May 27, 2018: Born again and again and again by Rev. Beth Hayward (John 3: 1-14)

Last October in a Missouri hospital, with 32 medical professionals present, baby Jackson was born. Weighing in at just over one pound the medical team carefully and precisely set to work draining the amniotic fluid from the tiny baby’s spine. They stitched up the gap in that spine, symptomatic of spina bifida, and when the procedure was complete Jackson was returned to his mother’s womb where he would heal and grow for another ten weeks before being born again. Medical advances have offered a whole new perspective on the question of rebirth!

Couldn’t Nicodemus be eating his words now? When Jesus says to him, you need to be born again, Nicodemus looks him in the eye and laughs: Are you kidding me? Are you telling me that I need to get back into my mother’s womb? He comes to Jesus in the middle of the night just wanting to know whether it’s true that Jesus is a teacher sent from God. He’s come to see for himself. He’s heard from others about what Jesus is doing, the healing and the miracles and the way people say everything has somehow shifted after an encounter with this fisherman from Nazareth. He’s pleading for something, something he can hold on to and run with. He’s spent a lifetime learning about God, about what it takes to please God, about the rules one must follow to get close to God. But something is missing. You know how it is, when everything is fine but still something is not right, when routine has replaced vision, when you’ve taken all the right steps and still something is missing?

And so Nicodemus shows up at Jesus’ door in the middle of the night perhaps because he’s shy to be seen or maybe because somehow somewhere he knows that the gifts that really matter are so often revealed in the blanket of night, in the warmth of a womb. He wants what those people have, the ones who have seen and touched and been changed through Jesus.

Jesus refuses to play the game, he won’t make it about himself; he won’t commit to a yes or a no. He won’t say, you’ve figured it out ‘I’m from God, now do you believe?’ In the end Nicodemus leaves that night likely more confused and befuddled than when he arrived. And I empathize with him. It’s one thing to put a baby back in its mother’s womb for it to come to full term, it’s a completely other thing for those of us with a good number of years under our belts to think about being born again. Birthing is hard work, it’s risky, and once it begins there’s no turning back. Born again when it takes all you’ve got to just get out of bed in the morning, because the kids woke you up five times last night, or you stayed up too late yet again binge watching the latest addictive TV drama? Born again when the combined forces of age and lifestyle mean just swinging your feet over the edge of the bed first thing in the morning makes your knees scream out in pain? Born again when any sense of youthful enthusiasm is not just a dim memory but an impossible dream? Being born again is no small thing. It’s like starting over, like having the rug pulled out from under you, like throwing all the smarts you’ve spent a lifetime accumulating out the window. It is perhaps the most vulnerable thing we can possibly do.

There’s a story about a seeker who set out to discover the meaning of life. Like Nicodemus, she had no intention of losing her life to find it. She read history and philosophy and religion, maybe she even read some science. She went to lectures, sat at the feet of countless teachers. As her knowledge grew she still found the answer remained elusive. Eventually her seeking sent her travelling where she heard about a wise teacher who could help. She made her way deep into the mountains and arriving at the hut of the teacher she knocked on the door. No sooner was it opened then she blurted out. “I have come half way around the world to ask you one question: What is the meaning of life?”

She was invited in for tea, she didn’t want tea she wanted an answer. Reluctantly she sat down. As she told the wise one about all the books she’d read and the places she’d been, a cup was placed in her hand and the teacher began to pour. She talked, the teacher poured, and poured and poured until the tea overflowed and her hand was scalded. “What are you doing?” she scolded. “It’s full, can’t you see that? Stop. There’s no more room.” “Just so” the teacher told her. “You’ve come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There’s no more room in your cup. Come back when it’s empty and we’ll talk.”[1]

You see Nicodemus’ story is not a one off; it’s a universal story. It contains a truth deeper than words. It’s the story of the ache in the human heart to find the meaning of life, to touch the oneness that we sense somewhere in our collective memory is still possible. It is a love story in the grandest of proportions.

After the born again bit the whole story gets a bit murky, it defies easy explanation and so I like how one biblical storyteller riffs on it all, explains it like this:

Jesus said, “I’m telling you God’s so in love with this world that [God] sent me down, so if you don’t believe your own eyes, then maybe you’ll believe mine, maybe you’ll believe me, maybe you won’t come sneaking around scared half to death in the dark anymore, but will come to, come clean, come to life!’[2]

Come to, come clean, come to life – that just may be what born again looks like. Come to, come clean, come to life – get real about what’s holding you back, about the patterns you’ve fallen into that just aren’t working for you. Last week I suggested that you know it’s the Holy Spirit at work when life feels like a wild goose has just crossed your path leaving a dump in its wake. Maybe you know you’ve met Jesus when you find yourself in the cover of night knowing by your sweaty palms that you can’t go back to how it used to be and you’re not sure which way is the direction of dawn, but determined to run toward it anyway.

Maybe “What impressed Nicodemus even more than the speech was the quickening of his own breathing and the pounding of his own heart. He hadn’t felt like that since his first kiss, since the time his first child was born.”[3]

Usually when we hear the question about being born again we are led to believe that it requires a yes or no response. You either are or you aren’t. What if it’s not a question of something you can possess but rather a way of naming that moment when your breathing quickens and your heart pounds and you remember as if for the first time that life is more than you’ve settled for, more challenge certainly but more gift too. Maybe born again is a process you submit to, surrender to again and again. Because in the womb you remember that love is stronger than fear.

What if it’s more a question of are you open to knowing the work of Spirit in ways that you have never imagined before?  Are you born anew to hearing God’s voice in the places you wouldn’t expect?  Are you open to that sense of being blown away with wonder, even if you can’t find words to describe it? Even if you risk losing everything you know to be true? Maybe salvation is not a thing you possess, not a noun that you can hold on to but something more elusive and far more lasting.

I don’t know about you but I feel like a Christian novice most of the time, I mean I have some book learning like Nicodemus and I’ve got some spiritual practices that slow me down and shift my perspective but mostly I’m not sure from day to day, decision to decision if I’m willing to really let me cup become empty, if I’m capable of letting go, trusting enough to surrender to being born again. I feel like a C student when it comes to being born again, I’m too busy, I’m too sure, and besides as soon as I think I’ve landed on some truth about the meaning of life and its claim on me, I hold on to it like a prize.

The wise teacher in the story sends the seeker away until she can come back with her cup empty, but not Jesus. Jesus offers grace and gift, pours his offering into the seeker’s full cup, in spite of the fact that there’s no room, dousing you with a gracious gift and trusting that a drop might claim a place in a cup filled up with too many answers and not enough wonder.

An empty cup is clearly not prerequisite for receiving the graces of this spiritual leader. Which, oddly enough, is what Jesus had been trying to tell people: come as you are, cup empty or full, knowing it all or knowing nothing at all. However you come just be sure to show up: to keep seeking, to keep placing yourself in those places that will evoke your memory of the source of your very being. Keep showing up.

What would it look like were we to dare to reclaim the idea of being born again? What if we let people in on the secret that Jesus did not come to condemn the world but to show us a way of love that is enough for all to be born again and again?

In Washington DC this week there was a vigil preceded by a gathering of the whose-who of the American preaching world. The invitation to participate read like this: “The Holy Spirit is at work even in the darkness of this political moment. We feel it calling us to reclaim Jesus from those who have appropriated, co-opted, and hijacked his name for worldly power.”[4]  One of the speakers before the rally, theologian and prophet Walter Brueggemann, spoke these words to an audience of mostly American preachers:

As long as we dwell in this culture of lies we shall never be the land of the free and the home of the brave. We will continue to be the land of the frightened and the home of the anxious.  We have known this forever.  Reclaim Jesus and we will be free and we will be brave.”[5]

It can feel a bit frightening to reclaim Jesus when he’s been used as a prop by those who claim there is only enough freedom for some, only enough love for those who love the right people, only enough justice for those who play by unjust rules. Jesus was not about easy answers and he wasn’t about doing the work for you. His is not a call to forget the fear and anxiety but instead an invitation to empty our cups every chance we have so that they might be lavishly and surprisingly filled up with freedom, bravery and love.

Trust it, you have already been born again, at least a few times. Remember it, dare to enter the womb again, where nothing is guaranteed but the risk is always worth the cost. Imagine the possibilities if we really were willing to be born again, to relinquish the hold we have on what we think we know, to surrender again and again and again to the love that does not let us go, the Love that wants nothing

[1] As recounted by Barbara Brown Taylor, “Stay for Tea, Nicodemus,” Christian Century, 21 February 1996.

[2] Frederick Buechner Beyond Words or Peculiar Treasures