Born Again. And again. And again.: Sermon for March 12, 2017

There are some things that define the differences between generations. There are young adults who have never known a world without the internet, for instance, and others for whom this is still a pretty recent phenomenon. Or, there are those who remember rotary phones, and others who would have no idea what to do if one was put in front of them.

There’s another one, and my generation is sort of right on the dividing line for this: library card catalogs. Do you remember having to write papers using a card catalog? You picked your topic, went to those big wooden stacks full of drawers stuffed with index cards, and you looked up all the different books you would need.

That changed while I was in college. Most libraries don’t have those anymore. Now you can use a computerized system, and maybe even pull up what you need at your home. But I’ll never forget being about elementary-aged and being at the library with my friends. And we had some questions. Questions of the type that our parents weren’t ready to answer.

You get where I’m going here.

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Photo credit, Dr. Marcus Gossler, wikipedia commons image.

So you could innocently enough go to the card catalog, pretend you were looking for something else, and find that card that would send you to a book that would explain everything. And there’s no shame in natural curiosity, but even still, your heart was pounding the whole time, right?

Library card catalogs answered a lot of questions that we couldn’t ask others back in the day. Today we might turn to the internet. But, what if you were a Pharisee, a religious leader, back in Jesus’ day? And what if there was this guy who kept doing these things you couldn’t explain? And what if all the other religious leaders you worked with didn’t like him at all, but you were curious? And what if you needed to find out who he was for yourself?

That was the situation that Nicodemus was in. He was a Pharisee, a religious leader, and he was expected to toe the party line. And the party line was that this guy named Jesus, who kept doing things like turning water into wine and running money changers out of the temple, was bad news.

But Nicodemus was curious. He thought there might be something more to this. But there was no card catalog, no webpage, for figuring out Jesus. And so, he did the only thing he could think of…he went straight to the source. But, like a kid looking in the card catalog, pretending to be doing something else, Nicodemus didn’t go in the bright of day and just ask. Instead, he snuck out under the cover of night, and went to Jesus while everyone else was asleep.

Can you imagine Jesus? He was probably sleeping himself, and now this Pharisee was waking him up asking him questions. He says, “Jesus, I know you’ve got to be a teacher from God, because otherwise you couldn’t do these things. Who are you?”

And Jesus, as usual, doesn’t answer the question. Instead he starts talking about being “born again” or “born from above”. And Nicodemus is like, “What do you mean ‘born again’?” And he actually asks if he’s supposed to reenter his mother’s womb so she can give birth again.

But Jesus tells him, “that’s not what I mean”. And Jesus explains about being “born of the Spirit” and how we have to have a spiritual rebirth, one that changes us. And Nicodemus doesn’t know this at the time, but Nicodemus himself is in the midst of this second birth. He is having a sort of birth pangs brought about by a curiosity that he cannot ignore any longer. He is being changed.

There’s an old saying: “Curiosity killed the cat.” And I have vet bills to attest to the fact that curiosity can at least cause very expensive injuries to the cat. And we humans sometimes take this saying to heart in order to discourage our own curiosity, and sort of keep our heads down.

And, though he wasn’t a cat, Nicodemus’ curiosity was indeed dangerous. If his friends had known what he was doing, it would have cast suspicion on him. It would have changed the way he was seen. That’s why he had to look for answers in the middle of the night.

But curiosity, while generally bad for cats, is actually a really good thing for humans, especially in our spiritual lives. Asking questions is a sign of deep faith. Nicodemus knows there is something about Jesus, and so he goes and tries to learn more. And that’s what we do too.

We get curious, and when we do we sometimes have these encounters with God’s love and grace. We wrestle. We grapple. We try to work out who we think Jesus is, and what that means for our lives. And that work doesn’t always go quickly, or end neatly.

This text is the same way. Nicodemus just sort of disappears in the end. He doesn’t get this big “aha” moment where it all makes sense. Instead, he probably walked away from Jesus more confused than ever before.

That’s not surprising…Jesus can be infuriating like that.

Down South where I grew up there were a lot of people who would talk about being “born again” the way Jesus does here. And, for them, it was often this one, shining moment when all of a sudden they believed and their lives changed and everything made sense.

But I never got that moment. I had times when things made a little more sense, and I felt God’s love, but the curiosity and questions never ended. And like Nicodemus I’ve had that same pattern of getting curious, seeking answers, and then ending up with more questions. And sometimes I’ve had to wrestle with faith and doubt, and fight my way out of the safety of the womb and into new life.

I actually think that’s a good thing. I don’t want my spiritual life to ever come to a terminal point where I have all the answers. That would be boring, intellectually and spiritually.

Instead, I like the idea that we are continuously and gradually being born again. We are living lives of change, in a world full of change, and that means we are constantly having to go back to Jesus and ask the questions that keep us up at night. And we have to keep being born again, maybe not just once, but over and over and over again in many ways.

Martin Luther King once used the story of Nicodemus to talk about being born again. He said that Jesus hadn’t given Nicodemus easy instructions or said “stop doing this” or “stop doing that”. Instead, Dr. King said, Jesus told Nicodemus “your whole structure must be changed”. This was nothing less than a total shake-up.

Dr. King was talking specifically about how America had to be “born again” and deal with injustice. And that’s a good example of how we as people, and as institutions and communities, must also sometimes be born again, and do what is right and what is good, for the love of God and for the love of the world.

And it is the love of the world that Jesus is talking about. If you’ve ever watched a football game you’ve seen signs with a verse written on them from this very passage. John 3:16: For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but should have eternal life.

There’s a real irony in the fact that this one line, that comes in this passage about the kind of faith that is not easy or simple, has become emblematic of easy and simple faith. Because he whole story of Nicodemus is a little too long for a piece of poster board. But that’s fitting, because our faith journeys cannot fit onto one sheet of paper, or one bumper sticker. They require nothing less than the full length and depth of our lives.

That’s true of all of us, and that’s true of Nicodemus too. We see him only two more times in the Gospels, but in those two appearances we see a man who is in the process being born again. The next time we see him he is making a sort of tentative defense of Jesus when Jesus is in trouble, trying to save him, trying to keep the religious authorities from killing him.

And the last time we see him, he is one of the two men who takes Jesus’ body after his death, and buries it, putting it in the tomb.

I think there’s something meaningful about that. In mourning Jesus death, Nicodemus was showing that he had been reborn. And when Jesus rose again, that new life took on new meaning.

Sometimes curiosity doesn’t kill the cat. Sometimes it saves him. For God so loved the world, that God would want nothing less for us. Amen?

Why Are WE Here: Part III – To be changed. – Sermon for February 1, 2015

It’s been said that the only thing that never changes is change itself. As much as we want things to stay the same, you can’t step in the same river twice, you can’t stop the hands of time, and you can’t guarantee that what is here today will be here tomorrow.

You hear those things and, if you are anything like me, you might feel a little anxious. I think we as humans like routine. We like knowing that everything we expect will be there. And when something changes, even something small, it shakes us up.

Don’t believe me? How many of you have a Facebook account? Facebook is always making changes to its layout and how to use it, and what happens the morning after they make a new change? Every single time, you log on and everyone is complaining about it, often threatening to never use it again.

10494762_877906185595314_459548515296640538_nBut of course, everyone does keep using it. They grudgingly adjust. And then another change happens. And the same outcry happens again. It’s like a fascinating little window into how we don’t like change that plays out every few months on the computer screen. But, it’s important to remember, this isn’t a digital age issue. It’s one that I’m betting has been there since the dawn of time.

It was certainly there back in Jesus day. Today’s story tells us that. Jesus walks into the synagogue and starts teaching and he is already under suspicion because he’s challenging and changing what it means to be a religious authority. He is not an insider. He is not a scribe or a pharisee. He has no formal training. But he walks in and talks like he has authority. So, he’s already a threat to the way things have always been.

At that point a man also walks in who has what Scripture calls an “unclean spirit”, or a demon. He’s agitated and yelling and calling out to Jesus, asking if he has come to destroy the demons. And it should be noted that the man does not seem excited about that possibility.

Jesus says to the demons, “be quiet, and come out of him”. And they do.

And that’s when everyone gets really scared. Because not only does Jesus teach like he has authority, but he can do things, he can create change, that no one has ever seen before. And change, real change, is scary. It’s not just the inconvenience of your Facebook being different when you log in in the morning. It’s the kind of change that takes everything you have known about yourself and who you are and shakes it up.

And Jesus was all about change. He was changing everyones’ understanding of what it meant to worship God. He was changing peoples actual lives, like the man he healed in the synagogue. He was changing everything.

But, more than that, Jesus was the change. Everything about him and his life meant that nothing about us or our lives were, or are, safe from change.

And so this is what I want to say today: following Jesus is not safe. It is not comfortable. And it is not something you can do if you really just want everything to be the same as it has always been. Because being a follower of Jesus means that you and your life are going to be changed. And sometimes, that change is not going to be all that convenient.

Scripture doesn’t tell us what happened to that man Jesus healed that day. All we really know is he had been changed in a profound way. And we know it was for the better. But in that moment, and the ones that followed, do you think he was scared? Do you think that for just a moment he wished that he had never met Jesus? Do you think that he almost wished he could go back to the life he knew, the one where he had learned to live with his demons?

I think he probably did. I say that because all of us have had our demons. All of us have had our battles, and our moments of having to fight them. And all of us, if we have made a decision to overcome those demons, have had to say “I’m ready to be changed, not matter the cost.”

And if you’ve ever done that, my guess is you’ve also had a moment where you’ve said, “Is all this really worth it? Were things really all that bad before?” And maybe you’ve wished, for just a second, that you never had believed change was possible.

Because change is hard. And the harder news is that Jesus is all about change. But the good news is that Jesus is also all about new life, and sometimes we need to let Jesus change us in order to get us there.

For the past few weeks we’ve been going through this sermon series and we’ve been asking “Why are WE here?” Or, “Why are we the church together?” The first week we talked about how we’ve been called here by God. Last week we talked about how we are here to be disciples. And this week we are talking about the next step. We’re talking about how we are here to be changed.

That means, first, each of us individually. Because a big part of the Christian life is about being transformed by the fact that you are a follower of Jesus Christ. That word “follower” is more important than it may sound. Because to be a follower of Christ, you have to actually follow. You can’t just stand still. You have to be willing to move with Christ.

And if you are moving with Christ, following him, then you cannot help but be transformed by who he is. You cannot help but be changed. And sometimes that is going to be wonderful. And sometimes it is going to be staggeringly inconvenient and difficult. And it’s going to happen again and again and again.

And even when you think, “I’ve reached the summit…there’s nothing more God can do with me”, you are going to be changed again. It’s just part of what it means to follow Jesus. But the good news, is that it is that if that transformation really is about, and comes from, Jesus, it is always going to be life giving. It can’t help but be.

So, the first big question is this: are you going to go along for the ride? Are you willing to commit to this journey? And the second big question is what happens when a whole church full of people all make the same decision to really follow Jesus, even if it changes everything for them?

Whatever happens, I know it has happened before, and it will happen again, and the church has and will survive. This church has been here 375 years. And as historic as we are, and as much as we rightly value our history, we have also changed mightily during that time. In it’s fundamental form this is the same church that Rev. John Wheelwright founded in 1638. And yet, we have again and again been transformed by the grace of God.

And we have not just survived. We have thrived. Take a walk down Water Street and look at the names of the former tenants set in stone right there on the sidewalk. They came long after this church came to Exeter, and we are here long after. Why? It’s not because we are better people, or better at managing our finances, or better at taking care of our building. It’s because we are following after something greater than ourselves. And because we are willing be be changed by the one we are following.

Because through the centuries, if this church had not been willing to change because that’s what following Jesus demanded of us, then we wouldn’t be here anymore. We’d just be another historic building on Front Street.

But instead, we and all of our ancestors have been transformed. We’ve continually been transformed from what we were, and into something new. And we haven’t just been transformed from, we have been transformed for. We have been transformed for the work that needs to be done in our world. We have been transformed for Exeter. We have been transformed for each new generation that has heard the Gospel in these pews. And we have been transformed for such a time as this.

Today we have our annual congregational meeting once again. It is one of probably hundreds that this church has had. And, as usual, we have some small changes on our agenda. And we have already made some other changes in the past year. And the good news is that things are going very well.

But put it in perspective. Because how many other times has this church met when the change they were being asked to make didn’t feel so easy, or so clear? Like the time they had to decide whether or not to support a young cause for independence in the colonies? Or the time they had to build yet another new building? Or the time they had to deal with the parish splitting in two? Or the time they decided to work to help abolish slavery in this country? Or the time those two parishes decided to come back together? Or the time they voted to become Open and Affirming?

Those are just a few of the transformations this parish has gone through in nearly four centuries. And each one has been a change from something, and a change for something. And there will be many more.

And our only job as a church is to keep moving. Keep following Jesus. Don’t stop. And when we look back, we will see that he has only changed us for the better, and that he has never failed to give us new life once again.

How to Be a Pentecost Church: Five Pointers for Congregations

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday in the church. It’s the Sunday when churches everywhere are filled with the color red, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, and we celebrate a story from the church’s earliest days. On Pentecost we remember how the Holy Spirit came to the early disciples like a “mighty wind” and rested on them with “tongues of fire”. Suddenly they were able to speak in the languages they did not know, and all the people gathered around them in Jerusalem, a host of nations, were able to understand what the disciples were saying.

There’s a tendency in the church to think that everyone is supposed to learn our language. But if you look at the Pentecost story, you find the exact opposite is true. The Holy Spirit could have easily touched everyone around the early disciples so that they could understand the language the disciples spoke. But instead, it was the disciples who were transformed. They were the ones who learned new languages, ones they could use to communicate with people using the words they already knew.

So why does the church sometimes miss the point?

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No, really. This Pentecost stuff is going to be fun.

We often talk about how our church is very welcoming, but new members are few and far between. And often it’s true…many churches are extremely good at welcoming visitors who walk through the front doors. But the first place we should be meeting people is not inside our buildings. It’s out where they (and we) live.

The Pentecost story reminds us that witnessing to Christ is not about our own convenience. It’s about being radically transformed by the Holy Spirit so that we can speak the language (literally and metaphorically) of those God wants us to love and serve. Pentecost reminds us that we cannot sit ideally back and wait for people to learn our ways. We have to be the ones who learn new ways.

So how do we do that? Here are some suggestions:

1. Check out your social media presence.

If this seems like a strange place to start, that might be part of your church’s issue. I’ve heard countless people in churches deride what they see as an over-dependence on social media in younger generations. Facebook, Twitter, texting, and the like are seen as distractions and barriers to community.

But in reality, social media can be a wonderful way to build community. I don’t believe it can ever replace face-to-face interactions, but it can help to spread your message. If you talk to your Generation X and Millennial parishioners, in fact, you might find that a surprising number of them found your church via social media. The days of looking in a phone book for a church, or even just knowing where a church is located, are over. For many a Google search will be their first stop in their search for a new church.

So make it count. If your church doesn’t have a webpage, you need one now. You can get a domain name for $18 a year and build a page on WordPress, so there is no excuse. And, if you do have a webpage, give it an honest assessment. Is it up-to-date? Are your address and service times clearly displayed? Could a visitor determine whether or not they would be welcome at your church? Is there information about programming and what you believe? Is there contact information? Are there pictures of people and not just the building?

And don’t limit yourself to a webpage. A Facebook “like” page is free and a great way to spread the word about your church. Use the page to post updates, photos, reminders, sermon links, and more. Encourage members to “like” and “share” posts on their page. You’ll be surprised how a post can go viral in no time. When the daughter of one of my current church’s members won a silver medal in the Olympics this winter, for instance, we posted a photo congratulating her. That photo was shared by 72 people and reached over 5,500! It was a wonderful way for our church to share our celebration.

The Facebook picture that went viral.

The Facebook picture that went viral.

Finally, make sure that you have a “like” page and not a Facebook group for your church. A group is fine for discussion purposes, but it will not reach new people. They are not going to join a group of people they do not know. Instead concentrate on putting out clear information, inspiring links, and warm invitations on your “like” page. Make sure that your social media presence exists more for others than yourself.

2. Get out in your community.

Like I said earlier, you might be the warmest church in the world when people step inside of your doors. But for the vast majority of your community, you are just another building that they have never been inside. As untrue as it sounds to those of us who are churchgoers, church buildings are often seen as private clubhouses. Others might be curious about what is going on inside, but it’s going to take more than a little bit of curiosity to go in. This is especially true of the growing number of us who are younger and did not grow up in the church.

So instead of waiting for others to come to you, go to them. Get involved as a church in the community. Host events like concerts and lectures. Make your building as accessible as possible to local non-profit groups needing a space to meet. Host AA meetings. Welcome community groups. Provide hospitality to outside youth events. And don’t just be a landlord. Be a host. Consider sharing your building as a ministry to the community.

But more importantly, go outside of your doors. Get involved in community celebrations. Serve lemonade and cookies on the lawn if the town’s parade is going by your doors. Sponsor a Little League team. Volunteer at youth events. Go into retirement communities. Work with other congregations. Whatever it is, find out what matters in your community and then figure out a way to contribute. You can’t serve a community that you don’t know and love.

3. Enable your pastor to get out in your community.

The work of representing your church in the community is the work of the whole congregation. It is never just the pastor’s job. But, the reality is that the pastor can be a great ambassador. So, as much as possible you want to make sure they have your blessing to be involved in your community. So don’t keep them locked up in their office! Encourage them to go out in the world.

I am finishing my pastorate in a small community right now. During this time the church has nearly doubled in size. This is not due to me, but I believe it does have a lot to do with our church being more visible in our community. And that has happened in part because my congregation has blessed me by encouraging me to be involved in the community.

For me this has meant being the chaplain of our local fire department, as well as working with Habitat for Humanity, writing an occasional column for our local newspaper, and more. It has also meant holding community “office hours” in a local coffee shop. Once a week I stationed myself at a table for a couple of hours and bought the coffee for anyone who dropped by for a chat. People who had never come through the doors of the church before met me for the first time there. Finally, when a natural disaster came to our community in the form of a flood, the congregation didn’t want me in my office. They wanted me out on the streets talking to people and giving out energy bars and water. (They were there too, by the way.)

Not every church understands this, though. Once when I was in a pastoral search process the search committee ran through their list of questions about how I planned to grow the church. When it came time for me to ask my questions, I led off with what I thought was a softball question: “Do you want a pastor who is going to be actively involved in your community?” The response shocked me. Members hedged their answers, telling me they really weren’t sure. To them the pastor was “theirs” and had enough work to do with current members. It was clear for me this was not the right church for me. But what struck me was that due to their inward focus I was sure it was clear to prospective parishioners that it wasn’t the right church for them either.

Your pastor can be a tremendous gift to your community. Don’t keep them all to yourself.

4. Don’t assume everyone knows your insider language.

So let’s say everything is going right and new people have started coming through your doors. What do you do now?

Well, first, keep doing what you are doing in terms of being hospitable. Welcome people when they walk in the doors. Show them the sanctuary. Invite them to coffee hour. Make them feel at home. But, also, watch the “insider language” and help to translate what might be new.

I did not grow up in the church so when I started attending as a young adult I was keenly aware of what I did not know. Every Sunday we would get to a point in the service where everyone recited a prayer together. I didn’t know it, and I felt like everyone was looking at me as I stood there in silence. It was the Lord’s Prayer, and I had no clue what to say.

I learned it quickly by getting a copy and sitting in the privacy my home and repeating it over and over to myself. I didn’t want to be embarrassed anymore. But I remember that feeling. And so years later, when I heard members of a church talking disdainfully about how visiting younger people didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer, it hit me hard.

From then on I have always tried to print the words of the Lord’s Prayer in the bulletin for those who do not know it. The same is true of the Gloria Patri, Doxology, and other “well known” pieces. We should not give up these important parts of our liturgy, but we should be aware that as more people grow up as religious “nones” they are no longer a part of the common language.

Likewise, is your bulletin or worship leader clear about when to stand and when to sit? If you are turning to a certain page, do you announce it? Do you clearly state at the communion table that all are welcome, and let people know whether you are using grape juice or wine (an important consideration for many)? Or are your visitors just left on their own?

It’s important to make worship as accessible as possible. No one wants to feel like an outsider. It’s the surest way of making sure that visitors won’t come back.

5. Be willing to keep being transformed.

Here’s the secret no one wants to tell you about bringing new people into the church: they are going to change everything. I actually think more churches realize this than let on, and I believe that, subconciously, a lot of churches have chosen not to grow as a result.

When new people come to a church they bring with them new stories, new gifts, and new energy. They also bring new needs, new ideas, and new perspectives. And your church will be changed by them. Or else it will not be. And they will leave.

We often think of the church as “our church”. But it has never been “our church” It is Christ’s church. We are just the stewards of the church in this time and place. And when new people are brought into the church, they join us in that role. And even though you may have been their thirty years and they’ve been there one, they are equally important. And that can be frustrating.

There is a tendency to fall back on “we’ve always done it this way” in these situations. Resist that temptation. It’s wonderful to know our history (in fact, I think if we all knew more of it we’d find that we haven’t, in fact, always done it “this way”) but we cannot become a history museum. We must be willing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, speaking in new ways through new voices. That’s what being the church is all about.

So when the young families arrive with their kids, let them teach you about what will keep their kids engaged. The old Sunday School models might not work anymore. When young adults come, let them shape their own programs. Maybe they want to meet for a “faith on tap” discussion at the local pub on a Wednesday night rather that for Bible study on Sunday mornings. And when someone brings that new idea to deacons that makes everyone tense up and want to say “but we don’t do that here”, give it a minute. Hear them out. And ask whether God is leading you into the future. It’s scary, but it’s also full of promise.

Most of all, this Pentecost Sunday, pray that the Holy Spirit will teach you to be a Pentecost Church. Open your hearts to the ways the Holy Spirit teaches us new languages. And then, let yourself speak them. Meet others where they are, and learn what God is already doing in them. And then, let yourself be transformed. You just may find that you, and the entire church, will be blessed.