Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sermon for Lent 2A

Sermon text as prepared for delivery at First Congregational UCC in Ithaca, NY on March 20, 2011

Introduction to Text
At many public events you’ll find someone holding a sign reading “John 3:16,” a Bible verse that has taken on a meaning of its own in our culture. It’s easy for us to think we know what a verse or passage means based on cultural wisdom. If we take this verse out of its context, we miss out on a very interesting story. One thing to note in this narrative is the translators’ choice of how to translate the Greek word Pneuma. This word can be translated spirit, breath, or wind. Because this word carries all three meanings, I will use the word Pneuma in this text, rather than the English translators’ choice. When you hear the word Pneuma, know that it means spirit, breath, and wind.

The text: John 3:1-17

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 Pneuma. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Pneuma is Pneuma. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The Pneuma 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 Pneuma.”

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.

Will you pray with me?
O God, fill us with your Pneuma. Help us to notice your spirit blowing throughout creation and in every breath we take. And may my words and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, O God, our Rock, and our Redeemer. Amen.

We are only 3 chapters into the gospel of John - the first chapter sets up some important themes around belief in Jesus, who immediately gathers some disciples to follow him. In the second chapter, Jesus is portrayed as a miracle worker who can change water into wine (although he only seems to have done it because his mama insisted), and as a zealot seeking to cleanse the temple in Jerusalem. He is a complex figure, to say the least.

Then we come to Nicodemus, a spiritual leader in the Jewish community. Has he come to question Jesus in order to test or trap him, as the Pharisees seemed fond of doing? Or to mock him? Or perhaps to gently suggest to Jesus that he ought to calm down a bit and act a bit less sensational? Or is he a genuine seeker?

We will never really know, for as soon as Nick’s words of praise - whether sincere or not - come out of his mouth, Jesus takes the conversation in a completely different direction. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Wait. What? That’s not what I came here to talk to you about. But what do you even mean? “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Seriously, Jesus, you are making no sense here!

But Jesus goes on, determined to push Nicodemus to consider a more basic truth - the way to recognize the reign of God is to be born from above - and in order to better understand what is meant by birth and belief in the context of John’s gospel, we can look back at John chapter 1.

You may be familiar with the opening of the gospel - “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. This one was with God in the beginning.” This Word, or Logos, of God, then becomes flesh and dwells among us. And all who receive the Logos - who believe in his name - are given power to become children of God, to be born of God.

And in today’s text, Jesus says that we must be born of both water - which my college Greek professor insisted was referring to baptism, but which I think refers to the waters of the womb - and of the Pneuma, the spirit which is our very breath. Born of water - born of the flesh and blood and fluid of a mother’s womb. And born of Pneuma - the Spirit of God, who blows like wind throughout creation, and whose breath gives life to our flesh in every moment. It is not that our flesh and spirit are two different natures, but that we carry within us that which the Word, or Logos, also carried within himself - both the water and the spirit.

The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus continues and they begin talking about belief, and we might wonder what being born of the Pneuma, or spirit, has to do with belief. In the English language, we tend to think of belief as acceptance of something as true. When someone tells us a story that seems far-fetched, we might say, “I don’t believe it.” But we also use it, as the Greek language did, to mean placing our confidence in someone or something. We might tell a child, “I believe in you,” meaning, “I have confidence in you.” And the Greek word for belief, pisteuo, can also mean to commit to or to place trust in.

So, again, what does this have to do with being born from above? When I think of being born, I think of my niece Maaida, at whose birth I was present. When Maaida was placed in her mother’s arms and brought to nurse at her breast, she believed in her mother - she felt complete and utter trust that her mother would hold her and not let her go, and that she would be cared for.

One of the lectionary texts which we did not read today was from Genesis 4, about Abram and Sarai, or Abraham and Sarah. One of the names for God that Abraham fondly used was El Shaddhai - which some scholars translate “God of many breasts.” Like Maaida looking to her mother, Abraham looked to God as his birth mother and his nurturer.

In the world we live in today, it is easy to forget how to be born from above, how to have that childlike trust. We have only to turn on the television, open the paper, pull up the news online, or look at Facebook statuses and Twitter feeds to be reminded that our earth and many of the creatures on the face of the earth are suffering. The U.S. has launched military strikes in Libya, whose people are being abused at the hands of an unrepentant tyrant. Wars continue to rage in Afghanistan and Iraq. And Japan, where there are no words for the devastation brought about by earthquake and tsunami, races to contain the radiation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

And in our own community, loved ones are ill and dying, there are people without enough food to eat, and young people are suffering from alcohol and drug abuse.
I don’t know about you, but all these things and more leave me with a heaviness in my heart and a sense of great sadness.

And I find it easy to be a person of flesh - to ache with sorrow for our hurting world - and to wonder how we can ever get ourselves out of this mess. But to put my trust in God - to be born of the spirit - is a harder thing to do. Nicodemus had a hard time grasping it, too.

A lot of contemporary theology is pretty horrible. Consider the governor of Tokyo, who said that the tsunami was divine punishment. Unfortunately, a theology of “you brought this on yourself” is all too common - when people think God is going around punishing every evil deed or thought with unspeakable destruction - is it any wonder that we have trouble being born of the spirit?

But every once in a while I come across some pretty good theology - this time in music. Natalie Grant, a Christian singer, has a song called “Held.” I’d like to share with you the lyrics of the chorus, which, I think, illustrate what it means to be born of the Pneuma -

This is what it means to be held
How it feels, when the sacred is torn from your life
And you survive
This is what it is to be loved and to know
That the promise was that when everything fell
We'd be held

Even when it seems the world around us is falling apart and there really are no good answers, even when we’re not sure what we can believe in the sense of accepting as fact, we can have pisteuo - belief that is a deeper trust. The wonder of God’s promise is that we are loved, and that when we allow ourselves to be like children, born from above, resting on God’s bosom, we will truly be held. Amen.

Sermon for Epiphany 6A

Sermon as prepared for delivery at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Ithaca, New York on March 20, 2011 

Text: Matthew 6:24-34, Inclusive Bible

No one can serve two superiors. You will either hate one and love the other, or be attentive to one and despise the other. You cannot give yourself to God and Money. That’s why I tell you not to worry about your livelihood, what you are to eat or drink or use for clothing. Isn’t life more than just food? Isn’t the body more than just clothes?

Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet our God in heaven feeds them. Aren’t you more important than they? Which of you by worrying can add a moment to your lifespan? And why be anxious about clothing? Learn a lesson from the way the wildflowers grow. They don’t work; they don’t spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in full splendor was arrayed like one of these. If God can clothe in such splendor the grasses of the field, which bloom today and are thrown on the fire tomorrow, won’t God do so much more for you—you who have so little faith?

Stop worrying, then, over questions such as, “What are we to eat,” or “what are we to drink,” or “what are we to wear?” Those without faith are always running after these things. God knows everything you need. Seek first God’s reign, and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you besides. Enough of worrying about tomorrow! Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today has troubles enough of its own.


Will you join me in prayer? O God, we come to you as children, with quiet hearts, seeking comfort at your breast. Enfold us in your mothering arms and fill us with your peace. And may my words and our meditations bring you joy. Amen.
          I first welcomed our dog, Sadie, into my life when she was about 10 weeks old. A friend of mine found her, sitting on the curb at a gas station, looking like she really wanted someone to take her home and take care of her. She was malnourished and flea-ridden but also cuddly and sweet, and when I saw her picture on Facebook, I couldn’t say no, and she quickly became one of the family. Many of you will meet Sadie, and when you do, you should know that she is very anxious around new people and situations. Whether it’s because she was abandoned or because of her genes or some combination of things, all I know is that she is inherently distrustful of people she doesn’t know, and you have to be patient with her in order to gain her trust and affection.
          Now, I know people are not dogs and dogs are not children, but many of us know the kind of bond that can develop between human and dog. Because I have worked hard to establish a strong bond with her, Sadie looks to me when she is nervous or anxious. Like a little child going to hide between its mother’s skirts, Sadie sometimes tries to wedge herself between my legs, where she feels protected.
          When Sadie is anxious like this, my heart goes out to her and I want to coddle her. When she was younger, it was difficult to take her to places like the pet store, because she would tuck her tail and cower and dart around at the smallest provocation, or she would stand in a corner and growl and bark at every person who passed by. Watching her, I thought, this is no way to live, running around afraid of everything! So I sought training so that I could be a better parent for her.  I learned that giving her positive attention in her anxiety will only encourage her to remain in a fearful state. What she needs is not for me to fuss over her but rather to help her redirect her focus. The dog trainer had me take her to public places and to have her sit and make eye contact with me. Every time Sadie made eye contact, she got a treat, and she had to build up to holding eye contact with me for longer periods of time. Even though there were people walking by and all kinds of frightening things happening around us, when Sadie’s focus was on me, she could remain calm and at peace.
          In this passage in Matthew, I imagine Jesus looking out at his disciples – we know he is addressing them and not necessarily the entire crowd, because he uses the phrase, “You of little faith.” I imagine him seeing them and feeling a father’s love and protective instincts, wanting, on the one hand, to gather them up and hold and comfort them, and knowing, on the other hand, that what they needed most was to redirect their focus.
          And Jesus’ words really hit home for me. I want to react and say, what do you mean, stop worrying? Do you see what this world is like, and what’s going on all around me? There is a crazy and violent dictator killing people in Libya. There are homeless people walking around on Ithaca Commons. There are people without clean water. Our elected leaders at every level are making cuts to needed services in the interest of saving money. And Jesus responds with, don’t worry?
          When I was in 5th grade, one of the top hits was, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin. You probably know it well: Here’s a little song I wrote… and then the part of the song that makes me a little mad…
Ain't got no place to lay your head
Somebody came and took your bed
Don't worry, be happy
The landlord say your rent is late
He may have to litigate
Don't worry, be happy
          At first glance it feels like Jesus’ message is the same as McFerrin’s – hey, don’t worry, just be happy. When you worry, you frown, and that brings everybody down. So just be happy! But that seems rather shallow to me.
          I did a little research on this song and found that it was inspired by words from Indian mystic and sage Meher Baba. The full quote reads, "Do your best. Then, don’t worry; be happy in My love. I will help you." So, rather than a flippant response to troubles that abdicates responsibility, Meher Baba offers a challenge to trust in God’s love.
          When we read this passage, it’s tempting to see it as a release from responsibility for the challenges in our world. Mike Beard, a Republican state representative from Minnesota, recently argued that coal mining should resume in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, in part because he believes God has created an earth that will provide unlimited natural resources. "God is not capricious. He's given us a creation that is dynamically stable," Beard told the Minnesota Post. "We are not going to run out of anything." It may seem like Beard is taking Jesus’ message to not worry to heart, but he actually misses the whole point.
          Jesus’ words in Matthew are not an easy or flippant “don’t worry, be happy,” but a challenge to radically reorient our lives. Seek first God’s reign, and God’s justice. The ultimate challenge here is not to brush off all responsibility and go about life in a carefree, who cares manner, but rather to seek God’s face and let our lives be guided by right relationship with God.
          Like Sadie learning to look to me when she feels afraid and take her cues from me, we have to train ourselves to refocus on God. And in this passage, I think Jesus gives us some clues about how to do that. Jesus reminds the disciples to look around them…look up at the birds of the air, flying overhead. Look down at your feet, at the wildflowers. See how beautiful they are! Just look around you, at all the ways God provides.
          Look at this community, at each other’s faces. Look at all the ways God caring for this church. Look at the youth, many of whom are getting ready to take to the skies to travel to Back Bay Mission to serve others. And our outreach and endowment committees, who work to support clean water projects. And our leadership event tomorrow night, where we will have the opportunity to take a look around us and see God’s continued care and focus on God’s vision for our community.
          Reorienting our lives toward God’s purposes does not mean that we never think about money, or that we should become nudists or stop enjoying food – it means that we seek first to be in right relationship with God, through one another. It’s much easier said than done…but just as I have to continually remind Sadie to look to me for security and guidance, we can help each other. Let us move into 2011 with renewed trust and faith that God goes before us! Amen.