John 3:1-17; Genesis 12:1-4a
Forty-one years ago, on St. Helena Island, lying just off the coast of South Carolina, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was holding a staff retreat. It was held at a Quaker retreat center that had originally been of the first schools for freed slaves. The members of the SCLC who had gathered for the retreat were not there to bask in the summery weather. Instead they were facing a critical crossroads in their mission.
Leading this retreat was Martin Luther King, Jr., their founder and president. Dr. King had news for them — he was changing his mind. In the ten years that the SCLC had existed, their goal had been to bring about radical change in the society around them – the realization of civil rights for African Americans. They had sponsored bus boycotts, sit-ins and marches on towns in the Deep South that were hotbeds of the nascent racism and segregation that had thrived since the days of Reconstruction.
But now Dr. King had a new message. He explained to the gathered leaders that he now understood that the struggle was much more profound. Their crisis facing American society was far more deep-seated than just the resistance they had encountered. The change that America needed must be deeper, thus their mission had to be broader. They were no longer fighting just for civil rights for Blacks. He began to speak of human rights, for all people. Just weeks before, he had delivered a remarkable sermon at the Riverside Church in New York City. In the sermon Dr. King described the dangers of a society fixated on civil rights becoming a nation of individualists.
He began to call for a new kind of revolution in America.
He said, “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
He saw the need for fundamental change in the civil rights movement and he needed his followers to understand it with him, to have the courage to change their way of thinking.
At night Nicodemus came to Jesus. Being a member of the religious establishment, he probably came at night and in private to avoid being seen with Jesus.
Nicodemus came with questions – honest, vulnerable questions. In the course of their conversation, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Did anyone else do a double-take there when you heard the Gospel read? A voice from my fundamentalist past said, “Now preacher, my Bible says, ‘Ye must be born again!’”
Well the translators of the New Revised Standard Version, our official copy of the Bible have taken the Greek word here, anothen, and translated it “from above” instead of “again.” The Greek is actually ambiguous. This is fairly typical in John’s Gospel – the Greek is elevated, mystical – unlike the earthy phrases and expressions of Mark. This kind of nuanced conversation would only happen in John’s Gospel – plays on words and clarifying terms. John’s Jesus always seems to be walking just a few feet above the heads of his listeners. Regardless, let’s go with how our translators bring it to us – Jesus said, “You must be born from above.” I know, I know – change is hard.
But this phrase begins a conversation between these two wise men on this whole concept. I find it quite appropriate that our ears trip over the words – we are a little confused, those of us who grew up saying things like “I am a born-again Christian.” This change is disconcerting, unsettling. Like Nicodemus, we have to lean in, clarify what Jesus is saying, “Jesus, say that again please.”
Like Nicodemus, we don’t quite understand Jesus.
Jesus is trying to get Nicodemus to think in a new way, to leave behind his old understandings of things earthly and things heavenly, to see beyond his old way of thinking to a new reality. For Nicodemus this is very hard, he gets tripped up over semantics. What do you mean, Jesus?
Jesus says, “You must be born anothen.” Nicodemus immediately thinks of his mother’s womb.
Jesus here uses many images to try to capture Nicodemus’ imagination. Those born from above are born by water and the spirit – it has nothing to do with wombs, Nicodemus. The Spirit is like the wind – wild and free – we cannot predict it or control it. Still Nicodemus doesn’t seem to get it.
Nicodemus can serve as a bit of an “everyman” here. We are a lot like Nicodemus. We don’t get it either. We get tripped up by semantics and imagery. Jesus is asking Nicodemus and us to think in a new way. Jesus tells Nicodemus and us to be born from above, by water and the spirit. Jesus is speaking prophetically, calling Nicodemus and us to a new place, to see things in a new and transformative way.
Lent can be a time of radical transformation, not only in the way we think, but in the way we live. Lent can be a time of change, and change can be both exhilarating and frustrating, both exciting and confusing.
In Lent we face the changes that face us in life. We ponder our mortality and that of others. I don’t know about you, but I had a sick moment of recollection this past week when news of yet another campus shooting came over the airwaves. All too familiar feelings washed over me. Not again. Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.
Jesus says to us, “You must be born from above.” Lent can also be a time of personal change and growth. Many of us have chosen a Lenten discipline, whether it be to give up caffeine or exercise more, to complain less or engage in more charitable works. Regardless, these disciplines involve change in our routines and change can be unsettling.
Our church is going through change. It’s no longer a secret, if it ever was. We regularly make headlines. Archbishop Williams is increasingly under fire both in England and globally for his beliefs and opinions. Five primates now say that they are boycotting the Lambeth conference later this year, because “those people” will be there. On a national and international level we are considering what it truly means to be in communion with each other, even when we disagree, sometimes profoundly disagree.
But it’s not just our church that is changing. Were it only that simple. Society around us is changing. Attitudes are not the same as they were 30 or even 20 years ago. The choice is ours to pretend nothing has changed or to face these challenges with the courage of those who have been born from above. But change is scary; change is unsettling.
Dr. King spoke of change, moving from civil rights for his people to speaking of human rights for all people. What had brought him to this change in heart, in direction?
Weeks earlier he had been in Louisville, Kentucky to participate in a protest against segregated housing. While there, he was hit in the head by a rock after he tried to reason with a group of teenagers that would not let his car pass. He simply said to them, "We've got to learn to live together as brothers." A new way of thinking – change.
That night, Dr. King spoke to his supporters still holding that rock.
Dr. King spoke of the need to strike out at evil in all the ways it intersects with our lives – racism leading to violence, materialism leading to exploitation and all of it ultimately leading to militarism. Taking sides against each other, and the taking up arms. Dr. King concluded it is all interrelated.
"You really can't get rid of one without getting rid of the others," he said. "Jesus confronted this problem of the interrelatedness of evil one day. In the gospel of John a rich man named Nicodemus came to Jesus and asked, What must I do to be saved?”
"Jesus didn't get bogged down in a specific evil. He didn't say, now Nicodemus you must not drink liquor. He didn't say, Nicodemus you must not commit adultery. He didn't say, Nicodemus you must not lie. He didn't say, Nicodemus you must not steal. He said, Nicodemus you must be born again. Nicodemus, the whole structure of your life must be changed.”
"What America must be told today,” Dr. King went on to say, “is that she must be born again. The whole structure of American life must be changed."
Do his words upset or frighten you? Perhaps they should.
Stewart Burns has pondered Dr. King’s words and what they mean for us today, “The rules must be changed.” He writes, “There must be a revolution of values. Only by reallocating and redefining power would it be possible to wipe out the triple interlocking evils of racism, exploitation, and militarism.”
Change, growth, a brand new way of thinking and being – Jesus called us to it, so did Dr. King – these prophetic voices. Would that we had prophets such as these in every generation to call us to a new place, to think a brand new way, to lead us to inhabit a new land.
Change is coming. Change is inevitable. Sometimes it is thrust upon us with events such as September 11th or April 16th. We cannot resist. We and all those we love are caught up in these changes, sudden and irrevocable.
But often change comes upon us more gradually. For most of us, it is hard to remember what life was like before email and cell phones. In a relatively short time, we have been changed by the culture around us, step by step, almost imperceptibly. This kind of change is still happening, whether we are aware of it or not.
And then sometimes change takes the form of a human face: Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Katherine Jefferts Schori, Gene Robinson. It is hard to resist change when it has a human face. Change is coming. Change is already here. It is our choice how to respond to it.
May we be like Nicodemus, who came to Jesus, even if it was at night, to ask questions and to listen for the answers. No he didn’t get it right at first, but he kept listening; he kept asking; he kept seeking.
May we be more like Abram in today’s Old Testament reading. God called him to leave his home, his country, the familiar to go to a new place. It was only in doing so that Abram could accomplish with his life the things God intended. If only Abram would be willing to leave his people behind and endure the pain and confusion of so great a change, ultimately all the nations of the earth would be blessed.
God’s spirit is moving, like the wind. The spirit blows where it chooses. God’s spirit is calling us to a new place, to a new way of thinking, and ultimately to a new life. We are called, then, to trust the character of God, to trust the creative and transforming power of God in our lives, all our lives. It is a call that urges us, entices us into the future yes a future of the unknown. Yes, such a future can be scary, uncertain, but it is also a future filled with new hope and new possibilities. Amen.