Getting "Schooled" (Lent 2, Year A)
The following sermon was preached by Kimberly Vaughn, LSTC M.Div. senior, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, February 20, 2008.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Judeans. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs [or as The Message paraphrases it, 'the God-pointing, God-revealing acts'] that you do apart from the presence of God." (John 3:1-2)
My father, the late Reverend Emory C. Vaughn, was a Nicodemus type of person. Daddy was tall, soft-spoken and intense, nicknamed "Doc" by his siblings. He was inquisitive and highly intelligent, graduating near the top of his high school class. But he never had the chance to go to college. For many blacks such a thing was rare in the 1930s. Instead, he married and worked two or three jobs to feed his family. But he had great dreams and he wanted more for his children. One of his legacies to his many descendents was this charge: "Never be afraid to ask 'why?'" Daddy loved reading. He collected books and built his own personal library. Late at night, after everyone had gone to bed, he often was found reading – science, literature, theology, almanacs – you name it. He even learned basic Greek! He became a Baptist minister and helped to start a homeless men's mission in Cleveland. When he wasn't working, reading, preaching or spending time with us, he was usually talking someone's ear off about whatever was on his mind, late into the night. My father's thirst for knowledge and insight drove others crazy, for he was tireless with his interrogations.
When Daddy was in his 40s, a Lutheran church moved into the neighborhood. The young pastor there was African American, and this intrigued Daddy. He went and met the new pastor and they developed a mentoring relationship – an established minister and a minister just starting out. Daddy began going to this Lutheran church, curious to know what it was all about. That poor young pastor had no idea what he was in for. My father always came prepared with questions or debate topics. "What's a Lutheran? Why would blacks be Lutheran? Explain baptism." The pastor sometimes came over for dinner, and this often turned into an all-nighter.
Those late-night sessions were memorable. If you've ever participated in late-night debates with friends, something happens. You might be tired from a long workday, stressed beyond belief, but when conversation gets good, suddenly you're alert. You've forgotten that you promised to stop and pick up milk and come right home. You had planned to go to bed early tonight. Your to-do list has suddenly become your to-don't list, because something tells you to stay where you are – this discussion is important. Sit back down, and be prepared to learn something.
What is it about night-time conversations? What is it that makes the evening a prime time for transformation or learning? So many people thrive in evening adult education courses or bible studies or prayer services. People of all cultures across history have gathered around campfires telling their community's stories. Or youth in a catechism class or youth group meeting. Scripture is no different. In many biblical stories we find a God who loves night school.
Today we read of Nicodemus, an upstanding leader of the Judeans, who comes to Jesus by night – the world premiere of "Nick at Nite". What was it that Nicodemus sought so late at night?
There's a phrase my brothers used to use in playground basketball, a game best played under street lights in the summer. When someone was embarrassed on the court by being made aware of his or her lack of skills, it was said that they had been "schooled." To be schooled means that you have just learned a lesson that will improve you. Schooling was what my father often did to those who challenged him to debates.
Did Nicodemus come to Jesus to get "schooled"? Was he prepared for a possibly life-altering meeting? If so, then what late-night lesson was he seeking to learn? Picture this: just like my father, Nicodemus was intrigued by this young, bright, charismatic rabbi. And much like my father, Nicodemus must have been open to learn something new, even at his age. So Nicodemus comes to night school.
I remember as a child, when I first met Nicodemus in a Sunday school lesson. It said Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of night. Western culture has taught us that, when we think of "night" or anything dark, it must connote something negative: spying, secrecy, ghosts, muggers, chaos, evil, University of Chicago Security Alerts. We are taught to fear the dark. However we must remember that the same God who created and keeps the day is the same God who created and keeps the night. And who are we to say that God cannot work wonders under the cover of night? Scripture reveals that, under the cover of night, God works amazing things; things like TRANSFORMATION and LIBERATION.
Under the cover of night, the Israelites prepared for their Exodus from Egypt.
Under the cover of night, the Israelites felt God's abiding presence in the wilderness.
Under the cover of night, Joseph is warned to flee with his young wife and child into Egypt, for Herod seeks the life of your child, Joseph.
Under the cover of night, God moved heaven and earth to raise our Lord Jesus from the grip of death.
…And in the history of this land, God worked transformation and liberation under the cover of night.
Under the cover of night, African slaves secretly learned to read, to write and to study Holy Scriptures; and learned that abundant life, not bondage, was God's original intention for creation.
Under the cover of night, Harriett Tubman, the Moses of Her People, helped over 100 slaves cross over to freedom by way of the Underground Railroad.
Under the cover of night, The Harlem Renaissance flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, giving blacks new freedom of expression in literary, artistic, and intellectual pursuits.
Under the cover of night, in December 1955, word spread like wildfire about the late-day arrest of Rosa Parks, and people of all ages worked for four days to organize Montgomery, Alabama for a bus boycott that brought Jim Crow to his knees.
Under the cover of night, TRANSFORMATION and LIBERATION HAPPENS.
But let us go back to Nicodemus and Jesus. The conversation is intriguing. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall. First, Nicodemus acknowledges his great admiration and respect for Jesus. "Young man, we know that you are sent by God because no one could perform such signs and not be of God. You really have something going here!" He really wants to understand Jesus and this new movement Jesus has going. Nicodemus isn't quite ready to be an Abram – just jump up and go, no questions asked. No – Nicodemus's faith is one of questions, meditation, then more questions. This is not to say that either Abram's or Nicodemus' way has more validity. But Nicodemus' faith is one that is seeking understanding, with many questions. Nicodemus is seeking something more than mere knowledge.
Now, Jesus begins to school Nicodemus. Nicodemus had come onto Jesus' basketball court. Jesus tosses Nicodemus the ball. "Are you a leader of Israel and yet you still do not get it?" I wonder if Jesus might have made the same assumptions we do when conversing with our elders – we admire them so much that we expect them to be wise and understanding in all matters. I imagine that it was just as interesting for Jesus to have a respected elder come to him seeking insight. And yet Jesus handles him carefully. He shows Nicodemus respect. Jesus says, "Yes my brother – this is a message of eternal life, but also of transformation and liberation, from God, for all of God's creation."
Even though we leave this conversation feeling that maybe Nicodemus is not quite convinced, the invitation is still offered to him. For "God so loved the [whole] world, Nicodemus, that God gave God's only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life." That's liberation, Nicodemus, if and whenever you want it. God's reign, here and now.
School is always in session. My father understood this lesson. Nicodemus understood this as well. And we know from John's gospel that Nicodemus does come back, and he stands up for Jesus. We are never too young or too old to learn something new. It matters not if it is day or night, really. Whether we have been long on this earth or recently-arrived; whether we're well-educated, self-educated or no-educated, we still can be "schooled." God's love extends to us in both our questions and in our sure faith.
Here we are in Lent, a time of prayer, fasting and meditation. I like to think of the whole of Lent as a time to be "schooled." Lent is a time of deep reflection - of sitting and learning lessons about ourselves – sometimes hard and humbling lessons. In our times of meditation and attention to spiritual disciplines, God is speaking to us. It's never too early or too late. God is calling us to be schooled, to seek insight, to be open to the hard questions. There's more than enough love to handle the questions we bring.
School is in session. Amen.