Sermon Text: John 3:1-17
You may have already recognized that the sermon title is taken from one of the greatest, most socially relevant, and downright funniest movies ever made: Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles.
An elderly woman in a small, Old West, all-white
town is greeted by the newly appointed black sheriff: “Good mornin’, ma’am! And
isn’t it a lovely mornin’?” Her racist and crude reply cannot be repeated from
Later, under the cover of night’s darkness so as
not to be seen, the old woman taps on a window behind the jail, apologizes for
her remark, and gives the sheriff an apple pie. Then, she politely imparts, “Of
course, you’ll have the good taste not to mention that I spoke to you.”
Social customs, family values, and religious
expectations often restrict natural curiosity; they often hinder the asking of
questions; and sometimes they threaten to punish with exclusion (or worse)
those among us who associate with “the wrong people.”
In John 3:1-17, we read about a man named
Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a scholar of the Scriptures. He is a teacher of the
Jewish faith and tradition. He is a Pharisee. He is a member of the Sanhedrin
(the Jewish ruling council).
Nicodemus, like the elderly woman in Blazing Saddles, visits Jesus quietly and under the cover of darkness. Whether or not he takes with him a freshly baked apple pie, we do not know.
Nicodemus could lose everything if he is seen talking with this heretical rabble-rouser named Jesus who is stirring up trouble among the common people. (John places this encounter just after Jesus has disrupted the moneymakers’ corrupt transactions in the temple.) Nicodemus, however, is intrigued with Jesus; he senses something; he can’t explain it. It’s a deep—very deep—tug within his soul.
And, much like our Lord still does today, rather
than giving Nicodemus all the answers to his questions, Jesus leaves him with
more questions. Jesus talks about being born of the Spirit. Jesus talks about
the wind blowing where it wills.
Nicodemus wants to believe, but his mind, his
knowledge, his experiences, and his tradition are unable to help him process
what Jesus is saying. It doesn’t compute. It’s like they’re speaking in two
different languages. Jesus did, though, have the good taste not to mention that
Nicodemus had spoken to him.
By reading further into John’s Gospel, we know
that Nicodemus returns to his day job, but something is different. A man who is
supposed to know all the answers, who is expected to understand and communicate
God’s message and teach God’s ways to the people . . . this man is left with
mysterious, nonsense ideas echoing in his head, in his heart, in his soul. He
is left to toss and turn in bed at night, losing sleep, as he wrestles with all
that Jesus said to him.
The message of John 3, of God’s all-encompassing
love for the entire world, is one that can get us into a lot of trouble. It
counters everything we hold dear in the little territorial groups that we form
in the name of God. It was a threat to the good, upright, religious folks of
whom Nicodemus was a part (which is why he approached Jesus at night). It is
why Jesus got into so much trouble.
Jesus lived out the scandalous truth of God’s
love for the world. In Jesus, God so loved a Samaritan woman—her ethnicity was
supposed to exclude her. In Jesus, God so loved a paralyzed man—his paralysis
was supposed to be a sign of God’s judgment for his sinful behavior. In Jesus,
God so loved a man born blind—his lack of sight was supposed to show the world
God’s curse for his sins or even the sins of his parents. Over and over and
over again, Jesus demonstrated God’s love, grace, mercy, and acceptance to those
who were, by the “proper” interpretations of the Law of Moses, supposed to be
far beyond God’s reach, even God’s concern.
Today, the social forces that prompted Nicodemus to find Jesus alone at night are still very much alive and well. They are still threatened by the Spirit of God blowing wherever it will, without their approval. They are still being offended that God dares to love the people they know God should not love, the people they are most certain God cannot love.
It is hard for all of us to comprehend the wideness of God’s mercy and the depth of God’s grace. Each of us finds it difficult to accept God’s forgiveness without boundaries, to accept God’s love without any strings attached. The greatest threat to our “sincerely held religious beliefs” is rooted in our favorite Bible verse: For God so loved the world—the whole entire world and everyone in it! (John 3:16)
Over the last several years, I have had encounters with curious students and others in the Starkville community: emails marked “private”; soft-spoken, whispered conversations; phone calls; meetings in quiet places. These individuals are like Nicodemus. They sense something, a tug from deep within. They want to know about our church that loves and accepts and is not threatened by our Muslim and Jewish neighbors. They want to know about our church that seeks to participate in racial justice and equality. And, more often than not, they want to know about our church that openly welcomes, affirms, and fully includes LGBTQ people.
I have been thanked many times
for UBC’s visible witness in our community. People tell me that UBC reflects
the heart of God, that God’s truly amazing love and boundless grace are evident
in our fellowship. And yet, for any number of social reasons, being associated with
our fellowship could get them in a lot of trouble. And, of course, I try to
have the good taste not to mention that they spoke to me.
This post originally
appeared in A
Rabbi & a Preacher Go to a Pride Parade: and Other Musings, Sermons, and