Sunday, March 12, 2017

born from above

Genesis 12:1-4
12Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’*
John 3:1-17
3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus* by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’* 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.* 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You* must be born from above.”* 8The wind* 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.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you* do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.* 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.*
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. 17 ‘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.

I am grateful for the opportunity to get to know your parish St. Alban’s, Albany. I read recently that your town in part was founded when a group of women mounted a protest against garbage dumping. Serendipitously, as you may know, I work as a staff person at California Interfaith Power & Light an organization founded and led by women seeking to halt planet warming pollution, our focus is helping people of all faiths understand and respond to climate change. While the danger to planetary health was significant before our nation’s current political crisis, the policies, tweets and cozy relationship held with the fossil fuel industry by this Administration are threatening to make things even worse, and so have amplified the importance and urgency of our work. The lessons appointed for today the 2nd Sunday in Lent particularly from Genesis and John’s gospel offer us an opportunity to remember not just who we are, but whose we are and the saving and blessing work we are invited into as people born from above.
Like many of you perhaps, I was raised in a context where the term “Born Again Christian” was thrown around as a way of distinguishing one group of Christians from others. However, I would like to invite us to look at this gospel text and the lesson from Genesis whether we consider ourselves believers or not, as doorways into a conversation about our common humanity and our common home.

Abram in the text from Genesis is given a promise, despite being old and childless at the time, that through him and his offspring all the families of the earth will be blessed. A little later Abram along with his wife Sarai will receive new names, becoming Abraham and Sarah.  He will be told that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. In case you are wondering there are about 100 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy alone. When we consider old poetic stories about spiritual ancestors I hope we are able to open up to awe and wonder, which if these characters existed at all, must have been what they felt. When we read these stories by candle light in our church buildings, I hope we are able to imagine their context or at least some of the places in which they may have originally been told perhaps at first by word of mouth. Can we even just a little bit see and feel those rugged deserts, the deep dark blue skies unpolluted by electric lights or smog. The short passage from Genesis we heard read this morning comes just after the Tower of Babel and a description of Abraham’s forebears. Perhaps we are given this snippet of text to remind us of the wildness and audaciousness of our spiritual ancestors. Abram leaves all that is familiar to him to go to where ever it is that God shows him. Here in this little fragment of Genesis we are shown what faith looks like. In Hebrew the word for faith is really best translated as trust. To leave all that is familiar, to go on a journey to literally God knows where. That’s what biblical faith, biblical trust looks like.
And trust is what Paul is going on about in Romans. Lent, this season we are living into together the hymns, the prayers, the poetry of our liturgy are all in a way are invitations to nurture within ourselves and our communities trust. Trust in and for God, trust in the strange wisdom of our wild traditions that if we work at it, if we allow ourselves to open up to that something greater we can find access to an eternal spring of hope and possibility, an abundant renewable resource that can allow us to confront the darkness of our time with hope.

Nicodemus comes under a star speckled night sky to talk with Jesus. He is a man connected with some of the powerful people who will ultimately be part of Jesus’ execution. Perhaps like Nicodemus we are confused about our relationship to Jesus and to the salvific vision that he has for us and the world. Perhaps we don’t feel very clear about our identities as people born from above.
I don’t think that Nicodemus is a dense man who when he asks Jesus about being born again basically saying “that’s impossible a person can’t climb back into their mother’s womb.” I think he’s trying to get to the If that’s not it, what are you talking about Jesus? Perhaps Jesus is telling the truth by ruling out the obvious. Perhaps Jesus is saying that in order to experience eternal life, and eternal of course doesn’t mean life after death, but lasting forever without beginning or ending, we must remember the wild and audacious trust of our forefathers and mothers in the faith and cultivate that same awe and wonder. Theologians sometimes talk about the difference between Kairos time and chronos time, chronos being our linear day to day lives and Kairos being God’s time since God is eternal for God all time is present all at once. When we cultivate a relationship with the Divine, we can find ourselves at least inwardly perhaps in other ways as well set free from fear, liberated from all limitations. That kind of faith is good news to the oppressed, good news to the poor, good news to the broken hearted, good news to all of us wondering what is really going on in our nation. When we remember whose we are, people born from above, we can act in the world more boldly for healing, for justice, for peace and take risks that we might not otherwise take.

So by showing up in this place on this day by walking the path of Lent by coming in our own way like Nicodemus to Jesus with our questions--with our anxieties--we can find renewed strength and vigor.

Since the election I have been working at creating more space in my life for prayer which I find comes more naturally when I am outdoors, near water, plants, and animals. In the morning I’ve stopped turning on the news which I used to do all the time, not because I don’t care what’s going on but because I know I will need strength from something and somewhere and someone else to face the news and my work later in the day. While I sit often in silence for a good while, I will occasionally read something. I’ve just finished Mary Oliver’s book of essays called “Upstream” and she has a whole section about the time she built a little house in her yard nearly entirely out of discarded wood she found at the dump.

Nicodemus’ late night chat with Jesus to me is an invitation to look at ourselves--and one another--as people born from above, who are as Jesus says not about condemning but about saving. Saving discarded wood and also discarded people.

The other day I was walking in San Francisco and ran across a poster honoring the work of an early LGBT group called Vanguard who in 1966 organized a cleanup day of Market Street where many queer homeless community members were being swept out by police. Pushing brooms the activists wore signs that read “All Trash is before the broom.” In their way saying what Ethel Waters did, “God doesn’t make no junk.”
In that spirit the organization I work for California Interfaith Power & Light is hosting a jobs fair on April 15th in Oakland to connect those who have experienced barriers to employment with opportunities in the growing green economy. We hope that this jobs fair will inspire even greater efforts to challenge our throwaway society, one that treats so many of God’s creatures human and other wise as disposable. We must challenge the idea that some lives are more valuable and worthy of protection than other. Caring for the earth, our fragile island home is as much a justice and human rights issue as it is an environmental one.

We as people born from above, must learn as Jesus teaches us to ground our identities not in our close associations with the earthly powerful and well connected but with the source of all power and who connects us with all creation. On Ash Wednesday our Lenten journey began with ashes on our head, the same dust that makes up the stars in the night sky. Being born from above ---- means taking on a new identity fueled by eternal life, by Kairos time, by God: available to us here and now. In closing I’d like to share the last two verses of a poem by Percy Dearmer:

4 For righteousness
and peace will show their faces
to those who feed
the hungry in their need,
and wrongs redress,
who build the old waste places,
and in the darkness shine.
Divine, divine,
divine it is when all combine!

5 Then shall your light
break forth as doth the morning;
your health shall spring,
the friends you make shall bring
God's glory bright,
your way through life adorning;
and love shall be the prize.
Arise, arise,
arise! and make a paradise!

The Rev. Will Scott, preached March 12, 2017 St. Alban's, Albany, CA

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