This statue of a defiant little girl was installed this past week on International Women's Day, fac-ing the raging bull in New York. And as you look at her, you can see in her very stance that this is a courageous little girl. She's small; she's vulnerable; she's facing something huge and men-acing. In not so many words, this little girl is who we say we are as Americans-- cheering for the underdog. She is courageous precisely because she is vulnerable. If she were a statue a hun-dred times bigger than the bull, she would be seen as the bossy woman who doesn't want any-one to have any fun. But I'm not here to talk gender stereotypes this morning. What I want you to notice is this undeniable connection between vulnerability and courage.
Who are the people in your life that you consider courageous? I think of a young man at my first church, who at 18 signed up for the marines in 2002. He didn't think he was that vulnerable, but after serving three tours in Iraq, he had to start life again as he went to the U of M and figured out how to live in civilian life. I think of Alec-- a young man I met because his fiancé Jenny was in a small group I led at Hennepin. I married he and Jenny when they were in their late 20's, and two years later she died of a stroke before she could give birth. They were able to save the baby, and now he is raising Norah by himself at the age of 30. And this young man who could've turned in to himself and rejected everyone who knew and loved Jenny has instead opened his heart to be loved by those in the church who loved her. I think of my Grandma, who always wanted to go to college and never got to go, and yet cheered on her grandkids, doing everything in her power to make sure we went. And even when her church, the Reformed Church of Amer-ica, condemned the ordination of women; even when she herself wondered if that was really faithful, she supported me fully and finally came around by the time I was ordained.
Courage. It is intricately connected with vulnerability. Without vulnerability, we wouldn't need courage. Even superheroes are only courageous because they have some faults or vulnerabili-ties. Vulnerability leads us to connection, and connection allows us to step into courage.
Interestingly enough, most of us spend a lot of our lives trying not to be vulnerable, trying not to have to be courageous. Which is why it is so often difficult to understand Jesus. It is why his disciples found him difficult to understand. Because Jesus chooses vulnerability and steps into courage in ways that we find difficult at best. Paul, the writer of many of the letters, calls it the foolishness of the cross. Jesus lives his life by speaking truth to power and we see it again today.
Nicodemus is a leader of the Pharisees. He is a religious leader. He knows the rules. He follows the rules. He benefits from the rules. And when he goes to see Jesus, Jesus is put in a vulnera-ble situation. He doesn't know what Nicodemus is going to report from this meeting. He doesn't know whether Nicodemus is honestly interested in his teaching or trying to trap him. So Jesus tells him what he knows-- that in order for someone to see the Kingdom of God, they must be born again. And Nicodemus asks if he means that people have to be born literally again and how that's possible. And Jesus responds that we must be born by water and the Spirit-- that the Spirit blows where it wants to. He is telling Nicodemus that there is far more to God than the legality of the law that Nicodemus so closely follows. He is inviting Nicodemus to see that the Spirit of God is living and breathing-- not being controlled by religious leaders' opinions and ideas. And then he tells Nicodemus why he has come-- not to condemn the world, but to save it. This is the foolishness of God-- to come not in order to put everyone in their place or to control us all or even to whip us into shape; but to offer us salvation from ourselves-- to offer us a new way of life.
John Wesley experienced that grace that Jesus is talking about. John Wesley is the man who began the Methodist movement back in the 1700’s. And he was very much like a Pharisee. He went into the priesthood as a family profession, and although he had faith in God, it was mostly intellectual. He would take notes on his day, each day, and at the end of the day look back on what he was doing every half hour and whether it was contributing towards him being more like Christ or less like Christ. He had a method— which is why people started calling him a Method-ist. But Wesley went through a life crisis when he failed miserably at being a priest here in America, in what was the colony of Georgia. He went back to England and he began to reflect on what he was missing. And then Wesley went to a Bible study in an upper room at night, and for the first time in his life, he had an experience of the Holy Spirit— he said his heart was strangely warmed. Now this sounds great— who doesn’t want to experience God in some way? But it also caused a lot of trouble. Because this meant that Wesley had to change his life— he didn't give up his methods, but he allowed the Spirit to breathe new life into them. He felt called to share his experience and to invite other people to experience God both intellectually as he had his whole life, but also with their heart, as he now realized was the missing piece. A few years later Wesley had given up his pulpit in an established church; he gave up his ideas of where worship had to take place— namely inside and in a certain order— and instead Wesley was sharing his love of Christ each and every day, trusting that God was working through him by reaching out in ways the established church wasn’t ready for.
You see whether we are the bull or the little girl, God is inviting us to be courageous in our ac-tions; but that courage will take different forms. Jesus, was like the little girl-- facing the estab-lished religion of his day, facing the Roman government; facing the ways of this world that say might is right and the vulnerable always lose and the point of life is to control everything. He faced all of that and courageously lived his life and lived out God's love, even to his own death on the cross.
Nicodemus, however, is like the bull. He has the power. He has the education. He has the status. He has the role. He has the law on his side. And he has to decide what it means for him to be faithful and to be courageous. And I find that in this story, he shows a great deal of courage. He seeks out Jesus at a time when Jesus is alone so he can listen to what he has to say instead of accusing him of one thing or another. He puts his cards on the table-- acknowledging that only someone of God can do signs and wonders like Jesus does. He even asks questions when he doesn't understand what Jesus is talking about. But what Nicodemus doesn't quite realize yet, is that in order to live out great courage, he has to make himself vulnerable. Jesus said it best. In order to live by the courage of the Spirit, we have to be born again. And we all know that birth takes hard work, pain, blood, sweat, and tears. It takes great vulnerability and great courage to see the world in a different way; to trust in God rather than God's laws. Jesus gave up his life courageously in order to save his life and ours. Nicodemus would have to give up his life as well-- the comfort of knowing he is right; the job security of being a Pharisee; the worldview of believing that he following every letter of the law is what makes you a righteous person.
To live unafraid, as Jesus did, we have to choose vulnerability and step into courage. It doesn't mean we won't ever be scared; but it does mean we will truly be alive.