Rev. Canon Kathy Dunagan at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Bristol
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.
Joe told you last week that he chose to talk about Spinoza in spite of my advise not to. While that apparently turned out to be a good decision, what bothered me most was not that I was wrong, but that he pointed out our disagreement from the pulpit where I could not refute him. “I am here and she is there,” he said. Well, honey. Back at cha!
Today’s readings are about judgment and grace. It is not uncommon to thing of judgment and grace as two separate actions of God. In the old testament, God is often seen as wrathful and quick to judge God’s people though God always turns and grants grace and redemption, immediately. Or, as in today’s reading from Numbers, a remedy to the malady. We in turn can be very quick to judge each other, and ourselves but not so quick with grace, or our part, forgiveness. We are slow to forgive and slow to accept God’s grace and slow to enter into reconciliation. We try to go it alone and forget that Grace is God’s gift to us, not our creation, not ours to own, only ours to receive. As the author of the Epistle to the Ephesians put it, “. . . by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
The trick is in the reception of this gift. What we need to do better is in receiving this as a community of believers, not as a group of individuals.
Do you remember as a child taking a flashlight into a pitch dark night when all you could see was within a tiny circle around you as you walked? Maybe you did this on a camping trip, or at a summer camp. Do you remember such an experience? Maybe not.
Unlike Nicodemus, many of us have never really experienced true darkness. There is light pollution in our world. We are never really in the pitch black dark – so the metaphor is lost on us. The opportunity to truly experience our need for light through an experience of complete deprivation of it is also lost on us.
But if you do remember a time when you have experienced true pitch black darkness, then you may be able to imagine the experience of Nicodemus. Nicodemus was an educated, religious, and popular man who sought Jesus in the night and seems to have left that encounter scratching his head in confusion as he returned to the night in more darkness than when he arrived. Nicodemus doesn’t show up again in the Gospel narrative until he helps anoint the dead body of our Lord at the crucifixion. We do not know if he stuck around for the resurrection and ascension. But we did. We stuck around and still believe in and follow this resurrected Lord. And we understand that the death of Jesus cannot be separated from the re-suscitated and ascended Lord.
Biblical Scholars emphasize that Nicodemus came at night. Perhaps this was just because he was a busy man during the day, but scholars believe that John told the story this way because either Nicodemus was hiding for fear of being associated with Jesus and/or the darkness of night was once again the main metaphor of St. John’s version of the gospel. Nicodemus was worried about his reputation. Jesus is the Word become flesh, the light in the darkness of our world. What happens when these two meet? What happens to us when we encounter them in this story?
The challenge for us, and the likely reason this story is told during Lent, is to examine our own souls for the part of us that loves the darkness and holds on to our need for order and control. The challenge for us is to let go of our need for enlightenment and knowledge and follow instead the mystery of a Lord who seems to flip everything upside down and sometimes leaves us feeling confused. The challenge for us is to let go of the flashlight and learn to rely on the light of Christ when we go out into the darkness of the world.
I attended a training workshop once on self care for helping professionals in which the instructor did a lot of participatory activities. You know the kind of thing, where whoever is in charge has your attention and somewhat of a commitment from you at least in that you showed and then this leader says something like, “O.K. everybody, let’s form a circle, take off our shoes and get a partner”. I usually head for a bathroom break when I hear that sort of thing. I’ve been battered too many times in the past with required participation in humiliating things like the Hokey Pokey. Plus, I’m an introvert, believe it or not. I don’t enjoy participatory embarrassment. Further more, this workshop was full of colleagues, psychologists and seminary professors whom I admire and consider mentors. I wasn’t about to make a fool of myself in front of that particular gathering.
The leader of this workshop was a psychologist. She asked us to take a yellow piece of unlined legal paper, turn it sideways and write three things on it that we do, or don’t do, that work against us. The people we care for are hurting and we take that hurt onto ourselves and do things like overeat or veg out on the sofa all weekend when we could be exercising, having fun, getting rest, all those self care things. “Just write down three things and then we’ll share”, she said.
I wrote down one thing. I wrote: “I resist participating in dumb experiential exercises”, and I stood up to go take a bathroom break. I was out of there.
For some reason all this reminds me of traffic. Maybe I am reminded of my fantasy of jumping in a fast car and leaving town when I get into an uncomfortable place. Maybe I’m thinking about traffic a lot lately because I’m commuting to Roanoke and visiting Georgia so I drive a lot. But I want to tell you about one of my favorite books.
In his book titled Traffic, engineer Tom Vanderbilt says a lot of fascinating things about how drivers of automobiles interact. In fact his subtitle is “Why We Drive The Way We Do and What It Says About Us”. In this gem of a little book Vanderbilt points out interesting facts like the reason gridlock happens is due to tailgaters and rubber neckers more than sheer volume, and the addition of lanes does not help but only brings more traffic to a road. He points out that we do not have enough money to build new roads and conversely that many roads are actually underused. He explains that part of the problem of aggressive driving is that we are encapsulated in our cars, for good reasons of safety, but we don’t have any communication with each other, save the occasional rude gesture.
Vanderbilt goes on to say that psychologists have determined that when we get behind the wheel we, all of us, without exception, experience an unconscious sense of identifying with the vehicle so that we think of ourselves as becoming as large as the vehicle we drive and we become aggressive and defensive, everybody. It’s like a Jeckle and Hyde thing, nice decent God fearing people change when they become motorists.
Road rage began to make more sense to me when I read this. None of us are immune to it. Vanderbilt also says that the motorist returns to a normal nice person when they park and become a pedestrian again. I’m not so sure.
I was excited to find this book that gives very factual information from the academics of engineering and psychology about something I have pondered for a long time. I have long wondered about the way we treat each other, in the church, and how that is reflected in the way we drive, or walk for that matter. I have found that I am critical of the church and have come to fear that we, those who have answered the call to love one another as Jesus loves us, we participate in road rage and then act the same way toward each other at church, only maybe less intensely, or less directly. Maybe not.
One priest told me that he refuses to buy into the frustration of driving in traffic and when he encounters someone offering him a rude gesture, he smiles and offers them in return the sign of the cross and a blessing. I love this idea so much that I have come up with a way all Episcopalians can participate in this stance against road rage. I’ve designed a bumper sticker that I plan to sell at Annual Council. It is a simple white sticker with an Episcopal shield and says simply “ . . . and also with you”.
Well, I don’t really have such lack of faith in the body of believers to think we rage against one another, but I do worry about the challenges we face in our hopes to remain one body, in spite of our differences.
I haven’t told you the rest of the story about my experience in that workshop. I made a decision that day that has changed me. I decided to stay in community and it was a good decision. When I wrote my sarcastic comment, that I “resist participating in dumb experiential exercises” I got up to leave, but I stopped and looked around at a room full of folks who were not leaving. All those prestigious priests, pastors, therapists and teachers were staying. And they were doing what this odd ball instructor was asking. Each of them was writing three sins on a piece of paper.
So I sat back down, I flipped my piece of paper over and I wrote three things I do that work against me. And I thought about other sins of action, and sins of omission, that I was not so willing to publicly admit.
Then she asked us to gather in a large carpeted area of the room empty of furniture. She asked us to walk around randomly and encounter each other one at a time. She said we must do this in silence, simply hold your piece of paper stating three sins where all could read it, encounter another doing the same, read each other’s papers silently, then nod to each other to offer respect. That nod felt more like a blessing. The experience was powerful. Each piece of paper I read was much more honest than mine. “I overeat”. “I drink too much wine”. “I ignore my children”. “I spend too much time on the computer”. “I overspend, under sleep, overeat, worry, and yes, rage”. Without mentioning the church, or even religion in general, this exercise created a simple way toward penance and reconciliation.
Can you imagine us doing this exercise with each other? Can you imagine doing it with your co-workers, your family, a room full of strangers?
What I found was that with the rule of silence no one was judge and all were sinners, repentant sinners. We were also equally accepting, acknowledging each other’s sins and blessing each other with a silent but respectful nod.
After this exercise we felt closer to each other, gentler, more understanding. There was an air of peace in the room, and more laughter and hugging, more trust. And I for one didn’t want to rage at the guy who cut me off in traffic on the way home. I found myself instead wondering if he might be in some sort of trouble, and I found myself praying for him instead.
In our day we have become lost in the darkness of radical individualism. We tend to think like competitive individuals who think we’ve got it all figured out and don’t need community. We get too comfortable in our insular little vehicles and care too little about who else is on the road. We find ourselves confused and scratching our heads as we wander in the darkness. We tend to become too reliant on our little flashlights and forget the true Light in the darkness of the world – Jesus.
“. . . by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
So how do we receive this gift? The answer is in the difference between going it alone and joining community. It is in the difference between rage and forgiveness. It is in the difference between believing and faith.
To believe that Jesus died and was raised to save us is easy to understand in the sense that it requires almost nothing of us. But such simplicity does not honor the larger story John is telling. This is a story about an encounter with Jesus that left an intelligent and accomplished man scratching his head in bewilderment as he went back out into the darkness. This is a story about how any one of us might reject the light offered to us because of the way it exposes what is dark in us (John 3:19–20). To believe this Good News in a way that brings salvation requires more than believing that “God So loved the world” and other cross-stitch-able slogans, it requires trusting in a savior who is the Light. To trust in Jesus is not simply to believe something about what happened long ago, but also to let our own lives be transformed by the Jesus we encounter in this story, and in each moment. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2394
So, when frustrated in our commutes, we would do better to remember that faith in our insular little car is a far cry from faith in the salvation of the crucified and resurrected Lord. When tempted to cling to our rigid individualism, we would do better to work on repentance and reconciliation. And rather than clinging to the dim light of a battery operated flashlight, even when facing the pitch black of night, especially when facing the pitch black of night, we would do better to trust in and follow the Light of the World.