Sunday, March 16, 2014

God Tweets

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 16, 2014

Year A: The Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

God Tweets
            Last Sunday Bishop Beckwith made his Episcopal visitation over at the Church of the Incarnation. Since it was the second Sunday of the month – the Sunday I usually celebrate and preach at Incarnation – I was there and basically served as the deacon at the service.
            As many of you know, the bishop’s visit only comes around every couple of years so it’s a pretty big deal when it happens. Churches want to be at their best so a lot of time goes into preparation – shining the silver, vacuuming the carpets, cooking up a feast and trying to get as many parishioners to come to church as possible.
            And, last Sunday at Incarnation was no exception.
            The church looked great, it goes without saying that music was spectacular, there was a good-sized crowd and everybody, including the bishop, seemed quite happy.
            Whenever he makes a visit, the bishop offers an adult forum either before or after the service.
            He usually talks about his role as bishop – how he is a symbol of unity with the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church, and within our diocese.
            Last week he also talked about how the church has changed over the past few decades. He talked about how in the past Episcopal churches had no trouble attracting people. Pretty much all they had to do was paint their doors red, play music that was reasonably on key, and offer sermons that were no more than fifteen minutes long. If you did those relatively simple things then the people would come.
            The bishop then acknowledged that is no longer true - and hasn’t been true for a long time. It’s no longer that easy for an Episcopal church – for any church – to attract people.
            A generation or more of people have grown up with little or no contact with the church – with very little interest in what goes on here in places like this. We are dismissed as relics, as irrelevant, as foolish or worse.
            So, the bishop said, we’ve got to figure out new ways of presenting our message to the world – we need to try new approaches – we need to take our story and our ministry out to the streets – we need to go out to where the people are.
            The red doors, the on key music and the fifteen minute sermons are no longer enough.
            He held up “Ashes to Go” as an example of a new more active approach.
            He mentioned our service last summer at Liberty Park and looked ahead to the Good Friday procession that’s in the works. Some of you know that we’ll be doing an outdoor Stations of the Cross right here in our neighborhood – and each station will be a place where there’s been an act of violence in Jersey City. The Rev. Laurie Wurm and I have been working with the police to identify the sites and plan the route. The bishop plans to join us. It will be a great event – and a unique opportunity to take the church – to take the Good News - out into the streets.
            Many of you know that we’ve been doing other things to get the word out about what goes on here behind the red doors.
            One of the things I’ve spent a lot of time on is using social media to spread the word about St. Paul’s. Those of you on facebook know that St. Paul’s usually posts something every day – information about our services and events, photographs, prayers, a little history about the saint of the day.
            Hundreds of people view our St. Paul’s facebook page every week. Amazing.
            Unfortunately, a lot of young people are leaving facebook behind for other social media sites – which makes me dread having to learn how to use them and to spend time posting items there, too.
            Just having red doors would be so much easier and a lot less time-consuming!
            Besides facebook, we do use one other social media site, though: twitter.
            Do you know how twitter works?
            On twitter you are limited to 140 characters – letters and punctuation. So, unlike on facebook where you can – and people do – go on and on, when you post on  twitter - when you tweet - you have to get right to the point.
            There have been times when I’ve struggled to squeeze what I wanted to say, using lots of abbreviations, into just 140 characters.
            I have no idea how many people see our twitter feed. I know our St. Paul’s twitter has only 87 followers - not very many. But, I do know that it’s a useful exercise to try to get your message across in as few words, with as few characters, as possible – especially when we’re trying to reach people who are unlikely to ever open our red doors on their own.
            Twitter isn’t very old – it was created just in 2006.
            But, as I reflected on today’s gospel lesson, I thought, in a way, God has been tweeting – has been sending brief, to the point messages - to us for a very long time.
            In today’s gospel lesson we have the rich story of Nicodemus, the Pharisee who comes to Jesus by night.
            Nicodemus probably represents a group of Jewish people who respected Jesus, who acknowledged that his signs and miracles indicated that he was a holy man, who were curious about Jesus, but were not – yet – willing to recognize him as messiah or Son of God.
            Notice that Nicodemus calls Jesus, “rabbi,” which means teacher. True enough but hardly the best title for Jesus.
            Jesus and Nicodemus have a rich and complicated exchange.
            There are humorous misunderstandings as Jesus and Nicodemus talk to each other on totally different levels.
            Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
            That is a little mysterious and sure enough Nicodemus totally misses it. He replies, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
            Jesus tries again, this time alluding more clearly to baptism: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
            Now, if you were paying attention to the lesson you may have noticed that there’s a shift in the middle. The questioning Pharisee Nicodemus isn’t mentioned again. And, in fact, it seems like it’s no longer Jesus who is speaking.
            Instead, we hear God speaking through the Evangelist John. We hear God speaking through John’s community of Christians sometime around the end of the First Century.
            We hear probably the best-known, best-loved verse in the New Testament: John 3:16.
            John 3:16, which it just so happens is short enough - 129 characters in English including the quotes – just short enough to be a tweet:
             “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
            And then there’s the next verse, John 3:17, which is also short enough – 125 characters - to tweet:
            “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
            Now, there’s a whole lot of theology packed into those two little verses, these two tweets from God. I could preach on them for a lot longer than 15 minutes.
            But, these two verses – these two “tweets” – sum up the whole gospel: the God who created all that is loves us with a bottomless love – a love so great that this God was willing to live among us not to condemn us for all the ways we mess up but to save us from ourselves.
            That is the Good News we proclaim.
            Our challenge is not just to proclaim it here in church behind our red doors but out in the world where people have very little interest in what goes on in here. We need to proclaim this Good News to the people out there who dismiss us as relics, as irrelevant, as foolish or worse.
            We need to proclaim this Good News – to tweet this best news ever – to a world that is still hungry for God’s love.
            Oh, one more thing about Nicodemus, the questioning Pharisee who came to Jesus by night.
            He appears again near the end of the Gospel of John.
            After Jesus had died and his body was removed from the cross, we’re told that Nicodemus came “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.”
            At what seemed to be the end of the story, Nicodemus came to anoint the body of Jesus.
            “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
            “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”