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Where Charisma and Order Meet is Where We Are Born Again

A Sermon for Chrism Mass
Diocese of Bethlehem
Cathedral Church of the Nativity
Thursday, April  14, 2011
The Rev. Canon Andrew T. Gerns
John 3:1-17

There is a little boy that I know who loves gadgets. He loves to learn and understand how they work. He loves to watch them in action. When his family buys a new appliance or tool, he will want to know all about how it works, and think up reasons why he should run the air conditioner with the remote or vacuum something or wash a dirty towel.

Lest you think that this a housekeeping Godsend, every mother’s dream, consider this: he disdains picture books and the usual children’s literature and would much rather read the instruction—or better yet, the service—manuals for all these contraptions. Out loud. Right now.

He especially loves the troubleshooting guides in those manuals. And when you try to distract him from his need to tell you or any of his siblings in graphic detail all the possible solutions to any potential problem by saying something like “when something happens, you will be the first person I call” he will say to you in all seriousness “But if you wait until it’s broken, it will be too late.”

Don’t ask me why, but I really identify with this kid…and not just because I am A-V kid emeritus. I really love his enthusiasm when something new, shiny and fascinating comes along. I love that he wants to know how things works…he wants to understand. It is not enough to know what button does what but how each function happens. And I love how he wants to tell everyone about the new gadget in great, energetic, fascinated detail.

This wonderful little boy and the family he inhabits dramatize a truth about Christian community.  When we “get” something, we want everyone to “get it”. And when we have found what works we want to understand and manage it.

Jesus, of course, offers both a description and an antidote of this phenomenon. The Spirit blows where it wills, he tells Nicodemus during their night-time meeting.  It is like the wind…we don’t know where it comes from or where it goes, but we are always trying to catch it and hang on. So behind every enthusiastic rush is our need to understand and capture the Spirit—to make it ours. And behind every need to contain and make orderly our insights is a need to preserve what the Spirit has taught us—again, to make it ours.

In this Gospel, Jesus teaches us that where charisma and order meet is where we are born again.

In many ways Nicodemus is the perfect icon for the mainline Christian believer in the 21st century. He is learned. He is pious. He knows his stuff and has been given responsibilities to match his knowledge. He is a leader. At the same time, Nicodemus has real, honest spiritual yearnings that he is not afraid to investigate but on his own terms. He is not afraid to follow the thread to its logical conclusion, but he is nobody’s fool. Before he goes public with his spiritual side, he wants to make sure he understands what he is getting into.

When Nicodemus makes his late night appointment, the question at the tip of his tongue is “what’s your secret? How do you do all that cool stuff? How do we get what you’ve got?” But Jesus answers him with talk about being born from above.  In John 7, we see Nicodemus speak up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin… a word of caution to a nervous and reactive group who are trying to preserve what’s left of their nation and religion in the face of occupation and change out of their control.

I wonder if he ever regretted hanging back for so long; if Jesus’ words about being born from above did not ring with a kind of hollow disappointment as he and Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body to that new tomb, as described in John 17. As he prepared Jesus’ body for burial, did Nicodemus wish that he had spoken up sooner?  I don’t know. Nicodemus does not appear on anybody’s official list of witnesses to the resurrection, but I’ll bet that there is a reason that John’s community remembered him. Somewhere in that journey from the garden to the cross to the tomb, Jesus took him right to the heart of the tension between institutional survival and spiritual longing, and I suspect that it was at the cross or in his friend’s empty tomb where Nicodemus finally understood what it meant to be born from above.

We who are called to serve the church either as ordained persons or as lay leaders contend with this all the time. We serve God through a strange and arcane thing called the church. We seek to bring life, direction and hope to congregations of everyday people following Jesus that are at once institutions with traditions and budgets and sometimes squirrely family dynamics; and, at the very same time, we are a gathered people on a spiritual quest. One need not cancel the other.

In a day where we don’t trust institutions much and where people tend to describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, it is tempting to see the institutional as being in necessary conflict with the spiritual. We are tempted to chuck the details, make it up as we go along call that living in the Spirit.

We also live in a culture that loves to manage things, that assumes that for every problem there is a quick fix. So we are also tempted, when we find the spirit at work powerfully in many wonderful, moving and useful ways,  to package it, organize it, manage it (and if we are really ambitious, sell it)…so that what works for us now can be easily accessed for the future.

In the face of these temptations, just when we think we’ve got it a handle on it all, God’s spirit has a way of bringing on the next contraction of our continuing re-birth.

Once upon a time, I had it all figured out. Yes, I did. There was a time in my life when I had undertaken a romantic quest for “pure” pastoral care without any of the distractions of parish life—without the messiness of Christian community. So I set out to do this as a skilled solo practitioner. I had done several CPE units and came to belief that insight was key to spiritual growth and that they way one brings about spiritual growth was to sit with a person using various techniques of listening and reflected insight, that I would watch as a person—through their own insight—would come to a new level of spiritual awareness. So I had the tools, I had the training, and I was on a mission.

Then came Lois. She was in her eighties. A widow, she spent her whole life on a dairy farm in rural northeast Connecticut, except when she taught in a two-room school house. She was in for surgery, I can’t remember what, but she was in for a long recovery before going home—this was in the days when hospitals normally kept patients around for a long time until they could walk out. Anyway, I met with her several times during her stay. Looking back, I know I picked her because as patients went, she was easy.  Even though we had different religious traditions, she was a fiercely independent Congregationalist, she knew all the stories and all the symbols. We shared a common faith language. I heard more and more of her story: growing up on a farm, marrying a farmer, raising several children on the farm, teaching school in a small town.  Eventually the conversation kind of ran out of steam. Not unpleasant, but there was a kind of a lull. Then she turned to me and said, “you are a chaplain, aren’t you?”

I don’t know what I said, but I suspect it was probably something lame like “You’re wondering if I am a chaplain.”  She told me that I was very nice person, a good listener and not a bad counselor, but she wanted to know if I ever did anything that she thought chaplains should do. Like what? I asked.

She said, “You know, I am 80 years old and someday I am going to die. Can you help me out?”

In other words, she needed me to be her priest. So for the first time in our relationship, we prayed. This lay person taught me something that I have been discovering for the first time ever since: that when we pray together, that’s when the real work begins.  

Lois taught me something else: Just when I want to shout “eureka!” and start singing “All you need is prayer” to a John Lennon tune, God gives me a dope slap in the form of an insightful lay person who reminded me that the training, the skills and the discipline did not go away just because I prayed. No—the prayer made all those tools incarnational! The prayer made the tools make God real.

 It is not a zero sum game, where we have to choose between being spiritual or being competent. That’s world’s meme, not ours. We are an incarnational people following one whom we believe to the fullness of God and the fullness humanity in one person undiluted. That suggests that God needs from us both our skill and our spirit.

When we pray together, that’s when community becomes Christian community.

When we learn together, that’s when praying Christian community discovers whose they are and begins to explore what that means.

When we begin to reflect together and share our stories that is when we discover that God is at work in all of us and that all of together have a job to do.

When we discover that our common life is also what communicates Christ, then we begin to think about what we do as a congregation communicates Christ which deepens our worship and drives us to mission.

And when we begin to ask how what we do in everyday life communicates Christ, we driven to prayer to listen more deeply to the movement of the spirit in the people—in and out of the church—that God has given us.

How we organize our common life matters. The time we take to pray before we decide how to fix the roof matters. A good roofer at a fair price is still important, but without the prayer we forget why the roof is important in the first place. Isn’t it just a little silly that while we wonder why our congregations aren’t more spiritual, we sit down as vestries or a program committees to decide how to use the resources God has given us without first allowing ourselves to listen for God?  It is silly…but we do it all the time.  We call it being practical and efficient, but there is danger in compartmentalizing ourselves too much.

God needs us to have our different passions—the different ways  we all “get” it—and our multitude of gifts because all of it—pastoral care, worship, mission, formation, evangelism—is put to best use serving God and each other in a praying, listening community.  Every single one of at one time or another “gets it” and that becomes the organizing principal around which everything falls. It’s human. God made us that way. It’s how we learn and one of the ways life has meaning and purpose. The choice is: do we spend all of our energy trying to change everybody else’s mind to think as we do? Or do we direct our energy towards what it takes to play in concert? The latter is the creative work of God.

We often make a false choice between order and charism. God needs both from us: God needs us to be competent, clear and useful. God, who made order out of chaos in the first place, wants us to be good at what we do.

At the same time, God needs us, as the collect says, to rest in his eternal changelessness. To listen for God in the silence and in the people God gives us, to be ready for the spirit because we don’t where it will come from or where it will take us. God calls to be a people in prayer together.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I am like that little boy who wants to understand how things work and get everyone to understand how to do it right.

And sometimes I am like Nicodemus, resting on my competence but on a spiritual quest and coming to Jesus by night and to the foot of the cross.

We, in our baptisms and in our holy orders, as God’s gathered people, have chosen to stand at the place where charisma and order meet.  It is not always easy but it is always like being born again.

[Canon Gerns is rector of Trinity Easton.]


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