When Love Outmaneuvers Justice
A Meditation on John 3: 16 – 21
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church March 11, 2018
I had a magical moment Friday night. I made a new friend. His name is Liam and he is eight years old, but he “will be nine in June.” I love that about kids. When you ask them how old they are and they tell you how old they will be. That’s important information. They are eager for that next moment, that next step. Nine. The last year for single digits. Savor that, Liam.
Liam, and his little brother, Henry, are great kids. They are the nephews of the couple that were married here last night. They were both very patient with all of the practicing and waiting around that happens at a wedding rehearsal. After we arrived at the restaurant for dinner, I invited Liam over for a conversation. We talked about Legos and Minecraft and the awesomeness of sour candies. (Is it just me or are they less appealing as you age?) Dinner came and he returned to his seat to enjoy his pasta, but he came back over for a visit between the entrée and the dessert. This is when it happened. He looked at me and he said, in a very kind voice, “You have some broccoli in your teeth.”
“Thank you! I am so glad you told me. Where is it?” I bared my teeth and Liam reached out and pointed to the spot.
“You might want to try taking a drink of water,” he suggested. Good idea. I tried. “Better?” I asked. “Nope. It’s still there.” Again, said with patience and compassion.
I worked my tongue over my teeth, trying to locate the stubborn bit, and Liam just kept talking. “You know, if you get it out, you can just eat it. That’s what I do.” He offered. More good advice.
But nothing was working. No drinks of water were going to remove that stubborn broccoli. I excused myself so I could go in search of a restroom mirror.
I smiled in the mirror, in search of the offending greens. “Sweet, so sweet,” I thought to myself. Liam cared enough to tell me the truth, which is a gift. I would have been mortified if I had gotten home to discover that I had thanked the groom’s parents for the lovely meal with a piece of that lovely meal still plastered to my teeth. Liam had saved me.
Liam didn’t just offer me truth; he stayed with me while I worked out that truth.
He never laughed at me. He didn’t run off to tell his parents that the pastor had broccoli in her teeth. He stayed with me. He watched as I tried to discreetly swish some water in my mouth. He continued to give me feedback and ideas. And when I had to step away to resolve the problem, he waited for my return.
I know. It’s a silly example. Just a child and my messy teeth. But it is exactly what we have been talking about since the season of Lent began. We have used the words wilderness, intervention, program, and today, recovery, to describe the journey, but it is encapsulated by my encounter with my young friend. I was in a situation that needed correction, but I couldn’t see it for myself. Typically, it is not that we cannot see it for ourselves, but that we cannot admit it to ourselves. Acknowledging in private, admitting the truth of our brokenness to ourselves is critical, but often we can’t find the way forward alone. This is one of the reasons organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, and so many similar groups exist: so that others can first hear us acknowledge our reality, and then stay with us in that reality.
I know some of you have experienced this truth. You’ve lost or gained too much weight due to stress or depression or medications or simply because you have been unable to take care of yourself. And you long for someone to notice. For someone to care. For someone to walk alongside you. Some of you have lived with back pain or joint pain, putting off that surgery, until someone has said, “You just can’t live this way any longer.” And then they have stayed with you as you have fought to regain your health.
We all need Liams. We are called to be one another’s Liams. To offer the truth in ways that can be heard, and then stay beside one another, as we seek to work out our recovery. As a community, we need to care that deeply about one another. I don’t have to think twice about saying, “great to see you” to my favorite barista at U-Perk or Starbucks; surely church can be a place of deeper relationship than that.
But here’s the critical piece: we must love in a way that embodies compassion and not judgement. “God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” John 3: 17. Saving; not judging. If we walk in Jesus’ way, we are here to participate in Jesus’ salvific work. Saving, not judging. Judging isn’t our job, but we just keep on doing it…why? Well, because it’s EASY and FUN.
Judging is just so much more fun. I can judge someone on how they are dressed, or the way they speak, or the bumper stickers on their car. I can judge them by what they have in their grocery cart or by the broccoli in their teeth! I can put someone else down and feel better about myself. Judging is fun. Judging is entertaining, and really no work at all. Saving? Saving is work. Just ask Jesus. And do not think I am referring only to the way he lived his life. Yes, we look to the cross, and to his execution by an unjust system, but we are kidding ourselves if we think his living, his life choices were any less sacrificial than his dying. I would guess that most of you would sacrifice your life for a loved one. You would willingly die to save a child, a spouse, a parent. We would be willing to die, but are we willing to live in the way of Jesus?
I believe the living is harder than the dying.
Jesus met with the religious leader, Nicodemus, in the darkness, and spoke the words we heard read today. He met with Nicodemus in the darkness, much like the dark security of the womb. He met with him there and invited him to be born into a new way of living, a way of living which would be more challenging than any he had ever known.
Some people will tell you that being born anew, born again, is about pointing to one particular date, time and place when you made a commitment to follow Jesus. There is nothing wrong with that, but that is an oversimplification. For one thing, we don’t birth ourselves. We are birthed by a laboring mother. Our laboring God births us into new life, an on-going, never ending process.
Being born requires leaving one environment, the womb, with its safety and warmth, and utter dependence, and entering a bright and dangerous environment. In the womb the growing infant’s only job is to receive nourishment. With our birth, we are transformed: no longer only recipients, but also givers. Not just givers, but co-laborers with God in birthing a new world, in loving a world into redemption.
Jesus hoped Nicodemus could see the world in a new way. He offered Nicodemus the possibility of being a participant in the saving work of the world, rather than the judging work. He invited Nicodemus to participate in the recovery of the world.
And from what we know, it would seem Nicodemus said “yes,” to this invitation. When Jesus is on the verge of being arrested (see John 7), it is Nicodemus who speaks out against injustice. Nicodemus says, “Our Law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him and learning what he is doing, does it?” He speaks out, he speaks up and probably loses much of his reputation by choosing compassion over judgement. When we choose compassion over judgement, we are participants in the world’s redemption.
Nicodemus would also come to take Jesus’ body from the cross. (John 19). He would bring the spices and cloth for Jesus’ body, and would do the sacred work of carrying Jesus’ tortured body to the tomb. This was a public witness, a testimony without words.
I had to trust Liam. I had to trust that he wasn’t just trying to make fun of me. I had to approach Liam with curiosity rather than judgement (He’s just a child!). That curiosity led to my “salvation” from massive humiliation. On a much grander scale, Nicodemus approached Jesus with curiosity rather than judgement. That curiosity led him into a life of compassion. If the only good he did in his life was to care for Jesus’ wounded body, that is enough, isn’t it?
What if, we too, could live lives of curiosity instead of judgement? (Instead of criticizing that person who comes to the food pantry?) What if that curiosity brought about our redemption? What if curiosity led to compassion? What if that compassion empowered us to tend to the wounded in our midst? What if in that caring, we realized that we were caring for Christ?
Thanks be to God, who leads us into the way of life. Amen.