Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Lent
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Sometimes, things need to happen at night.
Take, for example, the date that the Bishop proposed for my ordination as a transitional deacon. November 10, 2018 was a perfectly fine date. It was such a fine date that it was also selected by the Richmond Marathon for their big annual race AND by the Altria Theatre for a matinee production featuring Peppa Pig. That would all be fine…I’m perfectly willing to share…except that both of those events were happening all day on the same block as the parish where I had been appointed to serve and where my ordination would be held. A logical solution soon emerged: we kept the date, but planned the ordination that evening, after dark.
But, after dark was a harder time for some of the people in my life to be present. This was true especially for those whose days were spent on the streets and whose nights were spent in shelters. Shelters have rules about when one must be in, and exceptions are not made for ordinations. For others, the night was just too dangerous; I welcomed them in spirit but knew better than to expect them in person. But, one of the unhoused people who found their way to my ordination that evening was a true character and friend, W.B. Braxton-Bantu, aka Scoutleader Bat, the self-described grim guardian of the poor and down-trodden. He slipped in just after the processional and sat on the back row in his characteristic suit, tie, leather jacket and round wire-rimmed glasses. W.B. and I both referred to each other as “Professor” and spent many hours together talking about policies and practices related to poverty, eviction and homelessness, drafting letters to representatives and discussing everything from theology to movies to time travel. I was glad to see him there. But after a long day on foot and on bike, in the quiet safety of sanctuary, W.B. did what many people do when they find rest in their restless days: he drifted to sleep. I noticed this during communion when I didn’t see him come forward. Along with my friend Amy, who was chalicing, we walked from the chancel to the back of the nave to serve communion to those for whom walking was difficult, and then I went all the way in the back to W.B. I touched his arm…he awakened instantly and his eyes met mine. We both greeted each other with a smile and our greeting: “Professor.” And in what I can only describe as a pure and holy moment, we both encountered the presence of Christ palpably together in that sharing of Holy Communion.
My friend and photographer Patience happened to catch that iconic moment on her camera. She gave it to me in the album that was my ordination present. Every time I look at that picture now, I go back to that moment, and all I can see is Christ. It is my icon of ministry, and it grounds me into doing the work that I was called to do. We were in that place, on that night, both of us seeking an encounter with Christ. And Christ met us there.
I’ve been living that encounter over and over again in my mind this week, because I learned that my friend W.B. died unexpectedly last week. WB’s death makes me deeply sad, for personal as well as pastoral reasons. But when I look at that picture, I realize it isn’t just a fond memory: it’s a reminder of a shared encounter with Christ. And it reminds me that sometimes the most important encounters begin in the dark: whether that is the darkness of grief, or the darkness of night. Always, in that encounter with Christ, there is the first hope of resurrection.
In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air. New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”
And so it is that today in our Gospel lesson, we meet Nicodemus who also finds himself encountering Jesus in the dark of night. We make a lot of assumptions about why that might be. Maybe he was afraid, or sneaking around, or didn’t want to be spotted. Our mind goes there, but actually, we don’t really know. We do know that he was a leader among the Jewish people, a respected member of scholarly Jewish legal counsel and temple authority. And we know something was stirring in Nicodemus or he wouldn’t have sought out Jesus for a conversation.
Sometimes, things need to happen at night. And always, Jesus is there to meet us.
When Nicodemus encounters Jesus, he is given more food for thought than answers to his specific questions. Jesus speaks to him through the metaphor of birth: that other very human experience where darkness is essential and necessary in order for the transformation of new life to occur. In many ways, Nicodemus approaches Jesus exactly as we might: with the smallest actions of faith, filled with questions, hoping for a glimpse of the possible.
You see, hope and possibility thrive in the dark: gestation, the energizing of bulbs, the necessary germination of seeds until they can withstand the light of day. Jesus speaks to Nicodemus through this context of possibility, addressing his questions not with answers (“helping him see the light”) but with a fitting analogy for the darkness: birth and the gestation of new beginnings.
Jesus, as the incarnate word made flesh, makes God known to Nicodemus in the dark of night. The revelation isn’t in the answers given; it is in the encounter itself.
Something really interesting happens in the text of John’s Gospel after this encounter. No longer are Jesus and Nicodemus in conversation with each other, as it might be if we were just nosy eavesdroppers on their night-time chat. The grammatical structure of the whole narrative shifts, and the “you” to whom Jesus refers becomes not singular you Nicodemus, but second person plural…YOU…as in, all of you. Now we, the readers, are standing together with Nicodemus in our shared encounter with Christ. And it just keeps getting better when you dig more deeply into the Greek of the text. That Sunday School verse of John 3:16 means so much more: “For God so loved the world…” isn’t spoken in dialogue solely to Nicodemus the night visitor but is proclaimed to all of us: πᾶς (pas) “all”, as in all of the parts of a whole, and in this case the whole moral κόσμον (kosmon), all of the orderly creation. We…us…”all y’all”…are brought into this encounter with Jesus who reveals to us that God so profoundly loves us that Jesus has been sent from heaven to earth…birthed into being in human form…so that all parts of the whole of creation may be σωθῇ (sōthē): saved, healed, and reconciled.
Sometimes, things need to happen at night.
We stand today, brought into this narrative through John’s Gospel to stand with Nicodemus in this profound encounter with Jesus’ revelation of his nature, and desire to rebirth the world as we know it. It is the dark of night, and the light of salvation is speaking.
Perhaps Nicodemus seems to disappear from the centrality of this story because he, like us, is germinating in this new revelation of faith. You see, nothing about this story aligns darkness with fear or negativity…we need to check some of our own assumptions about that. Darkness is filled with the unknown and the unknowing, but that is inextricably necessary to the growing.
Nicodemus re-appears two other times in John’s Gospel. In chapter 7, he is named among the temple authorities debating with the temple police over whether Jesus should be arrested for proclaiming himself as Messiah. Nicodemus advocates for Jesus to be given a hearing, so that people may learn what he is doing. But, he is silenced. Perhaps there was still a need for more time in the dark. We are introduced to Nicodemus one final time near the end of John’s Gospel. Now, he accompanies Joseph of Arimathea, carrying a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus is referenced again as the one who had come to Jesus by night. And now, again, it is night. A night darker than any other night. And I can’t help but wonder what thoughts were running through Nicodemus’ mind, remembering his first encounter with Jesus in the night, pondering the faith which has undoubtedly been germinating in his soul, running these powerful encounters through his mind all the while preparing Jesus’ physical body for burial. That encounter with Jesus had changed everything for Nicodemus, or he wouldn’t be there. Just like our encounter with Jesus changes everything for us, or we wouldn’t be here, either. I want to believe that his soul stirred, and mixed in with the heavy perfume of aloes and myrrh was the glimmer of resurrected hope.
We also stand in that hope, even in nights of unknowing. As we pray in our burial liturgy: “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”
Sometimes things need to happen at night. So, in closing, I offer you this Night Prayer from the New Zealand prayer book. This is a prayer not just for the setting of the sun, but also as we move together through the nights of unknowing in this lenten season, encountering Christ who is in our midst:
Lord, it is night.
The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.
It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.
The night is dark.
Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives
rest in you.
The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
all dear to us,
and all who have no peace.
The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
In your name we pray.