Sunday, February 17, 2008


Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” John 3:3 Amen.

The story is told of a priest who announced during his sermon that Jesus Christ himself was coming to the church the following Sunday. People turned up in large numbers to see him. Everyone expected him to preach, but he only smiled when introduced and said, “Hello.” Everyone offered him hospitality for the night, especially the priest, but he refused politely. He said he would spend the night in church. How fitting, everyone thought.

He slipped away early the next morning before the church doors were opened. And, to their horror, the priest and people found their church had been vandalized. Scribbled everywhere on the walls was the single word “Beware.” No part of the church was spared: the doors and windows, the pillars and the pulpit, the altar, even the Bible that rested on the lectern. “Beware.” Scratched in large letters and in small, in pencil and pen and paint of every conceivable color; wherever the eye rested one could see the words: “Beware, beware, beware, beware, beware, BE AWARE . . .”

Shocking. Irritating. Confusing. Fascinating. Terrifying. What were they supposed to be aware of? It did not say. It just said, “Beware.” The first impulse of the people was to wipe out every trace of this defilement, this sacrilege. They were restrained from doing this only by the thought that it was Jesus himself who had done this deed.

Now, that mysterious word, “Beware” began to sink into the minds of the people each time they came to church. They began to beware of the Scriptures, so they were able to profit from the Scriptures without falling into bigotry. They began to beware of sacraments, so they were sanctified without becoming superstitious. The priest began to beware of his power over the people, so he was able to help without controlling. And everyone began to beware of religion which leads the unwary to self-righteousness. They became law abiding, without forgetting that mercy is the ultimate form of justice. They began to beware of prayer, so it no longer stopped them from taking responsibility for their own lives. They even began to beware their notions of God so they were able to recognize God outside the narrow confines of their church.

They now have inscribed the shocking word over the entrance of their church and as you drive past at night you can see it blazing above the church in multicolored neon lights.

Beware. Be Aware. This is what Jesus was trying to communicate to Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a good religious person, a teacher of the law, one who observed carefully all the rules and rituals. And yet, he could not see the kingdom of God. He was not aware. He had not yet been born from above.

In this passage, Jesus is teaching us the difference between being religious and being aware, the difference between religious institutions and the kingdom of God. They may overlap; all too often they do not. Beware that you do not confuse the means with the end.

Our Scriptures, our sacraments, our spiritual practices are good and necessary things, but they are means to the end that we might wake up and see the kingdom of God in our midst. Religious institutions can be useful containers of valid teaching and traditions that shape our perception, but they point beyond themselves. As the mystics of the East declare, “When the sage points to the moon, all that the idiot sees is the finger.” Without awareness, we find ourselves, like Nicodemus, staring at the finger of religion while failing to see what it is pointing to.

It isn’t enough to go through the ritual motions, to honor the traditions, to venerate the symbols of religion; we are invited to something much more – to see and experience ourselves the reality that they signify. We are invited to be born from above, to inhabit our religion with awareness, actually living the truth and not simply believing in it.

The problem with religion is that it tends to be conservative in the sense of seeking to conserve or preserve what it has. Jesus comes into the midst of the world of religion and shatters it in an act of utter abandon, an act of sacrificial love. He gives himself away for the sake of the world, keeping nothing back for himself. He does this so that the world might not be condemned but rather healed, reconciled, made new.

It is the practice of self-giving love that finally saves the world. With awareness, we come to embrace the practices of our faith to the end that we might become one with Christ in this act of self-giving love. Our meditation, our prayer, our devotional reading, our Sacraments, all the wonderful practices that we are exhorted to renew during this season of Lent, are all simply vehicles of our birth from above. Lent provides us the opportunity to inhabit our religious practices with awareness of their true purpose.

This heavenly birth is a metaphor for becoming aware, learning to perceive reality as Jesus perceived it – as the object of God’s eternal love. The world is not something to be rejected, avoided, and vilified, but rather the place in which God’s love comes to rest.

The price of awareness, however, is costly. For it gives birth to love, and love is sacrificial by its very nature, giving of itself for the sake of the beloved. When we practice our religion with awareness, we enter into a world of risk-taking where we find ourselves continually having to let go of what we think we must preserve, instead choosing love over security. We chop off our finger, if necessary, so that it no longer obscures the moon.

Two brothers – one a bachelor, the other married – owned a farm whose fertile soil yielded an abundance of grain. Half the grain went to one brother and half to the other. All went well at first. Then, every now and then, the married man began to wake with a start from his sleep at night and think: “This isn’t fair. My brother isn’t married, he’s all alone, and he gets only half the produce of the farm. Here I am with a wife and five kids, so I have all the security I need for my old age. But who will care for my poor brother when he gets old? He needs to save much more for the future than he does at present, so his need is obviously greater than mine.”

With that he would get out of bed, steal over to his brother’s place, and pour a sackful of grain into his brother’s granary.

The bachelor brother too began to get the same attacks. Every once in a while he would wake up and say to himself: “This simply isn’t fair. My brother has a wife and five kids and he gets only half the produce of the land. Now I have no one except myself to support. So is it just that my poor brother, whose need is obviously greater than mine, should receive exactly as much as I do?” Then he would get out of bed and pour a sackful of grain into his brother’s granary.

One night they got out of bed at the same time and ran into each other, each with a sack of grain on his back! Many years later, after their death, the story leaked out. So when the townsfolk wanted to build a church, they chose the spot at which the two brothers met, for they could not think of any place in the town that was holier than that one.

Jesus invites Nicodemus, invites us, to be like these brothers: to wake up, to remove the ego that is blocking the lens of perception so that we can see beyond our narrow constructs and insecurity to behold the kingdom of God. Then we will be born from above and experience the freedom of sacrificial love. And we will be surprised to discover that people we never expected turn out to be brothers and sisters bearing gifts in return.

The moral of the story: The important distinction is not between those who worship and those who do not worship but between those who love and those who don’t. Jesus came, not to found a church, but to save the world. Thus, if you are going to build a church, beware. You may have to give it away. In fact, if it is built on the place where love meets love, you won’t be able to stop yourself. So, beware. BE AWARE. Amen.

NOTE: The stories of “Jesus Coming to Church” and “The Two Brothers” are from Anthony De Mello’s Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations.

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