March 12, 2017 / IN OUR SKIN / Sara Wolbrecht / John 3:1-6
We keep holding our stethoscopes today, as we set up our experience of this week’s practice.
To get there, let’s turn to the bible, to one of Jesus’ biographies – the four gospels each tell a different perspective of Jesus’ life story. And today we’re turning to John, chapter 3, to Jesus’ conversation with a guy named Nicodemus.
Nicodemus, is a Jewish leader who is very powerful. And he comes to Jesus at night. Part of why I love John’s gospel – I hate to play favorites, but it’s my favorite gospel – I love it so very much because John’s gospel is so rich with poetry, metaphor, meaning, depth, power – which means there are always these layers, and winks, and connections that John is making. There is so much happening in this text, that we could spend a week on it. But we won’t – we’ll come back another time, don’t you worry.
We’re going to read this in The Message version, which is a little bit different sounding than what some of us have heard before – which means you might not recognize a few common verses that are hidden in here. In this text, Jesus says the very often quoted phrase: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
What comes to mind for you with the phrase “born again?” Anyone want to share the word, idea or image that comes to mind? That phrase is a loaded phrase in the Christian world, and is too often used as an ultimatum. A prescription, a “you must have a particular Jesusy kind of experience – be born again – in order to be on the inside of this, to be “one of us.”” Which is simply not true – which is not how Jesus intended this, because, again, there are layers of other things happening underneath it. In the Message version, which we’ll hear, it is said diffidently, a different phrase. A more accurate translation – where Jesus says “born from above” or it could even be said as “born anew” – to see the Kingdom of God – to have eyes to notice what God is doing in the world and in you.
We’ll say more about it in a moment, but I wanted to point that out – so you’d know it’s there, and hopefully hear this in this more accurate, more grace-filled, invitational way – an invitation to seeing the Kingdom of God – what God is doing. Instead of having the words on the screen as we usually do, I invite you to listen, and picture this scene, with some inspiration from this painting, called Jesus and Nicodemus, though Google was no help in citing an artist, we can still enjoy it. John 3:1-6.
John 3:1-6 (The Message)
1-2 There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.”
3 Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to—to God’s kingdom.”
4 “How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?”
5-6 Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.
Again – what is so lovely about a text like this is that it brings up more questions for us – so many layers there – than giving us clear answers – which is the beautiful mystery of faith that invites us to keep coming back and asking questions together.
What I want to press into for today is the often misrepresented way in which verses like these are used to polarize our faith and to polarize our understanding of ourselves. The polarization I’m talking about is: to see our “spiritual life” and the spiritual parts of who we are over here, and then to see how we have a spate, physical body, and running around life over here. That our bodies are disconnected from our faith lives.
I want to argue that Jesus, here, with Nicodemus, was not saying, hey you need to have this super spiritual/emotional experience – “Be born again” – that somehow cancels the importance of your physical, bodily experience.
But instead, Jesus is saying: this Spirit of God, when you let it in, when you choose to let your life be moved by and moved into the Spirit of God – then the whole thing, your body, your spirit, all of who you are, it’s all connected and it all becomes drawn into the life of God. Then – the Spirit shapes all of who you are. You can see, hear, taste, touch how the Kingdom of God – as Jesus calls it – is here, now, accessible. It is all around and within you – we can hear the heartbeat of God in all of it.
Does that make sense – (at least kind of)? Have you experienced the ways in which this polarization is played out in Christian circles? We often hear it in how sex and sexuality are so often presented as something that God is somehow grumpy about? That God somehow hates sex. Versus God made our bodies and the fullness of intimacy to be enjoyed absolutely as part of our spiritual and even our prayer life. That’s a conversation for a whole other time – but it captures that polarization, yes? Have you heard that?
Jesus, with Nicodemus, is talking about being uncompromisingly whole, having an integrated life lived here and now, that the Spirit of God is a part of. Justin’s reflection for today (in our book) captures this – on Sundays there are these longer meditations and a practice for us to focus the week ahead, and in his meditation today, one of the things he says is this:
“I don’t believe it is at all unspiritual, much less unchristian, to see a therapist or take an antacid. I do think, on the other hand, that it is distinctly unchristian to separate the physical or financial parts of my life from my “spiritual life.” God, whose greatest revelation of Himself was to become fully human, has great concern with all of me.” Prayer: Forty Days of Practice, McRoberts & Erickson. p. 29
That’s it, right? Which is why, in our conversation this Lent about prayer, you bet that we got to talk about these bodies of ours. Spiritual, eternal life is not something outside of our lived, embodied experience. But is very much all of who we are, here and now.
The practice Justin introduces, our practice for this week is Exercise. I wonder: Do you consider Exercise a practice of prayer? (Thumbs up, down, etc). I think for many of us this is a shift in thinking to consider exercise as a place where we encounter God.
Another question: do you exercise? Sometimes? Why? Why not? Are you someone who likes to exercise – and maybe you can’t make time? What do you like to do for exercise?
Please read Justin’s reflection for today – part of what he names is that using our body – in repetitive motion, in something that gets our heartrate up, we often find clarity through exercise. Not necessarily “answers” but perspective – somehow, in the increase of our own heartrate, somehow our hearts begin to beat along with the heartbeat of God. I know I experience this often in exercise.
To close our time, I want to do two things. First, to ask the question that only you can answer: when and how can you find time to walk, run, swim, do yoga – this week – to do one thing in order to explore how your body life is indeed part of your prayer life? Please make a commitment today – put it on your calendar, set a reminder – whatever you need to do to make it happen, before you leave. Because: we can sit here and talk about how God shows up in those times of exercise – but that’s not the point. The point is to step into those times and listen for the heartbeat of God – and so that’s what we do.
And then second, I want to lead us into some time in our bodies. I see it as a sort of precursor to the exercise we’ll each hopefully explore this week. Since we can’t go for a jog right now – I mean we could… I thought we could spend time in a related way, stopping to feel the embrace of our God who invites us to not only exercise our bodies, but also love and delight and wonder in our bodies.
So please close your eyes. Roll back your shoulder, get comfortable in your seat. I invite you to become aware of your breath, and also aware your body, it’s shape, the space it fills here in these seats, among other bodies. And to feel the sensations of your body now – maybe tired of sitting, achy back, gassy, hungry, stuffy nose, sore muscles from work or exercise, maybe you just feel good – what does your body physically feel today?
We’re going to move through two reflections on our bodies. Keeping your eyes closed and attention in your body, the first, I invite you to consider a question about your body. Where on your body do you want to ask for God’s help? There are many hard, dark, painful things our bodies can go through. Illness, surgeries, aging, wrinkling, sagging, eating disorders, loss of sight, self-harm, body-shaming, criticism, chronic pain, giving birth, immobility, paralysis, injury, accidents, abuse, assault.
Where does your body need help? Where do you carry hard things? Maybe something fresh, maybe a memory or incident from a while ago. Maybe pain. Maybe shame. Maybe disappointment. Maybe a dietary issue. Health struggles of all sorts. Where is a place that aches, that gets your frustration or too much attention? And become aware of one place – whether on the outside or inside of your body – as a place where you ask God to help you today.
Mindful of the hard things we carry in our bodies, staying mentally in our bodies, I invite you to hear this reflection from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, “An Altar in the World”: P. 37-38.
Now friends, I invite you to do the mental dropping of your clothes that she names here – keep your eyes closed so you don’t see the other mentally naked people in the room, and I invite you to hold on to the place in your body that you long for help from God – we’ll come back to that.
But also, in your mental nakedness with your body, if you would, please repeat after me, the same phrase Barbara Brown Taylor just offered us, here we go: “Here I am. This is my body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.”
Hold all that, as we move into our second reflection – that of gratitude for our bodies.
Consider: for what in your body do you feel grateful? Maybe, how has your body demonstrated strength or endurance or creativity. Where do you see beauty? Where do you feel healthy? Where do you see hope? Where do you feel grace? For what in your body do you feel grateful? We could probably choose all of it or many parts of it, but can you choose one piece to focus on for this moment? Maybe it’s the same place where you also ask for help, maybe a part of you that it has taken time for you to befriend and make peace with. For what – in your body – do you offer thanks to God?
Hold it all, my friends, these bodies of ours, and let’s pray. God. Thank you that you have made us to be uncompromisingly whole people, which means letting our faith and prayer life be something that is embodied. Present in the physicality of us, present in all the ways we wear our skin, everyday. We name that this is hard, precious, life-long work to befriend, love, and let you in to our bodies. But we ask, God that you would help us to do just that. We pray for ourselves and for all who have experienced deep pain, shame, or trauma in our bodies. Heal us all. And in this week to come, God, give us moments of awakening to your heartbeat with us when our own heartbeat rises. Amen.