February 24, 2002
I was in worship yesterday doing my best to listen to the preacher, for I value her insight into the relationship between GOD and Life. As I listened her cadence caught me hearing one thing while she was saying another. I suspect this is not unusual for you experience in everyday life as well as in worship.
The preacher was describing an important scene in the Bible that used the phrase "sat in ashes." This is Lent and you may have some idea about that old phrase since the Lenten season has been described as a time for sorrow and penitence once described as one having "sat in ashes."
You may well be ahead of me when I tell you I heard the phrase, "satin ashes."
"Satin ashes" seems to be one of those oxymorons like these I found on the internet, "military intelligence," "just war" or "United Methodists."
I am here to remind you that in hard times, when mourning deeply, there is nothing better to wear than ashes. They fit the situation to a "T." Without those ashes in Esther's day the Jews would not have been saved from a plot against them.
With my mishearing I learned more than I expected. while the world though Mordecai sat in scratchy, itchy ashes they were really holy ashes, satin ashes leading to the salvation of a whole people.
In today's gospel reading from John you heard something similar to an oxymoron, a word with a double meaning that has posed problems for Christians in later times because all we have is the printed word attributed to Jesus and miss his presence that allows being as playful in our reading as he appears to be in his speaking. Is it any wonder John calls Jesus, "The WORD of GOD."
The word in question, in the original Greek is "anothen." It is untranslatable because it means two things. The way you have usually heard it translated is, "you must be born again." The Bibles that translate it in terms of time, "again," usually put a second choice in a footnote. The other choice would be translated, "you must be born from above." The Bibles that translate it in terms of place, "above," usually put "again" in a footnote as a second choice.
Why would I risk boring a congregation with this technical information about having to choose between an emphasis upon space or time?
It is because we are constantly being asked to make false religious choices when the larger vision of Jesus would have us play with both sides of an issue to come to a larger understanding. This is called both/and thinking, rather than either/or thinking.
If we only have the printed word of the Bible we are forced into some bad choices. If we have the Holy Spirit and a community of faith where we can talk together about our various understandings we are led into a larger vision of life with an expansive and expanding and living GOD.
In Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus we find Nicodemus being very much like us -- tending toward boiling everything down to one simplified literal meaning rather than looking at how much more is available to us.
Jesus plays word games with Nicodemus to try to awaken his sense of mystery of GOD. As long as Nicodemus thinks he has it all figured out at the simplest, literal meaning, at the most fundamentalist, legal meaning, then Nicodemus is missing the point of relating with an expansive and expanding and living GOD who is always in the adventure of making all things new.
So often we use words as though we know more than can be known. We so often try to explain exactly what an experience with a loving, living, growing GOD is all about when all we know is one small moment and event.
Nicodemus, like us, tries to pin Jesus down so we could completely understand him, but Jesus was patient in relating with Nicodemus.
Here you need to know that Nicodemus who here came to Jesus in the dark and went away scratching his head, later came to help claim his dead body for an honorable burial. Something happened from Jesus' word play to move Nicodemus from looking for a static explanation of a living GOD to Nicodemus recognizing that Jesus was a gateway to GOD.
My hope and prayer is that you and I and our unchurched neighbors will come to appreciate the playfulness of Jesus and GOD. Being dead earnest in our religious sensibilities only leads to the walking dead, not to joyful living. We yet yearn to be born into today.
In light of this play on words I think it is possible to vision anew the "kingdom" or "realm of GOD" in both its time of recognition and place of action. It is possible for us to take both seriously and lightly that GOD's time is now, and always. We can look closely and comprehensively to find GOD's place is here, and everywhere.
This playing with an ancient work in a foreign-to-us language of Greek, "anothen," can lead us to experience this day and this time as GOD's time; and lead us to know this place and this neighborhood as GOD's space.
In this play we are energized to be with GOD, here and now.
In this play we can hear anew a call to be born into this here-and-now to join GOD in making a difference that the "kingdom of GOD" might re-create us and all.
In this play we can hear these old words come alive:
For GOD so loved the world that GOD became one with Jesus, Emanuel, "GOD with us," that we might move from destruction, simple literalism, confusion to living playfully, both/and, understanding. Jesus came not to point an accusing finger saying, "You just don't get it," but to help put the world right through play, passion and purpose.
Let us pray:
GOD of here-and-now,
Copyright 2002. Wesley White, Pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church. 1022 Caledonia Street, La Crosse, WI 54603.