March 12, 2017
John 3:1-17, Genesis 12:1-4
“The Season of Failure”
Last week we attended the Stepping Up ceremony for Juniors and Seniors at Amy Biehl High School. This annual event is a time for seniors to pass the mantle on to the juniors. There are awards and speeches…lots of speeches. One would expect an event like this to be all about success, but I was surprised at how often the word failure was used. Speakers praised failure as a way to learn and grow. The evening celebrated success, while calling students to hang in there and not give up when things don’t go the way we want them to. Failure is something I have grown to appreciate…at least intellectually. I can’t say I like the way failure feels. I can’t say I want the disappointment that comes along with it, but I see that it is important to be able to go on when things fall apart. A good friend had surgery this week and she is looking at the possibility that she will not walk again in the near future. She is very clear that her life is not over, but her mobility is changing and she will adapt.
If Easter is the season of success, Lent is the season of failure. It is a time for us to embrace our mortality and our imperfection. Our texts today focus on two spiritual heroes. Many criticize Nicodemus for not getting what Jesus was saying. They don’t write him off, but they want to talk about him and understand his place in the story.
Christians, Jews, and Muslims claim Abraham as their patron saint. Abraham got it right…most of the time. Eric Elnes talks about saints in Gifts of the Dark Wood. He says, “…you don’t have to be a saint to find your place in this world! You don’t even have to be “above average.” All you really need to be is struggling.”
“Incidentally, even the great saints of old experienced significant doubts and struggled with imperfections. They did not become saints by moving from uncertainty to clarity. The moved, rather, from uncertainty to trust, which requires the ongoing presence of uncertainty. Likewise many saints experienced small and large victories over the course of their lives, they moved not from failure to success, but from failure to faithfulness, which requires the ongoing possibility of failure.” (p. 8)
In Genesis, Abram is being told to leave everything he knows and set out for who knows where? God tells him to go to a land that “I will show you.” He was 75 when he left for this unknown place. God promises to bless him and intends for Abram to bless others. Sometimes we hear people talking about being blessed as if it were some kind of possession. Being blessed is something that should be poured through us and passed on to others. We are channels of God’s blessing for the world. Abram has no idea what blessing will mean. He has no idea where he is going, but he goes and has to practice trusting in God over and over.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. This is a story for night owls who have deep thoughts long after everyone else has gone to sleep. Their best thinking happens in darkness. Spring flowers are popping up all over reminding us that darkness is where things grow. How many biblical figures were called in the night? Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Many have speculated about why this might be. Perhaps he’s not comfortable being seen talking to Jesus or perhaps it is the only time they could get together. Whatever the reason is, it seems to be an important element of this story. We may not know why he did, but we can be assured that something is happening. Nicodemus doesn’t have some magical conversion. In fact, he is so focused on understanding Jesus’ literal words, that he appears to miss the meaning altogether.
But what if he got it? What if he is still chewing on the conversation as he walks away? What if he understands that what Jesus is asking him is big and he knows he is not quite ready? Faith is a lifetime journey. Nicodemus appears later in the gospel when he comes to bury Jesus. While he may not have been ready to follow him that night, he came later and publicly claimed his faith in Jesus.
Mark Twain said, “It’s not the things I don’t understand in the Bible that worry me, it’s the things I understand perfectly clear that worry me.” It makes me wonder if Nicodemus did understand the depth of Jesus’ words and was stalling because he wasn’t ready to set aside his successful place in society to be reshaped by this radical man before him. Jesus used language of being born by water and spirit, of not knowing where the wind comes from or goes, of belief and eternal life. Maybe Nicodemus knew Jesus was not calling him to believe certain things, but to live his faith. Faith is risky. It is hard. It means allowing ourselves to be guided by a spirit who calls us into places we never intended to go.
Years ago a church used a call to worship that said, “We know that God is here. How do we know? Because we have been called into those places that we did not intend to go.” Abram had no intention of leaving his homeland. Being blessed may have sounded nice, but it meant giving up life as he knew it.
There are people who want to argue that they are not Christian because they do not believe certain things. Where do we get the idea that being a Christian means we believe things? When people asked Jesus about following him, he did not tell them to make sure they believed everything on his list. Instead, he told them how to act. He called them to love. He didn’t call them to think about love, but to DO love. When God calls people, they are not called to success, but faithfulness.
This is true for churches as well. We aren’t called to get everything right, but allow ourselves to be shaped and molded by the one we follow. We do this together, messing up and starting over again. We do it by paying attention to the world and realizing that we can best respond to the needs of the world as a body. It is why we worship together each Sunday. We gather to receive sustenance to be God’s people in the world. We pray, we sing, we eat together and then we go out to pour God’s blessing on the people we meet.
When new members join, rather than ask them what they believe, we ask them to live their faith along with us. We ask them to follow Jesus with us. We ask them to practice God’s love, justice, and inclusion with us.
We have no idea what Abram’s credentials were. God just asks him to go and he goes. Going requires that we rely on God. God is not looking for a PhD in leadership. God is looking for a yes.
We are called to let the Spirit guide us. It will mean stepping up and leaving the comfortable world we have created for ourselves while trusting we will be shown the way forward. Next Sunday, we will meet to consider how to respond to the needs of immigrants. Scripture is clear about our call to care for those who are different. “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
There is no question that responding to the needs of immigrants in our community will change us. Saying yes to God’s spirit is saying yes to being shaped in ways we can’t yet imagine. Saying yes will mean stumbling and falling. Saying yes also means getting up again knowing that God will show us the way. This season of failure is a season to remind us that it is not about us, but it is about the one we follow. Failure reminds us that it is not all up to us. Failure means relying on God like never before.