Within this morning’s scripture readings come at least two important messages, one from God, and one from Jesus. And though our understanding of the Trinity might cause us to argue that Jesus and God are one in the same, their messages come from different times, and from different aspects of the Trinity.
In our Hebrew scripture passage, we have the story of Abraham, following God’s instructions to the letter, and very nearly killing Isaac as a sacrifice to God. But God stops him at the last moment, and instead provides a ram for a sacrifice.
Our gospel lesson has Jesus trying to describe his relationship with the one who sent him, and his efforts for this passage conclude with his telling us that even offering a cup of cold water to the little ones will be rewarded.
In one passage, God is telling us that child sacrifice is no longer needed in order to show faithfulness. Eventually, God will tell us that animal sacrifices are no longer necessary either. Isn’t it interesting to see God, the one we think is unchangeable and all-knowing, change God’s mind over time?
And thank God for Abraham and Isaac, that God decided that child sacrifices were no longer necessary. We wouldn’t have Christianity if we didn’t have Isaac, and this part of the Abrahamic story.
So our first passage reminds us of what God doesn’t need from us. The second passage helps us understand what Jesus expects from us: simple hospitality and empathy. Jesus tells us that simply offering a cup of cold water to the littlest among us will be rewarded by God. Now, if you ask me, this seems like a very low bar…maybe a starting point. But don’t you think we could do better than cups of cold water?
Of course we can! We can offer bread, and soup, and protein from our collection of food offerings on communion Sundays! We can offer free reading materials for those who stop in to our offices, a gentle and patient ear for those who need comforting.
Think how wide the possibilities are if the bookends we have to work with are: moving on from the ancient ways of honoring God, and offering cold cups of water to thirsty children. And, it seems to me that there are a lot of other ways we could demonstrate our love of God and our love of neighbor beyond offering cups of cold water.
And in the listing of those things, we will find our purpose, our goal, the things that will define what it means to be One Worshiping Community. What we won’t find in scripture is the instruction to serve ourselves. What we won’t find in God’s Holy Word written in the Bible, is a commandment to serve only ourselves to keep our heads above water as a faith community. No, it is becoming more and more clear to me over time that congregations like ours will need to become focused on others, focused on our neighbors, on serving those in need around us in order to survive.
And most of the writing done on vitality in modern congregations stress that unless a congregation turns it focus outward, toward the world in need, it runs the risk of experiencing decline.
So what are we to do? Start setting up water stands outside our building on hot days, and offer cold cups of water to the thirsty? In a word, yes! But the whole cold cup of water is, in fact, a metaphor, a metaphor for whatever we can do for whomever appears to us in need.
We no longer need to sacrifice children to the Creator God, and offering cold water is an easy way to show God we are faithful, and that we love God. So somewhere in between the two actions will be our niche, our connection to the world outside these four walls, our connection to our neighbors in need. It won’t be enough to ensure that we have a worship service, or communion, or hospital visits, or pastoral counseling, or even Bible study, because those things just serve our own needs…we will need to work hard at figuring out what our community needs, what we can realistically offer the community, and then find a way to actually do it! If we build on some of our strengths, if our foundation is based on the things we can do well, then our actions will have integrity and spirit.
And by the way, while our congregation is working on ways to stay connected to our community, while we are working on ways to be relevant to the people around us, there is some important work we can be doing inside our own spirits: who among us couldn’t benefit from exercising our empathy muscles?
The current state of the world is filled with cynicism, antagonism, blame, and disrespect. And so while we spend some energy contemplating how God wants us to act in the midst of the community in which we live, we each could probably stand to examine our own relationship to the cold and uncaring world we have enabled. We can find ways to reverse the disrespectful way in which our neighbors treat each other by living our faith even in the way we treat others. Doesn’t Jesus call us to be the opposite of what the world has become?
For my other job, the one serving the NY Conference of the United Church of Christ, I manage the mail that comes in: checks to be deposited, requests from pastors and churches for assistance, invoices for all sorts of things. And all that mail comes to a Post Office Box in Solvay, on Milton Avenue.
Very often, as I am entering the building, I hold the door for someone either going in, or going out. What’s sad is that nearly every person for whom I hold the door looks surprised. As if they can’t figure out why on earth would someone hold the door for them? A simple gesture of kindness these days catches most people off-guard, just for a second, and then they smile and say thank you. How cool would it be if they left the Post Office and then held the door for someone later in the day? Or committed some other act of kindness for someone else?
If each one of us committed to finding one way to show empathy or respect or kindness to a person we don’t know, or have judged in the past, if we vowed to show patience to one person we have gotten frustrated with in the past, we would be making big strides in changing the way we use our empathy muscles. To me, it’s so obvious, Jesus was the epitome of empathy. So, as followers of Jesus, why can’t we show empathy to those around us who likely receive very little? It’s almost as easy as pouring a cup of cold water, and we don’t even need any cups, or any water!
So while we continue to need to be the church, to find ways to keep our budgets balance, our doors open, our worship happening, to keep serving communion, to doing the things we do as a congregation, I believe one of the keys to our staying alive and thriving in the future is a transformation: from focusing on survival to focusing on using our resources to serve our neighbors in need. Finding one way to express empathy or kindness toward another person is just the first step in a journey toward loving our neighbors. Let’s try that for a while. Amen.
The contrast between our Hebrew Scripture and our Gospel Lesson couldn’t be more stark: Abram’s response to God’s call was to immediately obey. And, we know from other stories, that Abram, or Abraham, obeyed God’s call time and time again throughout his long life. He was ready to sacrifice his son for God, if that’s what it was going to take to be obedient.
Nicodemus, on the other hand, has a few questions! Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a church leader, and, he was taking a great risk going to Jesus to ask questions. It would not have been good for him to be seen with Jesus, but something compelled him to go and speak with him.
Other stories about Nicodemus have him defending Jesus after he is arrested, pointing out that Jesus should have a fair trial, and finally, Nicodemus shows up after Jesus has died to help with his burial.
Both faith responses, absolute obedience, and healthy skepticism are represented many times in the bible, and in real life.
At one time or another, we’ve all received a call from God. We may not have heard it, it may have been a still, small voice, or it may have been a booming commandment. But as God’s children, God calls us to live faithful lives, to love our neighbors, even love our enemies.
Looking inside ourselves for a moment, how have we responded to God’s call? More like Abraham, or more like Nicodemus? I’d hazard a guess that the majority of us are more like Nicodemus! Drawn to God and to Jesus, but needing some logical answers before we commit.
I believe very strongly that while there is an obvious difference between Abraham and Nicodemus in their responses, both are acceptable to God. Of course, God would appreciate all of us acting as quickly and as faithfully as Abraham, but I also believe that God patiently tolerates our questions. God is a big enough God to handle any question we could come up with!
Jesus wasn’t afraid of Nicodemus and his questions, he wasn’t even annoyed. Given enough time, the Nicodemus in all of us will come to the conclusion that obedience to God and God’s son is the way to go. Nicodemus had heard enough from Jesus to take a public stand after Jesus was arrested, and he was strong enough in his faith to publicly assist with our Savior’s burial.
Given that Lent is a journey, the challenge I have for you today is this: I’d like us to reflect on whether we are more like Abraham, or more like Nicodemus in our responses to God’s call. Over the course of our lives, have we responded with obedience, or with questions?
If you have examples of how you are like Abraham, what did you do in obedience to God’s call? If more like Nicodemus, what questions did you need to have answered before you were willing to act?
In my own life, having felt a call to ministry even as I was in high school, and at first I responded more like Jonah! I went in the other direction! I felt very strongly that my ministry was serving the developmentally or intellectually disabled, and so I set my course on learning psychology, on getting jobs serving people with disabilities.
But God’s call was persistent. And there came a time when I couldn’t hide from it any more. The call to go to seminary was strong. Do you think I simply packed everything up and showed up on the front steps of Colgate Rochester Divinity School? Nope! I asked questions! A lot of questions! Betsy and I attended a conference for potential seminarians, where we could ask students and professors and administrators all the questions we wanted, to our hearts content. Of course, everybody there was prepared to answer questions about how I could go to seminary. Nobody there was prepared to answer questions about if I should go to seminary!
I was expected to find that answer on my own. That was a question better addressed to God. The God that expects obedience, but patiently tolerates pesky questions!
While the bible tells of people like Abraham, those who hear God’s call clearly and immediately obey, most of us will hedge toward Nicodemus in our responses. As modern children of God, we have more information, more knowledge about the sacred, and about life in general, than people like Abraham ever did. But some will argue that in the end, the only thing that matters is whether we faithfully obey. The path we take is less important than our ultimate response.
The faith world needs Abrahams, Naomis, Esthers, Jonah’s, Isaiahs, Elijahs. All with their own way of answering God’s call. And the faith world needs us, reflecting on how God is calling us to act today, and tomorrow. It doesn’t matter if we are 4, or 94, the God that is Still Speaking speaks to us, calls to us, beckons us.
And I want to reassure you that it’s OK to ask questions! It’s not considered unfaithful, disrespectful, or impertinent. Of course, like Nicodemus, we may not get the answers we are hoping for, we may not understand the answers, it may not help us make decisions about our obedience, but it’s OK to ask questions!
In the Spiritual Direction leadership program I’m in, we’re learning to ask questions about the possible fruits of an action: ‘what would happen if I did this’, or, ‘what benefits will occur if I do that’. ‘What would God want me to do, and what are the possible fruits of that action?’ ‘Who gains from my actions, me, or someone else?’
Human-kind has spent the last 2 millennia developing its intellect, its logic, its collective understanding of the universe. And the more complex the thinking about the universe, the harder it is to respond to God like Abraham. But if we’re going to ask questions like Nicodemus, at the very least we might want to ask the right questions!
I take it on faith that God calls to each of us, in some unique and special way. Do we hear it? Every once in a while, we might hear something, maybe a faint whisper. But our faith tells us that the call is there, whether we hear it or not. The first step is to start listening. Nobody can say, I’m too old, or I’m too young, or I’m a lost cause….God reaches out to all of us, calls to all of us, loves all of us…
And God aches for our responses. Imagine a world where God’s faithful children put extra effort into listening for what God is saying: we can make that world happen simply by listening for God in our own lives. And the beauty is that we can ask all the questions we want! The story of Jesus needed an Abraham at the beginning and the story of Jesus needed a Nicodemus at the end.
The key to hearing God’s call, and being able to respond faithfully is no surprise: it’s prayer. It’s being in prayer, not just on Sunday mornings when we gather to worship our God, but being in prayer in the morning, or during the day, or in the evening, or whenever we have a quick moment. And prayer often takes the form of a question, doesn’t it?
Asking God questions is really just praying! Who knew? Asking the questions we need to ask is really just prayer. And the more we ask, the more we pray. And the more we ask, the better the likelihood that we will hear an answer. An answer from the patient God who aches to be in contact with us!
I don’t believe God interacts with us like God did with Abraham: very few of us will ever be asked to do the things God asked Abraham to do. But many of us will find ourselves asking questions like Nicodemus did. Many of us will feel like we need to be private, discreet about our questions. We may feel insecure, or unfaithful. Let’s not worry about that. Because if we’re asking questions, it means we’re engaging our faith, engaging our God. And that is a good thing!
We can learn a lot from the persistence and temerity Nicodemus showed. And while we can’t know the details of what he learned from his questions, his behavior tells us that he was convinced enough to act faithfully, in public, at great risk for his safety and his standing in the community. He asked the questions, he engaged the sacred, and he acted.
I pray we can do the same. Amen.
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