Many years ago, there was a Saturday Night Live sketch set in a high school classroom.
It’s College Day for the Class of 1984, and an admissions officer from a college named Winston University is standing at the front of the class, next to an easel with large pictures of a typical college campus.
He’s making his pitch, but the class is bored and disruptive. The teacher keeps intervening, but to little effect. A paper airplane shoots by. People are looking out the windows, or passing notes.
Finally, the admissions officer pauses and says to the teacher, “I’m sorry, but I seem to have a bit of a headache. Is there any way you could go get me an aspirin?”
The teacher agrees and goes off to the teachers’ lounge for the aspirin.
And then, the minute she’s gone, the shlubby admissions rep changes his whole demeanor.
“O.k., I only have a few minutes, so here’s the deal,” he says.
Winston University is a front.
The campus is like a Hollywood movie set, with fake building set up in an empty field made to look like a college quad.
You only need to show up for one day a year – Visiting Day.
As for your tuition, they split it with you, 50/50.
Just tell them where to forward your phone calls and your mail—but otherwise, you’re free to take the cash and go do whatever you want for next four years.
Well, needless to say, by the time the teacher returns with that aspirin, the class is cheering: “Winston! Winston! Winston!”
The bell rings, and every single student takes an application on the way out the door.
Now, I don’t want to be cynical, but I have to admit it: I am kind of amazed that, as far as I know, nobody has actually tried to put such a scheme in place.
Because the fact remains that, for many people, getting an education isn’t something that sets their imaginations ablaze, or particularly expands their horizons, at all.
If they’re truly being honest, many would probably admit that much of the time, their schooling feels more like a long set of hoops to jump through, with a little piece of paper that comes at the very end, after which they are finally free to go and live their actual lives, never to crack a book or attempt an equation again.
And from that point, maybe it’s not all that far to a place like Winston Univerity, where you’re relieved of the trouble of bothering in the first place.
So this morning, I am thinking about the difference between those parts of our lives that expand our horizons – that set our imaginations ablaze – and those parts of our lives that feel like hoops to jump through.
And that has me thinking about the world of the Church.
As you may or may not be aware, churches all around the country are in the midst of a very long and searching discussion about the changing religious landscape in America.
One major study released last month by the Pew Center on Religion and Public Life found that the number of people who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated — who when asked their religion, check the box for “none of the above” – rose almost seven percent in the last seven years.
That’s a sharp increase.
In fact, the “nones,” as they’re known (that’s n-o-n-e-s) are now the second largest demographic group in American religion. There are now more nones than there are Catholics, or Mainline Protestants like us.
Now, it’s easy to throw up one’s hands in despair at news like that, and believe me, plenty of people are plenty worried.
Some have even said that Christianity hasn’t seen this kind of realignment since the Protestant Reformation, 500 years ago.
It’s too early to say for sure, but some have even suggested that we are in the early days of nothing less than a second Reformation.
Will Christianity survive?
I am absolutely convinced that the answer is yes.
But it will not survive unchanged. I am convinced of that, too.
Because there’s something very interesting about the nones.
You see, they are not religiously affiliated, that’s true. But that said, on the whole, they are not hostile to religion.
More typically, they are people who have no roots in religion, who don’t particularly know what happens in a building like this one, or why.
They are all those people you see at a wedding who don’t know the tune to hymn, and just sort of stand there politely, not wanting to mess it up for anyone else.
And what they say in so many words is that, when it comes to faith, they’re open…even interested. But the problem with church is that there are so many hoops to jump through.
There are the obvious ones: When to sit. When to stand. What to wear. Do I clap or not? What if my kid doesn’t want to go to Sunday School, whatever that is? When we say something like, “If you want to help cook for Pacific House, sign up with Mickey during Coffee Hour in Fletcher Hall,” that all sounds great. But they have no idea what any of that means.
The deeper challenge is around things like prayer. Which, to review, we believe in.
But if someone has no background in prayer, how many of us could explain how to pray? Or when? Or why?
In so many of our churches, the number of people who can tell you how to work to operate the dishwasher in the church kitchen seems like it’s practically in the thousands.
But the number of people who can tell you when it was that Jesus really touched their hearts, and how that has continued to challenge and inspire them, is often limited to just a few.
It isn’t that it hasn’t happened for us. But we’ve lost the habit of speaking about it. We’ve lost some of our own language for those moments. We’ve come to figure that, well, of course we have those moments. That’s why we’re here. Do we really need to make a big deal out of it?
And I think the answer is that we need to make a bigger deal out of it than we do.
The nones are challenging us to be people who talk less about dishwashers and more about faith. Or doubt. Honest answers, honest questions. The things that God has helped us with and the things that are still dangling, unresolved.
The nones are wondering what it is we’re hoping for, and why it is we still hope at all.
We all have those things. We all have those reasons. And in every congregation there are people of enormous spiritual depth.
But the day when newcomers will quietly jump through hoops, and patiently load the dishwasher, hoping that they’ll eventually catch on to whatever answers we might have found along the way…that day is now over.
And this is what brings us to the story of Nicodemus in John’s gospel.
Because Nicodemus is a hoops kind of guy.
Like so many of us, he’s someone who has excelled within the system as it is. He’s made partner at a white shoe firm in the city. Credentials as long as your arm. Service resume that’s even longer. He’s the kind of guy you call to help you navigate the system, not the guy who’s out to change it.
John’s Gospel tells us that Nicodemus was a member of the Council – he not only knows how to run the dishwasher, he’s a political and religious leader in the capital. The kind of guy that the High Priest of the Temple has on speed dial.
And yet, despite all that—despite access like that—he has come to hunger for something more. He has come to hope for something deeper. He has come to realize that the familiar world he knows and serves so faithfully does not have all the answers that he needs.
And so, he has come to Jesus under cover of darkness. Borrowed his wife’s car. Parked a few blocks away. Pulled up the collar of his trench coat. But he has come.
He’s come because Jesus has stirred something—something—deep within him. And he’s trying to figure out what that is. What that is, and what it means.
But the response Jesus offers him is baffling. Instead of direct answers, Jesus gives him all this strange talk about the need to be born again.
And smart as he is, wise as he is, Nicodemus just has no idea what to make of that.
Because Jesus is trying to describe for him what it is to live into a faith without hoops.
He’s inviting Nicodemus to expand his horizons. Jesus is describing what it is like to live with an imagination set ablaze by God…and ablaze for God.
And he’s saying that it is nothing less than being reborn.
In closing, you know, Mark Twain once said that he had “never let his schooling interfere with [his] education.”
In that spirit, our faith is called to be an education.
Like Nicodemus, we in the church have treated our faith too often, and too easily, like mere schooling. We have treated our faith like hoops to jump through.
But this morning, we are reminded that it is supposed to be something much deeper.
It is nothing less than to be born again.
Let’s not be a people of God which looks to teach people how to navigate the system.
Or how to game the system, like the students at Winston University.
Let’s invite people to join us in the work of learning. In the work of serving. In the work of bearing one another’s burdens.
Let’s invite people to join us in being the Church.
If we do, it is not only you and I who will come to know what it is to be born again.
It is the Church itself that will find new life.
It is then that we will find we have finally taken Christ’s message to heart.