Date: March 5, 2023 (Second Sunday in Lent)
Scripture: John 3:1-17
Scripture Reader: Bonnie Marden
Sermon Title: “Catch the Wind?”
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Bishop William Willimon shares his story of watching a Sunday afternoon channel on the “Emerging church.” He saw a mega church in California where about two thousand people gather, many of them were younger than thirty years old. If you think about a church like that, it is predictable. A Christian rock band plays some praise music and the pastor tells inspiring stories about some “awesome” people doing some “awesome” things. One of the pastors at the church was asked by the interviewer, “Why do you think your church is attracting many young adults?” And he thought for a while and answered, “You have a whole generation of young people—beautiful, bright, successful who have never had anyone love them enough to look them in the eye and say, in love, “Man, you really suck.”
Many mainline churches such as Methodist church would not go far to tell the first-time visitor that their lives are pathetic or miserable. As you can imagine many churches in New England, most of them hang the sign on their lawn, “Come on in! We are a welcoming and loving church! We will help you feel comfortable.” Then, I think about Sarah in my former church who came to the church with her daughter, “You know, my husband has recently left me for another woman, breaking our 20 years marriage. My son does not want to talk to me anymore. So, what good news do you have to tell me and my daughter?” Across from her, there sits Mike whose drinking issues had been destructive of his marriage and also his relationship with children.
As I think about Willimon’s story, I believe that this young pastor is onto something. If church is just about welcoming one another, being happy, and doing some good works, why do we have to do it at the church? Certainly, there are many social clubs such as Lions Club, the Elks, and other places that also value doing many charities works in their community. Some people will say that church is about fellowship. If church is all about fellowship, people can also form fellowship at the breakfast restaurant, gym, book club at the library. No such places will look people in their eyes and tell them that their lives are pathetic or miserable. Maybe church could be the only place where we can be honest about our failures, our worries, our mistakes, and our sins and brokenness.
In our reading today, we meet a man named Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee, a religious leader of his Jewish community. The word Pharisees means, “Set apart, separated.” These were a group of people who separated themselves from other religious sects such as Sadducees, other common people, and especially Gentiles. They upheld the Law strictly as a sign of their piety. They were usually trained at a school receiving a good education. They were treated with much respect as they not only taught the laws and regulations but also practiced them almost perfectly, as Jesus later indicates their alms-giving, praying in public, and fasting.
Then, they started hearing rumors about this carpenter from Nazareth. He was hanging out with some low-class people like the fishermen and tax-collector and going around healing the sick people. I mean that this Jesus guy did not even go to their seminary to get some good education and degree, as they did. He did not have a membership with their society, attending their annual banquet. To them, Jesus had gone completely rogue, healing people who they thought that their blindness or paralysis was caused by their sins or their parent’s sins. Not only that, but he was also healing them on the Sabbath Day, therefore breaking their sacred law, and even forgiving their sins. Who could have such a power to forgive sins other than God Himself? It is a blasphemy!
Nicodemus, however, decided to travel and meet Jesus whom his Pharisees friends denounced. Since he did not want to be seen by other Pharisees or town people, he came by night maybe covering his face. If we think about it, Nicodemus was someone who had everything going for him. His career, respect, and leadership. Why does he need to see Jesus? It is possible that the word “night” does not just indicate his fear of being seen by others as associated with Jesus. Night also implies where he is spiritually. Although he was considered as a leader for others guiding them to know what is right and what is wrong, he is the one who had been walking in the night. Or there was a deep yearning to seek something that would resolve his spiritual hunger.
As Nicodemus found Jesus, this is what he says, “Rabbi, I have seen you and heard about you for a while. I believe that you are a teacher who is from God because no one can do these sings apart from the presence of God.” Well, Nicodemus is complimenting Jesus saying that he is someone special. At least the natural answer would be, “Thank you?” But Jesus gives such a bizarre answer, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. You need to be born again.” I find his answer strange. Imagine Joe came up to me after the worship and said, “I really liked your sermon today. I felt the presence of God.” Instead of saying, “Thank you,” I tell him, “That’s interesting, Joe, given that I was preaching in Korean, not English today.”
Nicodemus finds Jesus’ answer a little bizarre as if they are speaking different languages. So, Nicodemus asks him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” When Jesus says, “You need to be born again” the Greek word used for again is anōthen which has double meanings. It could mean “again” as we usually read in New International Version or King James Version. Or it could also mean “from above” in NRSV.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “You need to be born from above because no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
In the baptism, the minister says, “Being born through water and the Spirit, you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.” But when you think about our baptism, it is not something that we earn or because of what we have done. In the Middle Age when the lifespan was shorter, parents wanted to baptize their babies as early as possible so that even if they did not last long, they could still go to heaven. But in Methodism, baptism is not a ticket to heaven. It is more like affirmation that these babies are already beloved children of God. Both parents and the congregation stand in covenant with God that they would respond to this incredible grace of God by faithfully raising these children in Christian faith.
We do not know where the wind blows, do not know where it comes from or where it goes. In the same way, it is God who freely chooses to save God’s people as God’s gift for them. In John 15, Jesus says to his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). You may love one another, my friends, because it is not you who loved me first. It is me who loved you first. Some years ago, there was a family in New Jersey that was excited for their second son, Anthony, who reached second grade and due to have his first Holy Communion at their church. But later the couple were told that their son would not be allowed to have the Communion at their church because he was unable to confess his sins before receiving Communion; Their child was autistic.
When churches say, “We are a welcoming church. We are a loving church,” I often wonder if they seriously take a time to understand what that means. We do not even know where the wind comes and goes, and we can never catch the wind in our hands. And the Holy Spirit who is like the wind often brings the most unlikely people to get along to the church and say, “Now what?” This past week, being a little sick from cold and noticing that my immune system is weak, I have decided to get a membership at a gym and work out. (Please keep me in your prayers.) As I was running on the treadmill, I saw a TV with the college basketball on. The TV on the right side has Fox News on and the left has CNN News on. I had never been excited to run on the treadmill watching a basketball game, while Fox and CNN playing defence and offense at the same time.
While our society is deeply wounded and divided today, church, which is supposed to be the body of Christ, is often wounded and divided. And the Methodist church, as some of you know, is not exempt from such hurt and divineness. After all, we are a church that loves to create another committee whenever we are stuck in a direction. There is a question, “How many church people does it take to change a light bulb?” Roman Catholics say, “none” because they use candles. Baptists answer, “Change? What change?” The Methodists say at least 15 because they need one to change the light bulb, and two or three committees to approve the change. And the last but not the least, they need one person to bring a casserole.
We often invoke the name of the Holy Spirit to guide our meetings. But as soon as the prayer is done, people often try to catch and keep the wind in their hands, never able to let go of what is right and what is wrong according to their standards and experiences. I am a little frustrated by some who tell others who are leaving our denomination, “Don’t let the door hit you in your back.” On a different matter, I used to be like that when I was younger. As a pastor, I loved to argue with people and point out their misunderstanding and lack of biblical and theological insights. But I painfully came to learn later that there is nothing more hurtful than those whom you are called to love, forgive, and reconcile, decide to leave you. I learned this from my own ministry.
We think that we have God on our side. But we can never control God who is like the wind. When we acknowledge that we cannot know where the Holy Spirit blows and whom God chooses to work with, we can be more open to God who gives peace, love, and joy as gift from God, not as our earnings. Henri Nouwen says, “We cannot break through the many barriers that divide races, sexes, and nations, but the Spirit of Christ unites all people in the all-embracing love of God. The Spirit of Christ burns away our many fears and anxieties and sets us free to move wherever we are sent. That is the great liberation of Pentecost.” We are often foolish to believe that we can catch the wind in our hands. But we are more like caught by the wind, carried to wherever God sends us just like the dandelion seeds in wind.
Several years ago, our nation was being torn apart by the news that the migrating children were separated from their parents, put into the cages. I watched the news and felt devastated to hear the cries of these children, some teenagers to three-months old babies. At that time, UMCOR asked UM churches to send some hygiene kits for the children at the shelters near the borderline. Our conference office was collecting these kits, asking churches to observe “A Sunday of Solidarity with Suffering Children.” So, I made an announcement at the church asking people to bring these hygiene kits to the church. This announcement instantly drew some criticism as if we as a church were endorsing this illegal crossing. Some said that the harsh treatment of these children we hear from the news were all lies.
One thing I want to share with you is that I am a registered voter but affiliated with neither Democratic nor Republican. But this announcement made me look like I was taking a with the Democratic in my former church, while shaming the Republican. I tried to explain that we were doing this as Christians, just to respond to suffering children, to let them know that we care about them as God’s beloved children. But the damage was already done. Some people threatened to leave the church. Some reflected their anger and disappointment in their giving. I really did not know what to do. But on the day when we were scheduled to wrap these hygiene items with towels, it was three republican women in that church who came, did all the work, and put them nicely in three boxes.
As I was driving up to the conference office to deliver these boxes, this is the scripture verse that came to my mind. “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.” We often think that we can catch the wind. But no. We are caught up by the wind and carried to a place where we never thought that we would go because of the Holy Spirit who knows us and loves us more than we can imagine.
 William Willimon, Will Willimon’s Lectionary Sermon Resource: Year A Part 1, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019), 168.
 Henri Nouwen, A Cry for Mercy,