Setting the Table for Grace (2): Reclaiming Conversation
By Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
Scenes from our lives:
*Neighborhood coffee shop, designed so that you can be alone together. Every seat is filled, but everyone is in their own world, eyes glued to their device.
*Town hall meeting, after the elected official declines to be present. A cardboard cut-out is placed on the dais and citizens express their outrage at the official’s perspectives and absence.
*People gather for a committee meeting, and place their phones on the table within easy reach;
*A group of friends enjoy dinner together. When one introduces a controversial topic, the others shut him down, saying they don’t want to ruin a good time with debate, or risk upsetting anyone;
*a nine-year old sits in a park, leaning against a tree, engrossed in an online game played on his tablet. He’s connected to a network of players all over the world, but in the park he is very much alone, oblivious to the group of kids playing Frisbee or his dad, nearby, head bent toward his smartphone.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to show the decrease in face-to-face conversation. Some lay it at the feet of technology, as one psychologist put it: We are being silenced by our [screens]—in a way, “cured of talking.” [Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age] The cost is high: We are forgetting how to be alone with our thoughts without external stimulation. We are losing the ability to reflect on our lives, feelings, and beliefs—the stuff that fuels conversation, friendship, and empathy. Research has demonstrated how on-line insults are removed from the jolt of witnessing human reactions, and become much easier to do. The incivility of our political discourse may well stem from the loss of face-to-face interactions with people whose needs and fears are not so different from ours. In their place we have substituted “the argument of memes” – posting articles, cartoons, blogs and images that declare our opinion. The number of “likes” we receive is a kind of confirmation that we’re right, and avoids the messiness of actual engagement with a person who holds an opposing understanding (and whose memes we might not ever see!).
Our morning text has often been unfortunately reduced to mere background for Jesus’ finest sermon. If I tell you it includes John 3:16, you’ll likely nod knowingly at the truth that God so loved the world that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. But this good news (unique among all four gospels) emerges via a conversation between Jesus and a biblical scholar named Nicodemus. I wonder if their interaction– which includes questions and counter-questions, metaphors and humor, historical reference and new insight—-actually led to Jesus’ profound and transformative affirmation. Much has been made of Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night—that he did so in fear of criticism from fellow religious leaders. But another possibility is that the two shared the evening meal together and in that friendly, disarming context over the course of several hours, got to the very heart of the matter. A reading from John in the third chapter at the first verse. Listen for God’s word to you right now. [JOHN 3:1-17]
One of the limitations of written communication –snail mail, email, or texting– is that you cannot “read” the feelings behind the words or interpret the body language. The Bible developed before there were emoticons, so we have to employ the art of imagination to understand what’s going on between Jesus and Nicodemus. Without that, it’s a two-minute exchange in which Nicodemus appears entirely
ignorant and Jesus delivers a dizzying array of metaphors…….well, what is he talking about?—birth, wind, water, spirit, earthly and heavenly things?? Picture instead the visit as it would have unfolded: Nicodemus greets Jesus with utmost respect, acknowledging the Divine source of his wisdom and power. Surely he had seen Jesus before that night; watching as he healed the sick and showed compassion toward the poor; listening as he interpreted Scripture with fresh vision that challenged the traditionalists. Nicodemus sought Jesus out precisely because he sensed something different about him; something “more” that he couldn’t identify but ached to discover. He was a seeker, and maybe John couldn’t resist the contrast between his coming at night and the “light of the world.”
But if Nicodemus thought he would get a nice, neat little bundle of truth from Jesus, was he in for a surprise! Perhaps he was trying to understand whether Jesus was one of them—a true religious leader in the tradition of Moses—or if he was a shyster and mere showman. Jesus response counters all human efforts to categorize people into us versus them. To be born “from above” (the phrase is similar to being born “again”) defies description and in many ways, even human comprehension. The spirit has a mind of its own!
Nicodemus reminds us that there are no stupid questions. His own, including the one where he wonders how a grown man is going to fit inside his mother’s uterus, and how in the world could an old man become a fresh-faced baby, produces not judgment from Jesus, but amusement: And you say you’re a religion teacher??!! All of a sudden, I can see Nicodemus as a friend, a fellow seeker. There’s room for my ignorance and doubt too, and perhaps even a mutual commitment to pursue enlightenment together.
In a way, Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to embrace the continual process of faith formation, which is the opposite of certainty. Nothing is more uncertain than the miracle of birth—the dangerous descent through the birth canal and out into human life with its tragedies and triumphs, strange twists and turns, plans and “plan B,” forks in the road and ambiguous choices. Are you ready for a life of unknowing?—-of questions and resets and listening and testing the waters. A life, really, of conversation with God and with one another, that goes deep and deeper still over a lifetime.
This text gives us some clues about how to practice: approach another with respect; acknowledge that none of us knows the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so we are undertaking mutual inquiry; avoid categorizations that pit us against each other with winners and losers (I always think of the story of the two Christians arguing about a theological point and couldn’t agree. Finally one said to the other “I’m afraid we’ll have to go our separate ways.” “Yes,” responded the second. “You in your way, and I in God’s.”). Offer our attention rather than our opinion. Find common ground. My doctoral dissertation outlined a process for discussing abortion in the faith community. My very modest goal was not to change anyone’s mind, but to see if –as we came to understand the reasons behind our diverse perspectives—we could choose ways to respond together. I “field-tested” the process in five congregations and in each one, the group came up with some ideas: Promote sex education in public schools, for example; contribute to organizations supporting adoptive parents. But as important as these positive actions, were the stories we heard that had shaped people’s viewpoints. Through them, we were able to move beyond pro-life and pro-choice categories and demonizing the group we opposed, to listen past our differences and touch the great vulnerability and nuance common to us all. And never give up. Never give up on yourself and your capacity to change and grow. Never give up on one another, and their capacity to change and grow. Never, ever give up on the wily, willing Spirit of God.
Ahead of all these, however, is the simple (yet difficult) step to engage with each other face to face. To show up. To give the gift of undivided attention. And I think that means putting away the smartphone. To connect by disconnecting. I am not anti-technology (and truth be told, probably checked my phone ten times while writing this sermon). But here’s the thing: I’ve got a niece married to a magician. Michael does amazing magic and while he never reveals his secrets, he has told me that magic works by being directed to see only what the magician wants us to see. We can be tricked because we are distracted; we are focused on something which turns out not to be the important thing. Technology is a dazzling magician, but one that captures our attention to the exclusion of authentic encounters with living beings, including our own souls. Friends, it’s night time, but not too late to reclaim conversation as the tool through which to see the most important things, to shine the light (the light of the world!) and share the love that brings us life. AMEN.
Once Jesus was asked what was the most important thing, the greatest commandment. He drew upon his Jewish religious tradition to respond and added a second part. I invite us to rise as able and affirm it together. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.