The Second Sunday of Lent, Year A - March 12, 2017

Preacher: 
The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

The Second Sunday of Lent

Year A

March 12, 2017

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." 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?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' 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." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

"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. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

"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.

"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." (John 3:1-17)

 

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Last Sunday night, my Son Turner was home on Spring Break from William & Mary, and we were able to do something we love doing together, and that is, watch a movie that offers a fresh perspective on Christianity.  When I say fresh, I say that tongue in cheek, because most of the time, it is pretty irreverent, and almost always hilarious.  You’ve all heard me mention George Carlin’s performance as the Cardinal of New Jersey in the movie, "Dogma," and John Oliver’s skit on televangelists.

But this time, the movie we saw did not make me laugh - Jesus Camp. It was a sobering documentary about a charismatic evangelical summer camp that indoctrinated young children to be warriors for Christ, teaching them to be wary of other so-called Christians who had not received the gift of the Spirit. They claimed that unless you had been born again – through a one-time conversion experience - you were not really Christian, not saved.  Those other Churches, the camp manager told the children, are "dead churches" – where the people just sit passively and listen to sermons.  Those are the places that Jesus doesn’t visit.  It’s in churches where people jump, shout, weep and speak in tongues, she contends, that the spirit is present. 

I've been thinking about this all week, because today, we get the scripture passage that gives biblical warrant for this evangelical understanding of being born again.  It is in Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemous that we hear him say, Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” – which can also be translated “born again.” …born of water and the spirit.

Unfortunately, this passage has been used as a litmus test of whether you can be truly Christian apart from an emotional experience or public acceptance of Christ. A one and done transformation.

You all probably know by now that I don’t buy into this interpretation, because there’s no way I can reconcile it with a Jesus who got into trouble with religious leaders because he refused to draw a line between who is in and who is out.  I think Jesus was touching on something far more inclusive and encompassing, and for most of us, life giving. 

When I think of birth, actual childbirth, I think of incredible pain and then joy, hope, and possibility of new life. Contractions and gripping pangs, blood and water, and then this tiny being who arrives, the epitome of beginning.

So… what if being born of the Spirit is something more like that? But not just one and done. In my experience, being born anew—the pain and the beginning—is an ongoing series of births: repeatedly over the years, multiple instances of gripping pain and rushes of joy, hope, and possibility.  Just last week, I sat across from my spiritual director lamenting all the birth pangs I have endured these past years along with the joys: with a new marriage, a new home, with my adult children.  And now, it seems, I’m having those contractions again – in the role I’ve served here, with all of you.

The pain of new birth can be triggered by many things, things that happen out of the blue and seem external to us, or by things that have been brewing within us for a while, sometimes even years.   I’ve experienced both, and while I’ve had my share of birth pangs induced by external circumstances, mine are far more often the result of something internal— like realizing that I am not seeing something clearly, not living in line with reality.  Or noticing that what I profess to be on the outside and who I actually am on the inside are out of alignment. 

Whether it is my role in polluting our environment, my conformity to our 24/7 culture, or the reality of my family dynamics, these realizations aren’t comfortable.  Each time they are a blast to my idea of who I am, to my ego.  Think about it.  How do the birth pangs in your life affect who you believe yourself to be?

One thing that I can say about my own birthing experiences is that over the years, I’ve grown more and more aware of the steady presence and unchanging love of God, right there, with me.  This has definitely provided comfort, but it has also challenged me.  Because that constant, unconditional love can also be a blast to my ego….in that my efforts to please others or achieve some standard I’ve set for myself do not increase or decrease God’s acceptance of me one bit.   It simply is there and always will be. 

This is what I think Jesus is getting at when he tells Nicodemus to “Believe”, which by the way doesn’t mean memorizing a bunch of bible verses, but instead means trust.  It is by trusting in that steadfast love of God that we can feel safe enough to work through the discomfort of the birthing process into new ways of seeing and living.

Each birth, no matter what the details are, is an opportunity for us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, for the sake of transformation in ourselves and in the world around us. Each birth invites us to follow that holy wind of the Spirit that blows where it will, and be attentive to where it pushes us. And in my own life, I’m finding that past the ego discomfort is a richer, more holy comfort.  A comfort that awakens us all to the sacred in every moment: from the daily and small, to the eventful and large.

Over the years I’ve been here at All Souls, we’ve gone through several birthing processes – when I arrived we dove right into the task of obtaining a conditional use permit to legally occupy the Atlee House as our office and meeting space, and we also launched the community garden and moved to Messiah for worship.  I have to tell you, there were some mornings I would drive out to Mechanicsville wondering where in the world I was going to get the energy to keep up with all of this, and lead worship and preach every week and develop new faith formation programs.

 But each and every time we gave birth to our ambitious ideas – the blessing of our Garden, finishing a sack hunger build, our joint services with Messiah, or the many personal birthing experiences you have shared with me – in each, I encountered an experience of the holy, something that would feed my soul.  I didn’t come assuming there would be such a meal, but I was fed, richly, every time. 

We all want to know the whys and hows and whats of the birth pangs we experience in our lives.  Our egos get frustrated when we don’t know the plan, don’t know where the spirit is leading us.  I don’t know about you, but each time I hear what Jesus says in today’s gospel “[t]he 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”  I think, easy for you to say!

But I am also reminded that being born of the Spirit means being in that liminal space essential to our growth — that something is forming, but until it bursts into the world, it remains something of a mystery. So with every new birth, I’m learning just a bit better to push on through the pain and discomfort, trusting in the new beginning that is promised to come.

With all this in mind, what would it mean for you, to let yourself be born again, or “born of the spirit?”  What if we were all to stop telling God our plans, and allowed the wind to take us to places not on our agenda? Or better, what would happen to each of us if we listened for God to call forth from us something we did not recognize as being possible? Throughout my life I have had people call forth from me gifts which I did not realize were mine to give. My guess is that you’ve all had that experience. Someone names a gift in you as if it existed and as you live into their expectation, you experience the reality of that gift.

God calls into existence things that do not yet exist. God calls forth life which we cannot bring about on our own. What might God be calling forth from you and me right now? Can we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the untamed wind of God? Can we listen for what we have not yet been willing to hear? Can we see in one another and in ourselves, the gifts of God, the image of God in us, waiting to be born, again?

Amen

 

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