Sunday, May 26, 2024

Trinity Sunday
“A Proper Community”
Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Isaiah 6:1-8/NRSVUE)
Second Reading (John 3:1-17/NRSVUE)

Okay, so here’s something I never imagined I’d be saying out loud in church (or anywhere else for that matter): Listen now to the word of God as revealed to the Backstreet Boys: “I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, what you did, as long as you love me.” So endeth the reading.

Now, if this particular song’s run on the radio during the late 1990s happened to be either before or after your time, then lucky you; if not, I apologize for once again putting it into your head, where it will likely stay for the foreseeable future. And now that I’ve actually said this out loud, I know that I’ve got some explaining to do.

Though the lyrics don’t confirm this one way or the other, it’s reasonable to infer that the line I just quoted to you is a response to someone who, for reasons unknown, is feeling self-conscious about who they are, where they’re from and what they did; someone who believes themselves to be unworthy of love as a result of these things. Today’s two stories — one from Isaiah, the other from John — seem to speak to this same issue, albeit in different ways, asking this essential question: Who is worthy of being God’s beloved?

In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah experiences what’s known as a theophany, which is just a five-dollar word meaning “an encounter with God.” Isaiah walks in to the temple and sees God sitting on a throne but, since the hem of God’s robe apparently filled the temple, one has to wonder how much of God Isaiah really saw. And this is probably for the best because, earlier in the Hebrew Scriptures, God says that no person can actually see God’s face and live. There are, however, six-winged seraphs in attendance who declare God’s greatness and, when they do, the whole building trembles and fills with smoke.

Isaiah is understandably a bit overwhelmed by all of this; so much so that all he can think to say is this: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Said slightly less dramatically, “I don’t belong here, I’m nobody, and the people I come from are nobodies too; I definitely don’t deserve to be standing in the presence of God. I’m not worthy.”

You kind of have to wonder what Isaiah is up to here. I mean, does he really think that he’s not worthy? After all, the Hebrew prophets have a long history of trying to get out of being prophets by any means necessary — including, but not limited to, putting themselves down. Moses said he wasn’t good at speaking in public, Jeremiah said he was too young, and Jonah simply turned and ran away.

Later Isaiah will complain about his prophet job taking way too long (which is fair, because Isaiah is the fifth longest book in the Bible), but there’s no evidence of that attitude here. In any event, immediately after Isaiah declares himself to be unworthy of being in God’s presence, one of the aforementioned seraphs flies over with a hot coal from the altar, touches it to Isaiah’s lips (that had to hurt), and proclaims him to be free of guilt and sin.

God, seeking to recruit a prophet to go have a word with Israelites about their lack of faith, about their unwillingness to abide by the covenant they make with God, then asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” It really doesn’t sound like all that great of a job — people don’t necessarily react well to someone telling them all the stuff they’re doing wrong, even if that someone is doing so out of love and concern. That notwithstanding, Isaiah replies quickly and enthusiastically, “Here am I; send me!” And this is the right answer because when God calls you, you go. Maybe that’s what it means to be worthy.

By this definition, you who wasn’t worthy though? King Uzziah, the one whom Isaiah mentions at the beginning of this passage. According to the book of Second Chronicles (which, for the record, is a rip-roaring read), Uzziah received accolades for his military exploits, but Uzziah eventually “grew proud” and became “false to the Lord his God.” What did he actually do? He decided to enter the temple in order to make offerings on the altar which, according to God’s law, was the role of the priests.

The author of Chronicles tells us that Uzziah was punished severely for not listening to God: he suddenly and mysterious contracts leprosy and eventually dies, which is where our story for today begins. Now, did God really bring the hammer down on Uzziah for his transgressions? I don’t really know; the Bible is rarely that straightforward — bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people all the time. But the message here seems pretty clear: Don’t be like Uzziah, be like Isaiah. The mighty but faithless are brought down while the lowly but faithful become God’s voice in the world.

And so who is worthy of being God’s beloved?

This question is raised again our reading from John’s Gospel, which recounts a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.

The Backstreet Boys may not give a hoot about who you are or where you’re from, but folks in Jesus’s place and time sure as heck did. Back then, the circumstances of your birth (your family, where you lived) pretty much dictated your place in society for your entire life. In modern times, what you do (work, education, migration) can change your status in ways that it couldn’t in ancient times but, let’s face it, even today, the situation into which you happen to be born conveys advantages that can make life a whole lot easier or disadvantages that can make life a whole lot harder.

And so when Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a “leader of the Jews,” a pillar of society, comes to visit Jesus, a humble peasant from Galilee, and declares that Jesus is “a teacher who has come from God,” John’s earliest readers definitely would have sat up and taken notice because this kind of stuff just didn’t happen; in fact, their meeting would have been so scandalously strange that Nicodemus decides it’s best to pay his visit to Jesus under the cover of darkness.

Jesus begins by telling Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” and the rest of the conversation is a back and forth between the two as Nicodemus tries to figure out what on earth Jesus means by this. In fairness to Nicodemus, it’s kind of tough to wrap one’s mind around the idea of someone who’s already been born being be born again.

In our time, of course, this term “born again” has been loaded up with all sorts of cultural baggage — to the point where, in a progressive church like ours, the mere mention of it might make one wince. But perhaps we can reclaim it in light of the context in which Jesus actually says it.

Look, we could stay here for a long, long time trying to unpack all of the possibilities behind what Jesus means when he says “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” or “born again.” That’s just part  of the mystery that follows Jesus everywhere he goes, and that’s inherent in everything he says.

But, at some level, we can rightfully infer that being “born from above” means coming into — and living into —  a situation where worldly priorities like social status, wealth and accomplishments just don’t matter. In fact, doing things that actually contravene society’s priorities seems to be what’s called for in God’s reign — as evidenced by Jesus’s willingness to forego worldly power for himself and opt instead to endure a humiliating death on a cross so that we might experience eternal life. Doing the difficult thing, doing the costly thing, for the benefit of someone other than yourself — that’s what God’s reign looks like.

Nicodemus, despite his apparent lack of understanding here, eventually seems to figure it out. Later in John’s Gospel he will, at great peril to himself, defend Jesus’s right to a fair hearing — which the Pharisees decide to deny Jesus on the basis of the fact that he’s a peasant from the wrong side of town. And after Jesus’s demeaning execution at the hands of the powers-that-be, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea flout social conventions — and put themselves at risk — by conspiring to give Jesus a burial fit for a king. In a nutshell, Nicodemus chooses to live like one who has truly been “born from above.”

And so I’ll ask the question again: Who is worthy of being God’s beloved? The answer, of course, is everyone, without exception. Rich or poor, king or peasant, Pharisee or prophet — God loves them all, God loves us all.

But how should we respond to God’s love for us? The answer, of course, is by loving God. And how do we actually do that? By loving one another.

“I don’t care who you are, or where you’re from, or what you did, as long as you love me. And you show your love for me by loving your neighbor as yourself.” It’s that simple.

The words of the Backstreet Boys and the words of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.