Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sinners in the hands of a merciful God

Sarcastic Lutheran has her usual thoughtful posts going, this time around sin. This week's lectionary readings have seen fit to fall in line with the conversation. Since I was taking up so much comment space over there, I thought it only fair to bring my end of the conversation over here. Then I remembered a sermon I once wrote using this week's gospel lesson, in a series I preached about salvation. So, in what probably won't be a regular feature, I'm posting an old sermon below.

You've been warned.

"Saved from What?"
A sermon on: Exodus 6:1-9; Luke 7:36-50
Given on March 9, 2003

Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?

If you have ever joined this church or any Christian Church, for that matter, you have answered this question or one very much like it in the affirmative. Yes, you have said, Jesus is my Savior. And so, when someone knocks at your door wanting to know if you have been saved, you can say with great confidence, "Yes, as a matter of fact, I have."

But what does it mean? What does it mean to say you've been saved? The question begs another one and that is, saved from what?

To read the tri-fold brochures handed out on street corners, it would seem that the obvious answer is "saved from hell!" Well, that calls for another whole sermon on "What is hell?" I'm not preaching that one this week. In regards to the afterlife, suffice it to say for the purposes of this sermon: God is gracious. If we work on the life we have right in front of us, we can trust God to worry about whatever comes next. Besides which, there are plenty of earthly hells on which we can focus our attention.

So, for this life -- right here, right now-- what is it that we need to be saved from?

Those of us who have spent some time attending 12-step meetings, either to deal with our own addictions or those of people we love, have some pretty great stories we can tell about people's lives being turned around. The tales of rescue from addictive behavior have a nice sense of drama about them that we can understand. "I used to do drugs, I lost my family, my job, my money, I was sick and tired -- and then I turned my life over to my Higher Power and now I've been clean and sober for 12 years -- I've got a new job, new wife, I've reunited with my children and I'm teaching basketball to young guys like myself." Even if you've never been to an AA meeting, you've probably heard one such story somewhere along the way.

They are good stories. Like the tale from Luke's gospel, they focus on being down and out; on the "real" sinners, who turn to Jesus and find a whole new life. And I have seen the truth of these stories time and time again.

The problem with hearing these stories is that if you fail to identify yourself with one of those "down and outers" you're stuck being the nice Pharisee who invited Jesus over for dinner and got in return "little love." If you aren't the addict or the prostitute, will you ever really get it? Will you ever be part of the inner circle of people who really know what they mean when they say they've been saved?

And so again, let's ask ourselves: saved from what?

The root of this New Testament word refers to rescue, as from a great danger, but also to protection, preservation, and being kept in good health. The good health can refer to physical health, but also to inner health -- to a sense of well-being, peace, integrity. To feel fully human.

In the Hebrew roots, the word means literally, "to be roomy." Salvation is spaciousness. And it is out of that sense of spaciousness that we find the related meanings of freedom and deliverance. The classic story for this sense of salvation is, of course, the exodus. The Israelites were saved from the oppression of Egypt and were brought into a new land -- a "broad" land; one where they would have the space to live in freedom. (1)

In our text from Exodus, God promises to redeem the people "with an outstretched arm" and even the imagery speaks to the sense of spaciousness being offered. God goes on to promise that the people will be freed from the burdens of the Egyptians.

In our two Biblical texts today, we get a wide vision of what it is from which we're being saved. From oppressive political forces, from economic bondage, from unbearable living situations, from the burden of forces which hold power over our lives, in the Exodus story. And in Luke's story, from the sorrow of sin, from a broken life, from a damaged reputation, and maybe, in the case of Simon, from the lack of love.

In all cases, we are being saved from sin. Sometimes the sin of others (as in the Exodus story) and sometimes our own sin (as in the gospel). But what is sin?

Mind you, not what are sins? But, what is sin?

When we speak of sins, in the plural, we generally begin thinking immediately of specific activities. The list is different for different people and even for different denominations. Sexual sins always seem to make it pretty high on somebody's list, though general greed and hoarding never seem to be quite as clearly problematic. Greed is bad when it is our child grabbing an extra helping of candy away from another child, but maybe not so bad when it involves the way we invest our retirement funds or play around with family assets in order to make sure grandma gets medicaid to cover the nursing home without dipping into our inheritance.

But whether lust or greed or gluttony or any of those deadly seven we've heard about, speaking about sins in particular misses the bigger point.

The bigger point being our sin, in the singular. This kind of sin is more existential. It is less concerned with particular actions, and more concerned with our general state of being. Barbara Brown Taylor nicely divides the two this way: "sin [is] the existential state of distance from God and sins [are] the willful human choices that maintain that distance."(1)

Sin has been called missing the mark -- and the mark we are to be aiming for in the Christian life is love of God and love of neighbors as ourselves. I have always appreciated the definition of sin I learned as a teenager that sin is separation: separation from God, from other people and from our deepest selves. To expand Taylor's definition then, the particulars would be those actions and decisions we make that keep the gap wide.

But the thing I always need to remember is that there are forces at work in my life that keep me in a state of sin even when I am trying my darnedest to not act out those particular sins.

Some are forces of personality, family, mental health ... some are forces of culture, government and economics. Some are forces I can do something about, some are forces I have little to no control over. Nonetheless, I am still responsible to the state of separation in which I find myself.

And that is why I need, so desperately, to be saved. I need to be saved because I scream at my son, I say mean-spirited things to my husband, I criticize my colleagues, I lust after people who aren't my husband, I fail to show kindness to the grocery cashier, I fail to say thank you to people who care, I fail to notice when someone near me is hurting, I worry too much about my money, I whine, I drive when I could take the bus, I buy clothes made in sweat shops, I don't give away as much as I could ... and that was just yesterday!

Sure, I need to be saved from my sins. But I also need to be saved from my sin. The fact is that I live in a body and a community and a nation and a world where sometimes I simply don't even know which of my actions are sinful. When, even with the best of intentions, I cause hurt or distress. When even my best efforts at peacemaking cause unintended harm.

And not only do I need to be saved from my sin, but I also need to be saved from the world's sin. The sin that is visited upon me.

Have you ever had one of those mornings in church where the prayer of confession really didn't work for you? You're reading about all this ugly stuff you're supposed to be sorry for and you think, "I may be bad, but at least I don't do that." Actually, I rarely feel that way, because I usually have plenty of sin on my mind when I get here, but on those rare occasions when I do, I remember that our prayer of confession is a corporate confession. We are praying with and for each other, as well as for ourselves. Otherwise, we could just say our personal prayers of confession at home.

But we live in a world where we are caught in webs of sin, not of our own spinning. If there is such a thing as original sin (and I tend to agree with the comedians that there is not much original about most sin!), it is simply this: that even before we are conscious of it, we make choices that have painful consequences. Sin acts upon us even before we are aware of acting in sin. And so, in addition to our own particular sins, we are praying for the sins of our church community, our city, our culture, our nation, our human race. We are holding each other up, asking for forgiveness for our particular role in the sin of the world, but also for the simple fact of it.

This is a broken, sinful world.

This is a world where we all, individually and corporately, have missed the mark.

This is a world where separation is as much a reality as connectedness.

And so, we all need to be saved.

Lent is the time each year when we focus some extra attention on this fact. So I invite you to continue to explore the question, "saved from what?" this week. Next week I will raise the question, saved for what? Until then, the first question should give us each plenty to chew on.

(1) Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985). pp. 1132ff. (Back to text)

(2) Barbara Brown Taylor. Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation. (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 2000), p. 16. (Back to text)


Diane said...

thanks for posting! More later!

Anonymous said...

It's a great sermon. You deserve to be preaching more of them for a long, long time.

Thanks for including it.

pj said...

LJ, I hope I get to hear you do your thing in person some day.

The concept of sin has always been a little problematic for me, probably because it's not a word that gets used very frequently in Reformed Judaism. Or at least I don't remember it being used much. One thing's for sure, none of my Hebrew school teachers ever had a good answer about what happens after you die! Salvation? I like your take on it! But "sin" is the one thing that still puts me off Christianity a bit.

I still try to practice Tikkun, about which you probably know more than I do.

Anyway, sheesh! I can't believe how much time I spend talking to priests and ministers these days! It's so great! How would this have happened before the internet?

lj said...

pj, what I know about tikkun -- other than the general sense that it is our work to repair the world,and as I get it, to become partners with g*d in the process-- is that it's a magazine.

sin is problematic for me too, which is why I got all agitated over at Sarcastic Lutheran's place. This is probably one of the few sermons where I ever faced it head-on in 13+ years of preaching. Or at least the concept of "salvation" as it relates to concepts of sin.

I really get sin when I look at the world -- we kill each other for cheap oil, we screw up relationships, we hurt each other. But mostly I get it existentially, as that gnawing sense that things aren't quite what we mean for them to be.

Salvation for me is really just the deep belief that even when things aren't OK, they are ... well, OK. And so, we keep moving. We keep trying. (Which is, perhaps, tikkun?)

Lately I've been really into Pema Chodron's take on things so maybe that will be my next serious post.

Diane said...

I like particularlly your phrase 'webs of sin, not of our own spinning.' gets to the inexorable nature of it... that we can't will ourselves out of it. It seems a shame you aren't preaching somewhere now. (sigh)

tribalchurch said...

"To be roomy." That's beautiful. I've never heard of salvation in that sense.

I'm going to be gnawing on that for a while now...

Glad you posted the sermon. I always love reading good ones!

lj said...

diane and tc, so great to have you both here. if you're interested in the topic, I highly recommend Barbara Brown Taylor's book, in my footnote.

Grandmère Mimi said...

LJ, this is lovely.

I like what Kathleen Norris says about salvation. I don't remember which of her books this comes from, and it's probably not a direct quote. She says, "I need salvation every single day for my survival." I feel that way, too. Saved from what? From not being able to survive as a functioning human being, that's what. Saved from being separated from God, by my sins, and the sins of the church, and sins the world, because I might not survive.

That's what keeps me rooted and grounded in God. If that makes me a weak sister, then I am a weak sister. I'll say with Paul, "for whenever I am weak, then I am strong."

Jesus' salvation is spacious, roomy. That's beautiful. He has his arms open wide, inviting us all in.

lj said...

You a weak sister? Hardly. A wise one for sure. Thanks for your thoughts. I love Kathleen Norris.