Since some of my readers self-quarantined last week, here are the prayer of the day, scripture passages and sermon. Remember, you can bookmark this page of subscribe to the blog.
Prayer of the Day: O God, our leader and guide, in the waters of baptism you bring us to new birth to live as your children. Strengthen our faith in your promises, that by your Spirit we may lift up your life to all the world through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (ELW p. 27)
Genesis 12:1-4a: 1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.
Psalm 121: 1 I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? 2 My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. 3 He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. 4 He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. 5 The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. 6 The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. 7 The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. 8 The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17: 1 What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
John 3:1-17: 1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
TLC – March 1, 2020
There are things I absolutely love about this morning’s gospel passage, and I promise I will get to them. But I think we first have to contend with how harmful this story of Nicodemus and Jesus nighttime conversation has been to so many. This is the passage of scripture, after all, where we get the phrase Born Again. I have rarely been able to satisfy people who have asked me if I have been born again. Pastor Monty, of the Christian Faith Center down the street, has an online profile that includes, “Pastor Monty was radically born again out of the drug culture as a young adult.” In other words, he has a moment in his life that he can point to and say, that’s when it happened. What’s more, he has a drug addiction recovery story.
My story is utterly boring. My parents took me to the Baptismal Fount in Roseville, Minnesota when I was two months old. They read the scriptures to me at home, took me to worship and Sunday School, taught me how to pray. They encouraged my questions and inquiry. Along the way, I had some mountaintop experiences, moments when I felt particularly close to God and to the Body of Christ, the church, but I never had a born-again moment.
The problem with born-again moments is not the experiences people had. I never want to discount that people have experiences like the one the Apostle Paul had on the Damascus Road or the one Pastor Monty had, or the one Kayne West had in the Holy Land. The problem is when their experiences are the measure of authentic faith. The problem is when the born-again moment, or lack of, becomes one more reason to say that some people are in and other are out.
Nothing about Jesus’ ministry indicates that he wanted to build up the Body of Christ simply so that human beings will break it apart. This is the same Messiah, the same Christ, who next week will break several rules for the sake of relationship when he talks with a Samaritan woman at the well. The following week he will heal a man born blind, restoring him to community. On the fifth Sunday in Lent he will raise a man from the dead. This is a Messiah whose agenda is restoration, transformation, and abundant life for all of creation. It is not an agenda of shame or division or cutting people or entire communities down.
It does little good and can actually lead to a great deal of harm, to compare stories of how precisely we experience new life in Jesus Christ. Jesus also is pretty explicit that the wind blows where it will. People who try to dictate the activity of the Holy Spirit are asking for trouble. That we do receive abundant life through Jesus is the point, not the how it happens for each individual. What is certain is that Jesus offer to be born anew or born from above is for everyone and it is pure gift.
The other problem with this story of Jesus and his night visitor is the beloved John 3:16. Of course this verse, in itself, is very good news. How could it not be? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him many not perish but may have eternal life.” Well, what happens, as it sometimes does, when someone confesses their belief or trust in Jesus but does not live their life as if it has made a bit of difference?
John 3:16 read in isolation may lead us to believe that. But fortunately, there are some antidotes. The first being the very next verse, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God is not just after the one person who will confess Jesus is Lord, good step as that might be. God wants to heal the whole world. That means we cannot just all stand around confessing Jesus is Lord. People will still be hungry, homeless, hurting, in physical and emotional pain, and isolated.
This week I found it helpful to bring in another part of Jesus’ ministry—one of his “I am” statements. He has a number of “I ams,” but the one I kept thinking about this week was “I am the vine” because in that lesson, Jesus is adamant about bearing fruit. He tells his followers, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
I am quite confident that fruit cannot just look like some intellectual set of beliefs, subscribing to a set of doctrine. Plus, anyone, including all of the First Graders we know, who has spent five minutes on a grade school playground knows that actions speak much louder than our words.
And so, in the end I would go so far as to say that Jesus, the Father, the Holy Spirit, the Triune God is active in the lives of all those people who seem to be bearing so much amazing fruit, but who may not consider themselves Christian. I would never presume to tell anyone that, not unless I had a very deep relationship with them, and they seemed curious about my faith.
Nonetheless, the wind blows where it will. If they want to be Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Agnostic, or Spiritual but not Religious, but they are partnering in including the marginalized, caring for the disenfranchised, transforming systems that make the rich richer and the poor poorer, then so be it. Let us give thanks for the good fruit.
What all of the fruit-bearing people in my life, whether they are Christians or not, show me is that this business of being born again or born from above is a daily practice. In many ways our understanding of remembering our baptismal identity daily is mirrored by people who are going through addiction recovery. People in Alcoholics for Anonymous never quit introducing themselves as alcoholics. They are never cured. Their introduction at each meeting is the same.” My name is …. And I am an alcoholic. And every time they are triggered, they work the twelve steps.” What’s more, they know that they cannot do any of their recovery work in isolation.
Likewise, each day we remember our identity as a child of God. We will encounter adversity, evil, temptation. We will, as the old confession states, sin against God and one another. We will hurt individuals in our lives and we will participate in cultures and communities that hurt people, some of which we are aware of and some of which we have to be made aware of. But sometimes we get it right, sometimes human beings do bear fruit in acts of kindness or advocacy or solidarity with the downtrodden. And in the midst of all of it, our brokenness and our fruit-bearing moments, we remain God’s beloved children.
A colleague of mine wrote this week, “as the Lenten season continues, we are reminded that to be born anew we first must die. Die to our ego, our control, our false self, but putting our trust in God alone.” My Lenten devotional this year is Luke Powery’s “Lenten Reflections on the Spirituals.” This week, I read, “When we are lonely and lost and disconnected from family or all this familiar, what do we do? The spiritual writer points us in a good direction. ‘I get down on my knees an’ pray.’ In other words, I turn to God. I turn to God because God is our eternal home, our mother and father. If we try other approaches, they may not be the best for us…When we are lost, we can only be found by God and in God.”
I talked a lot this morning about things I struggle with in this scripture passage. I want to end with what I really love, and that is the role of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was speaking and this particular gospel writing was writing thousands of years ago. I doubt they had any idea how desperately our 21stcentury ears would hunger for all that is unknown and not spelled out in Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. Words Jesus speaks have double or triple meanings. Jesus speaks of being born from above, but he never gives the “here’s how” manual. And there is no glossary for terms like “eternal life” or “belief.” And what exactly does it mean to be born of the Spirit?
We may laugh at Nicodemus, who is trying to imagine crawling back into a womb and seems to misunderstand Jesus at every turn of phrase, but there are times I am right there with him, and I grew up after the Enlightenment was long past. I have been trained to find all the answers.
But not everything about faith can be pinned down, and that is okay, it might in fact be a good thing. One of my favorite authors is Houston Smith, a Christian who could be credited with introducing the West to Eastern Religions. His memoir is called: Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine. I am thankful for the way today’s story makes room for some wonder. Somehow it allows me to trust that the Holy Spirit is as active today as it was that night so long ago. “The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” Wow!