A Sermon based on John 3:1-17 for the Second Sunday in Lent; Lutheran Church of theAtonement, Florissant, MO
It was 1988. My husband, Dan, and I became good friends when we met in seminary because we were otherwise involved in or recovering from other relationships. About a year later, we were both free to date, but still only good friends. I would drop subtle hints to get him to ask me out. Things like, “Dan, we should go on a date” or the even more subtle, “Dan, I think we should get married.” He would laugh and say, “oh, no, we’re too much alike, it would never work.”
Well, he was not picking up what I was putting, so after awhile, I thought I’d better accept that I was going to be single for the rest of my life. I was about to become ordained and move to my first call in Detroit, MI. I’d seen the statistics about how a woman’s chance of marrying dropped like a rock after they become a pastor. So I said, “Well, God, it’s just going to be me and you in urban ministry, and it’s going to be ok. I’m going to trust that you’ll be with me and give me what I need to follow this call.” I had a sense of peace.
About 2 weeks later, guess what happened? Dan called and, as if it was his idea, asked me out on a real date. The rest, as they say, is history.
In 2008, I sent my book, Motherhood Calling to several publishers. I wanted that sense of accomplishment and recognition, to prove that I was a worthy writer, a good Mom and pastor. All I got were rejection letters, or no response at all.
My Mom died in 2012 and one afternoon a couple years ago, I was standing in my kitchen missing her terribly. I got down the cookbook that she put together, which includes family pictures and poems that wrote. I hugged the cookbook to my chest and thought, “I’m so grateful she spent the time putting this together, because cooking from it is so comforting to me now that she’s gone.” It was like scales falling from eyes, when I realized that’s the only reason to try and publish my book, so my kids have these stories when I’m gone. Who cares if anyone else reads or even likes it?
Guess what happened? 8 years after my first attempt, my book was published.
Are you noticing a pattern here? New life comes once we die to our ego and let go of control, but we resist this process mightily. Our need for control, for programs, projects, plans and preferred outcomes layered with our American flair for rugged individualism makes it hard for us to die to self.
Nicodemus, the Pharisee in John chapter 3, is also resisting letting go of his hard-earned status, education and power. As a religious leader, he wants to know if his position, authority, and religious framework is worthy, is right, and of God. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night under the cover of darkness—as a Pharisee, he can’t be seen asking religious questions—his area of expertise—to an uneducated Galilean peasant, even one who does miracles, like Jesus.
The darkness of night in the Gospel of John, however, also symbolizes spiritual misunderstanding or unbelief. Nicodemus’s spiritual confusion is made clear in his conversation with Jesus who speaks of being “born again.” Nicodemus cannot fathom how such a thing is possible. He can think only in concrete physical terms—returning to his mother’s womb—but Jesus is talking about a spiritual re-birth, of letting go and being born from above—born of water and the Spirit.
For some of our evangelical sisters and brothers, to be “born again” is an experience of conversion—a moment where Jesus’ love and forgiveness were first felt and made real. For those of us who are raised in the faith, being “born again of water and the Spirit” begins with our Baptism into Christ, but in neither instance, is it a one-time event. Similar to the pattern I began to see in my own life, to be “born again” is a life-long process that we go through again and again and again. Professor Karoline Lewis at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN defines being born again, as “recognizing that your entire existence is dependent on God, and through your relationship with Jesus, to trust God for everything that you need.”
Nicodemus was right about Jesus in verse 3, “Rabbi…no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” God’s presence is right in front of Nicodemus in Jesus. Jesus asks him, "how he can be a religious leaders and not understand spiritual re-birth?" But like us, Nicodemus resists letting go and dying to self and to his supposed religious superiority.
The question implied at the end of the story is, "Will Nicodemus let go of his ego and allow himself to fall into a trusting relationship with Jesus? Will Nicodemus die to his position, power, and privilege, and affirm that his entire existence is dependent on God?"
This is the question that the season of Lent asks all of us. We’re invited into the Paschal mystery that Jesus lived—of dying and rising anew—for this is the pattern of our own life, with each new day, each new difficulty, each new goal and each new pursuit. We resist it because we have to let go before we see what comes next, before we know what being born again will look like.
Letting go of ego needs and expectations, agendas and control, always precedes receiving something new; that is the paschal mystery—death always precedes resurrection and God is in all of it. That’s the hard part for us—to trust that God is with us even in death—the small deaths we experience as we grow older, and the big death at the end of our life.
Dying to self is the only way we allow ourselves to fall into trusting that our entire existence depends on God, and Jesus will provide everything we need. Whatever we're tightly clinging to, whatever we are resisting—that is where God is nudging us to let go, so we can be spiritually re-born from above, and deepen our trust in Christ Jesus.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that it might be saved through him.
When my Mom died, my whole family was gathered around her bed in the ICU to turn off the machines and the medicines keeping her alive. She had been alert just a few hours before. We did the Service of Confession and Forgiveness with her pastor, and sang her favorite hymns. When that last medicine was turned down, my mom died very quickly. It was excruciatingly painful to let her go, but as she was born into eternal life, I was also born again.
For suddenly I could see and understand who she really was that I couldn’t grasp while she was alive. Despite illness, mental confusion, pain and physical distress, she held on. She held on and waited for us to be ready to let her go. With a persistent, patient, unfailing love and a strength we didn’t fathom she had, my mom hung on and took care of us in her dying as only a mom can.
God’s love in Jesus Christ is like my mom’s—waiting, hanging on, holding out for us to be ready to let go. Jesus waits with a patient, persistent, unfailing love and strength we cannot fathom or imagine, until we let go.
While he hung dying on the cross, Jesus waited for Nicodemus to be ready. Down the hill, he saw Nicodemus coming to him, now in the daylight—no longer confused, but as a devoted disciple who trusts him.
John 19 says Nicodemus was weighed down with a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to join Joseph of Arimathea in anointing and wrapping Jesus body for burial in the tomb.
Nicodemus didn’t know that resurrection was coming, but he let go anyway. Nicodemus was born again into a love and trust he couldn’t fathom or imagine. And so are we.
A Reflection based on Joel 2:12-17
If you’re like me you have items in a bag in the closet that have to be returned to the store. I have trouble returning things. One Christmas I bought Dan slippers that were too small and I hung onto them for so long, I ended up just donating them. Another time I had a Crate and Barrel candle holder that I received for Christmas once and I left in the closet for four years before I finally threw it out.
Every store has a return policy—some are better than others—but you have to follow their rules:
Rule 1. You must have a receipt. You have to prove that the product came from that store and upon its return, that it belongs there—it’s their product and they are responsible for it
Rule 2. Its not supposed to be used. You can’t wear the clothes and then return them; you can’t use the dishes, wash them and then bring them back. You can’t play with the toy and when you’re tired of it, return it to the store. The difficulty is that it’s hard to know if you really want something until you’ve tried it and then you realize it’s not what you had wanted or hoped or expected, but of course, then you can’t return it.
Rule 3. Stores often don’t want broken things. The Customer service counters usually want you to prove that it was a problem with the product to begin with—that you didn’t misuse it or fail to follow the directions. If YOU broke it, if YOU’RE at fault, they may not take it back, you may not get your money back. Your return can’t be broken – or broken in. You can’t take one step outside in your New Balance shoes before discovering that the heel slips or your stuck with $130 heel-slipping shoes for two years because you were breaking them in inside and forgot and walked out to the mailbox.
Rule 4. Customer Service likes returns in their original packaging with the tags and stickers on there. Never mind a lot of toys and electronics are like getting into Fort Knox. I’ve often joked that we should put the people who wrap up Barbies and their furniture in charge of National Security – no one’s getting through that plastic packaging. Also you may not get your money back if you have lost your box, threw out the plastic, tossed the stuffing and Styrofoam, or wrecked the wrapper.
Finally, returning anything is just a hassle – there are long lines, forms, signatures, time limits – within 30 days, and often, you can do exchanges but not receive cash. So, now you understand why we avoid returning anything.
This past week we began the season of Lent and Lent is a season of returns. Perhaps we avoid returning to God as well—we’re afraid of being judged by God for our sin, for not following all the rules, and we don’t want to feel bad, shameful or guilty. Or maybe we already do feel ashamed or guilty and we’re afraid we’ll feel more judged if we come to God.
But Joel reminds us, “Return to the Lord, you God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
Returning to God is not about judgment, but rather about love—It’s about trusting God’s love for us, even when we don’t get it right. Confessing our sin is not about judgment, but about experiencing God’s steadfast love and being liberated from our fears, guilt or shame so we can grow more and more into the image of Jesus.
If God coming to us in human form means anything, it certainly means that God “gets” our human experience. God won’t be surprised by whatever we’re hanging onto that causes guilt. Lent is a call to move from sin to Love. So during the season of Lent, God calls us to return, to return ourselves, our lives, and the hidden corners of our soul to the God who abounds in steadfast love.
God calls us to return from those places and ways where we have wandered away. God calls us to return from the places in our life where we have been afraid to allow God in. Unlike the Customer Service Counter at any retailer, God’s return policy doesn’t require a lot of receipts and rules.
With God’s return policy of steadfast love, you don’t need a receipt to prove that you came from God—that you belong with God. God knows his own product-line. In steadfast love, God created your inmost being; God knit you together in your mother’s womb; you are fearfully and wonderfully made! God knows what God made. God knows you belong. God wants to take you back and is delighted at our return.
With God’s return policy of steadfast love, God expects us to be used —those are the returns God loves the most. God wants us to be used up and return empty. God imagines we will be worn out and rough around the edges, using our gifts and expending ourselves for good; hoping we have been out in the world living and loving and serving.
With God’s return policy of steadfast love, God expects we will return broken—that something in our lives is amiss, that there is pain, and grief and frustration –that we are broken and in need of healing. God’s not looking for who’s fault it is—if we didn’t read the manual or follow the directions, or take care of ourselves how we were supposed to, or if we’ve lived by fear. God knows you were made “very good” at creation, and in love, takes us back broken, to fix us up and feed us and heal us again.
With God’s return policy of steadfast love, we don’t need to be in our original packaging with everything in its place. The packaging may be different now—we’re older-- maybe we’ve grown taller or maybe we’ve shrunk a little. Maybe we have a few more wrinkles, maybe we are thinner or heavier, perhaps we have lost some things along the way—innocence, childlike wonder, delight, or maybe a sense of joy. God can restore those again—God’s concern is that we return.
With God’s return policy of steadfast love, you don’t need a tag or sticker. Whether or not it is Ash Wednesday, God sees that smudge on your forehead—the sign of the cross that was traced in your baptism. You’ve already got Jesus’ name on your forehead and Jesus’ claim on your life and that’s all that really matters.
So return to the Lord your God this Lent with all of who you are and don’t hold back any part of yourself or your life. Trust that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love! For with God’s return policy, there’s never a line, there’s no waiting for an available clerk, there are no forms to sign, there is no time limit, the counter is always open and no one is turned away! Simply ask God to accept you, to embrace you, to love you, to forgive you, to guide you, to help you live out of love.
"Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!" Now that’s a return policy we all can embrace!
Today I am preparing the second funeral in less than a year for a young veteran who came home with PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) and died of complications from alcohol addiction. My heart is broken. Medication can help, but it doesn’t heal.
There is effective therapeutic treatment for PTSD that many of our veterans and their families don’t know about. EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) moves traumatic memory through the brain so it loses its power to be triggered and re-lived repeatedly. It uses directional movement of the eyes (similar to REM sleep) or other dual-stimulation techniques, such as sound alternating in the right and left ears, to reprocess disturbing images and memories. It has been researched extensively and helped millions of people throughout the world heal from many kinds of trauma.
When I returned to my work as a pastor after nine months of breast cancer surgeries and treatments, I was immediately called to the hospital to visit a young woman with lymphoma. When I came into her room, I began re-living the traumatic elements of my own treatment; it took every ounce of strength I had to stay there, talk and pray with her. I got out of there as fast as I could, realizing that I had PTSD.
I wasn’t going to be able to do my job if I didn’t get help and healing. Fortunately, I had learned of EMDR therapy several years earlier at a conference. I found an EMDR therapist in St. Louis whom I saw weekly, and was feeling much better within two months.
The National Center for PTSD reports that 10% of Desert Storm veterans, 11% of Afghanistan veterans, 20% of Iraqi veterans and 30% of Viet Nam veterans have PTSD. They can access free EMDR training through Trauma Recovery; those in St. Louis and may also contact our local chapter of the EMDR International Assoication, EMDRIA St. Louis, which also supports first responders.
Please help spread the word so we can support and save our veterans.
I receive Fr. Richard Rohr's Daily Meditations and was so moved by this reflection this week that I wanted to share it below. You can sign up to receive these daily meditations here. Connect with Rohr's Center for Action and Contemplation on Facebook or Twitter.
Awakening to Oneness
Monday, February 20, 2017
Guest writer and CAC teacher James Finley continues to share insights on meditation (another word for contemplative prayer).
We begin in ego consciousness, imagining that the union with God we seek is far off. After all, ego consciousness is the subjective perception of being a separate self that has to find God, who is perceived as being other than one’s self. But as ego consciousness yields and gives way to meditative awareness, we begin to recognize the surprising nearness of God.
God is already here, all about us and within us—the very source, ground, and fulfillment of our being. But subject to the limitations of ego, we tend not to experience the divine mystery of who we are, created in the image and likeness of God. We do not directly realize the God-given Godly nature of ourselves in our nothingness without God. This is why we meditate: that we might awaken to God’s presence all about us and within, as Saint Augustine phrased it, closer to us than we are to ourselves.
To practice meditation as an act of faith is to open ourselves to the endlessly reassuring realization that our very being and the very being of everyone and everything around us is the generosity of God. God is creating us in the present moment, loving us into being, such that our very presence is the manifested presence of God. We meditate that we might awaken to this unitive mystery, not just in meditation, but in every moment of our lives.
This is how Jesus lived. Whether he gazed at a child on his lap or a leper wanting to be healed; whether he looked at a prostitute or his own mother; whether he witnessed the joy of a wedding feast or the sorrow of loved ones weeping at the burial of a loved one; whether he observed his own disciples or his executioners—Jesus saw God. We meditate that we might learn, with God’s grace, to see God in all that we see.
Saint Paul writes, “In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). Our oneness with Christ deepens in a lifelong process of conversion in which Christ’s mind and our mind become one mind, one way of seeing and being in the world. The faithful practice of meditation is a way of learning to follow the Spirit’s prompting along this self-transforming path.
In Christian terms, meditative experience offers the least resistance to the Spirit of God within us, who, with unutterable groaning, yearns that we might awaken to eternal oneness with God. As our resistance to God’s quiet persistence diminishes, our experience of ourselves as other than Christ dissolves into realized oneness with Christ. Little by little or all at once, we come to that point of blessedness and freedom in which we can say, along with Paul, “For me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). That is, for me to live is for me to be that oneness with God that Christ embodies and proclaims.
Reference: Adapted from James Finley, Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God (HarperSanFrancisco: 2004), 7-9, 42-43, 175.
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