sermon 3.5.23

2601 54th Avenue South  St. Petersburg, FL  33712
On land originally inhabited by the Tocabaga

Date:  March 5, 2023
Scripture Lessons: Genesis 12:1-5a and John 3:1-17
Sermon: New Life
Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

I recently read this post on the city sponsored community platform NextDoor: 

“This city is getting ridiculous, almost impossible to go downtown with zero parking and a ton of traffic any day of the week. 

“Almost every night someone kid is checking your car doors to steal. Got to lock up anything loose in your yard or it’s gone. 

“Single family neighborhoods are getting re-zoned to multiple family. Your backyards are no longer an oasis because someone built a 2 story and is now looking at you. 

“44 story condos have destroyed whatever view we once had. 

3-4 story ‘affordable’ apartments being build on once a vibrant church community. 

“No one wants to work, anyone working whom we’re yelling for $15 per hour just a couple of years ago are now screaming for $20. 

“Political wars are a daily occurrence. 

Whatever your beliefs are on virus people take a hard stand one way or another and will want to fight you on it. 

“WHAT THE Blankety-blank happen to this city and our country as I’m sure it’s happening in every city in America!!”

The poster concludes with this advice:

“Be good to yourself and others, be thoughtful, courageous compassionate and courteous.

[James Ingram, Disston – Lake Sheffield, since 1981.  Hometown: St Pete.   Edited 6 days ago]

There were 239 ‘likes’ and 192 comments – agreeing and refuting, etc. as you can well imagine.

I was intrigued by one comment:

“Lived here all my life they have destroyed Paradise!  [SIDE BAR – It might not have been paradise if you were Black. . . ]  Looking elsewhere!  Less people less traffic more kindness that is where I will be going”

Then there was a response to that comment:  

“More kindness?  So when does the spaceship leave and what galaxy are we heading to, I’m in!”

Of course, we know that wherever we go, there we are.  Period.  For things to change, we have to change.

This morning we heard two stories that include an invitation to a new kind of life.   To a new kind of community.  To a reality of justice, kindness, compassion.  And we know that these things cannot coexist with greed, with  oppression, with rugged individualism.   The reality of God involves a communal orientation that takes into consideration the least, the lost, the most vulnerable, the hurting.  Today, we heard two different versions of the invitation to new life and two very different responses.

Abram is told that he will be the progenitor, with Sarai, of a new people who will be a beacon to all the world of compassion and justice.  The path to this new reality involves leaving home, land, neighbors, community, comfort, familiarity, and venturing out into the unknown to establish something new, albeit on land that is already inhabited so it will involve displacing or vanquishing the original residents.  [Another sidebar – This was the template for the European incursion into what became known as the Americas.]  And Abram says yes to this journey.  He is 75.  And he is not being ushered into the Villages or a Westminster community!  He is not being directed to Naples, referred to as ‘an adult theme park.’  He is being propelled into the unknown regions of the desert.  And he is responsible for his wife, Sarai, his family, extended family, his herds and flocks, and yes, also for those whom he has acquired.  Servants?  Slaves?  The whole operation is to move into this new future, this new reality.  And Abram trusts the promise.  He says yes.  And off they go.  The saga is not without incident.  He passes his wife off as his sister to appease potentially hostile rulers of nearby lands.  There is the Sodom and Gommorah episode.   There is the lack of an heir, despite the promise that he will be the ancestor of millions.  There is the diversion to the slave, Hagar, as the one who will bear the offspring.  Then the banishing of Hagar, and her son, the potential heir, Ishmael. There is the birth of Isaac.  And then the story of Abraham hearing a call to make a sacrifice of his son.  I mean this saga is filled with drama.  And though the way may be convoluted, the intent is to create a community that will bless the world entire.  And Abram tries to hang on to that promise and pass it on.

From the gospel of John, we heard another story of an invitation to new life, a new reality.  Nicodemus, a religious official, comes to Jesus, at night, seeking what Jesus has to offer.   And Jesus lays it out.  A new reality.  A new identity.  Reborn to gospel values and the community of Divine Love.  But Nicodemus gets tripped up on the idea of being reborn.  He cannot envision this new beginning.  Maybe he is so invested in the status quo, in the religious establishment, in the hierarchy and patriarchy, that he cannot break free to embrace a new reality of unconditional, eternal, universal Love.  He is too invested in the current reality to make the shift.  He is being offered salvation.  Jesus has come to save the world not condemn it.  And Nicodemus cannot say yes.  

Lent is a season in which we revisit our invitation to beloved community.  And the path that we are on.  Is it taking us there – however circuitously?  Are we on the path?  Have we departed from the path?  Are we on a detour?  Have we paused to rest and gotten stuck?  Have we turned around and headed back to the reality of fear and greed and cynicism?  

We are being offered new life.  Yes, the process may be difficult.  Abram’s journey was full of uncertainty, peril, and challenge. Nicodemus could not imagine rebirth.  Well, birth is a long, messy process, from conception to that first breath of the new being.   And, ask any woman who has had a child, it is a painful process.  Often excruciating.  And certainly a bloody mess.  After the birth of our first child, there in the hospital bed, I told my husband in no uncertain terms, NO MORE CHILDREN.  Period.  End of conversation.  But about 3 years later, I was ready again.  And then 7 years later, I wanted, selfishly, just one more.  They are so wonderful!  But new birth, new life, is a process.  

Lent is the time to revisit our invitation to a new reality where we leave the power structures of society behind.  And we abandon the hierarchies that subdue and trample others and the Earth.   Where we veer away from the ambitions of empire that come at a cost to those who are not like us.  And we venture out into the unknown – responding to the call to be a blessing to the world.  A new reality in which we engage the process of gestation and  maturation, toward a world wide community of mutual respect, human rights, justice, and flourishing life for human and other than human life alike.  

It’s a journey.  So we revisit that comment from the NextDoor conversation.  The original post challenges:  Be good to yourself and others, be thoughtful , courageous compassionate and courteous. And there was the reply: Looking elsewhere!  Less people less traffic more kindness that is where I will be going 

And then:  So when does the spaceship leave and what galaxy are we heading to, I’m in!  

We know that the journey starts and perhaps ends right here with us, right where we are.  The work is here for us to do.  The invitation to transformation of self and society is right here before us.  The response may be in our hands, like it was for Abram and Nicodemus.  But our faith teaches that the invitation is not in our hands.  The dreams of Divine Love are clear.  The legacy of Jesus makes it plain:  

God sent the Only begotten into the world 

not to condemn the world,

but that through the Only Begotten 

the world might be saved.

God’s intention is the wellbeing of all of Creation.  Period.  It’s up to us to accept the invitation to that new reality.  The invitation stands.  Lent is a time to recommit to the journey. 

We close with a story, the source is unknown.  The pronouns and imagery for God were masculine.  I adapted it with plural pronouns for God.  I ask you to try accept it as metaphor:

God was walking the streets, looking for a home for their son.  They knocked on my door.  Well, I suppose I could let them rent the little spare bedroom, I thought.  They read my thoughts, ‘I was looking to buy,’ they said.

‘Oh, I don’t think I really want to sell,’ I replied. ‘I need the place for myself, you see, But you could use the back room.  The rent’s quite low.  Why don’t you come in and have a look?’

So they came in, and they looked around.  ‘I like it,’ they said. ‘I’ll take it, on your own terms.’

Once the son was settled in, I began to wonder whether I’d been a bit mean.  There he was, cooped up in that little spare bedroom.  God must have been having similar thought, because they were there again at my door.

‘Would you have any more space now, do you think?’ they asked gently.

‘Well, I’ve been thinking, and I could offer your son an extra room to rent now.’

‘Thank you,’ said God. ‘I’ll take the extra room. Maybe you’ll decide to give my son more room later on.  Meanwhile, I like what I see.’

Time went on.  I was still feeling a bit uneasy about this transaction.

‘I’d like to give you some more room,’ I kept telling God, ‘but you see, it’s a bit difficult.  I need some space for me.’

‘I understand,’ God kept saying.  ‘I’ll wait.  I like what I see.’

Eventually, I decided to offer God the whole of the top floor.  They accepted gratefully, on behalf of their son.  ‘Well, I can spare it really,’ I told them.  ‘I’d really like to let you have the whole house, but I’m not sure. . .’

‘I understand,’ said God.  ‘I’ll wait.  I like what I see.’

A bit more time went by, and there was God again at my door.  ‘I just want you to know,’ they said, ‘that I’m still very interested in buying your house.  I wouldn’t put you out.  We’d work it out together.  Your house would be mine and my son would live here.’

‘Actually,’ they added, ‘you’d have more space than ever before.’

‘I really can’t see how that could be true,’ I replied, hesitating on the doorstep.

‘I know,’ said God.  ‘And to be honest, I can’t really explain it.  It’s something you have to discover for yourself.  It only happens if you let my son have the whole house.’

‘A bit risky,’ I said.

‘Yes, but try me,’ encouraged God.

‘I’m not sure.  I’ll let you know.’

‘I’ll wait,’ said God, ‘I like what is see.’

[From One Hundred Wisdom Stories from Around the World, Margaret Silf, pp.132-133.]

This Lenten season, may we open ourselves more fully to the dreams and desires of Divine Love so that we, too, might be a blessing to the world.  Amen.  

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

Author: Hilton Kean Jones

Composer and performer, retired college music professor, lyricist.

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