Sunday, March 20, 2011

How Can This Be? John 3:1-17

John 3:1-17
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.

This is Founders Day weekend. Friday and Saturday Chapman University hosted hundreds of Disciples and United Church of Christ folks and others who came to hear the words of Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, Disciples historian Newell Williams, the great preacher Alvin Jackson and the very popular writer of spirituality Anne Lamotte. We enjoyed so much music, from an hour long concert by the Chapman Choir to wonderful performances in worship by the a cappella group Sound Check to a solo performance on marimba by Chapman student Soyon Cheon to Paul Svenson and the PSWR Regional Celebration Band. We got to catch up with folks we don’t see very often, congratulate friends on recent accomplishments, mingle with students and faculty from our Disciples related university and meet the new Dean of the Chapel. We celebrated the fact that the United Church of Christ is now also in an official covenant relationship with Chapman. This year we celebrated the 150 year anniversary of Disciples educational heritage culminating in what we now know as Chapman University. We came together to do what Disciples do – to learn and to teach and to sing and to share the love of our Lord with one another at the Table.

I am a Disciple, a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I’m not a Disciple by virtue of having been brought up that way, like many of you, but because after having rejected church and the theology that I was taught in the church of my youth for 25 years I came to understand that I needed church. After 25 years of hating church and church people and reading the Bible in order to find ammunition to use against Christians, I discovered that I needed to become part of a community of people who believed in the god of love and compassion I had come to believe in. At the same time that I came to understand that, the pastor of a Disciples congregation came into my life. She prayed with me and comforted me and gave me assurance that I was welcome. She told me about the Disciples commitment to education, about the Disciples strong belief that each of us can and must read and study and come to understand scripture ourselves. I didn’t have to accept what the preacher said unquestioningly. I didn’t have to believe the Bible was handwritten by God. She told me that there is no creed I had to claim belief in before I could be accepted into a Disciples congregation. I didn’t have to believe exactly what everyone else here believed. She told me about Disciples congregations being congregational with no hierarchy to answer to, and weekly communion and believers baptism. She told me about the priesthood of all believers – that all Disciples are equally ministers of the Good News of Jesus Christ, that lay folks taught Bible studies and presided at the Table and took communion to shut-ins. I listened to all this and thought to myself, “Wow. Really? I can disagree with the preacher and the Bible study teacher? There’s no pope or cardinal or priest or nun to tell me what I have to think and believe? I like this place.” And so I started to show up. And the more I showed up the more I liked what I was learning. Before long I realized that God was speaking to me, that I was being called to the ministry. A year or so later I moved from South Florida to Southern California to attend Chapman University where I fell in love with learning. Perhaps the most important thing I learned at Chapman is that everything I know is subject to change. Sometimes I would hear something that flew in the face of everything I knew and believed, and I would say, “How can this be?”

That’s where Nicodemus found himself in that night. He was an educated man, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. He knew Torah backwards and forwards, he knew his theology, he knew the history of his people, he knew the stormy story of their relationship with God. He knew as much about how the world works as anyone could at that time. He’d been hearing what Jesus preached and it was not what he was used to. Jesus was known for preaching the opposite of what popular wisdom claimed. And yet, what he was saying sounded true. He came to Jesus for clarification. We’re told he came at night and most interpret that to mean he was trying to hide his interest. I’m not quite convinced of that. It’s possible of course. Nicodemus was a prominent leader and a respected teacher. He may not have wanted his colleagues to know he was leaning toward what this man from Galilee was preaching. He may have come at night in order to keep from being seen. But night time was also the time when the crowds were gone. Fewer people were around Jesus at that time. He might more reasonably hope to get to talk to Jesus one on one at night.

So he asked his questions. “"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."

This is where we get the belief that only people who are baptized are going to go to heaven. “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” When we read scripture carefully, putting aside as much as possible everything we have been brought up to believe about what it says, we can come to realize, like Nicodemus did, that what Jesus is saying is not what we are used to hearing. We have to understand that our understanding of heaven is not the same thing as the kingdom of God. Throughout his ministry, Jesus was teaching about bringing God’s kingdom into existence on earth, so that the world would become a place where all persons are treated equally under the law, where folks with no one to look out for them would be cared for, where wars of conquest and oppression simply didn’t happen, where governments and the wealthy would care more about the people of the land than about their own power and comfort. It sounds like heaven, and it sounds a bit unrealistic. But it is what Jesus preached. “If you all will just do the things that God really directs you to do, if you will just love one another as much as you are loved. this is what the world will be like. If you do these things, if you follow the teachings I am giving you, you will bring about and live in the kingdom of God. But first you must repent of the way you are living, you must let the winds of change in and become a new person. In essence, you must be born again.” Baptism in Jesus’ time was not a symbol of membership in that exclusive club known as Christianity. There was no Christianity yet. Baptism was the act by which a person publicly demonstrated her willingness to give up her sins and character defects and her old way of living in order to embrace the Spirit of God and become a new person in God’s sight.

When people have come up to me, you know, those folks who show up at the front door and ask “Have you been born again?”, frankly, I’ve never quite known how to answer them. Did I suddenly one day have a conversion experience that somehow can distinguish my lifelong Christianity into a new and different life in Christ? No. Have I been re-baptized to start over again? No. I’ve been taught that isn’t necessary, that I only have to be baptized once even though that happened when I was a baby. But – am I different today in what I believe about God and Christ and Church and how to live? Yes. Radically different. It didn’t happen all at once. It is a product of being willing to hear new things I don’t like with an open mind. It is a product of continuing to read and study and talk about scripture and history and other people’s ideas about what it might mean. It comes from learning more about myself, what my strengths and weaknesses are and a willingness to make changes in myself in order to be able to help bring about that kingdom Jesus kept preaching. And to do that openly, as the penitents in Jesus’ day did when they went to the Jordan river to receive the waters of repentance. The more I study and learn, the more my faith, my understanding of God and Jesus and theology and liturgy and dogma and all those other things keeps changing. That’s the biggest reason why I can’t use the same sermons I used last time these lectionary selections came around. I might not necessarily still believe exactly the same way I did when I preached them before.

In one of his three lectures on Friday, Bishop John Shelby Spong suggested that instead of asking people to be born again that they might be as children, we should be calling them into maturity. I believe that is what we see Jesus doing here with Nicodemus. He said, “"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.” Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, “Grow up! Move past what you think you know and learn these new things that we are teaching.” While I was a student at Chapman I took a class on the Book of Revelation. On the first day of class then Dean of the Chapel Dr. Ron Farmer told us that both Martin Luther and John Calvin had wanted to leave this book out of the newly translated Bible. He began to discuss it as metaphor rather than as literal truth and one young man became very upset. He was expecting to be in a class where he would be taught about the absolute truth and accuracy of the prophecies it contained. He didn’t want to know about the history or the culture in which it was written. He didn’t want to know about the controversies that swirled around even including it in the first place or about other apocalyptic books that were left out of the Bible. He was unwilling to hear anything other than what he already believed, so he got up and walked out and never came back. It seems to me that young man made a choice that day to remain as a child in his understanding rather than taking the daring step of learning new things that might just help him grow in his faith.

We know that Nicodemus was changed by what he heard Jesus say. He stood up at Jesus’ trial in the Sanhedrin to protest what they were doing. He helped to prepare Jesus for the tomb after his crucifixion. He heard something new, questioned it, struggled with it, and eventually embraced it. He allowed the Spirit of God to change his heart and his mind. Let us commit to doing the same, to allowing the Spirit of God lead us in new directions even as Nicodemus and all the other disciples of Christ were led to new and greater understandings of what God desires of us. Let us move deeper into maturity in our faith. Let us turn to our Lord and say, “have thine own way, Lord.”

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Change is Good

Matthew 17:1-9
1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

Can you imagine being on that mountaintop and seeing your teacher suddenly transfigured? “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” And then to have two of the greatest leaders of your religion appear. “Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” Naturally, you would offer to get them whatever you could to make them comfortable. Um – hey, we can get you some tents so you can be sheltered from the night cold. And then you hear God’s voice – at least, you hear a voice speaking from behind a bright cloud. Who else could it be but God? Of course they were overcome by fear! It’s pretty easy to see that would be more than happy to comply when Jesus said “Don’t tell anyone.” They may not have even registered the “until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” part until much later.

Transfigured and meeting with Moses and Elijah. Wow. Moses. Chosen by God to help the Hebrews escape from their slavery in Egypt. With God’s direction and help he performed wonders – his staff turned into a snake, the sea was parted, the rock split and produced sweet water. He returned the Hebrews to worship of the One God, Yahweh, after generations of worshipping idols and false gods. He brought them the Law and he led them back to the land God had promised to Abraham.

And Elijah. The last of the priests of Yahweh in a time of great persecution under King Ahaz and Queen Jezebel. Chosen by God to lead the Hebrews back to his worship. With God’s direction he performed wonders – lit the sacrificial fire when it was completely water soaked just by asking God to do so after the 400 priests of Baal had been unable to light their own. Brought the widow’s son back to life. Blessed her containers of flour and oil so they would never get empty. Was instrumental in the overthrow and death of the persecutors and the liberation of the people. Returned the Hebrews to the worship of the One God, Yahweh, after generations of their kings had turned away from God.

Moses and Elijah transformed the people of Israel. Both of these great leaders liberated their people from actual slavery and from the worship of false gods. Both brought their people back to the worship of the One God, Yahweh, after generations of following false gods. They were great prophets and miracle workers and Jesus is standing in their company. Wow. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for the disciples who were present that night. And I’m sure they talked about it among themselves, wondering just what this really meant. It surely made them more certain than ever that Jesus was the promised messiah. I wonder though, if they thought about what false gods Jesus might have been leading the people away from.

We know, but then, we have the advantage of nearly 2,000 of scholars and theologians figuring it out for us. When right adherence to the law became more important than the God who gave the law it became a false God. When perfect performance of ritual became more important than the God those rituals were designed to worship, the ritual became a false god. Jesus liberated the people from slavery to and worship of book and ritual, away from the false belief that they were the only ones God loved. Jesus was leading the people away from the false god of law and ritual and back to worship of the One God, Yahweh.

As many of you know I spent a lot of time with other clergy folks this week. Monday was my quarterly clergy renewal day at Disneyland with two other clergywomen. Wednesday I had lunch with Disciples clergy from Pomona, Hemet, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ontario. Both groups were talking about folks who think being Christian is just about showing up on Sunday morning. We know that this is the mindset that efforts like New Beginnings and New Church and all the very popular “missional church” programs are trying to eliminate. We complained about people who think they’re supposed to be entertained at worship which causes the folks planning and leading the service to hope that a little “edu-tainment” will be taking place. And we followed that conversation with a conversation about how to make Sunday worship more attractive, how to make Powerpoint presentations more interesting and how to dress up the outside of the building so more people will want to come inside. Does anyone else see the irony in the order of these topics?

It is good when worship can be uplifting and moving and emotionally satisfying. When we leave saying “I really felt spirit filled today.” As long as we understand that what lifts you up might not do anything for me or for the person in the next pew. And it’s important to understand that there is no special attraction to trying a different style of worship just because it works someplace else. Sometimes it feels like we worship the act of worship, the rituals and traditions and music, rather than worshipping God.

What we’re supposed to be doing here is not having a great emotionally uplifting experience, although that is always a plus. What is supposed to be happening here is 1) GOD is worshipped with all our devotion and 2) we are transformed. Not just made to feel good for the moment, but made to be different, to behave differently. To go out from this place as new people, each one of us priest and missionary to the world.

At this time of year in places like New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro we have a really graphic example of what our transformation could look like. Right now it is Mardi Gras, it is time for Carnivale! Mardi Gras and Carnivale celebrations are time to engage in being self-indulgent. It is a time when to eat, drink and be merry is expected, even condoned by the church in those places. Floats and dancers with feathery, sparkly costumes fill the streets. There are feasts and parties. The bars are filled with local celebrants and tourists. But when the church bells toll midnight on Tuesday things change immediately! The beads and masks are put away – the streets are transformed from a place to party to a place of penance. At midnight the partiers leave and the penitents come out - in many cases they are the very same people. The dancers put away their costumes, the drinkers put away their glasses, and they parade the streets barefoot and praying. Some carry crosses. Some whip themselves until their backs and legs are bloody. Some simply walk and pray, asking God’s forgiveness for the sins they have committed throughout the past year. At dawn they will congregate at the churches, accepting their ashes. Committing themselves to atonement and change in year to come.

Lent is a time for soul searching and transformation. It is the time when candidates for baptism looked within themselves for character flaws, for sins they regularly committed without even realizing they were doing wrong.

And let us be clear about what baptism is about. It is not a miraculous bath that changes someone’s character. It is not that ritual without which one cannot get into heaven. It is an act of commitment on the part of the candidate to change, to follow Christ, to devote his life to being the person God created him to be.

Even if we personally were not baptized at Easter, Lent is still a time to revisit that time of preparation for our own baptism. It is a time to give up luxuries and add spiritual practices. It is a time to get to know the person we are and strive to become the person God wants us to be. It is a time to become new in Christ, even as we did at our baptisms. It is time to prepare ourselves again even as we did for our baptism, with soul searching and coming to understand just exactly what we are giving up to be Christian. Not just chocolate or fast food or Kindle books. But self-indulgence of all kinds, anger, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony. It is a time to ask God to help us replace those sins with virtues – replacing greed with generosity, gluttony with moderation, pride with humility, and so on.

Lent is a time to put aside a bit of time every day to spend in introspection, seeking those sins and character flaws and asking God to transform us, to replace them with something better, more Christlike. It is a time when we engage even more than usual in prayer and acts of giving. We may even find a new spiritual practice, some way to focus our minds and hearts on God and on our prayer life. For example, while on Sabbath Leave I discovered coloring books filled with mandalas similar to the one above titled Transfiguration. The act of coloring while focusing the meaning on the design brought calm and healing to my heart. Lent is a time to seek change, for change is good. As we each work to change ourselves, we also change the people we touch and the world around us, bringing them closer to God’s kingdom of love and justice.

God said, “This is my Son, my beloved. With him I am well pleased, listen to him!” So let us do what he says. Let us be changed by his words even as he is changed on this mountaintop. Let us ask him to transform us.