Monday, July 9, 2012
Sermon - "Salvation is in This Life"
Since we are talking about salvation today, I thought I would start off with a confession and a testimony. I want to confess to something that may be deeply familiar to you, or it maybe not. Maybe you confront other demons in your own life.
But for me, the past couple of weeks have been a sincere and eye-opening journey of how addicted I am to anger. Yes, I am a fairly mild mannered person, but something about me, somewhere deep inside, really gets motivated by anger. It’s exciting, and empowering as an emotion. Whether it’s in my car when I’m late, dealing perhaps with Laguna Beach tourist drivers, I know you know what I mean. I cuss like a sailor when I’m alone in my car. It’s not pretty. Or if it’s dealing with someone who challenges me, rather than questioning my own beliefs or simply disagreeing, it’s much easier, much more exciting to feel angry. Or sometimes for no apparent reason at all with the people in my life I know and love I drift toward anger rather more complicated or nuanced negative feelings.
Part of me finds that anger is easier and more exciting than other responses to the small challenges of life. Part of me is addicted to it, and wants to hang on to it. But holding onto anger, I’ve been told, is like holding a hot coal to burn someone else. Part of my journey is learning to let it go. Part of my journey to salvation in this life is to let go of that energizing self-righteous feeling and move beyond it. Maybe you have your own burning coal of anger to let go of, or maybe there is something that you are called to pick on your path to salvation.
That is my confession. I am seduced by the feeling of anger. But I also want to testify to you this morning. For those of you who are new here, I should tell you that confession and testimonial are rare in this congregation. But since we are talking about what salvation means to us, I thought I’d dig right in. I want to testify about salvation. Not my own, but the salvation I have seen in other people. Probably the singular thing that I am most grateful for in ministry is the opportunities to see real salvation happen in this life. I have seen what it looks like in members of this congregation. I still remember how humbling and inspiring it was to sit with a group of elders at a class on death and dying. I had prepared a whole 30 minute introductory session to ease us into what I thought would be a difficult topic. But before I knew it, they were talking frankly about how many more years, or in one cases, how many more months they each expected to live. They spoke with grace and with incredible peace about their mortality. They had lived lives that were worth living, with only a few loose ends to tie up. And even those weren’t all that necessary. It may be because I am young and that sort of acceptance of mortality comes with age. But I think there’s more to it than that. I think that the people around that table had made a certain peace with their lives, a peace that acknowledged all the hardship and held on to the faith that life is good.
I have seen salvation in our fellowship, and it is amazing. I have seen salvation in people who face tremendous hardships, abuse, addiction, mental illness, financial upheaval, adultery, and an array of other challenges that seminary could never have prepared me for. I have seen people come through these challenges and still have the courage to face life with grace and courage. In the midst of all the muck of life, in the midst of all that heartache and evil, these courageous women and men affirm their faith that life is good and beautiful. I have seen salvation in this Fellowship. It’s hard to describe but I promise you I have seen it.
And this wouldn’t be a full testimony without talking about the salvation I have seen offered for my Gay and Lesbian brothers and sisters. Just last week at General Assembly I was hanging out with another young gay minister. We reminisced about what it meant for us to have the support of our religious community as teens when we were just coming to understand ourselves as gay. For him, and for several other LGBT Unitarian Universalists I have spoken with, our message that every soul is sacred and worthy literally gives them a reason for living. It’s no secret that gay teens are significantly more susceptible to suicide than their heterosexual peers. I know, I can testify that this faith has literally saved the lives of many of those teens. For us as Unitarian Universalists salvation is in this life, and it is available to all of us.
Salvation isn’t something we talk about much. In fact I know that it makes many of you cringe. But not talking about it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. This sermon topic, that I love by the way, is actually a part of the Summer series that we are doing. We are covering a list of core Unitarian Universalist beliefs including:
Every soul is sacred and worthy.
There is a unity which makes us one.
Salvation is in this life.
Courageous love will transform the world.
Truth continues to be revealed.
When the conversation of salvation comes up, the fist question is what exactly are we being saved from. I think this is why the idea of salvation is so strange to many of us. Let me assure you, the salvation we are concerned about is not salvation from an angry God who would otherwise dole out eternal punishment for our mistakes. We are not talking about getting a cosmic lifeline to escape some fiery underworld called Hell. Our tradition has long since given up on that sort of otherworldly punishment. And it’s only fair to say that the vast majority of mainline Christian theology has followed us in that shift.
Salvation as we talk about it isn’t about what happens as reward or punishment after you die; Salvation is in this life. So if we are not being saved from the fiery depths, what then are we being saved from? Well there is still plenty in this life for us to be saved from. Plenty of both sin and evil pervade our individual lives and our shared human community. We don’t like to admit it, in fact this probably ruffles some feathers, but we do need salvation. We need a salve for the deep injuries that hurt us and the people we love.
Whether you want to call it evil or something else, life is hard, often without reason. And, people are cruel to one another, usually without reason. The earth itself is in desperate need of salvation from the relentless punishment we have inflicted upon it. And the evil that is most pervasive, the evil that most fuels oppression and exploitation isn’t a maniacal greed; it isn’t blatant and cunning. The evil that stains the fabric of human community is the evil of indifference.
We need salvation in this life for the evils that pervade this life, the evils that we afflict upon one another and upon ourselves. It is important to explain though, that focusing on salvation in this life doesn’t preclude other concepts of salvation that might play out after death. I know that a sense of peaceful continued existence or a second, third or ninety eighth chance at getting life right can be profoundly helpful to people. Perhaps there is something beyond this life. I don’t know about what comes next. But I do know about this life. We know that this life offers us plenty of material to work with, an overwhelming supply really. There is more than enough here and now to deal with. There is enough pain to need healing. There are enough lessons and teachers to help us find a way to deal with the pain and still affirm life. When we say that salvation is in this life, it is not meant to negate the possibility of other senses of salvation. It is meant to affirm the very real possibility to develop the capacity to recognize the goodness and beauty of life, even in the midst of all its challenges.
Now comes the challenging part of the sermon. I’ve told you what we are being saved from, and why we need it. The big looming question is how. How does this salvation happen? That’s not such and easy question to answer. But our reading from earlier today points us in the right direction. We heard the reading from W.E.B. DuBois, “The prayer of our souls is a petition for persistence; not for the one good deed, or single thought, but deed on deed, and thought on thought, until day calling unto day shall make a life worth living.”
I often hear Unitarian Universalists deride more traditional Christian formulas of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. They are concerned that confession and profession of faith are inadequate compensation for a full lifetime of moral choices. I hear Unitarian Universalists tell me that kind of salvation is too easy.
The flip side of that concern is that as we understand salvation, as Unitarian Universalists, there is not a single thing to be believed or single action to be taken to be saved. As W.E.B. DuBois said, it takes deed upon deed and thought upon thought to build a life that is worth living. What’s more, salvation isn’t a one-time thing. It’s not a gold medal that gets hung on your neck that you then have forever and ever. Salvation, as far as I can tell, is something that we build over time with the help of those around us. Honestly, I can’t tell you exactly how that building process takes place, but I can tell you a little bit about what I think salvation looks like, as I have seen it.
First and foremost, salvation manifests in an affirmation of life’s goodness. I’m not talking about enjoying the good life. I’m talking about a profound sense of gratitude for the opportunity to live and to love. Life is full of small pleasures, small signs of the goodness of creation. They are present day in and day out if we open ourselves to appreciate them. From enjoying a good meal, a warm bath, a flower in bloom or a good friend. Affirming the goodness of life begins with pausing to affirm the goodness of the little pieces of every day.
And it is precisely this groundedness in the goodness of life that empowers us to perform the deed upon deed and thought upon thought that builds a life worth living. Because when we appreciate life, we know that it is worth our energy to preserve it, to cherish it, and defend it for others. As the theologian Rebecca Parker puts it, “Apprehension of life’s profound goodness provides emotional aliveness and moral clarity. It is this apprehension of goodness that motivates a life toward life affirming ways.”
When we open ourselves to the goodness of life and the beauty that surrounds us, we begin to settle into the profound sense of “enough.” We come to realize there are in fact enough resources for all of humanity to thrive. There are enough opportunities to building loving relationship. And we ourselves are enough, not perfect, but enough.
Lest it sounds easy, salvation is not sugar and spice and all things nice. Actually it is just the opposite. Salvation is a capacity to recognize the goodness of life even in the midst of tragedy. The blessings of salvation are evident in those people who hold tragedy and beauty together, integrating life’s complex and difficult counterpoints. It’s not an easy puppy love for this world that we are called to. But a courageous love, a love that knows that in the midst of all the brokenness, there is also a wholeness. Holding out this kind of affirmation of the goodness of life takes tremendous courage.
So let us be thankful that this journey is not ours to make alone. Though I have been talking about it on the individual level, salvation is not an individual thing. The wisdom and courage that I describe here are NOT personal accomplishment. They are the fruit of living in human community. Through our relationship we see the goodness and beauty of life affirmed in those that we love. Through our relationships we are encouraged through our own struggle and reminded that life continues on.
This journey is not ours to make alone. It is the fruit of our relationship with others, and it rests solidly on the shoulders of countless women and men who have gone before. Some have shown us personal models of deep fulfillment, and some we merely read and hear about. Regardless of how we learn of their lives, our own salvation is interwoven with theirs. We are saved by every person who stood for the true in spite of threat: Socrates, Jesus, and many, many others. We are saved by a communion of saints vaster than we even know.
Though we do not talk about it often, salvation is real, it is needed, and it is available to anyone willing to make the journey. Let us then be grateful for this life and the opportunities it provides. Let us be grateful for the community of travelers that accompanies us on the journey. Let us be grateful for this invitation to peace.