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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Born From Above--A Sermon

Born From Above
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 22, 2012


During Winter, the season we have designated to explore the via creativa, the way of creativity and imagination, I am preaching a series of sermons on the Gospel of John. Theologian Matthew Fox coined the name Creation Spirituality to speak of a way of living that embodies a certain authenticity toward life. Creation Spirituality is Earthy spirituality. It is a friend of science. It is a friend of the body. It is a friend of Earth and all who live on Earth, that is all of life including more than human life. Creation Spirituality affirms that we are from Earth, we are bios or life, and that Earth is home.

Creation Spirituality is not a religion. While its roots are in Christianity, it transcends it. It also isn’t just what I say it is. This certainly isn’t about dogma or having the right beliefs about things. It is about a way of living more than requirements to believe. Creation Spirituality has four paths. The Latin term for path is via. These four paths or vias are:

Via positiva – the path of awe, wonder, and celebration
Via negativa –the path of letting go and acknowledging loss and limits
Via creativa—the path of creativity and imagination
Via transformativa—the path of compassion, justice-making, and transformation

These paths are not a ladder climbed, but a spiral danced. Connecting a path to season of the year is a way of acknowledging Earth’s changing seasons and a way of appreciating Earth’s rhythms. To connect the via positiva with Summer and the via creativa with Winter does not mean we are only creative in the Winter and celebratory in the Summer, any more than as Christians we live resurrection only on Easter. Attaching a path to a season (such as creativity with Winter) is a way of intentionally exploring this path even as in our own life we may experience bursts of creativity throughout the year.

I find it helpful to structure worship around the four seasons and the four paths of Creation Spirituality. Creation Spirituality, as I see it, is a way of living that embodies a certain authenticity toward life and Earth. It is an Earthy spirituality. It is a way of being authentic, of being human. Religion does its job when it encourages, invites, and provides means via ritual, reflection, community, and practice to live lives that matter.

If you are interested in learning more about Creation Spirituality, I recommend Matthew Fox’s book, Original Blessing. Or you can google Creation Spirituality or Matthew Fox. I am no purist or apologist for it. I borrow what I like from it and shape it in a way that makes sense to me. I think in doing so, I am honoring creativity. I make my own theology.

Religious experience for many has not offered that freedom. For the most part, religion is fixed. It is waking each morning and believing six impossible things before breakfast. It includes rules and weirdness and a whole lot of guilt. The idea of making up or creating your own religion or spirituality might seem to be an odd notion. Surely you’ll go to hell for that. Then again, maybe you won’t. Care to take a chance? Or is it safer to follow the rules and believe in a punitive god even though that god is like an abusive spouse?

We inherit our notions of God just by living in the culture. Our culture’s god is a mean old cuss. He is a male, first off. Then he’s tribal. He favors one group over another. He is always starting wars. He is racist. Look at the yokels running for president. They are all about god. Each one is just as holy and pure as mama’s Bible. Their god doesn’t want equality for gay people. Their god doesn’t believe in evolution. Their God doesn’t care about poverty and inequality. Their God’s long-term plan is to destroy the planet to get the fossil fuels as fast as we can by any means necessary. There is no reason to care about future generations because Jesus will be coming back and he’ll make us a new heavenly home. Hallelujah.

It may be an odd notion to create a new religion, but the dominant religion of our culture sure doesn’t seem to be working for us. Care to take a chance?

The via creativa is the spiritual path of exploring and imagining new ways of living in this world. And the creativity comes when we finally give up. We want to run out the door screaming into the darkness. More than one person this week has told me that they have given up on the political process. I wonder if maybe we are getting to a point where something new and unexpected is about happen.

You know what creative moments are like. You have been going through the motions, or stuck in a rut, or have a block, all of those metaphors we use. Suddenly, it seems, we get an insight, something breaks through. That is creativity. You know that you can’t force it. It happens when it is ready. The via creativa is a path of nurturing creativity. It is trusting creativity. You can empty a space for it, but creativity is serendipitous. It is surprising. It is unexpected.

It happens when you allow yourself permission to let go of old ways, the via negativa is letting go, and to be willing to try something new.

A teacher of the law, Nicodemus, comes to Jesus in the night (night is the symbol for the via negativa) and he acknowledges that Jesus is of God. Nicodemus says to Jesus:
“Rabbi, we know that you’ve come as a teacher from God; after all, nobody can perform the signs you do unless God is with him.”


Jesus replied to him, “Let me tell you this: no cone can experience the empire of God without being reborn from above.”
That is the Scholars’ Version, a translation by the Jesus Seminar. 

You may have heard the phrase, 
“You must be born again.” 
There is a certain type of Christianity in which people call themselves “born again” believers. It comes from this text in the Gospel of John. The word translated as “again” is the Greek word, anothen. It also means “above.” Was Jesus telling Nicodemus that he must be born again or that he must be born from above? Nicodemus thinks he means “again” and asks how he can go back into his mother’s womb. Can you be much more of a literalist than that?

It is like the woman at the well later in the gospel. Jesus says I have life-giving water so you will never thirst. She says, “Great! Give me it and I won’t need to keep coming to this well.” No. That isn’t what Jesus means. Another time, Jesus says you must eat my body and drink my blood. They think he really means it.

The Gospel of John is not an account of the historical Jesus. The Gospel of John is the work of a creative author offering a poetic portrait of the authentic life. A life he saw in the historical person of Jesus. Then he wrote a parable about him.

Bishop John Shelby Spong has written a new book, Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. The book is based on his weekly column in which he wrote about the different books of the Bible. It is a great summary of the background of each book of the Bible from a critical perspective. This is what John Shelby Spong writes about John:
“If I had to give my readers one clue and one clue only that would unlock the Fourth Gospel and allow its honesty and wonder to flow forth, it would be that the author is constantly poking fun at anyone who would take his message literally, misunderstand his use of symbols or attempt to literalize the words he has attributed to Jesus.” P. 387
In our story with Nicodemus, the joke is on him. Jesus says, “You must be born from above” or perhaps “reborn from above” as the Scholars’ Version translates it, to get both senses of that word. Nicodemus, the religious teacher, the leader, the smart guy, is as literal as a stump. “You mean I need to go back to my mother’s womb?” The joke is on him. But it is more than that. The joke is on us. We have been literalizing Jesus for centuries.

Every time we read one of these weird stories in John, it should be a clue that this is tongue in cheek. It is a koan, a parable, in which the character Jesus happens to be the protagonist. And it is an invitation at every step to live an authentic life.

What does it mean to live an authentic life, or to use some of John’s metaphors, what does it mean to
Be a branch of the vine,
To drink living water,
To eat Jesus’s flesh,
To hear and follow the shepherd’s voice,
To know the way, the truth, and the life,
To see the light in the darkness,
To rise from the dead,
To be reborn from above?

John just piles on the metaphors and images and the other characters in the story misinterpret them. The joke John says to us is, “Will you miss it, too?”

It is pretty much an historical consensus that the historical Jesus was executed by the Roman Empire. He died not of disease, or old age, or accident, but by a deliberate act of torture and spectacle by the most powerful empire in the known world. His execution according to Roman law was legal and legitimate.

The Roman Empire wasn’t a bad empire. To use a phrase by religious scholars, Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, Rome represented the “normalcy of civilization.” To keep the peace and to keep order sometimes you have to crucify people. Jesus and thousands of others like him were collateral damage.

The author of John’s Gospel and the authors of the other gospels each in their own way, saw something in this. They saw that this “normalcy of civilization” is dehumanizing. Jesus represented a human being and what it means to be human in a dehumanizing world. John wanted to tell a story of the powers of this world, this normalcy of civilization, exposed for what they are and for what it is. He found in the story of Jesus a way to tell it.

This part is still true today. When we are told
that war is inevitable,
that destroying our planet for non-renewable resources is essential to life,
that infinite economic growth is possible or desirable,
that corporations are people,
then we live in a very similar world to the one John’s Gospel exposed as the power of darkness,
“the world”.

What does it mean to be a human being in “the world”? That is what I think John’s invitation is.

Jesus tells Nicodemus, “
You must be reborn from above.”
In 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told Americans the same thing. A nation that enslaved people for 244 years and said it was normal, even God-ordained, then today goes to endless war all over the globe and makes war an economic essential, exploits the poor, consigns our children to environmental catastrophe, and fills our every moment with white noise from the media, that nation needs to reborn from above.

King said, “America, you must be born again!”

He was right. 

It isn’t just America. It is everyone.

The author of John’s gospel by creating this exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus was saying to his readers, 
"It is time to raise your consciousness. It is time to be reborn from above."
The way we are going is not sustainable. But it is not hopeless.

Now is the via creativa.

The human brain is more complex than the galaxy. We have more neurons in each of our brains then there are stars in the galaxy. They are connected in ways the stars are not. Life is incredible. 

The possibilities for imagining and creating a new way of living with one another and with Earth in sustainable ways are out there and in here. Being born from above means to raise our consciousness and to become more aware of who we are and what life is and what it can be. Given the chance, we can share and create and cooperate and collaborate. We can survive and thrive for many, many more generations. Life as the Domination System has structured it is not inevitable.

Yeah, the world knows how to make crosses.

But the Gospel of John ends with resurrection, rebirth, and a new start. 
Amen.
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