Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Mar. 5, 2023

Posted by on Sun, Mar 5, 2023 in Lent, Sermons

The Second Sunday in Lent

Mar. 5, 2023

Pilgrims flowed from the villages of Judea and Samaria and beyond on their way to Jerusalem for the great Jewish festivals. We are told they’d chant or sing the ‘Songs of Ascent’ (a group including psalms 120 – 134) like 121 which we shared today. They’d sing it by call and response on their way up to ‘God’s holy mountain,’ a destination always designated as “going up,” and leading to worship in the temple.

Psalm 121 is also called ‘The Traveler’s Psalm’ because it addresses dangers that travelers often experienced. Although mountains were considered holy places and where people sought divine help, Israel’s pilgrims knew people sought other gods there too, and built shrines asserting the superior power of their gods. The hills were also perilous because of their appeal to thieves. Imagine beginning such a trek, looking up with anticipation of seeking God, of worshipping – right alongside fear of attack or mugging. Yes, a psalm of confidence in God’s care for us and trust in the his constancy is just what one wants on their lips as they walk. 

It reminds us that we too are a band of pilgrims traveling together as a community of faith, and sharing these timeless words today. Faith is strengthened by our growing awareness of visitations or experiences of God, sharing them, and traveling this hilly Lenten road together each year guides our paths and gives a companioned pace to our lives as Christians. 

In praying this ancient ‘Song of Ascent’ or ‘Traveler’s Psalm’ we draw on it for our own lives. We hold common ground in it, both challenges and hopes. The pilgrims of that time affirmed Israel’s God as sovereign, even in the face of false gods and idols revered by those around them. Don’t we encounter our own version of this? Our world abounds with secular deities and tempting idols made grand and aspirationally appealing; so to be a person of resurrection faith and a member of a living tradition like the Episcopal Church can be as daunting as facing bandits on the way up the mountain. Especially in the Pacific Northwest where we are anomaly, sometimes a hidden one at that.

The psalm also uses a literary device known as merism. It’s a pair of contrasting or opposite terms which then stand for the whole. (For example, to say ‘he searched high and low’ means he looked everywhere.) We hear God is “the maker of heaven and earth”, and we know all creation is included here. God’s shade is so “the sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” I consider this a double merism because we have day and night which surely means everything in between, and also the sun and moon. They are not opposites but they were seen as extremes; the blazing sun was a constant danger to the people there, and harmful influences, even mental disorders, were attributed as ‘moonstruck’. And finally we hear, “The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in” is to say in all times and in all places. Declaring Israel’s God knows and sees these, created them, and all that is in between, the psalmist is saying God can protect us from the whole lot of it, even the Evil One. 

Lets turn to the reading from John’s gospel now. In it Jesus challenges Nicodemus “to move from theory to practice, from knowledge to faith, from curiosity to commitment” and today we are all receiving that same urge and counsel. The whole of it is fully expressed in the promise; “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.”

Nicodemus is portrayed as curious about Jesus, as not quite understanding him but trying to. He is an example of those with quietly emerging interest or an intuitive draw towards Jesus, but who need more certainty or facts to go on, before risking being seen as following him, hence Nicodemus comes at night perhaps unwilling to be seen doing so. He is a learned man entrusted with authority, and still Nicodemus’ perception of Jesus is incomplete. So Jesus sets out the next step; No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, a Greek word which means both ‘again’ and ‘from above’. It is not that only one of these is correct, both senses are part of the message here. Nicodemus is challenged by Jesus to embrace a pretty radical change in his way of seeing and being in the world, otherwise he cannot understand who and what Jesus is about.

Jesus is challenging Nicodemus and us – to grow, to move from merely good ideas and knowledge to practicing a living faith, to travel the whole spectrum from curiosity to deep commitment. Jesus explains that the Spirit of God gives people new life, rebirth, into the kingdom of God. We become spiritual beings, shaped and sustained by it. 

Remember the psalmist said he lifts his eyes unto the hills, and then asks from where will his hope come. Here Jesus offers the metaphor of Moses told to raise the serpent on a pole in the wilderness that those who were afflicted could be saved from death. So too Jesus will be ‘lifted up’ to rescue and heal us, to save God’s people. John uses that term not only to look back at the historic symbolism, he uses ‘lifted up’ to refer to the whole of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. 

Eternal life is not simply going to the good life in heaven after we die, it is life shaped by God’s love right now. Eternal life begins now as we entrust our lives to Christ Jesus.  We become people of the kingdom of God allowing ourselves to be moved by the Spirit within us. This isn’t independent or self-made work even if we want it to be, believers are reborn into God’s new family. If religious training were enough, Nicodemus would have all he needs. Yet he was baffled, unable to access Jesus’ way through his intellect alone. We might see Nicodemus as being less than courageous in this reading, but his transformation begins here, and we see it come full circle after Jesus’ crucifixion when he joins Jospeh of Arimathea in taking the risk of bringing the myrrh and spices for Jesus’ burial. Like Nicodemus we too come with plenty of misconceptions and areas of blindness, such that we can never know all of who Christ Jesus is and all he’s about. Even so, who we choose to be and how we try to live can still be shaped and guided by who we know him to be, and guided in community with others seeking to live his truth.

Last week I read a rather personal approach to this by Dr. Cláudio Carvalhaes, a Professor of Worship at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He is a theologian, liturgist and artist, a native Brazilian, and an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church. He writes;

Dear Nicodemus, 

I have a deep admiration for you. I don’t know much about you but it seems to me you have a good heart. Surely you are a religious leader and a wise man. I write 2,000 years after you had this conversation with Jesus. I am a Christian which means I follow that precious Jew you were talking to that night. I hope you would laugh if you heard all of the ways many Christians talk about this conversation you had with Jesus. Often we hear how much you didn’t get from Jesus’ message, … how you were afraid and had to hide to talk to Jesus, how you were confusing things, not quite getting what is necessary to know. Especially because of your own position as a religious leader, we judge that you should definitely know better about key things in that conversation. We all think that we are as clever as Jesus was! 

I must confess I really admire that you went to see Jesus during the night; if it was because you were embarrassed or afraid of what other people would say, you are just like any of us. I’ve done that too, going to people to ask things that I should know better. The other day I went to my student Moses, a Dalit (one of the lowest castes) from India, and I asked all of the most obvious questions about India, the Dalits and the caste system… even rude or stupid [questions]. But I trusted him and he was so generous with me. He taught me so much! Perhaps when I left he was saying to himself: “I thought my adviser knew better.” 

…[Nicodemus,] Your questions helped us understand Jesus better. Your concern about being born and belonging have been fundamental to Christian spiritual-material life. Here is my take on your conversation with him: our birth is as much a spiritual event as it is a material one …right? The same way that above and below are also distinctive parts of the same reality, one is not more important than the other since they complement each other … Flesh and Spirit are woven into the same body…Human and natural bodies, water and spirit bodies, all are shaped in the soil/humus.

In this Lenten season I hear the echo; ‘From dust we came and to dust we shall return.’ Even as people formed from dust we trust “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.”

© 2023 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

Post will be removed at 8:00 AM on Wed., Mar. 5, 2025.