Sunday March 12, 2017
Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1 – 4a
Romans 4:1 – 5, 13 – 17
John 3:1 – 17
THE GREAT MYSTERY
Dear Creator: May these words be offered not only under your guidance, but as a living conversation from one heart to another. Amen
A month ago, the Rose Theater showed a 1956 movie called “The Mystery of Picasso.” The film opens in an astonishing way: The screen is blank, white. Then, a bold black brushstroke appears, applied in real time (no visible hand or brush). Then another, and another — as shapely line after shapely line turns into a horse’s mane, a woman’s breast, a branch of a tree. With amazing speed and simple accuracy, the pictures materialize right before our eyes. It isn’t long before the audience realizes that we’re actually witnessing the unseen Picasso at work. Later in the film, he does come out from behind the transparent canvas (in his signature shorts and naked torso, of course), and we are even allowed to see the French film crew, but most of the movie is a mesmerizing participation in creation. I almost couldn’t breathe as one thick black line suddenly became a bull. Then blood – red ink smeared across a bullfighter drawn into being, gored and draped across the bull’s back. From moment to moment the paintings were revised, altered and transformed. As each picture arose into something from nothing, I kept thinking “What a mystery creation is!!”
Artists are often asked, “How’d you paint that?” or, (as in my case) “Where’d that poem come from?” If an artist is truly honest, she’ll admit, “Well, I can’t quite explain it. I don’t really know… I had an idea, but the idea morphed into something else and… it began to write itself.” Any one of us here could study geometric abstraction, figure drawing, or how to mix pigment. But does that inevitably lead to our making Picasso’s “Guernica?” What exactly is that Mystery, that Spirit within and beyond us?
In today’s Gospel, Nicodemus, a teacher and scholar of the Jewish law, discusses with Jesus what it means to “know” the living God. The story begins when Nicodemus come s to Jesus “by night…” Not a dark and stormy, but a night to be sure. Why at night, we wonder? Does Nicodemus have something to hide? Was he worried about being associated with the radical Jesus? A lot of commentary alludes to this but there’s also another explanation for his arriving after dark. Apparently — for the Jerusalem elite at least — evenings were the specified time to study the Torah and participate in theological dialogue. It was a time to banter, to argue about fine points of theology and the law.
The funny thing is, when Nicodemus arrives, the first thing says to Jesus is “We know who you are.” A strange (and arrogant) way to begin a conversation, to say the least – “We know you are a teacher,” Nicodemus says, “who has come from God: for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” He fully acknowledges that Jesus has authority (he even calls him a rabbi). He says Jesus must have connections to the God that Nicodemus studies and worships voraciously. He’s curious. He senses something deeper he can’t pin down. But, instead of seeing Jesus’s miracles as an indication of healing on a broader spiritual realm, Nicodemus assumed they are merely another proof, another solid argument for the existence of God.
Now remember that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a learned sect of Judaism which unfortunately gets a bad rap by Christians for missing the point of God’s message time and again; and they were perceived as superior and self – righteous. To be fair, the Pharisees were strict keepers of the oral tradition as well as the Torah, the written law. They were also believers in miracles — Jesus wasn’t the only one healing at this time; it was a fairly common practice. And the Pharisees sustained a system that had been in place for three or four thousand years. They loved facts, evidence, details, and minutiae. The trouble was, they got too caught up in those details, in the ritual, the structure the precious rules. (Sound familiar?) In trying to preserve their faith, they lost sight of the Spirit, the Source.
Well, fellow pilgrims, I’m going to admit this right now: I, too, am a Pharisee. I like proof. I rely on facts. I admire sound argument. I want language to mean something. Like Nicodemus, I’m a fan of due diligence! I also like the comfort and beauty of liturgy and ritual (I am a sucker for theater!) And I want to believe that doing my daily yoga and meditation will get me closer to the Beloved. But I must remind myself — as Jesus reminded Nicodemus — that these things are only part of the picture. Yes, they are the beginning and provide a frame for what we might glimmer. But they are not ends in themselves. The Mystery is what we are going for. And it can never be proven, never be quantified. Never fully “known.”
So after Nicodemus presumes to “know” who Jesus is, Jesus performs a little jujitsu: “No one can see the Kingdom of God,” he says, “Without being born from above.” (Note that in Greek, the word “above” has multiple shades of meaning: “Anothen” can also mean “again” “from the beginning” and “anew.”)
“Born again!??” asks Nicodemus. I imagine our brave lawyer, shaking his head. “Like am I going to climb back into my mother’s womb? That ’ll be the day.” Jesus’s metaphoric language is simply lost on him. But then comes the most elegant turn in this whole conversation. It’s when Jesus just lifts Nicodemus — and us — into a whole new bandwidth where logic and argument fall short. “I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
At this point you can just see Nicodemus rolling his eyes, “What the — ?! Water? Spirit? What do you mean?” (Here again — for the word – lover — we need to note that “water” was often a metaphor for spirit, thus they often meant one and the same thing.) “Do not be astonished,” Jesus tells him, “that I told you you must be ‘born anew.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
“How can these things be?” Nicodemus asks, incredulous. In classic Hebraic fashion, Jesus answers his question with a question: “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” In other words, you, who claim to be a keeper of the holy tenets of the faith – the same faith I practice? How can you be so out of touch? So blind to what’s all around you?
One my favorite childhood poems “by 19th C. poet Christina Rossetti ; it reminds me of what Jesus is telling Nicodemus:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their head,
The wind is passing by.
Jesus says, “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” In other words, Jesus points out that Nicodemus suffers from a lapse of Imagination. Rather than welcome the Mystery, the Unseen, the Uncertainty, Nicodemus actually turns his back on the Numinous. It’s just too big, too scary, too risky. How much safer it is for all of us to accept the corporal dimensions of this life — no matter how grotesque, divisive, and difficult — than to fall gently into the limitless (Unknown!) possibility of the Mysterium Tremendum.
Our culture is currently in the throes of a serious deficit: And it’s a deficit of Imagination. Why else would graffiti and arson defile our Muslim and Jewish brothers’ and sisters’ temples? Why else are racial and political slurs becoming every day occurrences? Why else are we turning away those who seek safety and refuge? Why else are we suddenly treating our friends and neighbors as “them?” The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber calls this the “I –It relationship, which objectifies and reduces another’s identity as “other.” We quake in our shoes, thinking that what’s physically in front of us is all there is — leaders who lie, laws being broken, a feeding frenzy of greed — when Jesus is telling us over and over again there is something more! Something big we cannot see!
Jesus embodies an Imagination so large that if we say “yes” to him, we see everyone as sacred. Not only that, we treat creation the same way: from mosquitoes to mountains, from cutthroat trout to a mud puddles, from dandelions to cedar trees, from the water we drink to the air we breathe. When we imagine what it’s like to be someone or something else, we enter into what Martin Buber calls the “I – Thou” relationship, which is infused with empathy and reciprocity.
Oh, and by the way, Picasso agreed to make that film only if the paintings made during the filming were later destroyed. As we watched painting after painting created in front of our eyes (and there were many!) we were painfully aware that the physical picture was now long – gone, like a Tibetan sand painting. But Picasso knew the essence of those pictures were not found in canvas and paint; their power was released in the making. He also knew that there would always be more where those came from. The paintings themselves, like water, wind, and spirit, remain fluid and alive. In their creation they exist forever.
“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.”