Why is it we are suspicious of things that happen at night? “Nicodemus came to Jesus at night.” He was afraid of being seen associating with this radical rabbi, it is said, and when you realize that in John’s gospel, Jesus has already turned over the tables of the money-changers in the Temple, back in chapter 2, you could understand Nicodemus’ hesitancy to be seen with Jesus in the light of day. “He 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.”
At night, things are not so clear and simple as they are in the daytime. I can work myself into a real snit thinking about things and worrying over things between 2 and 4 in the morning, and yet when daylight dawns, I am amazed at how much more manageable they seem, how much they have shrunk in size as I see them in larger context. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, full of questions and doubt, maybe even some skepticism, but I sense he was genuinely seeking understanding. One friend calls him “the Patron Saint of Seekers.” (Patricia Farris, Christian Century, Jan. 30-Feb. 6, 2002) Maybe he was coming to Jesus “undercover,” but we should also know that the rabbis taught that Torah was best studied at night, when it was quiet and there were fewer distractions. “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.” Nicodemus sensed the presence of God with this young rabbi, and Jesus sensed a seeking spirit in this man with the trappings of the elite.
Right away, Jesus launches him into the deeper wisdom of metaphor and poetry, away from his familiar shoreline of left-brained reason and logic. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Or born anew, as the word also means.
Nicodemus is stunned. This is not Torah study as he has come to know it. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus pushes further and further away from shore. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you,’You must be born from above.’ The 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.” Utterly floundering, Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?”
And who can blame him? This is not easy sailing. In fact, Nicodemus is the only person in the gospels with whom Jesus uses this image or metaphor for entering into or abiding in the kingdom of God–and there were lots of people who asked him! But Jesus takes Nicodemus into this multi-layered, multi-dimensional, imaginative conversation about being born from above or born anew or born again, and the wind/spirit/breath (all the same word) blowing where it will.
I have to admit that my understanding of “being born” or “giving birth to” has been forever deepened or expanded by our niece Katie’s experience of giving birth to her third child, for which we all/you all have been praying. [I need to tell you, by the way, that Katie and Rory, now over 6 lbs., are both home this week and doing well.] You’ll recall that Katie had been hospitalized for two months ahead of the delivery, because the placenta had broken through the walls of her uterus and was taking up residence in various other places in her body. Her doctors had already determined that as late as possible, the baby would be delivered by C-section and then they would perform a number of necessary surgeries on Katie.
When the time of Rory’s delivery came, the extent of the trauma and damage to Katie’s body was far more extensive than anyone could have imagined, and as I told you, 170 units of blood were used in the process of saving Katie’s life. Teams of doctors and nurses worked together to save her, improvising at some points, trying whatever they could think of to stop the bleeding. All unnecessary surgeries in the Boston area were put on hold, as runners from hospitals all over the region brought units of blood to Beth Israel. Literally hundreds of people connected to Katie and Matt and their families by holding them in prayer. I know that I have never felt closer to Katie (which I’m sure would be a surprise to her) as I imagined healing light at every one of those points of trauma, as I imagined the clots in her lungs dissolving, as I pictured Light and Love coursing through every vein and artery.
As I just told you, this story has a happy ending, but as Katie’s primary surgeon told Bruce, “If anyone thinks that God wasn’t in that operating room, they would be wrong.”
“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Katie’s story demonstrates so clearly what is involved with “being born” at all–from above, in the flesh, by the spirit, whatever. English doesn’t have a middle voice, which is what this word “being born” is in. We have the active voice–”I did this”–the voice of self-sufficiency, personal responsibility, the voice of science, with its repeatable results. And we have the passive voice–”It was done to me,” “mistakes were made”–much less interesting, often obscuring, the voice of political “spin” where responsibility is slippery and blame is diffuse.
But “being born”? It’s like bread baking in the oven. The bread doesn’t bake itself, nor is baking something that is simply done to the bread. The bread participates in its baking, the yeast or leavening growing; the baker mixes and kneads; the oven provides the heat. Just so, we don’t birth ourselves in the active voice. Anyone who’s given birth knows that it’s not simply a matter of the mother giving birth to a baby. She is not in control. She participates with the baby and the built in abilities of her body and the midwife or doctor and the power of Life that is way beyond any of them.
In Katie’s case, not only were she and Rory bound together as all mothers and babies are, but they were both in the midst of this web of tissues and life-force and doctors and nurses and runners of blood units and givers of blood units and all the medical knowledge passed down to the medical personnel, to all those who were praying for them, and, to my mind and many other minds, without a doubt the Power, Protection, Wisdom, and Presence of God. Katie and her husband Matt and Rory and his two brothers are forever bound together in a web of light and life and grace with untold numbers of people who participated in this birth, which was so connected, as all births are, to death…just as all deaths are also connected to new birth.
The “middle voice” [as one commentator explains it] of being born involves participation in a larger, on-going action, where the main player is unnamed, even unrecognized, and the subject is not wholly in control… This is the voice of interrelatedness, of multi-causality. This is the ‘voice of faith.’” [Liz Goodman, Journal for Preachers, Lent 2014, p. 5]
“No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born anew, born of the Spirit which blows, like the wind, where it chooses.” “God so loved the world that God entered into it, “gave the Son,” John says. God not only longs for our re-birth but for the world’s re-birth as well. Biblical scholar Marcus Borg says that the images of being born again and dying and rising were closely associated– from the same root word, in fact– in the early Christian community. They were both ways of talking about dying to the old ways and being born into new ways of living. Being born anew was a way of talking about personal transformation that resulted in being centered in Christ/God/Spirit. [cited by Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds, 3/16/14]
“You must be born anew,” Jesus said. Like Nicodemus, like Katie and Rory, we are part of the web of Love and Life and Grace that connects us to all other beings in space and time, and that is enlivened, in-spired (breathed) by God. What we do, how we live our lives, matters, not only to us and those near us, but to every other creature on earth. We must claim the active voice, and take responsibility for what we do and how we live–there are a number of actions suggested on our insert today which are a piece of this–and we must not simply settle into the passive voice, claiming only to be victims of other people’s actions, what “they” do or have done. But most importantly, we must claim the middle voice of being born again and being part of the earth’s rebirth– participating in this process, recognizing all the others who are involved in and affected by this process, affirming and opening up to the One who is the real Subject, the Source of Life and Light and Love.
Just as Jesus brought Nicodemus into new ways of thinking and imagining, so we too must be open to letting go of the old, familiar ways that are no longer life-giving and open to new ways of imagining, appreciating, defining joy and beauty. Listen to this description of the solar array in a former hayfield near Middlebury College–
Above the earth, grass, and snow of a former hayfield, the College’s solar panels float in their resting position as the sun…descends. The collectors perform their harvest between heaven and earth, like an energy-absorbing sculpture that parachuted down from the sky or mushrooms that rose from the soil. Their rhythm of position suggests the ordered wavelengths of light upon which they thrive. They offer a promise of warmth for the cold night to come. This is the bold, new aesthetic of a sustainable world: the formal beauty of the contrast between a modern machine in a pastoral landscape, the conceptual beauty of power generation that works with the environment, the social beauty of people taking responsibility for their part of the planet.
[John Huddleston, Middlebury Magazine, Winter 2014, p. 3]
We must imagine new ways of living on the earth which God gave to us to tend. This web which connects us to all other beings requires that we take seriously how and from where we get our power to live. Many Vermonters decry the pollution of our visual landscape with solar panels or wind turbines, but for too long our power supply has come from power stations and pipelines and towers polluting the landscapes of those who have no alternatives but to live next door to those substations and towers or beneath the wires and pipelines. They look at them everyday. Their homes and bodies are radiated and polluted by them everyday. These are not easy or simple decisions. They are the labor of the new earth–letting go, dying, being lifted up to new life, being born anew.
“God did not send the Son into the world–God did not take on human flesh–to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” In Jesus we see God tied to humanity, and through him all humanity and the earth woven together. It is that Web of Love and Light that is both our burden and our blessing. We can fight and resist and deny that we are bound together, or we can allow that web to strengthen and assist us, even midwife us, into new ways of living together.
So may we born anew, born of the Spirit, which blows where it chooses. May that Spirit bring us to new life together. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark