XCovid-19:Important Updates for Worship, Church Operations and Staying ConnectedRead more

Sermon Archives

Wake, Nicodemus

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, May 31

Text:  John 3: 1-8

 

These days, sermon prep isn’t just a matter of consulting books in my library though I enjoy doing that research immensely. Like anything else, I also Google my preaching topics as well, and this time, I was especially glad I did.  In addition to being a wealthy, curious and helpful Pharisee that appears three times, all in John’s gospel, you’ll also find that Nicodemus is the name of a small town on the High Plains of northwestern Kansas. I wonder if any of you have heard of it or its fascinating story. The town of Nicodemus was in 1877 by 7 men, six of whom were black and five of whom were ministers. It was founded with intent purpose of giving former slaves a full shot at building their own government and economy. During the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, Nicodemus, Kansas, quickly became home to hundreds of newly freed slaves. It would soon boast a bank, a hotel, two African American churches, and several small businesses. Had it not been for decisions to have the country’s growing railroad network bypass the town, it might still be thriving today instead of just hanging on with a remnant population, mostly descendants of its original settlers. A National Historic Site now commemorates Nicodemus as the only remaining Western town founded by African Americans during Reconstruction.  If you don’t know the town, maybe you’ve at least heard the then-famous song that gave the town its name, called Wake, Nicodemus, written by a northern abolitionist. My mother-in-law who is with us remembered it. The first stanza was this: 

 

Nicodemus, the slave, was of African birth, 

And was bought for a bagful of gold,

He was reckon'd as part of the salt of the earth,

But he died years ago very old.

'Twas his last sad request,

so we laid him away

In the trunk of an old hollow tree.

"Wake me up!" was his charge, "

at the first break of day,

Wake me up for the great Jubilee!"

 

Indeed, on a promotional real estate flyer dated July 2, 1877, a bold invitation to come to Kansas was addressed explicitly to “the Colored Citizens of the United States”; the flyer concluded with the song’s chorus: 

 

The “Good Time Coming” is almost here!
It was long, long, long on the way!
Now run and tell Elijah to hurry up Pomp,
And meet us at the gumtree down in the swamp,
To wake Nicodemus today.

 

I wonder how many in today’s Black Lives Matter movement know this profound and inspiring story of racial and economic justice. An important bit of history, no doubt, and one that powerfully illustrates two themes in the biblical story of Nicodemus that I’d like us to consider, themes that also had a particular resonance for black folks at that time. First, did you notice when John’s account of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus takes place? “Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus and he came to Jesus by night,” as in under cover of the night.  Apparently, he was curious, he wanted to know more about who this Rabbi Jesus was, but he was also concerned that other Pharisees might see him and think he was colluding with the religious competition of the day.  This may be one reason why early African Americans took a particular liking to Nicodemus. They had a personal understanding of what it meant to have to learn about Jesus and the Bible writ large, at night, in secret, and afraid of consequences. For black slaves, the night was when they would strain their eyes and risk their lives, learning to read by candlelight, sharing Bible stories on their own terms. The night was also when many would conspire to develop the Underground Railroad and seek passage on it. The night was a path to freedom!

 

The second theme that I imagine resonating from the Nicodemus story was that of rebirth -- that profound need to begin again, the yearning for new names to replace their slave names, and for new identities unshackled from the atrocities of their oppression. Wake Nicodemus, indeed!  Wake him from those old death-dealing ways of being someone else’s chattel. Wake him to a new life, a new freedom in Christ, for those Good Times, and indeed that Kingdom of God, is almost here!

 

I think these two themes – of night and rebirth – can find a particular resonance for us as well.  Here in our hyper-secular world of Cambridge, I wonder how many of us feel the need to sometimes keep our faith lives in the closet.  Do we keep our profoundly meaningful church lives to ourselves, as opposed to sharing our love for God and our adoration of Jesus with friends at school or work or even on Facebook?  Does it ever feel like you have to keep your church life in the shadows around here, for fear of what others might think if your love for this place were to be shouted from the rooftops?  Do you worry what people might think you were trying to convert them or ask them to become, I don’t know, born again? That’s the second theme, you know…. 

 

Rebirth, or being “born again,” “born anew,” or “born from above” as its variously translated, is a central metaphor, and not only for former slaves. It runs throughout the Christian tradition. Though our text from John is only one of two instances in the New Testament where the phrase “born again” appears, it fits hand-in-hand with the notion of dying and rising that runs throughout Christian scripture.  It would be a huge mistake for us to discount the power of this language because of its frequent use by evangelicals and fundamentalists who have other opinions we may not agree with.  Ultimately, the metaphor points to our profound and ongoing need to claim the Spirit’s role in our personal and social transformation.  But it pinches a bit, for some of us, doesn’t it?  It doesn’t quite fit with our mostly liberal self-understanding.

 

The language may be a challenge to us, as it was to Nicodemus, for it calls for us to be “all in,” to give up the control and security and identity and Facebook branding of ourselves that we have worked so hard to build for our selves and by our selves, albeit with the help of others and maybe even with the help of God. You see, being born again invites us to surrender our lives as we know them, that we may live and trust and act according to a fully God-centered life, as opposed to the more self-centered life that most of us tend to lead, self-centered at least as compared to Jesus say, or even Martin Luther King. 

 

In fact, it was the good Dr. King who helped me to hear this passage at a deeper level than I would have otherwise. In his last, and most radical, Southern Christian Leadership Conference Presidential Address, titled “Where Do We Go From Here?”, King said, in 1967:   “Now if you will let me preach for a moment” - (can you imagine him asking you that?) -

 

One day, one night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn't get bogged down on the kind of isolated approach of what you shouldn't do. Jesus didn't say, "Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying." He didn't say, "Nicodemus, now you must not commit adultery." He didn't say, "Now Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that." He didn't say, "Nicodemus, you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively." He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic: that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down on one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, "Nicodemus, you must be born again." In other words, "Your whole structure must be changed."

 

I wonder…how many of us come to church, prepared to be told that “your whole structure must be changed”!?  Friends, being Christian is not about giving a little more volunteer time here, or trying a bit of meditation there. It’s not just a gentle invitation to be part of a community that shares your values. If we take this text to heart, its an all-out demand to turn over everything you are and everything you have and everything you do, and make it all, I repeat, all for the glory of God!  It reminds me of what David Brooks writes in his sociological study called “BoBos in Paradise.” Bobo is his shorthand for Bourgeois Bohemians. They are the kind of folks that live in places like Cambridge!  As for BoBo spirituality – especially those ‘spiritual but not really religious types,’ he says that we are, get this, trying to build “a house of obligation on a foundation of choice!”  No way, Jesus says to us and to Nicodemus, not just the house, but the foundation too. The whole structure must be changed!  No wonder why Nicodemus seems a little slow on the uptake. No wonder why he is disbelieving when Jesus says it first, why he tries to take him literally. “What you mean like reborn from the womb?” The poor guy is backpedalling like mad! Jesus’ answer is way more than he bargained for!  Nicodemus was just there to check Jesus out, maybe like stopping at a realtor’s open house, but there would no signing of papers! 

 

The whole structure of my being must change?  For slaves, we can imagine that this kind of commitment, to a master and Lord that they could follow, held amazing grace and gospel truth. It came as a true freedom that only comes when genuine all-in commitments are made!

 

It is something like this freedom that comes with commitment that we celebrated when reading our covenant earlier in the service – a binding of ourselves to following Jesus in all his ways, in mutual love and respect, so near as God shall give us grace!  It's a beautiful thing, our covenant, a firm foundation of joyous obligation to one another and God.  Even still, our commitments are not just for ourselves and to those in this community of like minds. 

 

King did not stop on a note of personal or even church transformation, for he knew that in order to bring about the Kingdom, it wasn’t only a transformation of the very structures of our souls but of social and societal and economic structures as well!  King continued…

 

A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will "thingify" them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I'm saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, "America, you must be born again!"

 

If the born again message is still to hard for us to hear at a personal level, perhaps we can hear it for our wider community and for our country.  Not just individual change or rebirth but with it, a recommitment to and rebirth of our church, a recommitment to and rebirth of an entire nation! Friends, this is the level of change that we as Christians are called to be and to create. 

 

 I wonder, strange and hard as it may sound, how is it that must you be born again? In what ways is your spiritual life in need of a total reboot, a brand new operating system perhaps?  Or what about this community? How must we be born again with an all-in commitment to what this place and these people and God means in our lives? Born from above. Born of water and spirit! Born into a new life lived in God’s radically inclusive love. You know, I just came back from my 20th college reunion at a place that was and is a bastion of anti-organized religion sentiment. When I shared with people what I do now, I was amazed at how much more open, even hungry, many of them were to hear about my work. A few folks have even reached out since, expressing interest, whether for themselves, for their kids – they are looking for something more, perhaps even wanting to make a deeper commitment, and not just to their beloved alma mater. 

 

The Biblical Nicodemus appears twice more in the gospel of John, many chapters later when he argues with the authorities before Jesus crucifixion that Jesus had not been given a fair trial, and then again at Jesus’ burial, where John says he showed up with 100 pounds of myrrh and spices for anointing, a huge expense for that time. Nicodemus was apparently all-in then, ready to give Jesus a royal burial!  We might wonder if he thought it was too late, if he had regrets for not getting it, and for not giving his offerings sooner, for not fully restructuring his life according to the ways of Jesus, and the ways of the Spirit!

 

Just imagine it!  That all-in, born-again commitment to shared values of a compassionate, purposeful, radically inclusive, peaceful and justice filled life in the Spirit!  That all-in, born-again commitment to bring new life and new structures into the world. Maybe it’s even enough to start a whole new town, like Nicodemus, Kansas, or right here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, formerly known as New-town, Massachusetts!  The founders of this very church and this town had just that kind commitment. We read it aloud in our covenant from 1629!  Maybe, just maybe, we are beginning to see some of this spirit of all- in commitment emerging in recent calls for national and global transformation, calls for structural change that will embody racial, gender, economic and environmental justice.  Friends, it’s time we hear that old born again song again!

 

Wake me up! was his charge,

at the first break of day,

Wake me up for the great Jubilee!

Wake, Nicodemus!  Please, God, wake, Nicodemus, today! 

Amen.




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Text:  John 3: 1-8

  

 These days, sermon prep isn’t just a matter of consulting books in my library though I enjoy doing that research immensely. Like anything else, I also Google my preaching topics as well, and this time, I was especially glad I did.  In addition to being a wealthy, curious and helpful Pharisee that appears three times, all in John’s gospel, you’ll also find that Nicodemus is the name of a small town on the High Plains of northwestern Kansas. I wonder if any of you have heard of it or its fascinating story. The town of Nicodemus was in 1877 by 7 men, six of whom were black and five of whom were ministers. It was founded with intent purpose of giving former slaves a full shot at building their own government and economy. During the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, Nicodemus, Kansas, quickly became home to hundreds of newly freed slaves. It would soon boast a bank, a hotel, two African American churches, and several small businesses. Had it not been for decisions to have the country’s growing railroad network bypass the town, it might still be thriving today instead of just hanging on with a remnant population, mostly descendants of its original settlers. A National Historic Site now commemorates Nicodemus as the only remaining Western town founded by African Americans during Reconstruction.  If you don’t know the town, maybe you’ve at least heard the then-famous song that gave the town its name, called Wake, Nicodemus, written by a northern abolitionist. My mother-in-law who is with us remembered it. The first stanza was this: 
 
Nicodemus, the slave, was of African birth, 
And was bought for a bagful of gold,
He was reckon'd as part of the salt of the earth,
But he died years ago very old.
'Twas his last sad request,
so we laid him away
In the trunk of an old hollow tree.
"Wake me up!" was his charge, "
at the first break of day,
Wake me up for the great Jubilee!"
 

Indeed, on a promotional real estate flyer dated July 2, 1877, a bold invitation to come to Kansas was addressed explicitly to “the Colored Citizens of the United States”; the flyer concluded with the song’s chorus: 

 

The “Good Time Coming” is almost here!
It was long, long, long on the way!
Now run and tell Elijah to hurry up Pomp,
And meet us at the gumtree down in the swamp,
To wake Nicodemus today.

 

I wonder how many in today’s Black Lives Matter movement know this profound and inspiring story of racial and economic justice. An important bit of history, no doubt, and one that powerfully illustrates two themes in the biblical story of Nicodemus that I’d like us to consider, themes that also had a particular resonance for black folks at that time. First, did you notice when John’s account of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus takes place? “Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus and he came to Jesus by night,” as in under cover of the night.  Apparently, he was curious, he wanted to know more about who this Rabbi Jesus was, but he was also concerned that other Pharisees might see him and think he was colluding with the religious competition of the day.  This may be one reason why early African Americans took a particular liking to Nicodemus. They had a personal understanding of what it meant to have to learn about Jesus and the Bible writ large, at night, in secret, and afraid of consequences. For black slaves, the night was when they would strain their eyes and risk their lives, learning to read by candlelight, sharing Bible stories on their own terms. The night was also when many would conspire to develop the Underground Railroad and seek passage on it. The night was a path to freedom!

 

The second theme that I imagine resonating from the Nicodemus story was that of rebirth -- that profound need to begin again, the yearning for new names to replace their slave names, and for new identities unshackled from the atrocities of their oppression. Wake Nicodemus, indeed!  Wake him from those old death-dealing ways of being someone else’s chattel. Wake him to a new life, a new freedom in Christ, for those Good Times, and indeed that Kingdom of God, is almost here!

 

I think these two themes – of night and rebirth – can find a particular resonance for us as well.  Here in our hyper-secular world of Cambridge, I wonder how many of us feel the need to sometimes keep our faith lives in the closet.  Do we keep our profoundly meaningful church lives to ourselves, as opposed to sharing our love for God and our adoration of Jesus with friends at school or work or even on Facebook?  Does it ever feel like you have to keep your church life in the shadows around here, for fear of what others might think if your love for this place were to be shouted from the rooftops?  Do you worry what people might think you were trying to convert them or ask them to become, I don’t know, born again? That’s the second theme, you know…. 

 

Rebirth, or being “born again,” “born anew,” or “born from above” as its variously translated, is a central metaphor, and not only for former slaves. It runs throughout the Christian tradition. Though our text from John is only one of two instances in the New Testament where the phrase “born again” appears, it fits hand-in-hand with the notion of dying and rising that runs throughout Christian scripture.  It would be a huge mistake for us to discount the power of this language because of its frequent use by evangelicals and fundamentalists who have other opinions we may not agree with.  Ultimately, the metaphor points to our profound and ongoing need to claim the Spirit’s role in our personal and social transformation.  But it pinches a bit, for some of us, doesn’t it?  It doesn’t quite fit with our mostly liberal self-understanding.

 

The language may be a challenge to us, as it was to Nicodemus, for it calls for us to be “all in,” to give up the control and security and identity and Facebook branding of ourselves that we have worked so hard to build for our selves and by our selves, albeit with the help of others and maybe even with the help of God. You see, being born again invites us to surrender our lives as we know them, that we may live and trust and act according to a fully God-centered life, as opposed to the more self-centered life that most of us tend to lead, self-centered at least as compared to Jesus say, or even Martin Luther King. 

 

In fact, it was the good Dr. King who helped me to hear this passage at a deeper level than I would have otherwise. In his last, and most radical, Southern Christian Leadership Conference Presidential Address, titled “Where Do We Go From Here?”, King said, in 1967:   “Now if you will let me preach for a moment” - (can you imagine him asking you that?) -

 

One day, one night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn't get bogged down on the kind of isolated approach of what you shouldn't do. Jesus didn't say, "Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying." He didn't say, "Nicodemus, now you must not commit adultery." He didn't say, "Now Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that." He didn't say, "Nicodemus, you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively." He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic: that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down on one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, "Nicodemus, you must be born again." In other words, "Your whole structure must be changed."

 

I wonder…how many of us come to church, prepared to be told that “your whole structure must be changed”!?  Friends, being Christian is not about giving a little more volunteer time here, or trying a bit of meditation there. It’s not just a gentle invitation to be part of a community that shares your values. If we take this text to heart, its an all-out demand to turn over everything you are and everything you have and everything you do, and make it all, I repeat, all for the glory of God!  It reminds me of what David Brooks writes in his sociological study called “BoBos in Paradise.” Bobo is his shorthand for Bourgeois Bohemians. They are the kind of folks that live in places like Cambridge!  As for BoBo spirituality – especially those ‘spiritual but not really religious types,’ he says that we are, get this, trying to build “a house of obligation on a foundation of choice!”  No way, Jesus says to us and to Nicodemus, not just the house, but the foundation too. The whole structure must be changed!  No wonder why Nicodemus seems a little slow on the uptake. No wonder why he is disbelieving when Jesus says it first, why he tries to take him literally. “What you mean like reborn from the womb?” The poor guy is backpedalling like mad! Jesus’ answer is way more than he bargained for!  Nicodemus was just there to check Jesus out, maybe like stopping at a realtor’s open house, but there would no signing of papers! 

 

The whole structure of my being must change?  For slaves, we can imagine that this kind of commitment, to a master and Lord that they could follow, held amazing grace and gospel truth. It came as a true freedom that only comes when genuine all-in commitments are made!

 

It is something like this freedom that comes with commitment that we celebrated when reading our covenant earlier in the service – a binding of ourselves to following Jesus in all his ways, in mutual love and respect, so near as God shall give us grace!  It's a beautiful thing, our covenant, a firm foundation of joyous obligation to one another and God.  Even still, our commitments are not just for ourselves and to those in this community of like minds. 

 

King did not stop on a note of personal or even church transformation, for he knew that in order to bring about the Kingdom, it wasn’t only a transformation of the very structures of our souls but of social and societal and economic structures as well!  King continued…

 

A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will "thingify" them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I'm saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, "America, you must be born again!"

 

If the born again message is still to hard for us to hear at a personal level, perhaps we can hear it for our wider community and for our country.  Not just individual change or rebirth but with it, a recommitment to and rebirth of our church, a recommitment to and rebirth of an entire nation! Friends, this is the level of change that we as Christians are called to be and to create. 

 

 I wonder, strange and hard as it may sound, how is it that must you be born again? In what ways is your spiritual life in need of a total reboot, a brand new operating system perhaps?  Or what about this community? How must we be born again with an all-in commitment to what this place and these people and God means in our lives? Born from above. Born of water and spirit! Born into a new life lived in God’s radically inclusive love. You know, I just came back from my 20th college reunion at a place that was and is a bastion of anti-organized religion sentiment. When I shared with people what I do now, I was amazed at how much more open, even hungry, many of them were to hear about my work. A few folks have even reached out since, expressing interest, whether for themselves, for their kids – they are looking for something more, perhaps even wanting to make a deeper commitment, and not just to their beloved alma mater. 

 

The Biblical Nicodemus appears twice more in the gospel of John, many chapters later when he argues with the authorities before Jesus crucifixion that Jesus had not been given a fair trial, and then again at Jesus’ burial, where John says he showed up with 100 pounds of myrrh and spices for anointing, a huge expense for that time. Nicodemus was apparently all-in then, ready to give Jesus a royal burial!  We might wonder if he thought it was too late, if he had regrets for not getting it, and for not giving his offerings sooner, for not fully restructuring his life according to the ways of Jesus, and the ways of the Spirit!

 

Just imagine it!  That all-in, born-again commitment to shared values of a compassionate, purposeful, radically inclusive, peaceful and justice filled life in the Spirit!  That all-in, born-again commitment to bring new life and new structures into the world. Maybe it’s even enough to start a whole new town, like Nicodemus, Kansas, or right here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, formerly known as New-town, Massachusetts!  The founders of this very church and this town had just that kind commitment. We read it aloud in our covenant from 1629!  Maybe, just maybe, we are beginning to see some of this spirit of all- in commitment emerging in recent calls for national and global transformation, calls for structural change that will embody racial, gender, economic and environmental justice.  Friends, it’s time we hear that old born again song again!
 
Wake me up! was his charge,
at the first break of day,
Wake me up for the great Jubilee!
Wake, Nicodemus!  Please, God, wake, Nicodemus, today! 
Amen.



 


 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking for ways to support our community during this unprecedented time of need? The Missions and Social Justice Committee has compiled and vetted a short list of organizations looking for assistance to aid in their work in the COVID-19 response...

In response to the Coronavirus outbreak, the Shelter has expanded into Sage Hall to allow for greater social distancing, and is now open to guests around the clock, thanks to additional funding from the Commonwealth. They would very much welcome...