To the Parishioners & Friends of Saint Bernard's:

 

Please enjoy the Sermon, from the last Sunday's service below...If you would like to comment upon the Sermon below, or would like to start a private dialogue with the Rev. Beth Rauen Sciaino, please hit "reply" to this email or contact her at [email protected].

 

 

You can also "listen" to Pastor Beth's Sermon by first clicking on the link below to go to the Sermons page of our website, then clicking on the Audio Play button.

 

 

A sermon preached by the Rev. Beth Rauen Sciaino
at St. Bernard's Episcopal Church in Bernardsville, NJ,
on the Second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017

Scripture: John 3:1-17
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus 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?" Jesus answered, "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." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
 
"Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
 
"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."
 
 
Many of us know details of our birth stories, or someone else's eventful birth. Twins born in the hospital hallway, a baby arriving on the side of the highway, or in a stable. Nicodemus probably knows a few details of his own birth. Perhaps he is a longed for first son, or the seventh. Whatever the story, it is woven deeply into his identity. Nicodemus and Jesus's conversation isn't just confusing for Nicodemus, it's confusing for us. It helps to remember that they are talking at cross purposes, Nicodemus trying to understand Jesus' message literally and Jesus speaking figuratively. "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" All the mothers I know would say, no way!
 
And yet there is much more to this story. Jesus is talking about a do-over in all senses of the word. In the ancient world, and for plenty of centuries after, your birth assigns the status that defines you and your life. Your honor is derived from your birth, your parents' own family connections and occupations convey status on you, high or low.   A status that matters in all your interactions. So, here's Jesus, this backwater guy born with low status, positioning himself as a teacher (which is a higher status) and saying "you have to be reborn as a child of God." It follows that being born from above would give a person godly status. You can't get higher than that in the status driven ancient world. [1]
 
Even though we have a different worldview than Nicodemus, Jesus' language of being born from above in order to gain eternal life is probably outside our comfort zone too. Yet, many of us have stories of being born anew - even if we don't think of them that way. The church has taken this language of regeneration, of rebirth by water and the Spirit, and married it to sacrament. When I was born anew we had four generations present, my great grandmother Beth Leahy was there in a loud pink floral dress. When my daughter, Phoebe, was born from above it was a hot July day and she was none too pleased to be splashed with water, although the congregation themselves wouldn't have minded. When my son, David, was born again the priest held him like a football and he waved to all the people gathered, delighted to be in on the action.
 
In our tradition, God acts through the sacrament of baptism to claim us as God's children. Parents and godparents make promises on behalf of young children, and older children and adults make promises of their own, trusting in God's help in this new life. Our prayers use the language of adoption. Some of us may have stories of adoption as well. Of ourselves or in our families. In baptism, we are born anew with God as our parent. Grafted to Christ's life, death, and resurrection, we join the Body of Christ, Christ's family. Our status is erased and we are equally brothers and sisters in Christ. I recently ordered Eric Milner-White's book of prayers, having first encountered him in Love's Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness. These prayers are intended to be lived, as they were for Dean Milner-White. The words breathed aloud and adapted for our own personal use in the hope of deepening our lives in God. Listen to God speaking to you in the language of this prayer entitled "Memorial of Holy Baptism." Listen for a word, phrase, or image that captures your imagination.
 
Memorial of Holy Baptism [2]
 
Once and for ever
      you did plunge me, O Lord God,
not into a little font,
      but into a boundless ocean
            of a Father's love:
and then did draw me forth,
            cleansed and glistening.
      new born, new clothed
            with Spirit and Light.
 
Out of captivity, out of the Egypt of sin,
      you have brought me forth into the Promised Land;
      to a new home in the sinless Body
            of your only-begotten Son.
In him you give me sonship
            eternal and divine,
      and a priesthood, royal and indelible,
            sealed with his Cross.
 
You, O God, call all your children by name;
      in your Book of life
            write mine among them.
Abba, Father; confirm me in Christ's grace,
      hold me in his Body,
      build me into his likeness,
            by your most holy Spirit, evermore. Amen.
 
Lent is the traditional time to prepare for baptism. We have three babies getting ready to be born anew during Eastertide, the season of Easter. We are praying for them on Sundays during in Lent. Please add Lukas, Cole, and Sidney to your personal prayers as well. Although we are only baptized once, we can all experience this season of Lent as a time to begin or return to holy habits that help us renew our faith and trust in God.
 
Our gospel today ends with familiar verses. John 3:16 goes hand in hand with John 3:17.
 
"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."
 
We must guard against the ways religion is used to divide people. Christians have a long history of claiming God's exclusive love in Jesus. Such an interpretation of God's love divides and diminishes others. That's doesn't reflect our experience of God's love. God's love is expansive and inclusive. These verses proclaim "In this manner, God loved the world - God sent his only Son to restore and liberate the world, not condemn the world." With the recent rise in Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia we must remember how the Gospel of John and other Scripture has been used against Jews, Muslims, and more. John's community's conflict with religious leaders of his day was writ large to blame the Jews for Jesus' crucifixion and justify pogroms and attacks, sometimes as a first stage of a crusade aimed at Muslims.
 
This logic of blame is wrong. Jesus was killed by the Roman state, he himself was a Jew, there were religious leaders and crowds, but all were Jews, including the disciples. By sending his only Son, God lives into the Jewish expectation that they as the chosen people will help bring the nations back into relationship with the God of the universe, their God. And thanks to Jesus, ours as well. Jews, Christians, and Muslims praise the same God, the same God who delights to calls them by name. Our attempts to restrict and control God's love will always fail. The mission of the Church is to restore people to God and each other in Jesus, not to use Jesus to divide ourselves one, from another. Our baptism helps us live into this mission.
 
May you rest in the boundless ocean of God's love. Remember your baptism, and be thankful. May God's love renew you to reach out in love to others, all children of a loving God. Amen.
 
 


[1] http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john3x1.htm . Citing Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992. p. 82.
[2] Eric Milner-White. My God, My Glory: Aspirations, Acts, and Prayers on the desire for God. London: Triangle, 1994 (reprint).p. 184.