A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
based on John 3: 1-17, and "Born Again, and Again, and Again" by Kerry Egan
preached March 12, 2017 at the First Church in Sterling, MA
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What was it like? The day you were saved?
I wonder if you’ve ever been asked that question.
In our scripture text from the third chapter of the Gospel according to John, Nicodemus is a religious leader genuinely puzzled by the question of salvation. Jesus tells him that he needs to be “born from above” in order to see the kingdom of God. “How is that possible?” Nicodemus asks. “I am old. I can’t be born again. I can’t squeeze myself back into the womb of my mother, and come out anew.”
“Yes, true, but you can start your life over in the spirit,” Jesus suggests. A spiritual re-birth is possible. The spirit is not like the flesh, it’s like the wind. And the wind is powerful. You can’t see it, but it rustles the trees and knocks out power lines, and you hear the loud howling sound of it wooshing through the wind tunnels the sky scrapers create in the cities. You can feel the impact of the wind when it touches ground in a tornado. And the spirit is also like water. It cleanses you, like a newborn baby bathed in amniotic fluid, as yet untouched by the world.
The passage we heard today contains John 3:16, perhaps the most famous scripture from the New Testament, the one often used as a purity test and a cudgel:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Here’s what I want you to remember from these sometimes weaponized words. Here is what I want you to teach the children:
1. FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD.
2. God did not come to condemn the world, but to save it.
Love changes us like a tornado: indeed it reorders our lives; it turns things upside down, and we are never the same. Love washes over us like a cleansing: We are reborn in it again and again. And yes, Love saves us, and we don’t have to earn our salvation. (God is not a monster, and love is not a lie.)
So what was it like? The day you were saved?
Truthfully, this is a question that I don’t get asked that often, even as a pastor. It’s kind of a thing that people usually don’t talk about in polite company, at least in Massachusetts anyway.
And yet, I remember so clearly last year one of you came to me distressed. You were having a conversation with someone in a professional capacity, and you happened to mention how much you loved your church; this church.
And the question posed to you by this associate was, “Are you saved?”
And you panicked. You had no idea how to answer. You were sure that the question didn’t come from a place of love, but from a place of judgment. You were hurt, confused and angry that someone would question your faith; your Christianity.
You wanted to know how you should answer the next time you are asked this question. Maybe you could turn the question back on the asker like Kerry Egan did, from a place of genuine, loving curiosity and say:
“What was it like? The day you were saved?”
A few months ago, I was hosting some evangelical clergy colleagues here at First Church. They were from a Pentecostal church in Worcester. I happened to be wearing a clerical collar (which I hardly ever wear) that evening. One of them introduced himself to me and said, “are you a Catholic?”
Puzzled, I said with a wink, “I don’t think the Catholic Church is ordaining girls like me into the priesthood these days. Yet.”
Then I realized he was referring to my collar, which he said he’d never seen a “Christian” pastor wear. (Much less a lady pastor, though he didn’t say that.)
“Oh, you’re referring to my collar. I’m the pastor here,” I said with a smile.
“Is this a Christian church?” He asked.
“Yes,” I said. “This is a Protestant Christian church.”
“What denomination?” He asked.
“It’s multi-denominational,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, looking skeptical. “Do you believe in Christ? Is your church Bible based?” He asked.
“Yes,” I said. “This is a Christian church associated with the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Bible is our foundational text.”
“Oh,” he said, eye-ing me a little sideways. “Good.”
The people I was standing next to were puzzled by these questions. “Aren’t we kind of obviously a Christian church? We’ve been here on the town green since Christianity was, like, invented.”
But I knew that these were coded questions. He was gauging our purity. “Are you saved? Is your congregation saved?” He was asking me. This is the way some Christians parse believers from un-believers, based on the scripture text from John that we read today. Are you born again? Are you John 3:16 Christians? Which is another way of saying “true”, “saved” Christians?
I want you to know that in preparation for this sermon, I googled yesterday morning the question “am I saved?” Because when Jesus said to work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling, I felt sure that Google was one tool Jesus placed in my tool box. I found a quiz online called “Am I Saved?” It asked me the following questions:
1. What is your age?
2. What is your gender?
3. Are you born again?
4. How do you feel after you've become born again
I’m born again and a new creature in Christ
I’m born again but the same person
I’m not sure
I’m not born again
5. Do you love your children, parents, or your own life more than Jesus?
I have to think about that
6. How do you feel about your sins?
I hate sin and I flee from sin
I don’t want to sin but I cant stop
I love my sins
7. Is Jesus the only way to heaven?
8. Do you forgive others who have sinned against you?
I forgive and forget
I forgive, but don’t forget
I only forgive those I love
I don’t forgive
9. Could you die for Christ? ie...decapitation
I don’t know
No, I cant
10. Do you believe the bible to be 100% true?
11. How often do you pray and read scriptures
Whenever I have time
12. Who is Jesus?
A good man
God in the flesh
One of many gods
My result was, in a nutshell, that I am only 33% saved. (Which I suppose is better than 0%, but still seemed kind of low for a pastor).The internet doesn’t always have all the answers, because it is wrong, at least in this case. I am 100% saved. So are you. Every single one of us is 100% saved by virtue only of our birth.
For God so loved the world that God came not to condemn, but to save it.
My colleague Rev. Chris Buice, in his meditation manual, "Rollerskating as a Spiritual Practice" (Skinnerhouse Books) writes:
Occasionally I am stopped on the street and asked the question, “Are you saved?” Even though I am a minister, I am never sure how to reply. Then I remember a story from my own childhood. When I was a child, four or five years old, I took my brother’s pocket knife and began carving some words into the wooden headboard of my bed. When my mother discovered my creative work, she was justifiably angry.
I think normally vandalism of furniture would have gotten me into deep trouble. But my mother was a minister’s wife, and the words I had carved into the bed were “Jesus Loves Me.” In this kind of situation it is true that “Jesus saves.”
Of course I was saved not only by Jesus. I was saved by a mom who knew who to balance accountability with forgiveness. I imagine that it is difficult to know how to discipline your children when their religious expression does damage to the furniture. But through a gentle talk, my mom was able to help me see the error of my ways and I changed my behavior for the better.
Another time I was saved when I was swimming in the ocean. I went out into water way over my head and was caught in the undertow. Fortunately my brother Sam noticed that I was struggling. He jumped into the water and came out to get me. He hauled me in to shore.
Once again I was saved by a grace, both human and divine.
When I hear the word saved, I think of being rescued from danger, delivered from evil, protected from harm. And in many ways I have been saved. Sometimes this experience of salvation has a human hand and a person’s face. At other times I encounter it when I am alone in the woods and there is no sound except the whispering of the wind playing in the leaves or water flowing over rocks in a stream.
And as I remember these things I know the answer to the question, “Are you saved?” “Yes,” I reply, “I am definitely saved.”
So what was it like? The day you were saved? The day you were rescued from danger, delivered from evil, protected from harm?
What was it like the day you got sober, the day you left the abusive marriage, the day your babies were born, the day you got your health back, the day you survived that car accident, the day you were told your cancer was in remission, the day you realized you survived--bruised and battered, but alive--the death of a loved one, or the death of a relationship? What was it like, the day you were given a new chance at love? What was it like the day you were welcomed—truly welcomed—for all of who you are for the first time? What was it like, the day you forgave a friend or enemy, the day you yourself were forgiven, the day you lost your old life, and found a new one?
If you ask me if I’m saved, I would say: “Yes, I’m saved. I’m saved every day that I’m alive. I’m born again every time the sun rises again in the east, every time the shadow of death turns to the light of morning. I am born again every time I am given the opportunity to see Christ’s face in another human being. I am saved by grace, which has nothing to do with what I have done or have failed to do. Every day I am alive is my salvation day, every person I meet who has a lesson to teach me, a savior.”
If the colleagues visiting our church asked me outright if my congregation is saved, I would have said “Oh yes, my congregation is saved. We are saved by each other, by our children and each other’s children, and by the love of God which is so powerful and so extravagant, that this love doesn’t parse who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy. No bible based purity test or internet quiz can measure it. And what’s more, my congregation is responding to the wasteful love of God by saving others, and that salvation is reverberating throughout the community and the world.”
I got an anonymous card this week with $25 in cash sent to the church office. Here is what the card says:
"Dear Reverend Bartlett,
In today's Item, I read with interest the article about your parish and the reverse offering. One of the stories was of particular interest to me. One member donated her offering to the lunch account of a needy child he knew at Clinton Elementary School. I taught school at the elementary level for 25 years and I am retired. I am hoping that you will be kind enough to find that teacher and ask them to use my enclosed donation to add to that child's lunch fund."
Salvation spreads, like grass in the wind; like the spirit of God that blows upon it. For God so loves the world that God came to save it through flesh and blood humanity. We are born again of the spirit with every act of this salvific love; creating a heaven here on earth.
Anne Lamott says “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” Beloved, be a beacon bringing light to the dark places. You are the light of the world. Stand there shining.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.