(Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent A, March 12, 2017, based on John 3:1-17)
“The time is surely coming when we must all become mystics, or we will all become atheists….” These thought-provoking words were posted on Facebook several days ago by a retired pastor-friend. In response, I typed, “Amen!,” and I’ve been thinking about it on and off ever since…. I think what my friend is getting at here is the fact that everywhere we look it seems there are persons and forces working against God’s loving, life-giving purpose for the world. In the face of so many overwhelming problems, you and I aren’t going to be able to hold onto our faith for long, unless we cultivate a deep, abiding spiritual connection with God…. Actually, I’ve been thinking along these same lines for quite a few years now, as I’ve pondered the reasons underlying the steep decline in church membership. In my search for answers, one of the things I’ve done is to immerse myself in the work of some of our best Christian thinkers, many of whom have come to the conclusion that we’re living in what they’ve dubbed “the Age of the Spirit.” In a nutshell, what they mean by this is that we’re living in a time when the winds of the Holy Spirit are shaking the foundations of our mainline churches, calling us to lay down our doctrine, pick up our cross, and follow Jesus out the door—out into the highways and byways where so many are hungry to know they’re loved…. In the past few months, it’s become even clearer to me and to many others that the church urgently needs to rediscover what it means for us to be the mystical Body of Christ here on earth in this time.
Now I realize that for some of us the words “mystic” and “mystical” and “mysticism” sound kind of “pie-in-the-sky,” or they might even smack suspiciously of superstition. I get that, because I used to think that way!… However, over the years, I’ve come to see that mysticism is actually a very down-to-earth way of honoring the mystery of God: Mysticism is a way of seeing and being that recognizes God’s creative, loving presence at work in and through all things—even things…and people…you and I don’t really like!… Of course, this way of living in deep connection with the Spirit of God doesn’t just happen overnight, as we see in Nicodemus’s nighttime encounter with Jesus!… Growing into the mystical way takes time, and it takes practice; of course, the most important practice is prayer—prayer that cultivates an awareness of God’s presence and an ability to listen deeply for God’s guidance. Here I want to say that I’m really glad our young adults and youth are here today, because they’ve been learning to pray contemplatively and can probably teach us a thing or two!… Anyway, here’s a brief explanation to get us started: Contemplative prayer or meditation involves quieting our whole being, so that we’re open to the Spirit of God within us and around us. Many people find it difficult to overcome the distractions in the beginning, but if you stick with it, I guarantee you’ll be blessed!… As we practice incorporating contemplative prayer into all parts of our lives, our way of seeing and being in the world gradually changes. It’s kind of like what I said to the kids during the children’s time: “When we put on our ‘love glasses,’ everything looks different! We begin to see beauty where we never saw it before. We begin to see how much others are hurting, and we begin to see that they’re a lot more like us than we realized. We also begin to see that we’re all connected with each other, with every other part of God’s creation, and with our loving Creator God…. I remember how delighted I was several years ago to learn scientists have discovered that every thing and every being is made of ancient stardust from the Big Bang. I smiled and thought to myself, “Isn’t that just like God: to make us all related to everyone and everything in the universe across all time and space?!….” Sisters and brothers, when you and I learn to see the world—and each other—“with the eyes of our hearts enlightened,” to borrow Paul’s beautiful phrase, then we’re standing on the very threshold of the kingdom of God, where we catch a glimpse of God’s vision for a new creation. If we continue to entrust our whole life into God’s care, we’ll soon find ourselves stepping over that threshold and into the life of the kingdom, which begins here and now and endures for all ages…. My friends, now more than ever, if you and I are to live in this world where there’s so much violence and suffering, so much fear and division, so many lies and temptations, we must become mystics: people whose lives are deeply attuned to the Spirit’s call and thereby finely tuned for a life of faith active in love….
Sadly, mystics have been few and far between throughout church history. Ever since the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of Constantine’s empire, church leaders have emphasized doctrine and right belief over the individual’s personal spiritual practice and relationship with God, and as a result, the church has suffered a great loss. Yet the examples we do have reveal that mystics are people of great spiritual insight and deep compassion: Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich, St. Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and the desert fathers and mothers of the early church are among some of the best known mystics. We also find mystical tendencies among prominent members of our own faith tradition: For example, Martin Luther declared, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” Luther also wrote a piece in which he observed that one could contemplate a single grain of wheat for hours without exhausting its mystery…. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was another who cultivated a deep spiritual connection with God through contemplative prayer, and that’s what gave him the courage he needed to stand up to the evil of his time…. Turning to Scripture, we see that a number of Old Testament figures were also mystics: for example, Elijah, who encountered God “in the sound of sheer silence”; Joseph and the many prophets who heard God speak to them in visions and dreams; Moses, who more than once experienced God’s presence in cloud and fire; and there are many others. Turning to the New Testament, I would argue that Paul was a mystic, based on his conversion experience of seeing the Risen Christ, as well as his language about being “in Christ.” In particular, I’m thinking about the passages where Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ, [that person] is a new creation” and where he declares, “You belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God….” The author of John’s gospel was also clearly a mystic, and so he quite naturally presents Jesus as a mystic. Of course, this is true of the other gospel writers, too, but the thread is more obvious in John’s gospel….
If you still don’t like the word “mystic,” you might try substituting the word “contemplative,” because mystics are people who cultivate the practice of contemplative prayer—that is, prayer that is mostly silent, as one opens heart and mind to listen for the voice of God…. Yet whether we use the word “mystic” or the word “contemplative,” we have to acknowledge that this word describes Jesus. Throughout the gospels, we read that Jesus would go off by himself to pray and listen for the Spirit’s guidance. This was especially true when he was facing a big decision or a time of trial: For example, Jesus went off to pray just before he called his twelve disciples, and just prior to his crucifixion, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done….” Jesus’ spiritual connection with God is what gives him the courage and strength he needs to carry out whatever work he’s called to do, whether it’s casting out demons, feeding the multitudes, teaching his stubborn disciples, confronting the religious and political leaders, or walking the self-giving way of the cross…. Jesus is a contemplative, and THAT is what gives him—and ALL contemplatives—the ability to live a life of faith active in love…. In our own day, we see a recognition that contemplation is necessary to sustain action. This is especially evident in the work of Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr, who heads the aptly named “Center for Action and Contemplation,” as well as in the work of Quaker teacher Parker Palmer, who heads the “Center for Courage and Renewal….”
Again, we don’t usually think of Jesus as a mystic or contemplative, but it is an appropriate description. This is evident in today’s gospel lesson, where Jesus gets a visit from Nicodemus, a Jewish leader who’s intrigued by the miracles Jesus has performed, yet comes under cover of darkness because he doesn’t want his colleagues to know that he’s visiting the radical rabbi. When Nicodemus states that no one can do the things Jesus does apart from the presence of God, Jesus explains that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus, however, takes Jesus literally and asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus replies, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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….” Well, poor old Nicodemus still doesn’t have a clue what Jesus is talking about, and so he asks in frustration, “How can these things be?…” Jesus also seems to be a bit frustrated himself as he answers, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?…” Then Jesus goes on to explain that God’s love and salvation are for the whole world: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him….” THAT is why a new, more holistic way of seeing and being is required of God’s people, because as unlikely as it might seem to us, God chooses to work in and through ordinary people like you and me…and the first disciples…and Abram and Sarai…to accomplish the extraordinary work of loving and blessing the world. To say it another way, God wants us to be a part of this work, and God will not do this work apart from God’s people. So, it’s up to you and me and our fellow Christians to continue Christ’s work, because we ARE the Body of Christ in the world today….
My friends, we live in uncertain times, and things may very well become even more difficult for many of us and for many of our friends and neighbors in the days ahead…. Yet the Good News for today is that you and I are made for these times, because we’ve already been born from above. In Holy Baptism we were born of water and the Spirit. We belong to God, and our identity as God’s own beloved children is the one thing that can never be taken from us…. To say it another way, even though we’re finite human beings, by the grace of God and the call of the Spirit, we’re part of something much bigger and much more enduring than many of us will ever realize: We’re a small, but vital part of God’s still-unfolding plan to bring healing and wholeness to this world God loves so deeply….. Even now the Spirit is shaking the foundations of the church, and she’s calling to us. She’s calling us to become contemplatives, to surrender ourselves to the grace of God, because holy surrender is the only way we can win the unholy battle against the persons and forces that seek to thwart God’s plan for loving and blessing the world…. In closing, I want to invite you to participate in what I call my “potato chip prayer”: As the name suggests, it’s my hope that this little taste of contemplative prayer will leave you hungry for more!… So, plant your feet firmly on the floor, get comfortable in your seats, and close your eyes, if you wish. Now, I invite you to choose a word to say to yourself silently and help you re-center yourself whenever you feel distracted…. Let us pray:
Quiet our minds.
Clear the clutter from our hearts.
Let us be still
and know that you are God.
As we go forth
fill us with courage and wisdom,
and help us remain
open and attentive to your call,
through Jesus Christ our Lord;
 See Acts 9.
 2 Corinthians 5:17.
 Luke 22:42.