Sermon – March 8, 2020
The Fisherman’s Chapel – Bodega Bay
The Second Sunday of Lent
John 3: 1-17
“Nicodemus: On Being Born Again and Again and Again”
For four generations the women of a Midwest family had passed along a time-honored recipe for the traditional Easter ham. Along with the list of spices and herbs, rubs and glazes, cook times and basting procedures, there was the absolutely strict instruction that the last three to four inches of the ham must be cut off – completely removed and thrown away. For years the practice of trimming off the end of the ham was adhered to.
Finally the time came to initiate the great-granddaughter into the secret recipe. When told about the necessary ham amputation, she dared to ask why. Neither her mother nor her grandmother had an answer other than, “That’s the way we have always done it.” But, thankfully, great-grandma was still around and she had an unexpected answer for this little detail. “When I began baking the holiday hams, my roasting pan was too short. So I had to cut off the last few inches of the ham to fit it into the pan and into my oven.” The ensuing generations of cooks had access to bigger pans and bigger ovens, but they had continued to follow the old instructions without knowing or asking why.
It is so easy to stay within the confines of the reassuring and familiar, even when the old routines no longer work for us, even when they get in our way or hold us back or are destructive. I think of a man of advancing years, being consumed by alcoholism and yearning to be freed of what he called, “my demon,” yet finally saying to his pastor, “It’s no use. It’s gone on too long. I just can’t change the behavior of a lifetime.” The classic words spoken by Hamlet come to mind: “Rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others we know not of.”
I cannot resist another story, a story coming out of the Middle East. An old Arab, asleep in his tent, woke up hungry one night. He lit a candle and opened a date. It was full of worms, so he threw it aside. He tried another and it too had worms, as did the next. Whereupon he blew out the candle and ate the next date he found. Change is hard; thinking “outside the box” can require so much effort. So much easier to leave things the way they are – just eat the date. We prefer the comfort of the familiar to the discomfort of change. And really, isn’t that the dilemma at the heart of our text for today?
Nicodemus, an individual we encounter only in the Gospel of John; Nicodemus, a man of later years, portrayed as a leader of his people in both civic and religious realms, and seemingly a respected teacher. Nicodemus, also a seeker. Nicodemus, who takes the initiative in coming to Jesus…at night. And understand that when John uses the word, “night,” is doing more than simply giving us the time of day. He is commenting on the state of Nicodemus’ soul. Nicodemus is in darkness, seeking light, looking for something new, some way out of darkness. So he comes to Jesus. And what is he told? In order to see, to live in the light, you must be born from above, which can also be translated born again or born anew.
Now I am well aware that this phrase, born again, is one with which many of us struggle. I know I do. So often, when I hear this phrase it is associated with a certain set of beliefs a “true” Christian should have. It becomes a kind of test to determine who is in and who is out, who is a true believer and who isn’t. Perhaps I am being a bit defensive, but when I am asked if I am born again, as I have been many times, it often sounds more like a test than a question. It becomes the language of judgment – are you saved or not; are you on God’s side or not?
But I would hope we can reclaim it from that kind of narrow, self- righteous, judgmentalism. For in our text, when Jesus talks about being born again or born from above, he is not talking about some set of correct beliefs. He is talking about a spiritual rebirth, a personal transformation, a radical change of direction in life, moving out of our comfort zone into something new. So Nicodemus, this seeker, comes to Jesus shrouded in darkness, looking for light. And using language that is poetic, metaphorical and imaginative, Jesus talks of being born anew, remade completely. But old Nicodemus, bless his heart, just doesn’t get it. He is a teacher and scholar, but is limited by his familiar worldview, by his understanding of what is possible – what the world has told him is possible. So he responds in his best left brain, legal scholar, logical mode. He sees dead ends and practical impossibilities. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? We cannot climb back into our mother’s womb?” He cannot find space in his brain, his worldview, for what Jesus is suggesting. It goes against all he has been taught and trained to expect in life.
Jesus invites Nicodemus to leave behind the truth as he has known in order to explore something new. Jesus invites him into a new realm of insight and pushes him far beyond his comfort zone. With wonderful images of wind, spirit and expansive love, he is offering Nicodemus nothing less than a whole new life. But it is so hard. We see the old teacher move back and forth between the comfortable and predictable world he knows and this unpredictable new world offered by Jesus. He knows there is a better way, he yearns for a better way, but he just can’t quite allow himself to embrace it.
And I wonder…are we really all that different. I think of the yearly trimming of the Easter ham or the struggles of that aging alcoholic. It can be so easy to stay with what we know, the old and familiar, even when it no longer works for us. Why risk the discomfort of change? And yet, when you think about it, isn’t that what the biblical story is all about – moving from the old creation to the new creation. That’s what Lent is all about – death and resurrection, winter giving way to spring, new life from the old. And that was what Jesus was all about: touching human lives and insisting…you must keep growing, must remain curious and filled with wonder, must not become a prisoner of your past or of the status quo. As we grow older, other things besides arteries can harden – our hearts, our minds, our judgments and biases, our spirits. Jesus pleads for a certain flexibility of the spirit. He insists that we are never too old to change, never too mired in a personal problem not to be able to find new possibilities, never so comfortable with our own ideas that God may not be ready to give us a new idea. Says one theologian, the life and teaching of Jesus are nothing less than, “an assault, a rearrangement, a re-creation of the world.” And I think one could add, a “re-creation” of each of us.
Consider…when Abraham Lincoln insisted that this nation could not continue half slave and half free, he was calling for nothing less than a renewal, a re-creation, of the American dream. When our earliest immigrant parents came to these shores, many came out of pain and poverty, seeking for a renewal of life and hope.
On a more personal level, we come to marriage and find we must change a number of things – our own self-centeredness, peculiarities of our life style – who knew the cap belongs back on the toothpaste? – and many of our priorities. And then, if children come along, talk about our world changing! It is nothing less than a complete re-arranging and enlarging of the perimeters of our growth, our patience and many of our priorities as we let go of the old to allow room for the new.
And again, as Nicodemus discovered so long ago, it can all feel a bit uncomfortable. But, as one commentator has said, it is only when we begin to feel uncomfortable that we can begin to change the things we’ve become too comfortable with. What might it mean for us to be born again when it comes to our closest relationships, our parenting or grand-parenting, our use of our financial resources? And it isn’t just personal. On a wider scale what might it mean for us to be born again when it comes to sensible gun laws, a more compassionate immigration policy, health care, economic inequality or climate change? One might say that when Jesus speaks of being born again, he is actually saying we should be prepared to be born again and again and again – each day an opportunity for growth and renewal.
As I was reflecting on our text for today, I found my mind going to Mark Twain’s, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Yes, I am aware that in recent years any number of politically correct criticisms have been launched against the novel – the language, the stereotyped characters, its questionable moral values. Now I may not be much of a literary critic, but for me there is nothing quite like the story of Huck Finn and his relationship with Jim, the runaway slave. After many adventures, Huck grows to love Jim and respect him, and discover that he is a fellow human just like himself. He just cannot think of Jim anymore as a slave, simply a piece of property, much less understand a law that insists he return his friend to slavery.
And why? Because along the way Huck has grown to love him. He has, in a rather curious way, been born again, converted to a whole new way of seeing another person, has grown and changed and discovered that old ways of being and believing just no longer work for him. One can almost hear Jesus say…”Now that’s what I’m talking about!”
It’s a hymn of the black church:
God’s still working on me.
It took him a week to make the earth, sky and sea,
But God’s still working on me.
Being born again…it’s a work in progress, lasting, oh, about a lifetime.