“The Gift of Being Lost”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
March 6, 2016
Audio for this sermon in unavailable.
There are times in life, even when we’re doing everything we think we’re supposed to be doing that we realize at some point along the way we’ve gotten lost – taken a wrong turn, become preoccupied with our busyness and missed a signal, zigged when we should have zagged, put our minds on automatic pilot once too often. However it happens, we wind up not where we want to be, doing perhaps what we didn’t want to do, worried about how things haven’t turned out as planned, and wondering how did that happen and how in the world do we find our way out of this place. Being lost is not a once in a life time experience for most of us; it happens from time to time and requires a mid-course adjustment , but sometimes we don’t know how to start, maybe feel stuck, maybe feel scared, maybe feel inadequate and not up to a change even though the present is uncomfortable.
The story of Nicodemus’ night time visit to Jesus is a familiar one to many. He has lived to this point within a very well defined framework. He’s comfortable with it; he knows its contours; everything is under control, nothing within his reality is loose or untamed or inexplicable. The very first words out of his mouth are a confident, “Rabbi, we know.”
Nicodemus is a Pharisee; he takes his faith very seriously. To preserve the faith the Pharisees had separated themselves from secular influences centuries before, and practiced rigid rules of purity and sacrifice. They were a distinct class, inflexible defenders of tradition, who over the years had grown in power and influence. They knew the limits of divine action, how God does and does not work in the world. They knew what is possible and not possible. Within their system there was no room for surprise; God is awesome, magnificent, and perfectly predictable.
But then they heard about Jesus and saw him in action. Now on the one hand, the signs, the miracles he is able to do mark him as a man of God because as Nicodemus says, “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God”; but here’s the problem – Jesus is obviously not qualified; he’s not one a Pharisee; he hangs out with unsavory people; he doesn’t follow all of the 613 rules that a truly God-fearing person must; he heals on the Sabbath, touches the unclean, and eats with gentiles. He reinterprets tradition. Nicodemus and his friends are experiencing a kind of cognitive dissonance. What they know for sure and certain seems to be the opposite of what they have actually seen and experienced. It’s not a comfortable place to be in. Nicodemus is lost and in the dark. It is not by accident that he comes to Jesus at night.
Jesus answer is not the one Nicodemus had hoped for, not the one that says “you’re on the right track, Nicodemus. Just keep on doing the same things, the way you have your whole life; don’t change a thing and everything will be all right.” No, Jesus says “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” Or in a more loose translation – “You can’t see God if you don’t start back at square one and start over like a child.” And naturally enough Nicodemus’ answer is, “you gotta be kidding me; you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!” Or more accurately, according to the New Revised Standard Version, “How can anyone be born after growing old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” And then Jesus totally loses him with “The wind blows where it chooses, 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.” And Nicodemus’s reply is an uncomprehending, “How can this be?”
Sometimes we have to start over from the beginning with all of the assumptions and definitions and categories and goals that we hold so dear, blown away by the spirit. It means letting go of control and searching for truth in the midst of new realities. As our model, Jesus recommends the open and unprejudiced mind of a child, non-judgmental, capable of immediate response, ready for excitement and the experience of awe. Children can be in the present moment without some part of them stepping outside of the experience to hold it at arms’ length to evaluate it, filter it, and critique it. This is what Buddhism knows as “the beginners’ mind” where one is always the student, always willing to begin afresh and anew, always ready to learn and to experience more.
Often when we are lost, don’t have our bearings, and the ground shifts under our feet, we cling to what we already know, what has worked before. But you know that cliché, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.” Sometimes before frantically clutching at outdated and worthless straws, it is better to sit still and simply be, to have that beginner’s mind – to listen, to look around, and stay in the present rather than desperately casting about for alternative scenarios – and then — wait for the breeze. As much as we’d prefer it, God doesn’t not behave anything like the God of the movies – no incredible Star Wars special effects, no magnificent, resonant Morgan Freeman voice, no miraculous George Burns’ friendly-old-guy type appearances. Just a still, small voice, a hunch, an intuition, a coincidence here, a surprise occurrence there. Funny things happen that tend to add up to more than expected. God is in the details; God is in the small things that we will miss if we fail to be quiet and attentive.
A poem called “Lost” by David Wagoner is often quoted either in whole or in part by various authors reflecting on darkness – Richard Rohr, Barbara Brown Taylor, Joan Chittister, Eric Elnes . He describes what to do when you find yourself lost:
Stand still. The trees ahead
And bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here.
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers.
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it you may come back again,
No two trees are the same to the Raven,
No two branches are the same to the Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still.
The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
Good advice: Stand still; get your bearings; study your surroundings; pay attention to details; wherever you are is called “here.” And then wait for the breeze, and only then take one step at a time. Patiently, slowly. The path is never straight or well lit, so charging ahead can be more harmful than helpful. If you’ve ever walked a labyrinth you know how it twists and turns, sometimes it seems as if you are doubling back on yourself, going in the wrong direction, but with perseverance and concentration, walking slowly one small section at a time, you finally reach the goal, the center, and the presence of God.
The journey from being lost to being found does not happen in an instant or even overnight; it takes time, to be sure. We walk to where we see the next step revealed and then must stop and wait for the breeze, the signal to take the next step forward. Some describe as similar to driving a car at night, “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”[i]
Have you ever wondered if Nicodemus found his way out of the dark wood? Or did he stay stuck, wondering “How can this be?” He is mentioned twice more in John’s gospel, first as a defender of Jesus against the Pharisees who had wanted Jesus arrested, saying “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (7:51) He hi criticized by the Pharisees for his tolerance. And then later after Jesus’ death he is named as a companion of Joseph of Arimathea, bringing spices and assisting with the linen cloths to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. No longer the confident, but lost, interrogator, he has worked his way through the contradictions he’s experienced to become a disciple, a student, a follower; he has been touched by the wind that blows where it will with the grace and love and mystery of God; and he is lost no more. When we feel lost, may it be so for us as well. Amen.
[i] Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and other wanderers), 2015, 100.