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Sermon for March 22, 2015 / Lent IV

Begrudging and Forgiving

There was a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who was a Pharisee. After dark one evening, he came to speak with Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

“What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.”

“How are these things possible?” Nicodemus asked. Jesus replied, “You are a respected Jewish teacher, and yet you don’t understand these things? I assure you, we tell you what we know and have seen, and yet you won’t believe our testimony. But if you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from heaven. And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.
John 3:1-17 New Living Translation
I’ve been thinking about pits this week; pits, like holes in the ground, not pits like the center of fruit or the pit in NASCAR racing. I’m talking pits as in: money pit, snake pit, The Pit and the Pendulum, tar pit, mosh pit, bottomless pit, pit viper, the pit of depression, the Pit of Despair and “that’s the pits,” in other words, the worst, most despicable example of something. In the verb form, to pit is to set someone or something in conflict or competition with another. The CIA’s torture report from last December mentioned a notorious prison site in Afghanistan known as the Salt Pit, where untrained CIA operatives conducted unauthorized, unsupervised interrogation there. Most pits are not friendly places.  A pit represent a sense of isolation and a lack of connection with one’s community or family. The pit is the place where one feels fear and nervousness.

In spiritual terms, a pit is the abode of evil spirits. In Hebrew scripture, The Pit is a deathly, dreary, dark, disorderly land in the bowels of the earth where dead souls go.  In Greek and Roman thought, we get the image of the realm of Hades, the Abyss, or the bottomless, fiery pit of destruction saved for the devil and his minions. In some cultures, volcanoes are seen as the entry to the afterlife, since gods lived inside the fiery pit.

Pits remind us of hardness. Separation. Isolation. Punishment

There is another “pit” word with negative meaning: The pit of the stomach. Just as you can love someone from the bottom of your heart, you can also experience a sensation of dread and fear in the pit, or bottom, of your stomach.

I had one of those fear-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach-experiences last week. I had worrisome, radiating chest pains and ended up driving myself to the hospital emergency room. I will say this: The medical staff was wonderful. The experience itself was horrible. After an initial EKG, I was eventually ushered into a waiting room inside another waiting room – a pit of sorts – a holding area for patients like me who needed to be observed but for whom there was nowhere else to go. I was in a small room with eight or so chairs full of people getting blood work done, people with IV bags hanging off of wall hooks, people sitting there for hour upon hour having almost zero interaction. People in pain. People with no privacy, some in hospital gowns, sleeping in chairs or staring at the floor. There I was, worrying about what was wrong with me, separated from my family and isolated from any comfort. The longer I sat there, the worse my chest pain seemed to grow. After eight hours of waiting, with some tests thrown in to break up the monotony, doctors admitted me to a windowless observation room to spend the night. Spend the night does not mean sleep. With crashing doors, dissonant alarms, and one bathroom for everyone to share at the end of the hall; with the constant poking and monitoring; with the 6 AM phone call to ask me what I want for breakfast, there is no sleep. It is no wonder many patients are grumpy in the hospital. Patients are sleep deprived. The experience is not made for connection. There is no sense of community. It’s designed to isolate people, and patients can feel disconnection and disorientation.

I’m OK, by the way. I did not have a cardiac event. My heart and lungs are in great shape. My stress level, on the other hand, needs some management. Nothing like 24 hours in the hospital to prompt some soul searching. I’ll save that sermon for another time.

Let’s get back to pits. Imagine a great pit of water, shady and fathomless. The word pit actually comes from an Old English word meaning “water hole,” It’s murky. It’s scary. Primordial chaos. Now imagine the slightest of breezes stirring the water and dispersing its shadows.  Imagine wind blowing over the formless void. It’s an image of creation from the book of Genesis. In the beginning there was darkness. Just a gaping void.  Suddenly, a wind – the breath of the Creator – sweeps over the face of the formless, shadow-shrouded deep. Creation ripples into being under the brooding scrutiny of God's breath. Darkness give way to light. The formless water gives birth.

When I think of Jesus promising heaven, I go back to this image of a gentle wind blowing over a deep pit of water. As I read John 3, I get a sense that hardness and separation give birth to a new creation with some gentle influence. The wind of God stirs our sense of connection and unity.

Sometimes human nature doubts this, in a world where violence and aggression seem to rule the day, not to mention Christian theology. Violence, separation and isolation have been the go-to metaphors used to describe what happens to someone who dies without Jesus. You spend eternity in utter desolation, imprisoned by God in the pit of Hell.  Many of us were taught that God punishes or even tortures those who do not love him. Teachers used Bible verses like John 3:16 to prove it. If you believe in the Son of God, you will be saved, which also means the inverse is true: if you reject the Son of God, then God will reject you.

If our notion of heaven is based on exclusion of another, then it is by definition not heaven. The more we exclude, the more hellish our existence will be. How could anyone enjoy the perfect happiness of any heaven if she knew her loved ones were not there, or were being tortured for all eternity?

I don’t think Jesus is talking about saving us for some future heaven. In ancient times the sense of community and connectedness was seen as holy because of the strength and health it gave to a family and a community. Being saved, or born again, can be about nurturing a growing feeling of unity with others.  For me, this is the essence of John 3:16. For this is how God loved the world: God gave the one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Connection. Community. Relationship. It’s not so much about an individual sense of righteousness, but the healing and wholeness of the community – a sense of re-connection with life itself.

It’s about the deep listening and faithful emerging of who we truly are as God’s creation.

So, there is nothing like a hospital stay to get one thinking about life. I’ve done A LOT of thinking over the past few days about how temporary life is; how much we take for granted and how short a time we have here on this Earth. I’ve been considering how I spend so much time on trivialities and how often I forget to do things that are really important.  I’m coming to believe that learning to live deeply in this present moment is not only the greatest challenge facing us, but also the grandest place to experience heaven. The more grounded I am in the present, the more aware I am of the presence of God here and now.

I’ve been thinking about how, in the face of death, we need real connections and deep community to save us from formless voids of isolation. How do we, as communities, develop and nurture sacred connections that lead to salvation? I keep coming back to one idea: forgiveness. We must grow our capacity to forgive. Because the pit is not just an external holding tank. Speaking for myself, the pit is all of the experiences and attitudes that lurk in the shadows of my own heart. When I foster anger, bitterness or vengeance in my own life, I am pulled out of relationship with others. I end up isolated, alone, and tempted to think life would be better if all those other jerks weren’t making it so difficult.

Then, a gentle stirring happens – a wind that stirs the dank water of self-deception and reveals new possibilities. Perhaps someone did me wrong. In the opinion of that person I was the offender. It doesn't matter now. Let past bitterness go. With forgiveness lies our hope for healing.  We learn to open our hearts and answer feelings of danger with. Make peace with someone with whom you recently have had strained relations. They might be a little chilly at first, but conditions will quickly ameliorate. Be uncharacteristically good-natured and watch the world give you maximum respect. That’s what it means to be born anew – born of wind and spirit.

We bumble along, focusing on minutiae, worrying and fretting away our days, too often worrying about things which will either never happen, or things over which we have no control.  We worry about petty slights and hurt egos. We take ourselves way to seriously. It’s all a distraction. I don't know about you but it has been my experience that my faith is strongest, I feel most close to God when I participate in community, when I care about others, and when I let go of my certainties and remain open to the guiding of God's Spirit. For me, that’s what it means to be born again – born of wind and spirit.

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