Archive for March, 2020

Seeing Beyond

Posted: March 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

Matthew 26: 6-13

Seeing Beyond

Rex Hunt of whom I have often spoken and referred to or quoted noted a poem called “Contact lenses” that he thought spoke as contemporary context to today’s gospel story as told by the teller we call Matthew.

“Lacking what they want to see
makes my eyes hungry
and eyes can feel
only pain.

“Once I lived behind thick walls of glass
and my eyes belonged
to a different ethic
timidly rubbing the edges
of whatever turned them on.
Seeing usually
was a matter of what was
in front of my eyes
matching what was
behind my brain.
Now my eyes have become
a part of me exposed
quick risky and open
to all the same dangers.

“I see much
better now
and my eyes hurt.”

(E S Fiorenza).

Rex also noted that he had never preached on this biblical story as told by Matthew. Whereas the rendition of this story, as told by Luke, he has. He went on to note the differences Matthew offers as opposed to Luke

Matthew says the story happened in the home of Simon the leper in Bethany, just before Jesus’ death whereas Luke says it all happened in the home of Simon the pharisee, in Galilee. Luke says it was Simon who objected to the unnamed woman’s actions.
In Matthew, it was ‘the disciples. In Matthew, the objection revolves around the extravagance of the anointing. In Luke, Simon’s objection centres on the woman’s so-called ‘sinful past’.

Rex also notes that for many reasons, the whole of biblical narrative tradition seems to have been adversely influenced by Luke’s story conclusion. The sinfulness of the woman.

To compound this conclusion further, some storytellers and commentators suggest the woman was a prostitute. But there is absolutely nothing in Matthew’s story to confirm or suggest this. And even if you want to push Luke’s story to the extreme edges, his mention of the woman being a ‘sinner’ does not point to her being a prostitute. The New Testament scholar Barbara Reid suggests that “…this woman need only have been ill or disabled or have frequent contact with Gentiles to be considered a sinner” (Reid 2000:97).

“It is remarkable,” she says that neither commentator nor Bible translator “has thought to point the reader to the way Jesus perceives her by entitling [the story]: ‘A woman who shows great love’” (Reid.

So, we ask; what is Matthew’s special take, via his storytelling? I like Rex want to suggests that it is about having a new perspective – on life and others. And that’s what the poem is about.

‘Once I lived behind thick walls of glass…
‘Now my eyes have become a part of me exposed…
‘I see much better now… beyond usually.

Can Matthew’s hearers, and now we…

Can all of us move from behind our ‘thick walls of glass’ that has shaped our seeing and hearing of this story. To ‘see’ the woman’s humanity as well as her great love?
To ‘see’ Jesus’ humanity and his re-imagining of the world?

Generally speaking, women had a leading role in the early Jesus movement. Women had access to financial resources they used for ministering to Jesus. Women journeyed with Jesus. Women were often unnamed. Our Lenten mentor, Jewish new testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, suggests: “Women followed Jesus then, and women follow him now, for the same reasons that men did: because they found something in his person and his message that spoke to their hearts…”  (Levine 2006:143).

But, Levine cautions, while many can and do find that inspirational, you “do not have to construct a negative view of Judaism in order to do so” (Levine 2006: 143). On the other hand, neither do we have to turn Jesus into some misogynist, as some church leaders have done and still do, to support their farcical arguments that women cannot be ordained or have leadership positions, because Jesus (apparently) didn’t appoint any women to his inner circle!

We need to stop bearing ‘false witness’. Such action when it happens must be denounced. And denounced by Christian theology. Especially when such claims come from the modern habit of quoting proof-texts to legitimize policies and rulings and opinions. And in a world where right is a commodity to be owned, bought and sold.

But of-course Matthew’s story and our reflection on it, could also have gone beyond ‘women’, and been about asylum seekers, corporate developers’ bribes, homosexuality, the continuing wars around the globe. In this world today in the wake of the Trump election and questions about the social influencing and the social impact, the false news, to wide interpretations of what might be considered truth. And now in the think of a global pandemic where the world is poised to change, be it tighten up on freedoms, abolish privacy monetize humanity or provide space for a new thing a world where common sense banishes hate, intolerance, power seeking, and people live and breathe as though we all matter. Where we do more than give lip service to love and explore the depths of humanity that come from such empathetic, valued individuality and actions.

Matthew’s context for this particular story is not the same as Luke’s more popular one but rather appears in its context to be a lead up to Jesus death. Which also fits in with our current season of Lent. And it also fits without current world situation, poised on the edge of change of apocalyptic proportion. The death of what we have known and the birth of a new age. Jesus’ death mattered to Matthew.  Indeed, to all those early storytellers. But only because his life mattered more. Many spoke of his death in ways that affirmed his life (Patterson 2004). And how their own small communities could embrace life, not be scared of it.

So, my invitation to you all today is similar: Do not deny that the situation we find ourselves in is disastrous, death bringing, fearful, life-threatening and deeply horrific. Do not push it away either as God’s punishment of a bad world nor deny it just as part of evolution of the species. But see it as the call of Jesus to embrace life, all of life, and not be scared of it. Step out from behind the thick walls of glass and see much better, now…Step out of the fear and the blaming and the seeking to find who did it and work together in love for each other,

Prayer to an ‘Almost’ God

Just when we think we have it all figured out,
things change again. I am ‘almost’ there.

It is as if the rug is pulled out from under my feet,

I don’t know where to put my foot,

 But I am ‘almost there and I need to take the step.
When will I be able to rest
in the comfort of knowing what comes next?

When will my ‘almost’ become my reaching the ‘next’?

I see the ‘almost’ that transcends all time,
that created the stars and set them in place,

My ‘almost’ is so huge that it belittles and confuses my ‘Almighty’

I see the ‘almost’ that is never there yet already present,

The ‘almost that is ageless yet known in every age,
The ‘almost’ that authenticates ‘promise’ and confirms the grace that accepts
being there but not yet, the changes that are about to invite the freedom and the possible, the almost that is already present in the now.

 The ‘almost enables an emptiness of heart shaped by anxiety,
and fills it instead with wonder and awe, and beauty and possibility and hope.
The ‘almost’ releases me from the maybe and pushes aside the chains of complacency,
and binds us to an ever-present, ever-moving Spirit of transformation by imagination

 The ‘almost’ takes the things I believed to be permanent and stable
and leaves them by the way side as markers of the impossible

That without ‘almost’,

the impossible would founder on the edges of the possible
And keep us away from being enfolded in a quantum like unquenchable love

‘Almost’ reminds us that memory of the dynamic,

ever-moving, evolving, unfolding, emerging is entry into

The possibility of a world without a fear that paralyzes,
and with a way into and out of a grief that cripples us with anger
that imprisons us in a loss of what had been.

‘Almost’ by incarnation becomes angels arriving to gently move us
over that frightening edge into the unknown,
inviting us to enter the realm of trust.

Self-worth, human flourishing, life is grounded because,

‘Almost’ is always eternal. Always enduring and everlasting.

In ‘almost’ restlessness finds peace, meaning finds purpose

And in ‘almost’ evolution, creation, and imagination

Become finite within infinity

Yes! and amen.

Doug Lendrum

Levine, A-J. 2006.  The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. NY: New York. HarperOne.
Patterson, S. J. 2004.  Beyond the Passion. Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. MN: Minneapolis. Fortress Press.
Reid, B. E. 2000.  Parables for Preachers. Year C. MN: Collegeville. The Liturgical Press.

Now I See

Posted: March 17, 2020 in Uncategorized

Psalm 23        John 9:1-41

Now I See

How quickly the world changes.  Just a few weeks ago the world was going about its business as it always did. Children were attending school in most towns, local businesses were open and thriving, the shelves in the local grocery store were well-stocked, the churches we were attending were gearing up for Holy Week, people and families were enjoying travel abroad and most were experiencing fairly normal workdays, and we had never heard the phrase, “social distancing,” or “self-managed quarantine’.

Now, just days later, schools and universities around the world are closed.  Libraries, restaurants, cafes, and cultural centers are shutting their doors.  Some are finding it hard to find hand sanitiser, bathroom tissue, or other staples at the local grocery.  Some churches will offer worship services online for at least the next month.  Others are flying home, ahead of a nationally mandated travel restriction and in some countries a ban between nations.  Doctors and nurses experiences in the emergency room have drastically changed, and it is suggested we are to maintain a one to two meter distance from every human being we encounter.  We are experiencing the life in the shadow of Covid-19.  Like we said at the beginning, how quickly the world changes.

But wait a minute! Is “change” the right word? It doesn’t seem pandemic enough and isn’t life about change anyway? Maybe we should use the word  “apocalyptic” to describe what life feels like right now, and maybe that’s the better word.  After all, an apocalypse, rightly defined, is an unveiling, a revelation of things previously unseen or unknown.  Maybe the world hasn’t changed that much at all. There have been pandemics before and they have been thought to be natural or man-made, accepted as part of what happens when you have people who are always trying to find things out. Or maybe the world hasn’t changed so much as it has been exposed, uncovered, made plain, laid bare.  Maybe the evolutionary outcomes haven’t been given due attention because we thought we had it all controlled. We did.t account for a God who could be seen to be ambiguous, uncertain, and co-creative. Maybe we were blind to the freedom we actually have or the responsibilities that are ours before, and the time has now come to see.

To see what, exactly?  That we are fragile.  That we are one — interdependent and interconnected.  That our daily choices can have life-and-death consequences for other people and our planet.  Maybe we have been able to project sin and responsibility away onto someone else. And maybe we have forgotten that unselfish love is risky, inconvenient, and essential.  That so much more is at stake in our spiritual lives than our personal safety and comfort and having got it right for me.  Maybe we are supposed to be people of the Cross, long enough to see that we are also people of the Resurrection.

Our Gospel story for this fourth week of Lent is about costly seeing.   Debie Thomas an American facing the changes in America reminded me of a poem I used in my book. “The Place Where We Are Right,” by Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, In my book I used it to challenge the place that orthodoxies have in life. They can lead to a sense of entitlement, privilege and superiority and power over others. They foster communities that are insular, isolated, and exclusive. Debie Thomas puts this simply as being right is a place challenged by the heart of the Gospel’s message:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

In our text from John’s Gospel, Jesus heals a “ruined” man on the Sabbath, a man who has been blind since birth.  When Jesus sees him, he kneels down, spits on the ground, makes a muddy paste with his saliva, rubs the paste on the man’s eyes, and instructs him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam.  When the man obeys, his sight is restored.

Traditionally this is a miracle story, but the Gospel writer doesn’t spend too long on the healing itself.  The focus of the lectionary is rather on the religious community’s response, both to the man’s blindness, and to his restored sight.  It is in this response that Amichai’s poem resonates, speaking powerfully to the challenges of our own time and place.  “From the place where we are right,” the poet says, “flowers will never grow in the spring.”  In other words, one of the most barren and desolate places we can occupy as Christians is a place of smugness.  Of rightness.  Of certainty.  The more convinced we are that we have full insight, comprehension, and knowledge, the less we will see and experience what we name God. Here is my claim for a God that is ‘Almost’ not yet complete, not yet here but insistent, coming, becoming, immanent.

Even before Jesus heals the blind man, the disciples assume that his blindness is his own fault.  So they ask Jesus who has sinned and incurred God’s displeasure — the man himself, or his parents.  But Jesus rejects the entire premise of their question.  There is no relationship between the man’s condition and his sinfulness, Jesus says.  God does not make people sick in order to punish them for wrongdoing.  To step away from our brother or sister’s suffering because we assume it’s divinely ordained, is not righteous.  It’s reprehensible.

In the story John tells, Jesus sees the blind man — a man whom no one else really sees. In the eyes of his peers, the man is contaminated, burdensome, and expendable.  In his community’s calculus of human worth, the blind man barely registers — he’s not a human being; he’s Blindness.  The condition itself, with all of its accumulated meanings.  Which is why, when the man’s sight is restored by Jesus, his own townspeople — the people he has lived and worshipped with for years — don’t recognize him.  They don’t know how to see him without his disability.  To do so would be to recognize a common humanity, a bond, a kinship.  And that would be intolerable.    One could see how damaging this would be, Gosh a woman could even would be a partner in marriage as apposed to a mans wife, a vehicle for his child, a chattel of his household.

So, of course, when the man shows up healed and whole, the community rallies to discredit him.  To restore order, re-establish the social hierarchy, and reinforce the status quo.

But why?  Why does the community feel such an urgent need to silence the healed man?  We know this. We know the core reason is fear.  A fear so primal and so deep, it drives away all compassion, all empathy, all tenderness, all sense of kinship.  If the man’s blindness isn’t a punishment for sin, then what does that mean about how the world works?  Anyone might get sick, or suffer from a disability, or face years of undeserved pain and suffering for no discernible reason whatsoever.  That wouldn’t be fair — would it?  That would be a version of reality the good religious folks can’t control.  A terrifying, destabilizing version.  Who among us can bear to surrender the illusion of control?

Not only does the community’s legalistic approach to faith prevent them from seeing the healed man; it also prevents them from seeing God’s love and power at work in their midst.  No one in the story rejoices when the man is healed.  No one – not even the man’s parents — expresses joy, or wonder, or gratitude, or awe.   No one says, “I am so happy for you!” or asks, “What is it like to see for the first time?  Does the sunlight hurt your eyes?  What are you excited to look at first?”

Instead, the community responds with contempt, its need to preserve its own sense of righteousness more important than celebrating a fellow human being’s restoration to life.  “The place where we are right,” the poem says, is “hard and trampled like a yard.”  Hard and cynical.  Hard and suspicious.  Hard and stingy.

This suggests that vulnerability, softness, curiosity, and openness are essential to real seeing.  A challenge in the face of the Cornid Virus is it not? The Gospels tell us that Jesus’s true identity eludes just about everyone until after his Resurrection.  Even his disciples struggle to understand who and what their Teacher is.   Most of the people who encounter Jesus are too busy seeing what they want to see — a magician, a heretic, a political and military leader, a carpenter’s son, a wise man, a phony, a clerical threat — to notice what the blind man, free of all such filters, discerns by the end of the story.  The blind man alone sees Jesus and calls him, “Lord.”

We might say, then, that this is one of the rare and beautiful moments in the Gospels when Jesus himself is truly seen.  The blind man sees Jesus as wholly and purely as Jesus sees him; the gaze and the recognition in this story are mutual.  Because the healed man has no preconceptions, because the spiritual ground he stands on is soft and supple, he is able to see God as God is.  “Doubts and loves dig up the world, like a mole, like a plow.”  The ‘Almost’ allows the whispers of the divine Spirit to bring forth new life.

Whether we want to or not over the coming weeks, we will face a choice — the choice to see or to turn away.  Will we allow the ground we stand on to remain pliable, or will we harden our stance and refuse to grow and change?

Will we be flexible in the ways we extend love across distances, or will we hunker down in fear and suspicion?  The question is will we dare to be the Church in new ways, even as we practice quarantines and social distancing — or will we forget that we are one body, connected and interdependent, incomplete without each other?  Will we have eyes to see God in our neighbours, regardless of whether they are sick or healthy, insured or uninsured, citizen or foreigner, protected or vulnerable?  Will we be brave enough to look our own vulnerability — our own mortality — in the eye, and trust that our God is with us even in the valley of the shadow of death?  Or will we yield to cynicism, panic, and despair?

Maybe we can take a lift out of our text and be in awe of the trust the healed man has in Jesus by the end of this week’s Gospel story — a trust deep enough to enable him to bear honest, radical witness to his experience, even at the risk of censure and excommunication from his religious community.  In shedding his identity as “the man blind from birth,” the healed man becomes a disciple, a traveler, a pilgrim.  He commits himself without looking back, straining forward instead of clinging to what others tell him is right and true.  He is, in the truest sense, born again.

So maybe during this time we are entering we too, can confess our blindness and receive sight.  May we can also find praise for the one who kneels in the dirt and gets his hands dirty in order to heal us.   May we also soften and prepare the ground we stand on, so that when new life appears in whatever surprising guise ‘Almost’ chooses, we will embrace, cherish, celebrate, and share the good news, too. Amen.

‘A Transforming God’

Posted: March 17, 2020 in Uncategorized

John 4: 5 – 42

‘A Transforming God’

 Jesus arrives at the Samaritan town called Sychar. This town is near the land that Jacob gave to his son Joseph and Jacob’s well is there. Jesus arrives and he is tired by the journey. The first thing he does is to sit down by the well. We are told it is about noon when the Samaritan woman comes to draw water, and Jesus says to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ The Samaritan woman replies and says, ‘What?  You are a Jew and you ask me, a Samaritan, for a drink?’

Jesus replies to her saying: ‘If you only knew what God is offering and who it is that is saying to you: Give me a drink, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman doesn’t back down at this and says: ‘You have no bucket’, ‘and the well is deep: how could you get this living water? Are you greater than our ancestors Leah, Rachel and Jacob who gave us this well and drank from it with their descendants and flocks?’

Jesus replies: ‘Whoever drinks this water will get thirsty again; but anyone who drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty again: the water that I shall give will turn into a spring inside, welling up to eternal life.’

The woman said, ‘Give me some of that water, so that I may never have to come here again to draw water…’ ‘I see you are a prophet.’ said the woman. ‘Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, while you say that Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.’

Jesus said: ‘Believe me, woman; the hour is coming when you will worship God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. ‘You worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know; for salvation comes from the Jews.  But the hour will come – in fact it is here already – when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshipper our God wants. ‘God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.’

The woman says to Jesus, ‘I know the Messiah is coming – the Anointed One –  who will tell us everything.’

‘I who am speaking to you,’ said Jesus ‘I am that one.’

The dialogue ends and John summarizes and says that many Samaritans of the town had believed in Jesus on the strength of the woman’s testimony when she said, ‘He told me all I have ever done,’ so when the Samaritans came up to Jesus, they begged him to stay with them. Jesus stayed for two days, and when he spoke to them many more came to believe; and they said to the woman, ‘Now we no longer believe because of what you told us; we have heard this one ourselves who we know really is the saviour of the world.’

For the purposes of our approach to this text we note that just across the ditch we have one of the driest continents on earth, a place where water is a precious commodity.  In fact, it could be said that water is everything. Water is life… For Australians the logical connections with our Baptism liturgies that focus on the active, dynamic symbol of water ring true whereas it might be harder for us New Zealanders because as a country we are blessed with the gift of water from both the land and the air. The way we use water is more likely to be to add benefit to our land management and or to exchange it for money.

So in returning to our text we need to remember that in our story from the storyteller/theologian we call John the images and practices  are from a land of deserts, and if we can remember for just a moment that we are in the middle of the season called Lent, which begins with stories around a time in the desert, a place of little to no water,we might find today’s story an interesting juxtaposition.

So, we might come to this story with the context in mind This is a land where droughts are just around the corner and some rivers or creeks might only flow once a year.
And in some cases only flow a few times in a century. Numerous travelers may have perished for lack of water. Like Australia no water, no life. Water and life go together. To survive in the desert “is to know the sources of moisture and how to tap into the water-table” (Ferguson & Allen 1990:37).  A dry, hot place.  While Palestine may not have been as arid or huge or perhaps even a place that had to be ‘conquered’ to get anywhere it was a challenge.

On the other hand, the people who lived there would have treasured and memorized every watering hole. From one generation to the next, they would have told stories and sang songs which were like maps of their territory. And in these stories and songs the precious water holes would have been prominent. They treasured water. It meant life.

Taking a quick look at the collection of stories told by John, we can see that he tells several stories using water. Water turned into wine. Water to wash disciple’s feet. Jesus walking on water. And of course, there are all those exciting fishing stories.

Today’s story of a Samaritan woman Jesus met at a well, belongs in this collection. In this story John has Jesus asking the woman for a drink of water. Indeed, the conversation between the two, is the longest of any Jesus is supposed to have had with anyone.

Traditionally, the substance of the story is said to be about ‘a very liberal’ Jesus talking to an immoral Samaritan ‘outsider’ woman. And, so this line of interpretation goes, Jesus issues a call to her to: “clean up her act, get right with God, and join the Jesus team to preach God’s word of forgiveness and love”.  (McKinney. PST Web site, 2008)

 But as many scholars have pointed out, this and similar interpretations are an awful misreading of an important story. Amy-Jill Levine, the Jewish new testament scholar: reminds us that the woman is not an outsider in the story.  It is the Jewish Jesus who is the outsider. The woman is a Samaritan, and they are on her home turf. Secondly, we see that the woman’s visit to the well is in the daylight, and this is well recognized storyteller’s device about seeing the ‘light’, rather than an indication of social ostracism.

And thirdly there is absolutely nothing that indicates she is ‘sinful’ or sexually promiscuous. “The… woman says Levine might be unfortunate, but she is not sinful…  The only ones who condemn her are the biblical scholars.” (Levine 2006:137)

Another person who helps us appreciate this story beyond the traditional, is a bloke called Rick Marshall. He takes John’s image of a well and the rising up of the water, and says: “Who knows where (the water) comes from.  But we drink it and go on living our lives…  That’s how the creative, transforming power of God is:  Who knows where it comes from, but it sustains us and we go on living our lives.  We are called to trust the ‘Living Water’.” (Rick Marshall. P&F Web site, 2005)

It sustains us and we go on living our lives. “We experience the creating, transforming power of God routinely, quietly moving through life, our life.” (Rick Marshall. P&F Web site, 2005) The place of water in the whole of life. Life giving out of and within the arid wanting places in life.

What if this is also what the storyteller, we call John had in mind, when he told the story of Jesus asking a woman for a drink. The Jewish outsider in the land of the Samaritan and I have claimed earlier that Samaritans are Jewish but maybe not Judean Jews. The Judean Jew in the land of a Samaritan at noon asking her for a drink is symbolic of the asking for enlightenment and he is reminded by the woman’s response that he is asking for help as a stranger when their history is a common history. John is perhaps suggesting here that the difference between man and woman, Samaritan and Judean is not the issue here but rather the place that water has in everyday life is. We remember also that Jesus was from Galilee in the northern part of the area that could be an intermixing of the two kingdoms after the two become one. There is a common history here. We might also remember that John is some decades later telling the story of the impact Jesus had on Jewish life, identifying this with the place of water in normal everyday Jewish life.

As you will appreciate with pending retirement coming I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and what I thought I have been doing and whether or not it has been of any value. Anthony de Mello tells a story that I think reflects what I have been trying to do.

The preacher was a great success.  Thousands came to learn wisdom from him.
When they got the wisdom, they stopped coming to his sermons. And the preacher smiled contentedly. For he had attained his purpose, which was to bow out as quickly as possible
for he knew in his heart that he was only offering people what they already had,
if they would only open their eyes and see.  (Anthony de Mello)

Life giving water that flows upon, into and over and beyond one’s life is like the transforming present-ness of the Serendipitous Creativity God. It comes upon us unexpectedly as something too common to take note of, and it comes with both a coolness and warmth depending upon the need and it sustains us as we live our lives, pervasively cleansing and flushing and also quietly moving through life, our life. At once a vehicle for our resurrection, or the five yearly replacing of every cell, and it’s purpose is that we might live life to the full, love wastefully, and be all that we can be.  (John S Spong)

I think I like that story better than the focus of the things that divide us. Promiscuous Samaritan outsider who is admonished by Jesus and told what to believe as opposed to the metaphor of the life-giving water of the everyday that is symbol of the transformation of life that Jesus offers. Amen.

de Mello, A. The Song of the Bird. 10th edition. India: Anand. Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1988.
Ferguson, G. & R. Allen. ”Thirsty in a Dry Land: The Migrant Experience of the Absence of God” in G. Ferguson & J. Chryssavgis. The Desert is Alive. Melbourne. JBCE, 1990.
Levine, A-J. The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York. HarperOne, 2006.

‘Nicodemus:  Protecting the Curious’

The streets were dark and deserted. Not a soul can be seen.  At least he hoped not. There was one lonely figure, jumping from shadow to shadow, never using the major streets of the town, travelling only in out of the way places, hoping not to be seen. So, what’s he doing, jumping from shadow to shadow in the middle of the night? He is going to pay a call on Jesus who is staying with friends. He doesn’t want anybody to know that he, one of the leaders of the community, would be going to see this itinerant preacher.

Jesus is roused from his sleep, we presume, and meets Nicodemus.

The image is of strangers in the night… and one of the most common interpretations is that there is something wrong with this guy. He appears to be reduced to the possibility of being a narrow-minded, left brain, literalist, His so-called ‘illicit’ night-time liaison
is often interpreted as skulking about under the cover of darkness.
Or as Jack Shea suggests, he is “stranded in twilight.  He is not mesmerized by the signs… He wants a teaching, not another miracle.  But before he can receive a teaching from God, he must receive a teaching about himself”.  (Shea 1998:83-84)

Here is the suggestion that Nicodemus is at first and foremost a curious person. He is curious about this guy Jesus and here I want to suggest that this is the challenge for us. Nicodemus was a Jewish Rabbi curious about a fellow Jewish Rabbi and this suggests there is a need for us to be curious about who Jesus is for us who call ourselves Christians. Being curious is not reserved to those outside the faith but also to those within the faith. We are to question our own claims, assumptions. And doing this is part of a faith journey and not something that will destroy our faith. Our personal theological journey is always on the move.

Let’s take another look at Nicodemus before I try to give shape and form to what I think the challenge is for us in New Zealand today. And let’s do that through the eyes
of both some Jewish and Christian new testament scholars.

Let’s begin by looking at the bible and acknowledging that this is a story composed by the storyteller we call John. We note that we only ever hear of Nicodemus in John’s writings and that much debate centres around this story and the storytellers use of this story at this point in the gospel.

We note also and this is the crux of today’s discussion. Traditional Christianity
appears to have used a Jewish Jesus and a Jewish Nicodemus to support its own ends as opposed to remaining true to history. This is not a new claim nor is it a criticism. It is rather an acknowledgement that this was the norm when passing on the stories. It was permissible and even expected that they be retold in ways that fitted the current culture and world views. The gospel needs to make sense to now and this means that there are huge dangers in literalizing and fixing the story in a time and place. We talk today about the gospel being irrelevant and part of that is the misguided use of text that supports slavery to encourage people to abandon it.

It seems obvious to say that Jesus was a Jew. A first century Galilean Jew whose prayers were Jewish. His thinking was Jewish. His ‘voice’ is thick with Jewish history – personal and cultural. And we miss that when we follow traditional Christianity and convert him into a proto-Christian. We deny also that much ‘Greekness’ has impinged his Jewishness.

Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, has said that: “With the stress in some churches on Jesus’s divine sonship, the cross, the resurrection, and the redemptory role of saving humanity from sin and death, Jesus’s historical connection to Judaism gets lost along with his very Jewish message of the kingdom of heaven”.  (Levine 2006:19)

Levine than goes on to point out that in popular Christian imagination Jesus is presented as: against the Law, against the Temple, against the people of Israel, as the only one to speak with women, as the only one who teaches non-violent responses to oppression, as the only one who cares about the ‘poor and marginalized’.

“It is No wonder that, even today Jesus somehow looks ‘different’ from the ‘Jews’: in the movies and artistic renderings, he’s blond and they are swarthy; he is cute and buff and they need rhinoplasty and Pilates”. (Levine 2006:19)

This ‘divorcing’ of Jesus from Judaism in biblical stories and traditional Christian theology is neither honest nor helpful. Especially when we hear John’s story about Nicodemus.

So, in light of these comments, we might consider some suggestions about the Jewish Rabbi we call Nicodemus, and his encounter with the Galilean sage we call Jesus.

We might hear that Nicodemus was a pilgrim.  A sincere religious seeker. A student who uses his precious study time to “expand his search beyond the standard texts… and distractions of the day”.   ( 2008)

We might also hear Nicodemus, as a member of the religious institution of his day,
as a mover of theological boundaries. Willing to risk leaving behind past ‘truths’ as he and his colleagues have been taught them and known them, in order to explore something new. So instead of questioning his motives, we might see that Nicodemus’ motives need to be recognised as both open and honourable. This says that for Nicodemus, as for us, he must be allowed to respond to ‘the new’ or ‘the different’ in a variety of ways
rather than prescribing a single way of thinking or believing.

How else can he and we discover that our lives and our thinking might be different?
Not just by re-shaping, but by re-thinking and reconstructing!

Now I want to show you two videos that I think ask us to be curious like Nicodemus and to value the mode of critique, challenge of the status quo and perhaps more importantly ask the hard questions about Nicodemus and of our traditions, creedal assumptions and doctrinal claims.

Video Making Sense Part 1 Iain McGilchrist

I think that challenge of that clip is to ask ourselves what it says about our need to be pilgrims as opposed to passive consumers. If Iain is correct then we have to ask if something about our belief system or our slavish compliance with tradition needs to be challenged.

The other thing we might ask ourselves is what the obsession or imbalance toward the so-called left-brain orientation in the western world is pushing aside? What is that which we are missing out on? Our next video I think suggests that one of the outcomes of this left-hemisphere bias is creating a mindlessness, an environment where we no longer value a huge part of what it means to be human.

Video Making sense Part 2 Ellen Langer

The story of Nicodemus is an invitation to be curious about life. To rethink and re-construct assumptions. Not just to conduct an autopsy on our past, but to look to the future through the eyes of new possibility. To be born anew, metaphorically! To consider how life might be different! Nicodemus then could be seen as the Patron saint of the curious.  ( 2008)

The message is to protect the curious in each of us. Put yourself in the company of earnest and compassionate teachers, of whatever faith tradition, whose  openness defines a new community of hope and grace and  have the courage to dare to know this serendipitous creativity God, with all your heart and mind, with courage and strength because traditional theological boundaries have been and are being pushed…

And pushed again, with honesty and originality, wisdom and imagination. Amen.

Lee, B. L. The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus. Retrieving the Jewish Origins of Christianity.  Mahwah. Paulist Press, 1988.
Levine, A. The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York. Harper One, 2006.
Lowry, E. L. “Strangers in the Night” in W. B Robinson (ed). Journey Toward Narrative Preaching. New York. Pilgrim Press, 1990.
Shea, J. Gospel Light. Jesus Stories for Spiritual Consciousness. New York. A Crossroad Book, 1998.