Thinking Again About Being Born Again Rev Dr Durrell Watkins Lent 2 (2014) Part of the joy and the challenge of my job is hearing people share their personal stories. The stories are often filled with pain and regret, but then to see them move through that pain and rediscover hope and peace affirms the […]
Thinking Again About Being Born Again
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
Lent 2 (2014)
Part of the joy and the challenge of my job is hearing people share their personal stories. The stories are often filled with pain and regret, but then to see them move through that pain and rediscover hope and peace affirms the healing balm that our progressive message offers.
One of the things that the shared stories continually bring up is the question of eternal security, that is, how can we know that we are OK with God, that God will not reject or abandon us?
The people plagued and tormented by these questions usually grew up hearing that they were born bad, that to be human is to be flawed, even depraved. To be saved from their own depravity, they must believe certain things, sometimes things they can’t believe, or they can’t be sure that they believe. Beliefs are just well rehearsed opinions, and as we learn more, sometimes our opinions, and therefore our beliefs, change. But they are told that such change is unacceptable.
To add to their burden, many of them fear that regardless of what they try to believe that being gay or lesbian is somehow a deal breaker.
These survivors of religious abuse are usually from traditions that historically used narrow interpretations of isolated scripture texts lifted out of their literary, historical, linguistic, and cultural contexts to justify or even promote such injustices as the subjugation of women, the evil of slavery, and oppressive acts of colonization disguised as missionary endeavors.
These flawed and hurtful uses of religion even remarkably and ridiculously took texts written by and for Jewish people to justify anti-Semitism.
They forget that Genesis says God looked at God’s creation and called it very good.
There is no “fall” in the creation story…the fall from grace of the human soul is an idea that comes from Augustine and not from the creation myth itself. In a post-Darwinian age, we now know that we haven’t fallen from perfection but that we are always evolving toward it, the pattern of perfection is already within us. God has already called it very good.
People also forget Ephesians 2.8 where the writer says that we are saved by grace through faith, but that can’t be through our faith, because then faith would be the currency we were using to purchase it, which keeps it from being grace.
No, we are kept safe and whole by grace, a free gift we can neither earn nor lose, and that gift is through faith, but whose faith? God’s faith in us!
God so trusts God’s own creation to evolve and unfold as it should, so knows it to be innately perfect and whole, that God gives the free and unreturnable gift of unending place in God’s own light and love.
God calls us good and keeps us safe in that goodness through a divine gift of grace, grace motivated by God’s own faith in us!
You can select any group of disconnected proof texts to make any claim you want no matter how ridiculous, unreasonable, or even wicked the claim may be. Matthew 27.5 – Judas hanged himself; Luke 10.37 – Go and do likewise. The mythical Satan tempts Jesus to doubt his own worth by quoting scripture at him! And he doesn’t misquote it; he just misuses it, showing that people who use scripture like a weapon against you don’t really have your best interest at heart.
So I don’t believe that something is right just because you can find it in the bible.
In the bible Abraham loses his mind and thinks God is telling him to kill his child, Isaac; and after he has terrorized and permanently scarred Isaac by making him believe he was willing to go through with it, then Abraham decides that God is tell him to kill a ram instead. Still, Abraham was certain that God needed something to die.
Abraham gets his housekeeper pregnant and then kicks her out the house with only a sack lunch and their baby.
Abraham pimps out his wife Sarah so that he can move through a territory safely.
Wow, when you string the stories together like that you realize Abraham had issues! Just because something is in the bible doesn’t make laudable.
One New Testament writer encouraged his readership to rightly divide the word of truth (2 Tim 2.15) and that’s what we want to do. Not every word of scripture is a word of instruction.
Sometimes we are reading a descriptive word, describing how things were, like Paul shamefully sending the runaway slave Onesiumus back to his captor, Philemon.
Sometimes we are reading a prescriptive word, prescribing how things ought to be, as when Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
If the bible is to be meaningful to us, we must do our part to redeem it from the ways it has been misused to hurt people, and we must admit that not every word of scripture is the word of God for our lives.
Slaves obey your masters (Col 3.22) has never been the word of God to anyone, but the prophetic challenge to bind up the broken hearted always is (Isaiah 61.1).
One of the bible passages that are used to make us believe that we are innately flawed and that only some of us will ever be saved from our wretchedness is this passage today telling someone he must be born again.
I love the t-shirts, memes, and bumper stickers that try to defang the ways this verse has been misused.
One says, “Why be born again when you can just grow up?”
The other says, “Born again? Nope, I got it right the first time.”
Let’s look more closely at our gospel reading today.
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night…
I remember in the early 90s, especially in more rural areas, people would often come to MCCs with trepidation. They would park at some distance and then walk to the church. They would refuse to sign up for mailing lists and they would shy away from photos at church events. Sometimes they would drive by the church for weeks in a row before actually summoning the nerve to walk in it. Bars felt safer, under the cover of darkness, but to be seen in the daylight, even to worship, with a group that openly and proudly said that spirituality and sexuality did not have to be at odds was risky and frightening.
They were drawn to MCCs message and possibilities but were afraid of being “outed.”
To be gay in some places was to be a criminal…as it remains in some parts of the world today. To be outed as gay or to be affiliated with gay people could result in job loss, family rejection, religious persecution, and even violence. So, seekers would sneak into MCC until they found the courage to come out, or least come in without dark glasses.
This is actually what is happening in John’s gospel. People flirting with the Johannine worship community were sneaking in the back door, coming to them by night, like Nicodemus. John imagining Jesus telling a stealthy Nicodemus to be born again was a marketing scheme to get people to join John’s spiritual community, and to do so in the daylight, openly, publicly; be born again into a new world of justice seeking, community building courage and hope.
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
The writer challenges would be members of the spiritual community to be “born again,” to make a new beginning, try a new way of experiencing religion.
Being born again isn’t about being zapped into righteousness while those who don’t share your experience are written off as cosmic garbage to smolder throughout eternity.
Born again means to let go of the old fearful, oppressive, narrow thinking and try on new ideas, a new attitude, a new approach.
Dare to step away from a religious experience that hurt you or encouraged you to hurt others and try something new, be born into a new way of exploring spirituality, a more open, more inclusive, more progressive way.
I was born again when I found MCC.
Not that I was bad before and magically was made better; not that I am now in the club and everyone else is destined to run through a fiery hell wearing gasoline drawers.
No, but when I found MCC I was invited to leave behind what didn’t make sense and embrace new thoughts that would add hope and joy to my life and help me affirm my sacred value and innate dignity. What a new way to be religious!
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”…
This is a FABULOUS example within scripture itself of how taking religious language too literally can be ridiculous.
Here at the Sunshine Cathedral we take the bible seriously rather than literally. Jesus is imagined in this text as using creative language to make a point and Nicodemus almost misses the point by taking what is clearly a metaphor and literalizing it. Literalism, is always selected literalism…
Nicodemus shows us how silly literalism can be.
To be born again is to think differently, and when we change our thinking, we change our lives.
Half a millennium before John’s gospel was written, the Buddha also used the phrase “born again” to describe new attitudes, new beginnings, new approaches, when he said, “Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.”
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Spirit can’t be limited to or contained by tradition, texts, rituals, sacraments, dogma or doctrine. To think out of the box of religious tradition means letting go of some old assumptions and certainties.
And maybe that’s what faith is…trusting the journey rather than pretending that everything can be locked down in fundamentals; moving forward with wonder rather than trying to dig your heels into the traditions and dogma that may feel safe but doesn’t really facilitate change, healing, or transformation.
If the bible, dogma, or tradition ever persuaded you that you were anything other than a living miracle,
if you have ever been told you had to choose between the truth of your life and eternal salvation,
if you have ever been made to weep in the dark hours of the night for fear that the Source of life had somehow abandoned you because you were attracted to someone of the same gender, or loved someone of another religion, or made the best choice available to you in the moment about your own body, or couldn’t accept an unreasonable viewpoint presented as a point of doctrine, then I encourage you to be born again today.
That doesn’t mean you have to believe anything in particular to be acceptable to God; it just means that the old mindset of fear and regret and internal torment can be left behind and a new experience of hope, joy, dignity and self-affirmation can begin today.
To be born again simply means this: the past is past and the future has infinite possibilities. And this is the good news! Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2014
I am God’s miracle and not God’s mistake.
I am eternally safe in the Love that God is.
And so I am thankful.