Thursday, February 26, 2015

Born Again Means Dying First


February 25, 2015 – Wednesday in Lent 1, Year Two
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
 
This sermon was offered as part of the Montgomery Episcopal Lenten Series hosted by St. John's, Montgomery.
 
Well, it’s been a little more than three years since I last stood in this pulpit, and it’s good to be back. It’s been a busy, full three years for both of us. A lot has happened. A lot has changed. But, for the most part, we’re not too different from the way we were. I’ve learned a few things. I’ve put back on some of the pounds that I lost before I left, and I’m a little grayer in some places. But so are you. Still, it’s nice to be back in Montgomery. It’s nice to be back at St. John’s.
 
One of the things that I have learned over the past three years is a whole new kind of worry. My four-year-old daughter has become a seven-year-old first-grader. Gone are the days of macaroni art and tea parties. Now we deal with AR tests and science posters and “Are my jeans cool enough?” and “Why don’t the other girls like me?” When I worked here, I knew that Mike Jarrell would take care of just about everything, and that, if he needed to call someone about a leaky roof, it wouldn’t be my cell phone that rang. Well, we don’t have a Mike Jarrell—nobody else does—and every time there’s a heavy rain I lie in bed wondering whether there will be a puddle waiting for me at the church in the morning. I worry about people who are dealing with huge emotional and spiritual problems that are way beyond anything I can handle. They are people I love and care for but whom I worry won’t be able to hang on much longer. And I worry about numbers—everything about numbers. How much is going out, and how much is coming in? Will next year’s stewardship campaign be successful? Why aren’t more people coming to church? Where are all the young families? What will our future look like? And through it all I worry more than anything else that there might not be a dead-gum thing I can do about any of it.
 
I guess you could say that I don’t sleep as well as I used to. What about you? How are you sleeping these days? Nighttime is a funny thing. Dim lights help hide some of our blemishes, but the dead of night always brings out our insecurities. There’s something about the silent, stifling stillness that awakens within us every doubt, every fear, every dread. In the dark, when there is nothing else to occupy our focus, the little nagging worries have nothing to hide behind.
 
It isn’t an accident that John tells us that Nicodemus went to see Jesus at night. This wasn’t the kind of conversation that could happen in the daylight. For some people, there are certain issues that don’t get discussed during the day. Only the nagging restlessness of night had brought Nicodemus out of his respectable quarters, skulking in the shadows until he found Jesus, the one he hoped could put his worries to rest.
 
“Rabbi,” he said, using a term of respect, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one could do the signs that you do unless God were with him...” If he had a question Nicodemus never really got to it. Maybe he didn’t really know what to ask. But it didn’t matter. Jesus looked at him and said, “Truly, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” (The word translated in some bibles as “above” is a Greek word that also means “again,” and it seems likely that Jesus meant both at the same time.) For Nicodemus, the thought of being born again was not good news.
 
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews, which meant that he commanded the respect of his people as both a civic figure and a religious expert. If anyone was supposed to be able to make sense of this upstart Galilean preacher, it was Nicodemus, but, for the life of him, he just couldn’t figure it out. He had heard reliable reports that Jesus had performed some impressive miracles—the kind that would prove that Jesus was a man of God worth listening to—but then Jesus had charged into the temple right in the middle of the Passover celebration and turned over all of the tables and chased out all of the moneychangers—the kind of profane act which no godly person would ever do. Nicodemus couldn’t connect the dots, and it was killing him.
 
“If you want to see the kingdom of God,” Jesus said, “you must be born again.” What do you think of when you hear that phrase “born again?” It is more than familiar in our Christian context. It has become overused religious jargon—perhaps even a phrase of derision used by some mainline Christians to describe their more zealous religious counterparts. But to Nicodemus, who had never heard that phrase used to describe a religious conversion, those words were as damning as they were impossible. “What do you mean, ‘born again?’” the leader asked. “What am I supposed to do? Crawl back inside my mother’s womb and start all over?” “Yes,” Jesus said without batting an eye. “That’s exactly what I mean—start all over from scratch.”
 
We’ve become so familiar with the concept of “born again” that we’ve forgotten just how radical that image really is. Think about it: what would you have to give up to be born again? Well, everything, of course. Your life, your experiences, your education, your status, your job, your relationships, your family, your heritage, your ancestry, even your name. Everything about you would be undone. Everything you have, everything that you take for granted, everything that makes you you, would be taken away as you start all over from birth. That’s the kind of transformation Jesus is asking Nicodemus to undergo. The reason Nicodemus cannot make sense of who Jesus is and what his teachings represent is because he’s trying to build upon the lifetime he has already collected. But the kingdom of God requires a totally fresh perspective. Of course the religious expert couldn’t figure it out! He’s the last person who would ever be able to see it. He’s the last person who would ever want to let all of this go and start all over.
 
And what does that say about us?
 
Christianity has forgotten what it means to be born again. Being a Christian has become too easy—especially in a place like this—a place like Montgomery, Alabama—a place where we’ve been comfortably Christian for so long that we’ve forgotten what it takes to see the kingdom of God. We are the Pharisees. We are the leaders of our people. Why would we want to give any of this up? But, if you want to see the kingdom of God, you must be born again.
 
Nine years ago, I knelt right there in that pew next to my wife, Elizabeth, and we prayed silently for a while. Robert wanted me to work here as the curate, but I didn’t want to come here. I was still in seminary—even younger and stupider than I am now. So I knelt there and said to Elizabeth, “I don’t want to work here, do I? Look at all of this. Look at all of this stuff. This is too easy. Ministry is supposed to be hard. This isn’t hard enough.” After a moment or two, she said, “Yeah, maybe you’re right, but you know what? You love telling arrogant rich people that they need Jesus, too.”
 
In the years since then, I’ve forgotten what it means to be born again. It’s easy to do. It happens to all of us. We get good at what we’re doing, and we start to make a big difference. Numbers go up. More people come to church. Stewardship starts growing. Budgets increase. New staff members are hired. Even young families are joining the church. And then what? We convince ourselves that we are at the center of it all—that it all depends on us. But how long can we keep it up? How long can it last? And then the worries start.
 
If you want to see the kingdom of God, you must be born again. Being born again means starting all over. Being born again means dying to who you are. It means letting go of everything. It means giving up everything you’ve accomplished—everything that stands for anything—and starting all over from scratch. If you want to see the kingdom of God, you must be born again.

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