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Sermon for June 3, 2012

Five Ideas That Can Change Your Life: Liberation
The Only Life You Can Save is Your Own

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song; God has become my salvation. Isaiah 12:2

But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you.
    O Israel, the one who formed you says,
“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
    I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you go through deep waters,
    I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
    you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
    you will not be burned up;
    the flames will not consume you.
For I am the Lord, your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Isaiah 43:1-3a

Jesus did not die to save you. There, I said it. I needed to get that out of my system. Let me say it again. Jesus did not die to save you. He died to save himself. Don’t look to Jesus to save you (or God, or me, or your family, or your new diet, or your IPhone, or anyone or anything). The only person who can save you is yourself.

Now that I hopefully got your attention, let’s unpack what I just said.

One traditional stream of Christian theology teaches us that Jesus willingly dies on behalf of human sin. God requires compensation for the dishonor created by human sin. The way to offset the dishonor is the death of a perfectly sinless god-man who represents all of humanity. Without the shed blood of the ultimate, perfect sacrifice, there is no hope of salvation. But, if you follow a theory of substituionary atonement, Jesus stands in for us, suffers God’s wrath on our behalf, and opens the way for us to be saved. Many of us were taught that there’s a rupture between God and us. We live in the world of the rupture, where every creature walks alone, feeling split off from the Whole, cut off from holiness and goodness, severed from the Source of life and power. Christ’s death becomes the final atonement for all sin, past present and future.

I’ve had a problem with this theory for a long time. The fundamental problem is that it puts God the Parent, co-equal and co-eternal person of the Trinity #1, as the one who sacrifices an innocent person, namely co-equal and co-eternal person of the Trinity #2. I choose to believe that God is not like that. I prefer to listen to these words from 2 Corinthians: The Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like the Lord as we are changed into God’s glorious image (3:18). The Greek translation of the word “image” is eikon. I think the atoning work of Jesus is designed by God to restore cracked eikons into glory-producing eikons. Salvation means that we can be renewed in the true image of God. Salvation restores our relationships between God, others, and the self. Salvation frees to be new creations – people who sparkle and shine, and reflect God’s glory. And don’t you worry. God shines through you. Through cracks and wrinkles, through spare tires and stretch marks, through faults mistakes and regrets, God shines through you.

So, no, I don’t think Jesus died to save us, but Jesus did die to show us how to experience salvation. Jesus did not die FOR sin. He died BECAUSE of sin. He died to expose the human potential for corruption and the human tendency to cover our mistakes. He died to show us what it looks like to shine in a world where evil abounds. In a world where religions marginalize others and fight for supremacy and kill innocent people, in a world where the some Syrians can murder scores of their own innocent people and show no remorse, in a world where a person accused of crimes against humanity can thrive off of fear and brutality, like Charles Taylor, Jesus shows how broken, tortured, and betrayed people, like him, can shine. He did not come to save you. He came to show that you, and only you can find healing. You and only you can find freedom. You and only you can show the world our greater potential for peace, compassion, and loving-kindness. You and only you can save yourself.

When we can live into that truth, when we can stop seeking validation from external sources, when we can stop living for others and begin living into being our authentic selves, then we can tap into an idea that can change your life: liberation.

The heart of ministry is freeing people to find their authentic selves, their inner essence, and then helping them to live their lives in ways that express this authentic selves. We can find the freedom to experience our own internal power. Each one of us has this power, but many of us deny it. My job as your pastor (and I think the first and foremost jobs of Pastor Amy, Nae and Sue) is (1) to help each of us in our congregation find who we are and (2) to help us be comfortable with who we are. It's a never-ending process because who we are always changes as you grow and learn new things.

The only life you can save is your own. You know who has a hard time with this? People Pleasers. You know who you are. People Pleasers often feel intimidated approaching others, especially those they see as particularly powerful. Their tendency is to try to get someone else to do the difficult work of dealing with those they perceive as controlling. I'm angry with Janelle, but I see her as powerful, so I share my anger not with Janelle but with Hal. Hopefully, Hal will share my anger with Janelle, preferably without mentioning my name. It’s a sure recipe for chaotic and destructive interpersonal relationships.

You know who else has a hard time with owning one’s inner authority? Authority Bashers -- those who attack anyone they view as possessing abundant authority. Authority Bashers confront and reject perceived authority at every opportunity. Police officer, government leader, principal, teacher, minister, parent -- anyone who is given influence by others becomes a target. The Authority Basher comes from the same place as the People Pleaser. Both have not come to terms with the potential of their own authority.

When I recognize and own my authority, I can say three very important statements: I know who I am, I am who I am, and I am good enough. My inner authority tells me that I am a powerful person and I don't need the approval of others or the disapproval of others. Validation comes from inside me, not from others on the outside.

I love the imagery that comes from a poem by Mary Oliver entitled, “The Journey.”
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice --
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do --
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Mary Oliver reminds me to listen to my own voice and not the voices of everyone else around me telling me who to be and what to do. When do we say goodbye to regrets, to sadness and old grudges? How long will we keep on sleeping, missing our own passionate, urgent heart cry? How much of our lives will we spend in anxiety and worry over others, even when it means discarding our own needs? When do we realize that we cannot shoulder another person’s soul work for them? When do we get to experience the joy and shining and liberation that our faith keeps telling us is real? As Keats said, “Each one of us must take the charge of our lives upon ourselves.” This is not selfishness. This is the most compassionate act you can do for anyone: to stand by the truth of your own life and live it as passionately and as fully as you are able.

The only person you can save is yourself. If you can be true to that small voice within, you are being of service to others and to the world in the most profound way possible. No one else can walk the journey for you. You and you alone can respond to your call.

When you go through deep waters, God will be with you. And you will know that you don’t have to go it alone. God doesn’t save us from hardship, but God does promise to be with us, to never leave us and never forsake us.

When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown because you will know who you are and that you have the power to make it through any current that tries to pin you down and hold you back.

When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned. The flames will not consume you. Actually, let me rephrase Isaiah. You will get scorched in life. At some time or another, you will feel consumed by pain. But the fires of life do not get the last word. To paraphrase Nazi death camp survivor Victor Frankl, everything can be taken from you, except for one thing. No force of nature, no hostile element can take the last of human freedoms: to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

The day of liberation has come. Now go forth and shine!


Sources:
http://www.fvuuf.org/index2.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_view&gid=95&Itemid= you are bb127
http://www.uucmc.org/uucmc/monmouth-county-sunday-service/podcast-a-past-sermons/486-a-fresh-start-september-25-2011.html
Roger Housden, 10 Poems To Change Your Life, pp.9-20.
http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_atone5.htm

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