Born Again Again?

A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Text:  John 3:1-21

Nicodemus was somebody. He was somebody important. He had power and reputation and wealth.  He was a member of the religious, and, therefore, political elite in Israel.  He was also a Pharisee, which meant he was one of that brotherhood (some might say “good ole’ boy network”) of 6000 men who pledged to live the law, to study the Torah, and to devote themselves to keeping every one of its rules throughout their lives.  In a time and place where most people were achingly poor, the luxury of such a lifestyle must have been reserved for those with wealth.

As a member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews, the Sanhedrin being a kind of Supreme Court or ruling council limited to 70 members, with jurisdiction over the religious practice of every Jew in the known world.  Among its duties was the examination and prosecution of anyone suspected of being a false prophet.  This meant, among other things, that Nicodemus lived in an uneasy alliance with the Romans who, while limiting the Sanhedrin’s powers, still allowed it to function as a means of keeping the peace.

History indicates that his was one of Israel’s most influential families of this period.  When Jesus confronted him, he called him literally “that famous teacher in Israel.”  His reputation for scholarship and wisdom preceded him.  He was certainly not young, as witness his response to Jesus’ words about new birth.  It is clear that he had been around, a wily survivor in a tense and potentially explosive environment.

In short, this man had it all – power, money connections, intelligence, respect.  He had it made.  For what more could one ask?  Why would he, of all people, seek out this troublemaker from Galilee?  Was he someone who, in spite of being part of the power structure, had retained enough contact with his own rebellious youth that he wanted to warn off this young upstart before he got into too much difficulty?   Was there some attraction stirring in his old loins for this wild young man from the provinces with the piercing eyes and determined manner?

Perhaps he wanted to buy him off, to get him out of town before he stirred up too much trouble.  After all, it was hard enough to keep peace with the hated Romans and still maintain a shred of their proud tradition. They didn’t need troublemakers from the back-country coming in and creating problems.  They just couldn’t afford anyone stirring up the people. Hadn’t this fellow just created chaos in the temple by driving out the moneychangers and overturning the tables of the sellers of sacrificial animals – all of whom were just doing their jobs, trying to earn a living while providing loyal and lucrative sources of income for the religious leadership?  If the Jewish leaders could not maintain order in their own temple, then the Romans would be forced to take action to do it for them.

In fantasy, I imagine the scene something like this.  Nicodemus’s sleek black limousine rolls down a dark alley and stops at the back entrance of a seedy hotel.  Clearly, he does not want to be seen on his midnight errand; nor does he want to soil his reputation or himself in such a setting.  The chauffeur opens the door, some of his men slip from the car, fanning out through the hotel, making sure the passageways are clear, and then the great man himself emerges, moving deliberately and quietly through the musty corridors to the room of the young man.  He orders his men to wait outside the room while he speaks to the man alone.

The room is dimly lit and the man sits cross-legged on the sagging bed.  He does not rise but simply gestures for the great man to sit in the one broken chair in the corner of the tiny room, facing the bed.  The window is open in hope that some breeze will stir to alleviate the stifling heat, heat infused with the unpleasant odors of the shabby hotel.

Nicodemus sits gingerly on the edge of the chair, quickly surveying his surroundings, fastidiously adjusting his tie, then staring at his manicured nails and the large, but tasteful, diamond ring on his finger, obviously uncomfortable in this unfamiliar setting, and at all costs avoiding the young man’s steady gaze, which he feels locked on him like a laser.  At first, Jesus simply looks at his midnight visitor quizzically, wondering what Nicodemus could possibly want of him; then, having skimmed the surface trappings of this wealthy, powerful man, he turns his searching gaze to look deeply into Nicodemus’s soul.  The mighty patriarch shifts uncomfortably, and finally speaks: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher sent by God;” – the recognition and respect come haltingly off his tongue – “no one could perform these signs of yours unless God was with him.”

The mystery of Nicodemus’s visit is suddenly unshrouded.  He has not come to banish, to take advantage of, or even to admonish the young man.  Perhaps those things were on his mind when he arranged this assignation, but now, face-to-face with Jesus, he confesses that he – and, actually, some of the other leaders as well – have heard and seen something in Jesus which has touched them.

It is clear to Jesus – this is a seeker, someone who, in spite of his wealth and wisdom and power, is still lost, unfulfilled, longing for something more in his life.  Jesus issues Nicodemus one of those tantalizing and difficult challenges like the one he had issued to the rich young man whom he had urged to sell everything he had and follow him.  He says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see God’s realm unless he or she is born again, from above.”  Nicodemus looks at him in astonishment, his vaunted wisdom deserting him, as he makes a literal interpretation of Jesus’ words: “How can someone old be born again?  Can I enter my mother’s womb a second time and be born?”  (At this point, I can’t help but wonder whether, at some level, Nicodemus is toying with Jesus, because, like the rich young man, he has much to lose if he takes Jesus seriously.)

Jesus expands on what he means: “No one enters God’s realm without being born of water and spirit” – water referring to the baptism of John, the Baptizer, who, Nicodemus knew very well, had stirred up the whole country with his passionate calls for repentance and watery regeneration; spirit referring to Jesus’ own transforming power as the Word made flesh, as the beloved Christ-Child of God, in whom God is well pleased.  In the face of this challenge to religious orthodoxy and the possibilities of being confronted by God in the flesh, Nicodemus is feeling increasingly uneasy.  Suddenly, a night breeze flutters the tattered window shade and Jesus seizes the opportunity to move the conversation deeper into spiritual reality: “The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going.  This is how it is with everyone born of the spirit.”

Now Nicodemus’s defenses are really up, fear – and, perhaps, a glimmer of excitement and even hope – dance in his deteriorating eyes.  “How can this be?” he sputters.  Jesus shoots him a withering look and Nicodemus seems to wilt in the intensity of Jesus’ stare: “You, that great teacher of Israel and ignorant of such things?!  If I give you clear, practical illustrations of great spiritual truth and you don’t understand, how will I ever be able to unfold for you the things of heaven?”  Still, Jesus makes the effort: “Listen, no one has gone into heaven except the one who comes from heaven, and that one must be lifted up, in order that everyone who has faith may have eternal life.”  In other words, Jesus is saying, “Here I am, right in front of you, the Word made flesh, proclaiming and living the reign of God, in this time and place, by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, advocating for the poor, caring for the outcast, cleansing the temple, and calling the whole creation back into communion with its Creator.  Open your eyes, man!  Eternal life is here.  It’s now.  It’s available for the taking.  God loves the world enough to give God’s only Child so that everyone who has faith in that Christ-Child will not perish but have this very eternal life.”

At this point the Gospel writer abandons the story of Jesus and Nicodemus, having made what use of it he has found necessary.  So, we are not privileged to share the rest of the encounter between these two.  From here on the Gospel writer is commenting on the truth which the story illustrates for him.  He wants us to understand that God did not send the Christ-Child into the world to condemn the world.  God is not about destruction.  God, who above all is love, acts out of that love to draw all of creation back into that “mystic sweet communion” for which creation was intended.

As Henri Nouwen has written, “The great spiritual battle begins—and never ends—with the reclaiming of our chosenness. Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God’s loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love. Our preciousness, uniqueness, and individuality are not given to us by those who meet us in clock-time—our brief chronological existence—but by One who has chosen us with an everlasting love, a love that existed from all eternity and will last through all eternity” (Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved). The reclaiming of our chosenness, the recognition that we are loved, to be born again and again, into the life of God’s Beloved Community.

If there is judgment here, it is the kind of judgment Nicodemus must have felt sitting in Jesus’ presence, realizing that all his trappings of wealth and power, that all his faithfulness to the law and tradition, that even his wisdom could not save him from that feeling of emptiness, that sense of not having made the connection with God that compels one, living from the inside out, to devote one’s life to faithful acts of love.  This is love that is lived out because I see that I have first been loved by God – God, who sends the Christ-Child, God’s only offspring, in the ultimate act of lingering love, intended to draw all creation back to Godself.

The light in those piercing, all-seeing eyes has come into the world.  If we can give ourselves over to the burning light of love in those eyes, we can be healed, we can be saved.  But sometimes, as we say in counseling, “it may get worse before it gets better.”  Nicodemus is right in saying that being born again is not an easy thing.  It may mean being born again and again and again. It may require acts of daily renewal. It will always cost something – especially for those of us who have a lot to lose, a lot to give up, in order to be able to follow Jesus, to commit our lives, not to living out the great laws of the tradition, but simply living out the law of love – love for God, love for neighbor, love for self.  As Basil of Caesarea reminded the early church, “The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put into the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help but fail to help.”

It is much easier to turn away in search of some less demanding source of salvation, some other means of healing, some other way to wholeness which will offer better benefits, more security, and which we can control.  The trouble is, the minute we turn away from the light of Jesus’ presence, our vision dims, things become less clear, our world becomes more confusing, the anxiety of being so responsible for our own lives increases, and living in hell becomes at least a part of our present reality.  If we agree to follow Jesus, to accept God’s love, to walk in the light, we do not know where the Spirit will lead us, but we can trust that wherever that is, it will be where God intended us to be all along.  The good news contained in this passage is that God, through the gift of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, has brought and continues to bring God’s people forth, into joy from sadness. Amen.

Early One Morning (3/27/16)

easter_cross.fwA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Text: John 20:1-18

She showed up very early in the morning, while it was still dark. She was alone. What was she doing there? What had drawn her to the burial ground in the gloom of a barely emerging dawn? The other gospel versions of this story say that it’s a group of women that shows up very early on Easter morning. The tradition suggests that these women come to finish preparing the body for its final resting place. There was simply not enough time between his death on that Friday afternoon and the beginning of the Sabbath at sundown. He was hastily placed in the tomb without the proper anointing, so these women arrived at the tomb at their first opportunity to finish their work.

But in John’s account Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus have already taken care of the burial. At great risk to fortune and reputation they have claimed the body and buried it properly. John writes, “After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there” (John 19: 38-42). Under the cover of growing darkness they had cared as best they could for this one who was so cruelly and wrongly executed. It was finished – or so it seemed.

So here Mary is, all alone, in the fading darkness of the early morning. Why is she there? The text does not say for certain but I assume she has come to grieve. Graveside grieving is not for everyone, but some find comfort in being near the burial site of a lost loved one. And I believe Mary Magdalene loved Jesus. He was crucial to her life, her faith, her sense of well-being. His death is devastating for her. Somehow mourning is more meaningful for her in the cool, dark, damp of early morning in the graveyard.

Here in the lessening shadows she is searching for something – a quiet, private place to shed her tears, away from the confused and grieving company of his followers? Answers to her own questions? A bit of solace? There is no sense that she, or the others, expect what is to come. Her repeated concern makes this clear. “They have taken away my friend, and I do not know where they have laid him.” She assumes that the body has been moved for political purposes or by body-snatchers or for some other mysterious reason. No thoughts of resurrection are apparent for her, Peter or “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.” I know the text says the latter disciple “saw and believed,” but I take this to mean that he saw and believed that body was indeed missing. He had no more idea what was happening than Mary did.

Once more we find Mary alone, still pained and confused in her sorrow in the waning darkness in front of the open, empty tomb. Suddenly a shadowy figure appears in the garden. She assumes it is the gardener, and why not? In the dim light of a breaking dawn, who else would show up to begin his day’s work? Through her red and swollen eyes, with a downcast gaze, not expecting anyone else, least of also Jesus, she makes a logical assumption. She sees a stranger. The truth does not dawn on her until he gently calls her by name. “Mary.” The half-darkness may still surround her but something blazes deep inside her as it never has before. Here is the living Christ, calling her by name. As he calls out her name, she begins to see that even in her grief and confusion, she is not alone. She never really was. She never will be. This is a great truth of learning to walk in the dark, we are never alone. The Holy One, God’s Steadfast Love, goes with us every step of the way.

We want to celebrate Easter with voices raised, instruments blaring, flowers in full bloom and hearty alleluias. There is nothing wrong with Easter joy, but in Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor points out that resurrection actually happens in the dark. In today’s Words of Preparation, she writes that “By all accounts, a stone blocked the entrance to the cave so that there were no witnesses to the resurrection.  Everyone who saw the risen Jesus saw him after.  Whatever happened in the cave happened in the dark.” She says, “As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part.” I will confess that I had never really thought of resurrection this way.

She continues, “Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light.  But,” she insists, “it did not happen that way.  If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air…new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p.  ).  ”Now the green blade rises from the buried grain…”

Mary is prepared to grieve, to spend her time mourning what is lost. She is heart-broken and feels alone. “My God, how could you let this happen? Why have you forsaken me?” Neither she nor the rest of the disciples are prepared for resurrection. “What have you done with the body? Where have you taken him?” It doesn’t matter that he has told them more than once that he would die and rise again. It is a claim that does not compute, has not registered in their reality. Do you think it would be any different for you or me if we had been in their sandals? That lack of awareness may still be too true today.

My friend Tim Phillips writes of death and resurrection, “Maybe the worst thing about death in all its forms is that it robs us of the energy to imagine anything else.” Isn’t this Mary’s truth in the early morning shadows. She couldn’t imagine anyone else. She assumed she was talking to the gardener. Tim continues to speak of death and its equivalents, “Addiction robs us of the energy to imagine healing. Violence robs us of the energy to imagine peace. Sickness robs of the energy to imagine some kind of wholeness beyond a cure. The burdens of life rob us of energy for a sense of humor that can put things in perspective. Death robs us of the energy to imagine that anything has power great enough to outlive its hold on us” (Tim Phillips, “Resurrection Power,” The Spire, Vol. 80, No. 3, March 2016, Seattle First Baptist Church). On this Easter morning, what, if anything, might rob you of the energy to exercise your own resurrection power?

Most of the time we live in what Melanie May calls the “tensive drama of Holy Saturday,” somewhere between the deep and terrifying darkness of Good Friday and the brilliantly overwhelming sunshine of Easter. Because of this, she says we have to learn to “practice resurrection.” I’m assuming this something very much like learning to walk in the dark or claiming our resurrection power. Consciously or not we wrestle with death and its equivalents – addiction, violence, illness, the burdens of existence. Practicing resurrection, learning to walk in the dark, claiming our power, entails a recognition that there is life-giving energy beyond anything we ever imagined, that there is resurrection power in all creation, that, somewhere out there, God, in Jesus, the Risen Christ is gently calling our names – yours and mine. Do you have eyes to see? Ears to hear? Hearts to open?

Here’s the resurrection reality. Mary Magdalene and the other disciples experienced a Living Christ. We can speculate all we want on what exactly that meant for them and what it means for us. But, whatever happened in the early morning darkness that first Easter changed Mary’s life, transformed the lives of us Jesus’ first disciples and ushered in the new creation, God’s beloved Community, here on earth as in heaven. At times, we may have difficulty seeing, hearing, holding onto our resurrection power.  In our current context, with so much distrust, hatred and evil, we may not recognize Jesus at first, but he is there in all that claim the promise of abundant life offered to each of us and, indeed, the whole creation. He is present in all who serve and seek to do God’s will. He can be seen wherever compassion is practiced and love made manifest. If you’ve been there for one of the least, you’ve been there for him. We may live for now in the “tensive drama of Holy Saturday;” there may be times we come to the tomb alone and heart-broken; there will be days when it’s hard to believe our eyes, but, early one morning, we will find the transformation complete. We will know that God has gone with us all along the way. There will be singing and dancing and shouts of “Alleluia!” Since we know that day has both come and continues to come, we might as well practice resurrection today, right here and right now. “Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed.” Amen.

Peace Blows In (12/6/2015)

Advent Candles
Advent Candles

A Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Text: Luke 1:68-79

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

The ancient hymn echoes the word of the more ancient priest and prophet as he exults over the miracle child of his old-age – John, the Baptizer, who is born to prepare the way for Emmanuel, “God with us.” With quavering voice, he sings, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” What a beautiful song, a profound testimony to his deep-seated belief that the God of his ancestors will redeem his people according to the even more ancient covenant and not only his people but all who “sit in darkness and the shadow of death.”

The first light of day creeps across the horizon. The daily promise of enlivening light is renewed. And as the light glows faintly in the east, the wind begins to blow, caressing the earth with a gentle breath. It is a phenomenon of nature that light and wind work together in this way. Day dawns and peace blows in, freely given to each and all.

The new day presents a clean slate. It is full of promise and it is met with great hope. The day is ours, a precious gift from God. What will we make of it? As the sun brightens, the wind picks up. How will it move us along through the day that lies before us? “I feel the winds of God today; today my sail I lift…if hope but light the water’s crest, and Christ my bark will use, I’ll seek the seas at his behest, and brave another cruise.” Will this be our song as we awake to greet the new morn and rise to walk with the wind on our wing?

So often our days begin like this. We start off with the best of intentions but the promise of the day is not fulfilled. Sometimes it seems that our lot in life is to find trouble in or bring ruin to each perfectly formed day given to us. The light may shine but we find ourselves wrestling with fear of darkness and death. The wind may caress and try to lead us along, but we resist, refusing to dance with her. We insist on going on our own way, whatever the cost. The fullness of life is promised by the light and lifted by the wind. Hope, love, joy, peace, are revealed in the light and blow in with the wind. We welcome them at first but then anxieties rise up and fear creeps in. The light becomes too bright and we no longer trust the wind. We close our eyes and turn our backs as despair, apathy, hatred, sorrow, violence and war grow all around us and we long for a new day to come.

It is frustrating to talk about peace on days like this when it seems so far away and unattainable. The angel urges, “Fear not.” But that is much easier said than practiced. As our anxieties rise, we build walls and take up arms against stranger and neighbor alike. We invest obscene amounts of our God-given resource into maintaining massive military machines. We use and abuse the earth, caring little for the intricately woven beauty of creation. The world becomes dark and chaotic, in desperate need of redemption. This is the world of our Advent. Into such a world Christ comes – then and now. We want to say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays or some word of good cheer in what should be a mystical, magical season of the year, but the words ring a little hollow and they stick in our throats.

Even Pope Francis, that gentle lover of life and purveyor of compassion, is wrestling with the season. In a recent sermon he said, “Christmas is approaching: there will be lights, parties, Christmas trees and nativity scenes…” but he proclaimed, “it’s all a charade. The world continues to go to war. The world has not chosen a peaceful path.” We have not let peace blow in on the crest of the morning. At this time, instead of singing “Joy to the World,” he suggests, “We should ask for the grace to weep for this world, which does not recognize the path to peace. To weep for those who live for war and have the cynicism to deny it.” He concludes, “God weeps, Jesus weeps’” (Jen Hayden, Daily Kos, Reported in Ken Sehested’s Prayer and Politiks,

When I thought about the theme, “Peace Blows In,” I thought immediately of Bob Dylan’s great gospel anthem, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The young prophet/poet asks:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man ?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand ?
Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned ?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea ?
Yes, how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free ?
Yes, how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see ?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky ?
Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry ?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died ?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

This mysterious wind. Does it come from and lead to a meaningless apathy or does it blow us toward the path of peace and righteousness? Dylan, himself, says of the song: “There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind – and it’s blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some…But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know…and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong. I’m only 21 years old and I know that there’s been too many…You people over 21, you’re older and smarter” (Michael Gray, The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, pp. 63-64).

Too many who ought to know better have turned their backs on what comes blowing on the wind. Peace blows in and we can’t be bothered. It looks like an old newspaper being whipped around and we kick it aside or throw it in the trash. It’s old news, an ancient word not relevant for today’s reality. How can we make peace and maintain our security at the same time? How can we love our neighbor, let alone the stranger, when we have to look after ourselves? How can we care for creation without altering our self-serving lifestyles? The answer my friend is blowing in the wind. The question is whether or not we welcome it.

Remember how Jesus schools old Nicodemus about the wind of the Spirit that “blows where it chooses…you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes”? He insists, “You must be born again, Nicodemus.” But Nicodemus can’t let go, isn’t ready to dance with the wind. See the day spring, feel the wind blow. Don’t you know God loves creation, loves you, so much that God is willing to take on human form to illuminate the path peace, to show the way to God’s Beloved Community, ordained from the beginning of time (John 3:7ff).

Quite a variety among the clueless density of Nicodemus, the heart-felt anguish of Pope Francis and the hopeful exultation of Zechariah. But the Advent message remains the same for them and for us: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The joy of Zechariah is wisdom for Nicodemus, healing for Pope Francis and hope for us, that we may know such wisdom, healing and joy in our own lives and in the world we inhabit.

How many roads? How many seas? How many times? How many ears? How many deaths? How many years? How long, O Lord, how long? In our frustration and our crying out, something stirs. The first light of day begins to creep across the horizon. The daily promise of enlivening light is renewed. And as the light glows faintly in the east, the wind begins to blow, caressing the earth with a gentle breath. Peace blows in. If we greet it with open arms, it may yet lead us to redemption for ourselves and all creation. May it be so. Amen.

New Born- Again!

Rev. Rick MixonA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Text: John 3:1-21

Remember the children’s song about “Michael Finnegan”? It’s one of those songs for which you could make up endless verses, dragging it out to the point of driving adults like your parents crazy? Every stanza ends with the instruction to “begin again.” That could mean start a new verse or it could mean repeat the same one over and over ad nauseum. One version that seems particularly appropriate for Pentecost goes like this:

There was an old man
named Michael Finnegan.
He had whiskers
on his chin-ne-gan.
The wind blew them off
and blew them on again.
Poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin Again.

There’s that pesky, tricky wind, blowing where it chooses and doing the most unlikely things. Imagine blowing whiskers on and off. It obviously caused consternation for poor old Michael Finnegan. This song came to mind because of that key word “again.” I was planning to use the traditional text from Acts for today’s service, but then Jan suggested we sing the spiritual, “New Born Again,” and Brian McLaren suggested we look to John 3 as a text. Was the Spirit at work, conspiring to move us from something more traditional to a new way of thinking about Pentecost? Who knows, but here we are…again.

“Born again” is a familiar phrase in our vernacular. It does not always carry the best connotations for those of a more progressive persuasion. Alyce McKenzie tells this little tale about being evangelized:

I was in the waiting area at our local Discount Tire store last week waiting for my new tires to be put on my car. I picked up a women’s magazine and was intently reading an article called, ‘How to supercharge your metabolism.’ I became vaguely aware that someone had sat down in the chair next to mine. This seemed odd because I was in the middle of a row of empty chairs. I like my personal space while I’m waiting for my tires. Then a leaflet was put in front of my face with the heading: ‘How to be born again’ and I heard a man’s voice ask, ‘Wouldn’t you like to read    something of more eternal significance than this magazine? Have you been born again?’

I looked up into the face of an earnest man in his mid 40s who now sat next to me, looking at me expectantly. When I didn’t reply immediately, he asked, ‘Well, have you?’ I said, ‘I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and I don’t think Jesus means ‘born again’ as if it were some emotional lightning strike that once it’s over, we speak of our salvation in the past tense, like, that’s done, now I have that checked off my to-do list. I think being born again calls for our participation, and I think it’s a lifelong process.’ At that the man shook his head as if to say ‘Geez, lady, it’s a yes or no question. How   hard is that?’ He took his tract back and moved on” (Alyce M. McKenzie, “Nicodemus’s Non-Decision,” Edgy Exegesis, 3-14-2011, patheos.com).

I guess that’s what you get when you try to buttonhole a preaching professor with a tract and a slogan. “Born again” is not a once and for all “emotional lightning strike.” It is a “lifelong process” that “calls for our participation.” When Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, he may be looking for some simple, easy answers. However, he does not walk away when Jesus challenges him to dig deeper and look beyond what he is already so certain of. It is a little like poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin again. Go over it one more time. See if you can’t enter more fully into God’s will and God’s way for your life. Find the freedom. Find the grace. Be new born…again.

If Nicodemus truly believed he had everything all worked out, would he would have come knocking on Jesus’ door under cover of darkness? Nicodemus had an itch he couldn’t quite scratch. He’d heard these remarkable stories about Jesus and he was just curious enough to come check him out. Maybe he could learn something from this young, upstart rabbi. Maybe he just meant to check his credentials.

He starts boldly enough, speaking with his customary tone of authority. “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.” The question is implied but he can’t quite ask it. “Are you the One or should we look for another?” You know there must have been a current of excitement running beneath that neatly manicured, richly appointed exterior. If there hadn’t been, why would he be there at all? Like the rest of the faithful in his tradition, he longed for the coming of the Messiah, the one from God who would put all things right, bringing in God’s righteous reign on earth.

The response is swift and challenging. It catches the powerful Pharisee off guard. “In truth I tell you no one will see God’s reign without being born again.” It seems that Jesus never tells us exactly what we want to hear. That is, there is always a challenge to stretch us, inviting us to grow beyond our narrow religious views into something that is more spiritually risky and fulfilling.

In his attenuated, literalistic reply, Nicodemus sounds rather foolish. (That may, in fact, be characteristic of those who take a boxed in, literalist perspective.) I wonder if Nicodemus realized how silly he sounded before he even finished his question. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” In the rich tradition of John’s gospel, this is exactly the sort of question that sets Jesus off and running.

What the great “teacher of Israel” has missed is the word play. The word that Jesus uses for rebirth can be interpreted as “again” or “from above.” There is a newness of life that comes from following Jesus. The reign of God asks for and offers more than we can ever fully grasp. The challenge to live into the Beloved Community of God goes against all religious stereotyping and undermines every idolatry, whether or not we recognize such in our own lives.

There’s another verse I discovered from “Michael Finnegan” that goes like this:

There once was a man named Michael Finnegan.
He kicked up an awful dinnegan
because they said he must not sin again.
Poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin again.

Sin, that which separates us from God, that which blocks the way, that which keeps us stuck. Rather than making the road by walking, we find ourselves going around in familiar circles or stuck on a treadmill. It may be good for losing few pounds, but in the end does it get us anywhere?

In today’s Words of Preparation, Brian McLaren tells us, “At the core of Jesus’ life and message, then, was this good news: the Spirit of God, the Spirit of aliveness, the Wind-breath-fire-cloud-water-wine-dove Spirit who filled Jesus is on the move in our world. And that gives us a choice: do we dig in our heels, clench our fists, and live for our own agenda, or do we let go, let be, and let come…and so be taken up into the Spirit’s movement” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 205). To be taken up into the Spirit’s movement is to be born again, to be born into the Beloved Community of God. It is to enter a community unlike any we have ever known. It is beyond our wildest dreams. It is all we have hoped for, longed for, prayed for and so much more. It is God loving the world, the whole wonderful creation, in ways that restore, redeem, rebirth.

We have to be clear, though, that this road Jesus asks us to walk with him is not an easy one. The Beloved Community is surely coming but we know “it don’t come easy.” John Dear reminds us some of the challenges when he writes of our present reality that “Following Jesus today in a land of nuclear weapons, rampant racism, and widespread economic injustice means actively going against our culture of violence.  As the culture promotes violence, we promote Jesus’ nonviolence.  As the culture calls for war, we call for Jesus’ peace.  As the culture supports racism, sexism and classism, we demand Jesus’ vision of equality, community and reconciliation. As the culture insists on vengeance and execution, we pray with Jesus for forgiveness and compassion” (John Dear, Jesus the Rebel, p. 29).

This was the same sort of challenge Jesus gave Nicodemus 2000 years ago. The circumstances may have been somewhat different, but the way of the world was in constant conflict with the coming Community of God. Jesus confronts us with the same sort of mission he offered Nicodemus – to be new born…again. “The way I walk, the ministry I offer, the coming of the Beloved Community is profoundly counter-culture in any sense of hanging on to static traditions and narrow views that have outlived their usefulness. You may have to let go of some of your power and prestige and the trappings that go with your high position, Nicodemus. You may need to let be a sense of uncertainty and trust the road you walk with me, even when you can’t see that far ahead. You may find that you must let the Spirit come to you and blow you around a bit and take you to unexpected places. You may find yourself buried with Christ in a baptism of water and Spirit, then rising to walk in newness of life.

As we walk that road with Jesus, we sing

“We’ve found free grace and dyin’ love, we’re new born again.
We know the Lord has set us free, we’re new born again.
God so loved the world that He gave His only Son,
that all who will believe in Him will be new born again!
Free grace, free grace, free grace, sinner.
Free grace, free grace, we’re new born…again!”

Not When I’m Old (March 16, 2014)

sermonsNOT WHEN I’M OLD
A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Texts: John 3:1-17

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, he 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?

Frederick Buechner

  The older I get, the more I understand the time-worn adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  It is not at all uncommon for us to get set in our ways the longer we’re around.  Older, single people like myself face those facts when we stop to think what it would be like to live with someone else, to let another person into our space, our rituals and routines, our habits and patterns.  It would be so hard to change. There are moments when we just look in the mirror and say, “Let life go on the way we know.”  It’s easier to follow the familiar than to face changing life-styles.

Am I wrong about that?  For those of us who have been around for awhile the prospect of change often feels like more than we can handle, especially if we’ve grown comfortable with familiar routines.  Don’t ask me to do this differently.  Don’t expect me to learn the latest.  Don’t rock the boat.  How many of us feel challenged, if not overwhelmed, by the latest technology and the proliferation of information?   I know I’ve barely touched the surface of what my computer, my smart phone, my tablet can do.  It’s embarrassing to admit.  Sometimes we long for a slower, gentler time when we could read books printed on paper and talk to one another face to face.  Sometimes change just seems overwhelming.

I think something like that occurs in this encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus.  When Jesus talks of new birth, Nicodemus protests, “Not when I’m old.  It’s too much, all that you are asking me to take in, to understand, to practice.”  I love this story.  It is among my favorite Bible stories, and not just because it contains John 3:16, that Bible verse-slogan that we learned in Sunday School so long ago that promises to hold the gospel in a “nutshell.”  I love it for the characters and the interaction.  Today, and for the next several weeks, through Easter, we will consider a collection of stories in which Jesus shares profound truth with complex and fascinating human characters.  The first is Nicodemus.

Nicodemus is part of the 1% in the Jerusalem of his time.  It appears that he is a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, and comes from one of those wealthy families who held power and influence over the Jewish people as well as with the Roman occupiers.  Already we know that he is not altogether an insider because he is named as a member of the Pharisaic party.  At this time the Sadducean party holds sway over the temple and dominates religious practice.  As a Pharisee, Nicodemus is something of a reformer, in spite of his wealth and power.  He is said to be a scholar, a learned teacher.

What I see in Nicodemus is a hungry heart.  I think he is one of those people whom Jesus blesses because they hunger and thirst for righteousness.  As an old man, encumbered with all the trappings of family and office, there is still something in him that desires to know God better and to walk God’s way more faithfully.  He is a seeker after truth.  As my friend Phil Jenks notes, “Unlike most other Pharisees, who were cocksure they were right and Jesus was wrong, Nicodemus continued to nurse his doubts” (Philip E. Jenks, “Nicodemus, the Doubter,” The Little Scroll, March 15, 2014, portchester.patch.com). Nicodemus wonders and when he hears about this peasant rabbi from Galilee, about the signs and teaching and healing, he wonders all the more if there might be something here to satisfy his hunger.

Now Nicodemus is no radical.  He knows there is risk, even danger in being seen with Jesus.  The rumblings and plots against Jesus have already been hatched.  But Nicodemus is curious enough to be drawn to this new teacher in hopes he has something to say that will touch the old man in the depths of his wondering.  So, he comes to Jesus under cover of night.  It’s a secret meeting.  Jesus grants a private audience to this closeted seeker and proceeds to share with him some of the deep truth of the good news.

It all begins respectfully enough.  Nicodemus confesses that he sees Jesus as one sent by God.  This would be heresy to claim in his usual circles but here in the silence of their midnight encounter, he blurts out his faith stance, “I want to believe.  Help my unbelief.”  The conversation unfolds in such a way that Jesus is really hard on the old man.  Is Nicodemus dense or just resistant in his responses?  “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” “How can these things be?”

Jesus seems rather impatient when he scolds the old man.  “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”  It feels like a sarcastic response.  What is Jesus sensing in Nicodemus that he is so hard on him?  In one way, we’ll never know this side of glory.  At this point, Nicodemus disappears from the story as Jesus continues to teach.  Does the old man take his wounded pride and leave in a huff?  Does he sit and listen as Jesus holds forth?  Do they continue in conversation?  We just don’t know for certain, which leaves us dangerously free to speculate.

I think a big piece of what’s going on here is that Jesus senses Nicodemus’s ambivalence to change and challenges him hard.  There is some of this “Not when I’m old” on the part of Nicodemus and Jesus is saying, “Why not?  You are still learned, wise and powerful.  You could make a tremendous difference if you walked God’s way with me.”  But Nicodemus is just not sure he’s ready to go that far.  Perhaps, it’s that his spirit is willing but his flesh is weak.  He has a lot to lose if he follows Jesus.  So, Jesus confronts him with the truth and leaves it with the “teacher of Israel” to decide for himself.

I also love Frederick Buechner’s somewhat irreverent take on the text, ‘”Maybe Nicodemus had six honorary doctorates and half a column in Who’s Who,’ Jesus said, ‘but if he couldn’t see something as plain as the nose on his face, he’d better go back to kindergarten.’”  Here’s the good news that Nicodemus gets to grasp or not, according to Buechner, “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’” (Frederick Buechner, “Weekly Sermon Illustrations: Nicodemus, May 17, 2012,” frederickbuechner.com).

Come to life – what a gift, what a challenge!  Surely not when I’m old. Yes, even then.  There is always more light, more life, more love to embrace. Buechner’s next lines are beautifully, movingly speculative.  He says of the old teacher of Israel, “What impressed Nicodemus even more than [Jesus’] 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.”

Maybe it’s true, maybe not, but imagine how you might feel in the shoes of Nicodemus.  Living beyond your wounded pride at being scolded by this young, rural rabbi, you hear these amazing words of eternal life and they ring true in ways you have never heard or even imagined before.  Jesus gifts you with the way to love and life – God’s love, abundant and eternal life.  How would you “come to, come clean, come to life”?

Another friend, Carl Gregg, has written that the word “so” in “God so loved the world” does not mean God loved the world “so much,” as we often interpret it.  Rather, he says, the word in Greek means “in this way.”  So, Jesus is saying “God loved the world in this way…” (Carl Gregg, “John 3:16 – The Rest of the Story, March 18, 2012,” patheos.com).   This is how God loved the world; this is the way God loved the world…  One way to look at it is that God sent God’s only child to show the way.  When all the arguments of law and prophet, of scripture and tradition, of icon and idol, had failed to convince God’s people, God came in person to proclaim the good news and lead us into God’s commonwealth.  Remember, this is this same John who begins his gospel, “…the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Before I close, let me quote a passage from one more friend, Meg Hess.  Listen to her challenge to the old teacher as if she was speaking to you.  She writes, “Confusion is the unintended consequence of your curiosity, Nicodemus, but don’t stop there. Think about it: if you are born again, then you must grow up again. Think about your life, Nicodemus. What would you do differently if you had half the chance? How would you grow up differently? How would you re-edit the narrative of your life? As you enter more deeply into your puzzlement, Nicodemus, you’ll find that Jesus is inviting you to be curious about your life, and to rethink your assumptions with an altered perspective. You are challenged not only to conduct an autopsy on your past, but to look to the future through the eyes of redemptive possibility. How might your life be different if you were born again? How would your life be altered if you truly believed, from the beginning, that God loves you with a sacrificial love?” (Margaret B. Hess, “A Curious Man,” The Christian Century, May 14, 1997, p. 475).

To see the future through the eyes of redemptive possibility.  To believe truly that God loves you with sacrificial love.  Open your eyes, Nicodemus.  Even more, open your mind, your heart, your life.  Here is the truth before you in the flesh.  Don’t you see, understand, feel, know the living truth when you encounter it?  Yes, I know you’re old.  Yes, I know change is challenging.  Yes, I know you are comfortable and set in your ways.  But remember that hunger in your heart, that deep desire for more, that longing for right living, led by the very Spirit of the Holy.  Here it is.  What do you say?  I believe you can teach an old dog new tricks.  Or if that’s too glib for you, I do believe you can teach an old teacher new truths.  Yes, Nicodemus even when you’re old.  Amen.

Vision Forums and the Renewal Proposal

Renewal ProposalThank you to everyone who participated in last Sunday’s Vision Forum 1, with special gratitude to Carolyn Shepard for her excellent leadership.  We were able to center ourselves as we asked for God’s guidance in all that we do but particularly in this time of discernment.  I doubt there is anything we do here that is more important than praying for God’s guidance.  There was a time for questions of clarification.  A number of good and important questions were raised as we worked to understand the evolution of, the rationale for and the possibilities and challenges represented in the Renewal Proposal.  Then we went around the room, giving everyone present the opportunity to share their current thoughts and feelings about the Proposal.  At the end, we shared some written and verbal comments from people who could not make Sunday’s meeting and we closed again with prayer.

It was gratifying to see how seriously our congregation is taking the work of its Task Team and Council.  I also appreciated the calm, respectful and thoughtful tone of the meeting.  There is always risk in an innovative proposal; there is no way to make that go away.  It is natural to approach risk and what is unknown with a certain amount of anxiety.  I think all of us feel some of that.  I know I do.  It is important that we move into the future with open eyes, minds and hearts, with courage and with trust in our desire to follow God’s leading.  You will see below an invitation to an additional meeting on Friday for those who could not be there Sunday in hopes we can pass on some of what was shared Sunday and ensure that we hear from everyone who wants to contribute to the process.

This Sunday, in Vision Fourm 2,  we will have the opportunity to meet with Marie, to get to know her better, to hear her hopes and dreams for Christ’s church in general and ours in particular, to ask her questions and for her to ask us questions.  I am excited for you to have some experience of Marie’s grace, skill and potentiality for leading us.

Worship will focus on the familiar story of Nicodemus and Jesus.  For many of us John 3:16 was among the first Bible verses we ever learned.  But there is more to this tale that one overused and misused verse.  I am particularly interested in the age disparity between the old teacher and the young.  What’s to be done when the old one is challenged to see and do things differently?  Jesus isn’t altogether respectful of Nicodemus, who is slow to grasp things.  But I think Nicodemus leaves that encounter transformed.  “Not when I’m old.”  Don’t be so sure about that.

See you Sunday at 10 AM for worship and Sunday School.  Bring someone along to share the Lenten Journey with you.

God grant us more light, more love, more life as we journey together.
Pastor Rick