Grace, Peace, and Mercy are yours from the triune God. Amen
I am humbled and honored to preach my very first sermon at House today. I am so thankful for the witness of love and grace that this community is to me and to each other and for your support as I prepare for ministry.
When I saw that today’s gospel reading included John 3:16, I have to admit that I was more than a little apprehensive. John 3:16 is probably one of the most often quoted verses of the Bible and we hear it so frequently that we think we know exactly what it means. I was afraid to even touch this part of John’s gospel because it has so many heavy connotations that can be painful, but since here at House we are committed to faithfully wrestling with the texts, I am going to suggest that it might not mean what we think it means.
I hesitate to even say the words “born again” here because I know how painful this particular expression of Christianity has been for some of my friends in this room. I would like to suggest that we look at being born again not as a decision that we make as individuals but as something that God does for us. We are born again not because we are such great people, but precisely because we need to be saved from ourselves. We are trying to be our own God, instead of letting God be God.
I absolutely think that “born again Christians” have it right when they say that we must undergo a massive transformation. But we find ourselves getting into trouble when we try to domesticate and dictate that transformation for ourselves and others. This is just as easily seen in evangelical Christian communities as it is in progressive Christian communities.
In the text, BECAUSE God so loved the world, God gave his only Son. God’s gift of love and grace in Jesus Christ came not because we deserved it, but precisely because we needed it so badly. In our desire to keep God on our side, we ignore the first part of the verse, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son,” in order to get to the part that we think makes us special, “…so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Because we can be so intent on being saved and comfortable once we have faith, we miss the first half of the verse, God so loved the world. Not just the clean-cut evangelicals or the progressive church. All of it. The entire world. Where we also fall short is thinking that when we are born again in Christ our lives will be safe and will make sense. But the fact of the matter is that being born again can break our hearts. It means that God has gotten ahold of us and is going to use us in spite of us. That has been my experience this week.
As some of you may know, this past Tuesday I started CPE or Clinical Pastoral Education at St. Anthony hospital. For the next ten weeks I will be serving full time as a hospital chaplain, assigned to the Neuro ICU and Trauma ICU floors, as well as rotating shifts in the Emergency Room. As I finished a particularly emotional shift yesterday, I realized there was no way that I could discuss being born again today without the idea of dying. But this is not the physical kind of dying that you might associate with a trauma center. This is about me dying to myself and my ideas of perfection and letting God be in charge. This is about me letting go of any control that I think that I might have and instead just being who God created me to be and being born again in Grace.
Earlier this week I sent an email to the House prayer list asking for prayers as I began this internship. I wrote that I was terrified that I had no idea what I was doing and that I would not be able to be of service. God proved me wrong on my second day. Wednesday afternoon I was awaiting the arrival of a Flight For Life helicopter. As my heart was pounding, I realized that there was nothing in my life up to this point that could have prepared me for what I was about to see. There are some things that you wish that you could un-see, but at that moment, the gruesome trauma was not what I saw. That came later. At that moment, I saw the face of God. I saw Jesus in the bloodied and bruised man on the stretcher and in the people who were working in perfect harmony to save his life. This leaves no doubt in my mind that the Holy Spirit is intimately involved in emergency medicine. Before I was even aware of what I was doing, I was praying that God be present in that trauma room, and let that unidentified man on the table know that he was loved and cared for.
This sort of instinctual letting go and letting God move through me happened a couple more times this week. Yesterday I was holding the hand of an exhausted mother when she learned that she would out-live her middle-aged daughter. There are no words to say in that situation, but as a dozen people frantically tried to save this woman’s life, her mother asked me to pray. I said a silent prayer to God that my words would be what God would have them be, and before I knew it, words were coming out of my mouth and there is no way that they were my own. My prayer book was six floors below me in the office, so I needed to fully trust that God would help me find the words to pray for this family.
My prayers this week were not perfect, and neither am I, but I learned something: I am born again each day in Grace. I have only myself to offer and that is enough if I am open to trusting God and seeing what can be born through me. My ideas of perfection in ministry died this week, and were replaced with the transformative understanding that being fully present requires complete trust that God will do for me that which I cannot do for myself. I have been born again.
Which makes me wonder, what if being “born again” has nothing whatsoever to do with a decision that WE make…has nothing to do with having words, or prayers, or the right answers, or even self-confidence? What if rather, it is the result of the wild, all encompassing love of God? God so loved the world that he sent his only son to dwell among us in order that we may be saved. God knows just how foolish we can be when we try to orchestrate our own transformation and has given us the incredible gift of life in Christ, but first we must die to ourselves in order to be reborn.
What if instead of trying to transform ourselves and others, we fall in to the arms of a God who wants nothing more than to love the entire world back into wholeness? As I collapsed into my car after my shift yesterday I collapsed into the arms of a loving God who says you are mine, brokenness and all. You are enough and I love you. Isn’t John 3:16 nothing more than God falling madly in love with us? At our physical birth we come into the world through no actions of our own. We do not get to choose to be born. We spend the rest of our lives trying to gain control over ourselves or others or our surroundings. But these things we grasp at were never ours to hold, much less control. We also have no control over being born again in Christ. Christ says I love you and you are mine. Welcome to the world.
What if we look at being born again as something that happens each day through the boundless grace of God, just as surely as the sun rises? That being born again is not something that we decide to enact for ourselves, rather it is something that happens to us every single day. What if being born again meant acknowledging the brokenness of our humanity and living out God’s own passion for putting what is broken back together again? Is it possible that being born again by the power of the spirit has less to do with our own actions, beliefs, and judgment of others and EVERYTHING to do with falling into the promise of God’s love?
Daily we die to ourselves and are born again in the baptismal promise of Christ. We do a pretty great job of screwing things up that we try to control and thinking that we are running the show, but thanks be to God that we are claimed by Christ and loved anyway. And that we are born again tomorrow in love. WELCOME TO THE WORLD…Amen.