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.