Sermon: “Please, God: Not a Fresh Start”

March 12, 2017: Second Sunday in Lent

John 3:1-17

Starting over.

There’s a lot of discussion among readers of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus about what it meant to Nicodemus, because John, the gospel writer, didn’t give us any sense of tone. As Kathryn Matthews writes: “None of us knows exactly how to read this text, and what tone of voice to use. Is Nicodemus argumentative or sincerely questioning? Is he in awe of Jesus and drawn to him, or just flattering him in order to find a weakness, somewhere, anywhere, in his teachings? Do the answers from Jesus anger him, or perplex him, or lead him to new life?”

I’m going to go out on a limb here and “take a side,” though, and give Nicodemus credit for understanding a pretty straightforward metaphor. I think he knew exactly what Jesus meant by the phrase “born again.” Jesus didn’t mean some literal return to the womb. He meant a fresh start, a new beginning. A clean slate. A break from the past. A rebirth.

And I wonder: Who wants to do that?

Nicodemus didn’t need to change the metaphor to comment on how hard it was, so he stuck with it. “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Or, to take it out of the metaphor and put it more bluntly: “Is it possible to shed the past, give up its claims and attractions, and become a new person?”

Who wants to do that?

Well, some do. Some people experience repeated disappointments, or episodes of rejection, or ongoing oppression, neglect, or abuse. Some are uncomfortable with their bodies or appearance in very deep ways. Some suffer illnesses or injuries; some endure disabilities they would just as soon shed. I suspect that nearly all of us remember something we’d like to forget, a memory of loss or suffering or sin.

That, incidentally, is what I’d like to forget: the sins I’ve committed against other people.

For the most part, though, even these don’t have us craving a completely fresh start. We’d like to bring along the relationships, the histories, the practices, and even the things that we’ve gathered around us. Have you ever played the game of what you’d grab in your house if there were a fire? At this point, I need more arms than I have to carry it all. I mean, first there’s the…

Well, ask me later.

Among the disabled these days we hear fewer calls for “cures” of their conditions, and more calls for full inclusion and accommodation. Persons with a disability prefer not to be seen as “problems” that need to be “fixed.” Because they’re not.

They’re people who want to be valued. Welcomed. Included.

Not people required to make a fresh start.

Who wants to do that?

Indeed, as Nicodemus asked so pointedly, who can do that?

By most measures, I’m probably the poster image for someone making a fresh start in this last year. A year ago I left the ministry setting where I’d served for seventeen years, one which I dare say I was still valued in, and could probably have remained – let’s not understate my capacity for misunderstanding or for making other kinds of mistakes!

I left my native state, in fact the very county of my birth, and crossed not just a continent but half of a very large ocean. I took on new responsibilities. I live in a state, a town, and a house that are new to me, and I still meet new people nearly every day, and I see people nearly every day to whom I’ve been introduced but whose names I don’t remember yet.

Nearly all the people who know me best live thousands of miles away.

That sounds a lot like a fresh start.


Thanks to the miracles of modern communications, I still hear regularly from people across the sea. I literally heard from my son this morning. By email, by social media, by telephone, by text, and even the occasional physical letter on paper in an envelope with a stamp on it. I got one this week and what a delight it was.

My heart remains with my son, my daughter, my brother and half-siblings, my parents, my aunts and uncles and cousins, and with their families – and that would not change no matter where I might be. It would not change no matter where they might be, either.

I’ve brought decades of experience, learnings, assumptions, habits, and expectations with me. Some of them even apply. Plenty of them don’t, but they’re still here, in my head and heart, and what I’m learning here is built in what I learned before.

Here, as there, I’ve had things to unlearn, and there are still more things to unlearn, I’m sure.

So it’s not a thorough fresh start at all. I haven’t been reborn. The new Eric is taking shape on the old. Not the foundations of the old, or even on the first story. The new Eric is somewhere above the second floor.

After all, who wants to make a fresh start? Not I.

And from down the centuries, I can hear Jesus’ voice saying to me, “And you, a teacher of Christians, don’t understand this?”

So what is this fresh start Jesus insists upon?

It’s that pesky Holy Spirit again. Isn’t it?

The Spirit that blows as it will.

All that thunder these last few days showed pretty clearly that the world’s winds blow as they will. Sometimes they bring us vog, and sometimes they take it away (and inflict it on someone else). Sometimes the world’s winds bring snow to Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. They blow as they will.

Likewise the Holy Spirit moves freely around the world, into and out of the human heart.

And it’s also true, said Jesus, of everyone who is born of the Spirit.

Those born of the Spirit, I think, are those who are open to the Spirit’s movement within them. Who don’t try to direct it, or funnel it, or stop it. Those born of the Spirit are those prepared to be aware, and to perceive its direction, and tune themselves to follow, or accept its strength and energy for works of faith and love.

They’re like the ‘elepaio I spoke of before, leaving some open spots, some unfinished spots, in the nest so that we’re ready to respond to the world’s needs.

I don’t think we should be preparing ourselves to be swept across the ocean by the Spirit – well, I’m being somewhat selfish about that, because I fervently hope that the Spirit wants all of you to be living and serving and showing Christian aloha right here.

I think it does mean: Prepare yourself for the ways in which the Holy Spirit moves your heart.

It may move your heart to sympathy for the needy.

It may move your heart to solidarity with the oppressed.

It may move your heart to work alongside those who need a hand.

The Holy Spirit may move you as it moved the people of the Nu’uanu Church in Honolulu, to testify before the powers of the land on behalf of the vulnerable of the nation. They’ve actually heard that call more than once, and in a different way. In addition to the statement they’re circulating, which the Church Council will be reviewing after worship today, they also found themselves opening their doors. A couple weeks ago, someone telephoned a threat against Temple Emanu-El, a synagogue which stands near Nu’uanu. They have a preschool there, and so of course they had to get the children somewhere else while authorities checked the buildings. Nu’uanu welcomed those keiki in for the time it took to make sure their classrooms were safe.

That doesn’t sound like a hard choice to me, but there was a day when Jewish children would not have been welcome in a Christian church, when church members might have been more likely to threaten Jewish children than to protect them.

If you ask me, this is much better.

Is it a fresh start? No. We still carry the troubled past of Christian-Jewish relations, and Christian-Muslim relations, and Christian-Buddhist relations, and Christian-indigenous Hawaiian interfaith relations. For better or worse, we don’t get to move forward from a completely fresh start. There’s no blank slate. Nicodemus was right about that.

But we can make new beginnings from where we are. We can open ourselves to the directions the Holy Spirit moves us. We can take steps we’d never imagined, say words we’d never anticipated, offer love we’d never dreamed.

So there’s our challenge: Open your heart so that the breath of God may move within you, and make you to be a blessing.


The image is a study for Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting “Jesus and Nicodemus.”

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on March 12, 2017

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