Sunday, June 7, 2009

The New Late Show With

Sermon preached June 7, 2009

Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17

Late night television is changing. This week, in its fifty-fifth year on the air, The Tonight Show, changed hosts. Only five men have been the regular hosts of this program in its long history: Steve Allen, Jack Parr, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, and now - - - Conan O’Brien. I was watching the news Monday night and suddenly I remembered that this would be the first night for The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. I thought it would be fun to watch a little history in the making, so I tuned in for the first part of the show – watched Conan O’Brien run across the United States only to discover that he left his studio keys on the window sill in New York. Max Weinberg’s band is now The Tonight Show Band, marking the first time, I think, that a rock and roll musician will lead the Tonight Show music. Change happens.
Change is the topic of another late night talk show, this one from a much earlier era – before podcasts, before television, before radio, before widely disseminated print medium. Roving reporter Nick O’Demus – do you suppose he is Irish like Conan O’Brien? – seeks a late night interview with the religious teacher Jesus of Nazareth, who is creating quite a splash. No doubt Nick wants to get the scoop. He gets more than he bargained for.
Nick tries to set the stage for the interview. “We know 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.” You expect that he will follow with a question in good late night talk show fashion. Jesus doesn’t wait for the question. “Here’s the truth of things, no one can really get what I am up to, no one can really see God’s dream for the world without being born again, born from above.” The interview was quickly getting away from Nick, but he manages a question. “What!? How is this possible? How, after a person has grown old, can they be born? You can’t go back into your mother’s womb and come out again.” The conversation moves on from there, with Jesus trying to make it clear that he is not talking about being born like you were the first time, but of a different kind of birth , one that comes from the wild Spirit of God. When this Spirit of God blows into and through your life there will be change, there will be life re-orientation. You might see the world and live life in such a new way that it will be like being born for the first time.
From this passage in John 3, there has arisen a tradition within Christian faith that makes the language of being born again the central language of Christian faith. Many of us have had concerned persons come up and ask us if we have been born again. It is helpful to remember that this is but one image used in the New Testament to try and describe what life in Christ and in the God’s Spirit is like. It is not the only image. Many who focus on this image for Christian faith and life also seem to assume that being born again is a one-time experience. “Have you been born again?” seems to ask for a simple “yes” or “no” answer, and the experience should be one that you can locate in time. If being born again is not the only image for what it means to open your life to God’s love in Jesus Christ and to God’s Spirit, I also want to challenge the idea that the image of being born again should be used for a single experience. What if there are multiple possibilities for being born again? What if God’s Spirit in our lives is always inviting us to new life, to see differently, to live differently? This is not to deny the possibility and reality of dramatic change in people’s lives, of “radical transformation of personality through Christ” to use the words of one commentator on John’s Gospel (John Sanford, Mystical Christianity, 82). Nor is it to deny that all the small choices we make daily contribute to some larger change project in our lives – in fact, I think that is the case. However, each of these small, daily choices are part of being born again, and are, in some ways, new birth.
If we can think to the possibility that new birth happens frequently, the same might be said for the idea of God’s call in our lives. Isaiah 6 uses different language to describe an experience of new birth, and his story adds important dimensions to that experience. Rather than use the term “born again,” however, Isaiah’s story is considered a story of God’s call. The prophet has a powerful experience of the presence of God during a time of national mourning. The experience of God leaves him feeling that his own life lacks, but the encounter with God offers forgiveness and transformation – new birth. And God calls for someone to go to care for God’s work, and Isaiah responds “Here I am; send me!”
Again, the language of the call of God is often used singularly. Are you following your calling? Clergy are often asked to tell the story of their call into ordained ministry – a single call. But what if God’s call might be something that happens daily, moment to moment? This is not to deny that there are also dramatic life-altering calls like a call to ordained ministry or a call to another vocation, but it rather suggests that God is always present, always inviting us to know God, know ourselves more deeply, and to be about God’s work in the world.
Every day, every moment, God speaks our name – {speak some names}. God knows us completely and calls to us.
God always invites us to new life, to new birth. Sometimes we experience that invitation as an invitation to be more of who we really are, to center our lives in our Real Self (John Sanford, 82), or to express our soul (Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness). Sometimes we experience the invitation to new life as a sense of lack, a sense that we have been on the wrong track and need to change, a sense that we have done wrong and need forgiveness and a new beginning. Sometimes when we hear God’s call to new life it causes us to recognize where we have hurt others or hurt ourselves. Isaiah experienced God and felt himself to be a person of unclean lips. Sometimes God’s invitation to new life is to a more genuine life and sometimes it is an invitation to a very different life because we have not been living well.
God calls us by name. God invites us to new life. God also always calls us to meaningful work in the world, to make a difference in the world, to touch others in positive ways. The voice of God saying to Isaiah, “Whom shall I send?” is no different from the voice of God to each of us – whom shall I send to love the world with my love, to do justice, to feed the hungry, to offer compassion, to help others hear my call to new life and new birth?
Today God calls to each of us, by name. God’ Spirit invites us to new life, just as Jesus invited Nicodemus to new life on that late show long ago. God’s Spirit invites us to new work in the world, just as Isaiah was invited so many years ago.
There are two songs, both country songs, that tell this story well. Both speak of life in terms of dancing. Garth Brooks has a song simply entitled “The Dance.” The story line is remembering a wonderful dance with a woman from whom he later separated, and the line that I find particularly memorable is “I could have missed the pain but I’d have had to miss the dance.” The video tells a more expansive story, showing pictures of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance. Somehow I hear the voice of God calling my name in that, the Spirit of God inviting me to new life, to new birth to dance.
Lee Ann Womack also sings a wonderful song with the simple title, “I Hope You Dance.” I hope you never lose your sense of wonder/You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger/May you never take one single breath for granted/God forbid love ever leave you empty-handed/I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean/Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens/Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance/And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance… I hope you dance. I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance/Never settle for the path of least resistance/Livin’ might mean takin’ chances but they’re worth takin’/Lovin’ might be a mistake but it’s worth makin’/Don’t let some hell bent heart leave you bitter/When you come close to sellin’ out reconsider/Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance/And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance… I hope you dance.
Somehow I hear the voice of God calling my name in that, the Spirit of God inviting me to new life, to new birth, to dance. I hope you hear God calling your name this morning inviting you to new life, new birth, and I hope you dance! Amen.

Garth Brooks, "The Dance

Lee Ann Womack, "I Hope You Dance

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