I had the opportunity to preach the second Sunday of Lent at the church I formerly attended, the First Presbyterian Church of Urbana, IL.  This is the sermon from March 16, 2014.


When I moved to Texas almost 7 years ago, I decided to engage in a life-style experiment.  I had told people over the years in my work as a minister and as a psychologist that there was dignity in work of any kind, and that it was not as important what you did but how you did it.  I decided it was time to find out if I really believed that, so I decided that I would not immediately try to recreate the same life there that I had here.  Instead of starting a private practice in psychotherapy or looking for a college faculty position, I became self-employed as a handyman and began writing.

For more than 35 years I had engaged in work that felt important to me and that had a certain level of prestige involved.  Suddenly I had no affiliation with a university, no regular contact with professional educators, doing work that had nothing to do with my doctorate or my professional license.  I created for myself a test to see if I truly believed what I had been telling people.  The experiment continues.  It has been both disorienting and refreshing.  It’s still hard for me to be doing my handyman work and not tell the person hiring me, “I’m not really a handyman.  I’m a psychologist with a long history at the University of Illinois.  Judy has suggested I make a work shirt with the word, “I have a Ph.D.” printed on the front.

One discovery has been that the life I built up around my profession, my colleagues, my church, and my life in the Midwest, for all the good things about it, also came with a set of blinders.  My life in the Southwest as a handyman comes with a different set of blinders.  Anything we wrap our identities around comes with a set of perks and a set of liabilities.  And that observation provides the context for our New Testament text.

John 3: 1-6

Sometimes a term for a specific product or activity gets used so often that the specific term becomes a generic one to refer to all such products or activities. For example, Google has become a generic word now for web browsing, even though it is a specific company a with a popular web browser.

This morning’s New Testament lesson includes one such phrase, “born again,” has become a generic term that is used to describe a socially conservative, evangelical Christian.  Many political candidates use this term in self-reference to garner support from others who identify themselves in this way.  Many use the term with the kind of pride usually reserved for patriotism.

Political opinion polls will often include a group called “born again Christians” to describe that particular demographic group.

The more a term gets used as a generic term, the more people assume they know what it means and the less curious they become about its true meaning.

Jesus used the phrase “You must be born again” on only one occasion with one person in a private setting.

Nicodemus, a high-ranking Jewish religious leader, came to Jesus under the cover of night.  We’re not sure if he was curious or desperate, but he came with essentially the same question others came to Jesus with, “What can I do that I haven’t already done to find the kingdom of God.  I have followed all the Jewish laws, I have everything I ever wanted, I have a life that most people envy, yet something is lacking.  What else is needed?”

But before he could ask his questions, Jesus’ response was very direct.  “You must be born again.”  I’m sure Nicodemus raised an eyebrow, cocked his head, and said the Jewish version of “Huh?”  He was risking his reputation to approach this untrained teacher with some serious questions.  And what did he get?  An absurd statement describing a physical impossibility.

What could Jesus possibly have meant by this?  Just as important, what might it mean for us today other than a generic “socially conservative evangelical Christian”?  I’m no Biblical scholar, but I suspect that if Jesus uses a term only once, in a very specific situation, there is nothing generic or simple about it.

Nicodemus was who he was and held the high position he held because of his birth. His primary source of identity, the origin of his culture, his religion, his purebred heritage was of being born into the family of Abraham.  His second source of identity was that of being born into the particular family line that allowed him his place of prestige in the religious hierarchy and the community.

Nicodemus was who he was personally and professionally by virtue of his birth and ancestry.  By telling Nicodemus he must be born again, I think Jesus way saying, “If you want what you say you want, you must take your most cherished attachment, your birth and your heritage and all the power, prestige, and privilege that come with it, and lay it aside.”

To suggest that Nicodemus be born again cut to the heart of that which was his greatest source of identity and his greatest liability.  If we look deeply into the context of Jesus’ encounters, he always seemed to focus directly on the person’s ultimate allegiance.  For example, with the “rich young ruler” Jesus told him to give away his wealth.  This was not a statement about wealth but rather about the way this person had elevated wealth in his life.  That statement cut to the heart of the issue for that person.

Why?  He knew how easy it was for a person to become attached to something, such as a job title, another person, a personality trait, a physical trait, a standing in the community, or even a possession.  Then gradually but inevitably, often without even knowing it, we begin to build identity around those attachments.

These are not bad things, and in fact they may be very good things.  All of these provide a good place to stand, a good platform for operating on a day-to-day basis.  But it is crucial that we at some point recognize that his is our constructed self, our psychological and social self, the self we have manufactured to help you get through the day.

There are two things we need to know about these attachments and the self we construct around them.  Our attachments, for all they do for us, they also limit us.

Let’s read a little further to see if we can get a better look at what Jesus is asking of Nicodemus.

John 3: 7-12

Jesus says, “I speak of things I know.  I talk about things I have seen and heard.  But you cannot see it.  You cannot comprehend it.”

Nicodemus was attached to Jewish law, to the rules of ceremonial purity, and to doing all he could to maintain his own purity and standing.  That was who he was.  Here, Jesus is talking about the spirit, and the wind, and not knowing where it will take you.  This was a foreign language to Nicodemus.  He was not listening for this, so he did not hear or understand it.  It did not fit into his way of thinking about things.

Attachments eventually create habitual ways of seeing things, we develop our own habitual way of doing anything, our own defenses, our patterns of thinking, or how we process reality.  We do not see things as they are.  We see things as WE are.

Think of the family you grew up in.  If it was like mine, there were things we talked about and things we ignored.  There were family rules that we shared in common with most families, and some that were unique to ours.  Over time, I came to accept those as “normal.”  The things we talked about became important, the things we ignored ceased to exist.  The same is true in individuals, in churches, in cultures, in entire nations.

That kind of addictive thinking and habitual perception is very hard to see and therefore to change because it looks so normal and it is so pervasive in one’s life, culture, and institutions.  We all become compulsive about the same things, defensive about the same things, and blind to the same things.

My teaching partner and I used a writing assignment each year with our class.  We asked each one to write a brief essay in response to several questions, such as “What is the best and worst thing about being a person of your gender on this campus?”  “When did you first recognize that some people who are your friends have a different sexual orientation?”  “What is it like being a person of your race on campus?”

What these questions did was to prompt thought about some of the attachments that people rarely thought about.  In addition, we then discussed differences in perception between men and women, white students and students of color.  For many it was the first time they realized that the world they saw was nothing like the world of the person sitting right next to them.

Jesus is saying.  “I talk about things I know, but you cannot hear it.”  You’re not ready.  Your focus is too narrow because you are constrained by that to which you are attached.

The other thing about attachments is that they ultimately will fail us.  They will at some point cease to be useful and meaningful, and if they are the only things we have, we will have nothing.

In that same essay assignment, one of the questions was, “When did you first realize that you were only temporarily abled?” For most it was the first time they had considered that one day, if they live long enough, they will be disabled in some way and eventually unable to take care of themselves.  The year that one of our students was in a wheelchair because of a degenerative disease, the discussion was particularly sobering.  One person’s daily, even hourly reality was not on anyone else’s radar.

Being with someone through the process of dying is a sobering reminder that regardless of how big we have made our life, with time our life will eventually get smaller and smaller, and the attachments we have invested so much of our lives cultivating get fewer and fewer and have less and less value.

If you are like me, all my attachments are not noble ones, like a job title or an education.  Some of my attachments are things like resentments that I harbor and even nurture each day.  I don’t go through a day without spending time on needless worries about things completely beyond my control. I have strong biases about certain issues and equally strong biases about people who hold a different view.  These shape me.  These are attachments around which I build my identity as well.

So the important issue is, what do your attachments look like?  What would Jesus say to you if you came to him late at night and asked what else was needed?

In the Old Testament lesson for today, Genesis 12: 1-4, Abraham was told to leave his homeland.  The first sign of the journey to becoming our true selves, to realizing the self that God made us to be is that we must leave that which is familiar, surrender our attachments and the self we have constructed around those attachments.

The first step is identifying our attachments, our addictions, but this is not easy.  Our attachments hate change, and any attempt to engineer our own enlightenment is doomed to failure, because our attachments will present themselves as our real life. Our worries will convince us they are essential, and our privileges will mask themselves as entitlements.  We don’t want to see our lives as self-constructed and self-protective.

That’s where spiritual disciplines come into play.  Spiritual disciplines can help us identify those attachments, by slowing down the internal chatter that keeps us occupied, and by creating a quiet space for us to take a good look at ourselves, to begin to see ourselves as God sees us.  But most of us are not willing to engage those disciplines with the time and energy needed.

So life has a way of helping us see what we are not looking for.  Here’s the good news.  It is disguised as bad news but it really is good news.  Life will present us with a situation that is completely beyond our control, a situation in which our attachments are completely useless.  We must stumble, encounter failure, loss, humiliation, or something that feels like life has fallen apart.  Until then we will see only what we have already decided to look for.  It is only when things seem to fall apart, a time that feels like dying, we are forced to look where we never would otherwise.

We have the opportunity in those times to see ourselves as God sees us, totally loved without any credentials.  If we are able to be patient and to trust that something new is happening in the midst of the debris, it will not feel like we’re giving up anything.  It will not feel like loss.  It will feel like rebirth, we will experience liberation from a trap we didn’t know we were in.