First Sunday after Pentecost; Peace with Justice Sunday; Honoring our Graduates
Scripture: John 3:1-17
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Gill Stoneking
How many of you enjoy the past time of people watching? Now that our communities are beginning to open up, this activity is back on the table again. Though we are all a mix of introverts and extroverts, we humans are social creatures, in the sense that we are interested in others, even if we want to engage from a distance and at our own pace. Noticing others people is a part of our basic humanity. Many of us have been filling this basic human need during this pandemic period of relative isolation with television or group zooms or webinars or reading. A pastor friend of mine is just about to go on sabbatical and I asked her what she planned to do during her time away. Travel, a spiritual retreat at a monastery, spending more time with family were the things I imagined she’d say. “I’m going to go to neighborhoods unfamiliar to me and people watch,” she said.
This week I had the wonderful opportunity to attend my sister-in-law’s graduation from the Graduate School of Social Work at Fordham. The ceremony was livestreamed, so different than an in-person ceremony. Each graduate had less than a minute on the screen, but the up-close photo they submitted, the words they chose to accompany their graduation slide in the ceremony, gave a tiny glimpse into who each graduate was. So many different faces, each with their own story and journey.
But what we saw was only a glimpse, just like the fleeting moment of noticing an other while we’re people watching. And because we only have this tiny piece of the picture, it’s natural for our minds to fill in the rest of the story. And while this may be a compelling, interesting even lovely story, it is just that—a story, projected onto a very limited glimpse. The truth is that there’s about a 100% chance that what we imagine the story to be is not actually the case.
Take our scripture today from the third chapter of John. This passage contains one of the most quoted and referenced scriptures in the Bible, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that all who believed in him should not perish but have eternal life.” When it’s quoted, it is often to assert that belief in Jesus, the son of God, is required by all. It’s implied that the crucifixion of Jesus was a result of the love of God for the world. This then leads to all manner of theology based on love and sacrifice being the same thing. This interpretation has rarely been of benefit to oppressed groups. A story is constructed out of this one line. And this imagined story eclipses the real human choices that the people involved in Jesus’ life made.
Look again at this scripture, “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s son…” Period. It doesn’t say God gave God’s son to die. It doesn’t say, “so he could be crucified.” No, this line is part of a larger passage that introduces us to the character of Nicodemus. And when we include the larger story, this line becomes more complex. More nuanced. Alive and open to many interpretations.
Widening our lens to include the beginning of this passage, we learn that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a member of the religious ruling council. The scripture tells us he comes to Jesus and says, ““Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” What we are to understand from this is that Nicodemus has heard the stories of Jesus. In today’s terms, it’s like Nicodemus has looked at the Disciples’ Instagram feed or perused the “Jesus of Nazareth” Facebook page.
Nicodemus has read the tweets others have made about Jesus. He’s constructed a whole story about who Jesus is and isn’t based on glimpses. The fact that the passage opens telling us that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a member of the ruling religious council is telling us that Nicodemus comes to Jesus with certain pre-conceived notions, and certain needs. And these biases, combined with what is really just a secondhand glimpse into the person of Jesus prevent Nicodemus from understanding truly what Jesus is offering.
Jesus responds to Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Nicodemus takes this literally and asks how anyone could re-enter their mother’s womb. But Jesus tells him, no, you’re still stuck in your constructed story. What I am offering is new life over and over and over again through the renewing power of the Holy Spirit.
As members of the church, this new life, this being born again is what we experience over and over again every time the stories we construct based on our glimpses are blown away by the truth that comes from real relationship. Jesus is asking Nicodemus to put aside his certainty and his assumptions and enter into a freshness of being that is open to so much more. Jesus is asking Nicodemus to be humble and to enter into a transformational way of being that has empowered the miracles he’s heard of on Jesus’ first century Facebook page. There’s always more to the story than what we see, but too often the glimpse and the story built on it becomes the narrative, then takes on a life of its own becoming reality, or at least something that drives other choices and perceptions. This is a kind of death, because it is living built on a misperception at best, a delusion at worst. Jesus invites us to be born again through humility and relationship deep enough to know the whole story. There are so few places where we can come to know the real story that people are living, and the story as it has evolved over time.
Today is graduation Sunday. Every graduate we are honoring today has a story behind their accomplishment. And the blessing of being a part of a church community is we know so much of the story. There’s no need to extrapolate and build a narrative from a fleeting glimpse. We’ve lived the journey with each other. Just think of our graduating seniors. We’ve had the privilege of being a part of a most formative time in their journeys, and know that each of them has overcome obstacles to thrive, showing remarkable resilience and faithfulness. We know their gifts and their graces. Being a graduate this year myself, I know that Epworth was a key part, the final puzzle piece to being able to finish my PhD after eleven years. We mark milestones together because we understand what the celebration is really about and have walked the journey together to get to this moment.
It’s through journeying with each other over time that we learn that no one is one dimensional. No one is up all the time. There isn’t a person who hasn’t suffered. We bear witness to things lifted up in prayer that blow away any narrative we may have concocted on our own. All of us are human.
Journeying together, we also know that conflicts can be healed. Grudges that may fester when we only know part of the story give way when a new dimension is revealed. We have witnessed the Holy Spirit make a way for someone when the way forward was not clear. We’ve celebrated not just graduations together, but also births, anniversaries of being sober, new jobs and we’ve grieved together losses and even deaths. This is the church in action. This is the church living, breathing, alive.
Sometimes in my life people have said to me, “The church is just a bunch of hypocrites!” When I was younger pastor and I was challenged in this way, I used to go into such lengthy apologetics of the church. Now I just say, “Yes, but we’re trying not to be.” And knowing it and trying not to be makes all the difference. We see each other in our multi-dimensionality, and we have the privilege of seeing each other change, emerge, age, discover and be transformed. This what it means to have eternal life. We are known in our complexity. Our stories attach to other stories and then live on in the history of the community. This is what it means to be born again. And again and again and again. This is the church. Amen.
Order of Service (Bulletin) - Sunday, May 30, 2021
First Sunday after Pentecost; Peace with Justice Sunday; Honoring our Graduates
The Community Gathers
Prelude: "Lord, Lead Thou Me On" - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Welcome and "We Are One in the Spirit" Liturgy - Rev. Kristin Stoneking & Judy Kriege
Opening Hymn: "I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry" The Faith We Sing #2051 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Danica Elliott
Invocation - Greg Downs
To Hear the Word
Scripture Reading: John 3:1-17 - Dana Buntrock
Children's Message: "Honoring our Graduates" - Orion Lacey
Anthem: "The Circle Game" by Joni Mitchell - Paloma Campi & Judy Kriege
Message: "The Church Marks Milestones Together" - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
To Respond and Renew Commitment
Hymn of Response: "Praise the Source of Faith and Learning" The Faith We Sing #2004 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Melani Gantes
Call for Prayer - Greg Downs
Special Music: "Child of God" by Mark Miller - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Charles Lynch
The Prayer Jesus Taught - Juliet Hilton
Call for Offering - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Offertory - On Peace with Justice Sunday, one of six worldwide UMC special offerings, funds ministries that promote peace through social justice advocacy and initiatives in our local communities and around the world. Donate online at www.epworthberkeley.org/donate
Prayer of Dedication - Greg Downs
To Go Forth with Love and Compassion
Closing Hymn: “In the Midst of New Dimensions (Ours the Journey)" The Faith We Sing #2238 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Cathryn Bruno
Benediction - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Postlude: "Ours the Journey" - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Special Thanks To
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Contributors: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Cathryn Bruno, Dana Buntrock, Paloma Campi, Greg Downs, Danica Elliott, Melani Gantes, Juliet Hilton, Susan Jardin, Judy Kriege, Orion Lacey, Charles Lynch Video producer: Tai Jokela Podcast producer: Ethan Toven-Lindsey Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
Prayers ©2021 enfleshed
Hymns reprinted/streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE # A-733809, CCLI Copyright license # 20022935, & CCLI Streaming license # 20476749. All rights reserved.