Sunday, February 20, 2005

The John 3:16 Guy, The Family Vineyard, and Our Call (sermon for Lent 2A)

A sermon preached on February 20, 2005
At St. Paul's Episcopal Church, St. Joseph, MI

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Rollen Stewart. Probably the name doesn’t mean anything to most of us. But if I were to mention the verse John 3:16 you might know who I’m talking about.

Rollen Stewart, or as he liked to be called “Rock’n’Rollen” Stewart was the guy back in the 1980’s who wore a rainbow colored wig and was constantly seen in crowd shots at sporting events holding up a sign with the phrase “John 3:16” on it. He started out in the 70’s as a self-promoter, always getting into good shots in stadiums and golf courses in order to be on television. Apparently he wanted to parlay that into a career as a product spokesman.

Frankly it wasn’t going well. After the 1980 Super Bowl, he became deeply depressed. Sitting in his hotel room, he tuned in to a TV preacher and found Jesus. He also found his new line of work. He began showing up at events with his sign, touting the verse John 3:16. Living out of his car, he traveled around the country and subsisted on savings and donations. He must have done pretty well, too, because during the ‘80’s he was able to regularly attend the Super Bowl, the World Series, the World Cup Soccer finals, the Indy 500, and the Republican and Democratic conventions. He even put in an appearance at – the mind reels – the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Of course he thought of himself as an evangelist, but let’s face it: the guy was a nut.
The John 3:16 Guy, The Family Vineyard, and Our Call (sermon for Lent 2A)

And it seems to me that his major achievement is to have reduced this verse, what might be thought of as a summary of the good news of Christ, to a tired cultural cliché. In fact, a certain professional wrestler has adopted a version of this sign as his slogan, changing it to Austin 3:16. I don’t know about you, But I certainly don’t consider that a promising development.

As Episcopalians, we tend to be turned off of this sort of evangelism: attention-grabbing stunts and signs at games. That’s just not how we operate, not how we’ve been formed. We don’t like the superficial or the simpleminded of any stripe. As Anglican Christians, we like our faith like our wine: complex, full-bodied, nuanced, with a pleasing aroma and a smooth finish.

All of which might make us a bit leery when we hear passages like this morning’s from the gospel of John, which not only includes the famous 3:16 verse, but also a reference to being born from above – or as some translations render it, born again.

Born again? This might almost sound like the beginning of a Holy Roller tent revival meeting! But friends, let’s not be too quick to dismiss, for I believe there is yet vintage that might be tramped out of this passage.

Throughout this reading, Jesus refers constantly to being born: born from above, born of water and spirit, born of flesh, born of spirit. There’s a lot of emphasis here on birth.

Part of the reason for that is that there was a lot of emphasis on birth in the society of the time. Throughout the ancient world, and indeed until fairly recently, who your family was determined everything about you. It governed how high you could rise in society, how much and what kind of education you would receive, what sort of career you could undertake, who you could marry, where you would live, how far your children would go in life. In other words, family was destiny.

This was certainly the case at the time of Abram. How surprising, then, that when God calls Abram, he calls him away from his country, away from his family. God is beginning to call his covenant people, and promises Abram land and descendants as numerous as the dust of the earth. This new people will not be simply an existing family of high status, but will be an altogether new family.

We’ve heard this story of God calling Abram and Sarai before. Given how mobile we are, it might be easy to think of this change for them as really no big deal. But this was not only an exciting new call of God to become a “great nation”, it must have also been rather scary, to leave the comfort, security, and status of home for something entirely unknown, untested, uncertain, just trusting God. Nevertheless, they believed God and set out with their people to do surprising things in unpredictable places.

And just in case we get the idea that Abram was especially righteous, in the next section of the book of Genesis he lies to the Egyptians and lets Sarai become a concubine of the Pharaoh. No, here as elsewhere, being a part of this family is by God’s grace, not their flawlessness.

Coming back to the time of Jesus, the situation was not all that different. Family was still destiny, although now the covenant people of God saw themselves as another human family, connected more by blood than God’s gracious call. In today’s passage, Jesus is talking with a Pharisee, Nicodemus. He reminds Nicodemus that the covenant with God, that is, membership in God’s family, is a matter of grace, of being “born from above” more than it is a matter of bloodline. In his talk about being “born from above” or “born by the Spirit” Jesus is stressing that it is not our bloodline or genes that matter, but our belonging in God’s family.

It might sound like Jesus is taking a stand for social mobility. In our culture, this can seem pretty obvious. After all, why should whoever our family happens to be limit us in any way?
[2] So what, then, is the challenge for us in this reading, what’s the good news in it?

Unfortunately in our society, the kind of mobility we usually envision can make us feel directionless or isolated or lonely. It tends to form us into rootless individuals, free agents without much past, and little enough of a common story to lead us into a meaningful future. Radical individualism has become as much destiny now as family was in the past.

This is just the sort of thing that we can see in the John 3:16 guy. The idea that a person watching the Super Bowl or the Royal Wedding would go and look up a single verse in the Bible and be changed for life instantly is a reflection of this. Then it is all about an individual making a decision of some kind, for any reason or no reason, presumably without the messiness of being a part of a church, or engaging the sacraments, or growing in love and grace as a disciple of Christ.

But this isn’t what Jesus had in mind. He didn’t talk about people leaping fully formed, as it were, from the brow of God into the world with no family at all. He talked about people having a new birth, a birth “by water and the Spirit.” As bishop N.T. Wright remarks, this must be a reference to the baptism of the church, which included people in the kingdom-movement of the disciples and in “the new life, bubbling up from within, that Jesus offers.”
[3] Or to put it another way, Jesus freed people from being determined by their biological family, or by sheer individualism by being born into another family, God’s family. Baptism is the sacrament of inclusion into this new family.

This family gives us a past, it gives us a people and a place in the present, it gives us a story to live by and hope for the future. Or as Mother Liza mentioned in an earlier sermon, being included in this family gives you roots, and wings.

And, of course, just in case we get the idea that we are included here for being especially righteous, we are continually reminded – in history and the daily news – that we have far to go. In part, Lent is an opportunity to focus on just this sort of thing, while also keeping God’s grace and love firmly in view. No, sisters and brothers, just as with Abram and Sarai so long ago, we are included in this covenant by grace, not our flawlessness.

Yet also like Abram and Sarai so long ago, God calls us as his covenant people, away from the comfort of our homeland and our fathers’ houses and into the adventure of God’s kingdom in the world. And just as they were, we will find ourselves called to do surprising things and led into unpredictable places – not, I would wager, with signs and goofy wigs at the Super Bowl or the next English royal wedding. But we will be sent as the church, the family that is the world’s destiny, a world that God loves so much he gave his only Son to redeem it. Amen.

[1] Factual data on Mr. Stewart found online at http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a2_186.html and http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a971107.html.
[2] (Of course, social mobility is decreasing in our society, but at least in this – mostly middle class – community, it still seems like an obvious point, and will certainly have traction in this culture long after it ceases to be factually true.)
[3] John for Everyone, Part One, p. 30. WJK: 2004.

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