The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire


Sermon - March 12, 2017
Scripture Reading: John 3:1-16

The Rev. Robert Vodra

      It is easy to be discouraged in the church world.  From a minister’s perspective, we have learned not to take it too personally.  There are 20 other things you could be doing right now, and maybe 5 other things that you should be doing.  There are still dirty dishes in the sink from breakfast because you didn’t have time to load the dishwasher, there is laundry that needs to be done, the house could use a good vacuuming, and let’s not forget about dusting.  And even if your house is in perfect order, taxes are due in a couple of weeks, I have not done mine yet.  And seems like every time I get the mail there is another bill that has to be paid.  I finally got my car in to be inspected this week, my birthday was last month so the inspection was also due last month. 

     I do remember the days BC or before children.  Since I was not working in a local church, I would often be asked to guest preach in a church, or would be hosting a weekend group at the camp, but there were some weeks where we had a free Sunday.  I don’t know if it is even on anymore, but there was a show on CBS called “Sunday Morning.”  Charles Osgood, I believe the host was.  It didn’t start very early in the morning, maybe 9:00 and ran about an hour and a half if I remember right.  But this was BC, so I could easily sleep until 8:30 given the opportunity.  Get up, get a cup of coffee, and then just lounge around and watch the show.  It always ended with something interesting right at the end.  “We end this morning with the birds on some African plain I had never hear of, or some rare birds of a jungle in South America.  Maybe sitting around on a Sunday morning is not something I should be doing, but I enjoyed it, and probably would have made it a regular Sunday morning ritual if I had that opportunity. 

     But we all did show up here on this Sunday morning, and we think about the good old days.  Many of you remember those days, I have heard the stories.  In some ways it was easier back then.  School and youth sports events respected Sunday as either the day you go to church, or at least as family time.  Of course many of the pressures we have today were still present back then, but it seemed easier to put them off for a few hours.  After all, on Sunday morning you went to church.  Your parents went to church, your grandparents went to church, so of course, on Sunday morning you went to church.  It was just what happened, nobody ever questioned it.  But I also think that all these inventions meant to make things easier have not always worked as expected.  When my father was a pilot, he either got a route, which means he had a schedule, or he was reserve, which means that he was given times during the month when he had to be available to fly if he got a phone call, on our home phone.  That was the only way they had to get in touch with him, no e-mail, no cell phone or texts, we didn’t even have an answering machine.  If we were out of the house and they called, nobody answered. 

     But times had changed by the time I got my first job, and I set up myself to always be available.  I never shut off my old desktop computer, and I would answer e-mail whenever I saw it come in.  Sometimes early morning, sometimes late at night.  I had the camp phone set up to ring in my house, so if it rang at midnight and I was up, they got a live person on the line, even if they expected to just leave a message.  And unfortunately that has become the norm for many of us now.  Myself perhaps less than many of you.  Many of you have your smart phones in your pockets, and you will check in on work at some point before dinner tonight.  There was a time in which church and family time was what you did on Sunday.  Work was for Monday through Friday when you were in the office, nobody would even think about trying to contact you at home during a weekend.

     Times have changed, and that makes me nervous about the church’s future.  The old idea was always “they will come back once they have children.”  But in the past 20 years they have not come back, the children put more demands on their limited time.  The work week, for many of, is not 40 hours, and certainly is not 9 to 5, Monday through Friday anymore. 

     But this is not news to any of you.  You made a choice, a decision to come to church this morning.  But sometimes this news, even though it is not news, can cause us to be cautious.  Church, as it was 20 years ago will probably never come back.  But in many ways, you, and I, are paralyzed.  I admit that I want to church to remain as I remember it growing up.  Sunday school rooms full of kids, and moving around to try to find places to put all the kids that were in church every Sunday morning.  Setting up folding chairs in order to give everyone a place to sit.  And even today, we are all cautious about rocking the boat.  Church is not as full as we would like, but don’t want to do anything too different or we might lose some of the families that are here.  I would be very worried if attendance dropped off. 

     And that is the reason why this passage is more important today than it has ever been.  We could skip all the way to that familiar part of the reading.  It was the first Bible passage I ever memorized, and probably some of you did the same, John 3:16.  I would like to raise up some other things this morning.  The first part I would like you to notice is the freedom given to those who are born of the spirit.  When Jesus says that we must be born anew, Nicodemus is confused.  “How can we be born again?” This was before this term was common.  So Jesus contrasts those born of the flesh and those born of the spirit.  A key ingredient of those born of the spirit is freedom.  We are not bound by the same concerns as those live as part of the flesh because our fate is sealed by God’s enormous love for us.  “Do not be astonished,” Jesus says to Nicodemus, “that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind 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.”

     I think that this announcement about the spirit, and those born of the spirit, gives a huge amount of freedom when looking at the both the challenges and opportunities of this age.  One of the most frightening parts of this spirit’s movement is that there are no road maps for us to follow.  If you have been around the church , any church, for a while, there are things that are familiar to you.  Our worship service lasts about an hour.  We sing three hymns, unless it is communion Sunday, the first Sunday of every month, and then we put in a 4th hymn.  The children and youth are here through the word with the children, and then they go off to Sunday school, except during the summer.  Every year when the church is planning its budget, we have a pledge campaign, asking you how you will financially support the church in the next year.  And ministers also have our patterns.  Many of us preach from the lectionary.  In my first preaching class we learned how to develop three point sermons, I don’t really do that anymore, but many pastors do.  All these things provide us a roadmap on how to be the church.  But if those born of the Spirit are like the wind, blow where it chooses, you hear the sound but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.  We cannot really expect to continue on the road we have been traveling.  The spirit may blow us off the road we thought we were taking, but may bring us, Marlborough church and me, onto new different roads.  That is a bit frightening.  What would happen if we sang two hymns, or 4 hymns on a non-communion Sunday.  What if we celebrated communion every other week?  What would happen if we didn’t have a pledge drive, but just lived on the faith that everyone would give as they were able.  Sorry Management Ministry group I know, how do you plan a budget without an income starting line?

     But we are not alone, the spirit, which Jesus will later say is his spirit, is with us.  This can turn all this anxiety into excitement.  We don’t have to preach from the lectionary, we don’t have to use a 3 point sermon.  We can sing 2 hymns, or 3 hymns, or 8 hymns.  We don’t know where the roads will lead, or even which roads we will be on, but this can be exciting rather than frightening.  We are free to experiment, free to fail, which we will sometimes, free to try new different things, things that we never thought about doing, or never thought that we could do.  Because the Spirit of Christ will blow us in ways we never imagined.

     The second part I want to lift up is the source of our new confidence.  It comes just after John 3:16 and says ““God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  God intends good for us.  So often we think of church and Christianity as kind of a downer, and in some churches, maybe even in this church sometimes, you sometimes feel it.  We are all sinners, we all push away from God, but God did not send Jesus to condemn us.  With this knowledge, any of the setbacks, any of the failures we have, are temporary.  God is working to redeem the world.  And this redemption is God’s responsibility, not ours.  It is our job to strive to identify where it is happening, but not do try to do that ourselves. 

     But what does all this redemption or saving the world really mean?  Many have interpreted it as heaven.  When we die, individually we will be saved and go to a better place, but I believe that redemption is really working toward the kingdom of heaven on earth.  So God sent Jesus so that we may know what a perfect world could be, to open that up to us.  We are not there yet, but if you imagine the world as Jesus preached and lived, that would be heaven.  A place where there is plenty for everyone to eat, with leftovers.  A place where the rich, and the prostitute, and the Samaritan, and the tax collector, and the women, and the priests, and all others sit together and talk and learn.  And some days it is hard to see any of that happening.  We live in a land of plenty, and we allow a child to go to bed hungry because we cut money for food stamps?  And it not the unemployed whose children go hungry, what about the single mother who works 40 hours a week at $7.25 an hour, 52 weeks a year, and is able to afford rent, and usually heat, but when a medical bill comes in, or the child is sick and the mother has to take a few days off to care for the child, there is just not enough for food this week.  We are hesitating raising the minimum wage to a living wage because we want our dollar menu at McDonalds, or our $7.99 pants at Walmart.  While I could argue that many of these places could easily pay a living wage without raising prices any, they make enormous profits, and a living wage would just cut into that profit a little bit, I also say that I would be willing to see a dollar and a dime menu, or pay $8.25 for a pair of pants.  When we pay people a fair living wage, the need for food stamps will go down.  But we cannot cut food stamps and refuse to pay workers a living wage.  Quiktrip, Trader Joes and Cosco are three places that have seen their employees are an asset.  An entry level cashier at Quiktrip makes about $40,000 a year plus benefits.  Toyota has done a good job at giving their assembly line employees a stake in the quality of their vehicles.  If anyone on the assembly line sees a problem, or something missed, or something that could be done better, they can stop the line.  Nobody is installing this screw, stop the line and fix it.  If this person leaves their piece a little loose I can fit mine behind it, then tighten it up, make it look better.  Stop the line, fix it.  It is a cycle, if employees are valued, the quality of their products and service increase, the company makes more money and can pay their workers better.  It also works the other way.  Look at Circuit City, they did not value their employees, did not pay them well, they employees didn’t care about the company they worked for, and now they are out of business.  These are a few examples I found where employers value employees.  And that is really what it is.  If we value people above profit, this small part of the Kingdom of God will be a little bit closer.  I am not saying they do everything right, but if a mother can get a job at Quiktrip, support her family, not need food stamps anymore, isn’t that good for everyone?  And yes, I would pay an extra nickel for my coffee there, because they are doing the right thing. 

     And it is not just there that I see glimpses of the Kingdom of God.  Visit any food bank.  Or visit a place where they have drilled a new well for a community that did not have clean safe water before.  Look at a Habitat for Humanity project, where someone is given the opportunity to own a house.  Visit a homeless shelter, where the only objective is to give people a warm, safe, place to sleep for the night.  And even if we stay in the United Church of Christ, someday take a few minutes and visit “Global”  This is the website of the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ missions.  You can go to a region or even narrow down to a country and see what we, your church, our church, is doing in that area.  God is working in those areas, and it is our job to identify, name, and support that work. 

     So this week, I remind you that we are free. And I remind you that we are aided by God’s powerful Spirit who will blow us places we’d never imagined. And finally, that God loves this whole world -- including us and our little corners of it -- extravagantly and so has promised that whatever may come, we all have God’s promise of redemption in and through Christ Jesus our Lord.