Monday, December 25, 2006

Advent words: Salvation

The last Advent word is salvation. What comes to mind when I say the word “salvation”? This is the audience participation portion of the sermon! When I hear the word “salvation,” I immediately think of Billy Graham rallies, endless choruses of “Just as I am,” and strangers handing me “Four spiritual laws’” tracts on the street.

Someone once asked one of my divinity school professors if he was saved, and when he replied in the affirmative, they asked the inevitable follow up question, “When were you saved?” My professor said, “Sir, I was saved 2000 years ago!”

I have three problems with the evangelical idea of salvation.

First, it over-spiritualizes the idea of salvation. Both the Hebrew and Greek words which we translate as salvation have less to do with things we think of as spiritual and more to do with our well-being in this world. They are this-worldly rather than other-worldly. The Hebrew word yasha means to protect from danger and the Greek word sozo means to heal. I think we misinterpret and misapply the word salvation if we think of it as being about salvation FROM this world and FOR life in the next world.

Second, the evangelical notion of salvation is too individualistic. The Bible’s understanding of human nature is profoundly corporate. What one does affects the community and what the community does affects each member of it. But we also know this from our own experience. From the moment of birth a child is a part of a community. The community may be only the child and her parents, but from that community the child learns who she is.

The Zulu language of South Africa has a word for it – ubuntu. Ubuntu means “I am who I am because of who you are” and “You are who you are because of who I am.”

And third, it implies that salvation is an event rather than a process.

I want to offer an understanding of salvation that is helpful to me and may be helpful to you. My definition of salvation is this: Salvation is the wholeness God desires for each of us and for all of creation and to be saved is to have enlisted on God’s side in the struggle to restore wholeness.

The playwright Eugene O’Neill once said, “Humans are broken and live by mending.” All of us are broken, and we live in a broken world. From the moment of birth we are on a collision course with disintegration. Science tells us that systems tend toward maximum disintegration. In other words, the battery in your laptop will only last a few hours; you will need to replace your car every few years; and your house will need painting every decade or so. And what is true scientifically and physically is just as true spiritually.

We struggle with forces of spiritual disintegration every single day. We try to live moral and ethical lives and are frustrated by failure. We seek to love and care for the important persons in our lives but find ourselves hurting them. We even fail to take care of ourselves by eating right and getting enough exercise and breaking bad habits but find ourselves powerless.

God’s purpose for each of us and for the universe is the restoration of wholeness. I believe that is what is meant by salvation. Salvation is to experience and be a part of God’s great plan to restore all things to wholeness.

How do we do this?

We do it by building the world of which Mary sings in today’s gospel reading, in which the poor and hungry are filled and lifted up and those who oppress them are brought down and sent away.

We do it by seeking wholeness and integration for ourselves and others.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. We are not saved by good works; we are saved by God. Frederick Buechner puts it this way, “There is NOTHING you have to do to be saved. There is nothing YOU have to do to be saved. There is nothing you have to DO to be saved.” But I also like what John Wesley said: “We are saved by love alone but not by such a love that is alone.” In other words, if we love God, if we truly desire to build the world that God that God is building, then our love will manifest itself in good works.

But how does God restore us and others and all of creation to wholeness? God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This incarnate God endured all the forces that divide and disintegrate – violence, oppression, fear – and returned only love.

The cross is the great sign of salvation because the cross is the place where God’s brokenness touches our brokenness and brings wholeness.

So, to return to the question with which we started, Are you saved? Am I saved? The best answer would be “I was saved”, “I am being saved,” and “I shall be saved,” because salvation is not an event; it is a process.

There is so much more I should say but I want to finish by coming back to where we started. What of the man on the street who asked my teacher if he was saved? I don’t want to dismiss people who are truly concerned about the salvation of others, but I think there’s a better way to do what he was trying to do. Rather than asking people if they are saved, I think we should do two things: First, we should live lives that demonstrate the power of God’s salvation. How much more confidently can we live because we know the end of the story? We know that God’s will for us and for all of creation is life, not death; wholeness, not disintegration. And secondly, we should not be shy about sharing this good news with others. All around us people are living lives of fear, anger, and despair. Let them know that Episcopalians know the good news and rejoice in it. Invite them to join us on our journey from despair to hope, from darkness to light, from death to life.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Advent words: Singing

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
(Robert Lowry, 1860)

Indeed, how can we keep from singing? Christianity is a singing faith and never more so than in Advent and Christmas. In today’s Old Testament reading, the prophet Zephaniah writes, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies”

Although it was his brother Charles who wrote the hymns, John Wesley understood the power and significance of music better than most Christian leaders. Wesley included a list of “Rules for singing” in the introduction to the Methodist hymnal.

2. Sing [vigorously] and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.

3. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

4. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before, not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can….

5. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature….

But Christianity has been a singing faith from the very beginning. It was born from Judaism, which had a rich musical tradition, although we know little or nothing about the music of the Temple and the Old Testament. But the Old Testament, especially the Book of Psalms, is full of references to music. But that begs the question, why sing? This morning’s canticle commands us to “Sing the praises of the Lord for he has done great things…” Why not just SAY the praises of God?

The 4th century theologian, St. Augustine famously said, “Those who sing, pray twice.” I think Augustine said that because to repeat a prayer with our lips is all very well and good, but singing a prayer requires us to employ not only our minds but our hearts and spirits, too. Perhaps he should have said, “Those who sing, pray thrice!”

Jesus himself sang. We know this because as he left the Passover meal he shared with his disciples and went out to be betrayed and crucified, he sang one of the Psalms. A great contemporary hymn puts it like this, “And did not Jesus sing a hymn that night / when utmost evil strove against the light? / Then let us sing for whom he won the fight. Alleluia!” (Fred Pratt Green)

I want to offer one note of caution. Singing makes good theology better but it can also deafen us (in a sense) to bad theology. When our current Prayer Book was being put together, they consulted musicians to make sure that the texts that should be sung were singable. They called this the “singability committee” but there was also a “believe-ability committee” to make sure that everything was orthodox. It is a useful exercise to say the words of our hymns aloud occasionally. A catchy tune can frequently carry along a text that is not only badly written but simply not orthodox. When I taught Anglican liturgy I always did a session on music and had my students say aloud the texts of a few hymn and song that I did not believe were good expressions of the Christian faith. They were always amazed to find out that for years they had been singing hymns that were only marginally Christian at best.

But still, I wonder, Why is Christianity a singing faith?

First and foremost, I believe that Christians sing because ours is an incarnational faith. That is, we worship a God who came among us as one of us, not a God who is far away, not a fastidious God who stays safely above human life. Rather, we worship a God who is as close as the air we breath, as close as the breath with which we sing hymns.

Theologian Geoffrey Wainwright explains it this way, “…singing clearly demonstrates worship – and therefore the [kingdom of God] and human salvation – to be an affair of the whole person, mind, heart, voice, body.” In other words, when we sing we employ our whole selves – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually – showing that worship involves all of these.

Second, we sing because I believe that in some sense music is the language of heaven. The Book of Revelation is full of references to singing. We are told that the redeemed sing the praises of God around the throne of God. Singing is not only preparation for heaven, it is an anticipation of heaven. When we sing, we are already experiencing something of heaven because singing unifies us. It makes us one with each other and one with God.

Music is also the language of heaven because music facilitates understanding. The Book of Genesis tells us that when humans tried to build a tower that would touch heaven, God confused their languages and made it impossible for them to understand each other. Music at least partially undoes that confusion. If all of us were to speak at the same time, we would be unable to understand what the person next to us was saying, much less the person on the other side of the room. But what if we were all singing at the same time?

I wonder if you remember a wonderful scene in the movie Amadeus. Mozart is describing a scene in his opera The Marriage of Figaro in which six main characters are all singing different words, but because of the magic of music, we can understand six things that are sung simultaneously although six things that are SAID at the same time would be mere noise.

Third, Christians sing because music is a vehicle for working deep truths into our soul. When I was rector of St. Stephen’s in Greene County, I went regularly to the county nursing home. Its residents were mostly in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. The nursing home staff wanted me to conduct a more or less traditional service of worship – scripture reading, sermon, prayer, and so on – but I immediately realized how pointless this would be. Instead, I just sat at the piano and played hymns. Remarkably, people who did not know their names remembered the old gospel songs they had learned in childhood – “Amazing grace”, “Blessed assurance”, “Jesus loves me”, and so on. We might think that they remembered them because they had learned them in childhood (and that might be part of it) but they also remembered them because music embeds itself deeply in the human heart.

When I teach confirmation classes for children, I require them to memorize the Gloria, the creed, the prayer of confession, and the post-communion prayer, because if they know these by heart, then they can follow the entire service without opening the Prayer Book. One of my confirmation kids had a very difficult time learning the Gloria until his mother suggested that he sing it for me. The words he had been unable to remember to speak came to him easily when he sang them.

Finally, I think Christians sing because music has the power to change the world. Think about this: There has never been a great revolution without a great song. Music is powerful and can be used for both good and evil purposes.

The fight to abolish slavery and re-unite the Union inspired Julia Ward Howe to write the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”:

Mine eyes have seen the glory
Of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage
Where the grapes of wrath are stored.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
God’s truth is marching on!

And the words and music of her hymn, in turn, have inspired people the world over to work to break the chains of oppression.

The Marxist revolutionaries in St. Petersburg and Moscow in the winter of 1914 were inspired by the Internationale:

Arise ye prisoners of starvation
Arise ye toilers of the earth
For reason thunders new creation
`Tis a better world in birth.
Never more traditions' chains shall bind us
Arise ye toilers no more in thrall
The earth shall rise on new foundations
We are but naught we shall be all

How wrong they were and how much misery was caused by the Russian revolution, but imagine how inspiring that music must have been to people who overthrew the oppressive czarist regime?

The French revolution of 1789 gave us the Marseillaise, still the national anthem of France. “Arise, children of the Fatherland, the day of glory is at hand…” And although it was not strictly speaking a revolution, the civil rights movement in this country would scarcely have been possible without music: “We shall overcome, we shall overcome… deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.”

Another evil regime that used music to sway people’s minds was the Third Reich. When Hitler and his thugs came to power in 1933, they decreed that all university professors must sign an oath of loyalty to Hitler and begin every class with the stiff-armed salute. At that time, Karl Barth was teaching theology at the University of Bonn. He refused to take the oath and regarded the stiff-armed salute as an idolatrous gesture. He was dismissed from his position but when he taught his last class, he concluded the class by having his students sing, “Now thank we all our God.” While the dark and menacing music of Hitler and his fascist thugs seemed to drown out every other sounds, Barth and his students raised their voices and sang,

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and bless├Ęd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

Hitler and his music have disappeared from the face of the earth but God has given us a song that shall never die.

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Advent Words: Judgment

I am going to try doing something new and different in my sermons during this season of Advent. Each Sunday I will preach about a single word that is related to the readings for the day and illuminates a different aspect of the Advent season. The words are judgment, joy, singing, and salvation.

Today I want to look at the word “judgment.” Psalm 50 tells us that

Our God will come and will not keep silence; *
before him there is a consuming flame,
and round about him a raging storm.
4
He calls the heavens and the earth from above *
to witness the judgment of his people.

What do you think of when you hear the words “judge” or “judgment”? Don’t laugh but the first thing that comes to my mind is Judge Judy. We might do much worse than submit the ills of the world to the judgment of a smart, tough, Jewish woman from New York.

Israel often conceived of the relationship between God and the world as being like a legal proceeding. Israel’s prophets, in particular, frequently used the image of a legal proceeding to warn the people of Israel that they had strayed from God’s ways and must repent.

But Israel’s understanding of justice and judgment were very different from the way we understand these things. Wise as Judge Judy often is, God is not that kind of judge.

For Israel, justice and judgment were less about laws and rules than they were about right relationships. We conceive of judgment and justice in terms of a written code of laws, but for Israel they were about relationships.

In a sense, the U.S. Constitution helped create the American nation. It was written at the beginning of our history and has profoundly shaped that history. Israel’s laws, on the other hands, emerged out of Israel’s experience as a people. They learned by trial and error what it takes to be a people, a community, and their scriptures – our Old Testament – is a record of that experience. Its wisdom is the distilled experience of Israel over the centuries.

In Israel the judge was a man or woman who “sat in the gate”. That means that they literally sat at the entrance to the town, a place that made them accessible to anyone who had business to bring to the judge. The business that people brought to Israel’s judges was both similar to and different from the kind of business handled by judges in the American legal system. A judge of ancient Israel might be called upon to rule on the guilt or innocence of a thief or murderer. However, the method of Israel’s judges was entirely different from judges in our own time.

Israel’s judges were not guided by written law; they were guided by what was best for the community. Their function was to re-establish the equilibrium of the community,. A good example is the story of Solomon judging between two women who claimed the same baby. When two women came to Solomon, each claiming to be the mother of the same baby, Solomon didn’t consult a code of laws. Rather, he knew that the real mother would yield her claim rather than allow the baby to be harmed. So, when he proposed cutting the child in two and giving each woman half a baby, the real mother relinquished her claim.

The well-being of the community, its equilibrium was threatened by the two women who each claimed the same baby. Allowed to go unchecked, the crime of the woman who stole her neighbor’s baby threatened Israel’s very existence. It was a violation of at least three commandments: the prohibition of lying, stealing, and coveting.

Another way of looking at the difference between ancient Israel and the modern United States is to say that whereas the U.S. has a LEGAL system, Israel had a JUSTICE system. Justice is always more than conformity with a code of laws.

When Job wants to justify himself before God, he says, “delivered the poor who cried, and the fatherless who had none to help him. 13 The blessing of him who was about to perish came upon me, and I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy. 14 I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. 15 I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. 16 I was a father to the poor, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know.” Job does NOT say that he has followed the laws to the letter; rather, he says that he has fulfilled his function in the community by helping others.

Now, let’s go back to the idea of what the Bible means when it talks about God coming to judge the earth. God is the kind of judge who will sit in the gate, who will restore right relationships.

I believe that when most of us think of the Last Judgment, we think that God is keeping a list of everything we have done or left undone, and that God will go down that list checking things off: “Barry Vaughn, Barry Vaughn, let’s see.. oh, here you are… right between Ludwig van Beethoven and Queen Victoria. It says that when you were four you didn’t share your toys with Ronny Armstrong…hmmmm… not good… but here it says that when you were six, you let Beth Hallmark have one of your chocolate chip cookies… very good!!…” And presumably God will do this with everyone of us, even if it takes a couple of millennia.

Yale theologian Miroslav Volf has a very different idea of what Final Judgment means. He points out that heaven is not just about each of us alone with God for all eternity; rather, it is about all of us being together for eternity. For this to happen, some serious reconciliation has to take place. I have to be reconciled with those I have hurt, and what is more challenging, I also have to be reconciled with those who have hurt me and whom I do not want to forgive.

Theologian Karl Barth was once asked, “In heaven, will we see our loved ones?” And he replied, “Not only the loved ones!” That’s a sobering thought. God’s love is larger and more comprehensive than yours or mine. God’s love just might embrace and heaven might include even those people we despise and who despise us. Or as Professor Volf puts it, “If Cain and Abel are to meet again in the world to come, what will need to happen for Cain to avoid Abel’s look and for Abel not to want to get out of Cain’s way?” (Volf, The Christian Century, Nov. 10, 1999. slightly paraphrased.) Or to put it another way, what will have to happen for you to face the Cains and Abels in your life?

God is the kind of judge who reconciles and brings together the Cains and Abels of the world. The final judgment is not so much an inventory of all the things we have done and failed to do, as it is a final opportunity to get right with all the folks we wronged and who wronged us.

In 1963 Alabama’s bishop, Charles Carpenter, opposed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s demonstrations in Birmingham as “unwise” and in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King condemned Carpenter and other clergy for their racism. Yet, both were Christians. I have to wonder what they thought when they saw each other in heaven. When they approached the Judge at the gate of the heavenly city, did God say, “You have some hard work to do before you can enter into your heavenly reward.” And I have to believe that Dr. King and Bishop Carpenter are sitting side by side at the heavenly feast. Which begs the question, Who will be sitting next to me at the heavenly feast or next to you? If you are a Democrat, chances are it will be a Republican and if you are a Republican you may find yourself next to Bill Clinton.

“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; 12 let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy 13 before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.” (Ps 96)