner’s Mind. Jesus calls us to do the same.
Richard Rohr writes:
“’Beginner’s mind’ is actually someone who’s not in their mind at all! They are people who can immediately experience the naked moment apart from filtering it through mental categories. Such women and men are capable of simple presence to what is right in front of them without ‘thinking’ about it too much. This must be what Jesus means by little children already being in the kingdom of God (Matthew 18:3-4). They don’t think much, they just experience the moment – good and bad. That teaching alone should have told us that Christianity was not supposed to be about believing doctrines and moralities. Children do not believe theologies or strive for moral certitudes. They respond vulnerably and openly to what is offered them moment by moment. This is pure presence, and is frankly much more demanding than securing ourselves with our judgments.
“Presence cannot be easily defined. Presence can only be experienced. But I know this: True presence to someone or something allows them or it to change me and influence me – before I try to change them or it!
“Beginners mind is pure presence to each moment before I label it, critique it, categorize it, exclude it, or judge it up or down. That is a whole new way of thinking and living. It is the only mind that has the power to actually reform religion.”
Nicodemus lacked a Beginner’s Mind. He knew a lot about religion, and that’s a good thing. But he found it difficult to set aside what he knew and simply be present to Jesus.
Are you good at that? Are you good at being present to Jesus?
It’s helpful for me to think about this in terms of head and heart. Our faith calls us to both think and feel. Both are necessary.
Theology can be defined very simply as “thinking about God”.
When you think about God you’re doing theology, and that’s extremely important. But if thinking about God is all you’ve got, then all you’ve got is thinking about God. That doesn’t get you very far.
You can go to university and get a degree in religion. That’s a good thing. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re religious. It just means that you know a lot about religion. It doesn’t mean that you are a person of faith. You can teach religion without being a person of faith. That is not uncommon.
Like knowledge, religion is limited. There’s more than religion. There’s mystery. Mystery is a matter of the heart.
In today’s gospel Jesus speaks of being born from above and being born of the Spirit. These are not things that can be explained rationally. As Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
There are things we cannot understand, which is another way of saying this: like the wind, there are things beyond our control. That’s where trust in God begins. That’s where faith enters in. We need to use both the head and the heart. There’s understanding, and there’s mystery.
When it comes to head and heart, where are you on that scale? Are you balanced? Or are you lopsided one way or the other?
Today is Nicodemus Sunday. Today Jesus invites us to take on a Beginner’s Mind. With Nicodemus, we are invited to let go of our preconceptions and simply be present with the Lord: to listen, to observe, to allow ourselves to be changed and shaped like a child.
It’s not what we bring here today that matters. Like Nicodemus, it’s what we learn and take away that counts.
Don’t be rigid. Be flexible. Be present. And don’t be discouraged. Despite his limitations, Nicodemus shows up again. John tells us that, after the crucifixion of Jesus, “Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial customs of the Jews.
“Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish Day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”
When Jesus’ disciples had run away in fear and confusion, Nicodemus showed up. He assisted in the burial of Jesus.
I’d say he had a change of heart. Call it Beginner’s Mind or whatever you please, he was there when it mattered most.
Simply put, each of us has been given a head and a heart: a head to think; a heart to feel. May God give each of us grace to use both.
Amen.If you would like to respond to this sermon or receive future sermons by email, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org