Thirsting After Righteousness — May 3, 2020

My sermon this morning is another in our series on the Beatitude windows of our side aisles, this one the Nicodemus window in our far northwest corner. There are several narratives of Nicodemus in the Gospel According to John; this window depicts his first appearance. I’ll share my screen here to refresh our memories. All of our side aisle windows are in this triptych pattern and all quite beautiful, with a wonderful pallet of colors chosen by Charles Connick, the artisan who designed and oversaw their creation. I especially like the blues, but I have to say I also admire Nicodemus’s sporty red shoes. As you see, he is holding a lantern to guide his way by night, and the two angelic figures on either side panel are displaying the scales of truth and justice. Connick chose this passage from the Gospel According to John to evoke, rather than literally to symbolize, the fourth beatitude that I shared earlier: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be satisfied.”
Now all biblical narratives–the story of Nicodemus coming by night, the so-called Sermon on the Mount itself, really all biblical narratives—are multi-valent; that is, they are capable of carrying several meanings and can be engaged on more than one level. So, to begin with, here we have the figure of Nicodemus, who is described as a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, that is; the Jewish council ruling under the power of Rome. As such, he is an important and respected figure, especially in regard to scrupulous adherence to Jewish law and custom. He would have been particularly concerned about this rabbi, Jesus, and his followers who, although Jews, were notorious for neglecting, even flouting, Jewish laws and customs following his spiritual leadership.
Not long before, for example, it was claimed by many that Jesus had been performing miracles. He then engaged in the very public act of driving various money changers and vendors from the inner courts of the temple, the so-called, Cleansing of the Temple. In doing these things, Jesus was coming out of the very tight circle of his disciples into the larger world in a way that was powerful and public. His followers believed that he was claiming his identity as the foretold Messiah, a traditional figure of power and promise. However, there were many ways in which Jesus challenged the conception of who Messiah should be and how Messiah should act.
Jesus was not a military leader who would command a powerful army to expel the hated Romans, as some wished. He was not a heroic figure on horseback; in fact, quite the contrary, he entered the capital, Jerusalem, not on horseback leading troops, but on a donkey, leading a few disciples. He did not produce military victories, he produced, his followers claimed, the healing of the sick and the restoration of sight to the blind.
Not only did he not conform to the expectations of who Messiah was and how Messiah should behave, but just by the very way he was acting, and indeed just by the very person he was, Jesus was offensive to Jewish custom. He shared table fellowship with non-Jews, tax collectors and sinners. Among his disciples were many women, to whom he extended acceptance and respect; this was unheard of in the heavily patriarchal Jewish society of the day; in fact, women were among the leading supporters of his ministry. Jesus treated children—who in that age were basically non-persons until they matured—with respect and dignity. This was not proper behavior for any pious Jewish male, let alone someone acclaimed as Messiah. Yet his followers and his ministry were growing; many brought their sick and ill to Jesus to be healed, and it was said that they were. The religious authorities, ever concerned with Jewish piety, ever concerned with their own positions of power and control, were in a quandary. Who was this man; who was this rabbi? Could it be that he was Messiah or was he some false prophet and wonder worker; they had been seen before.
This is what Nicodemus was trying to determine when he made his way, secretly by night, to ask Jesus, “Who are you, truly?” He came to Jesus by night because he could not be seen coming to him openly, so offensive were Jesus and his followers. Nicodemus was constrained by his position as a leading authority figure and by his own timidity. Clearly, he intuited that, different and unexpected as Jesus was, there was something powerful about him and his ministry. In an act of tremendous courage, Nicodemus, almost in spite of himself, risked his position to ask Jesus, face to face, “Who are you, truly?”
Now, I should pause a moment here to say just a word about the whole question of biblical authenticity. Whenever UUs engage Scripture, the question immediately arises—is this true? Did any of this really happen in a way that could be historically verified? And let’s just leave aside things like walking on water and the other claimed miracles. Once you get past one or two probably historic figures like Paul and Peter, maybe a couple of others, did any of these people actually exist; let’s leave miracles out of it, did they say and do what it says they did? Was there really a Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night?
That’s a reasonable question and the answer is, on a factual basis we don’t know. Nicodemus was a common name; there might have been such a Jewish leader. Remember, this was a pre-literate age; except for scribes, very few people could read or write. The names and deeds of only a very few famous and powerful figures ever made it into historical records. If we assign value only to those few, we won’t have much to go on.
I prefer to regard this metaphorically; that is to say, the question put into the mouth of our Nicodemus is an important one: “Who are you, truly?” It needed to be asked of Jesus then; it needs to be asked today by anyone who cares to take him seriously. One can say, this is not an important question to me, I don’t really care who Jesus truly was or is. Fair enough. But if one cares to seek inspiration there, I do think it a question worth pondering.
I said this stuff is multi-valent, able to be engaged on many levels, so I would like to move this into another dimension. What could it be like to answer the question, “Who are you, truly?” not as some abstract question of theology, but as a matter of truth and righteousness? We can imagine First Century Jesus hesitating to answer the question knowing that it was going to get him in big trouble, certainly leading to his arrest, possibly even to his death. What could it be like for a modern person to answer that question if the answer would surely get you into big trouble because your answer was, “I am truly a gay man or a lesbian or bisexual or transsexual?” What if a truthful answer to that question resulted in shunning by society, perhaps even by family or friends? What if a truthful answer to that question got you fired? What if a truthful answer to that question got you assaulted, perhaps even murdered?
I cannot pretend to have any first-hand experience of this. As a cis-gendered, white, straight, male, in my whole life I have never had to think twice before answering the question, “Who are you, truly?” at least, not in that existential dimension. My honest to that question cost me nothing, perhaps, even confirmed my membership in the dominant group. Over the years though, I have been educated in a very different reality, a reality in which an honest answer to that question could be very costly, indeed. I have learned from acquaintances, friends and colleagues; from courageous writers, thinkers and artists; and sadly, by the tragic examples of those who have been martyred for simply being who they are. I am sad about this, and I am angry. No one should have to pay with their life or livelihood for simply being who they are. And yet we here we are, still having to be concerned about this, still having to witness about it because, although things were not completely wonderful before, we now seem to be losing ground.
A poll carried out by USA Today last June found some discouraging numbers, quoting now:
The number of Americans age 18 to 34 who are comfortable interacting with LGBTQ people slipped from 53% in 2017 to 45% in 2018 – the only age group to show a decline, according to the annual Accelerating Acceptance report. And that is down from 63% in 2016.
Driving the dilution of acceptance are young women whose overall comfort levels plunged from 64% in 2017 to 52% in 2018, says the survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD.
Among other findings:
• 36% of young people said they were uncomfortable learning a family member was LGBTQ, compared with 29% in 2017.
• 34% were uncomfortable learning their doctor was LGBTQ vs. 27% a year earlier.
• 39% were uncomfortable learning their child had a school lesson on LGBTQ history vs. 30% in 2017.
I’m sorry to throw that big snowball of statistics at you; I know it’s hard to hold by just hearing them. The point is, we cannot be complacent. We cannot think, “Well, we solved that problem.” I love that we have our rainbow flag hung where it is visible to the students of the Hopedale schools. If there is any child walking these streets who is worried about being shunned or even damaged by being who they are, or just by entertaining questions about it, I want them to see that flag symbolizing that there is at least one place of acceptance in Hopedale—and I don’t wish to overstate it, I am sure there are more as well, but I am proud to serve a church that states, unequivocally if quietly, that we are willing to accept all answers to that important question, “Who are you, truly?”
May it be so.

Matthew 5:1-12 Revised Standard Version (RSV)
The Beatitudes
5 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. 2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is t

Coming out is more than an acknowledgement, acceptance, or even announcement of one’s sexual identity. It represents a continuing process founded on an act of compassion towards oneself – a compassion, alas, seldom shown by one’s own family or friends, let alone society. That act is the acceptance of one’s fundamental worth, including, and not despite, one’s homosexuality, in the face of social condemnation and likely persecution.

Coming out is the process through which one arrives at one’s values the hard way, testing them against what one knows to be true about oneself. Gay men and lesbians must think about family, morality, nature, choice, freedom, and responsibility in ways most people never have to. Truly to come out, a gay person must become one of those human beings who, as psychiatrist Alice Miller writes, “wants to be true to themselves”.
• Michael Nava and Robert Dawidoff, “Created equal: Why gay rights matter to America” (1994), p.21, 25, 26-27, 34.
The single best thing about coming out of the closet is that nobody can insult you by telling you what you’ve just told them.
Rachel Maddow

I offer now this meditation in the form of a prayer, followed by one minute of silence. I invite you to join me in the spirit of prayer or meditation, as is your practice.
O Thou, Ancient of Days, Gracious Spirit of Life, we are thankful for this morning’s gathering in worship and fellowship, in this time hallowed by the spirit of generations who found at this hour a Sabbath of strengthening and restoration. As did they, we take joy in the passing of the season, in the returning light and warmth that hold spring’s promise.
Spirit of Healing and Compassion, in this week when people of goodwill across our nation bring to their prayerful hearts those suffering with coronavirius, we too, lift up the plight of those afflicted, their families and loved ones. Ease the burden of those with the disease, strengthen those who watch and wait. Guide the doctors, nurses and caregivers who minister to them. Hurry the day when research, medicine and prevention may eliminate this scourge from our midst and especially, we pray, open the hearts and minds of all people to offer understanding and compassion to their afflicted sisters and brothers, so that all may feel the embrace of spiritual and human care.

And now, in the silence, with the voices of our hearts, we lift up our own thoughts, prayers and petitions.

In returning and rest we shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be our strength. Blessed be the silence, and amen to our prayers.

by William Stafford

It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out––no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.

Sheenagh Pugh
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a [woman] aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men will become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to do.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.