“Living As the Wind Blows,” March 8, 2020, The Rev. Daniel Simons
Sermon preached by the Reverend Daniel Simons
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday in Lent
When I was a child I spent a lot of time in church. It was a small, country Bible Church, founded by my grandparents — on both sides, so I was pretty baked into its culture. I seemed to be related to everyone, and I knew I was loved. It was a good place to be.
I don’t remember the first verse of Scripture that I learned, but I’m certain it was the single most memorized verse in all of protestant religion, the one every child committed to heart as early as possible; it was the one we heard Jesus say today to Nicodemus: John chapter 3 verse 16: “For God so loved the world that he gaveth his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (of course we memorized it in the King James Version).
This was our first verse because it told us the very core of all that we needed to know about God: God was a God of LOVE. And not just love in general, but love for US. And not just a passive love for us, but an ACTIVE love that pours itself out. And this active love was not just something we admire, but we get to PARTICIPATE in it, and when we do, our life in God’s love would be limitless and unending. EVERLASTING life.
Pretty good stuff, right? What a great message to start out with in life. And it was.
But there was a virus in this verse: “Whosoever believeth in him…” …but what about the ones who don’t?
I believed, I thought, but what if I didn’t believe quite earnestly enough? And what about my friends at school who were Catholic and Mormon and went to other churches and believed other stuff that wasn’t in the Bible about the Virgin Mary and the prophet Moroni? And what about people who didn’t believe at all? And what about people who had never heard?
The tests and requirements for everlasting life got pretty rigorous and extensive — and if you were raised Roman Catholic you can swap in your own version of this with baptism and mass and confession and catechism and confirmation etc.
Belief brought with it anxiety, and all the defenses that go with it. That’s the problem with belief. What nurtures at the beginning becomes toxic by the end.
As secure as beliefs make us, they have been the catalyst for untold suffering in the world. In the case of this verse and the theology it produced, we focused not on the Love of the first part of the verse but on the implications of belief in the last part more specifically, the whosoever doth NOT believe part.
It’s not too much of a stretch to say that the theology of belief has been responsible for every bloody crusade that the Church has promulgated. Whosoever doth not believe is perishable, expendable, shall perish, and is even meant to be extinguished, by us.
In fact, the bloodiest month in Church history was in August 1572, when up to 30,000 Christians were massacred in France —by other Christians— over the politics of belief! (the St. Bartholemew’s Day massacre).
How have we turned God’s love for the world into that?!
I suspect it’s the same way we do for most things that go wrong: we made it all about us — our separate, small selves, and about our anxiety — no surprise here— of ‘you are not enough’ and ‘you do not belong’. We made religion all about belonging through belief rather than about ‘being belonged’ in God’s love.
Nicodemus is trying to figure all this out when he comes to Jesus, and these are deep question he raises — with good intention — but again, like with Adam and Eve in the Garden, by trying to think it through on his own, so belief can get boiled down to what makes sense to me and for me.
Nicodemus is the stand-in in the story for every one of us.
Jesus tries to unhook him from his beliefs, and his need for belief as an anchor by talking about — the wind. “The wind blows where it chooses,” he says, “and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Being in God is like living with the wind, living like the wind, Jesus says.
In turbulent times, an invitation to that way of life might not seem so attractive, since we’re looking for a rock or an anchor, and we usually try to find it in some kind of belief.
How can we dare to live that precariously, like the wind, without knowing where we are coming from or where we are going?
I think we can, IF we take for a compass what is at the heart of that verse I started with, John 3:16:
God. so loved. the world… that he gave…
Imagine that. Love at the beginning, at the end, and at the center, pouring itself out in hidden but felt ways. That’s actually the image that is used in Genesis, in the very first words of Scripture, in the primordial darkness where the wind of God blows over the deep.
God pours everything out into creation, holding nothing back — first, 13 billion years ago in the great coming to be of everything, the first incarnation. And then the Spirit blows through every place and time, focusing our attention most clearly in the life and death and rising of Jesus, who comes through like a wind, which again is the image used at Pentecost — no accident there! —so that we can at last begin to see that possibility in ourselves; an everlasting love pouring itself out into the world like the wind.
And of course we get to do more than imagine it, we get to PRACTICE it.
Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry (the one whose 15 minutes of world fame came when he preached at Harry and Megan’s wedding) is fond of saying: “If it’s not about Love, it’s not about God,”
When it’s about our beliefs, they often imprison us. They might be liberating at first, but when we hold on to them too long or too tightly, we are no longer moving on the wind of the Spirit and they smother us, and we don’t even know it’s happening.
I heard this week that in this county Chinese and Asian restaurant business is off by 40 percent (but not Italian restaurants). As alarm around the coronavirus heats up, and with it all kinds of other cloaked anxieties, so does an opportunity: to open our hearts wider, rather than close them; live with a little less certainty and a little more care for the most vulnerable; to choose thoughtful action over paralyzing anxiety, even when we don’t know quite what’s coming or where it’s going. Maybe that gives us a chance to experience being rooted in Love and letting the wind take us where it will.
Yesterday many of us were here for the screening of True Justice, the story of lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s lifelong work to bring light to the inequalities in our justice system, and to change this country’s narrative around racial difference. It was hard to watch and yet liberating at the same time. To become more aware of privilege and systemic imbalance means leaving some of our unacknowledged beliefs behind and opening up to a rooted love that binds us in solidarity, as well as an unpredictable wind that will take us where we never expected to go.
John’s gospel has this very unique perspective on love and eternity: it’s not the afterlife; everything about God is about Now; eternity is now. If you hold yourself back from poured-out Love you’ll never see it; if you give yourself to self-giving Love everything around you will light up in it’s glow. Funny how everlasting life in the end has almost nothing to do with belief; it’s all about the practice of love.
The word Creed is related to cardio as in “heart.” “I believe,” Credo in Latin, literally means: “I give my heart to.”
Those who have walked this way of Love longer than I have seem to say with a unified voice what Jesus said really does work: If you give yourself to this way of Love, you will see the world differently. It will change you.
In giving our hearts we’re imitating God, the universe, reality, the Trinity, who pours everything out; Reality is one big everlasting relationship.
St. Paul’s has a little unofficial tagline; You can belong before you believe. I think we can one-up that: Give your heart to love; belong to the wind of the Spirit, and you can skip belief altogether!
So as we reflect on what we have been hearing the Spirit say to us today, my invitation is to listen for what situation in your life is coming up for you that you’re aware your beliefs might have gotten you a little stuck. What might begin to shift if you let the wind mix it up a bit — brought a little more love into it? The situation might still be there, but what happens when you begin to see it from a slightly different perspective? Let’s sit with that for a couple of minutes.