Nicodemus gets a bad rap in today’s gospel reading. John is using Nicodemus as a foil, so that Jesus can say something new about baptism. Jesus talks about baptism as a new birth or a second birth. As readers we are made to think we somehow know better. But that’s also a trick because we don’t know more than Nicodemus until after we’ve heard this conversation play out. We too are hearing gospel proclaimed, something new shared. But it’s a bit like when a fellow student or coworker asks the question everyone was thinking but too afraid to ask.
One line that often gets glossed over is Jesus saying, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Often this reference is spiritualized. Some think it just means no one can see heaven unless you are baptized. Another interpretation is that no one can fully see what God is doing in our midst except through God revealing it to us. Instead of it being about this yearning for heaven, Jesus is revealing to Nicodemus that it’s possible to see God’s will for creation here and now. Baptism is for Christians about a welcome into God’s emerging kingdom.
And the Gospel of John is all about the marrying together life on earth and God’s divinity. Not just heaven as some deferred reward after we die, but rather Jesus is on earth now. God is here, enlivened through the Holy Spirit, with us. And this is the new perspective Jesus wants Nicodemus and us to see. That God is already here. Sometimes the presence of God is easier to tell through stories, so I want to share two stories. One story is a bit heavier and one is a bit lighter.
First the heavier story. Recently the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) issued a robust statement denouncing white supremacy. This is noteworthy because the statement is more robust than other Lutheran denominations have put out. And I’m not one to sing the praises of LCMS. They are not queer affirming, don’t ordain women, etc. And yet here they’ve put out the more robust statement, despite more progressive Lutheran denominations talking a lot about decolonizing churches and so on.
One reason for the statement’s timing is that one of the LCMS churches in Knoxville, Tennessee recently was engaged in a power struggle. There was a white man within the congregation, who had a relatively high lay leader post in the wider church. He was trying to turn the congregation into recruitment post for white supremacists. He argued that he was the only one courageous enough to push the church’s theology to it’s logical conclusion, which was building a white ethno state. That’s pretty wild and for a long time the congregation sat back and did nothing, which only emboldened this man to work harder. He is convinced that the church structures will eventually cave in and more people like him will wrest control of local congregations. Thankfully the wider church has woken up. President Harrison, the equivalent of their national bishop, issuing a bold statement repudiating white supremacy as anti-Christian and evil. Church leadership realized they could lose control of the church to a growing fascism without taking direct action.
And while it would be easy to throw Lutheran Church Missouri Synod under the bus, we need to stop and ask if our own Lutheran denomination is not also vulnerable to an encroaching white supremacy? It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as the story in Tennessee. In fact it can be harder to detect the quieter, more latent forms of white supremacy in which racialized people are made to feel uncomfortable in predominantly white spaces. And the measure of response and change is not simply one of our awareness of these issues. It’s also about discerning what kinds of changes and sacrifices we’re willing to make for the congregation and wider church better to reflect the racial diversity of the neighbourhoods where churches are located. That should be reason to give us pause and reflect upon why it is.
Recently I heard the producer of a TV crime series comment on our infatuation with crime and violence. He remarked that part of it is we see ourselves in the villains. We like to imagine what we might to if pushed to edge with nowhere to turn. What might we be capable of? Hopefully we wouldn’t go so far as the excesses of stories in the news. One danger of the true crime obsession is that we can also externalize the bad guys as over there. Or what only happens in the US. Or whatever mental work we do to remove ourselves from the situation. But the reality as we know is that it’s often more complicated. We may not be at risk of becoming a recruitment centre for white supremacists. But we all perpetuate harm often through inaction. By not speaking out, by not creating space, by leaving power structures in place so that the status quo remains.
So Lent is a good season for introspection. To look into our heart of hearts, as much as we can do that, and pray that our baptism, our birth from above would reveal to us God’s kingdom. That we might better see Jesus’ desire for us here and now in our daily walk as Christians. Being born from above is also for us as a community of Jesus followers to be reborn in love and justice towards neighbours.
Now for a lighter story. This story comes directly from a dear friend, Dr. T.J. Tallie, who is a queer Black Lutheran in San Diego. I thank him for letting me share this with permission. T.J. was on a drive to visit his mother’s house in Southern California, the neighbourhood where he grew up. He was listening to various covers of Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al.”
By way of background, I once audited T.J.’s course on Africa in the Western Imagination, which helps to deconstruct images from the African continent that have been filtered through white European and North American lenses. How Africa is seen as a playground for white self-discovery. Mission trips aimed for white suburban teens to go and “save” poor African children. There are reports of missionaries being alarmed and even disappointed when they land in cities with more beautiful downtowns than their own. That there is more technology and culture than where they came from. But then they smile when they get to drive into a rural area without adequate medical services or running water and able to help in a more hierarchical way as the white saviour come to save poor African children.
“You Can Call Me Al,” is a delightful song, one T.J. also enjoys. A podcaster I listen to calls Paul Simon quintessential dad music. What struck T.J. about the song is that it has the markings of a mid-life crisis. It begins with a man asking, “Why am I soft in the middle now?” He’s wondering about whether his life has value, whether any of it has meaning. Eventually we find him somewhere new. The middle verses read: A man walks down the street It's a street in a strange world Maybe it's the Third World Maybe it's his first time around He doesn't speak the language He holds no currency He is a foreign man He is surrounded by the sound, sound Cattle in the marketplace Scatterings and orphanages He looks around, around He sees angels in the architecture Spinning in infinity He says, "Amen and Hallelujah!"
One reading is that he seems to be using what could be an African experience as something exotic. Something to wake him from his mid-life crisis. That can be problematic when Black people just become a foil for white blandness. When they not seen fully as people. T.J. also offers a charitable reading that just as Paul Simon uses a South African beat to energize the song, there can be a positive reading that Black cultures can wake up white people from their malaise. It doesn’t have to result in cultural appropriation. There can also be appreciation for having this different lens, this different way of seeing things. That God uses the Black church for revealing to a predominantly white Western church what it has been missing - a sense of joy, love, spark of the divine. And I think T.J. For sharing his story with me and with all of us. He has a book out called Queering Colonial Natal with University of Minnesota Press, a historical glimpse into colonial South Africa.
“You Can Call Me Al,” is a story many of us relate towards. We are at times in search of divine inspiration. We desire to be woken up, to be resurrected, to find peace and flourishing in our lives. It is possible to find baptismal renewal through the spark of an encounter with other spiritual traditions, other spiritual life, while being respectful of those traditions, and avoiding cultural appropriation.
Reflecting back upon where we find ourselves this Lent. Thinking about these stories from both the wild story from Tennessee and the joyful story from T.J. About “You Can Call Me Al.” Stories help us see ourselves against a backdrop of encountering God’s Word. The Word of God waking us up and revealing glimpses of divinity. When there are times to stand up and times to rejoice and celebrate. Baptism is also about these kinds of moments. Seeing the world around us through the Word of God. That we are invited into God’s unfolding of a new world. A world into which we are invited actively to participate.
Wrapping up. How is God calling you to renew your baptism? To live into being born from above this Lenten season? Or maybe you are discerning baptism for you or a child. Each of us has different gifts and a different role to play. Know that you are enough and that you are loved by God. Amen.