When I was in Sunday school we had memory verses. Every class had a new one, and was expected to remember the ones we had learned previously. John 3:16 was assigned to 2nd grade. “God so love the world that whoever believes in him should not parish but have everlasting life.” It is good to have such portions of scripture committed to memory. It’s another thing to understand them. Everlasting life seems like a good thing. And it seems that those who do not believe might indeed ‘parish.’ But what does it mean to believe? Do I simply need to believe that God exists? Or do I need demonstrate my belief by living my life in a certain way, following certain laws? Dose belief mean that I must believe that everything in the Bible happened literally. Do I have to believe, in spite of archeological evidence to the contrary, that a flood covered the whole earth killing all except those who found refuge in Noah’s ark? Or that Jesus actually turned five loaves into food for 5,000? How can we receive the promises of faith when we don’t fully understand?
Early in my ministry I met Dan, a young man about my age who had grown up in a faithful family. They brought him to church and showed him what it looked like to put faith into action. Yet at the end of his confirmation class, Dan decided that he couldn’t in good conscience go through with professing his faith and becoming a member of the church because he didn’t believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. Dan knew enough human biology by then that the idea of a virgin birth seemed preposterous. Jesus’ y chromosome had to come from somewhere. That one puzzling, mysterious line in the Apostles’ Creed just didn’t compute and Dan thought that it would be hypocritical to join a church that believed something he did not. So he didn’t join the church, and slowly removed himself from regular participation in the life of the church. How can we receive the promises of faith when we don’t fully understand?
The epistle reading set for today is Romans 4:1-17. Toward the end of that passage we encounter two more mysterious statements of the Christian faith. God can make something out of nothing with only a word. God can raise the dead to life. People who spend their lives looking closely at the natural world will attest that everything is made out of cells and molecules and elements. They can be shaped and reshaped, but everything is made from something. And when living things die, they are dead. Yet the promises of faith are built on assurances of new life given by a God who can call something into being out of nothing. How can we receive the promises of faith when we don’t fully understand?
Iris DeMent was born into a Pentecostal family. The youngest of many children her family struggled with poverty, but were rich in faith. They were the singers of their church and Iris remembers attending revivals that went on every night for six weeks straight, and singing together at home in four part harmony.
But at 16 years old Iris left the church. She had had enough of the focus on heaven and hell and striving every day to stay out of the “bottom side.” She found there were some “usless and damaging things” being taught in her church. In 1992 the first song on her first album reflected her spiritual struggle. It was called “Let the Mystery Be”
Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they all came from
Everybody’s worryin; ‘bout where they’re goina go when the whole thing’s done
But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me
Think I’ll just let the mystery be
Some say once you’re gone your gone forever, some say your gonna come back
Some say you rest in the arms of the Savior if in sinful ways you lack
Some say they’re coming back in a garden - bunch of carrots and little sweet peas
Some say they’re going to place called Glory and I ain’t saying it ain’t fact.
But I’ve heard that I’m on the road to Purgatory and I don’t like the sound of that
‘Cause I believe in love and I live my life accordingly
Think I’ll just let the mystery be
This song is her most popular - it clearly resonates with the experience of many people today. They acknowledge there is a mystery there, but they choose to take a step back, distance themselves from the whole thing. They leave the holy mystery of faith alone, as if it were a pit bull, or poison ivy. Just stay away from it. Let it be.
We need to face it. We just don’t like mysteries – at least not the ones that can’t be wrapped up in an hour episode of Miss Marple or Scooby Doo. The mysteries make us feel uncomfortable. If we can’t explain it, or a tenant of faith does not match with our experience of the world we set it aside, cover it over or look somewhere else.
Church altars are places where our discomfort with the mystery of faith shows up. As I’ve mentioned before altars were put into sanctuaries to symbolize the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, made once and for all for the forgiveness of our sins. For this reason altars are meant to have nothing on them other than the elements of communion which represent the very same mystery, and candles originally put there so the priest could read the communion prayers, and now reinterpreted to signify the light of Christ. Christians are supposed to look at altars, the focal point of the sanctuary, and think about the mystery of our salvation through Christ’s sacrificial death.
But Protestant churches in America put other things on the altar like flowers, plates full of currency or canned goods for the poor. I think part of the reason is that the mystery of the empty altar makes us uncomfortable. We understand flowers, they are soft and beautiful, and they mark special occasions in our lives like birthdays and funerals. We can pretend that the altar is simply a table for the flowers. And we think we understand our offerings as acts of faith. We think giving to the church is what good people do. We think the money we put in the plates is a sign of our righteousness. When we put flowers and money on our altar we obscure the uncomfortable mystery of faith and replace it with comfortable signs that our lives are important before God, and we are good people because we do good things like give money to God.
The trouble is, our salvation is not earned by being good people. This is a major point in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul says Abraham was without works and even that he was an ungodly pagan when he first entered the covenant with God and received the promise of blessing. We are not justified by works. God is not looking for a type of moral goodness that would earn eternal life. Even those who give at the highest levels of volunteer time and money are not buying our way into God’s kingdom. Protestants have typically thought of themselves as defenders of this truth. They point to these writings of Paul and claim that we aren’t justified by works, no penance, no indulgences, no hail Mary’s, however many, will get us into heaven. We are justified by faith.
But what is faith? What does it mean to be a believer? Is it simply to be able to say “I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior” to a stranger at the Park Street Station? Does this mean a Christian is not allowed to have doubts, to question specific doctrines that seem harmful? When faith is interpreted like this it leads people like Iris DeMent to turn away from the church. “I’ve heard that I’m on the road to purgatory and I don’t like the sound of that.”
When Paul lifts up faith over works he is not making it a substitute for moral goodness. Faith is not something we do to earn our righteousness, it’s not the dues we pay for a membership in the covenant. Protestants get it all wrong when we look at the story of Abraham and see an example of heroic faith when God didn’t tell him his destination or give him a GPS, map or compass. “Look at the faith of Abraham – that’s why God made a covenant with him and promised him life.” “Just have faith like Abraham and you too can be saved.”
The problem is that even here that we have a holy mystery of God before us, and we make it into a stumbling block because we turn our eyes away from it, we avoid it, we let it be and then try to work out our salvation on our own. Moving too quickly away from the stumbling block of mystery just moves us further away from the truths of faith that will set us free. The mystery of righteousness is that God gives it to us as a free gift. God makes us righteous, justifies the ungodly, forgives rather than condemns the sinner, dies so that we can be set free for eternal life. It is God’s act, and only God’s act that gives us the status of righteous, and makes us members of the covenant, heirs of the promise. Faith is not something we do at all. It is the key symptom of one whom God has made righteous.
Today’s gospel lesson gives us some more insight into the nature of holy mysteries. The story takes place at night, the time of mysteries and misunderstanding, when a Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to Jesus and they share a puzzling, rather mysterious exchange. Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says, “we Pharisees know you are a teacher from God.” But what Nicodemus thinks he knows becomes a stumbling block. It obscures his ability to hear and receive what Jesus is saying. (Gail O’Day) The Pharisee’s are all rabbis, teachers. And they believe that when rabbis perform miracles or signs they are of God. But John told us back in Chapter One that Jesus was more than just a teacher from God. Jesus is the Word made flesh. Jesus is God. That is a mystery the Pharisees have trouble accepting.
Then Nicodemus misunderstands when Jesus says we must be born anothen. That was an easy mistake because the Greek word has two meanings, again and from above. What Nicodemus hears is mysterious enough. How can a grown person be born again? It’s impossible to climb back into our mother’s wombs. No less impossible, however, than for ancient barren Sarah to conceive and bear Abrahams only son in her old age. When they first heard the news they scoffed just like Nicodemus. Their son’s name, Isaac, means laughter.
But what Jesus means, being born from above, is no less mysterious. What does it mean to be born from God, again? What does it mean to be born by water and the Spirit? Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like the mystery my friend Dan couldn’t abide, that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary? Again, remembering other sections of the Gospel of John can help. In Chapter One we read, “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
This reaffirms what Paul is telling us in his letter to the Romans. Becoming the children of God, heirs to the covenant promise God made to Abraham and Sarah, is not something we can earn by working hard (the will of the flesh), nor can we earn it by our own belief (the will of man). The power to become children of God is given only by God. The metaphor of being born fits faith well. For being born is not something we do. It is something that happens to us. God makes us his children, heirs to the covenant, as a free gift.
Water is a rich symbol in the church. Being born of water reminds each of us of the waters in our mother’s womb. It also reminds us of the waters of baptism, given to most of us gathered here today around the time of our birth. Assumed in the ritual of baptism, no matter how old we are when we receive it, is the joining of our lives with the life of the church. A church which Christians have traditionally looked at as our mother; a church formed by the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Like Jesus those who are born again are conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the church that gives us birth.
But, as one author puts it, “Birth doesn’t happen in a moment; rather, it is a culmination of time and formation of inward parts, substance being knitted. When a child is born, what we hold new in our arms is evidence of a long process of gestation, a ripening of the union of two tiny cells into a unique being. In the Eastern view, our salvation and sanctification is not so unlike that ripening. The work of Christ in us isn’t completed in an instant, but takes a lifetime to fulfill.” (Shannon Schaefer)
In and of itself baptism is not eternal life insurance. To receive baptism and then live one’s life outside of the nurturing protective womb of the church is life-threatening. “Our worship, where we do the truth and constitute the church, is our gestation where we also learn to do it, learn to constitute it. It is the location of our being born again, the place where we are conceived by the Holy Spirit, in both senses – that of conception as beginning where we are given the power to become children of God, and that of conception as imagination and foreseeing, where God holds closely the vision of who we are meant to be and become, carrying us to completion.” (Shannon Schaefer)
This second meaning of conception is generally where the mystery lies. We are meant to be the image of God. We are meant to be the Body of Christ. We are meant to live life as beloved and nobel sons and daughters of the king.
Here is the key to dealing with mystery when it becomes a stumbling block in the life of faith. For as much as the holy mystery of God makes us uncomfortable, and want to turn away from it, focus on ourselves - what we understand and what we can do, or cover it over with pretty flowers, it is the turning away, the covering over that is truly the stumbling block of faith. The Holy Mystery of God’s free gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ is not in itself a stumbling block, it is an essential nutrient for our growth in the life of faith. Perhaps there are portions of the mystery which we must set aside for a time. Let the mystery be beyond our ability to resolve. But we must not turn aside to the extent that we separate ourselves from the living Lord and his church.
Iris DeMent left her parents church at the age of 16 over theological differences. She chose to “let the mystery be” for a long, long time, trying to believe in love and live a good life apart from any church. In 1992 Let the Mystery Be marked a period of success as a singer/songwriter that lasted for four years. Her popularity as a performer at folk concerts and on shows like Prarie Home Companion and the WUMB Folk Festival in Boston continued. But after 1996 the fountain of songs was dry for sixteen years. During that time Iris entered a period of severe depression, the kind that is very debilitating. What she could do was play old familiar gospel songs on piano; song like “I’ve got that old time religion,” “sweet hour of prayer,” “near the cross,” “blessed assurance” and “leaning on the everlasting arms.” Iris said, “Those songs are what I sing when I’m down in the dumps and want to jump off a bridge….All I did was play those songs on piano, and they kept me alive.” Finally in 2004 DeMent recorded a new album full of those songs and she titled it ‘Lifeline.’ Finally, in 2012 Iris’ creativity returned and she had enough to record a new album of original songs.
This is not to say that Iris has solve all the mysteries of faith. “I’m still figuring out how I think about religion and faith,” she said. “I never had any problem with the feeling part of it, that’s been with me since I was 5. Even when I was 16 and left the church because I disagreed with some of the theology, I never questioned the underlying feel and heart of it. I’ve always missed that. A few years ago I found a (nondenominational) church (in Kansas City) where I could have that soul part without all the nonsense. Those kinds of churches are few and far between. There was soul in there that means everything to me.
When we find ourselves standing before a holy mystery, I pray that we will be brave, and patient, not turning away or covering it up, but waiting in trust that when the morning comes God will reveal what we do not understand just now. When we find that we have sinned and are living ungodly lives I pray that we will embrace the mysterious truth that through Jesus Christ God forgives all our sins and makes us right with God, heirs of salvation and the promise of eternal life. And God does that all for us for free. When we find our faith does not measure up to that of Abraham, may we have hope in the God who gives us faith as a symptom of making us his beloved.
I offer two questions for us to meditate on. First, what holy mysteries have troubled you so much that you have taken your eyes away from them, distanced yourself physically or emotionally from the Christian faith to focus on other mundane things? What holy mysteries have you tried to cover over with the result that you obscure the mystery of God’s grace with something easier to understand, but not nearly as life-giving?
Second, is there any nonsense in our church, doctrines or practices that obscure the heart and soul of what we are called to be and do? If Iris DeMent came to our church would she find soul and even mystery without any nonsense?