“Seeking Truth Amongst the Shadows”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 15, 2009
University Baptist Church
On this third Sunday in Lent, continue our quest for Truth. Have you considered what is your deepest truth? Have you considered the implications of this truth for your life—for others?
Have you considered the implications of ignoring the truth of your life? How do we decide what to do with the truth we come to know? Who benefits? Who is compromised? Who gets bruised? Who wins out in the fight for our very souls? What’s the shadow side of our truth?
My seminary preaching professor, James Forbes said that no matter what a preacher says in a sermon, your truest self will be revealed. He illustrated this by telling a story about preaching in his first church. It was an especially difficult time and the conflicts within the church had reached a boiling point. Rev. Forbes thought it would be a good idea to preach about love. So he crafted and delivered a sermon that said over and over again, “you gotta love each other.” As he preached it, the people started squirming. So, he turned up the volume and kept on preaching “you gotta love each other.” But the congregation was not buying it. He reflected that even though he as saying, “you gotta love each other”, what the congregation heard was “I hate you.” Whatever words you choose, your truest self may well be revealed. Therefore, it behooves us to make friends with our deepest truth, lest it get the best of us.
In today’s familiar scripture passage, Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus. He’s on a quest for the truth. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, like the Apostle Paul. A Pharisee is not necessarily a bad person. A Pharisee is someone who gives themselves over to then truth they find is revealed in scripture. But more than the scriptures of Torah, they also feel beholden to the rules and regulations about the Torah, which are laid out in the Talmud and other sources. They are learned scholars who address the complexities of the world through faithfulness to the teachings of their ancestors. They are faithful and righteous people. Sure, they can get rigid in their interpretations and downright uppity in their piety. But they are earnest in their quest for truth.
They also have a bit of power because of their sense of being set apart. The scribes who write out the laws and the Pharisees who live them out are the ones folk seek out when looking for the truth. They are the gatekeepers, the faithful servants of the word. As such, they tend not to like it when someone confronts them, questions their authority, or worse, their righteousness. In other gospels, Jesus is on the outs with the Pharisees. But in today’s scripture, Jesus has no problem with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee who is seeking after the truth. And one night he seeks out Jesus.
Why did he seek him out? Was he there to confront him? Was he there to learn from him? Was he there to contradict him? And why did he come at night? Did he have something to hide? Was there something inconvenient about Jesus’ truth? Or was he doing what scholars did back then, preserving the evening hours for learning, when they could be undisturbed by the crowds?
Nicodemus is seeking after the truth. Under the shadow of darkness, he can hide his own quest. As a person of privilege, he can choose to ignore the implications of Jesus’ teaching and not lose his place of honor. In fact, he can better maintain his place of honor by ignoring Jesus. But still he seeks him out under the cover of night to get a sense of the truth.
At last week’s adult forum, Jean Lubke led us through an exercise on white privilege. She read through several statements about how people of color are not considered the norm in society. From advertising images, to bank and mortgage preference to police suspicion to the need to always succeed and acquiesce in order to be considered something approaching normal—people of color have to endure institutional racism. Jean asked us to write down our thoughts and feelings and reactions to this reality. I found myself writing down that I felt ashamed and guilty. But on further reflection, I also wrote that I had the choice to ignore the inequalities. I could do that. Like Nicodemus, I could ignore the truth and get along just fine. But like Nicodemus, I wonder what would happen to my soul if I were to ignore the truth.
Nicodemus sought out Jesus and asked him about the truth the he lived and professed. Maybe Nicodemus was really asking about his own truth.
The question and answer session was maddening to someone with a literal understanding of things. Just like with Jesus’ discussion with Pontius Pilate about the nature of truth, Jesus is evasive with Nicodemus. He doesn’t give him a straight answer. Look at the way it goes: Nicodemus says: “Rabbi, we know you come from God because no one can do the things you do unless God is with that person.” (v.2) Jesus responds with something that’s hard to understand, “this is the truth—unless one is begotten from above, they cannot see the reign of God” (v.3). Nicodemus didn’t ask about the reign of God, but he tries to keep up. “Begotten from above, born again…uh, how does that work?? You can’t go back into your mother’s womb you know.”(v.4). Jesus responds with something even more confusing “this is the truth—you need to be born of water and spirit in order to see the reign of God. Flesh is flesh, spirit is spirit, get it?” (v.5) Nicodemus says, “uh, what was the question again?”
Is he trying to make him crazy? Or is he being like a teacher and pulling out the deeper question that’s underneath the encounter? It’s not about being born of spirit or being born of water or being born of fire. It’s not about how many times you were born or how it came about. As the writer of Ecclesiastes said, questions like these are all vanity and striving after wind.
What do you really want to know this night, Nicodemus? What is your quest Nicodemus? What gives you hope Nicodemus? What scares you to death Nicodemus? That’s what it’s about. It is about, “what truth are you prepared to live out?”
Twenty-something years ago I was getting ready to start a new life. I had done my time as an undergraduate. I had done my time working in the Student Life Office of my college as my starter career—you know, no property, got some good experience, moving on. Maybe it was my last year that I spent as advisor to the Greek system, but I found myself seeking after God. I was trying to decide amongst three seminaries, two of which resembled the nice school on a hill where I had spent the past seven years. But I had also spent time in Nicaragua and had been evangelized amongst the poor and outcast who offered a refreshing theology of liberation that I found captivating and fresh. It spoke truth to me. One Admissions officer asked me, “given your experience of Christ amongst the outcast of society, where do you think you could grow most as a Christian. Or to put it more simply, where do you think Jesus would have you go to school?” I knew the answer. I had to go to the school I felt the least connected with, the one that was going to push me the most and was in the city that scared the be-Jesus out of me. That’s how I ended up going to Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Yes, it pushed my buttons. Yes I felt out of my comfort zone. I felt odd in the big city, this guy who likes walking barefoot, hiking, campfires, gardens and cutting the grass—this guy who values connection in community was thrust into an environment where you are on your own and you had better keep up and put on your stoic face in order to survive. I even felt like a minority from time to time. Every group on campus had a caucus. There was a women’s caucus, there was a black caucus, an Asian caucus, a LGBT caucus, a commuter caucus, and an international caucus. When I asked about the straight white men, I was told, “your caucus is the institutional church.”
I’m so glad I had the chance to hear and experience theology from the underside by listening to the experiences of my classmates and colleagues. It’s helped me to be more empathetic with others. It has caused me to reserve my judgment until I have heard the deep truths of the other. It has helped me to name my truth as one who desires to seek out liberating truth so that all people can be free.
That’s why reading Saving Paradise is such an exciting thing. It’s causing me to rethink Christian history and art and find within it the truth of liberation that I know is there, just itching to get out—if we can just peel away enough layers of abuse and violence done in the name of Christianity. As other people read it, the scales come off all of our eyes. We not only see new truth, but we uncover ancient truth. And we are left to determine our truth.
Nicodemus, what is your truth? Why do you seek me out amongst that shadows? Is it just a convenient cover? What will you do in the light of day? Nicodemus, who are you? Where are your loyalties? This is not just an intellectual exercise. This is about who you are in this life and beyond.
My friends, we are like Nicodemus, aren’t we? We seek out truth, heck we even are captivated by truth. And yet we are tempted to keep it to ourselves. We are lured by the safety of the shadows. We are seduced by the tendency to not make waves. But sometimes that truth gets a hold of you. And try as you might, it won’t let itself be hidden in the shadows. It longs to break forth like the rising sun.
What secret truths have you found? What uncomfortable truths would you rather keep hidden? What scares you in the shadow places? But don’t only consider that. Also consider what might be freed up if you speak your truth. Imagine what power of Spirit might be unleashed if you dare to speak your truth, if you dare to live your truth? You know your truth. And if you don’t then I venture to say you have a pretty good clue as to what it is. What do you think? Is it safe to make that truth known to anyone other than you?
Harvey Milk had a saying that if you really wanted to help the LGBT Community, then the best thing you could do is to come out. Live your truth. The more people who do, the less the stigma. The same could be said for the inconvenient or challenging truths that we have. If we dare to live out our truths, then we would probably no longer feel like we are spitting in the ocean, especially when it comes to rearranging things so that everyone gets a fare shake in this world.
What is your truth? How do you live it? How do you want to live it? How would God want you to live it?
However you live it, remember that you live it in community. And when community is at its best, it celebrates the truth and is transformed by it. That’s good news. When we are transformed by the truth of our lives, it’s just like being born all over again.
What do you say Nicodemus? What are you going to do with your precious truth?