Sunday, March 8, 2020

Second Sunday in Lent

"Old Dog – New Tricks"

Rev. Dr. Scott Landis

Genesis 12:1-4 & John 3:1-17

As we prepared and subsequently made our transition from San Diego to Maui we expected some things would be different: meeting new friends while saying good-bye to old ones, wearing “slippas” instead of dress shoes and socks or sneakers most of the time, and being barefoot in the pulpit – now, that’s a change I love. The weather is different here, the aroma is sweeter, and the pace of life seems just a little slower than southern California – again a welcome change.

But, as most of you know, when you move from one location to another regardless of distance or place or how beautiful the new setting – you absorb a lot of stress along the way. It’s internalized and processed in different ways as the necessary adjustments are made. While I’ve not handled it well all the time, I am fully aware of what is happening to me and why. I can talk it out and seek forgiveness when I’ve blown it, as I have more than once. And by doing so, I deepen in my personal self-awareness and understanding.

What surprised me more and caught me a little unawares, was the toll it took on our little dogs – Will and Grace. Moving from our house, to a temporary apartment, to a 6.5-hour plane ride, to a new condo has not been easy on them, and we have experienced behaviors in them we have not seen in many years. They are older dogs – and we thought they were much more mellow – but we learned differently. Furthermore, they can’t talk it out, or seek forgiveness, or process a deeper level of self-understanding. They are doing better, but the process is slow and requires a lot of patience and TLC on our part.

Change – it affects each one of us differently – we humans AND our furry loved ones. And, while we know it is a necessary part of life, most of us would probably admit – it is something we’d rather avoid.

I think that was the underlying issue of Nicodemus as he came to Jesus late one night “seeking.” I doubt he knew exactly what he was seeking, nor was he expecting he would have to change anything in his life in order to get what he thought he wanted. But all that was about to change.

Remember, Nicodemus was a highly educated man – a leader of the Jews, and probably lived a rather privileged life of status and prestige. Yet he knew that in Jesus there was something more, something he had not experienced in other rabbis, and he was intrigued.

His initial works to Jesus tipped his hand a bit, “Rabbi, we know you are teacher that has come from God; for no one can do these things that you do apart from the presence of God.

To which Jesus responds, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

And then Nicodemus said something that is very telling. Words, I believe, that reflect a sentiment most us would affirm, “How can anyone be born – after having grown old?” Or as I suggested in my sermon title – is it possible to teach an old dog new tricks? I know we are having a hard time with Will and Grace, but what about Nicodemus – or closer to home – what about us? Do we want to learn – to try something new? Do we want to change? Or are we pretty happy with the way things are and will do everything we can to prevent change in order to maintain what we think of as stability – sometimes referred to as “the way we’ve ALWAYS done it.” [Pause]

It’s our natural inclination as humans. When confronted with change – especially big ones to back away and retreat – or to fight to preserve what we know – and to hold on tight to that which is familiar. Doing so is like wrapping up in a comfortable blanket. It feels good, is reassuring, and predictable But, Jesus’ invitation could not be more different.

That’s why Nicodemus was having such a hard time with Jesus’ suggestion and why he thought Jesus’ words were preposterous, “You’re certainly not suggesting that I enter into my mother’s womb a second time and be born? That’s crazy talk.”

To which Jesus responded, “Let me tell you, you will never discover that which you are seeking – the real “God-drenched” change in your life unless you are born of water and the Holy Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of Spirit is Spirit.

You see what Jesus is getting at, don’t you? If we try and do all this of our own volition, we’re going to get stuck. Doing so stimulates our desire to manage and control – to hold things tightly within our grasp. Whereas, Jesus is suggesting we need to learn to let go, to allow the Spirit to blow through in order to make all things new. To which a puzzled Nicodemus responds, “How can this be? It’s impossible!”

What Nicodemus had to learn is the simplest yet most difficult lesson that each one of us must embrace as we seek in new ways to “be the church” and as we seek in deeper ways to be followers of Jesus. It’s a teaching you know well. Words that far too often are used as a “TEST” of faith rather than a “Testimony” of faith. In reality, it’s an invitation to a blessing:

“God so loved the world – (the whole world) – that God gave God’s only son. Whoever believes and seeks to follow Jesus may have whole and abundant and everlasting life.

You heard that truth beautifully expressed in a slightly differently way from our choir just a few minutes ago as they sang,

“We are here by God’s grace, and we sing of His goodness; Lord, help us to love you all the more, For we’re leaning on your power, every day and hour, Because we know your love and grace!

We cannot, nor are we expected to do this on our own. We will live into God’s invitation to be born anew ONLY through the grace of God that is given to us – by water, word, spirit, as well as through the love and support of our spiritual ohana – the church. This is what we know as grace – an unmerited gift that comes only from God – no matter how young or how old.

Remember the story of Abram. We read just a few verses in Genesis earlier today where God says to him, “Go out from your country and your kindred, and your father’s house to the land I will show you.” What surprised me is that God asked him to do that at the rather mature age of 75! Proving that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. Now, this may not be your first choice in your mid-seventies but if the call is from God – then God’s grace will be with you to see you through. That’s the promise – because the change is “God-inspired” and “God-directed.” [Pause]

God is calling our church to a new place and a new way of being Keawala’i. We will hold on to our traditions, our cultural heritage, and to many of the practices that have worked for decades here – BUT the invitation is to be born anew – to be born from above – to receive grace from the living God who will not fail to gift nor to guide this loving congregation as it faces a new day and a new way of being Keawala’i.

It’s an invitation to hold lightly that which is most valued here – to treasure the gifts we have been given and maintain from those who preceded us. But it is also to learn some new tricks as Spirit opens us to new possibilities. It is an invitation to let go of that which is no longer necessary and to reach out for that which is being given – that will provide an even more grace-filled way.

In just a few moments we will sing a lovely hymn that reminds us of this grace – of the possibilities that lie deep within us – just waiting for us to open up and be set free. It’s opening words are:

In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree; In cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free!

As we put our trust in God – we WILL be “Set Free.” And there we will find hope for a new day.

Mahalo ke Akua!

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