Sunday, March 08, 2020

Lent II

John 3
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.[a]”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”[d]

Just in time for International Women’s Day, I’m taking you to Flin Flon, Manitoba.

Located about 500 miles north of Winnipeg, Flin Flon is a mining town in decline that has been also described as “moderately popular tourist destination.” That’s what we call ‘damning with faint praise.’

In the 1970‘s, Flin Flon was also the subject of a landmark study on the nature and scope of domestic labour: an intensive look at three generations of women who ‘worked at home’ to support their families. The researcher, Meg Luxton, spent fourteen months interviewing and befriending women, and listening to stories that ranged from the poignant to the absurd. I’ll share one of the latter.

One woman described in great detail the challenge of getting her husband to help with the laundry. She began this covert operation with a simple request: ‘Honey, when you take off your clothes, could you drop them in the laundry basket?’ Mission accomplished, and a few days later it’s on to phase two: ‘Honey, could you move the basket to the top of the stairs? I’m going to do the laundry today.’ More days pass. ‘Honey, could you be a dear and carry the basket to the basement?’ I think you can see where this is headed. ‘Honey, since you’re down there, could you just drop the clothes into the machine? Thanks a bunch.’ And then, some days later, sweet success: ‘Honey, when you put the clothes in the machine, could you toss in a little powder and turn the thing on?’ Slowly, and without her husband even noticing, she trained him to do the laundry. Score one for the female side in the ‘battle of the sexes.’

I share this because it’s March 8th, and because there is a link to the gospel lesson. But before we get there, I should continue to tell you everything I learned in second-year sociology—less practical than teaching men how to do laundry—but interesting nonetheless. Even the professor had an interesting backstory: Dr. Reiter did her thesis on Burger King, spending ten-months gathering information from the inside. That’s two fast food references in as many weeks. I will try not to do it again.

I won’t tell you everything, but I will share three waves of feminism, three stages that make it easier to understand whenever the topic of women’s rights come up. For the first wave, think Emmeline Pankhurst. Mrs. Pankhurst was a suffragette, and a leader in what is described as the ‘first wave’ of feminism. The right to vote was eventually extended to British women at the end of the First World War, but the pre-war activities of these women ensured their success. Window smashing, arrests, and hunger strikes brought the issue of universal suffrage to the fore. That was the first wave.

The second wave of feminism takes us back to Flin Flon, where the study of housework and the nature of family life ended up under the microscope. Add to this reproductive rights, women’s sexuality, workplace inequality and domestic violence and you have a good picture of second wave feminism. From the 1960’s to the 1980’s these topics were taken up by the media, the academy and the courts. Third wave feminism, which is ongoing, extends second wave feminism and offers a critique by looking more closely at issues of class, race and sexual orientation. Some argue this latest wave is a fracturing of the movement, with greater diversity of opinion held by an increasingly diverse group of participants.

In each wave of feminism, women and men were compelled to change their perspective on women’s lives and the role of women in society. In the same week that the last viable female candidate for US president dropped out, the conversation continues about changing perspectives and the role of women in society. And that first part—changing perspectives—takes us to the third chapter of John.

We know the story— a religious leader comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness, struggling to understand Jesus and his project. Nicodemus begins the conversation by acknowledging that there is something unique going on with Jesus. This is a big concession on his part, but Jesus is not impressed. “No one,” Jesus said, “can see the unique thing God is doing unless they are born again.”

And that’s where most of us get lost. Baptized as an adult, I feel like I was born again, and then I think of everyone I’ve ever met who has taken up “born again” as their theme. On one hand you have to admire their determination, and the simplicity of their message, but you also have to be wary of such a binary—on/off—approach to Christianity. Following the Way is a lifelong journey, and while it may begin with a momentary decision, it requires years of practice to become Christian in our approach to the world.

Better, I think, to speak of rebirth. Rebirth means we have entered the sometimes painful process of seeing the world differently, or seeing ourselves differently, or seeing ourselves in the world differently. It can mean gaining perspective on the past, understanding the roles we play in relation to others, or simply setting aside one set of goals for another. So again, back to John.

Nicodemus has come by night because he is the representative of a worldview, a set of conservative religious practices that Jesus seeks to reform. Nicodemus is obviously ripe for rebirth, because he’s desperate to understand this new thing God is doing in Jesus. But it’s not going to be easy. Even understanding the idea of rebirth seems to mystify him, and this is Jesus’ response:

Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

One scholar cites this as evidence that Nicodemus is a one-dimensional thinker, trapped “in the flesh” while Jesus wants to show him the Spirit. ‘The flesh’ is just another way of saying our ordinary human existence—how things are—and the very stubborn way things tend to remain the same.* But Jesus has another project, life in the Spirit. Life in the Spirit means anything is possible, change is possible—what we see, how we see it, and how we see ourselves.

If I had to find a companion verse, it would be Luke 2.22, the summary of this project: "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Everything is up for grabs in the Kingdom, and what seemed fixed is no longer fixed. Even death, even the shame the poor have felt from the beginning of time—Jesus says it doesn’t have to be this way.

Women still make 87 cents for every dollar a man makes—but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Women remain most unsafe inside their own homes—but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Women are still directed away from science, technology, engineering and math—but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Women are the primary target of every effort to limit religious symbols in public service—but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Rebirth means we have entered the sometimes painful process of seeing the world differently, or seeing ourselves differently, or seeing ourselves in the world differently. Rebirth means following the Spirit’s bidding as we seek a world made new. Rebirth means a change in perspective for everyone, because everyone who experiences rebirth will meet others in a new way.

May God bless you and move you, where Spirit gives birth to Spirit, and nothing is the same. Amen.

*Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching A


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