March 16, 2014


Sermon for Year A, The Second Sunday After the Epiphany
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
March 16, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
John 3:1-17

A Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night”
  And they have this highly symbolic and enigmatic conversation.
Be honest now: how much of that conversation could you follow?

We could go there, if we wanted.
We could go into the symbols and the spirit and the wind and the being-born.
We could speculate, from this far distance, what it’s all about.

It may be enough to say this much --
  That someone who seems genuinely curious about the ministry of Jesus
  Is so overcome with curiosity and his own unanswered questions
    That he tracks the guy down and they have an actual conversation.
That, all by itself, is commendable.
That he needs to know -- he wants to talk about things that are important to him --
  And so he takes the necessary steps.
He waits until it’s dark --
  Perhaps the middle of the night; perhaps later, closer to sunrise -- and he goes.
He has no alarm clock. No coffee mug. Just a sense of something significant urging him on.
He might be thinking to himself that the world is about to turn.
He might be filled with expectation, or dread, or a sense of impending liberation, or all of that.

Nicodemus has a kind of thirst for knowledge
  That can’t be quenched in any of the usual ways.
He must receive what Jesus offers, and only what Jesus offers --
  Jesus, and Jesus alone.
He brings himself into the conversation, yet he sets himself aside so he can hear better.
He asks his burning questions, and he has them answered, but not in the way he thought.
Again, he does whatever is necessary to make this happen.

In some respects the church has failed us in this way, and we know it.
There are no natural obstacles these days that we have to surmount
  In order to get what we want out of the life of faith.
It’s all just so easy. Which begs the question: Is that really the life of faith, or something else?

We live in a culture that respects the value of things being easy.
We should be able to drive say ten minutes at the most
  In order to get to a church that is precisely the kind in which we’re most comfortable
    To do the kinds of rituals we’ve become accustomed to.
The coffee and the snacks should be of good quality.
The worship should suit our tastes and not push us too far outside ourselves.
The pews should be comfortable.
The temperature should not be too cold or too hot.
The message should not be too unsettling.
The music should be familiar.
God should be presented to us much like Santa Claus is presented to children --
  A friendly, bearded, old grandfather type --
    And Jesus should be a clever guy who had an unfortunate run-in with the authorities.
Bible Study for adults should be spoon-feeding,
  And Sunday School for kids should be theological and biblical safety above all.
In short, we seem to have come to believe
  That church should be like a big comfy quilt on a cold night,
  And that the people inside the church building,
    Once they have arrived and found their pews,
    Should never be geuninely challenged or provoked,
      Never be asked to see the world as a bigger place,
        Never see the church as a place or a people of danger, adventure, or risk.
When in reality that’s all it’s ever been.

And so it becomes increasingly difficult for us to identify with Nicodemus.
I wonder sometimes -- and please, this is only me wondering --
  I wonder if we do ourselves a disservice
  By making the life of faith so easy and so accessible.
I wonder if we hurt or help God’s purposes
  When we put up every kind of church on every kind of corner.

Can you imagine storming into Starbucks headquarters tomorrow morning
  And demanding that they put up a hundred more stores just in Sioux City?
And that furthermore, each store should only offer
  That which it thinks is good from the overall menu?
And that each store should advertise these things about itself?
Can you imagine, for example, demanding a Starbucks be built
  That is within easy driving distance of your house
  And is to be called the Espresso Starbucks
    Because you like Espresso? Because you’re a “cradle” Espresso drinker?
Of course not! You’d be escorted out of the building.
And as you were being dragged out, they would say,
  “Are you crazy, man? We already put three coffee shops in Sioux City!
    How many can you possibly need?”

Yet here we sit, one of maybe a hundred congregations in town --
  One of three small Episcopal congregations --
  Defined by a past mythology of thinking and being
  In which it was believed that we would infinitely expand and never contract.

In the life of faith, convenience should be far from anyone’s chief concern.
Yet here we find ourselves overrun with convenience and comfort.
There are at least eight coffee machines at St. Thomas.

Nothing new or challenging ever came
  From surveying the status-quo and deciding that things were fine just like they were.
No great invention or innovation ever arose
  Out of a sense of total satisfaction.

And so today I want to challenge us to think like Nicodemus,
  And to place before God’s altar the offering of our very lives:
    To offer up ourselves to Christ to be a part of something risky, maybe even a little dangerous.
To allow ourselves to not be the people holding the answers,
  But instead to be the ones with burning questions on our hearts.
Questions so intense they need answers.
Desires so focused and burning so brightly
  That nothing but conversation with Jesus will quench them,
    And in recognition that that conversation is bought at the price of our time and comfort.
Our prayer today is to be brought out of ourselves,
  To rise above the culture of convenience,
    And to give thanks to God for having been given this extraordinary gift of life;
    That we may use it well, with the sense of urgency it deserves.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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