Preached by Will Green at Foundry United Methodist Church
Polyphony Series—May 13th, 2018
As Wesleyan Christians, we celebrate the fact that God peaks not only through Scripture, but through the individual experiences of those with whom we share community. Today I’m humbled and blessed to welcome Brook Dalrymple, one of Foundry’s newest members, to share her witness and experience of the phrase “born again.”
Good morning. As a young girl, I was taught early on, like I’m sure some of you, that once I invited Jesus into my heart, I was born again...a new creation, not the same as I was. While there is beauty to this, it was a very limited, individualistic view of born again. What it instead evolved to mean for me was a very particular image of a “born-again Christian”. And to not maintain this image was out of line, sinful.
Being born again meant you were a Christian who quote, “got it.” I remember hearing often the phrase “We are born-again Christians.” And “He or she is a Christian, but not a born again Christian.” Meaning they can’t really be sure, like I could, of their own salvation. To be born again, you needed to talk about Jesus all the time, not miss a single Sunday service, and find any opportunity in conversation to segway into the four spiritual laws. Social justice wasn’t deemed as important enough. Tolerance and co-existing were bad words too, for anyone who lived differently than a born-again Christian was considered a threat. And though it was preached time after time, that we “love everybody”, what it really meant was that we showed others love, and became their friends, so that eventually they could convert too and be born again.
Being raised in this environment, though toxic for anyone, was particularly dangerous for me. I was someone who gave their full attention to religious authority because I thought that’s where my security lied. So... I did all these “born again” things, and proudly claimed the title. And you know what? It felt really good to be in the club. I was praised by pastors and church leaders and there was a felt safety and security, not to mention, reassurance that I was not going to hell.
It wasn’t until grad school that my constructed view of being a born again Christian had to be broken down, deconstructed, demolished...and I am still in this space now. I began learning that being born again should be understood within the context of God’s concern with establishing his Kingdom on earth--that being born again meant participating in God’s plan to restore ALL creation. I found that even my colleagues in my counseling program, who--were not under a Christian brand--were doing this compelling Kingdom work.They showed love and acceptance of others, were attuned to those marginalized, and were doing restorative work to improve systems for the flourishing of others. Could I actually experience God more fully from someone who wasn’t a born-again Christian? Could Kingdom work in the world still be done without it being only by a “Christian non-profit”? This rigid line I’d been taught around what is secular versus what is sacred, started to disappear. All is sacred, all is being made new.
My early understanding of born again was too small and neglected a much greater narrative: that the Kingdom of God is here, now, and ever-coming. It’s not about operating through life avoiding hell, but finding myself born-again into God’s kingdom, seeking peace and justice now on earth, and addressing the broken systems that are breaking people. Thank you.
Brook, thank you for the gift of your courage and your story. I thoroughly believe that every sermon preached and word proclaimed from this pulpit will pale in comparison to the stories you each bear and the way our shared witnesses empower us as a whole to live into God’s vision for our lives and world. Friends, as we continue opening our hearts to Spirit’s speaking today, let us pray.
Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing, Living Spirit, Holy Wisdom, You Who Hold Us and the World,
Come and sing Your love song to us once more.
Tune our hearts that we might be open to it.
Tune our minds that we might receive it.
Tune our lives so that we might be its witnesses in the world.
Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing,
that today we might hear a word from you. Take of this feeble preacher’s words what is worthy, silence that which is not, and use me that—whether through or despite of me—your people might hear a word from You.
It’s happened to most of us, I’d guess. A phone call we know we should have screened. A stranger we wish we’d avoided eye-contact with. The time we knew we should avoid great-aunt Edna this year’s family reunion but we’ve had to too many sweet teas (or, you know, other family reunion beverages) that we didn’t. And then, the question: “Have YOU been born again?”
Growing up in the backwoods preaching houses of Arkansas’s summer revivals, my relationship with this question has always been…complicated. On the one hand, I am a proud, self-avowed and practicing born again, evangelical Christian. As a Wesleyan by birth and a United Methodist by choice, I have long believed that, as Mr. Wesley himself once wrote,
“If any doctrines within the whole compass of Christianity may be properly termed fundamental, they are doubtless these two, -- the doctrine of justification, and that of the new birth…”
But…and it always seems like there’s a “but” in conversations about our faith these days, right? But I’ve also witnessed the harm it causes when used to prey upon people’s natural doubts and deep desire for belonging. Watched it become a line drawn in the sand and a wall built to insulate us from the careful, rational, and communal interrogation of our faith and belief. Raged as it emerged, slowly but steadily, as a clandestine political marker pointing to racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and trans-phobia thinly veiled behind so-called religious freedom.
Like so many here, I’ve known being “born again” like our companion Brook—a tool of shame and oppression used to silence the voices of those whom we are afraid to welcome or keep those we have welcomed in line AND a promise of God’s grace which is transformative and powerful. So I approach our shared reflection today with a sense of hopeful indignation, that is a refusal to acquiesce any longer the loss of this phrase which is so vital and necessary for the journey of discipleship and the conviction that there is something about it which is, indeed, worth fighting for.
The notion of being born again, though hijacked in this recent century in all the ways I’ve already named, has long been a fundamental part of the Christian experience. As last week we learned alongside my colleague Mark that Methodists are, in fact, evangelical, we also learned that the evangelical experience—particularly for Wesleyan Christians—is one shaped by the personally transformative power of God’s grace which compels us to action in the world.
Wesley strongly believed that ‘new birth’ was the product of God’s justifying grace, “…another word for pardon..the forgiveness of all our sins, and …the knowledge of our acceptance with God.” Or, as Pastor Ginger put it in her sermon titled “Bridge,” our “new [and growing] awareness that even when [we are] right in the middle of making things a mess God [still loves us].”
It is this experience of God’s justifying grace throughout our lives which opens to us the gate of new birth, a moment in which we are able to see ourselves and the world with God’s eyes, to catch a glimpse of the image of God which dwells in all living things, and are so compelled by that vision that we move forward in works of “piety” and “mercy,” that is personal holiness through worship, charitable giving, and the practice of Christian community AND works of justice through direct service and advocacy. ‘New birth’ is a movement of Spirit in which our orientation toward ourselves and others changes, in which there is a conscious awareness that we have been named and known as beloved by God and there’s nothing anyone else can do about it.
But perhaps it’s helpful to pause here and ponder what being “born again” is not. When I posed this question to a couple of my friends, most came back with the same answer: Ned Flanders. For those of you who like me haven’t really ever watched “The Simpsons”—we were always more of a Touched By an Angel household, which coincidentally might explain a few things about me—Ned is a regular character on the show who’s a “born again” Christian that wants you to know it. He serves as a frenemy and regular foil of the series’ anti-hero Homer, often showing up as one who’s overly concerned with the Christian thing to do and reminding other characters that God’s watching.
Although well-intentioned and often thoughtful, Ned’s bumbling attempts to show God’s love through right practice or belief often leave other characters cold to his faith and unable to connect to the Gospel he’s proclaiming. His confusion about the “how” behind the “why”//// is mirrored in the character of Nicodemus in today’s Gospel reading. Revealed to the reader as a “teacher” of Israel—meaning he had a place of religious and legal authority—and perhaps a secret disciple of Jesus—as indicated through his late-night run to Jesus’ digs for some chill theological conversation and his address of Jesus as Rabbi—Nicodemus’ exchange with Jesus is a weak attempt to capture a truth which continually seems to evade him.
Most commentators interpret the exchange in verses 1-8, particularly Nicodemus’ inaccurate interpretation of the word “anothen” (here translated born again but also meaning born from above or born anew) as a literary device jabbing at the literal interpretation of the law and strict adherence to right practice and or belief as the primary vehicles of our faith. Instead, Jesus says:
“The wind[f] 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”
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Jesus insistent argument makes clear to those who would hear that ‘being born again’ is not about conforming to a pre-conceived or conveniently practiced model of kin-dom, but is a movement of Spirit through which God’s love and grace are born into us so that through us others might see and know it too. It is not, as Jesus remarked in verse 17, a tool to be used for the condemnation of those who do not conform to our standards, but a lived invitation to come and see what God can do when God’s love dwells in us.
Being born again is NOT praying the Jesus Prayer or coming down the altar rails every time you scream that four letter word in traffic or sending that late night televangelist a love offering in three conveniently paid installments of 19.99. It is not about feeling guilt or shame because we fail to live up to the standards set by others. It is not conforming to a singular interpretation of the Gospel. It is not seceding your intellect or knowledge. It is not living without doubt or fear. Being born again is not being holier-than-thou, no matter which side of the theological or political perspective you stand on.
No, friends! It is about seeing the you that God sees—one who is beautiful and beloved, worthy and worthwhile, deserving of grace and space at God’s table. It is about opening your eyes to the truth of the image of God in yourself and in others and in trusting the words of the Prophet Micah heralded across the ages:
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
But why does being born again mean for those of us for whom all the baggage it bears and broken promises it carries matter? For Wesley, it was the gateway into personal and social holiness that so profoundly shapes the Methodist ethos. From it we are invited to cross the threshold into God’s sanctifying grace, the journey we make with God over our lifetimes in which we are more fully caught up by, invested in, and transformed through God’s living grace.
But the two are not to be confused in Wesley’s theology. He makes clear in his sermon titled the new birth that:
“the new birth..is a part of sanctification, not the whole; it is the gate to it, the entrance into it. When we are born again, then our sanctification, our inward and outward holiness, begins…”
In other words, to be born again is to catch a glimpse of the world toward which we’re working. The knowledge of God’s amazing grace for us and for the world is the blueprint which informs our commitments to things like transcendent worship, passionate advocacy, deep and challenging study, and radical hospitality. Lest we fall into the trap of a rote, moralistic religion in which we are performing the tasks assigned to us by our own ethic or compassion—the new birth reminds us that it is not our own vision, but God’s, toward which we are working.
This birth to God’s vision for our lives and the world can make all the difference. I’ve seen it, in the faithful leadership and witness of our sibling T.C., alongside so many others, who are fighting the homophobic policies of our United Methodist Church. They have not backed down. They have spoken the truth in love. And even in the face of vitriol and flat out rejection by the church they love they have continued to love and lovingly claim the place which we know God has already created for them.
When annual conferences across our connection rejected amendments which celebrated the gifts, ministry, and rights of women and persons regardless of their gender, ability, age, or marital status AND that asserted equity in the eyes of God between men and women, I bore witness to the leadership of women who refused to be silenced by a self-serving patriarchy hiding behind the veneer of “orthodoxy.” And here’s what’s truly shocking. Rather than walking away, or abandoning us to a crumbling system of belief and practice, they asserted with grace and love both their place the table and their willingness to help us—even those responsible implicitly or explicitly—find ours too.
Their lives and leadership bear the mark of new birth and are a witness to us of its place and purpose to the work which lies ahead of us. It grounds us in hope and grace—free from the fetters of denominational policy or politics, and the presumptions placed on us by others—and allows us to step out in, and sustain us through, the work of justice, mercy, compassion, and advocacy to which God has called us.
Not by our own strength—for it will fail. Not by our own will—because it will break. But by the living grace of God which has already claimed us, named us, held us, and called us into beloved community together. Why is the experience of new birth so vital? Because that moment begins a movement in our spirits through which we are able to be born again, and again, and again each day to the knowledge that we are God’s beloved, chosen, called, and gifted—no matter what anyone else might say.
As a young man wrestling with my backwoods Arkansas revival roots I often thought being born again simply another tool used to control and confuse people. And I’d be lying to you today if I said there weren’t still days it was a hard pill to swallow. But I’ve come to see it in a different like in the midst of my hopeful indignation. Less of a line in the sand and more of a roadmap for what’s possible. A source of strength and wellspring of hope in the midst of this weary land that reminds us we’ve already been saved, gifted, called, and loved—and the sends us to serve not in the strength of our own ability, but in that of the one who saves us, gifts us, loves us and calls us time and time again. And whether you leave here today a self-avowed, practicing born again Christian or not, my prayer for you is that may know and serve in that truth, now and in all your days to come.
Come thou Font of Every blessing, make it so. Amen
 The New Birth, John Wesley, accessed 5/12/18, https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-45-The-New-Birth
Justification by Faith, John Wesley, accessed 5/10/18 at https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-5-Justification-by-Faith
 John 3:8, NRSV
 John 3:17
 Micah 6:8, NRSV