Sunday, June 07, 2009

A Second Life

John 3: 1-17
******** United Church of Christ
June 7, 2009 (Trinity Sunday)

Most of us at one time or another has wished we could be someone else. I’m 5’2”—I’ve sometimes wished I could be taller. Or maybe we want a different nose, hair color, eye color, or higher cheekbones, most of which can be achieved with a few dollars at the drug store or a few thousand dollars at the plastic surgeon. In our wildest dreams maybe we want to be a rock star or a pageant queen or a superhero or a world-class athlete or a dancer or actor. Maybe we want to be younger. Or healthier. Or maybe not wealthier but earn more money than we do right now. Or have passed through whatever stress we’re living through. Inside each of us is our healthier, thinner, trimmer, more energetic, organized, grown-up self, just waiting to get out, so Oprah says.

I once heard a line in a movie that said, “Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna; never will.” We all have dreams of a better life, perhaps even an extraordinary life, but most of us try to live in the real world, the one with responsibilities and work and bills and family and friends and simple pleasures.

But if you really want to be a rock star, you can be one by going online at a virtual world website called “Second Life”. You can choose the characteristics, employment, housing and appearance of your avatar, or online digital persona. You can literally, or virtually, live a second life. You can shop, go to church (!), meet friends—other residents of this virtual world, hang out in a nightclub, start a business, fight a dragon, fly, explore undersea worlds with no fear of harm, buy virtual land and build a skyscraper on it—whatever you wish to make of your virtual world, the shape and content are up to you.

Global corporations such as Michelin, Xerox, and IBM have used Second Life for training seminars and team meetings as a means of cutting costs on travel, housing and per diem expenses. You can feel as though you are in the same room with your global counterparts, affect and be effected by one another, all within the comfort of your own office space and no jet lag.

And the best part is, if someone annoys you in this digital world, you can simply ‘mute’ him or her and ignore that person. And you will never die or grow old in Second Life. You can never lose your avatar. It will always be the same, just as the day you designed it.

Websites like these can be dangerous to those with addictive tendencies or those who are inclined to isolate themselves from the real world. It can be tempting to act out in the digital world what would be harmful or abusive in this reality. What would happen if we all led double lives? Which would be the true self and which the false?

In our gospel lesson today we read about Nicodemus leading a double life, using the only avatar available to him: the cover of night. By day he is a Pharisee and a keeper of God’s holy Law; by night he is Nicodemus, child of God, curious about this Jesus who has performed signs that could only be explained by the very real presence of God.

Visit of Nicodemus to Christ, John La Farge, 1880.

Interestingly enough, the word avatar is from Hindu mythology and it means “the incarnation of a god”. Often Jesus himself has been described as a counterculture avatar, the continuing presence of God in human form. But today the use of the word avatar is more akin to ‘alter ego’, and Jesus is certainly not the alter ego of God. If anything, Jesus can be just as much a mystery as God is, as is the Spirit. And yet, what we know of Jesus is that he is a whole person who lives an undivided life, the intent of his soul and his actions being one.

Author and educator Parker Palmer, in his book A Hidden Wholeness, describes the divided life, in part, as “[concealing] our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked.” Many of us can probably relate to that. By coming to Jesus at night, Nicodemus is living a divided life, fearing that if his fellow Pharisees knew what he was thinking and doing, they would criticize, shun and attack him.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that if he wants to live an undivided life, a life lived in the kingdom of God, that he must be born anew, be born from above, from water and the Spirit. Essentially Jesus tells him he must live from his soul, born of the Spirit rather than solely from the worldly concerns of the flesh, that it is his inner life as a child of God that gives life and joy to his earthly role of Pharisee.

Again, Parker Palmer: “The soul is generous: it takes in the needs of the world. The soul is wise: it suffers without shutting down. The soul is hopeful: it engages the world in ways that keep opening our hearts. The soul is creative: it finds its way between realities that might defeat us and fantasies that are mere escapes. All we need to do is to bring down the wall that separates us from our own souls and deprives the world of the soul’s regenerative powers.”
[1] Living from the soul, that which is born of the Spirit, is how we are born anew, how we are born from above. It is the kingdom of God within us. But the wall that separates us from it cannot be taken down by force of our own will. For that we need God’s help. We need to place our lives in God’s transformative power of grace.

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.”
[2] We need God’s mercy, shown to us in Jesus, to take down the wall between our souls and the
life we lead in the world. We need the church, this community of faithful folks who are struggling just like we are. We need this sacred meal, to remind us of the One who loved extravagantly, who lived a whole and undivided life, and who calls us to do likewise.

What Parker Palmer writes about the soul, it is also true about the church. It is the church that is to be generous, taking in the needs of the world. It is the church that is to be wise, suffering without shutting down. The church is to be hopeful, engaging the world in ways that keep opening our hearts. The church is to be creative, finding ways between realities that might defeat us and fantasies that are mere escapes.

Jesus never said, “Virtually I tell you”; he said “Very truly I tell you”, that is, “trust me”. Jesus spoke from the truth, from the heart of God. He does not offer us a second life but a second chance at life, a life undivided. This interim time is yet another chance in a long line of second chances, that this church may live an undivided life, that it may live from its soul rather than from any fear or confusion or pain or feelings of being lost. This is yet another opportunity to be a whole church, one that lives life in the Spirit, one that depends on God’s power to help put the world right again. Woodmont United Church of Christ, you can be born anew, born from above, as residents not of a second life, but as residents of the kingdom of God, in eternal life. Thanks be to God!

[1] Palmer, Parker, A Hidden Wholeness (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004), pg. 184.
[2] Peterson, Eugene, The Message (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), John 3: 16-17, pg. 1921.

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