Monday, November 23, 2015

Sermon: "Who Can Be Saved?"

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
October 11, 2015 – The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:23-31

“Who Can Be Saved?”

The disciples were greatly astounded, and said to one another,
“Then WHO can be saved?”

Peter and the others were right to ask this question.
Especially after Jesus had painted such a vivid picture of how it was easier to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle then it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.

If the rich, who seemingly had all the blessings of God’s abundance heaped upon them, didn’t automatically earn passage into God’s Kingdom,
then WHO can be saved?

Christianity – in its many different forms - has been asking – and answering this question for thousands of years.

Who is saved and who is not?
Who is in and who is out?
Who are the sheep and who are the goats?

I remember asking this question myself when I was a child.
The answer, I was told, was found in the words that we recited from memory in parochial school and in the daily and weekly Masses my family attended at St Martin of Tours Catholic Church.
The answer was in the words of the Nicene Creed.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God…

This section of the creed winds its way through the events of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, and ends by saying:
“…he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.”

As Catholics, that was our answer to the question of “who will be saved.”
In the end, Jesus himself will judge whether we are saved.
He will decide then whether we’re fit for entry into the Kingdom of God.

This of course meant that you always had to be on your toes in this life.
Keeping track of and quantifying your sins and seeking absolution from them in weekly confession, one on one with a priest.
This can be a daunting task when you’re 7-years-old, 14-years-old, or any years-old.

For those who’ve never experienced a Catholic confessional, imagine pushing a heavy curtain aside and stepping into a darkened wooden cabinet the size of a coat closet.
Once inside, you kneel down and face a small window crisscrossed by tiny wooden slats.
When the priest slides open his side of the window the slats let in just enough light for you to see his profile in silhouette. 
The sound of his voice or the smell of his aftershave might tell you which priest you’re confessing to that day but more often than not, his identity is concealed while you are convinced he can see every freckle or pimple on your face.

Admittedly, the sins we have to confess as children tend to be pretty tame.
They usually run along the lines of  “I teased my sister or hit my brother” or  “I didn’t clean my room when my mother asked me to”   or “I told my teacher I forgot to bring my homework when the truth is I never finished it"…or more likely, I didn’t think it was good enough to hand in.

Truth be told, as a relatively quiet and meek child it was hard for me to come up with sins that I thought would be worthy of confessing every week.
So I used to make them up.
I admitted to hitting my brother so often it’s a wonder the priests didn’t check him for black and blue marks.
I also confessed to lying much more than I actually did – which in itself was a lie, so in a way I managed to both confess and sin at the same time.

As a young Catholic, I knew that only mortal sins – the really serious transgressions - kept us out of heaven if they were left unconfessed, but as a child presented with this image of God through Jesus, as Judge and Punisher it was hard not to think that any misstep that I failed to reveal could land me outside the gates of the kingdom.

The disciples were greatly astounded, and said to one another,
“Then WHO can be saved?”

Having heard some of your personal stories, especially from those of you who grew up in more conservative Protestant churches, I know there are many of us who have struggled with this question of “Who can be saved.”

For our brothers and sisters in Christ in evangelical churches, the answer to this question can be summed up in two words, “Jesus Saves.” 

We see it on billboards and bumper stickers and T-shirts.
“Jesus Saves” is often shouted out by the faithful during worship services, usually right before the altar call, when people are invited to come forward and give their lives over to Christ. 
The belief being that it is in the act itself of inviting Jesus into our hearts that we confirm our entry into the Kingdom of God.

The flip side of this belief is that those who have not accepted Jesus as Lord and savior in their hearts - including non-Christians and any Christian who might interpret scripture in a less literal way – will be left out of the kingdom and left to stand outside the loving embrace of God for all eternity.

The disciples were greatly astounded, and said to one another,
“Then WHO can be saved?”

Here in the United Church of Christ, we don’t often talk about our need to be “saved” or concern ourselves too much with what it might take for us as individuals to gain entrance into a future Kingdom of God.

For many of us, the Kingdom, or Reign of God is something that we’re called to help create in bits and pieces in the here and now – for everyone – so that it might be fully realized when God determines we are ready.

Here in the UCC we tend to talk about “being saved” in terms of how to make ourselves right – or more whole – in the eyes of God – through acts of compassion, justice, and mercy.
We seek healing for ourselves and others because we believe that ultimately this is how we’ll heal our world – with God’s help.

Because we do NEED God’s help.
Which is the point that Jesus was trying to make with his story of camels and rich men, and leaving it all behind.

When the disciples were greatly astounded and said to one another,
“Then who can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said,
“For human beings it is impossible, but not for God;
for all things are possible with God.”

When we devalue our relationship with God – when we channel most of our time and energy and money into maintaining all of the things that Jesus ticked off on his list – home, land, work, wealth, and yes, even family – because more and more of us are admitting that our devotion to family schedules and packing too many events and commitments into our calendars has just gotten to be too, too much –

When we elevate all of these things above our commitment to building our relationship with God, we lose our center – our inspiring and guiding force –  the steadying foundation that holds us up when the ground shakes beneath our feet.

Making room for God invites the kind of change we want to see in our lives.

God pulls and pushes and pokes and cajoles us to be better people –
for our family, for our community, for our work, for our world.
And God is there to comfort us and pick us up and heal us when we fail to be that better person…..over and over again.

It’s in giving ourselves over to a full and rich relationship with God that we find healing… and wholeness… and happiness.

But it’s important to remember that when we give ourselves to God we give our WHOLE selves.
Not our perfect selves – our sinless selves – our saved selves,
But our messy, flawed, and fumbling selves.

Our selves that sometimes say and do the wrong thing and end up hurting the ones we love.
Our selves who drink too much, eat too much, and spend too much, even though we know we shouldn’t and we long to find a way to stop.
Our selves who sheepishly admit that we could be more patient with our spouse, our siblings, or our kids,
that we could be more generous with our time and money in giving back to our community,
that we could attend church more often or work on our relationship with God in a more intentional way.

Our selves who know that more often than not we will fall short of all of the above. And that’s okay.
Because God still loves us and offers us grace all the same.

When I look back to the days I spent kneeling in a confessional booth in fear of a judgmental and punishing God, I see a child, who had a child’s black and white understanding of God.
My journey took me away from the Catholic Church but I’ve realized that it’s our desire to grow in understanding and relationship with God that gets us there, and if we have that desire God will make it happen no matter where we are.
I have many Catholic friends and family members who were raised in the faith and who now have complex, adult understandings of the loving and merciful God who created us all.
And I have evangelical friends who continue to worship in their tradition but have also come to embrace a belief in a more inclusive and forgiving God.

In the coming weeks, during our "Trust the Promise" stewardship campaign we’re going to be asked to think about the many ways that we can give back to God.

In light of today’s gospel text, I would like to urge us all to trust the promises that were made on our behalf at our baptism.
The promises that many of us stood before God and made for ourselves as teenagers during our confirmation.
The promise that our relationship with God would continue to grow over the course of our lifetime.

That we’d seek to understand God and God’s presence in our life
by continuing to worship with others in community,
by listening and responding to the joys and sorrows of those we worship with and allowing others to do the same for us,
by continuing to answer the call to serve through outreach and mission,
by reading and wrestling with scripture to better hear the voice of our still speaking God come alive for us today,
by recognizing that Christian Education does not end with Confirmation, and that through Adult Ed, Small Groups, and other spiritual formation offerings we come to know ourselves better and our God better.

To trust the promise that God is creating us anew.
To trust that by giving our WHOLE selves to God we gain a hundredfold in return.

The disciples were greatly astounded and said to one another,
“Then who can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said,
“For human beings it is impossible, but not for God;
for all things are possible with God.”   


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