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Message 17, Salvation, April 11, 2010

download program: Service Program, 4-11-10

By Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC
©Doug Slagle, 2010; all rights reserved.

During the description of Jesus’ years as a travelling spiritual and ethical teacher, he encountered or talked about many colorful characters who are interpreted as universal personality types.  As examples, we can think of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son or the Woman at the Well – all of whom embody the best or worst in human nature – in Jesus’ time and in our own.

One such figure is a character named Zacchaeus.  He is popular in children’s stories about Jesus because he is described by the Bible book of Luke as a short man – one who needed to climb into a tree in order to see Jesus.  There is even a children’s song about him which is sung in many Sunday schools.  Ron will lead us in this song in just a moment.

The story, which many Bible scholars believe is accurate, says Zacchaeus was a tax collector and thus a rich man.  In that era, tax collectors were not just IRS agents, they were civil servants on the take – given power by Roman authorities to collect taxes and also add a surcharge for their efforts.  They were hated by the people because they collaborated with the Romans and used their position to enrich themselves.  They were, in effect, legal extortionists.

Now, the Bible says that as Jesus passed under the tree in which Zacchaeus was perched, he called up to him to come down, meet him and take him into his home as a guest.  Obviously, this was a great honor, for Jesus was even then a well known and popular figure.  Jesus’ willingness to meet and dine with tax collectors was a fact often used against him by religious elites of the time – the priests and self-righteous ones whom Jesus frequently condemned for their hypocrisy.   These elites would ask, why would Jesus, a man of god, choose to spend time with extortionists, prostitutes, greedy individuals and other so-called sinners?  With the Zaccaeus invitation, the Bible says Jesus was once again criticized for the company he kept.  (Zacchaeus song…)

In the process of Jesus spending time in Zacchaeus’ home, however, something profound happened.  Zacchaeus had an ephiphany, which caused him to renounce his chosen career and to not only stop extorting money as a tax collector but to make amends to those he had cheated by repaying them four times what he had taken.  This was a considerable effort and a large amount of money to repay – Zacchaeus would likely have bankrupted himself in the process.  The Bible says that Jesus then declared to all who could hear that salvation had come to Zacchaeus.  He had been saved.  And Jesus further defends himself against his critics by saying that this was an example of his purpose – to save those who are lost.  Indeed, in the Biblical book of Matthew, Jesus elaborates that his mission in life was not to be a religious figure who mixed with the self-righteous and those who presumed to think they had it all together, but instead as someone who heals and saves people who are ethically or emotionally sick.  Zacchaeus who was a greedy cheat, the Prodigal Son who was an alcoholic hedonist, the woman at the well who had been married and divorced many times, the woman who was caught in adultery, or even the many prostitutes who saw their bodies as a commodities to be sold and abused – these were all whom Jesus saw as in need of internal salvation.  Indeed, implied in his message is that we are all in need of some form of inner salvation.  We are all broken, misguided and hurting in some way.

And all of this set up brings me to the essence of my message and our discussion today.  It is a follow-up to the Easter message on resurrection and renewal.  We hear so often from many Christians and those of other religions, that people must be “saved”.  The underlying point they make is that we are in danger and in peril and that all of us are in need of rescue or salvation.  The obvious question we might ask in return is, “saved from what?”  And, for Christians, the answer to that question is open to much debate.  Some say we must be saved from hell where we are destined because of our sins – the lies and bad choices we make in life.  Others say that our bodies must be literally resurrected and forever saved in heaven so that we do not cease to exist.  Others contend that we must simply save our eternal souls.

Just as I asserted last week at Easter, though, our time here this morning is not to consider high-minded theological questions about literal salvation and literal resurrection.  Whether it be a Christian Jesus that saves us to a life after death, a Jewish messiah, the Islamic Allah or a form of Hindu reincarnation, those are questions we cannot answer.  Ultimately, such religious issues are matters of belief and faith.  Nobody, not even the most fervent of Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Hindu believers can show with provable certainty what will happen to any of us after we die.  For me, such questions are often a waste of time.  Who knows – who can prove – which religion is accurate?

The important issue in my mind, however, is the question, “Do we need to be saved?  And, if so, saved from what?”  Nobody here will dispute the fact that our world and our lives are filled with pain and suffering – and it is from such hurt that we seek to be rescued.  Millions die each day from disease.  Thousands have recently been killed in earthquakes.  Outside these very doors many languish in poverty and despair.  Just last Saturday a young woman approached Ed and I outside of here.  She appeared to be mentally challenged, she had no shoes, she wore a very loose shirt and baggy pants and she was obviously many months pregnant.  She asked for money.  As she walked away and then began begging in the middle of Liberty Street, I could not help but tear up at the suffering in this world – a young pregnant woman forced to beg, who will give birth to a child with two strikes already against it.  What kind of happy life can that unborn child ever hope to have?  Does this woman and that child need to be saved?  Could I save them?  Would the small amount of money I gave her do anything but make me feel a bit better?

Why, oh god……….why – oh – why    is there such pain and suffering in this world of ours?  And what can be done about it?  Doesn’t this prove that humanity does, indeed, need a savior?

I have no answers.  I can simply point to teachings, traditions and insights which I think are relevant which MIGHT provide us some assistance.

I believe Jesus is a savior but not in the standard religious manner.  His call was to both the sick and to the healthy to participate in a common salvation.  He did not travel or teach that salvation was some form of religious dispensation that he could offer with a wave or a nod.  His appeal was for something deeper and more meaningful.  Indeed, as an answer for how we might be saved from a universe of suffering, he asked us to save ourselves.  We have that inner ability.  For me, this is the salvation to seek and to bring to a hurting world.

It is said that when the archangel Lucifer fell from grace and was cast out of heaven, it was because he or she had presumed to be equal to God.  Pride is often seen as the greatest of sins – the focus on self.  But Jesus taught and continually modeled a life where self is diminished.  Blessed are the meek, the humble, the poor and the broken.  These are those people who understand that life is not about them personally but about our common unity and our common welfare.  While the Bible does not say what caused Zacchaeus to have his epiphany and change his old ways, the implicit message is that he finally understood that fulfillment and joy in life is not about himself and his needs.  Jesus’ example of love and reaching out to him must have touched Zacchaeus.  What criminal, what self-centered individual is not struck by the love of another who reaches out and seeks their company?  The Divine call of Jesus to Zacchaeus was not to himself as a person but to what he stood for and taught – humility, gentleness, love, generosity, and peace.  What transformed the hard drinking and dissolute Prodigal Son but the love and unabashed joy he experienced from his father?  What changed the prostitutes and the woman in adultery but the acceptance and compassion of Jesus?

There is that inner spark of moral imagination in each person that recognizes that we are here to unite with others.  We are here to cooperate and to serve and to remember that we are all linked together in this grand journey called life.  The suffering we each feel is not just our own but it is shared by others.  The loneliness, despair and hopelessness we experience are not unique nor are we so special that such pain is for us alone.  Each one of us – everyone in this room – deals with hurt.  We are each broken.  I too often hold what I call my own pity parties.  These are not fun or cheery affairs and I am the only one who shows up – “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to!!” – but oh, these pity parties feel so self-indulgently good.  I think about how unfair a situation might be and I grumble about whatever it is that has me depressed.  But, at their root, my pity parties are selfish events.  I get to revel in my own sense of injustice.  And such are the origins of my sins and that of so many others – my pride, my ego, my belief that I am justified in my anger or self-pity or greed or sorrow or lust or lying.

And so I need to be saved from myself.  I need to be saved from my own pride.  I need to abandon all such self-centered thinking and surrender to something bigger than myself – to the ethic of Jesus and Gandhi and Mohammed and many other spiritual prophets that tell me I have a purpose to think about more than myself – to do big or small things in the interest of others.  Whether it be to serve a family member, a friend or large numbers of people in the community and the world, that is our purpose, that is our calling, that is our common our destiny!

In the book of Matthew, Jesus is famously quoted as saying, “’Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why: I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.’   ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

Do I need to be saved?  Yes, I do.  From what do I need to saved?  I need escape from the hell of myself, my ego and my pretenses.  How shall I be saved?  Others might point the way and some might help but, ultimately, I must save myself.  I must relinquish the idea that I am in control and that my pains are greater than those of others.  Let me surrender myself.  Help me to let go.  Allow me to unite with the common quest of all humankind.  Let me crucify myself on the Cross of humility.

After last week’s Easter message, someone in the congregation told me that what was most meaningful was my comment that what we do here every Sunday is Easter repeated over and over again.  It surprised me that this was meaningful because my comment is a value I believe in very strongly – that all churches, and most especially this place called the Gathering, are not museums of saints and wise thinkers, they are hospitals for those in need of change.  We are all patients in this endeavor called life.  Our mission is to collectively heal and save ourselves so that we can better heal and save the world.   Let us continue our Divine purpose.  Let us love and be loved.  Let us simply and peacefully let go of ourselves.

The following questions are for discussion within your small group.  As much as possible, please keep your thoughts and answers brief so that everyone who wants to share, can have a chance to speak.  Also, please use your best listening skills to really hear and understand what others have to say.  Nobody should feel forced to talk but I hope you feel safe here – everything that is said stays only within your group and only within these four walls.  I have three questions for us, and I will try and divide the time between them.  Plan on five minutes per question…

  1. Do you personally seek salvation?  If so, do you believe it comes from an internal or external source?
  2. In the sermon, I spoke of letting go of ourselves and our pretenses as a step toward salvation.  What does letting go of yourself and your pretenses mean to you?
  3. Briefly, what is one thing that you have done successfully to “save yourself” and move beyond ego and pretense?

Carl Sagan once said that we make ourselves significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.  As you go through the week ahead, spend some time reflecting on that part of yourself that you feel is most in need of salvation.  How can you begin to find the healing for that broken part of yourself?