Sermon. June 7. 2020
Rev. John Steitz
When we engage a story – reading, hearing, watching it unfold – we relate to the characters in that story. When we can identify with a character in a story, that story can move us, transform us. This is one way that biblical stories work. We relate to a character in the story and experience spiritual aliveness as our hearts and minds are engaged.
Pastor and practical theologian Erna Kim Hackett raises a concern about this story character identification process that she calls “Disney princess theology.” When watching a Disney movie, we are supposed to identify with the princess. Americans look at Scripture, and tend to do the same.
Disney princess theology is the tendency to read ourselves as the hero in every biblical story. We are Peter, but never Judas. We are Moses, but never Pharaoh.
This is how Erna Kim Hackett describes the dynamic: “As citizens of the most powerful country in the world, who enslaved both Native and Black people, to see itself as Israel and not Egypt when it is studying Scripture, is a perfect example of Disney princess theology. And it means that as people in power, they have no lens for locating themselves rightly in Scripture or society – and it has made them blind and utterly ill equipped to engage issues of power and injustice. It is some very weak Bible work.”
In the story of Jesus and Nicodemus, I invite you to place yourself in the story as Nicodemus. So who is Nicodemus? He was a religious leader, a member of the Jewish ruling class, who is trying to break out of his way of seeing.
Jesus’ challenge to Nicodemus to be “born anew” or “born again” is a specific response to Nicodemus’ social location as a religious teacher. It is different than what Jesus tells the many poor people he heals.
Jesus understands that power warps the way you see the world. The more power, the greater the warp. Being born anew is what it takes to start to see things again in their proper light. To see the truth of what it is like for people to live at the bottom of a system that considers them disposable.
Nicodemus first misunderstands Jesus, taking what he says in a literal way. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he asks. But Jesus isn’t talking about a literal rebirth from our mother’s wombs. Jesus is talking about a spiritual rebirth.
This spiritual rebirth is what is called for in the UCC Baptismal Vows, which we are called to reaffirm as we grow as Jesus’ disciples. “Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?”
We need to reclaim the biblical language of being born anew, being born again from right wing evangelism. The process of being born anew is a life-long process of humility, self-examination, and ego deconstruction for those of us who are white, those of us who are straight, those of us who are male, those of us who are able bodied. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is meant for us.
Let us stay with being Nicodemus as John’s Gospel unfolds. In John 7 the religious leaders are debating what to do about Jesus and Nicodemus defends Jesus. This begins to create a rift between him and the other religious leaders. Nicodemus begins to choose discipleship over power and privilege.
In John 19:39 Nicodemus is named as one of the people who take the crucified Jesus from the cross and help bury him. Touching a dead body would make a religious leader ritually impure. From Jesus’ tomb Nicodemus emerges born anew as one who has given up his position of power and privilege.
The 24th UCC General Synod, meeting in Minneapolis in 2003, called on the UCC to be an anti-racist church and encouraged Conferences and Associations and local churches to adopt anti-racism mandates.
Among Quakers there is a process where a Concern is raised by some, and over time this becomes a Testimony embraced by all Quakers. The process of moving from Concern to Testimony can take generations. For example, the first Concern about slavery was raised in 1688. This was only a few years after Quakers began settling in Pennsylvania. The Quakers adopted a Testimony to end slavery in 1776, eighty-eight years later. The Quakers adopted a witness against slavery long before many others, but it took them 88 years to get there.
Resolutions at UCC General Synods are our form of Concerns. These Concerns become Testimonies as they are embraced by local churches in the UCC. The process to become an Open and Affirming Church began in the 1970’s in the UCC, and is ongoing, now embraced by about one third of UCC local churches.
The process of moving from Concern to Testimony to become an Anti-Racist Church will take the time it takes for the Holy Spirit to move among us.
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” Jesus says to Nicodemus, and to us, in John 3: 5.
Jesus calls us to live into our Baptismal Vows, to be his disciples, to resist oppression and evil, and to show love and justice. How are we to respond to this call in this moment in history?
Will UCC Norwich become an Anti-Racist Church? How long will it take for a congregation to become an Anti-Racist Church? That is not up to me. That is up to the Holy Spirit. That is up to how people discern the Spirit calling them as Jesus’ disciples. What character in the ongoing, God is Still Speaking, biblical story are we being called to play?