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In my work for the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ, I often consult with congregations asking questions about their future. Can we sustain this church? Will we need to close? How can we be a vital place again?

Last Spring, visiting a rural congregation asking those questions, I heard from church members about what their church used-to-be. Used-to-be the balcony was filled. Used-to-be kids sports didn’t happen on Sunday. Used-to-be we had a choir.

Whether we’re thinking about a church or our own lives, it’s hard to feel vitality when all we think about is the “used-to-be’s.”

As we talked, the members of the church told me about a non-denominational congregation in their town, whose full parking lot and big youth group they envied. A friend of mine taught me the Southern phrase for these congregations that have all the kids, all the programs, churches so big they not only have pickleball leagues but even a pickleball leagues for three-year-olds. Such churches are “Six-flags over Jesus.”

Few UCC congregations can compete with that. Does that mean we can’t be vital? I think of another small congregation – not much going on there but a dozen people who love each other. A family started coming with their young child. Why would they choose such a small church with no programs for kids? Because they knew those people would love their child no matter what. The church may not have pickleball, but whatever pickle the kid got into, they would be loved.

Vitality doesn’t equate to the size of a congregation but the way in which the people live together. “They shall know you are my disciples by your love,” Jesus said.

And this is true in our own lives too. People ask questions about their own vitality too. We frame our concerns as burn-out, anxiety, stress. We might find ourselves thinking, “I can’t keep doing this.” And we might find ourselves looking at the lives of other people with envy, “Why can’t I do that?” Or we find ourselves doing things because “I can’t miss out.” But “can’ts” don’t make for a life of vitality.

As individuals: vitality doesn’t equate to what we have but the way in which we live with other people.

I want us to imagine what vitality could look like in our congregation. To sense what vitality could feel like in our own lives. To wonder, how can we experience greater vitality as individuals and as a community?

Nicodemus can be our guide. We learn of Nicodemus through the course of three visits he made to Jesus.  The first appearance came at night, the next at midday, and the last just before dusk. We get to see Nicodemus change over the course of these three encounters with Jesus. The Gospel often presents us with dramatic transformations: the person cured of a disease; Paul knocked off his horse. But Nicodemus changes slowly, over the course of several years. That rings true to my own experience of revitalization: change doesn’t come in a flash, but slowly, overtime.

The timing of Nicodemus’ encounters with Jesus symbolizes the shifts occurring in his heart. Within the Gospel of John, and more broadly in the culture of the time, night represented a dangerous and malevolent time.  As Jesus said later in the gospel, “Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going.  Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.”  Nicodemus’ transformation moves him from the darkness of night into the light of day, from hidden faith to open courage, from ambiguous feelings to extravagant clarity.

Nicodemus’ transformation began the night he came to Jesus.  People already knew Jesus as a wonderworker whose miracles drew large crowds; disciples followed him; everyone talked about him.  All of which attracted the notice of Nicodemus. Curiosity sent him to Jesus. Nicodemus greeted Jesus with words of respect and honor, calling him Rabbi, teacher, and noting Jesus came from God.  In fact, it was the first time someone said Jesus came from God; Nicodemus saw something in Jesus that even his closest disciples had not yet worked out.

I want to highlight the curiosity of Nicodemus at this point. The story of his transformation began with curiosity. And, as I think about my own life, that’s how change happens – with that combination of uncertainty, wonder, and openness that we call curiosity.

A friend who teaches in elementary school helped me think about curiosity in a new way. He pointed out that people often ask children questions for which the teacher or parent already knows the answer. Such questions seek to find out if the student knows the right answer too. But true learning happens, my friend said, when we ask questions that we don’t know the answer to. That moves us from testing to learning. I really like that idea of asking questions we don’t know the answer to. That’s curiosity.

I’m reading a novel by Hisham Matar about a Libyan exile named Khaled. In the novel, Khaled survives an attack by the Libyan government on protesters against the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. As Khaled convalesced after the attack, a friend asked him, “Do you know what you need right now?”

In the novel, Khaled observed, “At first, I thought he meant it rhetorically, as if in preparation for telling me what he thought I needed. But, no, it was not that at all. And in the space that opened, the things I needed appeared lucidly. Although I could not yet voice them. I saw them flicker momentarily on the horizon.”

That’s what curiosity does. It opens a space, where ideas that we can’t quite voice can flicker on the horizon. Revitalization begins with those questions, that curiosity that asks questions we do not know the answer to. What questions are you asking in your lives? What curiosity shapes your faith?

Throughout his life, Nicodemus kept coming back to Jesus because of his curiosity. And yet their first encounter didn’t really go well. Jesus responded critically, brusquely, even harshly to Nicodemus. Hearing the story, at first, I felt bad for Nicodemus. It seems unfair for Jesus to be critical of him. But then I think of his timing. Nicodemus came during the dark of night so that no one would see him. Jesus saw this: Nicodemus was a man with curiosity but no courage.

Think with me about their conversation about being born anew.  At issue was a Greek word which can mean either “born again” or “born from above.”  Nicodemus took a literal view of what Jesus said: that he would need to pass again through the birth canal.  Jesus meant something metaphorical: Nicodemus would need to be renewed in a way that would be so profound it would feel like starting life as brand new.

Curiosity opened a space in Nicodemus’ heart; but he lacked the courage to imagine something new. And he lacked the courage to be public with his questions. Revitalization only comes for Nicodemus when he combines curiosity with courage.

The next scene with Nicodemus takes place many months, perhaps even a year later, at a time when Jesus’ teaching had continued to attract followers and controversy.  The Gospel of John described the prelude to Nicodemus’ second appearance in the story, saying, “And there was considerable murmuring about him among the crowds. While some were saying, ‘He is a good man’, others were saying, ‘No, he is deceiving the crowd.’”  The people murmured; their speech fell short of clarity, with many afraid of what would happen to them if they openly supported Jesus.

During this time the religious authorities tried to arrest Jesus; but the men sent out can’t find him or chose not to arrest him.  This made some of the religious authorities doubt the loyalty of their officers; “are some among us followers of Jesus?”

Curiosity kept Nicodemus close to Jesus. And at this tense moment of suspicion, Nicodemus spoke out.  He didn’t directly defend Jesus but instead spoke for following a proper procedure; “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  Still, even this mild protest led Nicodemus’ colleagues to suspect him.  They charged, “are you a Galilean too?”

In that midday moment Nicodemus realized he was no longer one with the religious authorities.  But fear of losing face, fear of a loss of reputation, kept him from openly defending Jesus.  At midday Nicodemus took some risks but could not find the courage to be fully open. 

When it comes to creating change in my own life, I really identify with Nicodemus at this point. I see him caught between his curiosity and his courage, caught in that messy middle, when you know the change you want to make in your life but feel constrained against it. Have you felt that too? When you long for what might revitalize you but find it only flickers momentarily on the horizon?

We hear last of Nicodemus after the crucifixion of Jesus.  Dusk nears; the body of Jesus must be laid to rest.  The disciples have scattered; the men and women closest to Jesus locked themselves behind thick doors out of fear they would be arrested next, or out of sorrow for their own betrayals of Jesus.  But two stepped forward – Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two men from among the religious authorities, two who loved Jesus but had kept their faith secret.

Somehow the death of Jesus changed them.  The public execution of Jesus was meant to scare any would-be followers.  But in this case, even before the resurrection, somehow just in the death, their fears abated.

Joseph and Nicodemus did something unexpected: they made a spectacle of their faith in Jesus.  Joseph used his wealth to purchase a gravesite for Jesus.  And Nicodemus joined him; he now combined his long curiosity about Jesus with an abiding courage. Publicly, out in the open, Nicodemus brought an abundance of spices, 100 pounds of precious spices, to perfume the broken body of Jesus, a lavish display.

We do not hear Joseph or Nicodemus speak; and perhaps even then they did not speak.  But we can imagine them, two men, well-respected, privileged and wealthy, walking the same path Jesus trod with the cross, coming up to the foot of the cross, tenderly removing his body from the nails, covering his bloody and naked body, silently daring the soldier wrapped in Jesus’ cloak to stop them, facing the damning expressions of their former friends,  risking everything in order to give Jesus a decent burial.

As the sun set, and darkness came again to the land, the light of faith burned in the hearts of Joseph and Nicodemus.  When he first met Jesus, Nicodemus could not imagine what it meant to be born again. But now, with curiosity and courage shaping his life, he had become a new, revitalized person.

I’ve never found myself carrying 100 pounds of spices through the neighborhood. But reflecting on Nicodemus, I thought back to a moment when I felt tremendously foolish. My friend Dana works to combat the exploitation of women and girls. To raise funds for her work against human trafficking, she held a fashion show. Several clothing stores and fashion influencers worked with her to put on a show in Milwaukee. Before the models took to the runway, she had youth, community leaders, and survivors walk the runway.

Dana wanted me in the group of community leaders, one of several pastors supporting her work. I’d never been to a fashion walk; and I wanted to help Dana’s organization; I didn’t know how but I wanted to be part of the answer to addressing human trafficking in Milwaukee; so, I started by helping Dana raise money; but soon my curiosity got ahead of my confidence.

Instead of a fancy outfit, we wore t-shirts for her organization. The task – just walk the runway. It turned out I was one of two white men at an event of about 500 African American women. I felt out of place. But the stage-fright only got worse when the other white guy killed it on the runway. He went right before me, pranced, and strutted, and sashayed his way to great applause. I can’t do that. Then the MC called my name. I hesitated, and then walked as awkwardly as humanly possible. The cheering crowd turned to snickering about my discomfort. Dana later assured me they were laughing with me. But saw my eldest son’s face – he was certainly laughing at me. Recording the whole thing. I turned such a bright shade of red. And just when I thought I could step off the runway, the MC stopped me for a bit of QnA.

At the time, I just wanted that moment to end. But later, when I remember it, usually because Dana’s asking if I’ll ever walk the runaway again, I feel the vividness of it, the aliveness of that moment, the vitality. That’s the odd thing: sometimes moments of vitality and revitalization come when curiosity leads us to skate to the edge of our courage.

Friends, Jesus once said to his disciples, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” God wants us to discover what vitality can look like in our lives and communities. Nicodemus helps me imagine it. Vitality comes when we combine curiosity with courage.

Amen and Amen.