April 21, 2013

posted Jun 19, 2013, 12:26 PM by David Hawkins   [ updated Jun 19, 2013, 12:29 PM ]

04/21/13 Sermon (April 21, 2013)

“Salvation is from God”

Revelation 7:9-17 (Liturgist)

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen."
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?"
I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows."
Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Sermon: “Salvation is from God”

As you may have heard, from the pulpit, from the bulletin, from the Focus Newsletter, from various Pastor’s Updates and emails that I’ve sent out, that during this  season of Easter, we will be celebrating communion for each of these next few  Sundays until Pentecost.

As I may have mentioned, my hope is that we can think of communion as not just as a memorial service of the last supper with Jesus Christ before he was crucified, but also as the first meal of an everlasting banquet that we share with all the saints of all times and places.

So, for each of these weeks of the great fifty days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost, I will be exploring the different ways the Easter Table is critical to our lives as Christ’s disciples. Last week, we talked about the Easter table being our source of sustenance, that at the table we receive the food our souls need to face the work that lies ahead of us.

It was at the Easter Table, that the disciples had fresh tilapia for breakfast, right from the lake, cooked for them by Jesus Christ. It was at this meal that Peter received the forgiveness for his denial of Christ he needed to move forward with his life. It was at this meal that the disciples received their marching orders: Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, follow in the way of Jesus Christ.

The Easter Table is our source of sustenance for a life of discipleship.

And today, especially today, after this week of terror, and grief, and fire and explosions and death, we remember that the Easter Table is not just our source of food, it’s our source of comfort food.   

Who hasn’t been touched by the events of this last week? The bombings in Boston, the catastrophe in the small town of West, Texas. It’s as though we looked for just a moment into the mouth of hell itself.

Such evil. Such horror. Such pain. Such destruction. In a flash of fire and smoke, so many lives destroyed.

And in the days afterward, so many feelings to sort through: anger, hate, desire for revenge, grief, fear.

So many questions: Why did this happen? How did it happen? What sort of cold hate runs through the heart of a teenager, that he would place a bomb at the the feet of an eight year old? What sort of negligence overlooks the illegal storage of 270 tons of explosive fertilizer? Who let this happen?

And now, as we sort through the debris of these two national tragedies, how do we pick up the pieces, and go on from here? Where do we get the strength to keep going with our lives after they have been torn apart?

The reality is there is no perfect answer for this question. There isn’t a theology that fixes the problem of human suffering. I know that we all have heard preachers on TV tells us that we can have have our best life now, that God desires us to be rich, and healthy, and happy. As though we can achieve the shalom of salvation through the right kind of enthusiastic faith.

But the reality is, that’s not how it works. At least, that’s not how it worked for the Apostle Paul. That’s not now it worked for Peter, or James, or John, or any of the disciples for that matter. None of them lived lives that I would characterize as free from pain, or suffering. None of them were rich. Nearly all of them died gruesome deaths.

I mean, really, if faith was all we needed for a perfect life, then Jesus would not have ended up on the cross. The truth is, those who preach a Gospel that hinges on your own personal faith, that depends on your own personal piety for the blessings of God, are preaching a Gospel that stands in stark opposition to the stories of faithful perseverance that we read about in the Bible.

Because on this side of heaven, there are no guarantees. At any moment, our lives can be shattered by an act of nature, or the merciless workings of systems beyond our control. And it has nothing to do with faith. It has everything to do with the fact that we live in a broken and unpredictable world.

And in this world, our only trust is in the enduring love of God. Our government cannot protect us. Our laws cannot protect us. Our money, our guns, our gated communities, our border fences cannot protect us. There are some kinds of evil that will strike at the very best of us, at moments that we could never have anticipated. This is the place where we live.

And no matter how much we want to believe it, no matter how much we are told by happy shiny televangelists, the peace, wholeness, and shalom that is our promise of salvation is not something that we can achieve through the exhibition of our faith, or through our works of our hands. And the reason is: because salvation belongs only to God. And salvation is a gift. We do not earn it. We do not cause it. We do not claim it. It is given by the grace of God.

The comfort of salvation belongs only to God. Not to the church. Not to the theologians. Not to the preachers. Not to us. Salvation belongs to God.

And as strange as this sounds, this is good news. Because when we face the terror of this last week, we remember that this earthly ordeal is not the final word. Our faith, or lack of faith is not the critical ingredient.  The promise of our faith, is that that despite all evidence to the contrary, God is still at work in the world, through the courage of first responders, through the skill of trauma surgeons, the the dedication of our police and justice system, the love and compassion of friends and neighbors, and through the perseverance of those who are left behind to pick up the pieces.

And I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The awful vicissitudes of this life are not the final word. That word belongs to God alone.

And for his own mysterious reasons, he has chosen to speak that word to us at this table. He speaks that final word of comfort, of peace, and of victory at this table.

As I was thinking about the events of this last week, and where we might draw strength and consolation, I remembered a film that I saw several years ago, a movie with Sally Field, called, “Places in the Heart.” You may remember this film, it was about a woman in Waxahachie, TX, during the Great depression, whose husband was accidentally shot early in the film by a young, drunk African-American man. The young man is then killed by a lynch mob.

Sally Fields portrays the widow who then has to find a way to hang onto the farm, with the help of a blind man, and an older African-American drifter who helps her with the cotton. She manages to get through the season while raising her two kids on her own, and is able to keep her land. It is a good film and it deals with hard subjects like racism and infidelity and forgiveness and reconciliation, and if you haven’t seen it I recommend it.

Now, I know that we don’t normally do this, but I would like to show you the final scene of the movie. It takes place in a church, and at first, it doesn’t seem like there are many folks there. The preacher is talking about love, and the scene begins with a young couple who have been having marriage problems making the first steps toward reconciliation. The communion elements are passed around, and you may notice a strange thing. The half-empty church is somehow packed with people. They sit shoulder to shoulder, completely filling the pews. But the communion plates never seem to get empty.

And then you look at the people who are taking communion. And you realize that you see the older African American drifter, who had decided to leave town after threats from the local ku klux klan, but there he is, in church. And next to him are those very same members of the klan. You see the banker who very nearly foreclosed on the farm, taking communion with the same young widow he was trying to foreclose.

You see all those who had been a part of story, both living and dead, taking communion together, those who you think deserve to take communion, as well as those that you most definitely do not think deserve it, and then finally you see the husband of Sally Field’s character passing the cup to the young African-American man who shot him. As I play this movie clip, listen for the words of the young man as he receives communion from the man he killed.

(Please click here to view video)

For me, this is what communion is. We are gathered here, all of us, those who think we deserve communion, and those who don’t. We have all suffered, we have all sinned, it is part of being human. We all have burdens, we all have fears, and hang-ups, this last week, we have all wept, we have all been gripped by rage, we all are in need of comfort and grace.

And so at this table, we come together to be surrounded by all the saints of every time and place, and we sing ”Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory.”

In this meal we are brought out of the misery of our present darkness, and we are reminded that we are fighting a war that has already been won. Communion is our participation in the victory banquet, it’s our link to the eternal worship that is described in our scripture today, a celebration that will last forever and ever. Our robes have been made clean again, promises have been kept, and our God reigns. We will no longer hunger, we will no longer thirst. Every head has been lifted high, every tear has been wiped away.

The events of this last week have shocked us to the core. But they don’t change who we are. They do not change who God is. And they will not beat us down. Because the battle has already been fought. And death has been defeated.

It will be long time before our lives return to normal, before our fears subside. But today we are given permission to see, just for a moment, what final victory really tastes like.

Thanks be to God.