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Nicodemus in a time of plague

Now, reading through the sermons from a few weeks ago, I’m struck that I started mentioning the pandemic earlier in my sermons than I remembered. In this sermon, I was mostly responding to the stock market crash–but there was that whole “will we all be killed by the common cup?” controversy that was swirling back then. (We were all simple, naive creatures, I tell you. Handwringing about the chalice before all grabbing the same piece of cheese at coffee hour.)

Oddly, that’s basically what this sermon is about. That, and Ben and my’s love of a quirky British docu-series! Oh, and Jesus.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

March 8, 2020

Lent 2, Year A

Genesis 12, John 3

Ben and I like to watch a series of BBC documentaries called Hidden Killers.  It covers various historical time periods, and goes into scientific detail about the various unexpected things that was killing off the population.  Stairs, for example, as Ben and I are fond of reminding each other, were a Hidden Killer of the Edwardian home.  (Because there was a massive building boom in London, houses were now multi-story, and building codes hadn’t standardized stairs yet.  So people were falling down all over the place.)

But also, things like early electrical appliances (bare wires!  Entirely unregulated!), early gas lighting (had a tendency to seep into people’s houses while they slept because gas utilities were also not standardized.) Even wallpaper (it had arsenic in it.  That ended poorly.)  If you watch one episode, you get the sneaking suspicion that everything is slowly killing us, and one day we will be the subject of a slyly knowing documentary as future generations rue our cluelessness.  Hidden killers are everywhere.

Nicodemus would have been very on board with this idea.  He comes to Jesus in the dead of night, because he’s afraid.  He’s afraid for his position, for his reputation.  So rather than ask Jesus questions in public, like we see other Pharisees do, he approaches at night. 

Rabbi, he tells him, we know you clearly are in good with God, because we’ve seen what you can do.  He wants to know what that’s like—what is that experience of being close to God is like.  

Jesus tells him that a person can only enter God’s reign if they are born again.  Or born from above.  This Greek word can be translated both ways. Jesus is making a funny pun here.  Which is why Nicodemus gets confused and asked about literal birth.  

(As a sidenote:  In John’s gospel, Jesus is something of a frustrated comedian.  He makes these puns a lot, and the crowds always take him literally. Must have driven the poor guy nuts.)

Anyway,  Jesus tells Nicodemus that a person has to be born again/from above.  They have to be connected in some deep, material way to the realm of God.  Jesus compares it to the wind—it comes, it goes, and you can’t really define it or see it, but you know it when you see it.  It’s like that, basically.

We aren’t told what Nicodemus is afraid of exactly. Context can provide a lot of options.  It was a dangerous time—and not just because no one knew about germ theory or antibiotics yet.  The Roman Empire didn’t like threats to its power, especially not from religious middle managers like Nicodemus evidently was.  And they didn’t just arrest you if they decided they didn’t like you—they arrested you, your family, and probably every able-bodied man in your village.  Just to prove the point.  Jesus lived during a time of unease and danger, with revolutions and revolts coming fast and furious.  Many religious leaders, like political leaders in tumultuous times throughout history, were all the more cautious to protect what little power they had, because the alternative looked so awful.

So, Nicodemus is correct to be afraid, here.  That’s a lot of terrifying stuff, even in theory.  And it’s notable that Jesus doesn’t chew him out for scheduling a middle-of-the-night interview.  He meets him in the middle of his fearful place, and talks with him.  Assures him.  “Indeed, God sent the son into the world not to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  

We aren’t told if this convinces Nicodemus.  Or if Jesus’ gentle jibe about teachers of Israel not understanding simple things convinces him.  But we do see him later; he shows up after Jesus’ death to take custody of Jesus’ body for burial.  So he does clearly resonate with something Jesus says.  Something got through.

It’s an understatement to say that we are living in an anxious time.  If you weren’t having palpitations while watching the news before this virus started spreading, then I’m guessing you do now.  It’s a sobering thing to hear yourself calmly discuss the prospect of avoiding other people for weeks on end, stockpiling food, and whether our healthcare system is up to this.  

There is a lot, right now, to be afraid of.  A lot of very real things.  Just as Nicodemus had.  The stock market is tumbling.  The economy is shuddering.  Those numbers of sick people on the news keep going up.  Our leaders seem at times overwhelmed or confused. 

But here’s what I know.  I know that fear is no barrier to Jesus.  Jesus met Nicodemus in his fearful night, and he will meet us here as well.  So we’re afraid.  So things look dim right now.  That’s ok. We are allowed to be afraid.

But our fear cannot stop us from following Jesus.  We are still called to be the church, still called to be the Body of Christ in the world.  Nicodemus was afraid, but he still sought Jesus out, and still took care of him after his death on the cross.  Our mission is the same as it has ever been, and in fact, it is even more important now.  

This anxious world needs us to be a place of calm and respite.  The world out there needs us to quietly embody Jesus’ way of love and self-giving, even as so many give into scarcity and isolation.  The world needs us to do now what the church has always done in times of trial: care for the sick, care for the needy, and steadfastly shine the light of God into a shadowy place.  

At St. John’s, we’ve been here for nearly 200 years.  In this place, we will continue to hold services to worship God, and we will continue to help Loaves and Fishes feed the people who need food.  The shape, and the details of how that happens might change, but that part won’t, because that is who we are and that is what we do.  And when we do what God calls us to, then Jesus meets us there.  Even if it is the dead of the scariest night.

Amen.

About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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