Weekly Preaching: May 30, 2021

May 26th, 2021

Trinity Sunday. For me, it’s been a fool’s errand when I thought to explain the Holy Trinity during my sermon. Feels more like a classroom exercise to me. In preaching, I hope to embody something I witnessed back in a Div school talent show. Students were invited to impersonate professors, and the crowd had to guess who was being impersonated. My friend Pat walked on stage, spoke a complete sentence or two about the Trinity, then he fumbled into incomplete sentences, then took off his glasses and grimaced as he pressed his hand to his brow. We all rightly guessed Tom Langford, theology professor who did what preachers should do more of: embody the fact that we are speaking of something too vast, too complex - knowable, adorable, but mind-boggling.

I’ll explicate one of our three astonishing texts, with God-as-Trinity serving as the wallpaper, the background music. Speaking of… Jeremy Begbie points out that if you sing a C, the note fills the whole room, no more in one place than another. If you add the E and then the G, each note fills the room, one doesn't crowd out the other - and the chord they form together are far more lovely than the single note. God the Trinity is like that. Same 3 first notes, by the way, of the hymn we'll sing, "Holy, Holy, Holy."

Isaiah 6:1-8. “In the year that King Uzziah died.” Hmm. 742 BC? That had to be a year of upheaval, turmoil, jockeying for power, anxiety – maybe like 2020. Or 2021. I love the way the architecture, the fixtures, the art of the sanctuary came to life. I wonder if I can tease that out for my own sanctuary, helping people imagine such a miracle that just might be the unseen reality. I love Amos Wilder’s thought on worship: “Going to church is like approaching an open volcano where the world is molten and hearts are sifted. The altar is like a third rail that spatters sparks. The sanctuary is like the chamber next to the atomic oven: there are invisible rays and you leave your watch outside.”

Or Annie Dillard’s (in Teaching a Stone to Talk): “The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

Isaiah 6 is yet one more of the Bible’s call narratives that all fit the same pattern: God unexpected calls, the one called explains why he or she is insufficient, then God reassures – not that he or she is sufficient, but that God will use whom God will use. In Isaiah’s case, he senses his unholiness, rendering him unfit for holy use. When we interview candidates for ordination, they generally speak of their abilities, education and cool experience; not many speak of their unworthiness, their unholiness – which seems to be what this God is looking for, not ability but availability, and maybe even disability. These thoughts and others led me to write Weak Enough to Lead – which explores the Bible’s thoughts on leadership, which are vastly different from, and almost antithetical to ours.

For us who preach, we may find ourselves properly humbled, discouraged, and then encouraged to find ourselves in great company. God says Go, tell them. Isaiah says (or sings?) “Here I am Lord.” God, not leaving well enough alone, clarifies that they won’t understand, their hearts are fat, their ears heavy, their eyes are shut. It will turn out that they won’t get your message – at least not for a very, very long time. Such is the preaching life. We preach, maybe, not to get results, not to grow the church, not to gauge my worth or their worth, but because God says Preach. It’s for God.

Romans 8:12-17 pokes around in the intimacy that is the Holy Trinity. Not ineffable, infinite beings but Jesus the child in the Spirit’s arms calling God the Father Abba. Lovely. Recalling the Rublev icon: that loving fellowship of 3 has room at the table. We are invited into that eternal fellowship, to rest in the love, and to share in that threesome’s labor over all of creation.

Paul loves the theme of Adoption. In my book on Birth: The Mystery of Being Born (in the Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Ministering Well series), I had some fun pointing out that Leonardo da Vinci, Babe Ruth, Edgar Allan Poe, John Lennon, Eleanor Roosevelt, James Baldwin, Steve Jobs, Leo Tolstoy, Lafayette, the Roman emperors Trajan and Hadrian, Aristotle, Confucius, and Nelson Mandela were adopted. Queen Esther and Superman were adopted, and so was Buddy the Elf, and Harry Potter. Kelly Nikondeha, in her thoughtful and theologically profound book Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World reflects on her own quest as a grownup to seek out the parent who gave her up for adoption: “We want that dark corner illuminated. We imagine our own transformation at the revelation of our true origin. What goodness might be unlocked, what possibility unleashed?” Isn’t church a question to discover our true origin?

Nikondeha offers a picturesque retrospective on what being adopted was about: “A woman scooped me out of the white-wicker bassinet in the viewing room of the adoption agency and claimed me as her own. Her physical emptiness prepared the way for my fullness.” Then, pondering the woman who bore her, she tries to fathom if her giving her child up was a rejection? or rather a relinquishment? Some might rush to condemn a mother who “abandons” her baby. But isn’t there a wrinkle in the story – that a woman who did not have to carry the child for so long actually did, at considerable physical cost. What if being surrendered at birth was a loving relinquishment, not rejection, a humble acquiescence in the face of crushing circumstance? What does God relinquish for us – and we for God?

With adoption, we get a glimpse of a different kind of belonging, not inferior, maybe superior, or maybe not. Nikondeha wonderfully suggests that adoption is “like a sacrament, that visible sign of an inner grace. It’s a thin place where we see that we are different and yet not entirely foreign to one another. We are relatives not by blood, but by mystery.”

John 3:1-17. A beloved text. John 3:16 was never the verse until the modern American revival movement – so chalk it up to Billy Graham I suppose. People adore it – so why not explicate it carefully? The verse isn’t a problem, although it diminishes the breadth of the Bible’s vision for us and creation. Or does it? If we read it slowly, we see it’s better than we dreamed. It doesn’t say “For God so loved you, you religious person, that he gave his son – that is, had him crucified in your place – so that whoever believes in him, that is, whoever confesses his sin and agrees Jesus saves him, will not perish but go to heaven.” Instead it says God so loved – the world, the kosmos, the whole thing! He gave his son – but he gave him when the Word became flesh, at Christmas, and in his healing and teaching, and in his crucifixion and resurrection, which for John is way more about the glorification of God than me getting off for my sins. Belief, for John, is way more than mental assent or repentance and feeling forgiven. It’s following, it’s union with the living Christ, it’s being part of the Body.

In that same Birth: The Mystery of Being Born book, I spent a section ruminating on John 3. So I’ll close this blogpost with this excerpt:

The famous evangelist George Whitefield was once asked by a woman, “Why do you go on and on about being born again?” He replied, “Madam, I do so because you must be born again.” Billy Graham travelled to every corner of the globe preaching this “new birth,” which for him was accepting Christ as your Savior, commencing a personal relationship with God. The emotional wave was experienced at the close of every revival meeting when the crowd would sing “Just as I am.” People in stadiums, and those watching via television were always invited to bow their heads, right on the spot, and pray the simple prayer of faith. In that moment of acceptance, “You become a child of God, adopted into His family forever. He also comes to live within you and will begin to change you from within. No one who truly gives his or her life to Christ will ever be the same.”

John Wesley worried about the tepid to vapid responses to Baptism in people’s lives. “Justification implies only a relative, the new birth a real change. God in justifying us does something for us; in begetting us again, He does the work in us.” What fascinates here is that the men talking about being born again rarely if ever link it to birth itself. How is discipleship like birth? Let’s look once more to the words of the writer Anne Enright, who shows no evident interest in religion:

“A child came out of me. I cannot understand this, or try to explain it. Except to say that my past life has become foreign to me. Except to say that I am prey, for the rest of my life, to every small thing.” Isn’t this what being with Jesus, a child who came out of his mother, is like? The past is laughably past. Every small thing, devoted to this Jesus, matters.

Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night. Does the darkness symbolize ignorance, untruth or evil? Is it stealth so he won’t be observed? The longest darkness any of us has ever been in was in the womb, waiting to be born. When you were born, the first time, wasn’t it true that “God called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet. 2:9). How is this new birth like the first?

Jesus speaks of being born of water and the spirit. Recall your first birth. You were in water. Then you emerged, gasping for air, for a breath – or we can say “spirit,” as the Hebrew ruah, and the Greek pneuma both mean air, and then by extension, spirit. It’s always water, and then the spirit when getting born.

That you “must” be reborn intrigues. The Greek, deĩ, implies throughout John’s Gospel something of a divine necessity, a holy compulsion. Jesus “had” (deĩ) to pass through Samaria – not because it was the shortest route, but because he was on a saving mission to the Samaritan woman. You must be born again. It’s not must as in You must do your homework, or You must report for jury duty. It’s more like You must come to my birthday party! or You must come with me to the hospital to see Fred before he dies. It’s love, it’s a deeply personal, can’t-miss-it necessity. And yet, you might just miss it.

You can’t grit your teeth and get born the first time, and you can’t when it’s “again” either. Back in October of 1955, I didn’t think, Hmm, nice day to get born, let’s do it. An entirely passive, unchosen event. Even the mother has zero ability to turn a microscopic zygote into a breathing, squawling person. Birth happens to you, and in you. Rudolf Bultmann, reflecting on Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus’s search for salvation, clarifies that “the condition can only be satisfied by a miracle… It suggests to Nicodemus, and indeed to anyone who is prepared to entertain the possibility of the occurrence of a miraculous event, that such a miracle can come to pass.”

Jesus didn’t ask Nicodemus to feel anything. There are, of course, intense feelings at birth. The mother giving birth may be overwhelmed with an intensity of joy, or anything else along a broad spectrum of emotion. The one being born though: is birth an emotional high for the baby?

Of course, the feelings mother and child share in childbirth are the pains, the excruciating squeezes, the tearing of flesh and sometimes the breaking of bones. Could Jesus have imagined such agony when pressing us toward a new birth? Jesus courageously embraced pain, and invited us to follow. Paul, imprisoned and beaten multiple times within an inch of his life for following Jesus, wrote that “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God… provided we suffer with him” (Rom. 8:15-16). No wonder we prefer a happy emotional kind of rebirth at a revival, over against the costly discipleship that is the new life Jesus has in mind for us. It isn’t the feeling, but the fact of the new birth, and the hard facts of union with Jesus in a world puzzled or hostile to his ways.

Jesus wasn’t asking Nicodemus to behave a little better. Bultmann explains it perfectly: “Rebirth means… something more than an improvement in man; it means that man receives a new origin, and this is manifestly something which he cannot give himself.” My first birth defined my origin as a Howell. I have the DNA, I favor my dad, I am who I am. How could I come by a new and different origin? Let’s look to St. Francis of Assisi.

After fitting in and even excelling as a child and youth, enviably popular, chic and cool, Francis heard the call of Jesus. Taking the Bible quite literally, Francis divested himself of his advantages, including his exquisite, fashionable clothing, which he gave away to the poor. His father, Pietro, a churchgoing, upstanding citizen, took exception, locked his son up for a time, and then sued him in the city square. Giotto’s fresco in the basilica where Francis is buried shows a stark naked Francis, handing the only thing he has left, the clothes off his back, to his father. But his eyes are fixed upward, where we see a hand appearing to bless him from up in the clouds. At this moment, Francis declared, “Until now I have called Pietro Bernardone my father. But, because I have proposed to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so upset, and also all the clothing which is his, wanting to say from now on: ‘Our Father who are in heaven,’ and not ‘My father, Pietro di Bernardone.’” A biblical moment, if we have regard for “You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 2:23), or “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother” (Matt. 10:35).

Nothing individualistic when Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” – as the “you” in verse 7, interestingly, is plural – so Jesus isn’t speaking just to this one man but to his people, even to us. Y’all together must be born again.

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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