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The Last Will and Testament Again

Sermon - 6/25/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 3:1-10

The text that I'll be reading this morning comes from the gospel of John, the third chapter:

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

I want to do something entirely different this morning, that I've not tried before.  Partly I like to do things differently now and then just to keep you on your toes.  What I want to do this morning is actually to share the sermon in images.

This came from a bit of inspiration I had this week at a conference I attended in Portland at the Center for Spiritual Development.  A conference on the church and the Bible in the 21st century.  We heard a number of different scholars and leading thinkers (and one in particular I'll mention in just a minute).  One of the things that came to me is that the stories that Jesus told, the metaphors that he used (which the text today from the gospel of John is a great example) were simply an ancient version of PowerPoint!  So I'm just continuing in that tradition and sharing these metaphors in image.

We are in the season of Pentecost.  Pentecost is when we talk about the spirit of God that moved along the first disciples as breath or as wind.  

Just as the wind of God moved across the face of the waters in creation.  And so if spirit is wind, it stands to reason that if we want more spirit (that's a good thing) we should want more wind.  If we want lots of spirit we should have lots of wind, right?  

Well, of course, too much wind is not a good thing, as we discovered with hurricane Katrina.  So you can take a metaphor too far.

But I'm not so sure that the holy spirit doesn't in fact blow like a hurricane at times.  It shakes us up, it changes our world.  So in 1998, hurricane Mitch sat just off the coast of Honduras, you may recall that terrible event.  As we saw with Katrina and I think we've all been well-educated now, hurricanes pick up strength over water.  Because Mitch stayed there above the gulf (did not come into land), it became extremely powerful and deadly, picking up all of that moisture from the gulf and dumping it in Honduras for 3 straight days.  

100 inches of rain.  100 inches is way too much, no land can survive that very easily.  And indeed, over 5,000 lives were lost in Honduras in that tragedy.  Entire villages disappeared from mudslides.  Over 150 bridges destroyed or very severely damaged.  Imagine what that would be like -- the difficulty in transportation, just getting aid to people.

There was one particular bridge that survived the hurricane.  Built 2 years before by the Japanese.  And they were very proud of their construction techniques and the technology that enabled their bridge to survive when so many other bridges failed.  There was only 1 problem:  the river moved!


(Bridge over -- at least near! -- the Choluteca river in Honduras.  For a picture without the word "Sample", please visit this Internet site)

And so that bridge stands today.  

Brian McLaren uses this images, and used this image at the conference that I attended, to talk about the church and how the world around the church has changed, literally underneath us.  Brian is the former pastor of Cambridge Community Church outside of Baltimore, a fast-growing church, author of several top-selling Christian books, including "A New Kind of Christian", "The Secret Message of Jesus" and several others.  He gave up his job as a pastor just this last year and is now serving as a church consultant and is recognized widely as one of the leading spokespersons in our nation for the emergent church.  A new movement among churches that transcend traditional barriers that we often encounter in our churches.

And so we got a chance to hear from Brian.  Brian was born in 1956, a year after me.  So I ask you -- look at the picture (above) and tell me, does he look younger than me?!  This guy is bald!  But I want to think about that world in which he and I were born.  The tail end of the baby boomers.

1955 we saw that wonderful invention, television, really come on the scene, and change the way we do communication in our country.

The automobile began to dominate our culture.

Air travel was the wave of the future, and you could go coast-to-coast non-stop in a DC-7 (I don't know why you would want to in something like this, but you could):

 

The telephone was now present in every home.  Imagine 1 telephone in every home across the country!

Style -- hair styles, clothing styles, and so forth:

 

Well, things have changed a little bit since then.  Televisions have evolved:

 

Automobiles have kept up with the times:

 

Air travel has become bigger and faster with all kinds of comforts:

 

And the telephone -- well, now there's a phone in every pocket, it seems:

 

 

Style - has style changed any?  Yeah, maybe:

 

That's my wife's 50th birthday, she's still in style, looking good J.

We had computers in 1955, they were just a little simpler then:

 

And computers today have evolved, of course Macintosh leading the pack and driving this PowerPoint J:

 

And the church in 1955:

 

And the church today:

 

Take another look at those pictures -- the church in 1955, and the church today.  Do you get the point?  How much has the church changed?

Well, 1955, the world we knew 50 years ago, was a bit different.  For us in the church, perhaps the biggest difference was that in that world, belonging to the church was the norm.  It was part of the accepted world into which the baby boomers, like me, were born.  It was just expected that you would become a Christian, that you would participate in church.  It was part of convention. 

But by the time we, the baby boomers, would graduate, that world where it was expected that all would participate in the church largely ceased to exist.  By the time that my generation passes, the church will no longer have any members who are part of that world.  The church will change from a church of convention to a church of intention.  It already is changing to that.

In other words, only those who really want to be here, and decide intentionally to make this central to their life, will be part of the church.

What happened?  What brought about that change?  Well, Woodstock happened:

 

Vietnam happened.  Free speech.  The Watts riots.  The civil rights movement.

 

The Apollo program, putting a man on the moon.  Roe vs Wade, abortion.  Watergate happened.  In short, 100 inches of rain happened.  


(Bridge over -- at least near! -- the Choluteca river in Honduras.  For a picture without the word "Sample", please visit this Internet site)

And society shifted, literally underneath the church, and left the church standing there on dry ground.

Go back even further.  Copernicus at the beginning of the 16th century put forward his theory that the sun, and not the earth, was the center of our universe as they knew it then -- the center of the solar system:

And people laughed at him -- you've got to be crazy.  Everyone can see that the sun revolves around the earth!  

It was not until Galileo, later at the end of that century, with his telescope was able to prove Copernicus' theory as in fact the reality that people began to take it seriously.  And so what was the church's response?  The church threatened to excommunicate Galileo and in fact they threatened him with his life if he would not recant his proof of Copernicus' theory.  We couldn't deal with that possibility that we were not the center of the universe.  And then Newton established those laws that describes how this world functions, all in physical terms of motion, so that you can essentially describe reality by equations.  That was the modern world into which many of us were born.

And then along came Einstein and quantum physics:

And string theory, and nano-technology and two global wars and the holocaust and global warming and global terrorism.  So much so that many say the modern world is dead.  We are now in a post-modern era, where all things are relative and nothing is certain.  Even what we once thought we knew about God has changed.

Gary Larson, in the Far Side cartoons (unfortunately no longer being produced), did such a good job of characterizing this traditional image of God with a flowing beard and poking fun at it.  Here God is in the kitchen pulling things off the shelf as he makes the earth.  Medium-skinned people, light-skinned people, dark-skinned people, boxes of birds and trees and insects and reptiles all going into the mix.  And he grabs one more jar off the shelf as he thinks to himself:  "And just to make it interesting", he adds a dash of Jerks!

 

Larson liked the God in the kitchen metaphor, my favorite one that I was actually searching for when I found this one, has God pulling the newly baked earth out of the oven with hot-mitts.  God pulls it out of the oven and steam is rising out of the earth, and God says:  "Something tells me this thing is half-baked"!

Well, the world has changed.  We do not live in the same world anymore.  And so folks like McLaren suggest to us we need to think about how to do church differently.  Indeed, even what it means to be a Christian is different in this post-modern world.  

So here are a few of the thoughts that I put together out of this conference and other things that I've read and heard, as a way to describe this difference.  Some of these things will be familiar to you, some will be entirely new, and it's not that everyone has to agree with everything, but they're just to get us stimulated and to start thinking about a different way of being the church and being a person of faith.

The old way of thinking centered on belief, having the correct ideas about Jesus or about God.  The new way of thinking focuses on the way, as the disciples of Jesus were first called in the 9th chapter of Acts.  The way of journeying with Christ in this faith journey.

The old way focused on getting to heaven, what McLaren calls "Martha Stewart religion" -- it's all about gaining insider information so you can get to heaven.  The new way focuses on getting to God -- getting to know God.  

In the same fashion, the old way focused on righteousness, where the new way on right relationships with God and with one another.  

The old way thought that there was 1 way, and we argued over whether that 1 way was Protestantism or Catholicism.  Today we talk about many ways, be it Presbyterian, Disciple, Methodist, Episcopalian, or even other faith traditions -- Jewish, Hindu, Buddhism, and Islam -- as we discover in all of the great, ancient faiths glimpses of the truth.  

The old way thought of prayer as making requests of God.  In the new way, prayer is part of that journey.  It itself is a quest.

The old way thought of the Bible as THE word of God, in the new way Christ is the word of God.  Of course, borrowing from the gospel of John, in the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God as was God and dwelt among us.  This is the word.  The Bible contains words about God, we've learned from the Bible of our ancestors' views of God.

The old way presented truth as essentially fact and history.  If we could get our facts right about evolution or creation, or if we could just get history right, well then we'd have the truth.  The new way focuses on metaphor and story as, again in this text from the gospel of John, as the way that truth is communicated.  

The old way thinks of the Kingdom of God as something that we will encounter later, something that is "up there", "out there".  The new way thinks of the Kingdom of God as something that's down here.  "Hear now", Jesus said, "the Kingdom is in our midst".  And taught us to pray ". . .thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven".

The old way thinks of the gospel as the management of sin, and the new way in terms of building the Kingdom.  

The old way thinks of earth in terms of our dominion over it, the new way of the earth in terms of our stewardship of it.

Barbara Rossing was our New Testament scholar that was with us this last week, and I've actually used her book on the Rapture Exposed previously, she talked a lot about Revelation and the need to reclaim Revelation as part of our story, rather than letting fundamentalists have all the fun with it.  So she talked about Revelation as being perceived as the end of a godless world, vs the new way of thinking of Revelation as the end of worldly empire.  A different way of thinking about what that story was all about.

Well, as we think about this new way of being church, this new way of being people of faith, I call to mind the example of Nicea.  The Nicene Creed was composed at the end of the 4th century.  Church leaders from around the Mediterranean world were brought together by the Emperor Constantine.  And the Nicene Creed unified Christendom.  And for the last 1,600 years the Nicene Creed has defined 'orthodoxy'.  Even though we don't use the creed in our tradition, it is still the most used and said creed in all of Christianity.

I was in Nicea in 2003.  This is the only church in Nicea that I saw:

This is what's left of the faith community that created the Nicene Creed.  Think about that.

Now we Disciples know something about dying churches.  Our movement, at the beginning of the 19th century, was actually born out of a death.  Barton W. Stone was the the elder the Cambridge church in the Springfield Presbytery that you see here:

The building still stands to this day, although we've built another structure over it to protect it.  That's where a great revival was held in 1801.  Well, Stone and the elders of that congregation wrote the last will and testament of the Springfield Presbytery on June 28th, 1804.  Two hundred and two years from this coming Wednesday.  Because they were convinced that in this vast, changing frontier of the American West (western Pennsylvania!), that the old ways of doing church just didn't make sense anymore.  And so they wrote what you see on the above photo.

Do you think those words can still speak to us today?  Could it be that we have come to such a time when we need to find a new way of being Christian in this world?  A way of living the way of Christ rather than simply believing things about him?

A teacher of the church came to Jesus by night, before the changing light of dawn brought a new day, and asked the Lord about these things.  And Jesus said to him:  "No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above".

And so I ask you -- can you see the Kingdom of God in our changing world?  Can you see the sprit of God that moves like the wind, even the wind of hurricanes, changing the course of history?

Perhaps the time has come for us to build a new kind of bridge.  Bridges that move with the spirit.  Bridges that actually bring people together from all walks of life.  

 

Bridges that break down barriers and end old divisions.

  

Bridges that speak to this time, and to generations to come.  

 

Bridges born of water and spirit, from above.

May that be the kind of church we create.

 

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