Born Again, A Sermon by the Rev. Nancy Vogele, March 12, 2017, Second Sunday in Lent

This sermon was preached by the Rev. Nancy A. G. Vogele on Sunday, March 12, 2017, Second Sunday in Lent. The Gospel reading was John 3:1-17

Read beginning of 1977 sermon…

“The President-elect says he had one. Charles Colson, a hatchet-man for the Nixon administration, wrote a book about his. Eldridge Cleaver whose militant writings struck terror in the hearts of whites has had one. George Gallup asked a sample of Americans if they thought they had one, and one-third of the interviewees said they had. What have these people had? They have had a ‘born-again’ experience.”

Thus began a sermon from Jan. 9, 1977 entitled, “What it means to be born again.” It was preached by the Rev. Kemper, the minister of the church I grew up in back in Illinois.

I grew up in that church – it was a pretty liberal church – and I was active in it – Sunday School, youth group – even Trips and Retreats Officer. And yet I had no concept of God or what it all meant. I was on auto-pilot. When I got to Dartmouth, unlike many of my classmates who dropped their faith, mine just came alive. Over the course of my four years, I was involved in five different Christian groups on campus, including Campus Crusade for Christ, a very evangelical ministry.

Shortly after I got involved in Campus Crusade during my Sophomore Summer, my friends in the group asked me if I was “born again” and I said, “Why, yes.” Now I was a bit of a rebellious type so I don’t think they really believed me. So they asked me to tell them about it. So I said that I was born again during folk mass at Aquinas House, the Catholic student center at Dartmouth. This created a bit of cognitive dissonance in them because, back then, my Evangelical friends couldn’t believe that Catholics could be real Christians. And then I messed with them a little more and added, “Well at least I think I was born again. Either that or I was being hypnotized cause everything got all foggy around my eyes. And I had this really funny feeling…” And I did. The story really is true.

One Sunday night at dinner, Diane Bonina – who lived next door to me in the dorm – came up to me in the dining hall and said, “Come to mass with me.” I looked at her and said, “I’m Congregationalist.” But she persisted all the more, “Come to mass with me.” Looking back, I think she just didn’t want to go by herself. So I went. It was the first time church made sense to me – how the sermon was based on the readings and how it applied to your life. How the hymns – how everything helped you get to communion – literally in the mass and figuratively as in communion with God. It was brilliant – a weekly liturgical altar call. It really was a real coming alive of my faith – a born again experience.

I really don’t like the way that the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible has translated this phrase from the Greek – “to be born from above” – because it waters down the dissonance that Nicodemus clearly felt. Jesus purposely meant to create that cognitive dissonance in Nicodemus. It would be better had the phrase been translated as “born again” or at least “born anew.” Anyway, I digress.

However the phrase gets translated, Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born from above/born anew/born again. And Nicodemus is clearly confused by this – maybe even a bit perturbed. So what did Jesus mean?

He says to Nicodemus, “Look. There are two births; one of water and another of spirit – what is born of flesh is flesh while what is born of the spirit is spirit.” In other words, “Nicodemus, if you want to understand what I’m saying to you, you have to be born anew of the spirit so that we can have a spiritual conversation.”

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus felt he was automatically born into this spiritual life of God by virtue of being born as a “child of Abraham.” Jesus insists that this is not enough. Not even all Nicodemus’ years of learning as a Pharisee are enough and to think it was enough totally missed the whole point Jesus was trying to make.

And the point is this: Nicodemus, like everyone else, needs a spiritual rebirth, a personal transformation in order to live a life centered in God.

Biblical Scholar Marcus Borg wrote in his book, The Heart of Christianity:

“to be born again involves death and resurrection. It means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being, dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity – a way of being and an identity centered in the sacred, in Spirit, in Christ, in God.

“In the gospels and in the rest of the New Testament, death and resurrection, dying and rising, are again and again a metaphor for personal transformation, for the psychological-spiritual process at the center of the Christian life” (p. 107).

Later in John’s gospel, in the 12th chapter, Jesus states, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus declares to any who would follow him, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

In the first century the cross was not a fashion statement to be worn around your neck. It was a symbol of execution, of death, period. To follow Jesus meant to follow him on the path of death. And to make sure that we understand this metaphorically, Luke added the word ‘daily’ to that phrase to ‘take up their cross.’ “Let them take up their cross daily and follow me.”

Paul uses this metaphor again and again in his letters. To the Philippians he wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).

What old identity or way of being needs to die in you in order for you to be born again – what old way of being needs to die in order for you feel truly alive in God?

Marcus Borg, in his book, recounts a story about a three-year old girl that was told to him by the little girl’s parents (pp. 113-114).

Within a few hours of this little girl’s parents bringing her new baby brother home from the hospital, she told them that she wanted to be alone with her new brother in his room with the door shut. Her insistence about being alone with the baby with the door shut made her parents understandably uneasy, but then they remembered that they had installed an intercom system in anticipation of the baby’s arrival, so they realized they could let their daughter do this, and if they heard the slightest indication that anything strange was happening, they could be in the baby’s room in an instant.

“So they let the little girl go into the baby’s room, shut the door, and raced to the intercom listening station. They heard their daughter’s footsteps moving across the baby’s room, imagined her standing over the baby’s crib, and then they heard her saying to her three-day-old brother, ‘Tell me about God—I’ve almost forgotten.’”

We need to be born again because we have forgotten that we come from God. That we belong to God. And that we are loved by God.

When we are still very young we remember this – we KNOW this. But in the process of growing up, we become self-aware or self-conscious and by the time we’re teenagers – even earlier – we start to judge our self worth by how we compare to what our family or our culture or our peers think. As theologian and author Frederick Buechner puts it, we end up living our lives “from the outside in rather than from the inside out.” No wonder we can feel a deep sense of estrangement and alienation.

To be “born again” is the way of dying to our alienated self in order of return from our exile. It is the way to recover our true self. It is the path to beginning to live our lives from the inside out again rather than from the outside in. It is the exodus from our individual and collective selfishness. (pp. 116-117). To be “born again” is to remember and KNOW that we come from God, that we belong to God, and that we are loved by God – beloved of God.

Being born again is not, however, a one time event – no matter how dramatic the experience is. We too easily forget or doubt our belovedness – what with all the pressure our culture, our peers, and we ourselves put on us to measure up, to be successful, to be worthy.

Just as Christ calls us to daily take up our cross and follow him, he invites us daily to be born again – to continue our personal and collective path of transformation, daily – to remember, daily, that we come from God, that we belong to God and that we are utterly and completely loved by God. And that everyone else is, too. They just may not KNOW it yet.

You know that experience I talked about at Aquinas House? Well I kept a journal back then and so wrote about it. It was February 7th, 1982. This is what I wrote:

I went to mass tonight. I cried for the first time in a long time – first time since I’ve been here at Dartmouth. I don’t know why I started to cry…

God, humble me when I am proud.

Soothe me when I hurt, please.

But mostly, help me always feel your presence.

You are always with me,

but I often lose You.

You never lose me.

Please help me remember

that all I have to do is call

Or look

Or listen,

And You will be there already,

Calling,

And looking,

And listening for me.

Thank you, God

For all the beautiful things

You have given me.

Please don’t let me every forget

about all these wonderful gifts I have.

And then I went on to write,

“I think I have come to some sort of point in my spiritual growth – some moment. Tonight was the first time that I can ever remember feeling something in church. I felt You, God. And I want to always remember that feeling.”

For a few paragraphs I tried to make some sense of the Trinity – heavy stuff, I know – and then concluded,

“Does this make sense? Or am I presenting good logic but still all wrong? I don’t know and I want to talk to someone – but who? I want to feel secure, safe, not as if the rug has been pulled out from under me. But maybe I’ll never be able to sit back and say, ‘There, I have found the truth.’ Instead, as I realize new depths to my faith, I can say, ‘There, I have found a truth.’ I know there will always be questions. Maybe religion is not reaching the goal, but the pursuit of it and the struggle for finding it. Maybe only when we die and go to heaven, or as [John] Donne put it: when we are ‘translated into a better language,’ will we finally reach our goal. I still have many questions left unanswered, but I feel good about tonight. I feel that I really felt something – like I really LIVED tonight. Thank you, God, for tonight and for everything.”

Before that night, I didn’t KNOW that I belonged to God, that I was utterly and completely loved by God. I did afterwards.

Thank you, God, for that night and for everything. Amen.This sermon was preached by the Rev. Nancy A. G. Vogele on Sunday, March 12, 2017, Second Sunday in Lent. The Gospel reading was John 3:1-17

Read beginning of 1977 sermon…

“The President-elect says he had one. Charles Colson, a hatchet-man for the Nixon administration, wrote a book about his. Eldridge Cleaver whose militant writings struck terror in the hearts of whites has had one. George Gallup asked a sample of Americans if they thought they had one, and one-third of the interviewees said they had. What have these people had? They have had a ‘born-again’ experience.”

Thus began a sermon from Jan. 9, 1977 entitled, “What it means to be born again.” It was preached by the Rev. Kemper, the minister of the church I grew up in back in Illinois.

I grew up in that church – it was a pretty liberal church – and I was active in it – Sunday School, youth group – even Trips and Retreats Officer. And yet I had no concept of God or what it all meant. I was on auto-pilot. When I got to Dartmouth, unlike many of my classmates who dropped their faith, mine just came alive. Over the course of my four years, I was involved in five different Christian groups on campus, including Campus Crusade for Christ, a very evangelical ministry.

Shortly after I got involved in Campus Crusade during my Sophomore Summer, my friends in the group asked me if I was “born again” and I said, “Why, yes.” Now I was a bit of a rebellious type so I don’t think they really believed me. So they asked me to tell them about it. So I said that I was born again during folk mass at Aquinas House, the Catholic student center at Dartmouth. This created a bit of cognitive dissonance in them because, back then, my Evangelical friends couldn’t believe that Catholics could be real Christians. And then I messed with them a little more and added, “Well at least I think I was born again. Either that or I was being hypnotized cause everything got all foggy around my eyes. And I had this really funny feeling…” And I did. The story really is true.

One Sunday night at dinner, Diane Bonina – who lived next door to me in the dorm – came up to me in the dining hall and said, “Come to mass with me.” I looked at her and said, “I’m Congregationalist.” But she persisted all the more, “Come to mass with me.” Looking back, I think she just didn’t want to go by herself. So I went. It was the first time church made sense to me – how the sermon was based on the readings and how it applied to your life. How the hymns – how everything helped you get to communion – literally in the mass and figuratively as in communion with God. It was brilliant – a weekly liturgical altar call. It really was a real coming alive of my faith – a born again experience.

I really don’t like the way that the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible has translated this phrase from the Greek – “to be born from above” – because it waters down the dissonance that Nicodemus clearly felt. Jesus purposely meant to create that cognitive dissonance in Nicodemus. It would be better had the phrase been translated as “born again” or at least “born anew.” Anyway, I digress.

However the phrase gets translated, Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born from above/born anew/born again. And Nicodemus is clearly confused by this – maybe even a bit perturbed. So what did Jesus mean?

He says to Nicodemus, “Look. There are two births; one of water and another of spirit – what is born of flesh is flesh while what is born of the spirit is spirit.” In other words, “Nicodemus, if you want to understand what I’m saying to you, you have to be born anew of the spirit so that we can have a spiritual conversation.”

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus felt he was automatically born into this spiritual life of God by virtue of being born as a “child of Abraham.” Jesus insists that this is not enough. Not even all Nicodemus’ years of learning as a Pharisee are enough and to think it was enough totally missed the whole point Jesus was trying to make.

And the point is this: Nicodemus, like everyone else, needs a spiritual rebirth, a personal transformation in order to live a life centered in God.

Biblical Scholar Marcus Borg wrote in his book, The Heart of Christianity:

“to be born again involves death and resurrection. It means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being, dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity – a way of being and an identity centered in the sacred, in Spirit, in Christ, in God.

“In the gospels and in the rest of the New Testament, death and resurrection, dying and rising, are again and again a metaphor for personal transformation, for the psychological-spiritual process at the center of the Christian life” (p. 107).

Later in John’s gospel, in the 12th chapter, Jesus states, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus declares to any who would follow him, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

In the first century the cross was not a fashion statement to be worn around your neck. It was a symbol of execution, of death, period. To follow Jesus meant to follow him on the path of death. And to make sure that we understand this metaphorically, Luke added the word ‘daily’ to that phrase to ‘take up their cross.’ “Let them take up their cross daily and follow me.”

Paul uses this metaphor again and again in his letters. To the Philippians he wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).

What old identity or way of being needs to die in you in order for you to be born again – what old way of being needs to die in order for you feel truly alive in God?

Marcus Borg, in his book, recounts a story about a three-year old girl that was told to him by the little girl’s parents (pp. 113-114).

Within a few hours of this little girl’s parents bringing her new baby brother home from the hospital, she told them that she wanted to be alone with her new brother in his room with the door shut. Her insistence about being alone with the baby with the door shut made her parents understandably uneasy, but then they remembered that they had installed an intercom system in anticipation of the baby’s arrival, so they realized they could let their daughter do this, and if they heard the slightest indication that anything strange was happening, they could be in the baby’s room in an instant.

“So they let the little girl go into the baby’s room, shut the door, and raced to the intercom listening station. They heard their daughter’s footsteps moving across the baby’s room, imagined her standing over the baby’s crib, and then they heard her saying to her three-day-old brother, ‘Tell me about God—I’ve almost forgotten.’”

We need to be born again because we have forgotten that we come from God. That we belong to God. And that we are loved by God.

When we are still very young we remember this – we KNOW this. But in the process of growing up, we become self-aware or self-conscious and by the time we’re teenagers – even earlier – we start to judge our self worth by how we compare to what our family or our culture or our peers think. As theologian and author Frederick Buechner puts it, we end up living our lives “from the outside in rather than from the inside out.” No wonder we can feel a deep sense of estrangement and alienation.

To be “born again” is the way of dying to our alienated self in order of return from our exile. It is the way to recover our true self. It is the path to beginning to live our lives from the inside out again rather than from the outside in. It is the exodus from our individual and collective selfishness. (pp. 116-117). To be “born again” is to remember and KNOW that we come from God, that we belong to God, and that we are loved by God – beloved of God.

Being born again is not, however, a one time event – no matter how dramatic the experience is. We too easily forget or doubt our belovedness – what with all the pressure our culture, our peers, and we ourselves put on us to measure up, to be successful, to be worthy.

Just as Christ calls us to daily take up our cross and follow him, he invites us daily to be born again – to continue our personal and collective path of transformation, daily – to remember, daily, that we come from God, that we belong to God and that we are utterly and completely loved by God. And that everyone else is, too. They just may not KNOW it yet.

You know that experience I talked about at Aquinas House? Well I kept a journal back then and so wrote about it. It was February 7th, 1982. This is what I wrote:

I went to mass tonight. I cried for the first time in a long time – first time since I’ve been here at Dartmouth. I don’t know why I started to cry…

God, humble me when I am proud.

Soothe me when I hurt, please.

But mostly, help me always feel your presence.

You are always with me,

but I often lose You.

You never lose me.

Please help me remember

that all I have to do is call

Or look

Or listen,

And You will be there already,

Calling,

And looking,

And listening for me.

Thank you, God

For all the beautiful things

You have given me.

Please don’t let me every forget

about all these wonderful gifts I have.

And then I went on to write,

“I think I have come to some sort of point in my spiritual growth – some moment. Tonight was the first time that I can ever remember feeling something in church. I felt You, God. And I want to always remember that feeling.”

For a few paragraphs I tried to make some sense of the Trinity – heavy stuff, I know – and then concluded,

“Does this make sense? Or am I presenting good logic but still all wrong? I don’t know and I want to talk to someone – but who? I want to feel secure, safe, not as if the rug has been pulled out from under me. But maybe I’ll never be able to sit back and say, ‘There, I have found the truth.’ Instead, as I realize new depths to my faith, I can say, ‘There, I have found a truth.’ I know there will always be questions. Maybe religion is not reaching the goal, but the pursuit of it and the struggle for finding it. Maybe only when we die and go to heaven, or as [John] Donne put it: when we are ‘translated into a better language,’ will we finally reach our goal. I still have many questions left unanswered, but I feel good about tonight. I feel that I really felt something – like I really LIVED tonight. Thank you, God, for tonight and for everything.”

Before that night, I didn’t KNOW that I belonged to God, that I was utterly and completely loved by God. I did afterwards.

Thank you, God, for that night and for everything. Amen.

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