Thompson’s Sermon from June 3, 2012

June 6, 2012

Falling Forward
John 3:1-17
1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

I went to my niece’s high school graduation a couple of weeks ago in Hot Springs. It was an impressive event. It lasted about three hours less than a Central High School graduation, which was my last experience with a high school graduation ceremony. There weren’t many speeches, and they were well done. The high school principal gave what could probably be called the commencement address, and what he said was clever and encouraging and interesting and according to my son, Lucas it was somewhat lifted from a Nike commercial that aired a few years ago.

In the course of his speech, the principal shared some interesting statistics about Michael Jordan. He told the class that over the course of his career, Michael Jordan missed 9000 shots, he lost 300 games, and 26 times he went up for the final shot of the game – and he missed.

The theme of his speech was the importance of falling forward – to keep pushing ahead regardless of their failures, and I liked that idea. So I lifted both the theme from his speech and the statistics from the Nike commercial for my sermon this morning. I like the idea of putting yourself out there in a potentially unfortunate situation in hope of moving in to a better situation. I guess I’m thinking of the value of taking risks – of not being afraid to get involved in situations that may go badly.

And I guess one of the nuances of falling forward instead of backward is that you need to exercise some discretion about the risks you take. I don’t think this high school principal was advocating that these graduates just go out and find something risky to do. He might should have balanced his message with the reminder that the final words of many Arkansans has been, “Hey watch this…!” Wisdom requires us to measure the risks we take, and for there to be some benefit to the effort whether things work out well or not.

I say all of this because I think this exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus represents some risk and some failure, but I also think something good came from it. I think the fact that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night represents the element of risk that it took for him to speak to Jesus in such a candid way. Jesus was a highly suspicious character in the eyes of the Pharisees. The world according to the Pharisees was very clearly defined, and they didn’t have a place in it for someone like Jesus. And the world that the Pharisees had constructed was very fragile. They were having to appease the Romans at the same time they were trying to guide the people who were trying to be faithful to God.

The Pharisees recognized how dangerous to their program a charismatic leader like Jesus could be. The only credibility the Pharisees had with the Romans was that they seemed to be able to keep things under control and they were pretty effective at collecting the required taxes, and their position was very threatened by someone like Jesus. But he was un-ignorable. They had to deal with him, and they were generating plans to deal with him, but Nicodemus wasn’t entirely comfortable with those plans. He had some actual curiosity about Jesus, and he took the risk of trying to find out more about him.

Jesus didn’t make it easy for him. He didn’t praise him for taking this small step out of the world that held him hostage, but he did engage with him in a conversation that we find to be very gratifying. It’s out of this conversation that we have gained the concept of being born-again, and in spite of the fact that this concept has been somewhat hijacked by some modern day Pharisees who like to define what it looks like to be born again, this is a powerfully good image for us.

The possibility of being born again is the best news a person who is living in a deathly way can get. I get the sense that Nicodemus was not happy with the way he was living, and while he didn’t immediately latch on to what Jesus was saying, I think it planted a seed in his heart that continued to grow. We actually hear about Nicodemus two more times in John’s gospel.

Once happens when Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Festival of Booths, which is the third of the large Jewish Festivals that people were required to attend in Jerusalem. Jesus was teaching at the Temple and the Jewish leaders were appalled that he would do that. They sent their guards to seize him, but the guards were sort of taken by what he was saying so they returned to the Chief Priests and Pharisees without him. These authorities were criticizing the guards when Nicodemus steps in and points out that the Law didn’t allow them to judge anyone without a thorough examination of what they were doing – which was not what his peers wanted to hear and they gave him a hard time about it.

The last thing we hear about Nicodemus occurs after Jesus’ crucifixion. Another one of his secret followers, Joseph of Arimathea, provided a tomb for Jesus, and we are told that Nicodemus brought about 75 pounds of aloe and myrrh for the anointing of his body – which sounds like the action of someone who had come to love Jesus – you might even say it sounds like someone who had been born again.

Certainly he was someone who was falling forward. He didn’t become one of the outspoken leaders of the faith, but at the end of the story he wasn’t in the same place where he started, and that’s probably the best thing that can happen to any of us.

I love this concept of being born again, and I know that it happens. I heard another great story on that radio show, Snap Judgement, that I love to listen to and have mentioned before. It was a story about a woman who went out for a short jog one morning prior to the marathon she planned to run the next day, and she got hit by a car that ran a stop sign and she woke up 18 months later – blind, bald, unable to speak, and weighing 68 pounds. She thinks she probably looked more like ET than the 23 year-old Marine that she was before she was hit. She was on her own and the hospital released her to a sr. citizen’s home for lack of a better idea. They had no hope for her recovery.

She moved in to this home with nothing but the scrubs she was wearing and a suitcase full of medical records. Fortunately some of the residents saw her as a person with potential and they worked with her. There were some men who taught her to play scrabble. They had their own version of the game that highlighted four letter words, so it was greatly simplified, fun, and was much more effective than any formal program of speech therapy had been.

And then a woman who was a former teacher took it upon herself to teach her to write, and the fact that this woman had Alzheimer’s disease meant that there was a lot of repetition to the lessons. These sr. citizens turned out to provide her with the best rehabilitation she could have received. She stayed there for a year, and not only did they enable her to communicate effectively, they raised money to send her to a school for blind people. She took off from there, and she eventually became a neuro-scientist. You can google Ramona Pierson, and hear her tell her story on a Ted Talk – which are lectures given by some of the most remarkable people in the world.

She considers her rehabilitation to have been the result of some extreme radical collaboration. And I do too. She isn’t a theologian, and I honestly don’t know if she is connected to any kind of faith tradition, but I’m unable to see what happened to her as anything less than some extreme collaboration that involved some remarkable people, but it also involved the most extremely radical partner of all – the Holy Spirit – which is what truly enables us to be reborn in powerful ways.

I haven’t said much about today being Trinity Sunday, and I doubt if anyone showed up today in hope of hearing a good sermon on the doctrine of the Trinity, but this concept of radical collaboration gives me a grip on the Trinity. I like to think of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as being a type of divine collaboration that has not only created everything that is, but continues to work with all of creation and each of us to bring us in to harmony with each other and with God.

Like Nicodemus, we can be slow to realize how God is present in our lives, and we can stay stuck in old lives for too long, but I also believe that none of us are too far removed from the reach of God to be pulled in to new life. Whether we are hesitant to extract ourselves from the lure of false securities or we are too helpless to do anything for ourselves and are totally dependent upon the initiative of others to carry us in to new lives – rebirth can happen. At some point we all have decisions to make and actions to take to fully participate in the new life God provides, but this new world is out there for all of us.

It’s always by the grace of God that we find our way into new life in collaboration with God, but it does require us to take some risks and to fall. Failure is not just an option, it is a given, but so is the presence of God. And God can use our failures to do glorious things. This divinely radical collaboration thing is something to behold. It’s something in our midst, and it’s something to be trusted. Regardless of how we fall, God is there to lift us up and move us forward. We don’t always get it, or get on board with it, but it doesn’t go away.

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are here to stay. Thanks be to God for the creative avenue to life that this holy presence provides for us today and forever. Amen


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