A Sermon for 11 March 2018
A reading from the gospel of John 3:1-21. Listen for God’s word to us.
“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 God 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. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
On Wednesday night, six of us spent a little over two hours together with about 200 other people at the Enrichment Center of First Presbyterian Church, Nashville. After donning a hairnet and sanitizing our hands, we entered the gym for a short prayer. Then, the high-energy, full-of-facts Rise Against Hunger organizer took the microphone. Before explaining in about 5 minutes exactly how we were going to pack 20,000 meals in a short two hours, he told us why we were doing what we were about to do. He told us: “815 million people worldwide don’t get the food they need to live a healthy life. 66 million primary school-age children across the developing world attend classes hungry. Malnutrition in all its forms – from wasting to obesity – directly affects one in three people.” He told us too that “Rise Against Hunger has a goal to end hunger worldwide by 2030” (https://www.riseagainsthunger.org/understanding-hunger/world-hunger-facts/). Why we were there was to pack the plentiful food we have here to be sent to those worldwide who do not have enough. Our efforts and daily efforts by organizations like Rise Against Hunger and others, are working towards the goal of ensuring that from the year 2030 on, no one on this planet again will suffer from hunger. Indeed, it is a lofty goal to accomplish in the next 12 years, but if efforts get duplicated daily like the ones of the helping hands we saw in one place one night this week; I think we have a shot to make it!
As I reflected upon the experience, I realized that it would have been easy on Wednesday night for our Rise Against Hunger instructor simply to demonstrate how we were supposed to pack the sealed food bags. Then let us get to work! With something like 200 excited people from the ages of 4 years old to at least 80 ready to get going, he could have skipped the stories of the families he has met who have only salted clay cakes with which they try to quell the pangs of hunger in their empty bellies. He didn’t have to tell us that the world produces enough food to be eaten per person each day as the equivalent of something like 17 Big Macs per person per day – if only food was distributed properly worldwide. He didn’t even have to tell us that Rise Against Hunger is partnering with other global hunger-relief organizations to bring an end to hunger everywhere by 2030. He could have just told us to put the flavor pack in the bottom of the plastic bag, add a mug-full of crushed soy next, one small scoop of the vegetable mix, the cup of rice on top, to be measured to between 3.89-3.94 ounces, sealed securely so nothing gets out or in in transit, then placed in the boxes for shipping. We’re famous in the church for jumping right to the how, without remembering that if we do not connect the why of any action to the how, sustainable efforts are likely to fail.
Why do we do any of it? Why show up to pack meals, or attend a potluck after worship to discover our talents for ministry, or even gather to worship at all? Why commit to a life of faith when faithfully following the way of Christ is a daily challenge to our time, our ethics, our check books, and our choices? Why keep trying when our efforts seem lost on a younger generation and the challenges of finding ways to be relevant as a people of faith today appear to be dauntingly hard work? Why start with the why at all?
In the lengthy gospel of John reading we heard today, Jesus clarifies the why. Why he even is here. . . . A wise man of faith comes to see Jesus one night. It’s not really clear why he seeks him out, but he must have been curious. Curious to know more about the one that just put the Temple in an uproar at Passover when, in a burst of great passion, he cleared out the money changers, animals, and coins. Nicodemus comes to him to state: “we know you are a teacher from God, for none can do as you do apart from God’s Presence.” Jesus launches into an esoteric proclamation about needing to be born from above – or as some translations read: needing to be born anew. As one great teacher hears in the concrete literal realm, the other great teacher waxes eloquently on a whole different level. Born of the Spirit, Jesus says. As mysteriously as wind that blows, though where it starts and where it stops, who can know? It’s passages like this that remind us that Jesus was less like a common carpenter and more like a sage among his people. Unlike a regular instructor, he stood his ground in the tradition of great Wisdom teachers. Gurus they’re called in India. Shaman’s in indigenous cultures. Moshels, in the Near East – including in Judaism itself: ones who teach wisdom for the transformation of the whole human being (The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault, Shambhala, 2008; p. 23). If we can’t see that, we’ll end up as confused as Nicodemus by Jesus’ words. We’ve got to be born anew – initiated onto a path that changes us a little bit more each day. Deepening our trust in God. Increasing our willingness to follow. Walking more and more to the Light so that that in us that is contrary to God daily will diminish.
But why, we might be thinking. Why? . . . In what may be one of the most famous verses among Christians, Jesus tells us why – why we do any of it. John 3:16 part A: “For God so loved the world.” And I’m going to stop it there. Too long the tradition has focused on the latter half of the verse, thinking it the reason why. Making the promise of some sort of reward here and now and forever yet to be the motivating factor of faith. Like domesticated pets who perform on command in order to be given a treat; we’ve long lived as if an eternal reward is what Christianity is all about. When we keep our focus on part A of 3:16, human beings retain dignity while God remains something so much bigger than One doling out eternal treats. The why of it all is A: for God so loved the world.
Love is the reason for it all.
As the story goes, it might seem a little ridiculous for love to be the reason for it all. Why love a world prone to wander? Why keep covenant with a people who too often turn their backs – and I’m not just talking about all the sinners out there. Why would God continue to love ones such as us? Ones settled in our ways and satisfied – kinda – with going through the motions of our days. Though it’s easier to bring to mind people out there who don’t even seem to be trying, we know ourselves – and all the ways we’re really not that loveable. Why would God keep on loving the mess which is us? Another John on another occasion sincerely wrote these words, 1 John 4:7-12: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent God’s only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent the Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.” It goes like this, in the words of the translation of the bible called The Message: “My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know God if you don’t love. This is how God showed love for us: God sent the Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once-upon-a-time loved God, but that God loved us and sent the Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God. My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and God’s love becomes complete in us—perfect love!”
Why we do any of it is LOVE. Why we love one another – which doesn’t mean turning our cheek to let any old behavior in ourselves or another go. That’s not love, to be so passively disinterested in all of us living our best lives for God. We love ourselves, each other, and those beyond the walls of this facility because God loves the world. Because God is love; therefore, we love as deeply as God loves. We pack meals for the hungry around the world because God loves every one of us – those who hoard and those hunger. We gather at a potluck to discover our talents for ministry because God loves for our talents to be used for God’s purposes in this world. God loves those who will benefit from the ways we use our talents. We invest ourselves in ministry in this community – with the families who bring their children for Playcare, the people who live beside us in this neighborhood, and those who spend their days in Hillwood-West Meade at work, study, and play because God loves them. God has called us to be a church for this community because God loves this community. We are here to enact that love. We don’t have to do everything – but we do have to do something – the something that enlists our talents to embody God’s love from this place. We’ll get to the how – we Christians are a savvy people who throughout history have figured it out. But let us remember every day the why: the why of all of it: love. God’s love. Abiding love for all the world.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2018