Listening, or Not
Lectionary Scriptures, Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17
We all have someone or a few in our backfields, our past, who were significant in bringing us to this place in life. Who inspired you? Who filled you up with purpose?
I’ve been fortunate to be married to a hospital chaplain. It might be a dark way to start a sermon. She’s helped many people end their lives well, and she’s shared with me how people struggle at their life’s end, with whether or not they did the things that mattered. I’m talking about those things.
What are the things you think really matter in life, and who inspired you to them? It seems an appropriate exercise on Memorial Day.
And to ask the question in a post-Pentecost way. Who taught you to listen with ears and sensitized your heart to the Spirit of God?
Some of my story. I grew up in a single parent household. My Dad and three brothers. But fortunately for Dad and us, his mother was an amazing grandmother. I grew up a lot with her in the mountains of NC, which technically made her a granny. Any of you know what I’m talking about? Got a mountain granny? They rule the farm. In general- they rule, and it’s best to follow along.
As a young lady, my grandma Madalyn was going places, was serious about her Baptist faith, became a leader among her peers. But about the only way a woman could be a minister in those days was to become a missionary. So, she went to seminary and was on her way to China. Big dreams, big purpose, wanted to make big impact.
Till she met my grandpa Kelly, a sailor, apparently very good looking, was home from World War 1 with a touch of tuberculosis. For love, she decided not go to China, and because of the Great Depression, they moved to Kelly’s home in the economically depressed mountains of Appalachia, near Asheville, North Carolina.
I’ve heard her tell the story, as the wagon pulled up to the rough farmhouse, on that red clay farm, dropped off their possessions in a pile and slowly pulled away, she sat on the front porch and fell apart, went to bawling as they say. Then, she got up and got to work. She became a missionary to that place, reaching out to her neighbors in the hills. An activist in the school system and in her church. All 7 of her kids knew they were graduating from HS and headed to college, almost all did. Very unusual for that place.
She had no problem calling on neighbors African-American or Cherokee poor or rich. Everyone is a neighbor, all the way to China and back. All are God’s children. Red and yellow black and white they are precious in his site. Jesus loves the little children of the world.
I couldn’t get enough of her. When people were around her, they felt like they mattered. I learned from her what really matters.
She had what she called, a “Calling.” Which in Baptist speak, means that she had somehow discerned what God wanted from her. That made all the difference. She was “called” to be a missionary wherever she went.
When I was in college and trying to figure out what where I was going to fit, and what to do with my life, I asked her just exactly does “a calling” mean. She said “boy? How long have you been in church? Don’t you know that’s what the Holy Spirit is about?” “Have you been listening?” That’s a question that stuck with me.
Last week we celebrated Pentecost, the birth of the Church. The Holy Spirit enters the world scene. Before His death, Jesus had promised His disciples that He would not leave us as orphans. "And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever" (John 14:16). This "Comforter," Jesus said, would guide the disciples into "all truth" (16:13). The Greek word parakletos is also rendered an Advocate and an Encourager. This is force of God, of love, who lives within us and around us and between us, the wind, the ruach, the pneuma, the fire, the Spirit came among us. Our guidance system.
Today’s passage about Nicodemus touches on this. I’ve always had a soft spot for Nicodemus. He seems to be a very sincere guy, even if sneaking around at night.
It helps me to think of Nicodemus as the redactor’s fall guy. That mean’s, the writer of the gospel John, in a literary sense, didn’t mind shaping the character of Nicodemus to set up a point. His very literal questions lob up easy pitches that allow Jesus to crush them over the fence. The real summary statement is John 3:16 and 17.
I will read a characterization of Nicodemus from a favorite writer, Frederick Buechner, in his book Beyond Words.
Nicodemus had heard enough about what Jesus was up to in Jerusalem to make him think he ought to pay him a visit and find out more. On the other hand, as a VIP with a big theological reputation to uphold, Nicodemus decided it might be just as well to pay it at night. Better to be at least fairly safe than to be sorry, he thought, so he waited till he thought his neighbors were all asleep.
So Nicodemus was fairly safe, and, at least at the start of their nocturnal interview, Jesus was fairly patient. What the whole thing boiled down to, Jesus told him, was that unless you got born again, you might as well give up.
That was all very well, Nicodemus said, but just how were you supposed to pull a thing like that off? How especially were you supposed to pull it off if you were pushing sixty-five? How did you get born again when it was a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning? He even got a little sarcastic. Could one "enter a second time into the mother's womb?" he asked (John 3:4), when it was all one could do to enter a taxi without the driver's coming around to give him a shove from behind?
A gust of wind happened to whistle down the chimney at that point, making the dying embers burst into flame, and Jesus said being born again was like that. It wasn't something you did. The wind did it. The Spirit did it. It was something that happened, for God's sake.
"How can this be?" Nicodemus asked (John 3:9), and that's when Jesus really got going.
Maybe Nicodemus had six honorary doctorates and half a column in Who's Who, but if he couldn't see something as plain as the nose on his face, he'd better go back to kindergarten.
Jesus said, "I'm telling you God's so in love with this world that he's sent me down, so if you don't believe your own eyes, then maybe you'll believe mine, maybe you'll believe me, maybe you won't come sneaking around scared half to death in the dark anymore, but will come to, come clean, come to life!'
What impressed Nicodemus even more than the speech was the quickening of his own breathing and the pounding of his own heart. He hadn't felt like that since his first kiss, since the time his first child was born.
Later on, when Jesus was dead, he went along with Joseph of Arimathea to pay his last respects at the tomb in broad daylight. It was a crazy thing to do, what with the witch-hunt that was going on, but he decided it was more than worth it.
When he heard the next day that some of the disciples had seen Jesus alive again, he wept like a newborn child.
The key point. You must be born again. The implication seems to be that the kind of rebirth he has in mind is (a) elusive and mysterious and (b) entirely God's doing. There's no telling when it will happen or to whom.
Isn’t it ironic that this phrase has recently become so taken out of context. Some describe some parts of modern evangelicalism as “Born Again” Christians, as if that means all us Christians are formulaicly alike. Some sort of cookie-cutter way into the Kingdom. But it’s exactly NOT that.
Being Born again is a bomb shell. There’s no formula. And being open to God like this means you are not in control, and that change is imminent. And there’s no telling how you’re going to come out on the other side. God is infinite and creative, like the wind, and God knows, we need help breaking out of our self-made bondage. That’s the point. Let God help. It’s a spiritual thing.
Just an observation. All the characters in today’s scriptures, Isaiah, Nicodemus, the Roman Christians, all were faithful and devoted, but all were searching, deeply religious, yet unsatisfied. Something was not working. What had gone before was not enough. Something was holding them back. Often among the religious there is spiritual dryness.
The Prophet Isaiah, was serving as a priest in the temple, and there were banks of candles and clouds of incense and suddenly, his perspective changed and he was beholding the Mystery Itself, and he cried out, "O God, I am done for! I am foul of mouth and a member of a foul-mouthed race. With my own two eyes I have seen him. I'm a goner and sunk." Then one of the winged things touched his mouth with fire and said, "There, it will be all right now," and the Mystery Itself said, "Who will it be?" and with charred lips he said, "Me," and God said "Go." And Isaiah walked out of the temple, a prophet.
In the words of the apostle Paul, to the Christians of Rome, somewhat new to their faith, struggling under persecution, and they wanted to go back to the safe old secure ways of transactional legalism. They wanted the formulaic “we’ll do this and you do that, and we’ll all know the rules and feel safe”. But Paul reminds them, you are in relationship with God, in Christ and by God’s Grace. As a child of God, you have the birth right to say like any child, “Daddy, Mommy, I need help, what do I do? And that’s when the creativity of the Spirit begins and the outcomes can be bigger than ever expected.
One of the best stories of transformation I know comes from the place where I work. While it may seem self-serving, I really like to share the story of the founders, because I get to live out what they started.
They were very successful builders in the Charlottesville area. The short of it, they say, about 20 years ago they were going through a mid-life crisis of purpose, had plenty of all they needed, but it was not enough. Jack tells me about how he and his partner Mike and their friend Howard, all faithfully religious, talked and prayed a lot about it. They were ready to go to seminary or something. They wanted a change in their lives.
On mission trips to Haiti, they realized that there is a huge lack of real building skill in the developing world. These guys realized that their skills, and travel and funds could make a huge difference. And their lives were transformed.
But they all pretty much admit, for the first years, their service and trips were about themselves. How good it felt to help, to be needed. They shared quite deeply about how service had changed their lives, and how much they appreciated what they have, and how much their friends’ lives were changed through giving back, and how much their family lives had changed. All that’s good of course.
But something more has happened. These same guys, they don’t talk about themselves so much anymore. They WERE talking about their personal transformation. But now you know more of what they talk about? Now we talk about how we affect poverty. Poverty indexes. They talk more about others.
We focus on how much does the work move the needle on the biggest problems in the world, lack of middle schools, lack of reproductive health clinics, and we always ask, how many jobs can we create with a project.
I’ve witnessed a transformation. They don’t see themselves as the feel good recipients, just doing good works, but see themselves as a solution to poverty, builders of infrastructure. Helping poor people with permanent solutions.
You know the old expression, give a man a fish and he’ll be hungry tomorrow. Teach him to fish, and he’ll feed himself. Well, we say, work with the family build a boat to go where the fish are, work with them to build a solar powered refrigeration unit, you’ll change the village, help build a school with them, and they’ll educate their youth and soon they’ll be exporting fish to us.
So many times, when we are deeply dissatisfied and ask for help, God nudges us into rebirth, and the unforeseen consequences we cannot even imagine.
These days there is so much noise in our lives. So many voices and images and systems trying to get in front of us, grab our attention. So much distortion. It’s easiest to shut off and stop listening.
And that is not the way of the Spirit. That is not a post-pentecost lifestyle.
Our society is at a cross road, where we have perfected ways in which we really don’t have to listen or be around people different from us. It’s easier to build our own echo chambers and try to keep people around just like us. It’s so much easier to fool ourselves, in order to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided. It’s so much easier to demonize and dehumanize our opponents than to work with them. But that does not solve our problems.
And that is not the way of the Spirit. That is not a post-pentecost lifestyle.
We must be born again, the directive echoes down through history. The necessity of transformation. When we feel that ache in the gut and soul, that things are not as they should be, that they need to be renewed. But what do we do?
I wish I could answer that. All I can offer is, that we have a way through. We share the same Spirit as all the greatest reformers. Are we listening, or not?
…. As the Apostle Paul said, 16 The Spirit of God in us testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. And we have the gift and privilege to cry out “Abba” Help.
As I end this sermon, I’d like to give another kind of memorial day assignment.
Who are those who guided you to listen? Give them a call or honor their memory, bless them. If they’ve passed on, call one of their loved ones and share how God’s Spirit has come through them.
And pray, pray that we continue in being born again.