Sunday, March 20, 2011

John 3:1-17

Wishful Wanting For The Warmth Of The Womb”

Listen to the Podcast HERE:  110320SermonPodcast

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Rev. Allen V. Harris

Pastor Allen Finds His "Warm Womb!" pic by Jake Pruitt

I just love to be warm and comfortable.  I have my favorite bathrobe, which is that soft, furry fleece that is so popular these days (and NO, it’s not a “snuggie,”).  I have my favorite chair at home where I can sink into it and fall asleep.  I have my favorite pillow, and my favorite coffee mug, and my favorite snack foods.  But being warm and comfortable is not just about physical creature comforts, but about social and intellectual coziness also.  I have my favorite friends I like to hang out with.  I have my favorite restaurants, coffee shops, and stores where I like to go to.  I have my favorite authors I like to read and my favorite columnists whose stories and blogs I gravitate toward.  Heck, I even have my favorite Tweets I like to follow!

Comfort is alluring, and there’s really no better age than ours, here at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries, and no better place than this, the United States of America, to know what true comfort is.  Now, you know when I talk about “comfort” I am not necessarily talking about “luxury.”  There are more and more Americans who can truly say they live a luxurious lifestyle, but not so many in our congregation.  Luxury may be out of our reach, but comfort can be attained by all of us.  Well, almost all of us.  Well, comfort can be desired and sought after by all of us.  Right?  I think it is.

Thus, I can really understand why, when Nicodemus complimented Jesus on his teachings and signs, and Jesus replied that no one can see the kingdom without being born from anāothen, that good ol’ Nick would think immediately of his mother’s womb.  Wow, wasn’t that THE most comfortable pad ever!  I mean, it’s a dream palace!  Perfect temperature 24/7.  Literally a food and drink line directly to your stomach!  No job!  No principal!  No list of “to do’s.”  No nosey neighbors.  And, if I can say it in a sermon, you can poop all you want anytime you want and it gets whisked away for someone else to deal with!  Man, that’s the high life!  The womb!  That’s creature comforts at its best!  There’s no question in my mind why Nicodemus, this religious leader and good soul, would immediately think of his mother’s womb when Jesus said, “be born from anāothen.”

Of course, we know what Jesus knew, that anāothen can be translated as “again,” “anew,” or “from above.”  And as Jesus began to talk about God’s Beloved Community as requiring being born of water and the spirit, and the wind blowing where it will, Nicodemus surely began to see that Jesus was more and more interested not in Nicodemus being comforted, but Nicodemus being challenged.  For to be born from above, that is to say to find renewal and new life from beyond, or even from a different deeper place, is a call to discipleship, which is always a call out of our comfort zones and into the place of the world’s greatest need.

Jesus picks two essential elements, earth and water, perhaps representing both the masculine and the feminine sides of our lives, to point out the necessity of living as fully embodied human beings, and then adds the third element of wind, which clearly represents God’s Holy Spirit to Jesus, as a way of both integrating the two former elements and moving us beyond them.  Jesus was constantly calling the disciples to both fully accept and fully understand their earthy creaturliness, and yet to move within, above, and beyond the limitations that being earth-bound meant.

And to confirm this calling, Jesus tells us that “God so loved the world that God gave his only Son,” reminding us that this earth and this water are so precious to the divine Source of Life that God was willing to become one with it.  And yet, the intention was never to end there, but to take this flow to it’s ultimate conclusion, the wind.  “So that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.”

What a beautiful gift to us, and yet what an intensely difficult challenge!  In this text, I believe with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength, Jesus was not calling us to be comforted, especially those of us who are already Christians, already a part of Christ’s church, already sanctified and redeemed – at least in our own minds.  Instead, Jesus is calling all of us to get out of our comfort zones and help the rest of the world both redeem this watery, earthy existence of ours, and lift our hearts and minds and souls up to see beyond it, perhaps deeper within it, to where the wind blows in all its frustrating unpredictability and unnerving uncertainty!

For Jesus goes on to remind us that all of this love and eternal life really has nothing to do with condemnation and judgment, but with salvation… which is about deliverance, liberation, redemption, and freedom.  And, acknowledging one of the limitations of the three year cycle of lectionary texts, the rest of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus, which gets cut off, reminds us that it is God’s prerogative to judge, and that judgment will be based on our being drawn to the light and our refusal to hide in the shadows, the darkness of life.  Here, again, we are called out of the warm, darkness of the womb into God’s marvelous, though demanding light.

And here is a direct connection with the beginning of the story, when we first learn of Nicodemus, because he comes to us in the nighttime.  Now, I’ve never been one to make the simplistic equation of darkness = sin and lightness = salvation.  That’s a too-easy designation to make, and though it can be bolstered by much scripture, I think it is too superficial, too prone to racial interpretations, and not what Jesus would want.  And really, in digging deeper into this text, it doesn’t fit.  I don’t think Nicodemus was sinful as much as he was comfortable.  I don’t think Nicodemus refused to believe Jesus was the Messiah.  In fact, the three times we hear of Nicodemus in scripture it appears that he is in the process of becoming a believer, a disciple.  He was just wrapped up in being content, satisfied, relaxed.  That’s why he imagined Jesus’. use of the word anāothen as being about the womb and giving birth.  We have to remember that the night, when it is dark, was actually a time of study and reflection for many religious leaders of Jesus’ day, and throughout history.  Night was the time that chores could no longer be done, when the hustle and bustle of the street had died down, when the kids were put to sleep and the cattle penned or tied up for the night.  It was the first and only chance for those who took their faith seriously to read and reflect and pray.  It was, for a person of faith, a very comforting and comfortable time.

Now Jesus, in calling us out of the deeds of the dark, certainly is not calling us out of times of reflection and study.  Good Lord, no!  But, he may be calling us out of making that personal study of scripture, devotions, and spirituality a “womb.”  I believe this famous text shows that Jesus is seriously concerned about the salvation of the world, and first and foremost concerned about those of us who are already religious becoming complacent and comfortable in our own wombs, our own self-righteous thinking, our own comfortable spiritualities.  He invites us to be “born from above” and to allow the “wind to blow where it chooses” and to “come to the light.”

Now I’ll open up my own personal story to tell you why this interpretation of the Nicodemus story feels especially right.  Just three weeks ago I headed off to yet another conference of urban pastors, ministers, social justice advocates, and religious non-profit executives to talk about how important our work in the inner cities is and commiserate about how so few people really understand what we do and how most of the Church refuses to acknowledge how important and how hard this work is.  At least, that is what I expected.  I expected to be in my comfort zone.  However, I quickly learned that I was in the dark and was about to be yanked out into the light of day, figuratively and literally!  * Whaaaaaahh!

The opening night’s worship of the Congress on Urban Ministry, where 500 of the very people I mentioned before gathered, began with some wonderful music by the Covenant United Church of Christ Gospel Choir and a very nice liturgy.  Then we were to be gifted with the preaching of the two co-chairs of the event, the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Sr. Minister Emeritus of the great Riverside Church in New York City, and Father Mike Pfleger, Catholic priest and Pastor of the Faith Community of St. Sabina in Chicago.

Well, Dr. Forbes preached on John 5:1-15, the healing of the man by the pool of Bethesda when Jesus says the memorable line, “take up your mat and walk.”  Dr. Forbes began by talking about a book he had read, “The New Jim Crowe,” which makes the case that the inordinately high percentage of persons of color in our prisons is, in effect, the new racial discrimination of our day.  I nodded my head.  I had heard this argument recently, and was in agreement with it.  So did most of the congress participants gathered, it appeared.  Then Dr. Forbes, who is African American, started preaching – and he was preaching I tell you – about the “spirit of victimization” that has imprisoned many persons of color and how they, and we all, need to be liberated from it!  He quoted the Gospel of John by reminding us that Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life, and have life more abundantly!”  He made the case that victimization – the manner of being in this world which consistently sees oneself or one’s segment of the population as always being the victim and always being victimized, disempowered, and disenfranchised – was keeping people of all colors, us White folk included, locked into a culture of violence.  He testified using personal examples of his own addiction to victimization!

Now, I had never heard a Black Preacher talk like this!  Almost a half of the participants were African American or Latina/o.  This candid talk and self-evaluation was breathtaking.  But I had not heard anything yet.

Then, Father Pfleger spoke.  He used as his text Luke 7:11-18 where Jesus interrupted a funeral procession to bring healing to a young boy who had died.  Fr. Pfleger spent no time getting to his point.  He declared that Jesus had broken all protocol of his time, interrupted people’s lives, confronted death, and demanded people say “NO!” to death and “YES!” to life.  He then said, and I quote him, “The church is going to have to interrupt the death march of our children, the violence, the march that is holding our communities in fear.  Are we going to simply be the Church that gives eulogies after our children are dead?  NO!”  We have to be the Church that is out on the streets stopping the violence against our children.  He then chided us by saying, “We have become slum landlords for the Garden which we were gifted with…. After all the prayers and preaching, we go back to our comfort zones…. We must rise up again and take our responsibilities as caretakers of the Garden.”  He then laid out three steps to do this: We Christians have to reclaim our identity; We have to reclaim our prophetic voice; and We have to empower our members to be leaders and not just followers!

I was floored!  Clearly, I was being called out of my comfort zone!  And these good men of faith were just the beginning! It was a full week of this kind of biblically-grounded, Jesus-inspired prophetic preaching and teaching.  And if that weren’t enough, we were literally “dragged out into the light,” taken to downtown Chicago for a rally against gun violence.  We heard testimonials from family members who had lost loved ones to gun violence.  We sent a delegation up to the offices of the Governor of the State of Illinois with a list of our priorities and what we expected from him.  I then had to write down and turn in a list of the things I commit to to help confront violence in our cities and in our world.

It became clear that I needed to come back to Franklin Circle Christian Church and move out of the shadows of my comfort zone, get out of my womb, move out of the warm coziness of my studious reflection and get active, get motivated, preach prophetically, and speak out/act up!

I have said time and time again that I am first and foremost a Christian Educator, and I love to create environments where people can learn about the rich diversity of God’s world and ponder and discuss all the options we have for making a difference in the world.  My Widening The Circle Forums are an important step in getting us all on board with the need for living out Jesus’ radical hospitality and unconditional love.  But as important as learning, growing, dialoguing, and educating is… it is a womb for me, a comfortable place that is mostly risk-free and effortless.  I need to come out into the light and let the wind of God’s Spirit blow me where it will.

I love the work we do in helping people in great need.  This congregation has, for more than a hundred years, been exceptionally dedicated to and responsive to the changing needs of our neighborhood and city and has created programs to address these needs, from the Chinese Sunday School, to Scouting programs, to Senior Meal Programs, to our current offerings of our Disciples Clothing Closet, Third Sunday Meal, Community Youth Program, and Food Bag Ministry.  But, for many of us, this is a womb, a comfortable place that is mostly risk-free and, while not effortless, actually it is a lot of hard work, but it is a certain kind of effort.  We need to come out into the light and let the wind of God’s Spirit blow us where it will.

Do we stop doing and of this good work?  Do I cancel all of the Forums and we stop serving food?  Heavens, NO!  But we must begin pairing our work of care, benevolence, and charity with an equally passionate sense of justice.  When we give out clean, warm, attractive clothing to people who need it, we need to be asking them, “Why do you have no decent clothes?” and then strategize and act to solve the problem, in addition to dealing with the symptom.  When we serve a warm, nutritious meal in a caring and egalitarian environment, or fill bags with decent and usable groceries, we must also be asking the people we serve, “Why are you hungry?” and then strategize and act to solve the problem.

There are so many issues that confront us and call us out of the darkness of our safe places.  To name just a few:

> The wretched state of our public schools and instituting real, proven change that will enable our children to be educated and nurtured.

> The effect the casino will have on our city, not simply in monetary terms, but in terms of the self-image, and the long-term moral fiber and fabric of Cleveland.

> The root causes of the foreclosure crisis and how NOW is the most important chapter of how we deal with the crisis…

We must be born from above, perhaps again and again.  But thank God we’ve got Jesus, who will never give up on us, no matter how many times we retreat to the warm comfortable wombs of our lives.  For he is a patient and persistent savior, and is thoroughly invested in us.  To me, and to you, Jesus stands at the doors of our comfort zones knocking.  Come out of your wombs.  Come into the light.  It’ll be all right!