Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
What does it mean to be saved?
What does salvation look like?
Is it a snake on a pole? A body on a cross? An instrument of destruction transformed into an icon of hope?
The author of the letter to the Ephesians proclaims we are saved by grace…through faith…which is a gift of God…And that sounds…great…And over the centuries has become very orthodox theology…but it’s also one of those sentences so filled complex, dense, and saturated terms, that you can say it and people will nod sagely in agreement, but still wonder….what does it really mean?……What does it mean to be saved by grace? …through faith? What does that look like?
What does it mean to be saved?
A year ago, we (and every other church in the Commonwealth) suspended all in-person meetings. It’s been a full year of working from home…schooling at home…worshipping via livestream…For us salvation might look like scoring a vaccination appointment and imagining being able to worship together…hug distant loved ones…share Communion again…that’s one view of salvation…but salvation, like grace…takes many forms…It is not just one thing.
Through all the challenges of this past year, one of the great blessings, for me, has been gaining a much deeper knowledge of, and appreciation for, the psalms, because we say them at Morning Prayer on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays over Zoom…and I’m often amazed by how timely they are…how deeply resonant they are. Very often they become so much more than ancient poems…they become really contemporary…like they were written yesterday, and…like all good poetry…they to put into words things I’m feeling but can’t articulate. Today’s psalm is like that…especially in how it describes salvation.
“Give thanks to the Lord”…it begins…recognition of salvation always begins with thanks…and praise…praise that God has acted…and done something that we simply can’t do by ourselves…
We didn’t hear the entire psalm today, so I encourage you to read the whole thing. A warning—because I know that you are going to go and read the entire thing—Psalm 107 poetically ascribes some deeply problematic cause and effect to suffering—it draws connections between sin and sickness…that we—who have a better understanding of viruses—would never draw…we can’t ignore those problematic parts, but neither must we simply accept them. But even with that caveat, the overarching message of this Psalm is one of boldly, and unashamedly proclaiming God’s steadfast love…God bringing salvation to everyone, regardless of the predicament they are in.
In the bit we heard…we are introduced to “some who were fools and took to rebellious ways.” We’re not told what exactly those rebellious ways are…and (this is where it’s problematic)…we can’t say, “they did X therefore they are sick with Y…”, because, we don’t know what is wrong with them…but for whatever reason food has becomes loathsome…and they are definitely at the brink of death…but, they cry to the Lord, and are saved…So here, salvation is a return to vitality…or maybe a return to a sense of purpose. Is that something you’ve experienced? A time when you felt drained or really discouraged…and then felt the surge of relief when the zest for life returned…and you were saved. Thanks be to God.
Elsewhere in the psalm, some lose their way…in the wilderness…”in the wasteland […] they found no settled place. Hungry and thirsty their spirit failed,” [v:4-5, Jewish Study Bible]. How many in our world today are like that? They cry out…and God…”show[s] them a direct way to reach a settled place”…where the thirsty are satisfied, and the hungry are filled with good things (vv: 7, 9) Here salvation is food and drink…someone pointing the way to a sheltered place to spend the night…helping a refuge escape from the violence and poverty of whatever “wilderness” they are in.
Some, the psalm says, live in “deep darkness”, “bound in cruel irons”…(v:10) prisoners perhaps, or as some argue, those who live in exile…who have been forcibly displaced…or possibly those who live under cruel and unjust systems…or are victims of addictions…These too cry to God, and God brings “them out of deepest darkness and [breaks] their bonds asunder.” (v: 14). Salvation is freedom…freedom from tyranny…from oppression…freedom from coercion, and violence…or simply the freedom to live without fearing for your life all the time.
And some…some, “go down to the sea in ships, ply their trade in the mighty waters” (v: 23)…this part of the psalm is literally the story of the man who wrote our sequence hymn… you all know that Amazing Grace was written by John Newton, a slave-trader turned abolitionist. The story goes that off the coast of Ireland, his ship, the Greyhound, was caught in a sever storm. In the words of our psalm: (the ship) ”Mounting up to heaven, plunging down to the depths, disgorging in their misery, [the sailors] reeled and staggered like [drunken men], all their skill to no avail,” (v: 26-27) [pretty graphic, right?]. And in the midst of this storm…Newton prayed…the sailors in the psalm…cry to the Lord and in both cases…God “reduced the storm to a whisper…and brought them to the port they desired.” (v: 29-30). How precious must that grace have appeared…to Newton, as those hours of storm resolved into calm…and safety…and home…Of course, it set him on the long journey of repentance, and transformation, and continually seeking and receiving salvation. Because, salvation is not the end of the journey…it’s the beginning of a new chapter. Newton’s conversion wasn’t instant…he continued working as a human trafficker for several years, but eventually he did change…his blindness to the reality of the systemic injustice he was involved with resolved and he could see it more clearly.
Which is another aspect of salvation…whether it is a serpent on a pole, or an instrument of state-sanctioned torture and terror…salvation begins to dawn when we begin to see the full reality of it…when we can see it clearly and begin to name it…”yes, this is what is causing the harm…yes, this is the deep darkness…this is the storm…this is how we have been foolish and rebellious….This is how I have been complicit in it…” When we can do that…God acts…salvation begins.
Salvation looks like a lot of things…it’s not necessarily a “one and done” proposition…it’s recognizing reality…and God’s loving, graceful action within that reality…and responding with praise, and thanksgiving, and with actions of our own that mirror or reflect God’s action.
May we see and know salvation in our own lives…today and every day.