Sunday, March 16, 2014

JN36TN (J. Barry Vaughn, Lent 2, March 16, 2014)

Many states allow drivers to select a message for their cars' license plates. The license plate on my old Honda Civic featured the letters MSTRO - the musical term "maestro" or "master".


I went online and found some entertaining religious license plate messages. Apparently, there are a lot of people whose license plates feature the word THEIST, and there are quite a few that feature an opposing point of view - the word ATHEIST.


A car in Texas sports the message HESRZN - "He's risen". I imagine that the Committee on Gratitude would like the Alabama license plate that features this message: BGR8FL - "be grateful." And I suspect that Pete Steinbrenner would endorse the plates that say TITHE.


The state of Vermont is not exactly part of the Bible Belt, so I was surprised to find a Vermont plate bearing this message JN36TN - John 3:16.


After "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" and "The Lord is my shepherd," there are probably no verses of scripture better known than "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" or "You must be born again," both from the 3rd chapter of John.


You see them at every Super Bowl or World Series' game or at pretty much every big gathering of people.


There is no better day to think about what it means to be born again than a day on which we have a baptism, and today we are baptizing Richard Lawney.


However, I suspect that the connection between "you must be born again" and baptism may not be immediately obvious. In fact, I am afraid that there are some Christians who think that baptism, at least as Episcopalians practice it, and being born again are incompatible.


Let's look at the message of the third chapter of John.


Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews "came to Jesus by night." Keep in mind that John is heavily symbolic. John communicates his messages indirectly. So when we are told that Nicodemus came to Jesus "by night", we can be sure that something is up. Light and dark are major categories in John.


At the very beginning of John's gospel, it says that Jesus is "the light of all people... the light shining in the darkness."


John writes about a world hovering between the light and the dark. By telling us that Nicodemus visited Jesus at night, John is saying that Nicodemus is in the dark spiritually as well as physically. What else might it mean that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night? Do you think that Nicodemus might have been afraid? He had a position to maintain; he was a leader. What would it look like for this Pharisee, this leader, to come to Jesus? It would be as though a member of the Christ Church vestry went to one of the seedier blocks of Charleston Ave to visit Madam Olga, psychic visionary. 


Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina says that Nicodemus must have been the first Episcopalian. Nicodemus is just a little wary of this Jesus character. He doesn't want to seem too interested in him, so he goes to him at night. Curry also christened Nicodemus Nick at Nite.


I think Nicodemus was a southerner. He was so polite. He doesn't immediately begin telling Jesus why he has come. He says, "Rabbi (in the south we would say "Sir"), we know that you are a teacher who has come from God." Nicodemus compliments Jesus. In the south, every conversation begins with a dozen questions about how your family members are doing. Nicodemus goes on, "No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."


But Jesus, I'm sorry to say, responds very much like a yankee. No pleasantries for him! "Very truly, I tell you no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Now here you need to know that the phrase "born from above" can also be translated "born again" and that's the way it has usually been translated, and that is how I will translate it for this sermon.


Nicodemus was mystified. The idea of being born again was repulsive to him. Jesus had a way of saying things like that! Nicodemus had been born a Jew; he belonged to one of the 12 tribes of Israel. He had a long and impressive heritage. He was a member of the Pharisaic party. No greater heritage was possible. And along came Jesus telling him that he had to go back to the very beginning, even before the beginning. If Nicodemus were born again, there would be no way to know how things may turn out. He might even be a Gentile the next time round.


Jesus goes on: "No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit... 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."


Now here is where this story connects with Richard's baptism this morning.  Some say that it is impossible to reconcile infant baptism and the idea that we must be born again? Why in the world would little Richard need to be born again? He's not even a year old. Why does he need to start all over again so soon?


I want to suggest that Jesus' message in the 3rd chapter of John operates on a number of different levels.


Looked at one way, Jesus is saying that every single one of us needs to be born again spiritually. All of us are born physically in the natural course of things, but in addition to our physical birth, we also need a spiritual birth.


It is on this level that that infant baptism makes perfect sense. Richard had the good sense to be born an Episcopalian. He had the even better sense to be born into a wonderful family, the family of Melissa and Eugene and Mark and Eugene, Jr. Today we are claiming God's promise on Richard's behalf that those who are baptized in water and in the name of the Trinity are born spiritually into God's family. Having been born once into a wonderful human family, Richard is now born a second time into a spiritual family that extends throughout time and space. He becomes a brother to Christians all over the world and throughout time. Welcome to the family, Richard!


But Jesus' words in John 3 also operate on another level. I want to take Jesus quite literally, even more literally than my evangelical sisters and brothers: "You must be born again..."


Birth is not a sudden event; it is a long process. Human births are preceded by nine months of gestation. In elephants and whales, gestation takes almost 2 years. I'm pretty sure the human race would die out if our gestation took that long!


What do you suppose is the gestational period that precedes spiritual birth?


Writer Mary Antin says, "We are not born all at once, but by bits.  The body first, and the spirit later.... Our mothers are racked with the pains of our physical birth; we ourselves suffer the longer pains of our spiritual growth."


That is why I cannot believe that the only way to become a Christian is to have a sudden, emotional conversion experience.


Once when gave a talk at a Rotary Club in Scotland where I lived for a couple of years, a member of the club asked me a question after my talk. "Is true that in America they believe in instant conversion?" I said, "In America, we believe in instant everything!" Deferred gratification takes way too long!


I also do not believe that spiritual rebirth happens only to individuals; I believe that institutions can also go through a kind of spiritual rebirth. I hope and pray that Christ Church is going through a time of spiritual rebirth. But as Mary Antin says,  " We are not born all at once, but by bits.  The body first, and the spirit later.... Our mothers are racked with the pains of our physical birth; we ourselves suffer the longer pains of our spiritual growth."


It takes time. To shift the metaphor, we are turning around a vast ocean liner. We want to sail it in a new direction. This is not something that is done all at once.


And it may be painful and confusing at times. What I would ask you to do is to cooperate with the Spirit that blows where she will. We hear the sound of the Spirit and we see the effects of her work. We see lives being changed; we see new projects getting started; we see old ways of doing things being changed. That is all the work of the Spirit.


We cooperate with the Spirit by praying. We cooperate with the Spirit by being flexible, because if we're not flexible, a great gust of Spirit wind might suddenly knock us on our backsides!


But the most important way that we cooperate with the Spirit is by being willing to let the Spirit get into our hearts and renew them.


We can only be baptized once. We are born once into our human families and we are born once into the Christian family. But I suspect that we may be born again and again. Or perhaps the other translation of those words is more appropriate now: We are born from above again and again.


Life gets stale. We get stuck in a rut. We become sluggish and depressed. We need the Spirit to grab us and shake us up. Maybe what's really happening at Christ Church is that we are being born anew or from above one more time.


I suspect that Christ Church has been born anew more than once and that it will be born again many more times in its long life. I feel privileged to be a kind of midwife to its rebirth in my time. And I invite you to join me as we open our minds and hearts to the new thing that the Spirit is doing among us.