Posted by: dacalu | 18 December 2017

Being Saved

This week, I was with the wonderful people of St. Stephen’s, Laurelhurst, celebrating the third Sunday in Advent. Here is the sermon I shared. (The sermon I mention from two weeks ago is here.)

Prayer for the Third Sunday in Advent

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 (“the Lord … has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed” AND “all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.”)

Psalm 126 (“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream.”)

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 (“test everything; hold fast to what is good”)

John 1:6-8,19-28 (John the Baptist)

Sermon

Two weeks ago, I spoke of the threefold God 
who was and is and is to come.
This week, I’d like to speak about our threefold response:
	assurance in the past,
	diligence in the present, and
	hope for the future.
It can be hard to keep all three in mind
	and yet,
	if I truly believe that God saves us
		in eternity and for eternity
	I must believe that Christ Jesus is redeeming us
	from horizon to horizon.
	No matter where I look, there he is,
		working to redeem the world.

When I was in college,
	I was troubled by the question, “Have you been saved?”
It’s an important question,
	though not really a great way to start a conversation.
I had never been worried about the fate of my soul,
	I did not know what to say to people who asked me.
There seemed to be a hubris in saying “yes, I have been saved?”
	and laziness in thinking I would not be involved in the process,
		from birth to death
How should I know if I am among the elect?
What should I say?
My parents provided a typical Anglican response.
Say this: “I have been saved, I am being saved, I hope for salvation.”

Our salvation,
	indeed our Savior,
	is not safely in the past.
He challenges us every day.
He calls us every day,
	to be more than we were the day before,
	to deeper faith, hope, and love.
Nor, I think, are we saved from some static, fixed enemy.
We struggle with pride and despair, self-promotion and self-destruction, sloth and frenzy.
Even Paul speaks of a thorn in his flesh, a constant challenge.
In today’s epistle, he says,
	“test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.”

During the Reformation,
	there was great anxiety about who was in and who was out.
	Was Jesus’ action in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection enough,
		or do we need something else?
	Are sacraments necessary – rituals like Baptism, Eucharist, and Reconciliation?
		And, if they are, does that mean the church can withhold them
			as a form of coercion?
	Is the Bible necessary?
		And, if it is, does that mean that salvation is impossible for those
			who have not read it,
			even if it was never translated into their language?
	Is the community necessary?
		And, if it is, does that mean we can get voted out?
Martin Luther, in particular, was anxious about his own salvation.
He wanted to reassure his followers that God was in charge
	and that Jesus had accomplished their salvation, fully.
But this creates a problem for Christians.
	If everything is already done, why then do we need 
sacraments, Bible, and community?
	What good to they do?

Anglicans replied with several nuanced responses.
First, we speak of justification and sanctification.
	God justified us, saving us from sin and death,
		but we participate in our own sanctification,
		moving toward greater holiness,
		by cooperating with the Holy Spirit.
	God saved us once, and for all,
		but we respond to that gift by joining God
in remaking the world.
Second, we speak of the middle way,
	neither Geneva nor Rome,
neither Protestant nor Catholic.
In the words of Richard Hooker,
	neither the Pope nor a paper pope
	(that is a tyrannical reading of scripture.)
Nor do we naively cut a path exactly halfway between the two.
Anglicans aim to weigh the authorities:
	using personal reason and conscience to check abuses by our leaders,
		but also relying on leaders to call us on our selfishness;
	using scripture to critique the tradition,
		but also relying on community and tradition to help us understand scripture;
	holding the fullness of Christian and Jewish history,
		so that we can mine it for wisdom
		from every time and place.

Third, we say “All may; some should; none must.”
	That phrase arose in response to personal confession.
	Do you have to confess to a priest alone and in person,
		as Catholics do,
		or can you, with Protestants, stick with the general confession
		we say during the service?
	“All may; some should; none must.”
	There is a difference between needing private confession for justification – 
		you don’t –
	and finding it helpful for sanctification –
		I do.
	I would recommend trying it every once in a while.
	It is a good way to be intentional about personal change.

I believe our salvation starts in the past –
	as all good things do.
I believe, with the leaders of the Reformation,
	that we cannot be bribed or threatened with salvation
	through churches or sacraments or doctrines or even the Bible.
	Salvation will always be in the hands of God.
But I also believe that God’s saving act continues into the present,
	whether you call it will or works or sanctification.
	I call it grace.

I can’t answer Rabbi Siegel’s questions.
“If the Messiah has come, why is the world so evil? 
“If the world is so evil, why does the Messiah not come?”
I can say this.
	If the Messiah has come, what can I do to celebrate his life?
		What can I do to share the good news of his appearing?
	If the world is evil, what can I do to prepare a place for God?
		What can I do to care for those who have not met the Messiah?
If I must choose between responding to an abstract question
	and responding to a concrete need,
	let me answer the need.
I have been saved; I am being saved; I hope for my salvation.

I might go even a step further and say that I pray for my salvation.
	I work for my salvation and the salvation of the world.
I say this not because I believe in my own power.
	Truthfully, I think I have very little.
And yet, whatever power I do have,
	I will bend to the betterment of the world:
	sanctification, beautification, beatification,
	whatever you name it.
I want to make the world a better place.
And I know that God, working in me, can bring that about.

God is working now
	in me, in you, and in the church,
	to bring about a better world.
As a theologian, I could dive into the technicalities of 
	justification versus sanctification, forgiveness versus absolution,
	creation versus redemption, absolute versus ordered will…
	and on and on.
Those are good and worthy discussions.
	I don’t want to dismiss or discourage them.
I only want to say that God works in us and through us and with us in the present.
When we separate something called “salvation” from that ongoing process,
	we can forget about God’s action here and now,
	we can forget about our own place in the story.

The letters to the Romans and Galatians both say
	that we are more than slaves, more than servants to God.
	We are children and, if children, then heirs also.
There is a terrible responsibility in that.
Two weeks ago, I said we must always be on the lookout for Christ.

Now I say we have an obligation to always prepare a place for Christ,
	first in our own hearts and then in the world around us.
One line struck me from Isaiah this week:
“all who see them shall acknowledge 
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.”
What might convince you that someone had been blessed by the Lord?
	Wealth, popularity, power?
	Charisma, wisdom, peace?

It’s an interesting question.
	This God who died on a cross to reconcile the whole world to himself,
	who promised his followers a peace that is no peace,
	who makes all things new – 
what would it take to convince you that someone was truly blessed by that Lord?
What would be proof of God’s grace in their lives?
And what would it mean to have a church that people could look at and say,
	God is visible there with them?

The church is like any organism.
It either continues to change and grow, dynamically,
	or it dies.
Animals breathe – as do plants, incidentally –
	always cycling air in and out, 
	inspiration and expiration,
	learning the new and leaving the old.
The church is the same.
There is a core, an essence.
	The holy spirit binds us together.
Animals and churches that change too quickly, end up failing.
	Hyperventilation is a bad thing.
	So is radiation.
	We cannot change for the sake of change alone.
Still the church has a metabolism:
	the daily, boring process of breathing in and out,
	eating, cycling materials, 
and, yes, taking out the trash.
There is nothing glamorous about it, but it must be done,
	because it is an integral part of God bringing about the salvation of the world.
Go to church on Sunday, greet your neighbors, participate in the sacraments,
	give money, give time to projects and committees, read the Bible.
And 
do work in the world. 
Too many people worry about giving food and money to the poor.
	If we cannot solve their poverty, why do anything at all?
	Won’t they end up dependent on our charity?
Good questions, but not the point.
	You may as well ask, why feed my body; it will just be hungry tomorrow.
Why pray for the sick if they don’t get better?
Why forgive people if they don’t change?
Why vote if government ends up corrupt, anyway?

For the record, 
I think that prayer does help the sick, 
forgiveness does create change,
and voting does improve the government,
but again:
that’s not the point.
Much of our faith is about metabolism and maintenance.
As children and heirs, we get the scut work of the family business.
There is nothing glamorous about it, but it must be done,
	because it is an integral part of God bringing about the salvation of the world.

So much for the past and the present.
Faith would be a tedious process, if this was all.
If we only saw salvation in old promises and tedious labor,
	there would be no good news.
Let me say this:
	I am not the Messiah.
	I am not the light, but I am here to testify to the light that is coming into the world.
	I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’
You are too.

Turn your eyes to the future.
Imagine the world of Isaiah,
	where lion and the lamb lay down together
	where there is no suffering
	and the Messiah is with us, both day and night.
Imagine justice and peace.
Imagine the world of Paul,
	where each person knows the taste of goodness,
	swallowing the good and spitting out the bad.
Imagine inspiration and love.
Imagine the world of Christmas,
	when God arrives in humility,
	and binds us together in a single choir,
	with animals and angels, shepherds and kings,
	so that all the world sings with one voice.

This is a dream, but also a promise.
It is an aspiration, but also a program.
It is the hope that is in us as Christians.

My wish for you this Christmas,
	is that that light would be in your eyes,
	whenever you speak of Christ.
My wish for the church is that we might be known
	as the confident, diligent visionaries,
	who heard the call, do the work, and create the future.
It’s not easy, but it is joyous.
It’s not simple, but it is within reach.
It takes memory, reason, and skill,
	individual commitment and communal responsibility,
	knowledge and humility,
	patience and passion.
“Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, 
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”

We have been saved; We are being saved; We hope for our salvation.



 

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