Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sermon: Practice Courage

A Sermon preached in 
Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate

The Second Sunday of Lent

RCL Year A, 12 March 2017

Open our Lips, O Lord,

that our mouth shall proclaim your praise. Amen

Listen here

In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark[1],
Barbara Brown Taylor tells about
her 8-year old friend Anna,
whom Taylor invited (with her mom)
to the farm house one day.
Taylor was sure that Anna would love
to help her catch the chickens and
move them from pen to pen.

If you know anything about chickens,
moving them during the day
when they are wide awake can become mayhem.
The chickens will scream and
fling themselves against the wire,
as if they have heard stories about people
who ring their necks and then eat them for supper. 
Chickens will crash into each other,
lose their feathers and
can actually die of fright right in front of you
if the conditions are right. 

But, at night,
when chickens are already nestled in their beds,
they act as if they have  “had two martinis.” 
They chuckle when a farmer enters the coop
and allow her to scoop them up into her apron
– even five at a time –
while the others wait patiently for their turn. 
After dark is the time to move chickens.

So Taylor invited Anna to the help one evening.  Taylor led Anna slowly
down the path towards the chicken coop,
about 50 yards from the house,
just down a hill from the garage. 

Although the moon was nearly full,
Taylor shined the flashlight on the path
to help her friend find the way.
She explained how although it is dark now,
Anna’s eyes would eventually adjust.
“I can’t see!” Anna complained.
Taylor continued to lead,
coaching and exclaiming
how beautiful were sounds of
the cicadas singing and the fireflies blinking.
Taylor knew that the joy of moving chickens
was just beyond the darkness. 

When Taylor realized Anna was not behind her,
she headed back up the hill
and found Anna sobbing where she had stopped,
immobilized by fear, in the moonlit night. 

See, Anna was a city girl and
walking in the dark takes practice.  (pause, repeat)

Everyone in Anna’s life had
taught her to fear the dark,
taught her that darkness is dangerous,
taught her that
anything she cannot see can hurt her,
taught her that the best protection is
to stay inside after dark with the doors locked and
to sleep with the lights on.

And you know you will do
anything in your power
to prevent a child from being fearful. 
If night does that, well, then you
buy a lamp for her room and
project stars on the ceiling and
make an ambient dusk to protect her from fear.

Anna’s fear that particular night,
just 50 yards from the house,
may seem unfounded to us,
but our bravery comes from earned courage.
Courage that is no more than managed fear.
Courage that is practiced over and over
in situations that are scary but not dangerous. 
In experiences like darkness.

Perhaps Nicodemus wanted to practice courage,
for courage is what it took him,  
a big-shot religious man
with a bright theological reputation to uphold,
to check in on Jesus
who was in Jerusalem that day. 

It took courage for Nicodemus
to ask someone he barely knew,
but knew “about,”
for deeper understanding. 
It took courage, but he had a hunch
that in the darkness he might find wisdom. 

But then Jesus tells him that
basically, it boils down to getting born again.
And then, in the deep, fearful dark of that hour,
a gust of wind must have come down the chimney,
making the embers burst into flame.

Jesus paused and said,
“Yep, being born again is like that –
it’s not something you did, the wind did it. 
The Spirit did it. 
It was something that happened, for God’s sake.”[2]

How can this be? Nic wondered aloud.
And, according to pastor Frederick Buechner,
that’s when Jesus explained
what Spirit looks like,
“…there are people [in poverty,]
walking around with the love-light in their eyes,
and ex-cons teaching Sunday Schools,
and undertakers scared silly
we’ll put them out of business... 
I’m telling you,” Jesus continued,
” …God’s got such a thing
for this loused-up planet
that God sent me down here
so that if you don’t believe your own eyes,
maybe you’ll believe mine, or me,
or you won’t come
sneaking around at night in the dark.”

But what convinced Nicodemus even more
was the rushing of his own breath and
the racing of his own heart,
an unusual feeling of excitement
that made him blush. 
*That* was when Nic realized
he was practicing courage, in the dark. *Pause*

Last weekend, our vestry & parish leadership
met for a spiritual retreat.
The retreat leader invited all of us
to practice courage by sharing
when we felt most close to God and
most far away from God. 
Several responses revealed that
in the darkest moments of
tragedy, crisis or deepest doubts,
God came close and touched lives. 
We heard about meeting Jesus
in the “dark night of the soul.” 
We also heard about never feeling close to God. 

That is when we all realized
that everyone is on a spiritual path of some kind.
Sometimes that path goes
just fifty yards from our house,
just beyond the garage and
is waiting there in the dark.

Today, Nicodemus invites us
to meet Jesus there in the dark.
Are you there now? 
Are you afraid, or just trying to find your way?
Are you not sure what you believe?

There, in the dark, Jesus patiently hears questions
and shows how to practice courage,
because he has heard it all before.
There, in the dark, Jesus offers to help,
to teach, to liberate, to clarify the way and
to strengthen us for the journey.
There, in the dark of our Lenten Quiet Night,
we can experience
something scary but not dangerous:
how to cultivate the virtue of Dying Well.
There, in the dark of Lent, we practice courage because its cousin is practicing resurrection.

Resurrection is coming on Easter, but not yet.

Today, in the scary but not dangerous dark,
Jesus affirms in the last verse of the gospel
that we will be saved, saying,
“God sent the Son into the world not to condemn, but so that the world might be saved through him.”

In that verse, the word “world,”
from the Greek “kosmos,”
refers to a place that is hostile to God.

So, we can read,
“God did not send the son into the world
to condemn even this world that despises God
but instead so that the world that rejects God
might still be saved through the Son.” 
Might *still* be saved

God’s love is
that unexpected, that bold, that abundant.
And, God’s love is meant for all – yes, all –
even as threats are made against
our Jewish brothers and sisters
whose cemeteries have been desecrated
and community centers threatened. 
God’s love is meant for all – yes, all –
even as there is increased animosity
directed toward
our Muslim brothers and sisters since 9/11
and more recently. 
God’s love is meant for all – yes, all – and
God calls us, therefore, to see persons of other faiths (and of no faith) through the lens
of that profound and surprising love.

There is no better way to share our faith
than to practice courage in the dark.
There is no better way to be real Christians
than to say how our spiritual hunger
is satisfied by the love of God
that is bigger than we can ask or imagine. 
That is where the Spirit gives birth in our lives.
That is where we feel
the rushing of our own breath and
the racing of our own heart.

Courage, my friends. 
Go into the dark. 
Leave your flashlight on the porch. 
Find that place of darkness this Lent,
where Jesus will meet you
in your doubts, fears, anger, and struggles.

May we, this Lent, come to Jesus by night
and be born again with courage, water and Spirit. 


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk In the Dark, (New York, HarperCollins, 2014) p. 33-38

[2] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, (New York, Harper & Row, 1979), p. 121-123