A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 12, 2017 (Lent 2, Year A)
There’s an old Negro spiritual called “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Legend has it that this song was really a musical roadmap for slaves seeking freedom along the Underground Railroad. If anyone overheard slaves singing the song, it would seem innocuous enough. On plantations, a hollowed out gourd was often used as a water dipper. But in the song, “drinking gourd” had a more subversive meaning — it was code name for the Big Dipper, at the tip of which is the North Star. And so the song was all about following the North Star to freedom.
While the verses point out topographical landmarks like rivers and hills, the chorus points to the ultimate goal: “Follow the drinking gourd, for the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom, follow the drinking gourd.” The old man is likely a reference to Moses, the one who led the Israelites out of the bondage of slavery and into the freedom of the Promised Land.
And the religious connotations run deep along the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman, the famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad who was herself a runaway slave, was known as the “Moses of her people.” Tales abound of her bravery and she took great pride in the fact that, in the process of bringing over 100 people to freedom, she never lost a single soul in her care.
All of this work of the Underground Railroad took place under cover of darkness. Darkness became an essential ingredient in the recipe of freedom. Runaway slaves needed darkness to avoid capture and they also needed darkness to see the North Star, to “follow the drinking gourd.”
Now, we have a complicated relationship with the whole notion of going out under cover of darkness. It feels illicit or unsavory. If I were to skulk around neighborhoods on the South Shore late at night, somebody would surely call the cops. A priest moving from tree to tree while wearing black and looking around furtively would be…sketchy.
And yet in this morning’s gospel passage, Nicodemus is doing precisely this. He’s a respected leader of the institutional faith community and yet he’s arranged this clandestine meeting with Jesus under cover of darkness. Which makes a lot of sense since Nicodemus would have been roundly condemned by his peers for even approaching this rogue teacher; this upstart who was always holding up an unflattering mirror to the religious elite and condemning their hypocrisy when it came to serving empty rituals at the expense of serving the poor. So even as Nicodemus was drawn to learn more, meeting Jesus in broad daylight would have been unthinkable. Which is why he waits for the sun to go down, puts on some dark clothes, and sneaks over to see Jesus.
It should be pointed out that in John’s gospel, the time of day is significant. At various moments, darkness serves as a metaphor for unbelief or ignorance or temptation. Indeed the interplay between light and dark has profound theological undertones in John; culminating in the fact that the women come to Jesus’ tomb while it is was “still dark” and experience the Resurrection as day breaks.
So, it’s no accident or mere happenstance that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. In time Nicodemus would quite literally come to see the light but for now he remains a secret disciple of Jesus, one who, if this rather comical interaction about what it means to be born again is any indication, has much to learn.
And yet, like, those seeking freedom through the Underground Railroad, Nicodemus is also seeking freedom by cover of darkness. In time the sin of slavery will be brought out into the light and in time Nicodemus will come to Jesus by the light of day. But the road to freedom is often traveled in darkness. It’s not always a seamless journey. Sometimes you fall or fail. But we, like those who followed the drinking gourd, like Nicodemus, have a steady guide in Jesus Christ.
And make no mistake: you and I are still seeking freedom. It may or may not be based on the color of our skin or upon what others will think. But we’re all seeking spiritual freedom. Freedom from the temptations that draw us from the love of God; freedom from the crush of anxiety; freedom from the ideal of perfection; freedom from the expectations of others; freedom from the pressure we impose on ourselves to be more productive; freedom from the cultural messages that question our very self worth.
The challenge for us is to recognize our lack of freedom. And that takes acknowledging our imprisonment. Which isn’t always visible to the naked eye. We have freedom of movement. Most of us live in relative luxury; or at least comfort. And yet something still keeps us tied down. Chained to our insular opinions or limited worldview or lack of concern for others or self-centeredness. That’s the spiritual imprisonment that holds us back and keeps us from living lives of true faith and hope and joy. Something that becomes ever clearer as we take a spiritual inventory during this season of Lent.
Now I know it’s hard to try new things in the bright light of day — even things we know will benefit us and start that process of unshackling. We can be so self-conscious. We can be so aware of our discomfort in trying new things. I remember when I first starting jogging. I was in eighth grade and running wasn’t exactly as mainstream as it is now. There was that Jim Fixx book on running and that was about it. So after buying a pair or running shoes and thinking about what to wear — an outfit that surely involved tube socks — I decided to take my maiden voyage just before bedtime. I really didn’t want anyone to see me so I laced up my shoes and snuck outside for a brief run under cover of darkness. It wasn’t pretty. At one point I ducked between two parked cars — this was in Queens, New York; not exactly a lonely rural road — and I cut my leg on a piece of metal sticking out from the bumper of an old Buick. I kept going but it started bleeding and I was, once again, glad it was dark out. I still have the scar on my thigh. A reminder that there can be a cost to seeking freedom by cover of darkness.
Jesus wants us to bring our faith into the light, but he also loves our awkward, nighttime strivings. Our clumsy attempts, a la Nicodemus, to deepen our relationship with him. This Lenten season of self-renewal encourages us to try new things. Perhaps there’s a spiritual discipline you’d like to take on? Maybe there’s something you’d like to try to stretch yourself, however haltingly. Perhaps you want to put aside some dedicated time for silence or prayer — which you can literally do in the dark. Or maybe you want to step out into the light and join me and Noah for morning prayer or try out our Wednesday service in the chapel or make the effort to attend our Lenten Series on poverty. Whatever it is, know that we want to support you and help guide you along this path to greater spiritual freedom.
Yes, like Nicodemus, we sometimes do stumble around in the dark. But eventually our strivings bring us to that well-known verse we hear this morning at the conclusion of the story of Nicodemus: John 3:16. The same verse that guy with the rainbow wig used to hold up at sporting events — around the time I was wearing tube socks. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that all who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
“God so loved the world.” Full stop. Period. End of story. Tapping into that love is what true freedom is all about. Once we appropriate that love into our hearts and graft it onto our souls, and crave it not only for ourselves but those all around us, all the awkwardness evaporates. And the love of God, like the brightness of the sun, can shine fully and completely and utterly upon us.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017