Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Nic at Night

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  John 3:1-17

A very long time ago, I was a youth minister.  Yes indeed, I served my time organizing mission trips and spring break ski trips and, despite my aversion to sleep-deprivation, even lock-ins.  I remember one particular lock-in.    There were some rowdy games going on, but one teenage girl seemed ready to head for bed.  It was probably 2:00 in the morning so I was ready too.  We headed off for a quiet area and spread out our sleeping bags.  I was thinking that I was actually going to get some sleep when she started talking.  I lay there in the dark and listened as she told me all kinds of things – her fights with her mother, what she liked about her boyfriend, what she wanted to do when she went to college, things that she had never told me before, that she would not have told me in the daylight. During the day, we’re busy, but at night we think.  We lie awake wondering.  We’re open to the stars, and the wind, and to new life.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night.  He might have wanted to go in secret, to avoid being seen by others and associated with Jesus.  But I think he went at night because that’s when he could not talk himself out of it.  When the stars were out and the wind blew, he felt the stirring of God and he had to go.

Nic is educated and financially well-off.  He has usually had a significant amount of control over his own life and the lives of others. He is a member of the Sanhedrin, which is something like the Supreme Court of Israel.  He has religious and political power. Today, we would call him privileged.

Despite his privilege, it seems that Nic was having a hard time. He  was dealing with a mess in his professional life.  “Pontius Pilate, Herod and Caiaphas were in charge of the life of the nation of Israel, and it was a rather recent arrangement that had brought them together.  We might see them as the President, the Chief of Staff and the Attorney General of the first century.   Together they possessed the same elitism, greed, and willingness to inflict great human suffering and division to establish their own power”[1] that we are witnessing in the 21st century.

Nic seems to be a decent guy.  He had probably been working in government for some years, always hoping that things would get better, that people would pull together to support the values they had always espoused as God’s people and to preserve the culture and life of the nation.  But, now, especially with Pilate’s cruelty on display, he is discouraged.

Maybe he was hearing rumors about this man Jesus, rumors that carried a certain hope that Jesus could offer a way out of the current political and religious mess.

If that is what was going on for Nic, then given the mess we’re living through, I really want to know more about Jesus’ response. 

Here’s the thing:  Jesus’ response doesn’t sound political at all.  It’s all theology and spirituality.  And so first, I think, this probably means that I need to pay more attention to spirituality and less to politics.  That’s the solution.  But then, I remember two more actions that Nic took after this conversation.  In chapter 7, he advocates to the Sanhedrin for Jesus’ right to a trial.  He says, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing.”  That sure sounds more political than spiritual to me.  And then, after Jesus dies on the cross, it is Nicodemus who brings 100 pounds of spices and wraps the body in linen with the help of Joseph of Arimathea and together they bury him. Is burying someone a political act? – not usually, but in this case, they are burying a criminal executed by the state and they had to get permission from Pontius Pilate to do. 

So even if Jesus’ words were mostly spiritual, it seems that they informed and influenced Nic’s politics.  And I remember some other words of Jesus.  I remember that he said, “You shall love the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind.”  So maybe Jesus is asking Nic to be all in.  If politics is your thing, then love God in your politics.  If theology is your thing, then love God there.  Love God with heart, soul and mind.  Love God with all you’ve got.  Don’t try to separate your spirituality and your politics.  That sounds good and of course, it supports what I already think, so it must be right, right?

And then I realize that I am doing what Nic was doing. I am trying to make sense of Jesus within the categories I already understand.  Jesus is speaking about wind and spirit, about new birth, about transformation.  I’m trying to parse his words, to break them apart and put them back together with labels I think I understand.

Nic is more honest than I am.  When Jesus says, “you must be born of wind”, Nic answers, “How can these things be?”  Nic has jumped through all the hoops.  He has earned all the right credentials.  He understands the system.  Until recently, he thought he knew how to work it.  Jesus seems to be free from all that.  He talks mystery, outside the system.  Nic is probably terrified.  It threatens all that he has known, the nice tidy life he has made for himself. 

What Jesus is saying to Nicodemus might be something like this, “God will move as God decides to move, and you won't know where from or where to. But Nicodemus whoever trusts me and trusts my way of living will find God moves in   them. They will find God completes them, heals them, and lets them see a completely different life,  a completely different way of being them. Trust me. Stick with me. Follow me." [2]

“God will move as God decides to move.”  Right.  And my categories raise their heads again and reassemble into new questions.  Like: how does God move in our lives?  When and where does our transformation happen?  What do we contribute?  Can we speed up the process or slow it down? 

Anne Lamott is a compelling writer; someone who has followed Jesus for many decades now.  But it was not always so.  In her book Traveling Mercies, she tells the story of how she resisted being born of wind or born from above.  For months she had been sneaking into the back row of pews in St. Andrew’s Church.  She writes; "I always left before the sermon. I loved singing, even about Jesus, but I just didn’t want to be preached at about him. . . . But the church smelled wonderful, like the air had nourishment in it, or like it  was composed of these people’s exhalations, of warmth and faith and  peace¼¼But it was the singing that pulled me and split me wide open¼¼.something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and  tender. Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions  that kept me so isolated. Sitting there, standing with them to sing,  sometimes so shaky and sick that I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger  than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life."

Then Anne discovered she was pregnant.  The father was someone she had just met.  He was married and not someone she wanted a baby with.  So she had an abortion and then, feeling very sad, she proceeded to get very drunk.  On the seventh night, still drunk, she started bleeding heavily.  It didn’t stop. She thought she should get medical attention, but she was so disgusted with herself for being so drunk a week after an abortion that she just couldn’t bring herself to wake someone up and ask for help.   Several hours later, the bleeding stopped and she got into bed and turned off the light. 

She continues, “After a while, as I lay there, I became  aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years, when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on  the light for a moment to make sure no one was there---of course, there  wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that  it was Jesus.  . .  And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious  progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I  became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply  could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, ‘I would rather die.’”

“The experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever. So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my house door whenever I entered or left.”

“And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling – and it washed over me.”

“I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along my heels,  . . . and I opened the door to my house, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said  [some words I can’t say in church,] I quit.” I took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in.” So this is my beautiful moment of conversion.” [3]

And thus began a unanticipated transformation that will not be completed in her lifetime.  I still don’t have much clarity on the answers to my who, what, when, where and how questions.  What did she contribute?  She took herself to the back of the church.  She put herself in a place where the music and the love could begin healing.  Maybe that is a clue that it doesn’t take very much of an opening for God to work. 

And I am reminded that  God will move as God decides to move, and we won't know where from or where to. But Nicodemus or Anne or Kathy … whoever trusts me and trusts my way of living will find God moves in   them. Trust me. Stick with me. Follow me."

Sisters and brothers, how do we get ourselves out of the mess we’re in? Maybe we don’t.  Maybe we can’t.  Maybe it will take the wind of the Spirit moving as and when God directs.  Maybe all we can do is put ourselves somewhere at the back, staying open to God’s healing and love and power.  Maybe all we can do is trust and follow.  Please don’t think I’m saying that we should do nothing.  Remember that Nicodemus took at least two bold actions after this conversation.   But maybe, trusting and following, beyond our usual categories, into the mystery, maybe that will be all the help God needs from us.

“To be born of the wind is to trust our life to the God who gives birth to us . . .

To be born of the wind is to live as those born of love,”[4] for God is love.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] I am indebted to Nancy Rockwell for her insights about Nicodemus and the parallels to the USA today in her essay “Nicodemus’ Dilemma and Ours” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/nicodemus-dilemma-and-ours/  

[2] Andrew Prior, pastor of Hare Street Uniting Church, Kurralta Park, South Australia in personal correspondence

[3] Anne Lamott  Traveling Mercies, (New York:  Random House, 1999),, pp. 46-50

[4] Rev. Dr. Laura Mendenhall  in her sermon “Born of the Wind”  http://day1.org/677-born_of_the_wind