Courage to be Curious

Sermon by:
Rev. Terri Thorn
delivered on:
March 12, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
John 3:1-17

Earlier this week I ran across this inspirational quote:  Curiosity is the compass that leads us to our passions.  Follow it and you won't be disappointed.  The future belongs to the curious.  I'm not sure that I agree with the part of the quote that you won't be disappointed if you follow your curiosity, but I do think this anonymous author was on to something.  It is true...the future does belong to the curious.  The curious, not the comfortable, are the ones willing to let go of the here and now in order to move toward the future.  They are not content to just let the future happen…or allow someone else to hand it to them.  Instead, the curious are asking the questions, testing the theories, discovering new ideas, and stepping forward to help shape the future.  

This is why being around children can be such a blessing; they remind us of what it means to have a sense of curiosity.  They are inquisitive.  They are eager to ask questions - sometimes all day long.  Most kids are curious about the sciences and willing to explore the arts.  They want to know how things work...and why things are the way they are...and what will happen if. 

Curiosity is a gift that comes naturally to children, but as we grow older many of us lose that gift.  We are hesitant to ask...or to explore...or to try.  Sometimes we are afraid of what others will think if we do.  Other times, we don't feel the need to be curious because we are comfortable with the answers we already have and don't want them challenged.   More often though, I think we are just complacent.  We are sea salt caramel people.  We like to know exactly what we are getting.   Now, as I said to the children, it's not wrong to be sea salt caramel people. It is fine to know what you like and stick with it.  However, there is always a price to pay for remaining comfortable and quiet. 

This is especially true when it comes to matters of faith.  When we settle into a routine and prefer to just "stick with what we know"...when we neglect to be curious…we will most assuredly miss out on opportunities - opportunities to learn something new...opportunities for our faith to become greater...and opportunities to experience God's love in amazing ways.   Likewise, we will also miss chances to share the gospel and help grow God's kingdom.

Truth is, it is all a big balancing act: how curious are we willing to be...and at what price will be curious.  You see, just as there is a price for not being inquisitive...there is also a cost to curiosity.   In fact, it takes a great deal of courage to be curious.    When we are curious, we have to be able and willing to give up control of the outcome.  We must release our preconceived notions.  We must have enough courage to step out of the safety of the way things are...off the beaten path of the way we think they should be...and away from the easy road of relying on our own knowledge…in order to take the road less traveled.  

Now, let me be clear about something.  Curiosity does take courage...but not all curiosity is worthy of our boldness.  You see, curiosity can also be dangerous.  I mean it is what killed the cat, right?  Although, I am beginning to think nothing will ever kill our cat...he has definitely used up more than 9 lives. 

Seriously though, curiosity can definitely lead one to dangerous places, evil thoughts, and devastating ways.  Curiosity about the wrong things or for the wrong reasons may become the impetus for infidelity, recklessness, and addictive behaviors...just to name a few.  

This type of curiosity, however, is not the God-ordained, Holy Spirit-led curiosity that I'm talking about.  It is harmful, self-centered exploration.   The challenge for God's people is how do we know the difference? How do we know when the nudge we are feeling is of God and worthy of our courage...and when it is from an unholy place and needs to be shut down? 

Well, to be quite honest, we could have an entire series of sermons on that very question. It is certainly the reason we need to work out our faith in community...helping each other discern God's work in our lives.  It's also why we need to know the stories of scriptures...the teaching of what God desires of and for his people.   But the short answer is if our curiosity leads us to a place where we are not bearing the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control...then it's probably not God's Spirit that is leading us. 

Spirit-led curiosity grows our faith...challenges our fears...and opens us to encounter God. It un-sticks us and invites us into new understandings, new experiences and new people, who may very well be unique and interesting, although different from ourselves.  It also leads us into blessed relationships that we could never have imagined.

It takes courage to follow the Spirit wherever it blows...but as the famous philosopher Forrest Gump told us, "Mama always said, life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get."  So, when we bite into that spirit-led curiosity, we may get our favorite...that which makes us comfortable and happy.  We could even get one that we would rather just slyly put back in the box.   But, sometimes we might just discover something we never even knew existed.

This was the case for Nicodemus.  He was courageous enough to be curious about Jesus...seeking to know more about him...to understand who Jesus was and what connection he had to God.  In his willingness to ask, Nicodemus received much more than he was looking for.  In fact, he doesn't even really get a question asked before Jesus begins to answer him with a series of teachings..."very truly I tell you".

In doing so, Jesus rocked Nicodemus' religious world...challenging his beliefs about the kingdom of God...about what it means to be born again..or being born from above -depending on your translation...about baptism...and about the work of the Spirit. The single act of curiosity led to a new understanding and awareness that Nicodemus did not see coming.  Jesus conveyed to Nicodemus, and all who were listening, why God had sent him.

Now, here's the thing about Nicodemus' courageous curiosity...it wasn't that he had to overcome his fear of Jesus to approach him.  Instead, Nicodemus had to be willing to risk the potential fall out that this secret meeting could cause.   Keep in mind, Nicodemus is a Pharisee…a leader, in fact…probably a member of the Sanhedrin - the rulers of the temple and religious life.  If he was caught inquiring...or if he was perceived to be sympathizing with Jesus...he could lose everything - possibly even his life.  More likely, though, his curiosity would just cost him his authority...and the respect of others (which for a first century Jew may as well have been his life.)  By approaching Jesus, Nicodemus was risking his security...his status in the community...his identity. 

 In a way he was like Abram - who risked all these same things in order to follow God's instruction to uproot go to the unnamed land.  However, unlike Abram, Nicodemus was not willing to put it all on the table.  That is why he chose to visit Jesus at night.  There was a lot less risk of getting caught.  Nicodemus was deliberately cautious in how he inquired about this new teacher in town.  He was curious but not bold.

Historically, this hesitation to be bold has been considered to be a flaw in Nicodemus.  In fact, his name came to be synonymous with those who were willing to remain unnoticed, who lacked the courage to speak up and be bold. For example, in the book of Revelation, John of Patmos warns to beware of the Nicolatians - who were the Christians willing to worship pagan and Roman gods in order to avoid persecution.   Likewise, John Calvin called those who were sympathetic to the reformation movement in the 16th century, but were also unwilling to be publically identified, Nicodemites.  And in the midst of National Socialism, the German Christians were considered Nicodemus' heirs because they were willing to accommodate the gospel to the racism and anti-Semitism of the Nazi ideology.   Even this morning, there are some Nicodemites and Nicolatians sitting in church pews struggling to be faithful Christians in this great nation.

As I said to Leanne earlier this week, Nicodemus was like a Democrat in Boone County - choosing to be quiet and go unnoticed because they are never sure that it is safe to speak up. Can you portray him that way?  I was joking, of course, but I also empathize.  It's not always easy to speak up when you know you are the minority voice...it's also frightening to admit that you're curious about something or someone that others around you are not.   

Although Nicodemus was in a position of power, his clandestine curiosity represents many of the powerless in our  society - hopeful, curious, but afraid to be bold.  Sadly, they hesitate to approach Christ, or his church: because of their sexuality...because of their addictions...because of their immigration status...because of their political leanings.

So maybe we should not be so hard on him.   Because you know, at the end of the day, even this slightly courageous, slightly cowardly, inquiry eventually changed Nicodemus' life.  He was curious about Jesus.  He didn't entirely buy the story that the rest of the religious establishment was selling.  His nighttime visit was less than brave, but all it took was that little bit of curiosity and Nicodemus encountered God...in the flesh of Jesus.  His life was transformed.  He believed what Jesus was teaching...and came to love Jesus in his heart.  We know this fact because later in the story we are told that he intercedes on Jesus' behalf when the leaders wanted to arrest him.  Then, on Good Friday he shows up to help Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus.  Nicodemus became increasingly bold in his witness...and it all started with this encounter.

Usually, that is all it takes – if we have just a bit of courage to be curious about Christ, God’s Spirit takes care of the rest.

Like Abram, Nicodemus was blessed by God.  Through Jesus, he was invited to live differently guided by the Holy Spirit.  Jesus assured him that God's blessing is not about preserving personal identity, or religious hierarchy, or status quo.  It is about receiving the grace of salvation that Jesus offers and living the kingdom life God desires.

In fact, both of these stories...that of Abram's courage and of Nicodemus' curiosity...offer us a truth about the courage to be curious. 

Spirit-led, Spirit-blessed curiosity need not be feared.  Spirit-led, Spirit-blessed curiosity need not be on a grand scale.  Spirit-led, Spirit-blessed curiosity may be risky...and may come with a significant price.  But praise be to God, Spirit-led, Spirit-blessed curiosity leads to blessing...every single time.

So, I wonder, as we're making our way on our Lenten journey, in what way might God wish the church would be more curious?  How might God be asking Christians to step away from our comfort and security of "Christianity as we know it" in order to explore...to seek...to ask?  In order to be blessed even more than we are now?

Or maybe God is calling you specifically to be more curious about something or someone...to set aside what you think you know in order to discover that which you have yet to know?

Are you courageous enough to try something new? To explore a long over-due reconciliation? How about intentionally befriending a stranger?  After all, one of the most powerful results of being genuinely curious about another human being is not the relationship that is formed, it is the blessing that the relationship will become. 

Is anyone among us curious enough and courageous enough to commit to studying an issue such as immigration reform or interfaith dialogue, or discuss a particular doctrine or position of the church – approaching with a completely open mind - expecting to have our current beliefs challenged and blessed? 

Is there something nagging at you...something for which now is the right time for you to step up and be curious?  For me, it has been drug addiction awareness.  Too many families in our community...good hard working families...rich families...poor families...faithful families...and never-set-foot-in-a-church families...are suffering deeply due to addicted loved ones.  I have become curious and courageous to learn about the patterns of addiction...the causes...the treatments...the shame...in order to be a better pastor to those affected by it. It has been a blessing to meet with and learn from people who desperately want to help raise awareness. 

Your curiosity may not be a social issue...or a religious question...maybe you just want to know what is happening on Wednesday nights at the Lenten Soup and Story Suppers.  If so, I hope you will find the courage to come see what it is all about...even if you just want to eat the soup.   Either way...6:00PM Wednesday...all are welcome, always.

Folks, the courage to be curious will lead to blessing.  You will be blessed.  You will be changed by the blessing. And you will become a blessing to others.  That's not my promise...it is God's.

And now, more than ever, it is time for the church to be curious... to have courage...to be bold...for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I’d like to close with a poem a friend of mine, Rev.Brian Shivers at Second Presbyterian in Indianapolis wrote.  I believe it captures God’s call to the church to have the courage to be curious.

Our Common Humanity  (a poem by Rev. Brian Shivers) 

 I will not cover  my eyes pretending not to  see so I may remain  comfortable.  

 I will not stop  my ears pretending not to  hear so I may remain  disengaged.  

 I will not close  my mind pretending not to  know  so I may remain  ignorant.  

 I will not harden  my heart pretending not to  feel so I may remain  distant.  

 I will not shut  my mouth pretending not to  care so I may remain  silent. 

 It is in our seeing, hearing, knowing, feeling, caring that we discover our common humanity.