Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, born of Spirit.”
Why was it so hard for Nicodemus, why is it so hard for us, to see and understand the kingdom of God present here and now?
To try and get to the crux of the problem, I have three questions for you. If you are in the sanctuary, feel free to shout a response.
First question, what is the purpose of healthcare? (To heal the sick, to ease the dying.)
We know this is true. But, is this really how it’s working right now?
Let me give you just one example. As you may know, Medicare pays for Hospice services for most people. They perform audits to make sure that only those people and services that meet their strict guidelines are covered; if Medicare deems that a person, with Alzheimers, for example, didn’t decline enough within six months and should have been discharged from Hospice but wasn’t, this could result in a hospice having to pay back thousands and thousands of dollars. So what can happen – and I imagine that others working in healthcare could tell similar stories – is that financially anxious health care systems often seem to prioritize managing costs, both Medicare and private insurance, over providing care.
The bureaucracy of healthcare threatens its actual mission.
Second question, what is the purpose of education for our children? (To help them grow and develop)
But, if you speak to teachers – who are leaving in droves – many will mention that they got into education to nurture children and have found that they are to teach so that standardized test score goals are met. Not only that, expectations for all that teachers do and provide (even school supplies!) have increased, while financial and professional support has not kept pace. In a number of states, curriculum has become so politicized that some teachers worry that they are not able to speak and teach freely.
The bureaucracy of education threatens its primary mission.
Third question, what is the purpose of government? (Promote the common good, protect people, provide a safety net for people. )
Good people can have philosophical disagreements about how government should serve the people. But, if you look at the government – especially Congress – what do you often see? Many elected officials more concerned with maintaining power than serving people. The temptation to power threatens the purpose of government.
In their own ways, each of these institutions – healthcare, education, and government – crucial for the well-being of society – struggle to maintain their missions in the midst of the complexities of this culture. (Just this week, it was revealed that a certain news station was more concerned with profits than reporting the truth.) In each case, it can seem as if the purpose of these institutions isn’t to serve the people in their care, but to simply perpetuate themselves.
And when this happens, bureaucracy – a system characterized by adherence to fixed rules, with a hierarchy of authority, a lack of flexibility and excessive adherence to regulations – can take over. When people in an institution become more concerned about maintaining their own positions and security and become focused on perpetuating the status quo, they can lose sight of why they are in healthcare, or education or government or the news media. Darkness descends.
Nicodemus was stuck in a different kind of institution, a religious one that in his day also had political power. As a leading Pharisee, his stature and financial security were all tied up in his role. The worldview of the Pharisees, based on the teachings and experience of Moses, created an expectation about how God could be present in the world. (By the way, the show, “The Chosen” does a remarkable job giving us insight into the person of Nicodemus. If you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to give it a try.)
Nicodemus was torn, deeply torn. On the one hand, he was intrigued by and curious about the ways Jesus conveyed the presence of God. On the other hand, his experience of Jesus didn’t fit with his expectations. More than that, Jesus, who had just overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, was an affront to a bureaucratic system that Nicodemus (and his family) benefited from.
How hard is it for us as humans to fully see and understand an unjust situation when we benefit from the status quo? Just look at how difficult it has been for white people in this country to grasp our privilege. Or how difficult it is for male clergy within patriarchal, sexist institutions to recognize their complicity in systems that are deeply damaging to women?
When you are on the inside of an unjust institution and benefit from it – when it gives you power, status, and economic security – when your livelihood depends on it – it can be difficult – even threatening – to see and understand other experiences and points of view. But, not impossible.
Nicodemus seems to be split between his place within a powerful religious bureaucracy and the message of someone trying to remind and show people what the institution is actually supposed to be about – love of God and compassion for all people.
Jesus knows that Nicodemus reveres Moses. So he uses an example to try and help Nicodemus connect the dots – to see and understand the parallel between Moses lifting a serpent in the wilderness and how he, Jesus, is living. Jesus is trying to help Nicodemus see that the way God worked to help the Isrealites face their fears and change their ways through Moses is repeating through him. Jesus hopes Nicodemus will see that his presence, even when challenging the status quo, is a source of life.
In the season of Lent, we, too, are called to look at the consequences of our fears and propensity to violence – not just as individuals, but as part of a larger society – so we can change course. Remember the horrific video of George Floyd’s murder? Those of us who are white needed to look at it, needed to reckon with how it could happen, in order for us to begin to see more, understand more, and change. There’s still so much work to be done.
We have to be honest about what is going wrong – in healthcare, education, government, media, the climate and more – we have to face up to it, like the Isrealites “faced up” to the serpents in the wilderness, in order to make deep changes, to bring about the new life that is needed.
Dr. Eric Mannheimer, known as Dr. Max Goodwin on the recently concluded show “New Amsterdam” based on Bellevue Hospital in New York, did just that. (Watch video.)
How many of you watched or are watching that show? (If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to watch it.) Max Goodwin could see. He looked at – he did not flinch from – the problems with healthcare at his hospital. He did not fear his staff telling him what was wrong or what they needed. He understood. He led from his heart. He had his priorities straight. Like Jesus, his whole purpose was to help. Max was building the kingdom at New Amsterdam.
When we are stuck, when we can only see what is wrong or what shouldn’t be, when we can’t see how God is acting in the world, there is another way. We can focus on love. We can ask like Dr. Max, “How can I help?”
The great Christian mystical writer, Henri Nouwen, defines life in the Spirit as “life free to love.” He says, “When we are able to throw off the compulsions and coercions that come from outside of us and allow the Spirit, God’s love, to be our only guide, then we can live a truly free, spiritual life.”
“Repentance, the great theme of Lent,” writes Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “is not just about renouncing the past. It’s (also about) creating a new future. God calls us out of our established ways into new ways of living.”
To be born again, to be born of the Spirit is about engaging the world with fresh eyes, with what Buddhist’s call “beginner’s mind.” If we do this, like Dr. Max did, we will reform the institutions that have lost their way and ourselves.
Once you are able to see through the lens of love, the lens of God’s kingdom present here and now, you recognize that the temptations that keep us stuck in our ways – power, security, wealth – don’t really matter. All that matters is love. Amen.