May 27, 2018
Holy Trinity, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
I spent this week at the Festival of Homiletics. It’s kind of a revival for preachers: some of the very best speakers in the whole country; three or four sermons per day; two lectures about preaching; singing; praying. And then more preaching. It was inspiring and very intimidating.
One by one, these great preachers stepped into the pulpit and began by saying, “You didn’t tell me I would have to follow her.” “Maybe I should just say, ‘What she said,’ and sit down.” Of course, they never did. All these great preachers were intimidated by the gathering, comparing their skills to the skills of others, sure that their words wouldn’t measure up to the standard.
Maybe it’s good news to discover that the greatest among us are, in the end, are just as insecure as we are. Nervous about being upstaged, convinced that they’re not good at the things they’re supposed to be good at, worried about being judged, afraid that the curtain will get pulled back and the carefully constructed shell will prove to hide genuine fraud; afraid that their performance will get the deadly sermon review: It was a nice sermon, pastor.
There may not be that much difference between us and Nicodemus. We are told is a leader of the Jews, a Pharisee. Later in the gospel, we learn that he is a member of the ruling body, the Sanhedrin. He’s a leader, privileged and wealthy. But it’s all not enough. It’s not working. All the trappings of success, all the things that were supposed to give meaning weren’t enough, so he comes to Jesus.
Nicodemus comes at night, under the cover of darkness, to ask the questions he cannot ask in the bright light of day, in the glare of all the regular expectations and responsibilities, in the daily work of proving himself and holding onto his position. Obviously, he has already sensed that Jesus is something different; that his words, his way of living in his skin, holds light. Jesus embodies something about truth; something that is deeper and more authentic than all the things we thought were supposed to keep us connected and alive.
Jesus tells him that he has to be born again. The NRSV says, “Born from above,” but it’s just trying to avoid the stereotype The Greek is really “born again.” American evangelicals have latched onto this phrase. Being “born again” means accepting Jesus as my personal lord and savior. Many can identify the moment when they made the decision to give their lives to Christ. In the best usage, it signifies the end of one life and the beginning of another. A life in Christ; a life renewed. In the worst usage, it’s a requirement, almost a magical formula that you have to say to make sure you are part of the inside group going to heaven. “Are you born again?” is a question that’s designed to find out if you’re a real Christian or not.
Lutherans tend to think we need to do this kind of dying and rising, ending and beginning, again and again. First time is not the charm; nor is the second; nor the third. Being born again is a moment that can happen again and again when we are spiritually made into something new, so much so that it changes the way we live afterwards. Every day, we go to the font, the place of water and Spirit, where we have been claimed and chosen. Martin Luther said that every day we should remember our baptism. Each morning is Day One, resurrection day, Easter.
This is what Nicodemus wanted, but he can’t believe this is possible. “I’m too old to be new. How am I supposed to climb into my mother’s womb and be born again?”
I totally get this. “How can I start over?” After all that I’ve done, or said, or didn’t do, or didn’t say, how can I possibly leave that behind? Have you said these kind of things? I’m too old to change. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I’m too young to understand. I’ve failed so many times, it’s probably the best thing to expect. This body can’t dance.
Or the deck is stacked against some of us. Racism. Sexism. A felony on the record; a bankruptcy. Fear of the “other” structured into laws and politics and economics. Hatred that gets phrased so carefully that it begins to sound so reasonable that it is just one more valid perspective to debate. We don’t need to build a wall to experience the wall that’s already been built right through our nation’s psyche. There’s no getting around it. There’s no getting over it.
Jesus says, “No, no, no, no. The Spirit blows where it will. She comes out of nowhere, and she goes anywhere. There is no history that can limit the Spirit. There is no structure that can limit the Spirit. There is no politics that can limit the Spirit. There is not even any one religion that can lay claim to the Spirit and direct her along the prescribed and adopted pathway. The Spirit, the one born again in Jesus, finds every window, every little crack, every sliver of an opening, every possibility, even the ones so tiny our eyes haven’t yet caught their contour, and blows in new directions. Even crises are cracks where the Spirit wind starts to go to work.
Have you heard the word “longbottomed.” “I’ve been longbottomed,” you might say. I just learned this phrase yesterday when I heard it on Facebook. It comes from the character Neville Longbottom in book one of the Harry Potter series is sort of the comic relief. He falls off his broomstick. He’s awkward, shy, introverted. He’s constantly told by his grandmother that he’s not good enough; that he can’t live up to his parent’s accomplishments. But after book 7, he emerges as a courageous hero, killing Voldemort’s snake, and recruiting for Dumbledore’s army, even after Harry, Ron, and Hermione have given up.
Being “longbottomed” is when a shallow, bumbling, pathetic, and/or annoying character in a story evolves into a deep, capable (if not extraordinary) hero.
This is the work of God, the work that is in the life of Jesus: to take what is bumbling or afraid or bad or wrong and turn it toward goodness. I’m not sure we can say how it happens. But it seems to involve letting something go, or being willing to enter the darkness as a place where truth can be found. Certainly, it means leaving the privilege at the door, as does Nicodemus, willing to submit to a higher authority. It means risk, giving up and giving away. It means dying to things we have held so tightly.
But this is the work of God: to love us into light. For God so loved the world. Don’t get this wrong. God did not come in Jesus to shout condemnation and judgment. God came that we might be longbottomed; that the cosmos might be saved.
By the end of John’s gospel, Nicodemus steps out of the night and he goes to Pilate to get the body of Jesus. He risks his position; his respectability. He invests his own money in myrrh and aloes to wrap the precious body. He goes from bumbling to bold, from unsure to born again. Turns out that the Spirit blew exactly where she wanted.
And, before you knew it, Jesus was alive,
and so was Nicodemus.
And so are we.
You’ve just been longbottomed.