Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you – and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.
In the Jack Nicholson movie, As Good As It Gets, there is the memorable line where Jack says, in response to love received beyond his deserving, “You make me want to be a better person.” This feeling can be ours in the face of love or loss, gratitude or grief. Indeed, these feelings are always more connected than we realize. In the words of Forrest Church, “Love is grief’s advance party.” So, as I think back over the past 48 hours, I hope it is not too melodramatic for me to say, “You make me want to be a better minister.” That is my response to the twin realities of this vocation: your invitation to me to be witness to your lives at their moments of deepest love and deepest grief; your invitation to me to be priest by marking those moments of joy or woe, or when the two are combined and woven fine.
I wrote my sermon early this week, on Thursday instead of Friday. It was a good sermon I wrote. Sure, it was all about Saint Paul, so that was a little quirky. And parts of it were kind of gimmicky. And the digression into some of the finer points of Pauline scholarship and interpretation were a bit much. What I had written was interesting but not essential. And then, early Friday morning I received a call and by the time I arrived at the hospital [the patriarch of our congregation] had already died. And we – his wife, his daughter, his step-daughter, and I – all gathered around his body and prayed together. I prayed in a way that I hoped would bring some comfort to his family. I instinctively placed my hand on his forehead and gently rubbed his brow. I don’t know why I did this. It just felt like the right thing to do. Perhaps it was the giving of an unspoken blessing or, more likely, the receiving of an unspoken blessing.
An hour or so later I was back at my office in Saeger House, working the phones. An email was about to go out to the entire congregation, but there were those in our community for whom I thought it would be kinder to hear the news about him from an actual voice rather than from a typed message in their email inbox. And somewhere in this blur of emotion and duty, love and grief, I realized that I had just written a quirky, scholarly, gimmicky sermon about passages from Paul, of all things. And to preach it would be, well it would be awkward is what it would be.
I ask that you abide with me for a few minutes in these moments of awkwardness and please trust that we will together emerge from these awkward words together.
About a year ago some friends of mine put together a team to play in an Ultimate Frisbee tournament here in Kansas City. Upon arriving at the fields, I discovered the tournament was being hosted by a group of young evangelical Christians. As part of the registration, I was asked to fill out a poorly written multiple-choice questionnaire asking me to describe my faith. I think I just wrote at the bottom of the page: “These questions fail to allow me to accurately describe my faith.”
When I handed in my questionnaire, I received a Frisbee with two cartoon drawings and a quote from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Let me describe the cartoons. The first cartoon shows a canyon of sin. One rim is labeled “man” (so much for political correctness) and the other rim is labeled God. A stick figure attempts to leap across the canyon but falls into the deep, dark crevasse of sin and death and Hell. In the second cartoon a cross provides a bridge between man (so much for gender inclusiveness) and God and the joyous stick figure is able to cross the canyon. The lesson the cartoon presents is that Jesus’ death spares us from the fate we deserve as sinful beings who fall short and that through Jesus’ death we can reach God.
Describing this common cartoon, the post-modern Christian Tony Jones has commented that this idea is evidence of a weak imagination and he also says the cartoon is blasphemous. After all, the born-again Christians who came up with this cartoon believe that God was the creator of not only canyons but also the creator of human beings. But, somehow, their imagination falls short of imagining that God is capable of building a bridge across the canyon.
And the purpose of churches like ours, churches that [our partriarch] founded and gave his blood, sweat, and tears to over the course of many decades, is not to reject religion altogether because of those whose religious imagination is too small and too limited. The place of churches like ours is cultivate a wider way of being religious, a larger imagination, a way that is more inclusive, a way that is not insulting to us as human beings and also not insulting to divinity by holding such a puny and limited imagination of the divine. Let me say this again: if we exist as a rejection of those whose religious imaginations are too small, we are bound to become just as small-minded and unimaginative ourselves. We exist, rather, to prove that religion need not be this limited. We can imagine bridges across any chasm that divides us. We can do the work of building up those bridges.
And, if I can stay on the topic of the Frisbee for one more moment, I want to let you know that the Frisbee also contains a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans. When I read the words printed on the disc I laughed out loud. The passage, Romans 3:23-24 reads as follows, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
I laughed out loud is what I did because it just so happens that this passage from Romans is one of the dozens upon dozens of passages from the New Testament that early Universalists pointed to in order to make a case for the doctrine of Universal salvation. It was a proof-text for our theology. Our religious forebears were serious about their Bible. They had no problem with the idea that human beings had within themselves a degree of sinfulness; they just believed that this finite sin was trumped by God’s larger and more expansive love and mercy.
Our religious forebears would have read the text like this: For all (that is everybody) have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but they are justified freely (that is, you don’t have to do anything to earn it) by God’s grace through the redemption that came through Jesus. And the emphasis is on that word "came." It is in the past tense. It has already happened. So, here is what this passage says, literally: Redemption has already happened, and it is free and it for everybody. Salvation has already happened, and it is free, and it is for everybody. That is the doctrine of Universal Salvation, taught by our religious ancestors centuries before us and look it is right there on this born-again Frisbee. Our religious ancestors just had a large view of God, a wide understanding of mercy, and an inclusive view of salvation. Their imagination was expansive.
Let me cut a whole bunch of stuff about how to read Paul’s letters, and why I spend time reading Paul on a regular basis. I could say a lot of things here that are interesting (ok, they are interesting to me) but they are hardly essential.
But, since I did plan to spend a lot of time analyzing the passage from Philippians that I read earlier, I should probably at least explain, very succinctly, what this passage means. There are about five important things in this passage, but I’m cutting here, so I will list only the two major points.
The Philippians had written to Paul asking him to clarify some doctrinal point about salvation that was causing them a lot of strife and anguish as a community. Paul’s response is a bit chippy. He tells them, trying not to sound exasperated, “Look, you have always listened to me, so listen to me now. Figure it out yourselves. But don’t just figure it out any old way. Figure it out with fear and trembling.” And I know we’re not big on fear here, but by fear, Paul is not evoking an image of a God who has created a canyon, a chasm shooting flames just like the Frisbee’s image of sin and death and suffering and hellfire No, fear means something different in the way Paul is speaking here. It means awe and humility. Work out your own answers about salvation, Paul says. Figure it out yourselves, but those answers better not make God small. You ought to still have a sense of awe. And, when you work out your answers, hold those answers with a deep sense of humility, because you are not going to know the answer for certain. That is the first thing.
The second thing is that even though Paul tells them to work out their own salvation, he can’t resist dropping a few hints. And the first hint is this: “Do all things without murmuring or arguing.” Or, in other words, stop feuding with each other. Stop gossiping. Stop being belligerent. That is the first rule of salvation. If you are at each others’ throats, and you are bickering with one another, and you’re not actively working to resolve conflict and heal the brokenness in your relationships, then you can kiss salvation goodbye. You can’t there from here.
There is way more depth to this passage, but those are the two key points: first, figure out your own answers, but those answers better not diminish your sense of awe and you should claim those answers with humility. Second, quit squabbling. Reconcile. Put yourself in right relationship with those who are causing you discomfort, because salvation isn’t coming if you don’t.
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. What exactly would this mean for us? I want to say some things very plainly. These aren’t clever things. We can put Paul aside for good this morning. How do we work out our own salvation?
As a religious community, when we do what we are supposed to be doing, our own lives and our collective life as a community is shaped by an understanding that though none of our lives are perfect, our errors and mistakes are small in comparison to a larger compassion and greater love that abides in this world. We don’t have to do anything to deserve it and we do not need to create it because it already is.
When we are doing what we are supposed to be doing as a religious community, we are working at finding even new ways to imagine the wide and ever-widening scope of all that is holy. Our imagination is to remain ever open to greater inclusion, wider embrace, and possibilities heretofore beyond our imagining.
In our common life as a community of faith we seek to invite people into a caring community, into a place where intimacy can be found. We seek to inspire spiritual growth, to help each other to discover a regular spiritual practice for deepening and renewal, a connection with ultimacy. And, we seek to involve all in working for a peaceful, fair and free world, which is to say a deeper purpose in our living.
Intimacy, ultimacy, purpose. Awe, humility, and a larger imagination. As one of our hymns proclaims, we are:
“One in the freedom of the truth, one in the joy of paths untrod, one in the soul’s perennial youth, and one in the larger thought of God. The freer step and fuller breath, the wide horizon’s grander view, the sense of life that knows no death, the Life that maketh all things new.”
Which brings me around to [our patriarch], who has been on my mind almost constantly over the past month as he faced life after suffering a massive stroke. He has been on my mind for the past 48 hours following his death on Friday morning. I think especially of his 41 years of constant service and dedication to the health of this church, his selfless sacrifice. His stepping up when we needed someone to step up, especially during the tough times.
Working out salvation has nothing to do with an afterlife. It has everything to do with making this life vibrant and full and worthy, for ourselves and for others. It means not losing a sense of awe and keeping a sense of humility.
May we all commit and re-commit ourselves to making our fine, fine church an instrument of salvation in a world that needs not limited thinking but grander views. May we all say, because of our encountering and growing and touching one another, we have made each other want to be a better people. You have made me want to be a better minister. I love you.