A Sermon for Sunday, May 27, 2018, Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church, Trinity Sunday, John 3:1-17
A week from today, a group of high school teens and adults will travel to North Carolina for the annual Montreat Youth Conference. One of the highlights will be gathering as a youth group each evening in our lodging space to reflect on everything we’ve experienced that day.
We’ll ask questions, share insights, and try to find meaning out of what we’re learning about life, faith and God. It will undoubtedly be a powerful and sacred time just as it is every summer.
Many of you have probably had similar late night chats with family and friends in your home or on a retreat or mission trip—those deep and baffling, blow-your-mind talks that can illicit a variety of responses: jaw drops, puzzled looks, deep sighs, astonishment, uncontrollable laughter and teary eyes.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, the religious leader Nicodemus is quite astounded by the midnight convo he is having with Jesus. It’s a peculiar exchange to be sure, and Nicodemus can’t seem to wrap his head around Jesus’ talk about “being born from above.”
Nicodemus knows intuitively, as any human being should, that it is physically impossible for someone to grow old and re-enter his or her mother’s womb and be born a second time. Thus, Jesus’ suggestion that someone can be born is mind-boggling to him. With all the wisdom he has gained as a teacher of Israel, Nicodemus simply doesn’t understand what Jesus is telling him. Emmanuel Lartey, a former seminary professor of mine writes:
“So often our misunderstandings and disputes arise because (those in dialogue) are not speaking the same language. Jesus is using symbolic, spiritual, analogical language; Nicodemus is looking at the plain, literal meanings. Nicodemus sees birth as ‘of the flesh;’ Jesus speaks of spiritual realities… Rebirth is a spiritual experience available to all, but perhaps most needed by religious people who might think they do not need it. Religion often becomes a matter of the correct observance of particular practices. When these practices become routine, they may actually serve to hinder spiritual sensitivity.”
Put another way, Nicodemus is much like an old school Presbyterian Methodist or Episcopalian who feels comfortable wearing the well-worn “frozen chosen” label—Christians who are reserved, scholarly, and extremely organized; have a thought-out, orthodox system of beliefs; and keep strict adherence to religious doctrines. They follow the rules, check the lists, memorize the scriptures, attend church every Sunday and say their prayers every night. They’ve got faith locked down so they conclude there’s no need for spirituality.
The freewheeling Spirit, they reason, is for the doubters and unbelievers who are lost and need Jesus. The irony, though, is that the ones who seem to have it all figured out are precisely the people who need a spiritual transformation in their lives. Lartey explains further:
“To be in tune with God’s reign and presence we all need a transformative overhaul of our traditional ways of seeing and being. We need a transformation of our whole way of knowing and experiencing the world. When this happens, it is as if we have begun life all over again. Nicodemus’ confusion deepens because he is unable to leave the realm of literal thinking to join Jesus on an imaginative, spiritual level.”
In other words, the triune God can’t be stuffed in a box or put in the corner. God can’t be coerced into carrying out our selfish agendas or comply to our ideological views of humanity and the world. The triune God cannot be controlled or tamed—forced to be in tune with us.
Yet for centuries, it is what Christians have tried to do in an effort to understand their relationship with God. Despite best intentions to organize religion, which resulted in the establishment of communities of faith like churches and denominations; sacred practices like baptism and communion; and the structuring of ministries like Christian Education, youth, pastoral care and mission, there have also been unintended consequences.
In the book The Great Spiritual Migration, which a group of Pleasant Hill members and I recently explored, author and pastor Brian McLaren points out that the ancient tradition of Christian institutions protecting a timeless, correct set of beliefs has caused much calamity: colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, physical and sexual abuse, power grabs, financial scams and environmental destruction.
Over the last few decades, Christianity and the Church have become hypocritical, judgmental, manipulative and irrelevant in the eyes of many across the globe. And the numerical declines that are occurring throughout every area of Christianity in the West, particularly among younger generations, bear the reality. McLaren writes:
“The pattern is predictable. Founders are typically generous, visionary, bold, and creative, but the religions that ostensibly carry on their work often become the opposite: constricted, change-averse, nostalgic, fearful, obsessed with boundary maintenance, turf battles, and money. Instead of greeting the world with open arms as their founders did, their successors stand guard with clenched fists. Instead of empowering others as their founders did, they hoard power. Instead of defying tradition and unleashing moral imagination as their founders did, they impose tradition and refuse to think outside the lines. …No wonder so many religious folks today wear down, burn out, and opt out.”
Now, I will be the first to say that I am grateful to be serving in a church that is not constricted, change-averse, over-nostalgic, and fearful, etc. Pleasant Hill Presbyterian creates and imagines outside the lines; greets the world with open arms and generous hearts; and empowers people to do ministry.
But if we were to be honest in those late evening conversations we have with others and even ourselves, we’d have to admit that things are not the same here as they were 10 years ago or 30 years ago. Like many churches, Pleasant Hill’s pews get emptier and emptier and it has a little less energy than it used to have. I don’t know exactly why. It just is.
Maybe it’s a reflection of some of the emptiness and lack of energy many Christians feel in the world these days—a world that seems to have become meaner and more hateful and destructive. The mistreatment of our neighbors, the brokenness of lives, the horrors of violence and the heaviness of death is draining, especially when we are glued to our screens 24-7.
Christianity has sadly become too settled in its ways, too comfortable, too tired and apathetic. Christianity needs spiritual transformation and inspiration. It begins when Christians and churches let go of long-held systems of belief and arguments over sexual orientation, salvation, worship styles, money and carpet colors. And allow instead for the Spirit to carry them out of their comfort zones and in the way of love.
Christianity’s purpose is to be in constant motion. Our relationship with God can only thrive if we are moving, growing and changing. Our call to serve can only be fruitful if we are stretching ourselves to love our neighbors (including strangers and enemies). Our ability to see the kingdom of God will only materialize if we are willing to go and teach others how to love.
For God so loved that the Spirit sent a perfect loving Messiah into the world because of the Creator’s love for humanity. For God so loved that the Spirit transforms us through the love of Christ and sends us out to live our whole lives in love. For God so loved that the Spirit opens our hearts to love others as God loves us.
As the late Presbyterian minister and beloved children’s TV icon, Mr. Rogers, once said: “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
Rogers also had this gem: “I believe that appreciation is a holy thing that when we look for what’s best in a person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does all the time. So in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something sacred.”
Love is powerful. Love changed the world and can continue to change the world. We heard that reminder last weekend from Bishop Michael Bruce Curry at the royal wedding in Britain. In his sermon, Curry asked everyone to imagine a world where love is the way:
Imagine our homes and families where love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce where love is the way. Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way—unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive. …
When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more. …When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.
If you’re doubtful some days that the Spirit is unable to move people toward the way of Christ’s love, consider this story from my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama about a 4-year-old boy named Austin Perine:
Donning a bright red cape and a bold blue shirt emblazoned with the message “#SHOW LOVE,” and assistance from his incredible side-kick dad TJ, the heroic Austin hands out meals to the city’s homeless on a weekly basis. Austin says his superhero motto is “show love,” because “it means you care about someone no matter what they look like.” One homeless man told Austin: “It’s because of you that I want to be a better person.”
Austin’s mission started when his dad took him to a city shelter to learn about homelessness. TJ said that his son immediately asked if they could feed the people at the shelter. “I didn’t expect to feed homeless people that day. But when a 4-year-old boy asks you, what can you say?” They immediately went to Burger King, bought chicken sandwiches’ and took them back to the shelter. Word quickly spread and Austin became a local celebrity overnight, appearing on TV, news articles and social media posts. Burger King gave him a $1,000 monthly allowance for a year so he could continue his mission.
This is what love looks like when we let the Spirit take hold of us. The Spirit blows through our lives where it chooses and we hear the sound of it, but we don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. So let us be open and ready to go wherever it takes us to show love to others.
For God so loved.
For God so loved.
 Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3 (2008)
 Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3 (2008)
 The Great Spiritual Migratio: How The World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking A Better Way to Be Christian by Brian McLaren, (2016)