John 3:14-21; Numbers 21:4-9
Rev. Katie Pakos Rimer
March 18, 2012
The summer after my junior year in college I lived in rural Kentucky, Appalachia, just a few miles from Hazard, Kentucky, of the Dukes of Hazard fame. While there I studied rural healthcare, shadowed midwives and home health aides, and taught adult literacy. One of my adult students, Cindy, became extra special to me. She would brew us pots of Folgers coffee and fry up chicken and serve homemade biscuits as she worked to write letters to her grandchildren. She also invited me to go to church with her. Cindy’s was a non-denominational Christian church and each Sunday her pastor would make an altar call and invite anyone who hadn’t accepted Jesus into their heart to come to the altar on their knees. Sometimes I was sure he was making the call just for me and for my friend, Liza. I was Roman Catholic at the time and Liza, another intern from the Northeast, was half-Jewish. Liza and I would stand in the pew, sweating in the Kentucky summer heat with our eyes closed, quaking, waiting for the music minister to stop the organ music and for the pastor to please, please, change the subject. (We kept going back, Sunday after Sunday, because we loved Cindy. And she and her pastor loved us back, and welcomed us even as we never made our way to the altar on our knees).
I remembered that experience when I realized our gospel for this morning is a gospel verse that is repeated and even advertised by our more conservative Christian brothers and sisters, John: 3:16. Have you seen the signs, JOHN 3:16, raised high at football games and other sporting events? This is the verse that generations of Protestant children have memorized: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The verse encapsulates the Christian story; it says it all in one sentence, with a special emphasis on Jesus’ dying for our sins. I’ve seen it on people’s Facebook pages, once on a wedding cake – I even heard of a contemporary evangelist who changed his name from John Smith to John 3:16, and worked the streets of Fort Lauderdale trying to save souls! In John’s gospel the passage comes after Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order for people to see the kingdom of God, they must be born again. The passage is often associated with more exclusionary theologies, and this comes from the later verses, which we also heard this morning. “Those who believe in Jesus are not condemned but are saved through Him, and those who do not believe are condemned already.” Hmmm.
The exacting language in this morning’s gospel is not unusual for the gospel of John; John often emphasized who was “in” and who was “out” – and more than in the gospels according to Matthew, Mark and Luke, in John Jesus’ death on the cross is seen as triumphant, not horrific. Sometimes the way people use John 3:16 feels triumphant to me, too, and simplistic. As if, read this verse and you’re saved. Done, and done. Jesus did all the salvation work for you; you just have to believe. But the cross is not a show, or an advertisement.
I’ve never been one for quick fixes. In my experience, Christian faith is a process, it’s not a pithy slogan. It doesn’t happen in a single moment of choice, and I wouldn’t describe it as easy – it’s a life-long journey, really, a transformation that takes time and intention and some sweat equity, mixed up with a good dose of grace. And I prefer a theology that stresses Jesus’ life as well as his death. We are called to follow how he lived – by healing and serving, not just to remember that Christ died.
We talked about this in our Lenten women’s spirituality group. I have had the privilege of meeting Monday nights during Lent with 14 women of St. James to discuss Lauren Winner’s book, Still. Some of us in that group came out of a more evangelical or even fundamentalist background before finding a home in the Episcopal Church; only a few of us are cradle Episcopalians; one of us is Roman Catholic. A few people described the many times they were called to the altar in their old church, described their many “conversion moments.” These moments were marked with high emotion and dramatic presentation, and they were heartfelt even if they didn’t lead to lasting, qualitative change in their experience of God. Another of us rested in the assuredness of her fundamentalist church teaching until suddenly, the framework didn’t hold up for her anymore. Lauren Winner’s book is about what she calls the MIDDLE of her faith journey, after the high of her conversion experience wore off. The book is about a desert experience, following the death of her mother and a painful divorce. An experience of God’s hiddenness, despite Winner’s continuing to attend church and teach Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School. It’s about a time of questioning whether God exists at all; it’s a story about the opposite of assuredness and triumphant spiritual satisfaction.
The book has freed us up, this group of smart, passionate, deep-thinking St. James women, to talk about our own experiences of God – God’s presence in our lives, and God’s felt absence. We have shared our stories and held them in the warmth of Liz McNerney’s living room. It helps to know, I think, that we all have desert times. We may have peak experiences – times of intense closeness with God – and then there are the valleys. It helps to know that part of the faith journey involves stumbling around for a while in the dark, and that doing so in community is easier than doing it alone. We are, all of us, in the “middle” of our faith journeys, and the Monday night gatherings give us a chance to share our experiences.
One member of our group described how proud she is to talk about the Episcopal Church’s politics with her more secular friends: we are the church (at least locally) that ordains gay people; we ordain women. But we all admitted it’s harder for us to talk about the elements of our faith that save our souls, or to name our need for redemption, and describe what we find in Jesus. Someone gave me a t-shirt once that listed The Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian. One of the items is, “You don’t have to check your brains at the door.” We Episcopalians love this, don’t we? We love that we can think critically about scripture and theology. We’re not slogan-led. We don’t jump on a bandwagon easily. And I love this too! But if we’re not the ones to hold up the John 3:16 signs at sporting events, or walk around with sandwich boards, how do we live our faith? Can we make our lives living slogans for God?
Last Monday night at Liz’s house the conversation turned to how we remedy the situation when we find ourselves in a spiritual desert. Some of us spoke of reciting prayers or psalms, one of us spoke of asking others to “hold the hope” for her, another spoke of the power of silent retreat. Having a spiritual director helps, a spiritual mentor. Another spoke of befriending her desert time, being still with it rather than rushing to fix it, or fill it. One of us shared an experience of saying Morning Prayer with a colleague in her place of work during a time of discernment. Initially this person, a scientist, felt sheepish walking down the hallway in the academic medical setting with her prayer book and bible. The two women found an office in which to pray that had a tiny window, and she was secretly pleased no one could see what they were up to. But, she says, starting her days with prayer transformed her experience. Through faithfulness to prayer in community with a trusted colleague, she eventually discerned a new vocation.
My hope is that I am, and we are, always authentic in our faith, and that we have the courage to share that authenticity with each other and with the world, even if we start small, in an office with a tiny window. And even if our authentic experience is one of God’s vast mystery, or of our seeking, but not always finding. I have faith in our authenticity. Maybe the question in our community is not, “Are you saved?” but, “What has your life taught you about God?” or “How do you perceive God?” (The answer would never be a simple yes or no!). I’ve learned from our Monday night meetings – and from my time with Cindy in Kentucky! -- that God moves in our lives very differently. The Whole is always greater than any individual part. Do we, as a community, have the courage to share our truths with each other and with the world? We may not be able to come up with a single slogan for God, but together we’d make an incredible symphony.