The Courage to Ask
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

March 12, 2017
Second Sunday in Lent

John 3:1-17

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

A Pharisee, Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.

Quite a mouthful. How do we understand this for today? Religious? Yes. Involved in the local faith community? Yes. In a position of leadership? Yes.

So maybe if we put Nicodemus into today’s church, he might be the moderator of a church, or the chair of a board or committee. Maybe the pastor.

Nicodemus has questions.

Already I like him. Because I have questions, too. In fact, I think it would be a safe bet to say that all of us have questions.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Maybe he does not want others to see him asking Jesus stuff. Asking our questions means we don’t have it all together. It means we don’t have it all figured out.

Asking Jesus questions during the daytime will be the Pharisees’ favorite way of trying to one up Jesus. Like a hostile press conference, the Pharisees are trying to trip Jesus up and show him to be a fraud, a problem, a troublemaker. Well, he is a troublemaker, but it is the good kind of trouble. And he is a problem, but it is the same problem that God’s faithfulness has always presented to human beings. But he is not a fraud.

Maybe Nicodemus comes at night because that is when he can ask a real question and get a real answer.

One of the things about living in a time that is so polarized and divided, whether politically, socially, or theologically, is the knee-jerk reaction to have a position and stick to it, even if it is not what we really believe or have thought through. If “They” believe “That,” then “We” had better believe the opposite.

This does not leave much room for dialogue. It does not allow for us to be works in progress. Have you ever been in a classroom, as a student or a teacher, and you can tell that people do not yet understand the lesson, but no one wants to be the one to raise their hand? If the teacher keeps going, ignorance will pile on ignorance.

Certainty is a problem. Religious certainty is a problem.

A friend of mine was recently helping her church host a community dinner. A group from a very conservative denomination, out training for an international mission, came by. One young man took the whole evening trying to the Gospel to my friend. It is a particular habit of this church to get yourself so certain of your theology, so sure of your rightness, so “strong” in your faith, that you can tell anyone anywhere what it is that God wants and is thinking and how God will judge just about any situation.

This young man spent a lot of time questioning my friend about her salvation.

Had he come with questions, had he been willing to set aside that certainty for a moment, he would have found out he was talking to the pastor of this small church in Brooklyn that serves the homeless, and feeds people, and walks with addicts as they are trying to recovery and not relapse. If he had asked questions instead of making statements he could have discovered he was talking to the first female chaplain to the Fire Department of New York. I think there is a lot he could have learned.

When he walked out, all he left with was what he had walked in with.

The Nicodemus story reminds us that real conversations change us. A few Sundays ago I went to the Ecclesiastical Council of another friend, another woman, another UCCer. She is on her way towards ordination. She went to Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. She was the progressive edge among her fellow students.

Someone asked her how she dealt with that, being the most liberal in a conservative school. She said, it was tough. She told a story. At one point, as students were chatting online, a friend of hers asked her about whether she thought LGBT people should be part of the church. She said yes. His answer was, “If I had known that you believed like you do when we first met, I would never have become your friend.”

She was crestfallen. Really?! She figured she lost a friend.

Later, when they were all back on campus, she summoned the nerve to go up and talk to this, she thinks, former friend. He says that he has signed up to go intern at a much more progressive church. Why? Because he wanted to understand how God was at work in people like my friend. He had the courage to go where he did not know everything. She learned from him what courage was.

Conversations change us. If we let them. The conversation with Jesus changes Nicodemus. By the end of John’s Gospel, he is helping Joseph of Arimathea to care for the body of Jesus after the crucifixion.

In the story of Abraham this morning God says, “Go where I send you. And I will be with you. Whether you are among those who bless you or curse you, I will be with you.”

We proclaim an incarnational Jesus. That the Word became flesh. That God dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

But how often have I tried to get myself perfect before I would bring my stuff to God? How often have I tried to come up with “the right answer” so I could pray to God that God would bless it?

God already knows how imperfect I am. What if, instead, I invite God into my questions, into my doubts, into my uncertainties, into my imperfection. Not so that I could become certain, or perfect. But so that I could be with the God of Abraham, the God of Jesus, the God who walks with me through the valley of the shadow of death.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in his famous little volume Letters to a Young Poet, writes of it this way:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

To invite God into our questions is to remember that God is with us, no matter what. The love of Jesus is present in our defeats, in our victories, and in our day to day slog. We need not be certain in our beliefs to know this. We merely need to ask the questions upon our hearts, and ask God to help us live the questions.

Thanks be to God. Amen.