Spiritual not Religious; John 3:1-17; Delivered May 27, 2018

I went back and forth this week, with whether to admit this to you.  Then I remembered that Randy Haycock, admitted this to you last year, so I guess I can join his club.  I hereby confess that like Randy, when I first came to the Central Virginia area, not knowing a soul in this area, I decided to try my luck with Match.com.  Well, actually, it is more complicated than that.  One of my daughters, Paige, signed me up for Match.com, but I played along, so I am partly responsible.   I read from at least one religious leader that Match.com is the devil’s plaything.  I hope that you don’t think that I was engaging in immorality.  I simply wanted to get to know people outside the church, and, if I’m honest, I also wanted to see if I might still be attractive to people of the opposite sex, old girl that I am.   I’m not fishing for compliments, mind you, but if, after the service, you want to tell me how very young and attractive I am, I can tell you, I promise to be all ears! 

Anyway, I don’t want to talk about my looks or my social life.  I want to talk about the questionnaire that you are asked to complete before you actually sign on to Match.com.  The questionnaire helps Match.com match you with your soul mate.  One of the questions has to do with religion.  “Are you religious?” That is one of the questions on the questionnaire.  And then you have a series of responses with corresponding little check-off boxes: 

I am very religious,

I am somewhat religious

I am not religious

and then, as a last category,

I am spiritual but not religious.

  After you complete the questionnaire and send it in, Match.com sends you profiles of people that presumably fit your own profile .  Not only that.  You have access to the profiles of all the people who are signed on with Match.com.  So, you can, although I was not quite THAT obsessed with Matc.com’s website,  spend many, many days and weeks looking at the profiles of people all over the COUNTRY who have signed on with Match.com.

But of course I did look at SOME profiles, and it seemed to me that by far the most popular answer to the question, “are you religious?” was “I am spiritual but not religious.”

“Spiritual but not religious.”  That is really vague, don’t you think?  I mean really--  Does it mean: 

“I believe in a higher being, but I don’t let that ruin my Sundays.”

Does it mean,

“I believe in God, but I don’t like this church business.  All churchgoing people are hypocrites.”

Does it mean,

“I am living in a cave in the desert like the desert fathers of old, with only my Bible and my laptop to keep me company.  I engage in deep meditation 18 hours a day, but I am not part of a religious community.”

 Or does it mean,

“I pray every day, and I help the sick and poor and in all ways I am working toward greater justice in this world.  I read from many holy books, including the Bible. I applaud people who are committed to a faith tradition and are lucky enough to find support and caring in a church community.   I just have trouble settling on one particular religion.”

You see how wide the spectrum is?  All of these positions fall under the category “Spiritual but not religious.”

The other thing about the religious question on the questionnaire?  There is NO check box for people who might be religious but not spiritual. Isn’t that odd?  If people can be spiritual but not religious, don’t you think it should follow that people can be religious but not spiritual?

Of course, like the category “spiritual but not religious,”  “religious but not spiritual” is similarly vague.   It could mean

“I don’t have time to pray or meditate.  I am up to my eyeballs in work.  It’s the most I can do to drag myself to church once a week.”

or it could mean, 

“Yes, I am religious.  I go to church.  But I believe that spirituality is for weak, self absorbed, emotional people—in other words, for flakes.”

or it could mean, although no one would ever admit this, probably,

“Yes, I am religious.  I am running for political office.”  Enough said.  

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book, Eat, Pray, Love, makes the case that members of the Taliban are religious but not spiritual. They follow a rigid adherence to religious laws, but they fail to abide by the greatest commandment of all, at least in Jesus’ estimation—at least in our estimation—which is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself.”

The story before us is about Jewish religious fundamentalism.

 .    Religious but not spiritual fundamentalist sums up the profile of one of the main characters in our text for today.  I’ll give you a hint.  It’s not Jesus. 

His name is Nicodemus. He is a Pharisee.  The Pharisees were noted for their authoritative and rigid interpretation of Jewish law. Laws that today seem extreme and unnecessary. So for example, Jews could eat and not eat pork and shellfish were off-limits, and how you cooked what you ate was carefully prescribed—so for example you couldn’t cook lamb in goat milk.   There were also laws about what you could touch and not touch.  So for instance you were ritually defiled if you came into contact with a leper, certain bodily fluids, certain dead animals, certain LIVE animals (the law forbid that you touch a red heifer) or a human corpse.  Regarding the laws having to do with defilement, if you did become accidentally defiled, you had to observe a series of time-consuming rituals to become clean again.

 Good Pharisees, like Nicodemus adhered strickly to food laws and cleanliness laws like that and they wanted to make absolutely sure that others adhered to them, too. We can imagine that he drove his wife crazy, looking over her shoulder to make sure that she prepared their food exactly according to the law.  But the Pharisees probably drove a lot of other people, besides their wives, crazy, too.  We can imagine that Nicodemus marched along the streets of Jerusalem his clipboard under one arm, and a pencil behind his ear (or whatever it was that sufficed for a clipboard and pencil in those days) looking for discrepancies between law and practice. Perhaps Nicodemus even kept a list of all those Jews who did not follow the letter of the law.  If so, Jesus would have been on that list, since Jesus was more into fulfilling the law, but not so much into keeping to the letter of the law. He touched lepers for heaven’s sake!

            Still.  For some reason, Nicodemus was interested in speaking with Jesus.  Not to trap him, as so many other Pharisees had tried.  If that were his intention Nicodemus would have met with Jesus in broad daylight, and somewhere there would be lots of potential accusers—should Jesus make a misstep.  No.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night and alone.  What IS he up to? 

 Curiosity, I suspect. He has heard that Jesus heals. How does he do that?  He knows Jesus has a following. What’s his draw?

And so he meets with Jesus. Nicodemus starts the conversation off, saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

 Jesus’ response is frustratingly opaque. There’s a reason for that.  He can’t answer, “Yes, you are right.  I am able to do what I do because I am the Messiah. MY actions are the manifestation of God’s holy spirit.” That would have been sure to get him in trouble.  So, instead Jesus talks in metaphors.   Jesus says, “The wind blows where it will.  You have to be born of the Spirit.” Huh? What’s that?

Nicodemus asks a few more questions, but Jesus continues to talk in riddles.  The upshot is that Nicodemus steps back into the night scratching his head, none the wiser.

And that’s the end of the story. Our take away might be that there’s a permanent disconnect between religious but not spiritual person, that is to say, a fundamentalist, and a Spiritual person. The river between them is too deep and  too wide--a profoundly sad commentary on faith traditions.  

But remember, Christians are people of hope. 

There is a strong indication in John that Nicodemus is on the path to change.  Nicodemus reappears at the end of our gospel.   After Jesus’ death, he and Joseph of Arimathea ask Pontius Pilate for Jesus’ body.  Then, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrap Jesus’ body in linen cloths for his burial.  Now think about that.  If they are wrapping Jesus’ body, doesn’t that mean that they are actually touching Jesus’ body?  In fact, touching a corpse?   Has Nicodemus forgotten the rules and rituals of cleanliness? Of course not.  He has thrown to the wind the laws of ritual purity--that wind of the spirit, that blows where it will.  That wind of the spirit is responsible for changing a rigid, “religious but not spiritual” fundamentalist, the Pharisee Nicodemus, into something else again.  A happy ending after all.  Amen

Sometimes - 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 man 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 become what they were born for.

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