Monday, April 8, 2013

"Salvation Today" - Sermon

Salvation Today
         It has been great working from my office in the Fellowship more. I have been using that space for less than a year. Before that I was working mostly from home. The windows are very thin and I can hear all the conversations that walk by, which can be pretty annoying. But it’s also pretty fun sometimes, hearing people that walk by our building. On Thursday I heard a couple of women walk by. One read Mark’s sign out loud, “Salvation is in this Life.” She said, “Oh I like that.” I mention that not only to say thank you Mark for your continued commitment and creativity in our advertising. But also to bring up the question of why we use the language that we use.
         The word salvation has a whole lot of baggage. If you have been a part of, or even in proximity to a religious tradition where God is a bully, dangling us humans over a fiery pit of eternal punishment or even just bottomless guilt, then it’s likely that you have totally blocked the word salvation out of your vocabulary.
         But we use the word, I should say I use the word for two reasons. First is that it is the theological language used in our country. We live in a largely Christian country, and Unitarian Universalism comes out of a Christian background. With that, we inherit a whole set of language that people hold in common, language that we can use to talk about our lives, and the challenges we face together. The women walking by knew what the sign in front of our building meant. “Salvation is in this life.” “Hm, I like that,” she said. She knew what the sign meant.
          The other reason I talk about salvation is that it is rooted in a part of the human experience. We Unitarian Universalist have a very positive anthropology. We believe that people are basically good. It’s our first principle, we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, But that is not the entire extent of our lived experience. We know that we ourselves, and the people around us occasionally are not so good. We know that there is suffering in the world and in our own lives. One of the central pieces of religious life is to make some meaning out of the suffering that we experience as humans, and to explore ways that we might provide a salve for our wounds.
         In religious community we are in the business of talking about, hunting down, and building salvation, here and now.          Since we are talking about salvation today, I thought I would start off with a confession and a testimony. I want to confess something that may be deeply familiar to you, or 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 driversI 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 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 will 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 here. It’s hard to describe, but I promise you I have seen it.

         When the conversation of salvation comes up, the first 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.
         Even without threats of Hell, there is still 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. 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 inflict upon one another and upon ourselves.

         We need salvation in the here and now. But how? Where do we turn for this healing?
         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 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. 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 this groundedness in the goodness of life that empowers us to choose a nobler way of being. 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 relationships. And we ourselves are enough, not perfect, but enough.
         But 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. 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 only found in personal accomplishment. They are also the fruit of living in community.
         We find salvation in our relationships with one another. We find it in community. That’s what is so magical about the story about the camel driver that we heard earlier in the children’s story. Remember, there was the camel driver who threw a rock at a man who had killed one of his camels. He hadn’t intended to, but the rock struck the man in the head and killed him. The camel driver saw what he had done and tried to flee the scene but he was caught and brought to the town square. According to the law of the land, he was to be beheaded. He pleaded and pleaded to be able to go say his goodbyes to his family. The ruler, the Caliph said, I’ll let you go for three days if you find a friend to take your place for that time. He pleaded with the crowd and no one offered, until finally a holy man, the Caliph’s own teacher stepped forward to take the place of the camel driver for the three day period. He knew that if the camel driver did not return, he would be beheaded in his place. The Caliph was deeply distraught at the arrangement, but consented. The man took his three days to put his affairs in order, and at the very last moment returned to the town square. And in the end, seeing what had happened, the Caliph pardons the camel driver.
         Obviously, the holy man is wise and brave, and is the apparent hero in this story. But the real magic of this story is that we saw three distinct roles that come together to cerate salvation, and they are roles that each of us play at some time or another in our life.
         The first is the camel driver. He threw a rock at a man in anger, and he accidentally killed him. Now as far as I know, none of us have killed another person, but none of us are camel drivers either. I can guarantee that each and every one of us has made mistakes. We have reacted in anger and injured another person with our words or attitude. We have acted in ways that we know we shouldn’t have. Sometimes we get away with it, but often we are caught. If nothing else we are caught by our own conscience. And we are judged for our actions.
         In our moments of guilt we want to return to those we love to make our life right again. And we look around desperately for a friend. Who out there, we ask is still noble. Who out there is trusting enough to stand with me in my moment of repentance?
         But we are not only the camel driver in our lives; we are not the only ones that make mistakes. Over and over again we are witness to others who don’t live up to their best selves. And we have an opportunity to show that there is a different way. Sometimes reaching out to a sinner comes with tremendous risk; sometimes we put our own reputation on the line to show to the downtrodden that it is still possible to choose the noble path. Sometimes we have the opportunity and responsibility to act as holy men and women, demonstrating to the community that we trust our friends, even in the midst of their errors. We trust them and we would stake our own well-being on their goodness.
         And finally, of course we are also the Caliph. No we don’t have the power to pardon criminals and prevent beheadings. But we do have the power to forgive people. In little ways we can forgive people we don’t know. But in my more powerful ways, we can really forgive people who have done wrong. I don’t mean just saying “Oh it’s no big deal.” I mean saying “I acknowledge that you made a mistake and you are sorry for that mistake. I forgive you.”  This gift of sincere forgiveness costs us little, but it can change lives, it can offer salvation.
         At the end of the story, when the Caliph pardoned the camel driver an old man shouted out from the crowd, “Why?”
         And the Caliph said, “In pardoning this man I see now that there are still in the world those who are noble. There are those also who are truthful. It remains for me to show that there are still those who can be forgiving.”
         Salvation in this life is a web that we are all tied together in. We find forgiveness and healing not just through our individual spiritual experience, but also through our relationships with others. We find literal forgiveness, we find healing and trust, we find inspiration, and we find that our own heart can be open with trust.

         This journey is not ours to make alone. It is the fruit of our relationships 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, appreciating the goodness of life. Some have shown us trust, some have shown us honesty, and still others have shown us models of forgiveness.
         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 true peace and comfort that are available in this life.



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