“Archaeology” by Joe LaGuardia (preached at Heights Christian Church in Shaker Heights, Ohio, on July 19, 2015)
Scripture: John 3:1-12
It is so refreshing to visit your grandchildren before they get to that age at which they look at you as if you were a fossilized artifact on leave from the dinosaur exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. “Poppa!” they exclaim with delight, as if you were bringing gifts (which, of course, you are). But then after the visit, you get back to reality, to mirrors, to doctor’s, dentist and eye appointments, to drop down boxes on your computer that make you scroll through every year that you’ve been alive until you get to your birth year!
And then there are those politically incorrect synonyms for ageing falling glibly from people’s lips that don’t seem to carry the blame that other politically incorrect phrases do, like “he’s a little long in the tooth;” “he’s looking a little frayed around the edges;” “I think he’s got one foot in the grave;” “she looks one Botox treatment short of a complete facelift.” See me later to tell me your ideas.
But in my old age, I’ve discovered it pays to keep going back to Scripture because sometimes you come across exactly the right question. It pops right out at you in a way that grabs your attention as it never has before and perhaps couldn’t. And here is mine, today, in this passage from John’s Gospel, in this amazing conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus: Nicodemus asks it right after Jesus tells him: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” and Nicodemus says: “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Good question! “How can a man be born when he is old?” Although most of us would probably NOT want to repeat our lives–even though we would certainly do some things differently, most of us probably WOULD like an influx of new life! Or we would pick an ideal age back in the good old days (“where all the women [were] strong, all the men [were] good looking, and all the children [were] above average” Garrison Keillor).
Aging can make you angry and depressed and full of despair, as one body part, one mental facility at a time weakens, sputters and fails. Can’t run as fast (heck, can’t walk as fast!) . Can’t get out of a chair without groaning (Last week, we went shopping for a chair; I asked the salesman: “Is that one of those chairs that stands you up?” “No,” he said, “those are in the other room.” “Ah, I thought, “the back room where the groaners go to shop—hidden away from the young and vibrant!”)
Every time we go to Buffalo to visit our daughter and spouse and grand-kids, we pass through the Seneca Nation, and it reminds me of the American Indian philosophy that we are not on a linear journey in life, but are rather in a spiral, sitting at different levels around the campfire of life, and wherever we are is just RIGHT! “Birds build their nests in circles,” a Native American once said; “they have the same religion as we do.”
Paul of Tarsus has these ideas about “fullness” and “acceptable time” and “when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).”
As fall approaches inexorably because the earth continues its annual journey around our central star, so do the walnuts ripen and fall from my walnut tree in our front yard. I watch those that fall first and see their outer green covering decay. It looks for sure like they are dying, becoming disgustingly putrid, turning a mushy brown and black, but they are not dying. On the contrary, they are giving birth. They are attempting to shed their outer selves so that the seed within them can take root and produce another walnut tree (believe me, one is enough, in my humble opinion!).
We have this strange idea that as we age and weaken, our eyes and hearing and knees give out; our memories aren’t as keen—that this is all a prelude, an overture to death, and that it’s a terrible thing. But is it, really? Or is something being born? Or getting ready to be born? Are we shedding something inessential so that the true US can find purchase, ground of being, good soil?
Why otherwise could Saint Francis of Assisi wax eloquent about “Sister Death?” I know, he is said to have called everything “Brother” or “Sister” and I’m not sure if any biographers have looked into whether his giving a gender to the earth and sun, etc. was politically correct according to our standards today. But he had this certainty of being related to all of creation, even to Sister Death.
And isn’t it strange that living spiritual writers like Richard Rohr talk about losing that fear of death as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and the thing we all pass through so that we can have a new, different, and we believe, much better existence?
Here’s what the zany Lutheran preacher. Nadia Bolz-Weber, wrote in her sermon on Pentecost, commenting on what the Disciples were feeling after Jesus’ death and Resurrection:
No matter what data [the Disciples] had in front of them based on what their lives looked like in that moment, something stronger, deeper and more beautiful was moving among them, sweeping them up into God’s story. Don’t get me wrong, their grief was real…just not as real as resurrection. [The Holy Ghost over the bent world broods]
Walter Brueggemann, in his talk at Forest Hill Presbyterian Church in June, maintained that the one thing the media wants to convey to us and produce in us and cultivate in us, especially at News time, is FEAR. We must be fascinated by Fear and by all of those commercials directed to us aging people pushing medications whose side effects by their own descriptions will surely kill us! [This may cause strokes, dizziness, liver failure, high blood pressure, death—As you doctor if this is right for you! –Heck my doctor may say: “He’s got one foot in the grave, so what the heck!”] These are so counter to those messages from Jesus after he had been through that most horrendous of executions: “Do not be afraid!” “Peace be to you. My peace I give to you.” What data did Jesus have in front of him? Followers who didn’t get his message? Who ran away in his hour of need? Who cowered in a upper room? Who argued over who was greatest? And yet he could say: “Do not be afraid. Peace!”
And that brings me to archeology, the study of beginnings, the reason we drill miles into the earth to bring up samples of what we find there; the reason we have developed submarines to probe the deepest underwater trenches and have found creatures alive there that we never would have imagined could live at that pressure, darkness and temperature; the reason we developed the Hadron collider to smash the smallest of subatomic particles to see what are the building blocks of matter; the reason we send telescopes out into space to receive light that has taken billions of years to get here, and recently a satellite the size of a grand piano sent on a 9 ½ year journey to Pluto and beyond. We want to study our beginnings in order to understand. But how can we be born again?
Maybe Nicodemus doesn’t understand because he didn’t know about archaeology—well, he couldn’t have, could he, since it hadn’t been invented yet? Because when we find something new, when our instruments have improved so much, we come to the knowledge that the earth can’t be the center of the universe, and that Pluto can’t be a planet, or the knowledge that same sex couples can be in a committed, loving relationship for a lifetime, or that the Bible is a library of books, each written at a different time with a different perspective and different authors some of whom contradict each other…THEN we have to rearrange our understanding just as Nicodemus will have to, if and when he GETS what being born again entails.
Nicodemus couldn’t have known the words John used at the beginning of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word WAS God.” What John actually wrote in the copies that have come down to us is in the Greek language: “En arche ein ho Logos.” Arche= Beginning; Logos=Word. And I understand that the first line of John’s Gospel can be translated: “In the beginning was the Explanation, and the explanation was with God, and the Explanation WAS God,” and then in verse 14: “And the explanation became flesh and made his dwelling among us!”
The explanation is right here! As the Christmas hymn expresses it: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight!” The explanation: “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” I don’t know about you, but there were many, many times in my education when I was studying a complicated concept or trying to learn a complicated skill, that I didn’t understand the explanation! The answer from my parents and teachers to my whining about that was: Keep trying! Don’t give up!
If God, if Jesus is the explanation; if his Holy Spirit is still creating, still brooding over the bent world, still loving, still transforming us and the world, then we have to “draw near,” keep trying to contact him, to understand, to let the spirit work in us and teach us. “Here’s your problem, Nicodemus” Jesus might have said, using our language; “You’re not letting the Spirit wash over you, teach you. You think you’re dying but the Spirit is transforming you, bringing you to life. Something is being born in you (Yeats?).
Joan Chittister tells this story (Blog, May 25: “What about Sunday?”) about visiting Jerusalem and hearing a Rabbi preach about [not working on] the Sabbath, and then she says:
A week later I returned to the States. On Sunday morning, after Mass, the streets were teeming with cars, all the stores were open, lawn mowers roared on every street while people did what they hadn’t had time to do during the week….
Surely, the real sin to which the third commandment points is not the sin of not going to church on Sunday. It is the sin of not seriously seeking God. [And I add: “because God is the explanation!”]
In all the things we don’t understand about our world—especially the suffering and the evil that we can see everywhere, and the fear that flows into us from the stories we see every day on TV or read in commentaries—God is the explanation; Jesus is the explanation. He came to forgive the world (“I did not come to judge the world” Pope Francis’s most famous phrase brings it to the present: “Who am I to judge?”). And so we follow him by forgiving the world, with all its cracks and crackpots, and people who disagree with us and even hate us (“I say to you: Love your enemies; do good to those who persecute you”).
And here’s what Richard Rohr wrote in his meditation of June 2, 2015:
Bonaventure’s theology is never about trying to placate a distant or angry God, earn forgiveness, or find some abstract theory of justification. He is all cosmic optimism and hope! Once it lost this kind of mysticism, Christianity became preoccupied with fear, unworthiness, and guilt much more than being included in–and delighting in–an all-pervasive plan that is already in place. As Paul’s school taught, “Before the world was made, God chose us in Christ” (Ephesians 1:4).
And here’s more of what Nadia Bolz-Weber said in her sermon about Pentecost:
It’s so easy to see the tragedies and endings and hardship and diagnosis all around us as the end of the story – but, not unlike those who mourned as Jesus was laid in his tomb, we are terrible story enders – putting – as some would say – a period where God places a comma. God is still writing, still sighing, still loving us and all that is into redemption.
We need to become archaeologists, and know where our study lies. Sure, I ask Bernadette as we approach our anniversary this Friday to help me remember stuff-like when did we decide to get married 39 years ago? But the real archaeological study is to keep seeking God, meditating, being thankful for the blessings of the day, the beauty of children, the graciousness of others, And let the down times, the rainy, cloudy days, the aches and pains, the losses and diminishments–well, acknowledge them as the birth pangs, egg cracking, the skin splitting, the chrysalis tearing. The archeology is the same:
As William Butler Yeats wrote in the second stanza of Sailing to Byzantium,
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress…[We have this hymn: “All your people clap your hands, and shout for joy!”]
What we audaciously believe, Nicodemus, is that if we continue with passion and perseverance to dig through the ruins and our lives in our world, as if it were an archaeological dig, and then use a fine brush to blow away the final barriers between us and God, what we will find is LOVE! In the beginning was Love, Love was with god and Love was God…And Love became flesh and dwelt among us!
–This is the explanation of our beginnings that we pray to understand every day and come here every week to understand a little better and to rearrange our world view, to be born again and again! Amen.