A sermon by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson on March 5th, 2023
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
Before I begin today, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that it has been a minute since I last set foot in this pulpit, over two months to be accurate. That break from preaching was an intentional choice. As I told you all back in December, the season of Epiphany was not only going to be a time for us to listen with great intention and care to A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, it was also a season for us to hear from a sustained rota of women and LGBTQ preachers as well as preachers of color whose voices have not been the norm for the majority of the history this pulpit has existed.
I want to thank our preachers, the Reverend’s Jayan Koshy, Barbara Mraz, Marc Landeweer, Chelsea Stanton, and Katie Ernst, as well as the Right Reverend Craig Loya, Katie Madsen, and Mary Johnson for their powerful words, for bringing their whole selves into this pulpit and sharing deeply and vulnerably from their lives and experiences.
While we are no longer using the Women’s Lectionary on Sundays, the intention to hear more regularly from the voices that have historically been excluded from this pulpit will continue in our monthly Racial Reconciliation Eucharists as we celebrate a saint or saints whose lives uplift and celebrate the work of racial healing and justice. As with last Sunday’s celebration of Frederick Douglass and our preacher Melvin Carter, Jr., we will hear each month from a preacher either from within our congregation or a guest from the wider world whose life and witness echo that of our saint that month.
This is one small way we can begin to unravel the threads of white supremacy culture, a culture that includes patriarchy and homophobia, which have been woven into our church since its inception 140 years ago. This work is long and is bound to lead to discomfort. It will challenge us to not only dismantle the visible structures of injustice in our church and to relearn our own history with greater accuracy and a fuller account of the complex and often painful legacy we’ve inherited. I recall years ago when I arrived at St. John’s just after Jim Frazier was putting the finishing touches on our parish history, he told me how for every story he printed in the book, there were at least two he was told “now don’t put this in the book.” For serious reasons and silly, we know there are parts of our story we’d rather not tell or remember. But, this work will also challenge us to prayerfully examine the ways in which the threads of racism and patriarchy are woven through our own hearts and minds.
As Chelsea preached so beautifully a couple weeks back “why, if we want to change, haven’t things changed already? Why does it seem like such a long and fraught process? Because” she continues, “our minds have been conformed to this world…We have become acclimated to the norms of rich, historically-white churches like ours, with structures that were built to exclude… What we really need is… to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We need to build a culture that remembers we are all related, that believes when Godde says we are all deserving, that shares because it’s our responsibility and our delight.”
It is this transformed life, the mercy and grace of God, of right and reconciled living that stands as the desire behind this Sunday’s lessons and at the heart of the Lenten season. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night seemingly to affirm his suspicion that Jesus is divinely inspired, that he comes from God. Is this real, Nicodemus seems to imply, what you preach and teach? Are you for real? And, Jesus responds, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus is baffled and wonders out loud how a literal rebirth is even possible.
It can be dispiriting to look at the church, never mind the world, to consider our history of hurts and transgressions, how we’ve been wedded at times to the most oppressive and damaging myths to ever shape our planet, and wonder why we haven’t changed, why we’ve not been born again, to be a part of God’s revolution to love and transform the world. My suspicion is that like Nicodemus, time and again we’ve been tempted to see the challenge first and foremost as about our own efforts. We see the enormity of the problem, the massive disparity and lack in the world, the physical barriers, the time that has passed and the continued oppression and deprivation caused by our greed and cynicism, our complicity, our desire for comfort and our reluctance to change. How can we ever hope to begin again? How can we ever be born anew?
Again, Jesus responds, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Unless, Jesus is saying, unless we are transformed in our hearts and minds, born anew in the water of baptism and remade by the power of God’s life-giving Spirit, we cannot possibly comprehend, let alone embrace and live into, the world that Jesus is teaching and preaching. And you might justifiably say, yeah, so what?!? We’ve been professing to believe in the power of God’s Holy Spirit for generations. For centuries we’ve been baptizing folks in the water of God’s love, and covenanting that we will, among many promises, “seek and serve Christ in all persons”. Why has it not mattered? How are we still here, with these problems, with this pain and these structures of inequity and injustice?
Just this week I sat in these pews with a young person who had come to the church with these very questions. We sat and we talked about their doubts, how it was that a church like ours could, for almost a century and a half, hold in its pews the rich and the powerful, the heads of Fortune 500 companies and major banks, could possess millions of dollars in endowed funds and build all of this, and yet not be able to move the physical and time bound structures of injustice but a few inches, not only in the wider world where our members hold so much sway, but even here in our own midst. And, what, I wondered, what would transformation look like? Would a future St. John’s look more diverse? Would it mean a more generous program of giving out of our abundant resources to a world so much in need? Would it mean greater advocacy and activism for change stemming from our pews and our pulpit? What might it look like to you? What do you imagine in your mind as you consider St. John’s born again? Might it also mean greater connection between members, a more profound sense of welcome when you walked through the doors, a desire to know one another with greater vulnerability and honesty, to truly see each other and be seen as we are? Is this what it would mean to be born again?
When Nicodemus came to Jesus, he did so, the gospel tells us, as a leader in the religious and cultural life of his people. That is a significant point. Scholars tell us that the community out of which John’s gospel emerged, was a community in conflict and division. The early Christian church which had begun in synagogues and among the faithful of one tradition, was now at odds within those same communities. Adherents to Jesus’ way of Love found themselves the objects of scorn by the leaders of their community, and were being expelled and persecuted because following Jesus was upending the structures and causing discomfort among the powerful, those in charge in their communities. In short, Nicodemus, a leader, embodies the very conflicted reality we face – powerful, privileged, connected, and yet still inexplicably drawn to Jesus, to what he teaches and preaches, drawn to be a part of a community that embraces the liberating, life-giving, love of God, but recognizing what will have to be left behind to join in this new way.
And here I was brought up short. I will confess that like the young person with whom I shared the conversation this week, I too was confounded and disillusioned by the enormity of the problem, of my own complicity in the structures of injustice, and how far off the vision of God’s beloved community seemed. But, Jesus reminded me, reminds all of us, this week in the gospel, that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son into the world, that whosoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life. Translators tell us that this phrase “everlasting life” might more accurately mean life according to a new way, life in a new age, we assume, in the age of God’s reconciliation and love, as the gospel proclaims, life in God’s beloved community. God so LOVED the world that God left the heavenly realm to be with us in this one. Are you for real? As the passage concludes, God didn’t send the Son into the world to condemn it, or us, but to save us. Like Nicodemus, we might rightly wonder, if this is for real. God gave up power, glory, strength, and infinity, and came among us as one known by his suffering, without power, and constrained by the structures of the world. In short, God sacrificed everything because God loves us.
Today the invitation is the same and yet ever new. Can we accept that love? Can we believe in it, yield to it, rest in it, be renewed and reborn by it? The answer to that question holds the potential to transform us, in all our flaws and failings, in the midst of our confusion and doubt, in the midst of our stumbling, struggling, clutching after whatever remains of our own power and privilege, and renew us to love the world that God so loved. Such a love might help free us from the structures to which we so tightly cling, so that the Spirit of God, like a mighty wind, might blow us into a future full of God’s compassionate, joyful, and life-giving and world saving presence, where we and all of Creation are reconciled and restored to one another and to the God who first loved us into being.