Speaking Out Boldly (6/4/2017)

A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Text: Acts 2:6-21 (The Message)

With the crackle of flame and a whoosh of wind Pentecost is ushered in in this fantastic and familiar tale. It’s an important story that cycles around every year as we celebrate the “birthday of the church.” There are many angles a preacher could take in addressing this ancient word, but the thing that stuck out for me as we considered this text on Tuesday at Bible study is Peter’s role. In particular, I was caught by the text recording that Peter “raised his voice” (NRSV) or as The Message puts it, “spoke out with bold urgency.”

On the surface, it’s not a particularly remarkable thing. Surely someone addressing a large crowd, especially without the aid of amplification, would raise his voice or speak out boldly. The text tells us that, with the coming of the Spirit in wind and flame, all disciples are stirred up to speak out boldly. Not only do they speak out, but they are enabled to speak in such a way that people from a number of different language groups understand them. It’s something of a miracle, isn’t it? After all, these disciples are mostly Galilean peasants, poor, uneducated, unlikely to speak any language other than their own.

So, it’s a sort of circus, a kind of crazy block party, as the disciples pour out of the quarters where they have remained locked away since Jesus’ death. This week Carnaval was celebrated in San Francisco’s Mission District. It’s the largest multicultural festival held on the West Coast. Did you see and hear, either in person or on the news, the different cultures, brilliant costumes, and colorful languages represented as people took to the streets in celebration? I know Pentecost did not unfold exactly like Carnaval, but it gives you some sense of the rich diversity that gathered on the streets of Jerusalem that first Pentecost morning.

The writer of Luke says the crowd was baffled by the behavior of the disciples. He reports that “When they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, ‘Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?’”

We’ve played on Pentecost in the past with the variety of languages that might be spoken in our own congregation, including English, Spanish, French, Creole, Japanese, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Hindi, Orilla, and Lebanese. Imagine how it would be in our little group if people started speaking in all of these languages at once and everyone somehow understood what was being said. It would be strange, exciting, confusing, a minor miracle. Or what if I stood up to preach and each of you understood in the non-English language with which you are familiar? Crazy, huh?

Well, whatever happened that day, the writer of Luke says the crowd cried out “They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!” At the very least, the crowd understood the words they heard and some of them understood the Word that was behind those words. In the end, the writer reports that more than 3000 people joined the church or “their number” that day. It was the sort of evangelistic meeting that Billy Graham would envy, a mighty revival of sorts!

And speaking of evangelistic preachers, the preacher that day was none other than Peter. But before we crown Peter the chief spokesperson for emerging church for speaking out boldly on this day, let’s do a little background check. From the various gospel accounts, what do we know about Peter before this day? In my mind he was impulsive, inconsistent, an ignorant Galilean fisherman. I picture him as large, dominant, loud, opinionated, slightly boorish. One minute he has brilliant insight into the nature of Jesus’ calling and the next he is trying to stall Christ’s mission. He thinks he can walk on water until he discovers he can’t. He is a rock that is susceptible to crumbling at the most inopportune time.

In fact, in Luke’s gospel, the last time Peter is mentioned before Pentecost morning is on the night they arrested Jesus. We find him huddled in the courtyard outside the high priest’s house. Remember, earlier in the evening, when they we were all gathered around the table for the last supper, it was Peter who boldly proclaimed, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” (Luke 22:33). A form of bold speech, to be sure, but listen to Peter’s prologue to Pentecost:

When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, ‘This man also was with him.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not!’ Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, ‘Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. Christ turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered Jesus’ word, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly (Luke 22:55-62).

The camera pans out on a weeping Peter, bowed down in shame, devastated by his own words of betrayal.

So, you see, for Peter to speak out boldly on Pentecost something has to have happened in his life, something that radically transforms him, for, indeed, from this day forward it is reported that he was a strong witness for the Jesus Way, capable of performing his own signs and wonders in Jesus’ name. When the Spirit comes and lights upon you, chances are that you will be changed in ways you never imagined. For Peter, there is apparently forgiveness, redemption, and empowerment in Pentecost; he is never the same again. A Galilean fisherman becomes the Rock on which the church is founded. If it can happen to him, why not you and me?

You see, speaking out boldly is not reserved for heroic figures from long ago, for the canonized saints of the church, for folk with special spiritual gifts, it is a way of life for those who claim to follow Jesus. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying everyone who loves Jesus needs to get on a soapbox on the nearest street corner and win souls for Christ. But I am reminded again of that old Baptist hymn that affirms:

My life flows on in endless song;
above earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.

No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

And, no, that does not mean I expect any really committed Christian to join the choir (though we would be happy to have you.)

Another lectionary text for today is from the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians in which Paul proclaims:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).

As the choir sang last week, there are “many gifts, one Spirit.” The challenge for each of us, as Christ followers, is to find our gifts and to use them, empowered by the Spirit, to bring about God’s Beloved Community. Each of us is encouraged to be “speaking out boldly,” in their own way, the truth of the gospel as we have come to know it. The great German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, has written, “The sending of the Holy Spirit is the revelation of God’s indestructible affirmation of life and [God’s] marvelous joy in life. Where Jesus is, there is life. That is what the Synoptic Gospels tell us. Where Jesus is, sick people are healed, sad people are comforted, marginalized people are accepted, and the demons of death are driven out. Where the Holy Spirit is present there is life” (Jurgen Moltmann. The Source of Life, p. 19).

To the degree that you believe this is so – that God affirms and finds joy in all life, including yours and mine, and that “where Jesus is, there is life,” in the richest, fullest sense of the word, I invite you to take the strip of paper that was given you and write out what you might say (or do) in speaking out boldly in the Spirit of Pentecost. Take that truth claim with you. Pray about it. Invite the Spirit to move you to action. Be the church as best you can, be the Body of Christ, dream dreams, see visions, prophesy, if it comes to that. And remembering, now and then, that old affirmation of faith, sing to yourself, “Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?” Amen.

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Note from Pastor Rick (5/31/2017)

Sunday was a full day here at FBCPA. Not only did we honor Christ’s ascension in worship, we also shared refreshments in the Entryway, and gained a new perspective on “The Parable of Talents” in Adult Spiritual Formation. Then, in the afternoon, we celebrated the life of Marilyn Hunwick in a lovely and meaningful service featuring the Hunwick’s granddaughter, Chloe, singing, Anthia Lee Halfmann on piano, and, of course, Jan Gunderson on the organ. Thanks to Dona Smith-Powers, Betsy Anderson, and Chip Clark for their assistance as well. After the service we were treated to a lovely reception, provided by Beth Hunwick and the family as well as church members. It was a long day (I got home about 6:15) and a rich one. I couldn’t help but think that Marilyn would have been pleased.

This Sunday is Pentecost, so everyone is encouraged to wear red (or orange or yellow) as your own personal “tongue of flame.” The texts for the day focus on the ways in which the Holy Spirit, represents all the wonderful life-giving gifts of God to God’s people. We control neither the Giver nor the gifts, but we can always express our gratitude and make the most of that with which we have been blessed. Come to celebrate the “birthday of the church.” Stay for the first Patio Hour of the season and join in the Lunch Bunch as we enjoy Indian cuisine. Bring along someone with whom to share the events of the day.

Remember, our theme for this year is “All Are Welcome in this Place.” Let’s make certain that it is so.

Pastor Rick   

A Note from Pastor Gregory (9/2016)

In high school I once wrote an article for the school newspaper on immigration. My mom was always one to write articles for the local newspaper so she encouraged me to write this article for my school paper. It started with, “They’re illegal, not American. They raise crime rates and lower statistics on education. They’re stealing our jobs and destroying our country.” Let’s just say it didn’t go over very well.

Continue reading A Note from Pastor Gregory (9/2016)

Note from Pastor Rick

Tomorrow evening the American Baptist Seminary of the West will present its annual Drexler lecture. This year the speaker is J. Brent Walker, the retiring Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty. This historic organization is supported by several Baptist groups and is a champion of real religious liberty in the USA, including the proper separation of church and state. Brent will speak on “Defending and Extending Religious Liberty for All: How Are We Doing?” I am honored to be one of the respondents along with Professor Abdullah Ali of Zaytuna College, a scholar in Islamic law and prophetic tradition.

The Spirit arrived on Sunday with colors and flame, with poppers and geese, with beautiful music and an appreciation of all things red. We also received the fruit of the Spirit as gift and challenge. Later that afternoon, Resounding Achord and the Carlmont High School Chamber Choir presented a splendid concert focused on compassion, justice, and the things that make for peace.

Which is the focus for this week’s worship. As Jesus came close to the end of his earthly life and ministry, he sat on the hillside and wept over the old city of Jerusalem. “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” He could foresee the destruction of the city that lay just  around the corner. So, what are the things that make for peace. Is it too late for us to learn them and practice them, or are we sowing the seeds of our own destruction? Isaiah presents a vision of the Holy Mountain that rises in the center of God’s Beloved Community. Here the Spirit blows wildly, wisdom flows freely and there is no longer hurt or destruction for creation is set right. Will we ever get there?

In Adult Spiritual Formation we will welcome Geoff Browning, United Campus Christian Minister at Stanford and some of the students who went to Nicaragua on a good will trip this spring. He will also share news of the Stanford Peace and Justice Initiative. UCCM is a mission project of FBCPA. Both Charlotte Jackson and Pastor Gregory currently sit on its board.

Come join us for any or all of these opportunities Sunday, starting at 10:00 AM. Invite your family and friends, neighbors and colleagues, acquaintances and strangers to join us as we explore the things that make for peace.

Together, let us strive…to know God’s love!

Pastor Rick

Live by the Spirit

Pastor Rick MixonA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Text: Galatians 5:13-25 (The Message)

This is really a post-Pentecost sermon, so I apologize to all of you who came expecting to hear the familiar story of the rush of wind, tongues of flame, and speaking in strange languages.  I am assuming that you are familiar enough with this story to move on today. Hopefully we have alluded to the mystery and power of Pentecost in sufficient measure throughout the service to evoke a sense of what it was all about.

My concern this season has been more toward what happens after all the furor has died down, after the excitement of that first Pentecost waned, after the crowds wandered away, after the great experiment in communal living had fallen prey to harsh reality. What then? In a way, it is a concern for today. What about us, 2000 years later? How do we encounter the Living Presence? What meaning does Pentecost have for us? Can we still live by the Spirit?

In focusing this month on peace and going off-lectionary, I looked at a number of biblical texts that refer to peace, suggested by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America/Bautistas por la Paz, and chose the ones we are using in worship. One of my favorites is Psalm 85. In her paraphrase, Nan Merrill writes in hope of a time when “righteousness and peace will embrace one another.” In the language of more familiar versions, “righteousness and peace will kiss.” This is a really lovely image – righteousness and peace kissing. But what does this vision tell us of the things that make for peace?

It seems to me that it says that there is no peace without righteousness, that this is a relationship born of the Spirit and blessed by God. We’ve spent some time considering peace the past couple of weeks. Drawing on our definition of shalom, we have come to understand it as peace with connotations of harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, tranquility, welfare, and well-being. But what of righteousness? It’s kind of an old-fashioned word, not one we use very often. What do you think of when you hear the word righteousness?

Truthfully, I wrestle with the word’s implications of judgment. It is so strongly connected to notions of right and wrong. And then there is its unfortunate link to self. Who likes the self-righteous? Aren’t these the very folk with whom Jesus was in conflict? The people who were so certain that they knew what was right and had a corner on it? Maybe that’s why we don’t use the term much these days. It carries too much baggage.

But here’s the problem – scripture uses this word a lot. There must be more to it. When the Ancient Word speaks of peace and righteousness embracing and kissing, don’t we need to pay attention? Some of you may have noticed that from time to time I have tried to reframe righteousness as right living. I don’t know if this is helpful for you, but it lets me come at the concept from a more contemporary perspective. It helps me think about what scripture is trying to teach me. It allows me to think about how I live my life without getting bogged down with unhelpful rules and expectations.

Which brings us to today’s text, another of those gifts from the BPFNA resource. Although Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message doesn’t mention it specifically, more familiar translations affirm that peace is one of the fruits of the Spirit. In studying this passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, it seemed to me that there is an explication here of the relationship between right living and peace. Here we see the kiss of righteousness and peace on the big screen, in high definition.

“For freedom,” Paul writes, “Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Now there’s a gift for you. Who of us has not longed for freedom at some time or another – freedom from rules and regulations, freedom from expectations and obligations, freedom from relationships, family, work, freedom to go where I please and do what I when I please. Who is Peterson trying to kid when he writes, “It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life.” Is it clear to you? It’s not to me. Freedom comes tagged with responsibility and rubs up against all sorts of limitations. And, sure enough, in the very next line he writes, “Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom.” Well, what sort of freedom is that? You mean to say that freedom is tied up with righteousness, that true freedom has some relationship to right living.

Well, here’s the real rub, “…use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.” Maybe it didn’t really connect when I said that freedom is a gift. Gift implies a giver and here’s the reminder that all we have is gift from God, that true freedom is rooted and grounded in love, that real freedom grows as we serve one another and all creation. Yes, we’re free to throw it all away but we destroy ourselves and others and maybe the whole creation in the process.

On the other hand, we are free to live by Spirit and, challenging as that may be, experience the abundance of what God holds for us in the Beloved Community. Now I imagine some of you are wondering about these lists that Paul has produced. They sound a lot like those old judgmental rules and regulations. Again, in traditional translations, you get the old Pauline battle between “Spirit and the flesh.” We talked about this some in Bible study on Tuesday. We’ve tended to personalize and sexualize these challenges because that word “flesh” reeks of bodily decay. So here, I think The Message is helpful in avoiding that loaded term in favor of “selfishness” or “self-interest,” or, as the New Revised Standard Version puts it, “self-indulgence.” Sometimes I think of it in term of “self-absorption.” The mantras are: “It’s all about me” and “I want what I want when I want it.”

As people of faith, as followers of the Jesus’ Way, it’s pretty difficult to adopt this as our life-style. Steadfast love and faithfulness, righteousness and peace, are the mantras of those who choose to live by the Spirit. Yes, we are free to turn our backs on this that we are called to and promised. Yes, we can walk a different direction, but there is no way it will lead to the Beloved Community. “…repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.” Ouch, does any of this make sense? If not, “I could go on.”

The point is not to use these to shore up threats of hell. The point is to bring a loving and compassionate, if you will, a grace-filled word that none of these leads to true freedom, none bring real peace in our lives or in the world, none will usher in God’s Beloved Community laid out from the very foundation of the world. You can’t really live by the Spirit and practice such self-indulgence. Real freedom is to be let loose from any of these burdens and, in the end, they are burdens.

“But what happens when we live God’s way?” Here’s the good news. The fruit of the Spirit, which, by the way, is gift as much as it is anything we accomplish on our own, lives in “things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity…a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.” Or, put more simply, “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Maybe it’s my aging body and spirit that draws me to these qualities. I want to say yes to them, not just for my benefit, but for yours and that of the whole creation.

“For freedom Christ has set us free.” As people of faith, we have freely chosen to follow the Jesus’ Way. So, “Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives.” Sounds a little like right living. Live by the Spirit. It can only bring us closer to shalom, to the peace and well-being of God’s Beloved Community – home. Amen.

Pentecost and Peace

13-05-22.pentecost_banner.fwAfter a “peace-filled” Mother’s Day, we turn our attention to Pentecost. This Sunday everyone is encouraged to wear red (or orange or yellow,) symbolic of the flames of Pentecost, and our custom. Because Pentecost coincides with Peace Month this year, we are not using the traditional Pentecost texts. We are looking at what happens in our lives, after the Spirit comes, that moves us more toward peacemaking. Psalm 85 speaks of peace and righteousness kissing; Galatians lists peace as one of the “fruits of the Spirit”; and we find Jesus’ first followers living together in peace and harmony, caring for each others daily needs. What can we learn from these ancient texts about living more peacefully on this planet, aided by the breath of the Spirit?

In Adult Spiritual Formation, we will spend time considering the theme for this year’s Baptist Peace Camp, When Did We See You in Prison? Breaking Social and Structural Injustice. Many of us believe that the criminal justice system in this country is long overdue for reform, given harsh sentencing, overcrowded conditions, and racial injustice, among other issues. How can we practice peacemaking in regard to the prison reality in our land?

Sunday afternoon, the fine community choir, “Resounding Achord,” will present a concert in our sanctuary. I highlight this not only because the artistic director is my niece, Kristina Nakagawa, but also because the concert focuses on songs about “social injustice, oppression, resolution, and peace.” They will be performing a couple of spirituals, as well as the Cherokee version of Amazing Grace, which they used to heal their wounds, and a two-chorus arrangement of “Weeping,” a story about arms proliferation and peace, which is a mash up with the South African National Anthem. The Carlmont High School Chamber Singers will be guests, singing “Matthew” — a heart-wrenching choral work in memory of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in Wyoming for being gay. So, you see, the concert fits right in with Peace Month.

Come join us for any or all of these opportunities Sunday, starting at 10:00 AM. Invite your family and friends, neighbors and colleagues, acquaintances and strangers to join us as we explore the things that make for peace.

Together, let us strive…to know God’s love!

Pastor Rick

New Born- Again!

Rev. Rick MixonA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Text: John 3:1-21

Remember the children’s song about “Michael Finnegan”? It’s one of those songs for which you could make up endless verses, dragging it out to the point of driving adults like your parents crazy? Every stanza ends with the instruction to “begin again.” That could mean start a new verse or it could mean repeat the same one over and over ad nauseum. One version that seems particularly appropriate for Pentecost goes like this:

There was an old man
named Michael Finnegan.
He had whiskers
on his chin-ne-gan.
The wind blew them off
and blew them on again.
Poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin Again.

There’s that pesky, tricky wind, blowing where it chooses and doing the most unlikely things. Imagine blowing whiskers on and off. It obviously caused consternation for poor old Michael Finnegan. This song came to mind because of that key word “again.” I was planning to use the traditional text from Acts for today’s service, but then Jan suggested we sing the spiritual, “New Born Again,” and Brian McLaren suggested we look to John 3 as a text. Was the Spirit at work, conspiring to move us from something more traditional to a new way of thinking about Pentecost? Who knows, but here we are…again.

“Born again” is a familiar phrase in our vernacular. It does not always carry the best connotations for those of a more progressive persuasion. Alyce McKenzie tells this little tale about being evangelized:

I was in the waiting area at our local Discount Tire store last week waiting for my new tires to be put on my car. I picked up a women’s magazine and was intently reading an article called, ‘How to supercharge your metabolism.’ I became vaguely aware that someone had sat down in the chair next to mine. This seemed odd because I was in the middle of a row of empty chairs. I like my personal space while I’m waiting for my tires. Then a leaflet was put in front of my face with the heading: ‘How to be born again’ and I heard a man’s voice ask, ‘Wouldn’t you like to read    something of more eternal significance than this magazine? Have you been born again?’

I looked up into the face of an earnest man in his mid 40s who now sat next to me, looking at me expectantly. When I didn’t reply immediately, he asked, ‘Well, have you?’ I said, ‘I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and I don’t think Jesus means ‘born again’ as if it were some emotional lightning strike that once it’s over, we speak of our salvation in the past tense, like, that’s done, now I have that checked off my to-do list. I think being born again calls for our participation, and I think it’s a lifelong process.’ At that the man shook his head as if to say ‘Geez, lady, it’s a yes or no question. How   hard is that?’ He took his tract back and moved on” (Alyce M. McKenzie, “Nicodemus’s Non-Decision,” Edgy Exegesis, 3-14-2011, patheos.com).

I guess that’s what you get when you try to buttonhole a preaching professor with a tract and a slogan. “Born again” is not a once and for all “emotional lightning strike.” It is a “lifelong process” that “calls for our participation.” When Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, he may be looking for some simple, easy answers. However, he does not walk away when Jesus challenges him to dig deeper and look beyond what he is already so certain of. It is a little like poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin again. Go over it one more time. See if you can’t enter more fully into God’s will and God’s way for your life. Find the freedom. Find the grace. Be new born…again.

If Nicodemus truly believed he had everything all worked out, would he would have come knocking on Jesus’ door under cover of darkness? Nicodemus had an itch he couldn’t quite scratch. He’d heard these remarkable stories about Jesus and he was just curious enough to come check him out. Maybe he could learn something from this young, upstart rabbi. Maybe he just meant to check his credentials.

He starts boldly enough, speaking with his customary tone of authority. “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.” The question is implied but he can’t quite ask it. “Are you the One or should we look for another?” You know there must have been a current of excitement running beneath that neatly manicured, richly appointed exterior. If there hadn’t been, why would he be there at all? Like the rest of the faithful in his tradition, he longed for the coming of the Messiah, the one from God who would put all things right, bringing in God’s righteous reign on earth.

The response is swift and challenging. It catches the powerful Pharisee off guard. “In truth I tell you no one will see God’s reign without being born again.” It seems that Jesus never tells us exactly what we want to hear. That is, there is always a challenge to stretch us, inviting us to grow beyond our narrow religious views into something that is more spiritually risky and fulfilling.

In his attenuated, literalistic reply, Nicodemus sounds rather foolish. (That may, in fact, be characteristic of those who take a boxed in, literalist perspective.) I wonder if Nicodemus realized how silly he sounded before he even finished his question. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” In the rich tradition of John’s gospel, this is exactly the sort of question that sets Jesus off and running.

What the great “teacher of Israel” has missed is the word play. The word that Jesus uses for rebirth can be interpreted as “again” or “from above.” There is a newness of life that comes from following Jesus. The reign of God asks for and offers more than we can ever fully grasp. The challenge to live into the Beloved Community of God goes against all religious stereotyping and undermines every idolatry, whether or not we recognize such in our own lives.

There’s another verse I discovered from “Michael Finnegan” that goes like this:

There once was a man named Michael Finnegan.
He kicked up an awful dinnegan
because they said he must not sin again.
Poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin again.

Sin, that which separates us from God, that which blocks the way, that which keeps us stuck. Rather than making the road by walking, we find ourselves going around in familiar circles or stuck on a treadmill. It may be good for losing few pounds, but in the end does it get us anywhere?

In today’s Words of Preparation, Brian McLaren tells us, “At the core of Jesus’ life and message, then, was this good news: the Spirit of God, the Spirit of aliveness, the Wind-breath-fire-cloud-water-wine-dove Spirit who filled Jesus is on the move in our world. And that gives us a choice: do we dig in our heels, clench our fists, and live for our own agenda, or do we let go, let be, and let come…and so be taken up into the Spirit’s movement” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 205). To be taken up into the Spirit’s movement is to be born again, to be born into the Beloved Community of God. It is to enter a community unlike any we have ever known. It is beyond our wildest dreams. It is all we have hoped for, longed for, prayed for and so much more. It is God loving the world, the whole wonderful creation, in ways that restore, redeem, rebirth.

We have to be clear, though, that this road Jesus asks us to walk with him is not an easy one. The Beloved Community is surely coming but we know “it don’t come easy.” John Dear reminds us some of the challenges when he writes of our present reality that “Following Jesus today in a land of nuclear weapons, rampant racism, and widespread economic injustice means actively going against our culture of violence.  As the culture promotes violence, we promote Jesus’ nonviolence.  As the culture calls for war, we call for Jesus’ peace.  As the culture supports racism, sexism and classism, we demand Jesus’ vision of equality, community and reconciliation. As the culture insists on vengeance and execution, we pray with Jesus for forgiveness and compassion” (John Dear, Jesus the Rebel, p. 29).

This was the same sort of challenge Jesus gave Nicodemus 2000 years ago. The circumstances may have been somewhat different, but the way of the world was in constant conflict with the coming Community of God. Jesus confronts us with the same sort of mission he offered Nicodemus – to be new born…again. “The way I walk, the ministry I offer, the coming of the Beloved Community is profoundly counter-culture in any sense of hanging on to static traditions and narrow views that have outlived their usefulness. You may have to let go of some of your power and prestige and the trappings that go with your high position, Nicodemus. You may need to let be a sense of uncertainty and trust the road you walk with me, even when you can’t see that far ahead. You may find that you must let the Spirit come to you and blow you around a bit and take you to unexpected places. You may find yourself buried with Christ in a baptism of water and Spirit, then rising to walk in newness of life.

As we walk that road with Jesus, we sing

“We’ve found free grace and dyin’ love, we’re new born again.
We know the Lord has set us free, we’re new born again.
God so loved the world that He gave His only Son,
that all who will believe in Him will be new born again!
Free grace, free grace, free grace, sinner.
Free grace, free grace, we’re new born…again!”