Lent 2: Breaking Binaries

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A representation from Cameroon of Jesus and Nicodemus (Jesus Mafa, 1973). (1)

Genesis 12:1-4a
John 3:1-17

Sometimes, there are sermon illustrations that just stick with you forever. I have a few of those, as you might imagine, from my childhood of growing up in moderately fundamentalist Southern Baptist churches. (I say “moderately” because we weren’t cool with, say, women pastors or preachers, but we were totally cool with letting women lead music and Sunday school.) 

I have my own personal name for this story, but since that name is 100% inappropriate for a sermon, I decided to call it for our purposes today, the “poop brownie” story. I was a kid — maybe 10 or 11 — when this happened, so as you might imagine, the image just stuck.

A disclaimer: No actual brownies were harmed in the making of this story. To make it less gross, details have been altered.

Our pastor at the time was frustrated by the logic he was hearing from his children whenever they wanted to watch a movie that wasn’t a Christian movie.

“But Dad,” they would say, “it’s not a bad movie. It’s got a good message. It’s just got a little cussing in it.”

Frustrated to high heaven by this logic, the pastor mentioned this in a sermon, along with the analogy he gave his kids: “If I baked you brownies, and put just a little of something gross, like.. say, dirt, in them, would you eat them?”

“No!” his kids declared, as expected. “That’s disgusting!”

“So why would you be okay with going to see a movie with ‘just a little’ cussing in it?”

Needless to say, that stuck with me. For years, I felt guilty going to see movies that had any cursing or violence or sex in them, convinced I was poisoning my mind with “just a little.” I missed the point of a lot of good movies this way.

Because things in our world were either good or bad. People were either saved or not, good or evil, “one of us” or distinctly not “one of us.” Our world existed in binaries: North vs. South, Alabama vs. Auburn (football rivals), liberal and conservative, black and white (and I mean that both racially and metaphorically). Which choice was the right choice was always clear and doubt was as acceptable as dirt brownies. We had no room for any grey areas. In fact, we were quite convinced that the grey was, by definition, bad. If something — a movie, a person — was contaminated, God could not be in it.

Needless to say, this led to a lot of existential worry on my part. I confessed and re-invited Jesus into my heart no fewer than 25 times a day, convinced that if I happened to die — or if the rapture happened — after I committed an unconfessed sin, I would go to hell.

I had a lot of existential angst for a kid.

It was through literature and story that I learned to experience the grey as a real thing, and to break out of the overly simplistic thinking that I slowly started to realize left all kinds of God’s people in a mess. By the time I discovered the Lutheran idea that we are all simultaneously saint and sinner, that God reaches into our mess to save us and continues to save us of God’s own free will, it resonated so strongly that I wanted to write every theology paper on it.

The Gospel of John gets a bad rap for oversimplifying things into binaries, or groups of two, one good, one bad. Everything seems like it’s about either darkness or light, and in John, people seem to either believe in Jesus or they don’t. Everything seems to be separated into either flesh vs. spirit or world vs. God or darkness vs. light. After all, John’s Gospel is the one that gives us the famous passage, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). That was a memory verse when I was growing up.

We certainly loved John’s Gospel for this reason: everything just seemed simple.

And Jesus talked a lot. We liked that too, even if we had trouble fully listening when Jesus pushed us.

Thank God someone saved the Gospel of John for me. I think my faith was saved too.

When I was in seminary I took an entire class on John, where my professor would constantly challenge our assumptions by pointing us back to the Bible: “…but what does the text say?” “How does that line up with the rest of the Gospel?”

I was always taught that the character of Nicodemus just doesn’t understand. He’s a Jewish leader, which we all knew meant that he was probably a bad guy, no matter how well-intentioned. “The Jews” seem to all be bad guys in John, after all. Nicodemus doesn’t understand Jesus saying that he needed to be born again, which to us obviously meant that he needed to accept Jesus into his heart.

What I would learn later is that Nicodemus shows up not one time, but three, in John’s Gospel. Later, in chapter seven (John 7:45-52), Nicodemus will defend Jesus, though not that strongly. He does it kind of like a politician would, if you go back and read it: essentially, he says, “our law doesn’t judge people without giving them a fair hearing, does it?” He phrases it as a question, not a full out defense. He clearly wants to say something, but he doesn’t seem to want to upset his fellow Pharisees.

Finally, at the end, Nicodemus will help to bury Jesus, although he will do so, it seems, kind of secretly. He will give him a royal burial with a lot of expensive spices, and no one is absolutely sure if he does that because he gets it — that Jesus is God incarnate — or if it means that he really doesn’t understand, because he spends a lot of money on a grave that will only be a grave for three days. (cf. John 19:38-42)

We never get the sense that Nicodemus ever “came out” as a disciple (to borrow a phrase), probably staying with his Pharisaic community for the rest of his life — at least, for all we know.

So is Nicodemus good or bad?

We live in a world of binaries, where we need everything to be simple. You have to identify yourself along party lines, as either this or that. Given our binary way of thinking, “Is Nicodemus a good character or a bad one?” seems like a fair enough question.

I attended a talk once hosted by the bishop who ordained me, Julian Gordy of the Southeastern Synod. The talk was about who can take communion. Ultimately, the bishop let us all come to our own conclusions, as the purpose was just to get the conversation going. However, he cited Luther’s small catechism in his talk: that the one who understands the words “given and shed for you” is well prepared to take the sacrament.

The bishop posed the question: “Does a visitor to your church understand ‘for you’? Does a child understand ‘for you’?”

A bold pastor in the back said, “I don’t know, do you?”

“Shut up,” Bishop Gordy said quickly with a smile, pointing a finger at the smart-aleck pastor, “I’m getting there.” (He did.)

Is Nicodemus good or bad? This whole Jesus thing: does he really get it?

I don’t know, do you?

This is not a call to not have boundaries. It is a call for humility. Humility — something our public discourse desperately needs these days. We want things to be either/or. Simple. But they hardly ever are, especially when it comes to messy human beings — or a holy and infinite God.

The truth, beloved, is that we are all living into God’s holy mystery. We all come curiously to Jesus — whether by night, in quiet corners, or by day here in church. We all come looking for something. And what we find often baffles us, because what we find is an infinite and incomprehensible God who loves us fiercely.

If anything, judging too quickly leads us right into the hands of the devil — if the devil is, as we talked about last week, ha-satan, the adversary, the accuser. That voice that judges us and dismisses us or others all too quickly.

That person is bad. I am good. Or, conversely, that person is good. I am bad. God could never love me.

Abraham in our Old Testament reading today is told to get up and find a new home that God will show to he and Sarah. God tells Abraham that God will make a great nation out of the children that he and Sarah will have.

At that time, mind you, Abraham was a childless seventy-five year old.

Any sane person should’ve told him he was crazy for dropping everything to move and follow God’s call. They were too old to move, much less have kids. No doubt the accuser knocked at Abraham’s door more than once: “You’re too old, Abraham.” 

But Abraham recognized that God was present and God was leading him somewhere. So he showed up. He went.

Years later, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, will flee for his life from his brother’s rage. He’ll find a resting place in the wilderness and put a rock under his head as a pillow. He’ll dream of a ladder, and of God’s promises, and he’ll wake up to declare, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I knew it not” (Genesis 28:16).

Nicodemus’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t have the right theology. It’s that he’s in the presence of God and doesn’t yet recognize it, because, well, it’s not always easy to recognize.

God keeps showing up, whether we know it or not. And that complicates things far beyond our binaries of good or bad, belief and unbelief. Does Nicodemus believe?

I don’t know, do you?

What we do know is that, contrary to what the brownie sermon would have had me believe, God is not afraid of our mess. We are all saint and sinner, imperfect believers like Nicodemus (2). We love Jesus imperfectly and we don’t always recognize it when God is right in front of our faces. The danger is when we get caught up searching for the Bad, for something contaminated — within ourselves, other people, movies, brownies — instead of searching for the holy. Surely the holy is everywhere.

“Surely God is in this place, and we knew it not.”

Christians like to throw Scriptures in John around all the time — from John 3:16 to John 14:6 (“I am the Way, the Truth, the the life”) — in an attempt to point out the contamination in the world and convince others to join us in our correctness. What we don’t consider is that “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” is not meant to affirm us in our right belief but to affirm that it’s Christ who makes the rules, not us. And we don’t consider is scriptures like John 3:17, without which John 3:16 is incomplete (“the Son did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world may be saved through him.”)

Surely God is in this place — this mess, this world — and we knew it not.

God is in this place, in bread, in wine, in us — imperfect us. Nicodemus, I think, would get it eventually. People when faced with God’s direct presence, like Jacob, usually do.

I leave you with the words of Diana Butler Bass that I shared with the Wednesday night supper group this past week: Where is God?
“God is here. And how shall we act upon that? Well, that is up to us” (3). Amen.

1. JESUS MAFA is a response to the New Testament readings from the Lectionary by a Christian community in Cameroon, Africa. Each of the readings were selected and adapted to dramatic interpretation by the community members. Photographs of their interpretations were made, and these were then transcribed to paintings. Date: 1973.
Source: http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-processquery.pl?code=ACT&SortOrder=Title&LectionaryLink=ALent02 
2. Susan Hylen,Imperfect Believers: Ambiguous Characters in the Gospel of John, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Diana Butler Bass, Grounded. New York: HarperCollins, 2015, p. 11.

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