On Being Dense and On Being Born Again (sermon)

preached at Village Church, Cummington, MA

“Purim Shpiel” by Boris Shapiro

“Purim Shpiel” by Boris Shapiro

It took awhile for me to figure out what to write this sermon about.  The easy option: Lent.  But I wasn’t inspired. It is Purim today, the raucous Jewish holiday that celebrates the courage of brave Esther, who saved her people by speaking truth to power.  At first, I thought against coupling a sermon on a Jewish holiday with a worship during which we would share communion.  Then I realized that one of the requirements of Purim, according to the Talmud, is to get so drunk that you cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai.”  Let it be said that those with addictions or dependency issues are not held to this requirement.  So I thought: wine at Purim, like-wine for communion – maybe there is something to work with there?

In addition to Purim, it’s Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath weekend and sadly there is no end to the opportunity to talk about the urgent need for saner gun safety laws and attitudes in our nation.  I read recently that the Kentucky Baptist Convention is encouraging Second Amendment Celebration where newcomers can attend church AND acquire a gun as a door prize.   Hmmmm.  Prince of Peace much?

So I could choose from Purim, or Lent, or preventing gun violence, or… the lectionary. I know it’s a bit strange to hear those words coming from my mouth, but let’s give it a try.  Today, the lectionary offer us John 3: 1 -10: the story of Nicodemus who struggles with a concept that Jesus finds self-evident: being born again.

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Nicodemus approaches this new influential upstart, acknowledging him as a teacher from God, calling him Rabbi, wondering about the miracles and signs Jesus has shown.  Jesus says to Nicodemus that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.  This confuses the Jewish leader who wonders how someone can come a second time from their mother’s womb.  Of course, he has taken Jesus’ meaning too literally, to which Jesus says the same thing, more or less, again and again.

I like to think of Jesus using a patient tone, but the fact is, there is no indication in the translation we read nor in the ancient text from which our English translations stem.   The ancient writings that exist don’t even have what we moderns can recognize as punctuation, so we are really and truly on our own when we interpret tone and mood. When I read this, I hear [spoken calmly],

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born from above.’[e] The wind[f] 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.”

But it could be he is losing his patience, which we find he did at times with his own disciples.  Maybe he said it this way [spoken impatiently]:

I told you, dude: be born of water and Spirit.  Flesh is flesh and spirit is spirit.  Don’t be astonished when I say this to you…

Still Nicodemus is out of his element.  A third time he asks, “How can these things be?” to which I think Jesus does begin to lose his patience, because he questions Nicodemus’ legitimacy as a teacher of Israel, a leader among their people – remember, they are of the same people because they are of the same religious community.  Jesus seems to berate Nicodemus because he is so dense he cannot see the vision that Jesus has set out.

I totally identify with Nicodemus here.  Sometimes, I am that dense, that unclear on the concept, that lost and out of my element, overwhelmed by what is happening and ~ no one laugh here ~ stunned into silence. It’s not any fun to be on the outs, to try your hardest and still not understand.  To try not to hurt someone you love and still do it. To need help and even when it is offered, even when an explanation is provided and the teacher is acting like it’s completely obvious, and still not get it.  To not be able to do it on your own.

The Reverend Mary Luti wrote about this week’s scriptural passage, about Nicodemus’ reduction to the futility of his ignorance.

Jesus doesn’t make things easy for him. He rebuffs his well-meaning offer of faith based on signs. Then he shocks his common sense with talk about a new begetting from above, ignoring his protest that starting over is impossible, especially once you’ve gotten to be of a certain age. Finally, Jesus unnerves him with a description of the Spirit-led life—an anarchy of breath and wind and energies unseen.

Luti’s comments continue,

If Nicodemus came to Jesus at night to learn, Jesus sees to it that no ordinary learning takes place. He aims not to help Nicodemus understand, but to make him begin at the beginning; not to help him know, but to reduce him to unknowing, to drive him into a wilderness of silence, a desert of humility and obedience.

I wonder if that’s why one of the other texts that the lectionary holds out for today is Psalm 121, which Heather read so beautifully near the beginning of this morning’s worship.  Acknowledgement that we can’t do it on our own, that we all need help.

I lift up my eyes to the hills– from where will my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Many people find that psalm to be comforting.  Maybe some of you do, too – familiar from your childhood, perhaps familiar within your family even before you were born, or perhaps have come to it later in life and it just speaks to you.  Bless you.

And for those of you for whom it isn’t familiar, or the language is too loaded – for me, the Lord language and the he language is hard to digest – I offer this version of the same psalm, interpreted generously by the poet, Stephen Mitchell, and adapted somewhat by me:

I look deep into my heart, to the core where wisdom arises.
Wisdom comes from the Unnamable and unifies heaven and earth.
The Unnamable is always with you, shining from the depths of your heart.
[That] peace will keep you untroubled even in the greatest pain.
When you find [that] presen[se] within you, you find truth at every moment.
it will guard you from all wrongdoing; … will guide your feet on [the] path.
[That presence] will temper your youth with patience…[and] will crown your old age with fulfillment.
And dying, you will leave your body as effortlessly as a sigh.

Sometimes all we need a new translation of an idea to help us understand.  Sometimes it’s a new teacher.   For early adolescents, the quip is that anyone but their parent can say it.  Sometimes, and not just for adolescents, we need to grow up a bit before something all of a sudden resonates.  And sometimes, we need to fall to our knees, face to face with our unknowing, perhaps as Mary Luti says, driven into “a wilderness of silence” or a “desert of humility.”

Or sometimes it’s a new experience that whoops us upside the head in the gentlest and yet most persuasive of ways so that we can see something brand new, not as if the thing we are seeing is new, but we who are seeing it are new, are born again.

Most ministerial folk know not to subject a congregation to too much pImageoetry by edward estling cummings.  I am a fan of his poetry and not just because he was Unitarian, but because he demands that the reader engage outside the proverbial box.  He uses no capitalization and rather unusual punctuation.  Not unlike the ancient texts that have become scripture.

His poetry is not only a feast for the ears; his poems are also visual mardi gras, chaotic and with unexpected guests. He joins disparate words together into one, such as in the coming poem where “most” and “people” are one word and a new concept: mostpeople.

It is in the spirit of many entrances to important truths that I offer up these passages from an e. e. cummings poem on the topic of being born again:

Take the matter of being born. What does being born mean to mostpeople? … Mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness. If mostpeople were to be born twice they’d improbably call it dying—

you and I are not snobs. We can never be born enough. We are human beings;for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery,the mystery of growing:which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves. You and I wear the dangerous looseness of doom and find it becoming.

To be honest, like so many of his poems, I can’t make much sense of many parts of this poem.  There are some real phrases that resonate deeply for me, but truth is, I am not sure I could totally explain every part and particle of the passages I did include.  His explanations, his answers leave me with more questions than I came.  And once again, I feel like Nicodemus – I know there is something beautiful, something true, something real, but I don’t get it, I feel dense in the face of it. I am sitting with my own unknowing.

I believe that we human beings all long, some of us more consciously than others, for connection with something greater than ourselves and what we currently know to be true.  Think Nicodemus.  We long for a truth that both validates our experience and expands it, often in ways that seem, at first blush, not to make any sense at all.  Think Nicodemus.  We long not to be dense, like a ball of lead, impenetrable and heavy beyond measure, even though we sometimes are.  We long to experience something – like scripture, like poetry, like worship, – and we long to experience someones – like kindred spirits, like wise or divine teachers – that help to lighten our load and lighten our soul.

May we be that for one another, may we allow others be that for us; may we find that in whatever holy form it comes and may we all be part and particle of that anarchic breath and wind and energy, spreading such grace around.

Amen.  And blessed be.

(note: the story for all ages was from my childhood: The Poke Little Puppy, who with his brothers and sisters, took three different messages to learn not to dig under the fence.  not unlike Nicodemus….)

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