November 13, 2016 | John 10: 7-10; Galatians 5:1 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
A couple weeks ago I pulled out an old sermon I had written on salvation in anticipation of this morning’s service. I decided it was probably good enough to preach again which is something I rarely do. That was before Tuesday when suddenly it became apparent that whatever I would say to you this morning, it would need to somehow address the aftermath of the US election.
Since I had already titled this reflection: “Salvation” Who Needs It?” why don’t begin by answering the question by saying, perhaps now more than ever, we all do. It would be very easy for us as Canadians to look down our noses at our American brothers and sisters in this moment and say it’s pretty clear who needs saving south of the border, even though our clarity might depend on our political view. It would be easy for us to think that what’s happening in the states could never happen here. But let’s not kid ourselves. We have plenty of similar divisions in our land and let’s not forget we are the nation whose largest city elected Rob Ford as its mayor. And then there’s Kelly Leitch who is seeking leadership in the conservative party by riding the coattails of Mr. Trump while spouting her own brand of fear.
Not one of us is beyond making poor choices out of fear. Not one of us is beyond reproach in our personal lives. And much of the ugliness that’s been exposed in the states over the last several months are systemic problems that stretch across our borders.
So rather than asking who is in need of salvation, the more pertinent questions might be what is it from which we need to be saved and who is it or how is it and what is it that is capable of saving us?
Of all of things I found troubling about Tuesday’s election results, all the concerns I have about racism, sexism, elitism, misogyny, homophobia and the environment to mention a few, it was the news on Wednesday morning that the financial markets were soaring that really brought me to my knees. It signaled to me the level of investment we have in the economy. At some deep seeded level we seem to think that the economy has the capacity to save us. If the economy is doing well, we are doing well. With a strong economy there will be more jobs, with more jobs there will be a higher standard of living, with a higher standard of living there will be a higher standard of education, with better education, better health care and so on. All of this may be true, but the economy is never, ever going to give us the kind of salvation we really need, especially not at this moment in our history. If there is going to be any salvation from the mistakes we are making as human family, from the hurts we are inflicting on each other and the alienation so many of us are feeling, it’s going to have to begin with you and me, with what’s inside of us, not what’s beyond us.
The dominant message of salvation in the Christian tradition has always been the story of sin and forgiveness. One of the reasons Amazing Grace is such a popular hymn is because this is the kind of salvation to which it refers. Perhaps you know the story of John Newton who wrote the lyrics to Amazing Grace back in 1760. Newton was a slave trader and in his own words an “infidel” who didn’t believe in God. One night the ship he was guiding home from Africa, the hold crammed with slaves, came upon a violent storm. Frightened enough to believe his life was in danger, Newton cried out for mercy. In that moment he experienced a spiritual conversion that was strong enough to lead him out of the business of trading slaves and into the business of saving souls. He actually became an ordained minister. His life was changed.
The hymn as we know talks about the grace that saved a wretch like him, the unconditional love that can flood our hearts to overflowing when we acknowledge the error of our ways, when we seek forgiveness and discover we are worthy of being loved even though we have failed to love ourselves and others. In some cases even when we have acted out of hate in the most vile and repulsive ways.
When I see the hate and anger spilling on the streets of America these past few days, (I’m talking here not so much about the protests as I am about the acts of racial, sexist and homophobic violence being reported) when I hear about people’s fear of living in a land that once felt relatively safe for them, as I acknowledge the anger and frustration in my own heart over these things I pray that in the midst of this storm, we too will have the grace to acknowledge the distortions of our own lives and cry out for mercy, to seek and claim the unconditional love in which each one of us was made.
That’s the kind of salvation most, if not all of us need, especially at times when we are prone to act out of our worst selves instead of our best selves. Humility and grace have the power to changes us and makes us better people.
It’s one of the core messages of the Jesus story. Jesus loved not only those who loved him but also those who hated him. After he was killed by those who hated him, some of those who loved him but in their fear abandoned and betrayed him became the very ones who carried on his ministry of love. They were transformed by forgiveness and by grace.
But forgiveness is not the only way to experience salvation.
The word salvation actually has its origins in the latin word that means healing or wholeness. In the broadest sense, salvation means becoming whole or being healed. Wholeness suggests a movement beyond fragmentation. Healing suggests a movement beyond being wounded.
On Tuesday night in his acceptance speech the president-elect said its time for us to bind our wounds, it’s time for us to get together.
In my work I am often taken aback by the degree of pain with which ordinary people like you and me are living with on a day to day basis. Fragmentation and woundedness are part of the human condition. This week we’ve been seeing that on a broad scale. The good thing about this is that once we acknowledge our brokenness we have a better chance of finding healing.
Beyond the Jesus story, the bible contains two other “macro” stories as Marcus Borg calls them, that address the experience of salvation particularly as it relates to fragmentation: the story of the Exodus and the story of the Exile.
The story of the exodus tells how the Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt, dominated by Pharoah, found salvation through Moses who God sent to lead them out of Egypt and into the freedom of the promised land. The condition they were in was bondage and the salvation they found was liberation.
The story of the Exile recounts the time in history when Israel was conquered by the Babylonians, and the brightest and best of the Jewish leadership were taken into exile in Babylon where they lived for generations. People who were cut off from their religious center became people longing for a pathway home. Salvation for them meant returning home, not just to their homeland but to God.
The reason the Donald Trumps, Rob Fords and Bernie Sanders of this world rise to power is because people feel like they are living in a kind of political exile, they feel alienated in their own land, enslaved to systems they did not create in which the Pharoahs get all the benefit while they labour away in the brick mines for little pay and little dignity. The dividing lines often run across race, creed, gender and ability and there is a lived reality in which some are treated better than others.
Even if we can’t literally relate to being in political exile, or to living in slavery, metaphorically we can all relate. We all live in bondage to the Pharaohs of this world. We all know the feeling of being alienated from our center of purpose, that sense of living our lives in a foreign land, not knowing how we got to where we are.
We all have things from which we long to be set free our narrow ways of thinking, grief and pain, illness, the boxes people want to keep us in.
From time to time, we all feel estranged, like we are living far away from where we really want to be – from where we’re really meant to be and we wonder how we are going to find our way back home.
Each and every one of these are conditions from which we need saving in the here and now, and the bottom line is that more often than not we cannot save ourselves.
We need strength and courage beyond our own individual capacity; we need grace and love beyond our own limited supply; we need support and encouragement beyond our own making. We need a bigger story than our own, a story that connects us to one another and beyond ourselves to the world and the universe in which we live. That’s how we find our way home, through connection to the other.
In our scripture readings this morning we heard Jesus say, I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly; for freedom Christ has set us free. That’s the world that’s been created for us to live in, a world of abundance, a life of freedom. There’s not one thing that we are experiencing right now as human family that hasn’t been experienced before. Stories of sin and forgiveness, alienation and home-coming, bondage and freedom are as ancient as the human race itself. Which doesn’t mean that we are just going round and round in circles, never getting ahead, it just means that this seems to be the way by which we as human beings get ahead.
Eight years ago this week I preached a sermon in which I quoted then president-elect Barak Obama’s acceptance speech. In it he said that the possibility of his victory was what led those who had been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what they could achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.
It may appear to those of us who celebrated his victory, regardless of our political leanings, that all of that achievement has been lost. Some of what has been achieved may very well be lost, for a while. But once we have a taste of freedom in our mouth I don’t think we ever completely forget its flavor.
The temptation may be to return to the land of slavery, but as our passage from Galatians reminds us now is the time we must stand firm, now is not the time to let go of the arc of history, because my freedom is bound up in your freedom and until everyone is saved none of us are completely whole.
If you are in need of salvation and the salvation that you need is forgiveness for your sins then you might find your salvation in the story of Jesus who prays for forgiveness for those who torture and abuse him; you might find it in the way his followers experience his love and peace even after they have betrayed and forsaken him.
If you are in need of returning from exile, in need of the kind of salvation that brings you home to your truest self, then you might find that salvation by following the path of Jesus, the path of justice and compassion and wisdom, the path of dying to your old self that you might be born into someone new.
If you are in need of being set free from whatever it is that enslaves you, you might find that salvation trusting in the truth of the Jesus story, knowing that we are stronger than we think, that we are loved beyond compare, and that even the chains of death cannot overcome the power and life that dwells within us.
Who needs saving? We all do. And the pathways that lead to our salvation are many. Thanks be to God.