was born with a clip board and a pen in my hand…..”Been Born…..Check!!! Even as a young girl in our tiny little cul-de-sac neighborhood, everything and everyone fit into a neat compartment. I directed our yearly variety show for the neighbors—managing all the kids with songs, script lines, costumes and the like. Yes, I was “Little Ann” the annoying leader of our little street. But, since no one ever wanted the job, the other kids were happy for me to take it on. To this day, I believe my world is easiest when it is structured and contained. This works when running projects and presentations and the like, but when working as a priest—-not so much!!
Our good friend, Nicodemus has the same kind of issue in John’s gospel this morning. The scene is simple—Nicodemus coming to where Jesus is in the middle of the night to talk with him and ask for some clarification around his miracles and to address who he is. The conversation however is anything but simple. Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus performed a miracle at Cana where he turned water into wine and cleansed the Temple from the money changers. Nicodemus has heard all of this and says; “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” And Jesus confuses the conversation even more by saying; “Truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” To which Nicodemus states in so many words; “What?” It is as if Jesus has answered the wrong question, but he hasn’t.
Nicodemus is an esteemed Pharisee. He is privileged and credentialed if you will. He is part of the Sanhedrin, an assembly of many rabbis appointed to sit at a tribunal in every city, and so he wields a certain influence in that community. He reads and understands the Torah very well, and teaches others about the holy scriptures. When he asks Jesus to clarify being born from above, or entering a mother’s womb for a second time, Jesus is surprised and exasperated by Nicodemus’ questions. Why? Because Jesus knows that Nicodemus has the theological knowledge, the experience and the expertise to understand what Jesus is saying and yet he does not understand. “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t get it?” Jesus asks in so many words.
Nicodemus has a ‘pen and clipboard problem.’ Like a lot of us, our knowledge is placed into neat piles or boxes. We label, brand and categorize those things we have knowledge about and it helps us to break things down in a way we can acknowledge. For me it is validating. So much so that I can spin my wheels and miss something very important.
Since working with women who leave prison I have felt like Nicodemus several times. One example of this happened pretty recently. A woman that has been in our program for nearly a year has been quite ill. Francesca actually came out of prison ill because her medical issues were ignored for over a year, which is not atypical. While the rest of the women in the program work most of the day, Francesca spends her days in doctor’s appointments, medical tests and some group programs. Most days though find her resting at home. I decided that it would be a great idea to cover all of the bases and provide a medical plan for Francesca, have a Mentor go out with her to appointments to speak with the doctors and see how we could provide the best “Wellness” plan possible for her. Even try to get a Visiting Nurse in the apartment, since Francesca has a difficult time walking.
I was so happy with all of this…..Francesca was not. She felt controlled, that her privacy had been invaded, and that the one thing the program had stressed over and over—is INDEPENDENCE, and the way I was going—– that was far from her reach. She asked to speak with me not too long ago to tell me just that. She felt totally dependent and that I was treating her like a child. I was so wrapped up in my neat little boxes of knowledge and position and experience—I compartmentalized so well with what I knew she needed and wanted, I missed something that was right in front of me—-the person and what she was so very capable of.
It was my day of reckoning. A comeuppance I desperately needed. I have been developing many kinds of social service programs for most of my professional life. And in being so confident and sure of what I know, I could hear Nicodemus in my head. When he comes to Jesus, it is not to ask a question, really—it is to make an announcement of who Jesus is. It is like Nicodemus is saying, “I know who you are; your miracles, signs and wonders. You are from God.” And Jesus’ answer goes something like, “No, you haven’t got a clue!”
Nicodemus focused on the ‘how to’ questions, lining up proofs, arguments, conclusions and so then he could become a believer. What Jesus does that really confuses Nicodemus is to bring in the ‘Birth” story and that just moves Nicodemus to bring out the old pen and clipboard again to try and understand it all. Jesus explains that “Faith is born of the Sprit, a Spirit that blows like the wind, blows where it chooses and we do not know where this wind comes from or where it goes.” No amount of achievement, success or knowledge will usher in life in God’s kingdom. It just doesn’t work that way.
Jesus wants Nicodemus to understand that we are all born into God’s kingdom, and living in the Spirit cannot be controlled, calculated or manipulated. For someone who usually trusted rules, doctrine, and moral instruction of the synagogue, this was very, very confusing. Living in the Spirit for Nicodemus and for all of us means letting the Spirit lead; to propel us along the way without any old security blankets. To be born of the wind means that we trust in God’s love for ALL people—even ones we don’t think they know what they’re doing when they leave prison.
Are we so different from Nicodemus? What would it mean for us to really understand being born of the Spirit? When I look back 40 years ago I don’t even recognize the person that was Ann. I know in my heart now that God was laboring over me and that the Spirit was propelling me to move forward with the gifts that God gave me. Of course I had to be open—to be aware of opportunities, even though I thought I might not be up to the things God put in my path. The Spirit moved in between Jesus and Nicodemus—it is in that very sweet and bewildering conversation between the two of them that a non-educated maverick teaches a Pharisee about the Kingdom. That is how Nicodemus is reborn—not entering the mother’s womb for the second time—no, by being born from above, by being labored over by God, by being ushered in life by the Spirit. It did the same thing for me that day with Francesca—God’s Spirit moving in between over and around us, prodding me to listen, to learn from this woman from a prison cell—teaching me about assumptions, power and responsibility.
As Professor Rev Laura Mendenhall of Columbia Theological School writes, “To be born of the wind is to trust our life to the God who gives birth to us. To be born of the wind is to embrace the mysterious newness of God knowing we do not have a final hold on the Holy Spirit.” We are always in God’s sights. We do not have to come to God with what we know. God gets it! What we need is to be open to the Spirit that works on us every day–trying to open our eyes to what our gifts are, to notice the gifts in others and to allow the Spirit to move all of us into what we will become next!!
Last night as I was preparing for today, I got a phone call from Francesca. She was coming home on the train from visiting her father, who is very ill himself. She ran down the appointments she managed for him, the medications she challenged his doctor on, the home care visits she set up for him. This is the woman I believed needed a lot of help. WRONG!!
Nicodemus understood at the end. He brought oils to the tomb where Jesus lay after his death. He was out in daylight, not sneaking around in the dark. He arrived at being ‘born again’ and so have I. The Spirit is alive and well, and living in all of us. How will you be moved and prodded by the Spirit over these summer months…….and well beyond??? Amen