a sermon by Rev. J. Mark Worth
From Rev. Ralph W. Helverson, Living in the Questions, the Lindsey Press, London, 1977 –
Some people believe that man can never save himself, that he can only be saved by some power beyond himself. I contend that this is not so. It is like flying an airplane. Man cannot fly by flapping his arms, but he can fly by applying the laws of aerodynamics in a skillful manner to heavier than air craft. Then he may fly at great speeds even into the stratosphere.
Now man saves himself in a like manner. Sitting in one’s chair one cannot say, “Now I will save myself.” That becomes an impossible task. But still you can do things that will save yourself. You can rely on those forces – psychological, social, spiritual – that save you.
A few years ago I was outside a movie theater in Maine, when someone handed me a ticket that said “ADMIT ONE to Hell,” and on the other side said, “ADMIT ONE to Heaven.” There were Bible verses quoted on each side of the ticket, and a short prayer to say if you wanted to be saved. I thought this was a creative, yet unconvincing, approach to evangelism.
And as a matter of fact, Unitarian Universalists tell pollsters that they aren’t very interested in “salvation.” For instance, there is a book by a UU minister, Fredric John Muir, titled, Heretic’s Faith: Vocabulary for Religious Liberals. Under “S” he discusses Sabbath, Sacred Story, Saints, Sanctuary, Sin and Spirituality, but not Salvation.
Salvation is so off our map, it isn’t even listed in a UU book of theological terms! So why am I even talking about it? Well, salvation is the whole point of evangelical Christianity, the kind of Christianity that has been very assertive in our nation, and I think we need to understand it intelligently. If we find salvation to be irrelevant, we need to be able to say why. And then again, maybe we are interested in salvation of some kind, but we might mean something different when we use that word.
The old story of salvation ~
First, let’s describe the old story of salvation. We are told that, once upon a time, Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden. God told them not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. A talking serpent, however, convinced Eve that the fruit was good to eat, and she ate some. She gave it to Adam, and he ate it, too. Because of this “Original Sin,” we all became sinners. We inherited Adam’s sin. Now, the Bible itself never actually uses the term, “Original Sin.” Genesis says Adam and Eve disobeyed, but it doesn’t say they sinned.
But early Christians searched for an explanation of Jesus’ death on the cross. Why did he die such an apparently senseless death? They decided that God’s honor was harmed by Adam’s disobedience, and God’s sense of justice demands repayment. And so God sent his only Son into the world in the form of Jesus Christ to pay the price that we owe and to bear the punishment that we deserve. His suffering and death, his atoning sacrifice, broke the chain of guilt and punishment.
Now, how does this story “save” us? In the popular understanding, we are saved from eternal torture in hell – we cash in that “Admit One” ticket – when we accept God’s gift of grace by believing in Jesus. We’re not saved by following him, by living as he taught, only by “believing” in him. We’re not saved by being good people; we’re saved by accepting a theological doctrine.
Unitarians and Universalists have had a difficult time with this. Let me put this bluntly: I just don’t believe the nonsense that God was so angry with Adam and Eve, because they ate a piece of fruit, that he condemned the entire human race; nor that he was so happy, because we killed his only son, that he forgave us all.
Some Christians take that story literally. But let’s be clear: Many, perhaps most of our Christian neighbors, who, after all, are intelligent people, understand this story metaphorically. Yet, even then, I still have trouble with it. Unitarian Universalist theologian Rev. Rebecca Parker asks, “Do we really believe that God is appeased by cruelty, and wants nothing more than our obedience? It becomes imperative that we ask this question when we examine how theology sanctions human cruelty.”
Rev. Parker was thinking about this one day when a woman came to her church office to ask for pastoral advice. The woman’s name was Lucia. Lucia said, “I live down the block and walk past the church on my way to the bus. I saw your name on the church sign. You are a woman priest. Maybe because you are a woman you can understand my problem and help me.”
The problem was that Lucia’s husband had been beating her for many years. She was Catholic, and had gone to her priest for advice. He said, “Jesus suffered because he loved us. If you love Jesus, accept the beatings and bear them gladly, just as Jesus bore the cross.” Lucia said, “I’ve tried to do what my priest said, but I’m not sure any more.” Her husband was now beating the children as well as her. She asked Rev. Parker, “Tell me, is what the priest told me true?”
“It isn’t true,” Parker said to Lucia. “God does not want you to accept being beaten by your husband. God wants you to protect your life and your children’s lives.”
Lucia’s eyes danced. “I knew I was right!” she said. “But it helps to hear you say it.” She told Rev. Parker of her plans to go to community college and learn a marketable skill so she would be able to leave her husband and support her children. They kept in touch, and Lucia stuck to her plan. When her husband got help with his anger issues, he was allowed visitation rights with the children. “They got their father back,” Lucia said, “and I got my life back.”
What will save us now?
We should be careful what kind of God we believe in. If God demands the violence of the cross, we may feel free to imitate God and act violently toward those we see as our enemies.
But I’m convinced Jesus never set out to die for our sins. He died as he did, I believe, because he challenged the power and wealth of the Roman Empire. He taught an alternative to the oppressive system of the day, a spiritual kingdom of God where peace will prevail, where the last will be first and the first will be last, the poor will be given a place of honor, the hungry will be fed, the blind will see, and the stranger will be welcomed. The Romans thought he was a troublemaker, and had him executed. He tried to make the world a better place. But he did not try to die for everyone’s sins.
Then, if the dogma of the cross doesn’t save us, what will? The English word “salvation” comes from the same root as “salve,” a balm for healing. Salve, salvation. Our salvation, our healing, happens when we acknowledge that we serve something sacred, something larger than our own egos.
What saves us? An earlier generation of Unitarians and Universalists spoke of “salvation by character.” We are saved by what we do, by how we treat one another.
In Hebrew there is a term, tikkun olam, which means “repairing the world.” Judaism is often noncommittal about whether there is any existence after the present world, but Judaism is very concerned with this world. Tikkun olam is the idea that Jews bear responsibility not only for their own moral and spiritual welfare, but also for the welfare of society at large. In this sense we might say that salvation is not only personal, but we have a responsibility to everyone around us. If we believe this world matters, then the kind of people we become matters. We must do our part to repair the world.
This past week you may have seen the Ken Burns PBS documentary, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War.” It told the story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, a Unitarian minister and his wife who left the safety of their home in Wellesly, Massachusetts, on the eve of World War II to go to Europe and help rescue refugees from Naziism. Risking their own lives, the Sharps rescued hundreds of people, including political dissidents, and a group of Jewish children, who certainly would have been killed by the Nazis. This, I believe, is an example of “salvation by character,” and also of tikkun olam, ordinary people doing what they can to help repair the world.
What will save us? At one point in her life, Rev. Rebecca Parker had given up hope. It had been a year of grief. By day she was doing her job as a pastor, appearing to be happy in her work, but by night she was alone in the parsonage, unable to sleep, despairing over her divorce, and depressed after an abortion. Time was not healing her sorrow.
Finally her despair came to the point of crisis. One night, in the depths of depression, she decided to stop pacing the floor. It was well after midnight. The city was quiet. With her face wet with tears she walked out of her house towards the water’s edge. She was determined to walk into the lake and drown herself.
At the bottom of the hill the street ended and the lakeside park began. She walked across the wet grass and climbed the last hill before the lake. But as she came closer to the water’s edge, there appeared to be a dark barrier ahead of her, a line of dark objects, a barricade she would have to cross to get to the water’s edge. She didn’t remember that barrier being there before, and it was so dark she couldn’t tell what she was seeing. But as she edged closer, it became clear that there was a line of people in her way, blocking her path.
They had telescopes. It was the Seattle Astronomy Club. They were a whole club of amateur scientists, up in the middle of the night because the sky was dark and clear and the planets were near. To make her way to her death, Rebecca had to get past the entire Seattle Astronomy Club. An enthusiast in tennis shoes assumed she had come to look at the stars. “Here, let me show you,” he said, and began to explain the star cluster the telescope was focused on. She brushed the tears from her eyes and looked into his telescope. And there it was! A red-orange spiral galaxy. Then he focused it on Jupiter, and Rebecca saw the giant, glowing planet. She could not bring herself to continue her journey. In a world where people get up at night to look at the stars, she could not end her life.
She says, “I know there is grace, because I was saved by the Seattle Astronomy Club.” What exactly saved Rebecca is hard to name. She was saved by people who held fast to their desire to see beauty in the universe, in spite of the cold and the late hour. She was saved by another human being who assumed that she, too, was there to see the stars. And she was saved by the stars themselves, by the cool green grass touching her feet, by the earth, by the cosmos…..Amen