worship notes for lent II...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for the second Sunday of Lent 2017. I am reflecting on both the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith as well as the Common Lectionary passages with special attention to St. John 3: 1-7.  After worship we held a "Called to Care" workshop for 15 lay leaders who want to participate in sharing love and compassion throughout the wider congregation. Blessing upon blessings...

Reading the Bible out loud in community – and talking about it together – is

how public theology was meant to happen. There is always a place for the scholar’s study and the rabbi’s writing room – a quiet and secluded library for research and reflection is a beautiful gift for those of us called by the Lord to preach and teach – but our personal study and prayer must never trump our shared conversations, yes? The church – you and me and all believers in this realm and the next – are known as the Body of Christ, the community of faith, a diverse, inter- related gathering of unique and broken people sharing assorted gifts, idiosyncrasies, problems and blessings for the cause of Christ in our generation.

As St. Paul instructs: “There is one body, but many parts; one Lord but many gifts.” But let’s be clear that there is never anything romantic or sentimental about being a part of this community called the Body of Christ because most of the time the Church lives as the Crucified and Wounded Body of our Lord Jesus. Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Community, a movement guided by the Sermon on the Mount, lives together with and serves people with intellectual challenges. And what he has learned about community is this: 

Too often contemporary people, who are discontent with the excess of Western individualism, speak of community in ‘endearing’ and even idealistic terms. The truth is much grittier for community is not about trying to live a shared ideal; rather, it is about learning the truth about oneself and others. Contrary to a frequent misreading… we are not an ideal gathering of morally exceptional people doing great things. No, we are ordinary people learning to be with each other and be accepted as who and what we are… and fundamentally this has to do with accepting brokenness and limitation in order to create the freedom of celebrating our differences in the grace of God.

Precisely what Jesus was trying to communicate in today’s Gospel lesson when he tells us that we will encounter the Kingdom of God only when we are “born from above.” Not by our own striving or work, not from our own strength and power, but by the love of God shared with us as a gift. Fred Craddock, the beloved Baptist preacher writes: In this passage, the church overhears Jesus tell a religious leader that the life abundant and eternal is a gift from above and is not attained by achievement, claim, or proof. Nothing could be more appropriate for Lent than a reminder that prayer and fasting do not earn us anything.

That is why I asked you last week if you could ever get you head around

speaking publically about being a disciple of Jesus rather than emphasizing your profession. We middle class liberals have constructed a strong sense of identity around what we have accomplished in our day – our jobs, our titles, our power and all the rest – without knowing how to connect it all back to Jesus and God’s grace. This is a widely different context and world view than the one of first century Palestine.

In Jesus’ day, you see, there was still power and prestige, there was ego and elitism as well as profound suffering and social stress, but it was not individualized. In that society, social scientists teach, status and honor were related to birth: you were born into your status and it stayed with you until you died. You were born into the ancient priesthood, you were born into the peasantry, you were born into the realm of Cesar and all the rest. 
So, to teach your followers that there could be a second birth – another birth that ascribed heaven’s value to you – was monumental albeit it baffling and incomprehensible. Biblical scholars, Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh write: to be born from above” – that is, to be born of the sky, the realm of God – is to belong to that realm:

... to become a veritable child of God. This, of course, is to acquire an honor status of the very highest sort… whatever honor status a person might have in Israelite society, being born "from above" would re-create that person at a whole new level. Additionally, since all children of the same father share that father's honor status, differences in status among "the children of God" obviously disappear, except for the firstborn.

Jesus wants us to know that when God loves us, when God calls us together, it is a gift not the result of something we have created or earned. And, this sacred gift poured into our humanity makes us kin – family – sisters and brothers beyond race, gender, class and education. So let’s take a moment to talk about this together – let’s do some public theology right now – remembering that theology simply means interpreting theo and logos – words about God – into our context with love.

· What is this insight saying to you right now?

· How is this different from the popular description of what it means to be “born again?”

Let me share with you two other thoughts about this Gospel and then go on to ask your wisdom about three other insights in our United Church of Christ “statement of faith,” ok? 

+  First, what do we know about Nicodemus: who does he represent in the story? What does he tell us about God’s call in our lives? And what significance does his coming to Jesus in the dark suggest? Nicodemus is a symbol – as well as a person or character – in this story who realizes that something new is being born from within the ancient. In our tradition we like to say: there is always more light to be revealed than we can comprehend right now. And Nicodemus represents the way that God can change us over time because while he shows up at the start of John’s gospel, do you recall where else he is mentioned in this story? After the crucifixion, Nicodemus – the Pharisee – helps Joseph of Arimathea – another Pharisee – bury Jesus. Joseph is described as a disciple of Jesus albeit a quiet and even secret one which makes me wonder if the same wasn’t true for Nicodemus? My heart suggests that as he watched and listened to Jesus share love, God gave him a measure of grace, too.

+ Second, the word love in this text: “for God so loved the world…” Just as 21st century Western faith has privatized and sentimentalized much of the Gospel, first century Palestine did the opposite. Both love and hatred had social consequences in Christ’s day that were specifically connected to group orientation rather than personal affection. Bible scholars are clear, therefore, that to teach us that God so loved the world has nothing to do with an internal feeling and everything to do with an external commitment to care for, protect and cherish a group of people. John’s gospel is telling us that God has attached God’s self to the world – the whole family of humanity not just Christians or Jews but the entire cosmos as it says in John 3: 17 – for God’s essence has become flesh and intimate. Hatred meant aloof, distant, disconnected.

So what does this suggest to you? How does this shape your identity and connection to the world? Where do you see signs of God’s love or the absence of love, attachment and community? This Lent I have placed two hand-made posters on the wall above my computer in my study at home to guide and focus me on the challenge of God’s enfleshed loved. One comes from Barbara Brown Taylor, a former Episcopal priest who left parish ministry to become a teacher, and the other hails from Pope Francis. 

+ Taylor writes: What if church invited people to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe? What if it blessed people for what they are doing in the world instead of chastening them for not doing more at church? What if the church's job were to convince people that God needs them working in the world more than God needs them sitting in the pews?

+ And my man Pope Francis writes: Do you want to fast this Lent? Then fast from hurting words and say kind ones. Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude. Fast from anger and be filled with patience. Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope. Fast from worries and have trust in God. Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity. Fast from pressures and be prayerful. Fast from bitterness and fill your hearts with joy. Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others. Fast from grudges and be reconciled. Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.

Both of these simple and faithful guides are clear that God’s love and

grace come to us as a gift: we cannot earn them and will never be able to purchase them. At the same time, however, we can cultivate the soil of our souls so that when the Spirit blows seeds of renewal and hope over our lives, we might be receptive to bearing fruit born from above. Helping us ready our hearts, minds, souls and lives for the blessings of grace is what our faith tradition strives to accomplish with these three key phrases from our Statement of Faith: 1) God creates people in God’s own image; 2) God judges people and nations by the righteousness shown by prophets and apostles; and 3) God has sent Jesus to us as a crucified and risen Savior to share our common lot.

· When you hear the words, “God creates people in God’s own image” what does that suggest to you about your role in the world? What bubbles up for you in knowing you were created in God’s image? What does that mean? Why does it matter? Can you make any connections with what I’ve shared with you about today’s gospel?

· Think now for a moment about what God’s prophets and apostles have shared with the world: what does that mean? Who were the prophets? The apostles? What did they do and communicate? How does that show us God’s judgment in history?

· And then that Christ Jesus comes to us as a crucified and risen Savior who has shared our common lot?
What does that evoke for you?

There is always much more to say about all of this, but that’s enough for today – with one closing comment – that connects us back to the importance of embracing Lent in community. If you were here last week you might recall that the opening story for Lent involves Jesus fasting and praying in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. When this cleansing was complete, Christ was confronted by three challenges, right? We call them temptations or even tests or trials.

Another of my Lenten buddies this year, the late Henri Nouwen, tells us that for our culture there is value in interpreting these temptations as the lure and seduction of “upward mobility.” Nouwen writes: Satan taunts Jesus with three demands that are all too common place:

· Be relevant: do something the world will praise you for like making bread out of stones. Be spectacular: jump from the tower so that everybody can see you as someone so influential, so important. Be powerful: kneel before me and I will give you dominion over everyone and everything.

· But Jesus said, "No." Because he knew that God's way is not to be relevant, or spectacular, or powerful. God's way is downward. "Blessed are the humble. Blessed are the poor of heart. Blessed are the peacemakers."

Here is a self-portrait of Jesus who is also a reflection of God. In traditional language, Nouwen speaks of God as the Father and quotes Jesus saying: "Who sees me, sees the Father." When we read the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, we are given an image of the face of Jesus, a face that reflects the love of the Lord. Humble. Poor. Meek. Peacemaker. Thirsting for justice and peace. Full of mercy. In this Jesus invites us into the down-ward mobility of God’s grace that sacred love might become flesh within and among us.

Brother Henri closes with a prayer that resonates with me now: Jesus, let me abandon my fear, embrace your love and be transformed by your grace. Amen.

1. Margueritte Elliott @ https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/for-god-so-loved-the-world-102896
2. Wendy McWilliams @ https://www.pinterest.com/pin/328551735297654959/
3. Abstract @ https://www.pinterest.com/pin/418623727834170396/
4> Wendy McWilliams @ https://www.pinterest.com/pin/328551735297654959/


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