written and preached by Rev. Natalie Shiras
March 20, 2011 John 3:1-17
In February of 2007 I was getting ready to lead the youth group to Biloxi, Mississippi, to our United Church of Christ’s Back Bay Mission, to help rebuild homes destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. I was excited. But there also was something I was dreading. Going to the deep South. I had been to Florida and had passed through North Carolina and South Carolina and Georgia. I had never been to Mississippi or any of the other adjacent states.
I was dreading it because I had a prejudice against southern people. I thought they were lazy. And I felt that people with southern drawls were not intelligent. I was embarrassed by my prejudice. So I brought it up with the youth group and it became an opportunity for all of us to talk about our different prejudices. The youth group encouraged me, believing that I would let go of my prejudice when I met our hosts in Biloxi.
We went down south and I met people working hard to rebuild Biloxi and other cities and towns along the gulf coast. The people welcomed us, welcomed our help and treated us to a gulf coast shrimp boil with all the shrimp we could eat. My heart melted and the darkness of ignorance fell from my eyes. The youth group literally applauded when I told them during our evening check-in that my prejudice was gone. Meeting and knowing real people with southern drawls, singing the song we learned, “He’s an On-Time God” that I sang here from the pulpit two Sundays ago, helped me see people from the south in a new way. I was saved by grace.
I was reminded of my prejudice and my subsequent new sight earlier this month when I heard Jerry Robinson speak at a Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations gathering about his prejudice. Jerry is African-American, and president of the Unitarian Universalist church in Pittsfield. He spoke about his former prejudice against people with southern drawls and his deep fear of people from the south.
Jerry grew up in Kansas in the 40’s and 50’s. White people were migrating from the south to find work in Topeka, Kansas and other cities in the Midwest. They were bringing along with them their prejudice against Black people. As a young boy Jerry saw Black people being lynched. There were several hangings of young Black men in the local park where he lived. White families came to watch, bringing their kids and picnics. They viewed the lynchings as entertainment. Postcards of the lynchings would be sold in the local drugstores.
Jerry felt terrified and revolted. He stayed away from southern whites.
Then, as Jerry related, he went off to the army. He was stationed at a depot in Maryland. He was assigned to a bunk. As he walked down the hall to meet his new bunk mate, he heard the laughter and voice of a man with a pronounced southern drawl.
“Oh Lord”, he cried, “Please don’t let that man be my bunk mate”.
Sure enough, he was. This young 18 year old white man from South Carolina named Parker reached out his hand. Jerry refused to take it.
In fact, Jerry would not even look at Parker. When Parker suggested they go to the mess hall, Jerry pretended he was not hungry. When Parker suggested they shoot pool in the Rec Hall, Jerry would pretend he had something else to do.
Parker persevered to reach out to Jerry, and Jerry lived with a pain in his gut.
One day he went into town, Bethesda, Maryland, with a group of soldiers to find a bar. Jerry remembers there were four white GIs and four Black GIs. He was walking with his Black friends and he noticed Parker with the white soldiers. The owner of the bar stopped them at the door and said to the white soldiers that they could come in but their Black friends could not. Jerry and the Black soldiers were used to this kind of discrimination After all, Maryland was a southern state. In the 1950’s segregation was still practiced, even though the armed forces were integrated.
Jerry and his Black friends turned to go as the white soldiers entered the bar. Jerry and his friends decided to go into Washington, DC to find a Black bar which would serve them. As they walked down the street, they heard footsteps running toward them. Jerry turned to look and there was Parker running after them.
Jerry exclaimed to Parker, “What are you doing here?”
Parker responded, “What happened in there is not right. I’m going where you are going. I’m sticking with you.”
Jerry stood still and felt the darkness fall from his eyes. He found himself looking at Parker for the first time, really looking at him. He realized he had never seen him before, never really seen him beyond the prejudice and fear that he felt. He felt free of the anxiety and pain in his gut. He was saved by grace.
Grace is that moment of unconditional love that comes over you. Grace is not something you earn. Grace comes freely.
Grace happened for Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who came to Jesus by night. We read in the gospel story that Nicodemus was one of the Jewish leaders, most likely a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council in the Temple. The Sanhedrin were particularly critical of Jesus when he violated Jewish law by teaching with authority and healing on the Sabbath.
Nicodemus, it appears, was wrestling with his religious beliefs. It would have been considered heresy among the Sanhedrin to question these beliefs.
So it makes sense that Nicodemus would want to come by night to meet Jesus in private. His meeting with Jesus would not have met with the approval of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus had to be cautious and exercise discretion.
It is a meeting between two masters who have great regard for one another. They call each other “teacher”. Nicodemus takes the initiative to learn from Jesus. Jesus is teaching Nicodemus things he has not yet even taught his disciples.
Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus is in the presence of God. And Jesus responds that not only is he in the presence of God, but also that those who are “born from above” will see in these things that Jesus has done the presence of the kingdom of God. Nicodemus does not understand what it is to be “born from above”. Jesus tells him that to be born from above is to be born of the waters of baptism and the blowing winds of the Holy Spirit. To be born from above means to do what is true, to come out of the darkness and into the light.
I’ve always been struck that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by dark of night. Yes, he must be cautious about his meeting with Jesus because of his leadership with the Sanhedrin. But also it may be a metaphor that Nicodemus is coming out of the darkness into the light of understanding. Was he too saved by grace?
Later in John’s gospel Nicodemus appears publicly with Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, to bury Jesus. It is clear that he has come to understand what Jesus was saying to him in that night meeting. Nicodemus not only believes, he takes action– by taking the initiative to come to Jesus and then later to help bury him. He is saved by grace.
I wonder what you are prepared to do with what you believe. Do you believe that the Holy Spirit will move through your lives and carry you to new places and new understandings?
Take a close look at yourself and your own biases. What beliefs do you live by that prevent you from receiving new understandings and coming to new places? This question could be a moment of reflection suitable with a close friend or prayer partner. I invite you now to take a moment of reflect on this.
The Holy Spirit provides an opportunity for light to shine on the darkness created by prejudice and fear. Do you see something new, hear something new? Let yourself be surprised.
You may be saved by grace! Amen.