Our Theological House Part 2 – What Saves us
Pirates and Rabbi’s, Meg Barnhouse and Bob Marley, I love those combinations. It is funny how a mistake, like hearing a word wrong, can lead to an insight you might not have had otherwise. Sermons work like that sometimes. There is the one I write, the one I actually speak, and then there are all of the sermons that each of you hear, none of which are exactly the same. The saying goes that people hear what they want to hear, but I also think that just as often we hear exactly what we need to hear. We all need different things at different times. If the spirit is moving as it so often seems to be in this room on Sunday mornings, the possibility of that happening is increased. Open your ears, open your heart, and let the sun shine in.
Last week, I shared some insights that I gained from a class I took by the authors of “A House for Hope.” If you missed it you can read my notes online on my blog.
Briefly, the book uses the metaphor of a house to talk about theology. The foundation is how we understand God and the relationship of humans to the divine. This is theology. The walls are what gather us into a collective space. This is ecclesiology and includes how our religious community is organized and governed. The rooms are how we create a welcoming home for the spirit: pneumatology, which includes our rituals and worship practices. The roof is what protects us from harm: soteriology, the theology of salvation, is what saves us from evil. The doorway is how we engage with the world: missiology, our mission or reason for being. Finally, there is our location, which is obviously here on this earth, this planet, but how we see this earth, especially the end of the earth, the end of time, is eschatology.
Last week we talked about Eschatology.
That sermon introduced the concept of radically realized eschatology is that heaven is right here and right now. This world and this life are sacred. We stand on holy ground. Our task is to recognize that fact and to treat each other and the earth with gentle care and with respect. The kingdom of God is among us.
With this understanding, we are drawn to repair and heal what is broken, not because it will bring about some perfect future world, but simply because the dance we are doing here is a holy dance. Some of you remember that, right? If you don’t or weren’t here last Sunday, don’t worry.
Today, we are going to check out the roof of Parker’s theological house, see how the shingles are doing, and notice if there are any pirates about. What keeps us warm? What keeps us dry? What saves us? What can shelter us from life’s hurricanes? Are you ready for another new word? Soteriology is the theology about salvation. Another way to think about it is; “What delivers us from evil?”
Anne Lamott says there are only two really sincere prayers, which are: “Help me, help me, and thank you, thank you.”
Some folks may be uncomfortable with the term “salvation.” It might help to think of it as the answer to that “help me help me” plea that I believe most of us have felt at some of the hard times in our lives.
Just as there are a variety of eschatologies, there are different soteriologies, and the two are linked in interesting ways.
Some people see salvation as an individual way to escape the punishment of hell. Many conservative Christians believe that. Evil came into the world when the devil tempted Eve in the garden. We are all tainted by this original sin.
In various stories in the Bible, God punished people by floods and other disasters and then finally sent Jesus to die on the cross. If you believe in Him, you will be saved and will go to heaven after you die or after the world is destroyed in the final days.
The response to evil in this soteriology is to defend against it, to avoid evil doers, to try and convert them if possible, and to perhaps punish them in this life as God will in the next.
There is a lot of evil in this world view, everyone is a sinner and deserves punishment. Only by the grace of God can we find a salvation that we don’t really deserve.
I frankly find those ideas pretty creepy. Salvation is defined as being saved from God’s wrath.
God is not a loving force in that soteriology, but a being that punishes by sending earthquakes and hurricanes, and sending everyone to hell if they don’t believe just the right things. It also lets humans off the hook for dealing with the real evil that is in our world and damages life.
Luckily, there are other options.
This week, we are in the midst of the Jewish High Holy Days where the faithful review their thoughts and actions and try to make amends for the harm they have done. It is about getting right with the world, with yourself, with God, and beginning the New Year with your soul refreshed and restored. That is a form of soteriology. There is also been the belief that what we need to be saved from is not the wrath of God, but the consequences of human sin and human evil, that salvation comes not from holding a specific belief, but from the powers of life, love and goodness that are all around us. In more liberal Christian theology, Jesus saves by the example of his life and work. His death was not a sacrifice demanded by God, but the result of the oppressive Roman Empire. His resurrection, which does not have to be taken literally, is evidence that the powers of life and love can counter and even, at times, defeat evil.
But what is evil? What is sin? Two more tricky concepts. Some define sin as a rebellion against God. The liberal theologian, Walter Rauschenbusch, rejects that notion. He says when theologians speak of rebellion against God, it reminds him of despotic governments which treat every offense as treason.
“Our universe is not a monarchy with a despotic God above and humans down below, but a spiritual commonwealth with God in the midst of us.” For Rauschenbusch and others, sin is not the betrayal of God’s rules, but the betrayal of one another. Sin of that sort destroys life giving relationships of love and justice.
Rebecca Parker says that evil is that which exploits the lives of some to benefit the lives of others.
Evil is not just what individuals do, it hides in systems of oppression, in racism, in anti-Semitism, in sexism, in homophobia, and in economic systems that do not include any protection for those with less power and less money. Salvation is also not individual. We save ourselves when we work for a world of justice where everyone is saved. This fits in well with the social Gospel eschatology of building the Kingdom of heaven here on earth.
It also fits well with Universalist eschatology where we will all end up in heaven together – so it only makes sense to try and get along now.
I don’t think I have told you the story of the tourist who was taking a tour of heaven? No? Maybe some of you have heard it.
“An angel takes the tourist around, showing that everything is beautiful and varied. Some people are chanting in a park, some are sitting in silent meditation by a river, some are laughing and dancing on a hillside. The tourist then notices some walls that reach up to the sky. What is that? It is the section for those that wouldn’t be happy if they thought anyone else was here.”
Universalism – everyone gets to heaven, even those who want to be alone there.
So far we have covered three theologies of salvation. One says only some are saved. The criteria can vary depending on the particular group. Another says that salvation is collective not individual and that when we create a just world with a healthy and sustainable planet we will be saved. The third says that everyone is saved.
There is one other soteriology that I want to describe.
It, as far as I know, hasn’t been called radically realized soteriology, but I think it should be. In this one, the hope for salvation isn’t deferred to another life or tied to success in building a better world, but is realized in the here and now. Salvation can be defined as what we long for, what we need to feel like our life has meaning. What do you long for? What would be your salvation? What is the metaphorical roof over your life that keeps you from harm. For me, it is very simply being fully alive, engaged with each other and with the world, staying “woke,” if you will. It is trying to resist evil with patience and wisdom and it is also taking the time to celebrate all that is right with the world. It isn’t neat; it isn’t particularly easy, but for me it is what being alive is about. We don’t have to lose everything and we don’t have to be kidnapped by a pirate in order to appreciate what is most important. It isn’t money and it isn’t clothes, it isn’t a job or a house. You know that. It also isn’t a dream of an otherworldly paradise, particularly if your vision of such a paradise causes you to be less than kind to others who may not share your specific vision.
“Old pirates, yes, they rob I.” They rob you too. But we still sing songs of freedom, redemption songs. We sing them together. That can be our collective salvation. Blessed be.