March 16, 2014: The Patron Saint of Seekers by Rev. Beth Hayward

A story is told about a seeker who set out to discover the meaning of life.  She began by reading everything she could get her hands on, from history to philosophy to religion. She went to lectures; had long and wonderful conversations and received an array of answers to her question.  As her knowledge grew she still found the answer remained elusive. At last she set out searching the far reaches of the world to find the meaning of life. As she travelled she heard about a wise one who could help her. He lived in a far off place deep in the mountains.

She went and climbed up the mountain and finally reached his small hut. She knocked on the door and when the wise one opened it she blurted out her request. “I have come half way around the world to ask you one question: What is the meaning of life?” The man invited her in for tea.  She hadn’t come seeking tea, she only required an answer, but she reluctantly sat down.

As the tea was brewing, she told him about all of the places she’d seen and the people she’d met and the books she’d read. While she was telling him all of this, he put the cup in her hand and started to pour. She was so busy talking that she didn’t notice when the cup was full, so the man kept pouring the tea, until it rolled over the edge of the cup and spilled on her. “What are you doing?” she yelled as the tea burned her hand. “It’s full, can’t you see that? Stop. There’s no more room.”

“Just so” the man told her. “You’ve come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There’s no more room in your cup. Come back when it’s empty and we’ll talk.”[1]

*****

Another story is told about a spiritual seeker from another moment in time: his name was Nicodemus.  He was a Pharisee, had dedicated his life to learning the law: the foundation of his religious tradition.  A learned one, he was well respected and by all accounts wise and faithful, an esteemed leader of his faith tradition.  Something was stirring in his soul and he began to feel that there was more: he went out seeking.  He came to Jesus in the night:  looking for an answer and receiving instead a metaphorical cup of tea.  Why he came in the night we can only speculate:  that was after all when a disciplined Pharisee would study.  Or perhaps he found himself in a dark night of the soul.  It’s plausible that he awoke from a restless sleep in the middle of the night: the way we do when something has hold of our mind and we can’t shake it.  Perhaps his head was spinning:  what am I doing with my life?  Have I dedicated my entire life to something that’s so incomplete?  Who is this Jesus?  Is what they say about his true? Perhaps he awoke, head spinning and went to the source to find out more, to follow these new stirrings in his soul.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus having heard that this man knows the meaning of life, having heard that this man turns water into wine, heals the sick and raises the dead, he’s even heard whispers that this one is the Messiah and speaks of a kingdom the is mysterious and new.  When Nicodemus arrives at Jesus’ door that night he comes with his cup filled up:  with the book learning of a lifetime unmatched by most in his society.  But unlike the wise teacher who sends the woman away:  Jesus offers grace and gift, pours his offering into the seeker’s full cup, in spite of the fact that there’s no room, dousing him with a gracious gift and trusting that a drop might claim a place in a cup filled up with too many answers and not enough wonder.

I expect Jesus would have preferred if Nicodemus had shown up with his cup empty: that would have made for a much more efficient sharing, less messy indeed.  But an empty cup is clearly not prerequisite for receiving the graces of this spiritual leader.  Which, oddly enough, is what Jesus had been trying to tell people:  come as you are, cup empty or full, knowing it all or knowing nothing at all.  However you come just be sure to show up:  to keep seeking, to keep placing yourself in those places that will evoke your memory of the source of your very being.  It is in these places that you will be lavished in grace and broken open to the possibilities of the universal love that birthed us and allures us ever toward a growing and complex oneness.

Nicodemus has been stereotyped as the dim witted dolt who couldn’t even get his head around Jesus message.  He’s one of those Biblical characters you don’t want to be compared to: because he’s obviously so utterly dense.  From another angle he might be lifted up as a rather accurate example of an honest to goodness spiritual seeker. He comes to Jesus looking for more, saying:   there is something about you that tells me you are pointing to something large and true and amazing.  To which Jesus breaks into what Michael Dowd terms night language, into metaphor, into spiritual talk.  It must have been for him a bit like going on one of those language immersion experiences where you find yourself living with a family that only speaks some foreign language and you are expected to learn it by being in their presence.  Nicodemus must have been completely disoriented by what Jesus was saying to him.  He arrives with a sincere, straightforward observation that seems to demand a yes or no response:  “We know you are a teacher who has come from God.”  Yes or no Jesus, is this true?

Instead he is flooded with a barrage of metaphors that continue to leave our heads spinning. “Like most of us Nicodemus is limited by the familiar ‘word world’ the world he knows best.  He responds in his best left-brain, legal-scholar, word-parsing mode.  He seeks tricks and dead-ends and practical impossibilities.  It is all he knows how to see.  Yet Jesus persists with his right-brain, heart vocabulary, with fertile images of wind spirit and expansive love.”[2]

First it’s the claim that:  “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again (from above).”  Nicodemus, like us, knows that’s not physically possible.  The less he understands the more Jesus persists with his night language.  He just keeps pointing toward and embodying the truth of a love that is wide and true and all-encompassing and so much larger than our day language will allow, so much bigger than our left brain logic, our culturally created parameters.

Since John’s gospel doesn’t include a 20th century fundamentalist Christian definition of being born again we are left in the swirl of this night language scratching our heads:  what can this guy possibly be getting at? Those who have claimed to hold all of the theological answers to the question:  “Are you born again?,” have insisted that it requires a yes or no response.  What if it’s not a question of logic or achievement but rather a question of attitude.  Are you open to knowing the work of Spirit in ways that you have never thought of before?  Are you born anew: to hearing God’s voice in the places you wouldn’t expect?  Are you born anew: that you might keep stepping into the places that leave you feeling blown away with wonder, even if you can’t find words to describe it? Even if you risk losing everything you know to be true?

“According to the gospel of John, [being born again] is a gradual journey from night to day, from darkness to light.  It is a daily pilgrimage from belief as reciting a creed to belief as opening the door to your soul and letting [the way of Christ in]:”[3]   Which might explain why Jesus doesn’t seem to care that Nicodemus’ cup was full with years of formation in the rigours of his institutional faith.  Being born again is not a destination, it is an orientation:  a willingness to embrace the spiritual journey. If we could reclaim some of the rich night language and metaphor of this faith tradition in which we are rooted, if we could reclaim terms like “born again,” as a process instead of a destination, we just might begin to orient ourselves to the truly awesome scope of what Jesus was pointing towards, toward a truly cosmic spiritual story.

When Jesus speaks of being born again:  he speaks of grace, that most poignant of theological night language.  Grace, it has been said, is what God is doing at the depths of your life by the power of the Holy Spirit.[4]

What does God want to do through the power of the Holy Spirit at the depth of our life?  What an appropriate question in this season of Lenten reflection.  How are you being urged to evolve in your understanding of what you know? Which of the stories you tell yourself to believe really needs to be turned on its head with the unpredictable wind of Spirit that you might be born again?  Likewise for our faith community:  what does God want to do through the power of the Holy Spirit at the depth of our life together?  How are we called to be born again, to loosen our grip on what we know to be true that we might touch and taste and feel a radical kingdom of love?

*****

It all begins with a cup of tea: washing over our resistant hand after an exhausting climb up another mountain, a cup of tea shared with a stranger in the mysterious cocoon of a sleepless night.  A cup of tea washing over all we know to be true and leaving behind a deeper thirst than we ever imagined the night could bring.    It all begins with a cup of tea.

There is a proverb that comes from the Balti people of Pakistan that goes like this: The first time you share tea, you are a stranger. The second time, you are an honored guest. The third time, you become family.

Nicodemus shares three metaphorical cups of tea with Jesus in John’s gospel.  The story today is the first – strangers.  Later he will come to Jesus’ defense in the midst of a heated argument – honoured guest.  Finally he will help with the burial of Jesus’ body – family.

Each time we share tea, we encounter the possibility of being born again.  Each time we come face to face with the stranger, the honoured guest or the ones we name family we are given an opportunity for our cups to be filled and our longing to be stirred.

We are invited to orient ourselves to being born again, to see and feel that we are awash in the story of universal love, the story of the Christ light stirring in the depths of our lives in the aching of our hearts.  We are invited to come face to face and cup to cup with stranger, guest and family in this place and in the varied places where we make our way.

As one scholar so wisely claims: “Nicodemus is pursuing the path that begins in the darkness of the womb, is continually reborn in the dark night of the soul and ends on this earth, in the darkness of the tomb.”[5]  Such is the journey of Lent, the journey of life… might we pursue this journey guided by the questions and seeking ever to touch the stirrings at the depths of our lives. AMEN



[1] As recounted by Barbara Brown Taylor, “Stay for Tea, Nicodemus,” Christian Century, 21 February 1996.

 

[2] Patricia Farris, “Late-Night Seminar,” The Christian Century, January 30-February 6 2002, p.19.

[3] Alyce McKenzie, “Nicodemus’s Non-Decision: Reflections on John 3:1-16,” www.patheos.com, March 20, 2011.

[4] Ibid, quoting Richard Hietzenrater

[5] Particia Farris, ibid