“Are You Saved?”

A Sermon
Friday, November 5, 2004
Romans 8:18-25

Amy Miracle
Pastor, Westminster Presbyterian Church
Des Moines, Iowa

I’ve seen the brochures. I know that the theme of this conference is sex. I know I’m supposed to preach about sex not salvation. I’ll be honest. I attended one of the more liberal seminaries out there and they didn’t teach me how to preach about sex. And I like my job. I’m a pastor of a church in Iowa. Let me be clear. The church is supportive of my being here. They are supportive of my participation in a conference sponsored by a group dedicated to the important task of revising ordination standards. They are supportive of my being here but would they be supportive of me preaching about sex? I don’t think so.

But, it’s not them. It’s me. I’m a Midwesterner. I’m repressed and proud of it. I had hoped to end my career in ministry without ever saying the word sex in a sermon. And, besides, we can only preach what we know, right? I know nothing about sex. By definition, I know nothing of sex. I am a single unmarried pastor ordained and in good standing with the PCUSA. By definition I know nothing of sex.

I have long suspected that the debate that has raged within our denomination is less about who is or in my case isn’t having sex than it is about who God loves. Who God claims. Who God saves. So salvation it is.

“Have you been saved?” she asked, as we cleaned toilets in adjoining stalls. We were maids for the summer. The only thing I knew about her was that she was a relatively new Christian. She was aware that I was in seminary but one that was suspect. So she asked me, “Have you been saved?” I sighed deeply and tried to explain. “I suspect that we use different language to describe our faith,” I began. “I have never known a time when I did not know that I was loved by God. And, over the years my relationship with God has deepened and grown.” I talked to her about the various congregations that had shaped me. I shared with her some of my faith journey. I spoke quite eloquently for several minutes.

I finished and there was silence. “So,” she asked, “have you been saved?”

I continued to clean my toilet.

The truth is that the language of salvation has never made much sense to me. “Christ shed his blood for you.” “Jesus died for my sins.” I’ve never understood exactly how that worked.(1)

I decided to go back to the beginning – to the early Christians. This was before there were theologians and seminaries and formulas and creeds. These earliest believers were just trying to make sense of how their lives had changed because of what happened to Jesus. The death and resurrection of Jesus turned their world upside down and inside out. Everything was fresh and new and they struggled to find language to capture that newness. A host of metaphors were used, such as redemption out of slavery, deliverance from bondage, adoption into a family or household. All of it was to explain how Jesus’ death and resurrection transforms lives.

One image, one word that was used to describe this change was salvation.

That all makes sense to me. What I don’t understand is how a word that started out explaining something mysterious and powerful and big came to be used in narrow and confining ways.

Too many of us have been hit over the head and beaten up by salvation talk. We have been told that we are not saved and will not be saved until we do or say certain things. We will not be saved unless we repent using one particular formula; we will not be saved until we are baptized in particular way.

I can only imagine the ways in which salvation talk has been used to hurt some of the folks gathered here this morning. I can only imagine.

It makes me angry. If I understand anything about salvation it’s that salvation is God’s work, God’s initiative, God’s show. Salvation is not ours to control; not ours to parcel out to those who think and act as we do – salvation is God’s to grant and as far as I can tell – it’s already been granted.

Paul writes in Romans, “For in hope we were saved.” Not “we might be saved,” or “you could be saved,” or “maybe you will be saved,” or any other kind of “saved” that has an “if” attached to it. Not “saved if you are good,” or “saved if you are better than somebody else” or even “saved if you believe.”

Frederick Buechner put it this way: “No matter who you are and what you’ve done, God wants you on his side. There is nothing you have to do or be. It’s on the house. It goes with the territory.”(2)

That is the claim of scripture and the claim of the Christian tradition but we never seem to believe it. Surely there must be a catch, some book I need to read, some technique of prayer you need to master. There must be some minimum standard. How could salvation be available to absolutely everyone?

In her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes, “when I was six or seven years old … I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find… For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street…. Then I would take a piece of chalk and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passerby who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.” (3)

Salvation is like that. And the death and resurrection of Jesus is the arrow that points the way to this free gift. The very fact that salvation is free might be a problem.

The other day I was walking downtown when a perky young woman tried to thrust some free beverage in my hand. I refused. The fact is I was thirsty. But I am wary of things that are free. If it’s free, how could it be worth anything?

The same question could be asked of salvation. Who wants this free gift? Besides talk of being saved insinuates that all may not be as well as it appears. The fortune cookie that predicts “You will triumph over disaster” is hardly the one most of us would prefer. Are things so desperate that we need to be saved?

Again, the language that has been associated with salvation is not helpful. “You need to be saved because you are bad – you are a sinner – you have done evil things and you are no good.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t respond well to that language.

To be saved – it’s a loaded phrase- maybe we shouldn’t use it – it can be misinterpreted – it can mean so many things – unless of course you are drowning, in which case the meaning of the phrase is probably crystal clear. 

The way I see it, salvation is not about being bad. It is about being lost, about feeling restless, about experiencing brokenness.

A few years ago, on the television news show Primetime Live, Diane Sawyer was interviewing the actor Robert Downey Jr. Downey has a well know history of drug abuse. Diane Sawyer asks, “You a good liar?” Downey says, “Yeah. You have to be.” Sawyer: “Great liar?” Downey, “Yeah.” Sawyer: “What is the lie everyone should watch out for that you’ll be telling if you’re using again?” Downey: “[I’ll be telling everyone that] I’m fine.” Downey went on to receive a three-year sentence for cocaine possession. (4)

Every Sunday after the worship service, we do it. We shake hands and inquire politely “How are you doing?” The answer is almost always some variation of “I’m fine.”

And that may be true. Or that time right after worship may not be the right context to give a more truthful and detailed account. But the fact is that many of us say we are fine when we are not.

Right now, right here in this room, some of us aren’t fine….

– some of us are overwhelmed by something we have done – something awful, something that haunts us
– some of us are drowning in grief – rocking, aching, bottomless grief
– some of us are filled with longing – longing for intimacy, for meaning, for something more, something better.

It looks different for each one of us but I dare say that we are all in need of tenderness, forgiveness, understanding and salvation. (Yes, I want to use the word and I’m tired of this word only being used by people who abuse it and I think it’s time we took it back.)

It’s not all their fault. So much of it is our fault – those of us on the progressive end of the church. We are so worried about being mistaken for those who abuse the language of salvation that we’ve stopped talking about salvation. We are so afraid of being misunderstood that we have ceded huge parcels of the Christian tradition. We need that tradition to challenge us and shape us and comfort us. I was talking to my colleague about this recently. He said, “Yes, we have stopped mowing that part of that yard.”

We need to mow this part of the yard. Because, all of us need the good news found there. We are all in need of salvation. All of us could use a little saving.

Emmylou Harris has written a song called “Sweet Spot.” She might not realize it but it is a song about being saved by God in Christ Jesus. In the song, I hear God speaking to us. It goes “Baby when you’re down, I’ll be around. Baby when you’re lost, I’ll be your found. When the night is long, I’ll be the crack of dawn. Baby when you take a shot, I’ll be your sweet spot. Baby when you need to float, I’ll be your lifeboat. When you’re ship don’t come in, I’ll be your thick and thin. When you’ve done your best, I’ll be your day of rest. When you take a shot, I’ll be your sweet spot.” (5)

Are you saved? The answer is always yes.

– Saved from the chaos of a life without God.
– Saved from our own arrogance and folly.
– Saved for a life filled with God’s gifts of love and risk and struggle and joy.

Are you saved? The answer is always yes.

Not because you were baptized the right way or because you recited the correct formula. You are saved because God is in the business of saving. That is what God does. No, that is what God has done in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Are you saved? The answer is always yes.

Saved by the one who is our lifeboat, our crack of dawn, our day of rest.

Are you saved? The answer is always yes.

Amen.

Notes

1. This sermon was inspired by an article by Cynthia Rigby in the Spring 2000 edition of Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary

2. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, p. 59

3. Annie Dillard, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” The Annie Dillard Reader, p. 292.

4. “Prison Blues,” Vanity Fair, August 2000, p. 84.

5. Emmylou Harris and Jill Cunniff, “Sweet Spot,” Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, Asylum Records

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