Monday, March 6, 2023

The Questions Jesus Asked: Is Change Possible?

The Questions Jesus Asked

Is Change Possible?

Second Sunday in Lent – March 5, 2023 – Communion Sunday

Judson Memorial Baptist Church

Minneapolis, MN

Rev’d G. Travis Norvell


Let us pray: Living God, Loving God, Questioning God, May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts together lead us to may know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly. Amen.


Questions dominate our lives:


The person behind the counter asks: Cream and sugar? 

Facebook asks: What’s on your mind?

We wonder: what’s for dinner? Will the sun ever shine? 


There are serious questions:

Will you marry me?

How bad is the cancer?

It is time for mom to go into the nursing home?


There are Rhetorical questions:

Do you want a piece of me?

Why do they do that?

Who in their right mind doesn’t include bike parking for a new business?


There are troubling questions:

How much longer till we get there?

Are we out of toilet paper?

Who drank the last of the milk then put it back in the frig?


The Bible begins with a question to Adam and Eve:

Where are you?


Jesus’ life is bookended with questions:

The child Jesus asked: Why are you searching for me?

The crucified Jesus asked God: Why hast thou forsaken me?

The resurrected Jesus asked the disciples: Why are you frightened?


Questions – they are part of, maybe even central to, the language of the Divine-human-creation relationship.  So it should come as no surprise that Jesus asked a lot of questions.  311 to be exact, or 307 – depends on how you determine if a part of speech is a question or not. You see in ancient Greek there were no punctuation markings.  Sentences and punctuation came later – remember less than 1% of the population could read and an even less percent could write.  Greek, like all languages at the time, was primarily an oral language with implied punctuation.  Regardless, if it is 311 or 307, Jesus asked a lot of questions.  By contrast he was only asked 183 questions. And for the record he only directly answered 8 of those 183 questions.  


Jesus seemed to live the questions.  Maybe you know the quote by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke who one offered advice to a young poet, “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing, live your way into the answer.”  Isn’t that a lovely quote.  Jesus came asking questions, provoking questions, & eliciting questions.  Asking questions invites the questioner and questionee on a journey. Have you ever noticed within the word question is the word quest?  A quest is a journey often in search of something valuable.  The quest for the religious/spiritual life is not information, but transformation. 


In our lesson this morning Nicodemus, a Jewish theologian and leader with a Greek name, came to Jesus under the cover of darkness.  Is he using the darkness for safety – throwing shade on his encounter with Jesus?  Maybe.  But here’s what I think, I think he went to Jesus at night to feel Jesus’ words – not interpret through body language or the unspoken vocabulary but feel Jesus’ words. 


It’s like the old advice if you want to know if a stage actor is good or not: close your eyes.  If you can feel their emotion, if you can hear their expression, if you can know what they are thinking with your eyes closed then they are a good stage actor! 


Nicodemus asks the question: How can anyone be born after having grown old?


Jesus answers, directly, only one of the eight times he did so in the Gospels, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.”  

The conversation continues – maybe Jesus was not a good stage actor, maybe Nicodemus got more than he bargained for, maybe he wasn’t ready for Jesus’ answer…


Most people when they read or hear this story they immediately assume it is about salvation.  I don’t know how I can prepare you for this next step other than to say prepare to have your mind blown.  Are you ready? It is true that the New Testament was written in Greek, however Jesus did not speak the Greek language.  Jesus spoke Aramaic.  And in Jesus’ native tongue of Aramaic there is no word for salvation.  The closest Aramaic word or concept to the Greek word for salvation means “to be made alive.” 


This story is not about salvation, it is about coming alive. It is like Nicodemus is receiving from Jesus the same advice a young person received when they wrote Howard Thurman and asked about what they should do with their life: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”  Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to come alive.  

Sadly, we don’t know what happened to Nicodemus. We don’t have his story preserved for us.  But it doesn’t matter. What matters is the invitation that Jesus gave him and give you and me.  This invitation to begin the quest of transformation.  By asking the question, we are inviting this question into our lives and living the question.  

And when we peel back even more we can see their conversation as a conversation seeking an answer to this foundational question: How Can a Human Being Change?  


Nicodemus believes so, hopes so – why else would he initiate the conversation.  


Jesus believes so, why else would he dedicate his life to living and teaching and healing and loving in the manner that he did?  


We believe so, or else we wouldn’t be here.  


Here’s the kicker, a lot of people don’t believe people can change.  Many people refuse to even entertain the question or live with it.  For example, go to the Minnesota Capitol and find a politician and ask them who from the other side can they work with?  Or go to a Defund the Police gathering and ask for police person to come and speak, or go to a police roll call and suggest that maybe some of what the defund the police folks have a point.  Or go to a church meeting when they are voting on a budget and ask them how much they expect to gain in new pledges for the upcoming year.  In all of these situations if they even entertain or live with the question they are taking a chance that change/transformation may come their way.  And many people are comfortable with the status quo.  


But we believe in change.  For us, holding onto, clutching to the hope that people can change is foundational to the way of Jesus.  


Liberal Christians believes there is a chance for change, but it is too easy.  We believe we can think our way out of any situation.  Whatever the problem or issue, we read tons of books on the subject, change our language, form taskforces and voila change.  Education certainly is part of it, but that’s not enough.  Conservative Christians believes there is a chance for change, but their form is too easy too.  They believe you can confess your way out of any situation.  Just say Jesus is your Lord and Savior and all is well.  Whatever the problem or issue Lord Jesus is the answer. 


One way is a thinking way, one way is a confessing way.  Both ways believe salvation is possible by their simple steps.  You’ll be saved by thinking anew, you’ll be saved by confessing anew.  But the way Jesus offers Nicodemus for change is a re-orientation toward life, being born anew.  


Nicodemus ought to be on a stained glass window or on a banner for this church.  He represents the curious.  He is one of those as Richard Rohr describes as seeing a mature faith for the second half of life.  He spent his first half learning and obeying all the rules, now he knows how to break them.  His spirituality is seeking more depth, more sustenance, more meaning.  He was not seeking to replace or renounce his faith only to go deeper; “Teacher I know you are from God.”  


When John Pentland was here in the Fall he said the church pre-covid will never again exist, the church during covid will never exist – we are all moving toward a new understanding of church.  I mention this because many of you during the pandemic went away, said “this is not for me” but then something happened – some of those who had given up chose to go deeper and your depth caused me to go deeper.  It was an invitation toward transformation.


Don’t give up on people, believe they can change.  Don’t worry about the 7% the Dismissives or those who are toxic, abusive or harmful in your life – trust God to work on them.  Instead, focus on the 93% of people in your life who are open to change.  And don’t give up on yourself: believe you can change, believe that you can be born anew, believe that you can be made to come alive.  Or maybe this is your Lenten devotion or practice rather than giving up chocolate or swearing or some other vice – give up giving up on people, give up giving up on yourself.  


Jesus doesn’t give up on you, God doesn’t give up on you, the Holy Spirit doesn’t give up on you. And with their help Judson Church isn’t giving up on you either!  

Let us pray: Loving God, you invited us on a journey with your questions.  Here we are holding onto the possibility and promise of transformation don’t give up on us now.  We’re gonna need help, phone calls, hugs, card every now and then, maybe even a dozen chocolate chip cookies (not to be too specific but we like the half dark half milk chocolate chip mix), prayers, maybe even a guest preacher from Canada, and plenty of encouragement.   We can change because you’ve called us to change, because you trust us enough to be a blessing.  Amen and Amen.   

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Car-Free Conference Travel

Last week I went to Denver, CO to offer a Church on the Move workshop for the Evergreen Association of the American Baptist Churches, USA.  My options to get there were:

1. Rent a car and drive: 13 hours and 13 minutes.

2. Take a bus to Kansas City then another bus to Denver:  23 hours and 40 minutes.

3. Fly via Delta: 2 hours (organization paid for travel). 

I opted for the third choice.  

When I arrived in Denver I purchased a RTD day pass: $10.50.  The ticket took me to Union Station in downtown Denver.  Union Station is a gem of a building. I was most impressed with the train and bus connections available at the station.  I walked to my hotel, checked in, then rented a Lime bike and biked the Cherry Creek trail and the South Platte River trail.  After dinner I got back on the bus (remember, I had a day pass) and took it to REI to rent a bike for 24 hours (cost was $32). 

I don't know why I never thought of renting a bike from REI before.  The next morning I rode the bike back to Union Station and hopped on the Flatiron Flyer to Boulder, CO (another RTD day pass).  My bike fit on the front of the bus (they have space for an additional seven bikes on the bus, where luggage goes on other passenger buses).  

In Boulder I met a friend and biked a 20 mile loopdeloo route around and in and throughout the city.  What a city, but I gotta tell you I've never been in a city where every resident looked like they could complete an Ironman and/or kick my a$$.  

After a great ride and lunch, it was nice to put the bike back on the bus, sit back and relax as I was driven back to Denver!

The remaining two days I did not rent or ride another bike, instead I walked and walked and walked around the city.  The whole point of this post is to show that rather than spend $50-$100 a day on a car rental, purchase transit day passes and/or rent a bike, explore the sights and smells and delights of the city you are conferencing in.  Not only will you get to see and experience more the city, you'll also feel better - because nothing is worse than going to a conference, sitting all day and eating rubber chicken.  Move a little. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Sidewalking It: Blessing of the Animals (and Bikes) 2022

October 4th is the feast day of St. Francis, it's also the birthday of Walter Rauschenbusch.  Most churches observe the feast day of St. Francis with a Blessing of the Animals on the Sunday before the feast day.  Churches enjoy having sanctuaries full of pets on these Sundays.  

I too enjoy churches full of humans and non-humans. But this year I tried an experiment: holding the blessing outside of church on the sidewalk; and instead of doing it during a worship hour, offer it at an hour when pets are out and about, like 4-6pm when they are out for their evening walk...

So we offered the blessing of the animals on Tuesday, Oct. 4th, from 4-6pm on the sidewalk in front of the church.  It was a great experiment.  What happened?

At 4:01 a neighbor brought over their cat (in a cardboard box).  I asked them if they knew about the Wedge's cat tour, they did not.  And how many hours a day they spend watching cat videos on twitter.  Don't worry, we all do it.  

From there it was a steady stream of dogs and cats and bikes and a scooter.  I figure St. Francis would approve of bike and scooter blessings too.  

True, I did not bless as many animals as I would have if this had taken place during a Sunday morning worship service.  However, because we did it outside, on the sidewalk, on a Tuesday during the late afternoon, I was able to have several one-on-one in-depth conversations with neighbors (many I had never met, after being the pastor for 10 years - church doors are hard to open) about life, about their pets, about their pets' healing presence, how much joy they bring to life; we also talked about how wonderful it is to bike in the Twin Cities, the promise of bike buses (see below for more info), and how it is nearly impossible to find someone riding a bike without a smile on their face.  

But what about the people who do not live in the neighborhood, go to Judson, and want their pets blessed too?  I did not think about this until someone brought this point up to me.  It's a great point.  2023 will be a combo event.  Sunday morning pet blessing during worship AND a sidewalk blessing in the evening (probably on a Sunday too). 

What is a bikebus?  Check this out.

And if you are searching a good book on St. Francis, please check out Jon Sweeney's fabulous book: Feed the Wolf

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

New Podcast, maybe the best yet; and why Amazon reviews matter (even if you buy the book from your local bookshop)

A few weeks ago the Office Admin. at Judson Church (a wonderful human being by the way) forwarded me an email, a request for me to be a guest for a podcast interview.  I was skeptical because I had not heard of the organization.  But I checked them out, they looked legit.  I emailed Judson Press, they said "Go for it."  

Here's the deal, most of, if not all, of the previous guests on the podcast were megachurch pastors.  I thought for sure they had me confused for another pastor, perhaps they thought I was the pastor of Church on the Move (an actual megachurch in Tulsa, OK) rather than author of Church on the Move (an actual book published by Judson Press).  I thought, well at the very least this will be fun when they realize I am not who they think I am. 

I scheduled the interview with low expectations. But I gotta tell ya, the interview was amazing.  The interviewer, Frank Barry, did not know who I was or why he was interviewing me (nor did I), but he trusted his staff!  We had a delightful conversation, I think Frank really got my approach to local church ministry.  

After the podcast I contacted the production staff at and asked how they found me and picked me (for which I am truly grateful).  My selection was nothing more than a chance encounter/recommendation on Amazon. Friends, your Amazon reviews mean something (even if you bought the book directly from Judson Press or a local bookshop).  

So if you have a moment, write a review of Church on the Move (the book, the one authored by me - yes there is more than one book with this title).  And then go and write a review of a book your friend or your pastor or your favorite professor or your favorite poet or your novelist wrote!  

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Collect for Getting to School on the First Day of School

 Collect for Getting to School

Loving God,
who desires to protect us as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings.
Protect all children who 👟 🚲♿️ or 🚌 to 🏫 this year;
that they may be blessed with health & happiness & learning,
through the Savior who was once a child.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Podcast/video interview with the Lewis Center for Church Leadership

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by the good folks at the Lewis Center.  I have been listening to their podcast and using their resources for years.  If you don't subscribe to their material - you should! 

Here is the video. Hope you enjoy.


Saturday, July 23, 2022

A Sermon on Day 1 (radio program): Prayer Lessons

A few weeks ago I took the bus to the north loop in Minneapolis and recorded a sermon for Day 1.  I think it will probably stand as my best sermon ever.  The content was above average (for me), but what made this sermon outstanding was the audio engineering.  I've never been able to go back and redo one sentence here and another sentence there or excite the transition more (I just made that phrase up, but you understand).  

And it was great to spend some time, virtually, with Peter Wallace - probably one of the nicest and most genuine people you will meet on planet Earth. 

The sermon is a condensed version of my book, Church on the Move.  

Go here to listen to the sermon and chat with Peter.