Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | March 5, 2023
The “pastor’s office” needed to be remodeled. New bookshelves, new desk, new carpet. It needed the sort of upgrade that would match the image the church wanted to project – professional, competent, with quality materials.
The project was driven by the “Fine Arts Committee.” The fine arts committee was in charge of things like that. They controlled what pictures were ever put on a wall or what color of a rug that was ever laid on a floor.
The fine arts committee hired a well-known interior design company. The project manager was a young woman who assured me that they were professionals and this project would be done to their highest professional standards. The timeline was a mere two weeks from start to finish, so I decided to take two weeks of my vacation time while the work was on.
After coming back from vacation, I was excited to see my new office. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was scheduled to lead worship the next day. I went over to the church and found that the project was not complete. There was work left to be done and there was work that had been done wrong that would need to be redone.
I was not happy. I remembered the adamant assurances of the project manager of their professionalism in this matter. I called the chair of the fine arts committee. I was calm. I don’t like confrontation. I was polite. I said that the project was not finished as promised. So I was back at work where I would have to work around workers for who knew how long.
The chair of the committee responded to me in a rather imperious tone. She said, “I’m getting ready for company right now. Don’t you have anything more important to do?” The conversation ended on that note. It was for me a learning experience. It confirmed for me my place in the grand scheme of that church organization.
I was “The Hired Help.” Let me say there is nothing whatsoever wrong with being the hired help. You show up to do your job, you give it a good effort, and when you’re finished you go home. You collect your paycheck on time, and everyone is happy.
When you are the hired help, you can make suggestions about how the work is handled, but you have no real authority to change things. And as the hired help, you must understand your place in the scheme of things. And that means, don’t get too familiar.
That episode for me was an “Aha” moment; it was a moment of clarity. A moment of once you understand something in a whole new way, you never go back to knowing it in the old way. Such times in our lives are what we might call being “born again.”
I’m with Nicodemus. When I hear Jesus say, “You must be born again,” I wonder, “How can this be?” “Born Again” comes with some heavy baggage. Some folks note a difference between just any old Christian and being a “born again” Christian.
If someone were to ask me, “Are you born again?” I don’t think I would answer yes, no or maybe. I would answer with a question, “When?” Because for me, being born of the Spirit is not a once and for all event. Rather, I think of it as a life-long journey of coming alive to God.
There’s a lot I don’t understand and when it comes to matters of God, Spirit and Soul, I’m a novice like everyone else. Though Jesus said that to see the realm of God one must be born again, each birth is a unique coming to life experience. When we look back on our lives, we can see how God’s perspective is wider than ours.
I was on a certain trajectory in ministry. When I first started out people would sometimes say to me, “You’re going to end up in a big church someday.” The idea was that you start out small and you move up the ladder of success to big. You gain experience, knowledge and wisdom; you build the proper credentials; you excel academically by obtaining advanced graduate degrees.
If I was doing all of that, then I figured God’s purpose for my life would be discovered and achieved on that pathway. I was well on my way to becoming Nicodemus. I remember a day that I had “something important” to do. It was a ministerial task of some sort; a meeting or something. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but at the time it was something “important” I needed to do.
However, I do remember clearly the consequences of doing this most important thing. In order to do this essential ministry thing, I chose to miss a school concert. Maybe my reasoning was that it was one of many such concerts and missing that one would not be such a big deal. My daughter Jane who was around ten years old at the time would surely understand why I couldn’t be there.
I found out otherwise when she came home from school in tears that day. She went up to her room and shut the door.
Of course, I felt like a heel. It caused me to wonder about the importance of what’s really “important.” What really matters? When it’s all said and done, I would not want my funeral eulogy to be about what a great committee facilitator I was, I how devoted my heart and soul to the task forces and initiatives of the religious institution.
The change in course motivated by that born-again moment involved determining what’s really important and showing up for it.
So I began to question and I couldn’t get the questions out of my mind – Isn’t there something more important I could be doing? If I should be so presumptuous to think that God, the Almighty had called me into service, shouldn’t there be something more to it than grabbing after the brass ring? After that the nagging feeling that there has to be something more to it than this would not leave me.
So what to do? Try harder – Pad more into the resume – Serve on more important committees – Attend more networking functions? Be essentially like Nicodemus who was unable to think beyond established categories?
Jesus said that one enters into God’s realm through water and spirit.
Go back to the time of creation of when the Spirit of God hovered over the face the deep. Water doesn’t seek the highest point – it goes around – it flows under – it seeps through. A mere drop can work its way through granite given enough time – enough patience. Water always finds the lowest level.
The Spirit is free – like the wind it comes and goes where it will. The Spirit is always moving – not on a prescribed track – but somewhere. The Spirit is creative – it doesn’t colour within the lines – it is unpredictable – it is irrational – the Spirit changes things – it inspires, brings new life – new birth.
Sometimes I’ve heard it said that the minister should be an inspiration to people. Give us an inspiring message. Just tell us what to do (But don’t get too bossy about it).
I learned along the way that far better than me, it is the Spirit of God who inspires. I just point to the Spirit who is the one who brings rebirth to the soul. I just try to bring the Spirit into the journey of life; and maybe people are filled and reborn because of it. And maybe not. If the Spirit blows like the wind, we don’t direct how the wind blows, we raise our sails to catch it.
Don’t you have something more important to do? One time I conducted the funeral service for a fellow named Stewart Campbell. His life had not been easy, but we gathered at the church to celebrate his life and mourn his passing. Stewart had been father to four children, three of whom died tragic deaths when they were in their 20’s.
As Stewart’s casket was brought into the church sanctuary, I motioned to the pall bearers that I would walk in front of it. I knew it was what he would have wanted. I thought of the last time he and I made that journey together.
Five years earlier friends and family gathered at the church for the funeral of Stewart Campbell, Jr. Of the four grown children in the family, he was the third one to die in tragic circumstances. The wet and grey December day was a fitting backdrop to grief and pain that people were feeling.
Family and friends were seated in the sanctuary, except for Stewart, Sr. who wanted to lead the casket in. As it was being taken from the hearse and lifted to the shoulders of the pall bearers, he said to me, “Minister, will you walk beside me?”
I said, “Sure, whatever you need.”
He added, “I want my son’s final journey to be with God.”
That hit me like a thunderclap. That was the moment of clarity, as if the curtain between heaven and earth had been pulled back just a little. “That’s why I’m here. This is the more important thing that I could be doing. This will always be the more important thing.”
A moment like so many in the Spirit’s ebb and flow through the lives of people – standing witness to the Spirit’s birth and rebirth – not through any accomplishment on my part – but by simply showing up and reminding people that God’s love is for them too – I have nothing more important that I could be doing. Amen.