Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What the Church Can Learn From Facebook

You might think- "not much." But the simple fact is that if we could get even a fraction of the people that are on Facebook involved in the Church, we'd be running out of pew space. Or if people committed as much time and energy to prayer and outreach as they did status updates, then I think our world would better reflect the ideals of Kingdom of God.

Now some will bemoan that Facebook isn't about "real" relationships, but is just a superficial and narcissistic outlet. And while that's not a completely inaccurate assessment, Facebook has some things that the Church yearns for.

1) Facebook has community- People that I haven't seen since high school are "friends" on Facebook. I haven't talked to most of them in years, but I know how many kids they have, where they live, and what their house looks like (photos are often posted of new purchases). Now if I fooled myself into believing these Facebook friendships were the same thing as "real world" friendships, I'd be kidding myself. But the fact remains, I know more about people I haven't seen in 10 years than I know about many folks at Church, even though it's my job to know them.

2) Conversations happen on Facebook- Whether it's theology, politics, movie reviews, or cookie recipes, ideas are exchanged on Facebook. Churches often struggle with how to have real and authentic conversations about topics that matter, but they happen all the time on Facebook. Facebook isn't perfect
for civil and polite discourse, but at least it's happening. For a lot of folks, the extent of conversation at Church, especially with clergy, is 30 seconds in the receiving line after services on Sunday.

3) People ask for help on Facebook- Prayer requests, moving help, or ideas for parties are all found on Facebook. I've often learned of illnesses or prayer needs of parishioners on Facebook before they funnel through the church's layers of communication. People are much more open on Facebook than they are in person- they're quicker to ask for prayer to share the events of their life that can be mourned or celebrated in the community.

4) Facebook is up to date- And sadly, most churches have websites that are older than Facebook itself. People complain about Facebook's constantly changing news feed, but at least they make changes. Often, I learn of breaking news on Facebook even before it hits NPR or CNN. You can find links to current blogs on current topics by people you trust, which is something that you can't say for other forms of mass media, or church newsletters.

5) Facebook is inter-generational- As much as teens rue the day that their parents joined Facebook, all ages gather together in this cyberspace, and even interact with one another. The Church attempts to do this, and has some success, but Facebook brings people together and fosters a sense of community (even if different from Church community) among people of all ages, creeds, colors, races, classes, sexual orientations, religious traditions, political persuasions, etc.

6) People spend time on Facebook- As I stated earlier, Facebook has appeal and gives people a reason to show up. Not saying that the Church doesn't have some good reasons, but our PR and advertising is light years behind. It used to be that the Church didn't need to advertise or defend its relevance- but Church attendance or religious affiliation can no longer be assumed, and the Church needs to learn this lesson.

Now all of this isn't to say that we should start the Church of Facebook, or that we should start over and copy Facebook's business model in church growth plans. But we can't ignore the fact that Facebook has 901 million users since it's founding in February 2004, and the Church, which has had 2,000 years has about 2.1 billion "users." For all it's benefits, Facebook has it's flaws as well; but it's success cannot, nor should it be, ignored or written off.

Is it that Facebook is filling a social need that people had that wasn't being met? Is Facebook just a fad? Is Facebook the antithesis of what the Church should be (fake vs. real)? What other lessons are there to be gleaned from Facebook? What could Facebook learn from the Church? Thoughts?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

June 25, 2012 - Proper 7B

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This has always been one of my favorite stories about Jesus in the Bible. There are so many facets that catch my attention. I grew up in south Florida, so perhaps the vision a violent storm popping up out of the blue is familiar to me and is why I identify with it. Today though I’m going to focus just on one aspect of the story- the calming presence of Jesus.
This passage comes in the beginning of Mark when Jesus is just beginning his ministry. Mark has been telling stories about the miracles that Jesus performs. Jesus calms the storm in this reading, but will also cast out a demon from a possessed man and will heal people of their infirmities in the following chapter.
Mark is writing with the purpose of showing that Jesus is more than a religious man; he is more than a prophet. Instead, Jesus is the Son of God. The divinity of Jesus is of paramount concern in Mark. So we see miracles of Jesus showing great power over evil spirits, nature, and in his ability to heal people. Our focus this morning is on the calming of a storm on the Sea of Galilee.
Calming a storm in the Biblical worldview is quite the feat. The religious thought of the Ancient Near East was that only the gods had power over the seas. And not even every god could do that, just the supreme gods. Often only the gods who had the power to create the world were seen as being capable of having power over the seas. Think of the way Poseidon stands out in Greek mythology along with Zeus as the most powerful of the gods. Even in the Old Testament, there are references to sea serpents and battles over stormy seas which reflect this world view.
Mark is building on this worldview to show the power of Jesus. The text says that this was a big storm; the Greek calls it a “mega” storm. And this must have been quite the storm. After all, remember that several of Jesus’ disciples used to be fishermen. Their life’s work was to be out on the Sea of Galilee fishing day in and day out. And they would have experienced their fair share of storms. The disciples though are afraid; this must have been a big one.
But Jesus was sleeping through the whole thing. Jesus had a sort of trusting relationship with God that allowed him to remain calm not only in this, but in many other circumstances. The disciples though had not yet learned how to practice this sort of trusting reliance on God. So they wake Jesus up and they ask him if he cares that they’re about to die. Jesus responds by getting up and commanding the sea to be still and it obeys. Not only does it obey, but the Greek again uses the word “mega” to describe the calm that followed. It was a complete 180 from all of the chaos and fear which the storm stirred up. A surreal sort of calm followed; their fear turned to wonder. The disciples were amazed and pondered who Jesus might be. After all, this wasn’t the sort of thing that just anyone could do; this was something that only the power of God could accomplish. Mark is making a strong statement about Jesus by having him calm a storm so easily.
Unlike the disciples, we have the benefit of time on our side. The disciples had just been introduced to Jesus and were trying to figure him out. We have 2,000 years of witness to go along with our personal experiences of the Resurrected Jesus in our attempts to understand and follow him. As unnerving as it might be, when I read a few commentaries on this passage, several scholars doubted the historicity of this passage. While I realize that there is literary license taken in the writing of the gospels, I do think that something of this nature did happen with Jesus and his disciples. Even if it wasn’t the storm that abated, but rather their fear that diminished when Jesus was with them, a miracle happened that day. The specific facts of history are not why we are here this morning; we are here because of the continuing implications of these stories on our lives.
Mark included this story in his account of the Good News because he wanted to show that Jesus was not just a run of the mill holy person. Jesus was not a man who had some talent and charisms; he was more than that: he was and is the Son of God. And as the Son of God who lived, died and was resurrected he still has the power to calm the storms of our lives.
There is a contemporary Christian band called Casting Crowns and they have a song called “Praise You In This Storm.” It starts by saying “I was sure by now, God,/ that you would have reached down/ and wiped our tears away,/ stepped in and saved the day.// But once again, I say amen/ and it’s still raining// as the thunder rolls/ I barely hear you whisper through the rain,/ I’m with you.” I don’t have to list all the storms that you could possibly have in your life. The experiences of the death of a loved one, battling health issues, divorce, losing a job, addiction or even good things such as moving to a new town can be a stormy experience. They turn day to night, they toss us about and make us exclaim, like the disciples, “God, why are you letting me suffer?” This is question the song begins with, “God, I thought you would have done something about this by now.” Sometimes God miraculously calms the storm through an answered prayer, a change of circumstance, or a caring friend. But sometimes the storm in us is what is contained. The key is in knowing that calming a storm doesn’t always mean that the rain stops, sometimes the calm is found in our hearts as the storm rages outside.
And even if the rain continues to fall, we can take refuge knowing that the calming power of Jesus can overcome all. When the storm continues, Jesus will be with us as we weather the storm. I remember growing up in Florida that sometimes you run from a hurricane, but sometimes you hunker down. Some hurricanes will be calmed and will avoid a disastrous landfall, but sometimes you just have to wait it out. And sometimes you have to pick up the pieces after the storm passes. The message of the Gospel this morning is that Jesus’ calming presence and power can overcome any storm- sometimes calming the storm, and other times in calming us to get through it and helping us to rebuild. May God be with us all as we navigate the seas of life and run into stormy waters.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

June 12, 2012 - Proper 5B

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            This sermon is a matter of national security. Well, maybe not quite that serious, but it is about the nation and security. Both our Old Testament and Gospel readings beg the question “whose are we?” and “where do we find security?” Those are two questions that we still struggle to answer today- to whom do we belong, who rules over us; and were does our safety come from, what allows us to sleep soundly at night?
            Some context in each story is helpful. The Israelites have come out of Egypt and settled in the Promised Land. Their first form of government was a series of judges who judged cases, but weren’t quite rulers. But as you might expect, the judges became corrupt and the people were unhappy with the situation. Samuel became God’s appointed prophet. When we pick up the story there is a lot of tension in the air, as people are worried about the future, and so they ask for a king.
The context of Mark is important as well. We’re early in Mark, just at chapter 3, but remember, Mark is the Reader’s Digest version of the gospel, it moves quickly and tells the story straight. So thus far, Jesus has been baptized, called his disciples, cast out demons, healed several people, forgiven sins, eaten with tax collectors and sinners, had a run-in with the Pharisees, and taught some lessons. At one point the text says that “fame about Jesus had begun to spread.” But it wasn’t necessarily a good kind of fame, you might better read it as “Jesus was getting a reputation.” Jesus was known as a rebel-rouser, a blasphemer, and as we see in this reading today, a host for demons. So when the text says that they came together, and the disciples couldn’t eat, it was because they were so crowded that there was no space for a meal. So Jesus’ family gets wind of what’s going on, and they go out to stop him from making more of a fool of himself, or the family. To the family, Jesus was that crazy relative who seems to be off his rocker at Thanksgiving dinner.
So with these two backgrounds in our minds, I’d like to explore the question of where our security comes from. The way I propose to do this is to consider the reasons why Israel wanted to have a king. First, I’ll introduce a thesis, which represents Israel’s thinking. Then I’ll offer an antithesis, explaining why they are wrong. And finally, I’ll offer some synthesis showing that Jesus is the best source of security we can have.
The first reason why Israel wanted a king was to keep up with the Joneses. Israel looked around them and they saw the other nations, all with their kings. And with those kings came all the trimmings of royalty. Just look at what’s been going on in England the last week with the celebration around Queen Elizabeth. Brits have been honoring the royal family, having parades, and all sorts of festivities. And to be honest, it looks sort of fun. Now their politics aren’t great, their economy struggles just as ours does, but I wonder what having that sort of national unity and pride for a week might do for our country and our bitter partisan divide. So Israel saw these other nations having thrones and parades, and they committed one of the most basic sins- the sin of saying “I want.”
Israel saw that their neighbor had something that looked neat, and they wanted it. Forget the fact that they had the Lord on their side, forget that God had made them God’s chosen people, they wanted more. Even to the point that they wanted what was bad for them. It’s a problem we know all too well. We fill ourselves with things that we don’t need, whether it be junk food, pornography, or stuff that fills our attic. In America we, too, care far too much about having the latest and the greatest. We covet. We covet our neighbor’s wife, we covet their new car, and we despise them when they get things that we can’t have.
We also like the quick fix, as did Israel. They thought that coronating a king would solve their problems. They hoped it would fix their economic system, give them a powerful army, and would make their neighbors respect them. And they thought all of this would happen overnight.  In Washington, we see people all the time talking about tax reform as the way to fix the economy, or hydraulic fracking as the solution to our energy crisis. They say if we would just vote for their candidate, things would be better already. People complain that Obama hasn’t fixed the economy in 3 years, even though it took about 15 years to build the crumbling foundation. We ignore the fact that we’ve been on a path towards environmental destruction for 150 years since the Industrial Revolution, but we want a solution to energy tomorrow.
I even see this at St. Francis- there are some people that want to look for the silver bullet in getting more people to attend Sunday School and the forum. We want to say that if we could just change the service times to imitate some other model, then we would find success. But we ignore the fact that culture has changed and church participation doesn’t mean what it used to. As much as we want a quick fix, we can’t get around the fact that discipleship is a long journey.
The point is this- Israel wanted to have a king to imitate other nations, because they thought it would be the quick fix to their problems. But in reality, a king only added to their problems, as each and every problem that Samuel mentions came to pass. The antithesis here is that we shouldn’t imitate others because that is taking a step backwards. We already have someone to imitate, and that is Jesus.
In his classic work Christ and Culture, Richard Niebuhr talked about different paradigms for how the church should relate to culture. He said that Christ can be against culture, of culture, or above culture. And he explains that each of these has its issues. When Israel tried to imitate others, it was trying to be of the culture. When people go live in compounds such as the Branch Davidians, they are against culture. People who think this world is worthless and are waiting for the Rapture would be those who say Christ is above culture. The last model that he recommends is that Christ transforms culture. You might say that this is the group that says our proper place is in culture, but not of it.
But this isn’t easy, to stay in the world, but trying to transform it. It means fighting an uphill battle, it means trying to move immovable structures. This is not a quick fix, and our neighbor will think we’re a bit crazy, but Christians are in the business of transformation.
The second reason why Israel wanted a king was security. Kings were also the generals of the army, and without a king, you can’t have a good army. Israel wanted protection, they wanted to be safe, and the only way they thought this would happen would be to have a king leading them. After all, they thought, God is good, but God doesn’t ride a horse in armor as we go into battle. Israel was struggling with the same age old question that we do- it’s the balance between divine providence and self-sufficiency.
We all want to trust in God to provide and protect, but on the other hand, we all know that if we just sit around and wait for God to act, we’ll be waiting a really long time. One of my favorite lines in theology is that God gives us maximum support, with minimum protection. If you are sick, there is very little chance that God will heal you if you don’t also ask a doctor for some help. If faith healers were legitimate sources for a cure, we’d have more people here today than there are at Moses Cone, but we all know that it just doesn’t work that way. God won’t take care of the hungry if we don’t plant and harvest any crops. Now this isn’t to limit God, or to deny miracles such as loaves and fish, or manna from heaven, but I think we can all agree that if you don’t go to the grocery store, God isn’t going to fill your refrigerator with food.
Israel recognized this fact. And as they looked around, they saw that their land was indeed a land flowing with milk and honey, it is a fertile land that has great sources of water, which are especially important in the Middle East. Israel knew that other nations, those with kings and big armies, also saw these things. They were afraid, and so they turned to a king to protect them. Just as God had given them the Promised Land and blessed them during the journey there, God promised to continue to be with them. But they couldn’t ignore the storm clouds on the horizon, they decided to turn their back on God and went with a king. And we know how the story ends, Israel would be overrun by a series of other nations- the king didn’t give them the protection they sought.
But if I’m right, that God does give maximum support with minimum protection, how should we live? If God is going to give us minimum protection, shouldn’t we seek some sort of backup protection? To borrow a line from St. Paul’s 2nd epistle to the Corinthians, “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Security all comes down to how you define it. If security means never being hurt, never being poor, never being in danger- God will not protect us. But if security means knowing that no matter what happens to our earthly tent, we will always have house with God- then we indeed are secure.
It’s sort of what happens when you graduate from college. You go out, you are free to have fun, to live, and to make mistakes. And good parents let you do these things, they let you fall, they let you stumble, but they let you live. And when you get into trouble and need a place to stay, they always welcome you back home. But just as we need to maintain relationships with our parents, we also need to maintain our relationship with God. God will grant us security, just not safety.
And the final reason Israel wanted a king was because the wanted to protect the status  quo. The thing about kings is that, like career politicians and lobbyists, they tend to be easy to corrupt. Again, the news gives us all the examples we need. Both the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring have arisen because the 1% and monarchy or dictator are dominating the world. When someone gets absolute power, they aren’t going to let go of it easily. So we see corporate CEOs fighting to keep their bonuses and jobs, and we see Bashar al-Assad killing his own people in Syria. Those in power wanted a king, because it meant the king would keep them in power. The question here is the same question that we have today. What is the role of government in our lives? What is our mission?
Now I’m not talking about the Hamiltonian versus Jeffersonian debates of the 18th century, but rather, why are we here? If everyone did what was right and cared for their neighbor, we wouldn’t really need government, or at least not much of one. But we all know that without taxes, a lot of people would keep their money to themselves; without laws, people would do as they please with little regard for others; without social welfare programs, the poor and needy would be utterly helpless.
Government exists to protect the interests of the people. But we all know that different people have different interests. Those in power, whether 2,500 years ago in Jerusalem, or right now in DC, want to make sure their interests are the ones that are protected. The problem with this is that Jesus doesn’t call us to protect the status  quo. In fact, he calls us to turn this world upside down so that the Kingdom  of  God might come on earth as it is in heaven.
Look at the reading from Mark. Jesus is protecting the interest of those who are not protected by the ruling elite. He’s healing the sick, feeding the hungry, giving good news to the downtrodden. Until the status  quo is love at its fullest expression at all times and in all places, the job of the Christian will be to stand up against government, against rulers, against the status  quo. Until our prisons are empty, until no one eats at soup kitchens, until soldiers only respond to natural disasters, until no home is foreclosed on, until the unemployment rate is zero, until slavery is a part of history, until hatred knows no home in our hearts and minds, until that day, the status  quo must be challenged.
So those are the reasons Israel wanted a king- to imitate others, to have security, and to protect those in power. But as that thinking didn’t work out for Israel, neither will it for us. Instead, Jesus is the place we turn to for all authority, leadership, and security. As Jesus is accused of harboring demons and being a vessel for Satan, he reminds us that a house divided cannot stand against itself. As Israel learned, we cannot seek the things of kingship and follow God.
Now to be clear, this is not easy; Jesus was ridiculed for what he did and said. He was mocked, scourged, and killed. His family tried to silence him, some of his own disciples deserted and betrayed him. But we’re all here on this Sunday morning because we know that he was right. Jesus was right to fight the powers of his day, he was right to realize that death wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to him, he was right to focus on God instead of his own safety, he was right to proclaim the Kingdom  of  God over the kingdoms of Rome or Israel.
Instead of a king, Jesus is worthy of our imitation, as his way leads to eternal life, both on this side and the other of death. Jesus is our security, not from all danger, but from living a life devoid of meaning. And Jesus invites us to participate in the status  quo of the Kingdom  of  God- taking part in its love, its peace, its justice.
And I do want to leave you all with a sense of security to do this demanding task of following Jesus. At the end of the Marcan reading, Jesus’ family came and called to him, and he says “here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” This is a radical statement. It’s not that Jesus is disrespecting his family, or disowning them, but he is redefining family. Jesus is saying that if we accept God as our father instead of the rulers as our king, then we are family to each other. If we are all citizens of the Kingdom  of  God, we all are under the same leader.
Jesus invites us to consider the question- “what does your house stand for?” I ask you to take that question home with you- “what does your house stand for?” And in answering, “we stand undivided for God” then we are given a great sense of security. Jesus says “look around. If you are with me, you will have brothers and sisters who do not disown you or call you crazy, but who support and love you. You might not share DNA with them, but they are your brothers and sisters indeed.” Relying on God to be our king is not an easy task, but we are given security by being surrounded by family.
So my brothers and sisters, let us stand together and do the work of our Father in Heaven, doing the work of transforming this world into God’s Kingdom. Amen.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

June 3, 2012 - Trinity B

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Domine ivimus. Those words are a fairly recent discovery at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This church is built over the places where Jesus was crucified and rose again on Easter morning. Archeologists were exploring the foundations of the church via fiber optic cables and found some graffiti on a wall. Now, normally graffiti is not a welcome sight, but this one was, as it dates back to the early 4th century. There is a drawing of a boat, and below it the Latin words domine ivimus, meaning “Lord, we went.”
            We don’t know who left this graffiti, but likely they had come from a long way to do so. The picture of the boat makes us think they sailed there, and the Latin indicates that they came not from the local area, but from Europe. And they make such a simple statement, domine ivimus, as if to say “Lord, we made it! Here we are, O Lord!” These early pilgrims were traveling in a time when Christians were fed to lions for sport, when such a long journey meant taking months away from home and work, when traveling that distance was full of dangers and challenges. But they went, and they made it.
            When I read our passage from Isaiah earlier this week, reading the question posed by God- “whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and the corresponding response “here I am; send me,” I immediately thought of that holy graffiti. Two great proclamations of faith “Lord, here we are” and “here I am”- but I began to wonder “where is here?”
            This passage from Isaiah is a very well known one, often being read at ordinations. We read it today because today is Trinity Sunday and this is one of the Biblical passages that points to the idea of the Trinity, though it certainly doesn’t said it plainly. The song of the seraphim should also seem familiar, as it is the sanctus that we sing in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer. God has a job that needs to be done, and God needs a messenger, a doer for this task. St. Augustine once said that “without God, we cannot; without us, God will not” and so it is. God has a vision, a plan, a hope for redeeming Israel and all the world. But God will not do it alone, as God empowers the creatures to take a part in constantly re-creating the Creation.
            Today, that same question still beckons from on high- “whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Who will feed the hungry? Who will love the unlovable? Who will stand up for the poor and the oppressed? Who will work for justice and peace? Who will tear down the walls that separate us? Who will choose the good of others over the good of themselves? Who will take up their cross and follow Christ? Who will teach Sunday School? Who will visit those in the hospital? Who will go and preach the Gospel? Who will build the Kingdom of God?
            The justice and salvation for the world that God had in mind has not yet come to its fullest realization on earth as it is in heaven. The world and God needs people to go. But before we get going, before we can say “here I am,” we must discern where exactly we are. We’re not in Kansas anymore. Christianity is at a crucible moment. Christianity is no longer the assumption, as 25% of young adults choose “none” when asked for their religious affiliation. We’ve seen declines in all sorts of ways- Americans give less financially than they used to, we spend less time at church than we did in the past, we pray less, read the Bible less, and know less about those topics than our parents and grandparents did.
And what are reasons for this decline? Well, basically, they are the same as we see in Isaiah- excuses. Isaiah says that he’s unclean, and therefore unfit to be God’s messenger. Sorry God, really wish I could help out, but I just can’t. Not many of us use unclean lips as our excuse, but we still have our excuses: I don’t know enough to teach Sunday School, I’m too busy to come to forums, reading the Bible every day is just a lot of time, people will think I’m crazy if I talk about Jesus in public. But just as God addressed Isaiah’s excuses, God addressed ours as well.
Saying “here I am, send me” is one of the hardest statements to make because it means dedicated ourselves to something other than ourselves. Being sent involves taking risks, being uncomfortable, spending less time watching television and more time reading the Bible, spending less on vacations and Starbucks and more on charity. Being sent is not for the faint of heart. But as on any journey, we all know that doing it halfway doesn’t get you anywhere. If you want to go to Paris, halfway gets you to the middle of the ocean. You can only have the experience of saying “here I am” or “Lord, we made it” if you go all the way. Christianity is supposed to be a challenge, it is supposed to be counter-cultural, it is supposed to be hard. We wear crosses around our necks, and if that doesn’t tell us that saying “here I am, send me” is hard, then I don’t know what would. And so because it can be such a challenge, more and more people are finding themselves reluctant to take on the challenge. If we read the signs of the times, signs such as less involvement, less giving, less commitment, it seems like we have signs of despair.
But looking at our gospel reading and Nicodemus, we see that signs are not all they’re cracked up to be. Nicodemus is such a wonderful character, and a great stand-in for many of us. Nicodemus was part of the establishment- he was an upstanding member of the Jewish community, he was a respected leader, he was well liked, he was wealthy and educated. And he understood what following Jesus would mean. Nicodemus knew that discipleship under Jesus would be renouncing his wealth and comfort, his power and prestige. As a member of the Jewish power structure, he knew that Jesus was bound to end up in trouble with the law and knew that there was a bounty on Jesus’ head. But he was still intrigued by Jesus. Nicodemus yearned for the sort of stuff that Jesus spoke about- the love, justice, and peace of the Kingdom of God. But he wasn’t quite sure if he was ready to commit.
Perhaps Nicodemus should be considered the patron saint for the seeker and the uncertain. So Nicodemus comes to visit and question Jesus at night. He probably snuck out of his house so that no one would notice his absence, he took some alleys instead of main roads to get to Jesus, probably had his cloak pulled up around his head so that no one would recognize him. Nicodemus comes to Jesus and asks him about the signs. Perhaps he figures that if Jesus can explain the signs or even do a few more, then he could take the plunge and follow Jesus- he just needs to see a little more evidence, needs just a little more convincing.
But Jesus wants nothing to do with these signs and instead offers a riddle about being born from above. Jesus introduces a lot of dichotomies and comparisons in his response: flesh vs. spirit; born from above vs. born from below: light vs. dark; hearing vs. understanding; condemnation vs. salvation. Jesus makes it clear that to follow him, his followers must make a choice about where “here” is for them. With all of these options, a choice has to be made. Will you focus on what is above you, or what is around you? Will you hear, or will you understand? Does Jesus condemn, or does Jesus save? To choose one thing, is to choose not to do the other. As much as we want to have it both ways, we can’t. You can’t be a disciple and an individualist. You can’t hoard up treasure and follow Jesus. You can’t turn a blind eye to those in need and love Jesus. You can’t come to Jesus by hiding at night and ignore him during the daylight. Jesus invites Nicodemus to make a choice that night.
But Nicodemus doesn’t understand what’s going on, as he’s still trying to figure Jesus out, instead of simply living in Jesus. He wants to say “here I am, send me,” but wants to know first where he will be sent. Nicodemus gets tripped up. When Jesus says that you have to be “born from above” it could also be understood as being “born again.” Nicodemus makes the same mistake that millions of Evangelicals make when they put so much emphasis on being born again.  We don’t need to be born again, once was enough; but in our lifestyle, we have a choice: either we are born from above and seek ye first the Kingdom of God, or we are born of this world and seek the idols of comfort, certainty, wealth, and self.
Being born from above is the key, orientating ourselves towards God is the task of discipleship. Just as Eucharist without meaning from above is just bread and wine, and Baptism that is not from above is just a bath, life without being born from above is simply going through the motions each day. Just like the sacraments of the Church, the meaning for our lives comes from above. If we trust that there is a loving Creator, a redeeming Lord, a giving Spirit, our truest meaning is only found when we locate ourselves as being “here” in God. St. Augustine said “our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they find rest in thee.”
Nicodemus doesn’t find what he was looking for, he couldn’t see how being born again, or from above, was something he could do, so he walks home. He wanted a sign to show him the way, but if could be born from above, he himself would be the sign. Later in John, we’ll run into Nicodemus again, but for now, he’s only watches Jesus from the sidelines and isn’t ready to get into the game. What prevents Nicodemus from going all-in? I don’t know, I wasn’t there, I didn’t have a chance to interview Nicodemus while I was writing this sermon. But it’s a question we should all ask ourselves. What keeps us from being the most devote disciples of Jesus as possible? And this isn’t me speaking on high to you all either, none of us have it all figured out. When I love, I worry about being hurt. When I give money away, I worry about unexpected expenses coming up. When I wear my collar out in public, I risk being labeled and judged as something I’m not. When I counsel people in need, I worry about not being helpful. When I decide to follow Jesus and go against cultural norms, I fear the repercussions. When I speak about dedication and following Jesus, I worry that I’ll scare people away with too much talk to commitment. And Lord knows, I make my share of mistakes- whether it’s a short temper or a selfish attitude, I don’t think I’m alone in sin.
There are thousands of reasons to be like Nicodemus, to stay a seeker, to avoid the risk of going all-in with discipleship, but there is one really good reason to take the plunge, to say “Lord, send me.” John 3:16- “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Let’s rescue that verse from the billboards, from those who want to use that verse to exclude instead of welcome, and more importantly, let’s not interrupt Jesus in the middle of a thought. John 3:17 is just as important- “indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
In these two verses, Jesus speaks about the rationale for being born from above and living for the Kingdom which is above: we are loved and we are saved. In a recent interview, Desmond Tutu was asked about freedom after Apartheid ended in South Africa and he said that being freed from something is actually quite easy by comparison, but the harder task is being freed for something. It was one thing to freed from legal discrimination and prejudice, but it something else entirely to be freed for service and reconciliation. It was easy for Isaiah to be cleansed from his sins, but it was hard to be cleansed for being sent. This distinction between “from” and “for” is a very helpful one in looking at these verses.
Through Jesus we see God’s love and are saved. So what? Big deal. If salvation is some sort of divine action on the cosmic level that lifts some sort of roadblock into heaven, then what difference does it make? Being loved, saved, or freed from something has very little meaning, just like living from below instead of above. If I love my wife, what difference does that make to her or to me? Not much. But what if I love her for a purpose? What if I love her for the sake of making her happy, of being her companion through the ups and downs of life, of supporting her? That is something life changing. And the same can be said of God.
If there is some deity in the sky that loves us, great. But if the Almighty loves us for the purpose of making us whole, of giving us meaning, of letting us partner with God in Creation, then that matters. And the same is true of salvation. We are all sinners, yes. And forgiveness is a great thing, don’t get me wrong, but if our salvation is about life after death, then what’s the point of all this? Why bother with all this suffering, with the challenges of life? But what if we are saved not from something, but for something? What if we are saved so that we can do accomplish something? What if we are saved from wallowing in our sins, from fear of death or failure so that we can attend to the needy or sacrifice our self interests for the greater good? What if we are saved from being unlovable so that we can go out and love with all of our being? That, my brothers and sisters, is something to be excited about. That understanding of John 3:16 is something to put on a billboard or make posters about.
To live into the purpose of our love and salvation is a daunting and holy task, but it is the task to which we are called. Our world needs more people to do get into their boats and say domine ivimus, “Lord we are here”, or “send me.” To do so is to be bold and courageous. Our hearts yearn to find their rest in God, to fully embrace our mission. We are loved for a purpose, saved for a reason: building the Kingdom of God. There is much work to be done, the “help wanted” ad has been posted, now is our time to answer “here we are Lord, send us.”