Sermon on Genesis 12:1-4a and John 3:1-17 for Lent +2 A, March 12, 2017
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. 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. 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.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
Now 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.”
I want to tell you about my born again experience. Actually experiences (plural). I was born in Kansas where, although we lived in a city, not too far away were my cousins who actually got to live on a real farm where there were horses! So it was awful, from my perspective, to move, as we did, when I was six years old, to Ohio, to a city, in fact to an apartment. I grew up in Southern Ohio, in the suburbs. Everybody was white and middle class. That is the world I grew up in.
In middle school I started working on Saturdays, during the school year, and throughout the summers. I had a friend whose father owned rental property on Dayton’s west side. He employed me and his son to cut grass. He taught us how to patch holes in the walls, how to paint, how to replace broken windows, and do other home maintenance. I had never been across the river to the west side before I started working for Mr. Burke.
The west side was a scary place to me. There had been race riots there in the late ’60’s. You could still see burned out buildings in those days. People there were poor. We could see drug dealers on the corners, and prostitutes. My eyes were opened to poverty and racial issues, but without any analysis; without understanding. Why did this exist like this?
My middle school music teacher and mother conspired to enroll me in the Dayton Boy’s Choir. It was a racially mixed choir, so nearly half of the boys came from the west side. We practiced together twice a week downtown at the Presbyterian church. We sang concerts together and went on summer choir tours. We traveled together, ate together, roomed together; we got to know one another as people.
So, I had these two very different experiences. One was that I saw the scary, ugly side of their world, and the other was that I saw the human side of people who were both very different from me, but also very much like me. I started learning that life is complex, and that binary, either-or categories are totally inadequate to describe reality. My heart started to open up to people who were “other.” Other than the world I took to be “normal” – which was just my world.
Born Again at Moody
I was born into a nearly monochrome world, but I was starting to be born again. I think the birth happened for me at, of all places, the Moody Bible Institute. We had a class were we had to read books like, Black Like Me, The Other America, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and a book on women I cannot recall the title of.
These books introduced me to other people who were “other” than me in different ways, and I had more experiences of being born again. I learned about poor people, including the large numbers of rural white poor people who were not part the world I was physically born into.
I learned about native American people; the book I read had pictures of native Americans en route on the “trail of tears,” as they called the mass deportation to the reservations. The photo showed a man, fallen in the snow, apparently frozen to death.
I read of the experiences of women and became aware of women’s issues, glass ceilings, pay disparity, disproportional work loads at home, to say nothing of abuse and violence, rape culture and the systemic obstacles to getting rape convictions.
In other words, the stories of the suffering these different people endured opened my heart to them. The “others” became human to me.
Learning Bible and Theology
I was studying theology at Moody. We learned about the story of Abraham and Sarah; about their call to leave their native land and journey into an unknown future in a foreign land. They became immigrants. We learned that God’s promise to them was to bless them. But it did not stop with them. God’s promise and intention was to bless “all the families of the earth.”
We studied the gospels. I took a class on the gospel of John. We learned about the Nicodemus story. We heard Jesus say:
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
A person cannot even see, let alone enter the kingdom of God with out a new birth. A birth “from above”; a birth of both water and Spirit.
Nicodemus is confused, and Jesus, in John’s telling of it, is cryptic. How does a person get born in this spiritual way?
Jesus’ answer: by embracing human suffering.
Jesus the Human
First Jesus turns Nicodemus’ attention to himself. What does he focus on? Not the signs, like the healings that attracted Nicodemus to Jesus, but to his embracing humanity, and specifically human suffering.
In the story, Jesus calls himself “the son of man.” That sounds mysterious to us, but it is a translation of a Hebrew expression that literally means “mortal” or “human being.” By why call yourself, in effect “the human?” To show that Jesus is identifying with all humans, embracing all humans, as humans.
What shape will that embrace take? It takes the shape of embracing human suffering. Just as the serpent was lifted up on the pole as a symbol of healing, so Jesus will also suffer without violent resistance.
Anyone who “believes,” or literally “trusts,” that this embrace of human suffering is God’s way of opening us up to see the kingdom and enter the kingdom, will experience a new birth, a new quality of life, or, in the Greek idiom, life “into the Age,” which in English becomes, “eternal life.” Life in the kingdom of God.
God’s love, as John tells us, is for the whole world, the whole cosmos, all of humanity, and all of the universe we were born into.
This much you can learn from books, or sermons, or courses at Moody. But to be born again, is not just to read about it. It takes a broken heart. A heart that has been broken because it has heard and embraced the real stories of real people who suffer.
There was an older lady I knew in the Chicago area, where I served a congregation, as a youth minister, before going overseas to teach in Romania and Croatia. Her name was Miss Rose. She was beloved by everyone. She was an Assyrian —American. Her grandparents had come to this country from Iraq.
In her living room she had an embroidered picture on the wall. It showed a woman, running, bent over, carrying a baby on her back. Bullets were whizzing by her. I asked who that mother was? She said “That is my grandmother. My mother is the baby on her back.” They were fleeing from the fighting. They left everything. They came to America as refugees. So did the parents or grandparents of half the people in that church I served in Chicagoland.
I think about Miss Rose when I hear about banning refugees. I think about that congregation, filled with people with names like Caldani, Khananis, Atanus, Agassi, Lazar, Yokahana, Badal, Oshana, Alia Yonan, and Albazi. I think about the suffering that uprooted them from the homes and families they loved.
My family has lost track of the story of the suffering that motivated us to leave old Europe to come as immigrants to America. But nobody takes all those risks unless suffering has made it necessary. Every single person here (since there are no native Americans among us, as far as I know) has a family story of suffering that brought our people to this country. But those stories are, by now, old stories, and like mine, mostly lost to history. So people forget.
People who have forgotten their own story of suffering and immigration, find it easy to speak of walls and bans.
Unless they are born again by the Spirit. Unless they have embraced human suffering and opened their hearts to the “other.”
Encouraging the Choir
I know I am “preaching to the choir,” as they say. I know that you are people who have opened your hearts and embraced suffering. You are the ones who want to have conversations about racism and sexism, discrimination and xenophobia. So this sermon is to encourage you. All around us we hear calls for exclusion. We are people of embrace.
At the heart of our faith the Abrahamic blessing of “all the families of the earth.” At the heart of our faith is Jesus the son of man, who embraced all humanity and human suffering. At the heart of our faith is God who “loved the whole world.”