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Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform he signs you are doing if God were not with him. Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born from above.” “How can someone be born when they are not old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spoirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are a teacher in Israel,” Jesus said, “and you don’t understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you trust if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven, the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who trusts may have eternal life. For God so love the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
From Where I Sit…
May we be born again today, God.
And again. And again. And again.
Until we are made absolutely new in you again in the end.
I’ve decided to write this sermon like a letter from camp because, well, I composed it at camp in one sitting. There was another sermon started earlier in the week, but it withered, like “leaves of grass” as Whitman would say. So, here we go:
I arrived at camp a few hours ago and can say that by all appearances none of our children are ready to leave…and may not be ready to leave when the time comes.
As I pulled onto the gravel road, I thought to myself, like those disciples said to Jesus on that mountain top, “It is good to be here, Lord.” This last week has not been an easy one in many ways. Summer’s lazy days are still full of mixed blessings: hurts and goodbyes, unexpected blessings, tough conversations and love notes…like this one.
The naturalist and first-rate American tree-hugger John Muir once wrote that, should you be troubled you need only “sit under a fern for a spell,” and you’d feel it all melt away. He called the forest the first cathedral. Perhaps that’s what my spirit was anticipating as I pulled into camp. Very truly I tell you, throughout the history of our religious heritage, we have sought the Divine in nature, felt the Divine in nature, found God in nature. Even so much so that those early cathedrals put huge indoor pillars in place, mirroring those trees Muir marveled at.
But, as that cantankerous pastor Lilly Daniels says, it’s easy to find God in the sunset. Everyone can find God in the beautiful sunset. It’s harder to find God in the cranky and messy and infuriating and broken people around you. This is also very true.
So running to the forest, to nature, has always been a refuge when God has been hard to find in others.
But less than anything about the forest, perhaps the real spiritual gift of the forest is that, for most of us…and definitely all of us here in suburban “glory”…it provides a different point of view, a new perspective on life. There is a reason that we use the idiom, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” From where we sit, it’s difficult to see everything clearly sometimes.
Very truly I tell you, in difficult moments in our lives, where we get lost in the tree of the moment, it is difficult to see the forest of grace and love we’re wandering in, by God.
Rhonda the boys and I spent time in Banner Elk this last Fall where we got to see the glory of God displayed on the leaves. And here at Camp Agape, in the forests just outside of Raleigh, I hear the kids tell me, more than one, dare I say most, that in those forests they first started to take their faith seriously, the full glory of God showing on their faces.
The new point of view that they gain there (dare I suggest that they’re even born again and again?) gives them new eyes to see the world. I’d even call them Christ-eyes to see the world, their own lives included, in a different way. From where they sit in this forest, things look different. The sacredness drips like sap from most every moment.
And in a time in their life, in those Middle School years that can be very difficult, where it can sometimes feel as if they’re perishing more than flourishing, it’s a good change of perspective for many of them.
I do wonder how long we’ll have escapes, places to offer us new points of view in the world. According to the UN, 18 million acres, or land roughly the size of Panama, is unsustainably deforested every year. This is certainly not meant to be a letter to convince you to save the forests, it’s just a question I’m pondering in the forest.
Because I’m very grateful for the forest, and especially this forest, which has apparently both strengthened people in their faith in Christ, strengthened their bodies and bonds, and strengthened their appreciation for God’s creation.
And if I’m grateful for something, I usually respond with thanksgiving in caring and tender ways.
Nicodemus can’t understand that Jesus is inviting him to a new point of view on life, a new perspective. Perhaps he believes, as a Pharisee, that his religious training and social status has given him enough perspective for life.
And then he meets Jesus and Jesus tells him to do the impossible, to be born again, or in other words, put on God’s salvation eyes for a while and see things differently. “How can I do this?” he wonders. John Muir might tell him to crawl under a fern…but that will only do so much.
Nicodemus wanders away in a forest of confusion at Jesus’ command. But sometimes we have to wander a bit, get lost in the forest a bit, even a spiritual forest, to gain a new point of view.
Fear not, Beloved, Nicodemus will gain a new perspective one day. He’ll do so by looking up at a forest of three cross-shaped trees, one on which Jesus died. And he’ll take that body of Christ and, as the Gospel of John tells us, will bury Jesus like a seed in a new tomb.
And then Jesus is born again. And Nicodemus…and you…and me…and those forest-loving kids along with him, with the Christ buried within us, too.
It’s interesting, under the tree of the cross of ultimate love we can gain a new perspective on so many things: our lives, one another, even our North Carolina forests that we’ve been given as a gift of God. And somehow pondering that cross, that Christ-perspective in these forests gives me the ability to do that harder thing: see God in everyday people and tough situations.
Very truly I tell you this from where I sit in these trees. It’s funny: many times we run to the forest to find God. It’s almost like we have to get down to the ground to see things from above. Kind of like Jesus got down in the tomb to show us the love from above.
Anyway, pool time is almost over, and I see kids getting icy pops and no matter how much I’m thinking relatively deep thoughts, I don’t want miss out on that.
So, Beloved, from the forests of Agape where it appears that God in Jesus has shown up again amidst the trees to provide a new perspective on life, I wish you much love and hope and new life.