A Bit of the Old Nick

JN 3:1-17
6/7/09

It rained like crazy one day last week. Like Ben, my Black Lab who died a year ago, I love bad weather. My mother was the same way. She was a Swede, and Dad always said she had been born on the prow of a Viking boat, heading into a storm. So, bad weather is not a problem for me. I pulled on my favorite Topsiders and waded out. These are wonderful shoes. I got them up at Booth Bay Harbor in Maine, and have had them for ten years. Of course, the water came right through them! My faithful all weather shirt was also drenched. I retrieved the New York Times and the Stamford Advocate, which I read before coming to work. But I couldn’t read them because I had to change my clothes. Then there were a series of phone calls, and I was off balance for the rest of the day.

We all have routines and patterns of behavior that we follow and depend on. They are the ways “we have always done that.” Those routines and patterns, personal and societal, are called “mores” and “folkways.” Mores are the rules and regulations, laws and requirements. Folkways are more informal, family traditions and ways we order our life. How we dress tends to be a folkway. Women wear high heels. Men don’t (except in Texas). The shoes you walk in will vary according to the culture, geographical area and function of what the wearer is doing.

All of this is pretty obvious until you begin to notice that men and women yearn to have a closer relationship to that which is the “Holy Other.” When men and women are called or pulled in by that which is part of the mysterium tremendum, part of the compelling force in and behind life, then things get very, very serious. We all have a desire to live in harmony with life, to find “the right relationship” to how things fit together. The Book of Job, for example, deals seriously with that problem. For the Hebrew, for the Jew, the overwhelming question was “how do you live in a right relationship with God?” For the Jews the answer was in their history and in the prophets. Their history spoke of God’s leading them to a promised land. Their prophets, like Isaiah, spoke of justice, mercy, humility and faithfulness to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The sole repository of this information was The Law. Now The Law was not just the Ten Commandments; it was the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, and it was called The Torah.

Certain scholars specialized in studying the Law and in trying to interpret it, which they did sometimes by referring to the prophets. These men were called rabbis. Those who were “strict constructionists” and very conservative were the Sadducees. The more liberal were the Pharisees, who wanted to make things applicable to every day life. Arguing, reasoning and studying were part of what they did and how they lived.

Now there was a man, named Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews who came to Jesus by night and told Jesus that he knew that Jesus was a teacher who had come from God; for no one could do the things Jesus did unless sent from God. (A very flattering opening gambit.) Jesus speaks of being born from above. Nick rhetorically counters that one can’t re-enter the womb (a typical rabbinic rhetorical device – starting from the literal facts). Jesus replies that what is born of the Spirit is spirit and what is born of the flesh is flesh. One who is born of the Spirit and believes in the Son of Man (Son of God) will be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.

What Nick is being told is that the old mores and folkways, the old patterns of behavior that Israel has followed, that the Jews have followed, that the rabbis have taught – The Law – is not enough. Belief in the teachings of Jesus and in Jesus as the Son of God is the key to living a meaningful and holy life and is the key to entering the kingdom of heaven (which is in effect having a right relationship to God both now and hereafter.) In the storms of life the old shoes for the pilgrimage of faith don’t work. Our job during the fifty weeks of Pentecost is to re-examine our understandings of the nature of Jesus and His teachings and the extent to which we have incorporated them into our lives and to ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

This process and experience is not a casual or “sometime” thing. Some years ago I was celebrating at noon when a figure appeared at the back of the sanctuary. He was stooped and lame. I bid him come in and later talked to him. We became friends. His name was “Nicholas.” Nick was a former professor at Stanford, Harvard and Yale and also an international consultant. “I used to commute on the Concorde,” he once told me. Nick’s health was rapidly deteriorating, and he was in and out of Stamford hospital, where I saw him and gave him communion. Nick had been highly successful as a “rabbi,” or expert in areas of finance and management. He had mastered the mores of our capitalist society. Nick married and divorced three times and had four adult children, with whom he had a very tenuous relationship. Each of them had been damaged by the divorces. Nick and I talked through those relationships, and he began to see where he had failed and the damaged he had done. He realized that he had neglected the area of faith and his relationship to God. Nick’s values, perspective, orientation and life turned around. He changed. Nick still was an expert in his Torah or ways of life, his management expertise, but he realized that he needed something more profound. He needed Christ as well.

Nick’s health tanked and his son took him out to Napa, California, where he died. The son invited me to do the funeral. My knee blew out and I could hardly walk. My son, Chris, out of the blue called up and said, “I’ll take you out.” We flew to San Francisco; I took my cane, wore a pair of sturdy shoes, and did the service. I told the family that I came out because Nick had changed. He had come to terms with his failures and blindness and was sorry. He greatly loved his children. The youngest daughter asked if Nick really loved her and knew that she loved him. I told her “Yes,” and said the same when the older daughter asked the same question. “You see,” I said to all four adult children, “I came out here to honor your father.” A man of learning, he had missed what was important, repented and learned again. In the processes through the love of God he was able to express his love for his family. He was, pardon the expression, “born again.” Was it the power of the Holy Spirit? My son, Chris, brought me home. You see, small miracles do happen every day.

The Nicodemus in the story from The Gospel of St. John continued to be a rabbi, paying attention to the mores and folkways, The Law, but he added to that his discipleship to Christ. He was there at the Crucifixion and prepared Jesus’ body for the tomb (in accordance with The Law). At the same time Nick recognized Jesus as the Son of God and believed in Him.

So too, you and I during this season of Pentecost are called to examine our assumptions and patterns of behavior, our mores and folkways, how we do things (as a parish, corporately, professionally, personally, and familially) and how we integrate Christ into the core of our being. Sometimes we need to make changes. Sometimes we need new shoes for our pilgrimage of faith. Sometimes we discover that we cannot put new wine into old wine skins. Sometimes repentance is called for. Always we need to worship and to let the Holy Spirit work God’s will in our lives. Let us go forth, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Alleluia. Alleluia. Amen.
-Fr. Gage