Table of Contents – What A Seat!

What a seat!  Let’s see: What seats or places of honor have I sat at in my life?  There was front and center in the middle of the wedding party table at my wedding reception.  And my fraternity had a Senior Dinner for each graduating senior so I was front and center for that meal.  (Mmm.  Dessert.  Peppermint Ice Cream Pie in an Oreo Crust covered with chocolate syrup!)  There was a particular ritual performed on a Men’s Weekend that I served on staff for a number of years where I was the center of attention for the opening act of the meal. Great fun!  I certainly felt honored last November at the Birthday Dinner when Elizabeth and I sat at the February table with the McCoys.  And I really can’t think of a time where I sat down at a “low place” at a table where the host ever came up to me and said, “Friend, move up higher.”  I tend to be humble naturally and when I am exalted I get a little bit embarrassed. 

What a seat!  How about thinking of the year 2020 as a table in our lives?  What has come along and pulled up a seat at your table?  And made you laugh, cry, yell, scream or simply shake your head in bewilderment and disbelief?  There are these wonderful BINGO memes floating around social media that play off the absolutely absurd and tragic events that have transpired this year.  BINGO. Some have been calling it “Apocalypse Bingo.”

My guess is: nobody had COVID-19 for 2020.  Civil unrest?  How about one of the largest economic plunges in U.S. history?  Sure, why not!?!  Pull up a chair to the 2020 table of our lives.  Killer hornets?  Wildfires in California?  Everyone had that on their card.  It’s a regular occurrence.  Hurricanes in the Gulf?  Yup.  It’s hurricane season.  Well, how about two hurricanes at the same time?  Better than that…How about a hurricane in Iowa!?! Come on.  Have a seat.  How about most people receiving $1,200 but Jeff Bezos’ net worth increasing by $87 billion during our pandemic crisis?  Okay, Bezos, have a seat.  But, just because you are the richest person in the world doesn’t mean you get to sit at the head of the table. 

Speaking of head of the table…

Where was the “head” of the table at an ancient Greco-Roman-Jewish meal?  That is a very good question. We know that Jesus’ parables are not what they seem at first read and always introduce just a wee little bit of a twist or surprise ending that takes the listener – or reader, in our case – by surprise AND, more often than not, challenges us in one way or another.  Where was the “head” of the table?  And, knowing that, if we follow Jesus’ instructions, where would we sit?

Think of the seating arrangements for the more formal occasions in your life.  A Thanksgiving or Christmas meal.  Dad on this end; furthest from the kitchen.  Mom on this end; closest to the kitchen.  And others sprinkled…how…between them and on which side of the table?  One thing is sure: the seat of honor was NOT at the card table set-up in the living room for the kids.  I have no idea what Emily Post protocol is for being a guest at such a meal.  My guess is the guest would wait for instructions as to where to sit, right?  Imagine taking Jesus’ parable seriously and going straight to the kids’ table when dinner was called?  No doubt the host or hostess would say, No, no, come sit here at the big persons’ table!

Well, there are a couple of tripping points if we think of “sitting” at the table in our dining room for a formal meal.  And here they are:

First, there is no such thing as the “best seat” at the table because people reclined at the table while eating.  A person would lean on his or her left elbow while laying down, leaving her or his right arm and hand free to reach for food and drink from the central table.  No seating.  The highest “seat” in the house, the seat with the most honor was in position 1 on the right.  In that manner all the other people would be on that person’s right.  With one exception.  The host was typically in the first position of the lowest table. 

So, let’s hear what Jesus has to say one more time.  “When  you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host;  and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the  lowest place.  But  when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when  your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you  will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.”

Where are you sitting (or laying down) when you do so at the lowest place?  You are directly across from the most-honored guest.  And, no matter how many tables there are you would always be directly across from the most-honored guest.  Which, in my mind, is a pretty honorable place to be?  And if you were asked to move up, well then, more honor, and publicly given to you.  Well, thank you very much!  What a great feeling.  It’s like that first time where I was told I could sit in the dining room with the big people on a cushioned walnut chair rather than on a hard, metal folding chair at the kiddie table.

What a seat!  And like all of Jesus’ parables not only is there a twist or surprise ending but there are two twists or surprise endings or a particular challenge that the parable presents.  What is THAT in this seating chart?  Yes, Jesus is turning the tables upside down at the meal table.  Jesus is also telling us, without telling us, to take this way of “seating” and use it throughout out our daily lives.  Our Sunday School/Study Group is addressing this in our get together after church today.  Their homework was to pay attention to where their power was limited or abused or truncated in some way this past week.  And, like Jesus asks over and over again in the Gospels: in this parable about the table Jesus asks us to put ourselves consciously and intentionally into that place of powerlessness anywhere and everywhere in our lives.  Not just at the dinner table.

What a seat!

Table of Contents – What A Mess!

What a mess! How many of you have heard Paul’s description of the words at the Lord’s Table in their context before? Words said millions and millions of times over the bread and the cup over the last two thousand years: “‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In  the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in  remembrance of me.’” Add in Paul’s words to the Corinthians before these instructions and you get a biblical equivalent of John Belushi standing up in scripture and yelling, “Food fight!” And, not to be outdone, after the words of institution, your worst nightmare-ish vision of demon-Mom sending you off to bed with no supper for fighting with your brother.

All of this reminds me of a food fight my brother and I had in the kitchen of the house in which we grew up. The parents went out for dinner leaving two junior high-aged sons home alone and food on the table for OUR dinner. (Thanks, Mom! You’re the best!) I have no idea what the main course was but I do remember cherry jello with mandarin slices and chocolate pudding. I thought my brother and I did a fantastic job of what Paul asks of us, Examine yourselves. We did. We examined ourselves and the kitchen for spots of food. We rinsed our clothes. Mopped the floor. Wiped off cabinets and counters and the ceiling. Only to be called downstairs upon our parents return and to be asked by Mom, Why is there a mandarin orange slice in the kitchen curtain? Why is there a mandarin orange slice in the kitchen curtain? I thought about pointing at my brother. I am sure he was thinking about pointing at his brother. We took the question, Am I my brother’s keeper very seriously. Uhm, well, levitation? I mean, Keith – my brother – I think dropped an orange slice and it landed on the end of a spoon handle and, well, then my elbow accidentally came down on the spoon which then allowed the mandarin orange slice to defy gravity and fly ten feet across the kitchen to land in the fold of the curtain. I look at my brother for confirmation and I get a nod. The next morning I came down for breakfast and Mom was scraping out some dried chocolate pudding from the window frame molding.

My point, though, in sharing this story is this: If Mom has the power to pick out a mandarin orange slice in the rear fold of a curtain five feet above her line of sight – I exaggerate for effect – then how much more can God discern our hearts when we come to the table? And, I don’t think God is too concerned about mandarin orange slices in kitchen curtains or chocolate pudding in window molding as much as God is concerned about OUR concern for the Body of Christ.

Paul is on a terror in these lines of scripture: Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. Now there are many scholars who will take Paul’s little diatribe at face value and say that some wealthy people who were hungry couldn’t wait for the buffet that always accompanied the Lord’s Table celebration back then to start so they ate and got drunk before everyone else arrived, particularly before the poor and hungry folks who would like some food and drink as well. It’s like coming to one of our birthday dinners on time and yet all the food and drink is gone – including all of the pink, red and white M & M’s in the dishes at the table for February birthdays – and the rest of those gathered are having a grand time; full and content.

But Paul is NOT raging against some folks who decided to eat before the dinner bell rang. The earliest memory that I have – and I think I have shared this story with you all before – is sitting on the stairs of my apartment building where we lived when I was two or three. I am sitting about halfway up the stairs, looking at the open transom window above the door of my best friend’s apartment. There are smells of cooking and shouts of celebration as a birthday party for my friend is being held. And I am excluded, shut out, and alone. (Now, that’s what I remember. I was probably at his birthday party that he had for friends and neighborhood kids.)

It is the sting, the ache, the tears of exclusion, being shut out, and of being alone that are remembered. Remember me, asks Jesus. Paul passes along Jesus’ words: Do this in remembrance of me. The early 20th-century, Russian, Christian philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev wrote, “The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question.” This bread, my body broken for you, says Jesus. The next time you break bread think about the mess WE are all in together. And the next time you hear the words, My body broken for you, remember who the you…are. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. What a mess! Imagine, the act of re-membering as an act of cleaning up after a food fight.

Table of Contents – What a Feast!

It is not easy to eat with a mask on. Though I have to be honest. I haven’t tried. Most of my meals have been prepared at home by…me. I continue to limit myself to carry out when I must satisfy those occasional cravings for a Double Butter Burger Basket from Culver’s or a spinach calabrese from Aurelio’s Pizza. My last meal out before quarantine was at Cortona’s in Fortville on March 15 after church with Elizabeth. Delicious Italian food. The only meal I have had out was to celebrate my youngest heading off to college. We went to a new Italian spot in Carmel called Savor because they had a very spacious outdoor dining area. Can you tell I have a taste for northern Mediterranean cuisine?

Speaking of food. I know that I am not the only foodie out there. I remember a delightful Birthday Dinner not too long ago in our fellowship hall. We like to eat. And I dream of the day where that meal with you all can happen again.

In the meantime, there are meals at home, alone, with my dog. My bi-weekly visits with my parents in Bloomington where I pick up something tasty to bring for lunch. This coming week is their anniversary and I am coming down for the evening and picking up from one of their favorite spots, Samira. And mine too! I thoroughly enjoy Afghan food. (Mom, you asked me for my order for Thursday. I want the Chicken Manto, please. Chicken manto is a steamed dumpling filled with chicken, white leeks, cilantro, topped with tomato-basil sauce and spiced yogurt. Divine.)

I am getting hungry with all this talk about fine food. It’s like when I read Ernest Hemingway. Here’s a writer that basically tells it like it is. Simple prose. Not much interiority to characters or psychological psycho-babble. But when Hemingway writes about food. Oh, my. My favorite book of his is even named after a food event, The Moveable Feast. I am all for moving feasts. Take this passage: “I asked for a distingue, the big glass mug that held a liter, and for potato salad. The beer was very cold and wonderful to drink. The pommes a l’huile were firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious. I ground black pepper over the potatoes and moistened the bread in the olive oil. After the first heavy draft of beer I drank and ate very slowly. When the pommes a l’huile were gone I ordered another serving and a cervelas. This was a sausage like a heavy, wide frankfurter split in two and covered with a special mustard sauce. I mopped up all the oil and all of the sauce with bread and drank the beer slowly until it began to lose its coldness and then I finished it and ordered a demi and watched it drawn. It seemed colder than the distingue and I drank half of it.” Oh, MY! It’s a wonder Hemingway could write after all that drink!

With all of this talk about food, I for one am very grateful that God lowered the divine menu from the heavens and said, Eat. Eat anything. Eat everything! Three times. Eat. Eat. Eat. (Remember, this is Peter so anything needs to be repeated three times for him to get it.) Does Peter get it?

For those of us who are currently wandering through the book of Acts in our Bible Study we know that Peter gets it. We also know that this vision, this dream, is NOT about food. Peter awakens from the trance and goes to the gentile Cornelius’ house. Peter is greeted. He begins by saying, You know that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate with or to visit a person of another race. Yes, they all know. And here’s the line where Peter shares with the world that he gets it: God has shown me not to call any person common or unclean. Peter goes on, In truth, I am grasping that God is no respecter of appearances. God is Lord of all!

I have fantastic memories of meals shared with…all. A meal with clergy friends to end a trip in Rome; a meal that began with mussels and ended with limoncello. Meals at my parent’s house as they hosted international students from all over the globe attending Indiana University; an operatic soprano from New Zealand, a Chinese couple in the business school, and a Swiss piano player that became like family. Many meals with Swedish cousins that stayed with us when I was in school. I remember Greek Easter meals at my aunt’s with the old men turning the lamb on the spit. I remember countless Cinco de Mayo’s. A meal with the Saysongkhams, a Laotian boat family that the church of my youth brought to the United States. A traditional Swedish Christmas Eve dinner with lutefisk and brunne benner and potataskorp. A seminary class on world Christian history where we ate at a different ethnic restaurant every week. And Thanksgiving, that always started with mussels and ended with the bouquet of asparagus throughout the evening hours.

A culinary delight for the taste buds and for the friendships and now family across the globe. I get it. Just like Peter got it. It is about food. And, it is so much more than just food. There is an ominous ending in today’s text. The New International Version that Steve read doesn’t do the ending to Peter’s dream justice. It reads, Immediately the sheet was taken back up to heaven. But the Greek word used for the sheet that comes down from heaven in verse eleven, othone, is NOT the word used in verse sixteen. Verse sixteen in the New Revised Standard Version reads, “The thing, skeous, was suddenly taken up to heaven.”

Something happens here. Something very, very important. An indication. A warning for our all-too-human and sinful natures. God lowers from the heavens a sheet with every animal on it. A sheet with every thing and every possibility. A sheet that declares, NO person is common. NO person is unclean. This beautiful vision of the universality of God’s love, grace, call it what you will, comes down from the heavens…and then the vision ends. The vision, the dream becomes…a thing. A thing. And what happens when people turn dreams and visions…and other people…into things?

Table of Contents – What a Table!

A representation of table of Presence

So let’s begin with…what DOES the Table for the Bread of Presence actually look like? Keeping in mind that a cubit is the length from an elbow to one’s fingertips – give or take a finger – it looks maybe like this? Enough room for the twelve loaves of bread; each loaf representing a tribe of Israel. It’s a lovely table…if you’re into gold. Keep in mind, like any good artist designer, God’s tastes evolved over time and by the time Micah gets on the scene, God is more interested in mercy and not in the trappings that surround sacrifice.

My “utilitarian” table

So, maybe my poor, little, front porch table – where the best thing that can be said about it is, “It certainly is utilitarian” – maybe my humble table is acceptable in the eyes of the Lord. So, I will not give in to comparison, which in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, is “the thief of joy.”

Instead, I will rejoice at sitting at THIS table!

My inherited table

My dining room table which passed on to me from my great-aunt Phyllis Cole who received it in turn from her mother, my great-grandmother, Jennie Waggoner. It’s a lovely walnut table with buffet and can be stretched out from its present circular shape with six inserts so that twelve could sit comfortably around it. I understand that the table could, if Jennie didn’t sit at the end all by herself – closest to the kitchen, mind you – seat thirteen. But Grandma Jennie insisted to never seat thirteen at the table for obvious reasons. (To which my tongue-in-cheek response today is, Jennie, there were thirteen at the Lord’s table that fateful night.)

I sit here and imagine the people who have gathered around this table for holiday dinners and family meals. History’s times and events that unfolded in the newspapers spread across the table-top. This table was in Dixon, Illinois, in 1918 when the Spanish Flu pandemic swept through the world. I wonder the thoughts and worries of my great-grandfather, Harvey Garland Waggoner, as he sought to minister to his congregation during that time. And his thoughts about his five children and wife that surrounded the table with him.

Did he have thoughts of his own mortality as he broke bread? He died in 1922 leaving Jennie to sit at the head of this table with her five children and watch alone as they grew up into their own lives. I imagine great-grandma Jennie in those times when she sat alone at this table, as I have often sat alone at this table. But then there are grandchildren and more children that come into the picture. New faces and children of God to sit at new places where familiar faces from the past once sat. Here’s a picture of Jennie at this table laid out for a Christmas dinner:

My great grandmother, Jennie Waggoner (late 1940’s?)

And now, eighty years later I am doing an online worship service at her table.  She would certainly understand about the adjustments needed in life due to a pandemic. Though she may be a bit puzzled at the technology of today that surrounds this process of broadcasting from her table, my guess is that she would understand that though times may change the purpose of the table remains the same: to make memories and to remember.

What tables do you remember? There was a picnic table that I built. My parent’s kitchen table and the formal dining room table that they received from my grandmother. Isn’t it funny how stuff gets passed along and the memories that trail along with each piece. My mom reminded me this week of what her mother said to her when grandma came to visit after moving out of her house in Eureka, Illinois to take up permanent residence in Florida. She would say, “I love to visit my daughters so I can see my furniture again.” So many tables.

And today, so much is coming to the tables of our lives. A pandemic that brings new meaning to the parental demand, “Wash your hands before coming to the table.” The keen awareness that our tables so sharply reflect the divide of race in our culture. The economics of today decide what is on each table and how different tables laden with food and drink actually are. And the politics talked around each table. Or, what is more probably the case, where politics are NOT talked around the table when the entire family is gathered.

Same table. Different people. Different fare. Although Jennie’s bran muffins will always be served at this table. Different world. Same table.

It is a fancy, golden table that God asks to be created for the forty-year wandering of the tribes of Israel in the wilderness. A fancy table created for the wilderness. My guess is this: it wasn’t too much trouble for the tribes of Israel to make the table that God asked them to create. God asks nothing more from us today as we wander through the current wilderness of our time. Make a table.

As we begin this four-week reflection upon the Table and Communion, my hope is for you to take the time to seriously consider what the Table looks like for you…for us…today. What does a table look like when we cannot physically gather around that table? Where does the “gold” that God asks to cover and surround the table come from? What is that gold? Here’s where I think the gold comes from: Your answer to the question, What tables can you create this week?


Before we formally take a pause with today’s message I need to ask: Has anybody become an expert in living with this pandemic?  We are now five months in.  Surely that is enough time for some expert talent to develop.  I am going to put this week’s cover image on the screen and give all of you time to share any expert tidbits of wisdom and wise coping strategies in the comments section. Here we go…

The view from the pandemic…

In 2014 I began taking daily pictures of a particular spot on my commute to work at Amazon.  This spot is on 300 W  just south of IN-32 which runs between Noblesville and Lebanon.  The first picture I found in my archives from the county road 300 W was from February 14. 

February 14, 2005, 300 W just south of IN-32

I think you can see why I stopped and took a picture.  With full disclosure of my sinful nature I must confess that sometimes I didn’t stop to take a picture.  “But officer, I wasn’t texting I was taking a picture of the beautiful sunrise over the icy fields.”  With Indiana’s change in law where it is now illegal to even have your phone in your hands while in the car I have become more attentive to stopping before picture-snapping.

On July 23 I stopped at a particular spot on 300W for the first time. 

July 23, 2005

A 40 MPH Speed Limit Sign on my right became my marker.  I don’t think I stopped there intentionally as if I had any conscious thought that this would be a great spot to take a picture every morning for the next six to eight months.  Look a little further down the road.  What do you see?  A pair of headlights coming right towards me.  I think I stopped for self-preservation and, in case there was some sort of evidence needed for insurance purposes due to a collision, I took a picture. CYA stuff.  Who knows – God only knows – maybe it would be the very last picture that I ever took if the possible, oncoming accident turned deadly for me.  (As an aside, one learned very quickly to be extra cautious driving to work as the previous 10-hour shift was leaving.  People were so darn out of it and drove with no awareness of the outside world after putting in a shift at Amazon.  I know, because at the end of my 12-hour shift – supervisor hours – I didn’t give an owl’s hoot how straight I drove north along 300 W.)

Day after day I would stop before the 40 mph sign and take a picture.  I did so for eight months never really knowing how or if I would “use” the pictures.  Until today. 

Sixteen pictures out of a couple hundred to use as a metaphor for life in a pandemic.  I certainly did not have THAT in mind, let alone using them as a sermon illustration some sixteen years later as an example of the day after day after day after day of now.

Surely some of us have become experts and perfected our pandemic wardrobes?  Menus and food preparation?  Circulating clothing and laundry?  Let’s see.  I put those shorts on after lunch yesterday.  Or was that two days ago?  Better wash them.  How is it that it feels like I am actually doing more laundry during the last five months than at any other time in my life?  I think the best decision I made was to buy six black t-shirts at the start of this crazy time; all organic materials, safe-dyes, manufactured by human beings – a small and intentional decision on my part to support local economies during this time.  If the shirt is folded than I haven’t worn it.  Put it on.  And it’s really easy for me to tell which black shirts have been previously worn because my dog’s favorite activity is to drag my shirts out of the laundry basket and bring them to her nest on the couch.

So, where in the world am I going with this?  I have no idea other than…to…PAUSE!


Where are you now?  Do you know what day it is? Many of us are retired and not seeing much fluctuation in the days’ routine.  Some of us are working from home and…not seeing much fluctuation in the days’ routine.  Even those of us who have returned to a life closer to a pre-pandemic lifestyle, routine-ish?  Where is the “routine” in the midst of the largest three-month drop in economic output our country has ever seen?  Is there “routine” as 150,000 of our neighbors have died from COVID-19?  Will protests or riots or demands or calls for justice become “routine”?  One routine that hasn’t changed because of the pandemic is the inundation of election ads during this time of an election year; those ads would have been nice to have disappeared because of the pandemic.

For all that is going on around us, whether it’s our routine, our lack of a routine, the events of the world, the state of the pandemic, the craziness of different opinions – some scientific and some not-so-scientific – the worry of this parent (and I know that I am not alone) of a child going back to school. 

I think it is helpful to remember that we are all complicit in one way or another for the mess that we all are in.  Biblically speaking, we all took a bite of the apple and, as a result, are removed to some degree – some more removed than others – from the garden of bliss.

Here we are in the real world, a world turned upside down and around and about, needing…a pause…  Which if you think about it is like any other day of our lives, pre-pandemic or now.  Challenges.  To try and NOT get caught up in that first way of being in human community that scripture tells about after humans were removed from the garden of bliss.  Right away, humans got in to trouble.  Cain killed Abel.  Sometimes I think the whole condition of what it means to be human can be found in the second and third chapters of Genesis.  Bliss in the garden.  Bad choice.  Consequences.  Another chance.  Kill your brother and ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Consequences.  Another chance.  And that short story, powerful story, plays out over and over again, differently in each of our lives.


Let’s step outside that story for a little longer.  Yes, same road.  Same 40 mph sign.  Different weather conditions.  Different times.  What can WE control?  And, I LOVE these verses from Paul for giving us a focus for this time of pause and also a way of life for each and every day of our lives.

Take care of your bodies.  Constantly renew your minds.  Do NOT be conformed to this world but always transform your minds, your way of thinking so as to discern the will of God.  And do this, take care of your body and renew your mind, for the sake of the larger body of Christ of which we are all a part.

During this pandemic I have switched over from eating a daily banana to eating a daily apple for my body.  I have done this consciously, as a reminder with each bite of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, to work for good in some small way each and every day.  And my mind?  My mind has never been more intensely and provocatively renewed as I read the black thinkers Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi and Resmaa Menakem and the white thinker Robin Di’Angleo, the black novelists N.K. Jemison and Octavia Butler and the black poets Gwendolyn Brooks, Marilyn Nelson, Claudia Rankine and countless other black poets.  And I do so because a large part of our body is crying out in pain from the bondage of injustice.

Take care of your body today and tomorrow and the next day.
Delight in the transformation that happens when you renew your mind.
And if you’re stuck in small ways or a bunch of big ways, ask for help.  Call me. 

Because as Paul also writes, there is a still more excellent way…

Wonderfully depicted this week on the marquis of the Hamilton County Fairgrounds – and, yes, I did stop the car to take this picture.

Eat ice cream.
Read books.
Be happy.

And with one small adjustment, you can read Paul’s very words…

Eat ice cream. Take care of your body.
Read books. Transform your mind.
Be happy to another person for we are all one body in Christ.

Salvation Story: Saved For…

Saved from Death.
Saved from Sin.
Saved from Self.
Saved from Meaninglessness.
Saved from Hell.

And since this is the last sermon in this series, perhaps some of you are thinking, Thank God, we are saved from another sermon by Reverend Eric about being saved.

I hope that after five weeks of wrestling with salvation – with what salvation meant for the early followers of Jesus Christ and with how the ideas about salvation have carried forward into today’s world – your appreciation for this rich, theological idea has grown, been challenged and, more importantly, that you are inspired to continue to be saved from death, sin, yourself, meaninglessness and from Hell.  We have heard a great deal from Paul’s letters about salvation in this sermon series.  Today’s reading from his letter to the Romans is the culmination, the endpoint and the main point, for Paul’s understanding of salvation found in Christ. 

Paul writes to the church in Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Did you catch how Paul began this list of his?  Paul starts with, “neither death,” the place where he began in his earliest letter where he wrote about salvation to the Thessalonians.  And then Paul keeps adding to the list of those things that cannot separate us from God’s saving grace.  Ten things on Paul’s list.  (Just to think I could have preached a ten-part sermon series.)  “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Nothing nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from being saved.  AND, this begs the question: If we are saved FROM everything, then what are we saved for?  If God is for us, then we are saved for…?  I have dropped some not-so-subtle hints in each of the sermons these past five weeks.  Along the way I have talked about pronoun usage.  If God is for us, then we are taken care of and we can stop worrying about us.  Me, myself and I?  We’re good.  Now, how about the second person singular and the second person plural, you and the others, and the third person singular and the third person plural, he/she/they/them?

The point of being saved is not to become a follower of Jesus and be able to say, “I am a Christian.”  That’s already taken care of.  In fact, the point of being saved is not to become a “Christian” but to become Christ-like.  There is a story of a young person seeking to evangelize an old and wise monk in a Greek monastery.  The young person comes up to the monk and introduces themselves saying, “I am a Christian.”  And before they could say anything else the monk replied, “Already?

That sort of puts one in their place.  And we need that as people who call ourselves, “Christian.”  To be reminded that the way of Jesus is a journey and not a destination.  Just as Paul is convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God, I am also convinced that we don’t really believe that that is true.  How so?  Well, we keep thinking and believing and acting…small.  Most Christians think that being called a “Christian” and being a disciple and follower of Christ is what being a Christian is all about.

And, that is the first step.  Once you see the resurrected Christ in the garden where it all begins outside the tomb, we are told to return to Galilee, where the story of Jesus all began.  Why?  Not to read it again as one of the disciples.  You did that the first time through to become a disciple.  Now, read the story again to do what Jesus did; to become Christ-like.

Take the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels.  Yes, of all the miracles and stories about Jesus’ ministry, there is only one that is found in all four gospels.  The feeding of the five thousand.  What happens?  The people have been following Jesus all day.  It’s supper time.  The people are hungry and tired.  The disciples say to Jesus, “Send them away for they are hungry.”  And Jesus replies, probably with a roll of his eyes, “You give them something to eat.”  But we don’t have anything.  And what happens?  Bread and fish make a meal.  Okay, okay.  This is our first time through your story, Jesus, we understand. 

What happens the next time we go through the story?  What role do you see yourself in the second time through?  Or is there a third time and a fourth time?  At what point do we see and learn that we are supposed to be like Jesus and BE the ones to give them something to eat?  Jesus tells us, “YOU give them something to eat.”

To do what Jesus did.  To become Christ-like.  That’s the saved for! 

Our Bible study group is wandering through the Book of Acts and we are reading about how Peter and Paul and others “get it” and do what Jesus did.  They go to those in need.  They eat with them.  They heal them.  They resurrect them.  We are called to do the same thing for…them.  And it grieves me that the rapid decline in Christianity in the West, in the United States, is not due to the demonic forces keeping people away from the love of God.  We know, from Paul, that that can’t happen.  It grieves me that we have made the Christian faith so…small…and personal…and selfish…and most people see right through that in this day and age.

We are not saved for…us.  We are saved for…everything and everyone else.

Salvation Story: Saved From Hell

Oh, my!!!

And here I thought that throwing in this extra week in our Salvation Story about being Save From Hell would be “easy” and “fun”… This message has been Hell to create.

Why? Maybe because I am now keenly feeling the Hell of what my life is like during this pandemic? Maybe it’s because I, like most people in this day and age, don’t believe in a Hell after we die. Dante’s nine circles of Hell that he wrote about in the 14th-century don’t really resonate with me and my enlightenment thinking in the 21st-century. And, I don’t have to look very hard today to see the Hell on earth that we human beings have created for ourselves and for each other.

Maybe this has been so hard because the Hell on earth right now is so…very…Hell-ish. I hope we are all honest with ourselves and even more than that, really taking the time to look out on a creation that is groaning with labor pains – which Paul writes about – a creation waiting…for us.

And I find that helpful. Paul is working with the metaphor found in Genesis where by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil Adam and Eve set this mess in motion. God cursed the ground because of their action. It is this ground that is groaning according to Paul. And oh how we hear the groans because we now know good and evil. We know Hell. And it is here.

Several years ago I wrote a weekly religion column for the Noblesville Daily Times.  Every week a word or two on something religious, ethical and/or philosophical.  And then every Monday I would have at least one maybe two emails in my inbox telling me that I was going to Hell.  Some were nicer than others whereby the sender indicated that they would be praying for my soul.  I suppose I should be grateful for her or his pray but then I got to thinking about the sheer audacity and arrogance of someone thinking that her or his prayer could save my very soul.  Tell you what God can handle the endpoint for my soul without your prayer.  So, I wrote a column about that thought and guess what…

I wrote a column suggesting that some biblical practices condemned as sinful were more about the times and cultures of that tie than about morality and God’s will.  Guess what?

An aside: Isn’t it interesting that those who seem to be the most vocal and most sure about the soul of another going to Hell also carry with that judgment the idea that her or his soul is headed in the more upwards direction?  I could guess what my inbox would contain if I wrote a column reflecting upon that observation…

If the number of messages in an inbox saying, Go to Hell, is indicative of one’s chance of actually going to Hell, well…Hello, Hell!

Hello, Hell. Which brings me to Eric’s Helpful Hints to Hold-off Hell. And I use the words hold-off as way to say avoid with an H-word so I could gain some rhetorical power with alliteration in my title, “Helpful Hints to Hold-off Hell.”

First, remember my first sermon to you where I said, “Hello!” And I indicated what happened when you drop the “o” from “Hello”? Hint number one: Always say, “Hello.” When you don’t you create Hell.

The next seven hints come from Christian tradition beginning with the 4th-century desert father, Evagrius Ponticus, who was the first to enumerate what became known as the Seven Deadly Sins. It’s a good list. A great list.

And as I quickly run through this list keep in mind that these seven deadly sins come out of seven basic needs of the human being. Those needs become sins, deadly sins, when we make those needs all-consuming. When we become addicted to a particular need. Or when we become blind to the effects our needs are having on those around us.

With that said, here’s the list:


As I say that list once again, which of them creates a bit of heat under your seat.


Lust. Uncontrolled desire. Physical. Sensual. Spiritual. So very much a hallmark of our consumer-driven society. How difficult has it been for you to be holed up at home unable to go out and shop? Lust.

Gluttony. How much stuff do you really need to be a human being that lives for the sake of other human beings? I would suggest that we are not gluttons for punishment. We are gluttons of stuff.

Greed. Gimme. Gimme. Gimme. Sure we all need the basics. But some need more. And worse. Some need what others have.

Sloth. I am so lazy I am not even going to take the time to explain sloth. Back to my video game.

Anger. It’s that reptilian response of fight type anger that is dangerous. I have shared before how in our study of Joy with the Dalai Lama and with Archbishop Tutu how important it is to create space and time between a stimulus that…creates anger…and our response. It’s the immediate response that is dangerous and destructive.

Envy. The classic example of Cain killing Abel. Somehow we get it in our minds that God loves another more than God loves us and WATCH OUT, malice is soon to follow.

And finally, Pride. The BIG ONE. Throughout Christian history Pride has always had the pride-full place of being number one on the list of the seven deadly sins. Oh, how pride conceals itself so very, very well. I am not racist. I earned my living. I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps. I deserve what I have. I worked hard for my way of life. AND, my way of life and my religion and my sense of well-being is right. And, here is a real sneaky one: God has blessed me. I don’t often quote from America’s first and foremost fire-and-brimstone preacher, Jonathan Edwards, but he puts pride in it’s place 400 years ago when he says, “Remember that pride is the worst viper that is in the heart, the greatest disturber of the soul’s peace and sweet communion with Christ; it was the first sin that ever was, and lies lowest in the foundation of Satan’s whole building, and is the most difficultly rooted out, and is the most hidden, secret and deceitful of all lusts, and often creeps in, insensibly, into the midst of religion and sometimes under the disguise of humility.” Oh, my…sweet, sublime Rev. Edwards, grandfather of Aaron Burr, who ironically, was unable to realize IN HIS PRIDE that the world was wide enough for Hamilton and I.

Interestingly enough, pride, the most difficult to root out, the most hidden, secret and first sin, is right in front of us, looking at us in the mirror in which we are looking at ourselves. When we look in that mirror and see me, myself and I, or when we look in that mirror with others and see us, ourselves and we, how quickly we create Hell. Or, how quickly we go to Hell.

Believe it or not. There is a simple way – which is a theological way of saying, A very difficult way – to avoid Pride as a deadly, deadly sin. And it also works for the other deadly sins. And that is, my high school English teacher would love me for this, Pronoun Usage. If in your Facebook posts, and conversations with those around you and in your neighborhood and your community, you are using me, myself, and I and using us, ourselves and we, pause. Is that who God is seeing and loving and pouring out compassion upon?

Sometimes I point out that Jesus lived and died to show us proper pronoun usage and to give us one helluva chance to stay out of Hell. Jesus was constantly for the Other; healing, teaching, feeding and eating and drinking with the other. Jesus died not for himself but for everybody else. God so loved the world. And I may approach a bit of heresy here – and my email inbox will probably fill up – but we turned what Jesus did for Others into believing that Jesus did whatever Jesus did…for US. When Jesus was giving us an example, his very way of life AND his very life, to show us how to bring heaven here on earth for the other by living and dying for the other. And we turned that into having faith that Jesus died for us to save us from Hell.

Is it any wonder that spiritual master after spiritual master all say that when she or he dies they want to go to Hell? The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu say that very same thing in the Book of Joy. Because the compassionate and loving response to the gift of life is always to go to where there is no life. If there is Hell on earth, go and work to bring heaven to that place on earth. And then in death, if there is Hell in Hell, to go to Hell and save everyone.

Salvation Story: Saved From Meaninglessness

We are all familiar with the story of Alice in Wonderland; if not the book titled Through the Looking Glass, then with the Disney movie version Alice in Wonderland.  Alice follows a strange rabbit who keeps looking at his timepiece declaring, “I’m late.  I’m late for a very important date!”  Following this strangely dressed creature, down the rabbit hole Alice goes!  She encounters all sorts of strange creatures.  “Curiouser and curiouser!” cries Alice.  “Dear, dear!  How queer everything is to-day!  And yesterday things went on just as usual.”

The story of Alice is a story about meaning.  The unexpected appearance and disappearance of the Cheshire Cat appears to be meaningless.  In the field of mushrooms, she is asked by the Caterpillar, “What do you mean by that?  Explain yourself!”  In the final scene, a judgment scene, Alice stands before the king and queen of hearts.  The Queen, uninterested in anything Alice has to say, declares, “Off with her head!”  Alice replies, “No, no.  That’s not what I mean.”  And then the tiny little king jumps in and happily declares, “If there’s no meaning in it that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn’t try to find any.”  Eventually the house of cards collapses in silliness and Alice finds her way back to her own world, as if no time at all has passed by. 

“If there’s no meaning it,” declares the King, “then that saves a world of trouble.”  Think about it.  The king gets it backwards.  For him, the lack of meaning saves.  How easy it is to be king when, if no matter what you do, or do not do, there is no meaning.  That makes ruling an empire pretty easy.  If what you say as king rules the day, then you are accountable to no one but yourself.  And, to heck with all of your subjects, even if they are all just cards to be played and ordered about.

I describe this courtroom scene and the role of the king and queen of hearts because THIS is the type of kingdom, or empire, that the people of Jesus and Paul’s time lived in.  They were at the mercy of the powers-that-be.  Cards to be ordered about as slaves and serfs and workers.  All of their meaning came from Caesar and from the minions under Caesar: governors, Pontius, tax-collectors, centurions, and temple priests.  Rise with the sun.  Do your appointed work.  Eat if there was food.  And collapse into sleep when the sun went down.  Everyone in their place.  No interaction between free and slaves beyond commands of, “Do this!” or “Do that!”  No interaction between Gentiles and Jews.  Women knew their place and could speak only when spoken to.  The culture of the Roman Empire and the culture of the religious community at that time was Law.  And it was the Law that provided meaning to everyone.

Into this environment comes a man, short of stature, a bit ugly, and slow of speech, who brings a radical message.  A message of salvation!  Of salvation from the power and control of the Empire’s meaning-making systems. 

NRS Galatians 3:23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

“You don’t have to live like this,” Paul declares.  “There is a better way.  The Way of Christ!”  Imagine the thoughts of those 1st century folks who heard Paul’s message for the first time.  Scratching their heads, looking at each other, saying, “What in the world does this mean?”

It is hard for us in the 21st-century modern world, especially in America where WE are free.  Free to do what we want, when we want to do it.  Free to make our meanings.  While this message of salvation may not sound so significant today, I say that it is this very message of salvation that was THE most powerful message of salvation for those 1st century people.  And while it doesn’t sound too subversive today, once Paul’s listeners figured out what Paul meant when he said, “We are no longer subject to the disciplinarian,” then, my guess, is that eyebrows were raised, maybe some eyes began to twinkle, and fear…fear grew in the hearts and minds of those listeners.  Because they knew who and what the disciplinarian was and what happened to those who didn’t listen to the discipline of the Law of the land.

Paul never let his congregations forget about the disciplinarian.  Paul declared over and over again, “We preach Christ crucified!”  Notice Paul didn’t say, “We preach Christ crucified for us!”  No.  Paul preached, “Christ crucified,” to constantly remind his followers that it was the disciplinarian, Caesar and Rome, the priests in power and the Temple-system, those who followed the Law, that crucified Christ.

Paul preached and wrote letters to the people in the capital cities of Roman provinces.  He preached to the poor, urban folk.  Mostly to slaves and serfs, occasionally to people with a bit more power.  These folks were helpless.  Their lives had no meaning.  So to get us into their sandals, let me try and place Paul’s message into our lives today. 

Into Kokomo or wherever you may reside strolls Paul.  He gathers us around him and begins talking.  “People of Kokomo, let me tell you of a Way where you can live meaningful lives.  But before I do that, let me tell you where meaning does NOT come from.  It does not come from the lawmakers in Washington, D.C.  It does not come from the preachers and pastors in the houses of worship.  It does not come from the rich and the powerful.  It does not come from the talking-heads on television, on the radio, or on the internet.  It does not come from political slogans or from advertising jingles.  It does not come from all the distinctions that are made by the American way of life that separate the haves from the have-nots, the men from the women, the white collar workers from the blue collar workers, the rural folks from the urban dwellers, the elderly from the eternally young nor the black from the white nor the yellow from the red.  Meaning is not born in Hollywood nor financed by Wall Street. 

“You do not need to be subject to these laws and the disciplinarian that seems to control this web that you are caught in.”  And then Paul shifts direction with a smile of deep care and love on his face.  “In Christ, there is a still more perfect way.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, Muslim or Christian, there is no longer slave or free, Mexican or American, there is no longer male and female. there is no longer black or white or red or yellow; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  A radical message.  Yes?  Just as radical today as 2,000 years ago.

What meaning do we take away from this for our lives today?  For me it’s pretty simple.  We are ALL God’s creatures.  We are ALL loved by God.  No one more loved by God.  No one less loved by God.

So what are we to do with this message today?  Paul’s letter to the Galatians is his nastiest letter of all of his letters that we have in scripture.  Remember the line: “You foolish Galatians!  Who has bewitched you?”  And my favorite line: “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!”  Paul is really upset because the Galatians are falling back into the ways of the Law, being controlled by the powers-that-be of Rome and Temple, being manipulated by The Matrix. Influenced and cajolled Fox News and Fake News. Satisfied with $1,200 while corporations reaped 84% of all COVID relief funds. Willing to accept a level of death and casualties so long as we can go on living our way of life.

So what do we do to free ourselves?  Remember Paul’s words from last week? “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”  He goes on, saying the very same thing that Jesus said just a few years before, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  And how do we act out this love for each other and for our neighbor?  Paul finishes his letter to the Galatians with this simple instruction: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

So how does Christ save us from a life of meaninglessness?  How do you feel when you relieve another person of a burden?  How do you feel when you touch the life of another, even in some small way?  How do you feel when you serve a need of a person with many needs?  A family member.  A church member.  A neighbor.  A stranger.  An enemy?  Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, writes, “It is in combating the suffering of others that we find meaning in our own.” I end with Paul’s closing words to the Galatians, “As for those who will follow this rule (bear one another’s burdens), peace will be upon you.” In theological language, you will find your salvation by saving another. In Jesus’ words, salvation is found in seeing the hungry and giving them food. Giving the thristy something to drink. Welcoming a stranger. Clothing the naked. Visiting those in prison. And, deeply resonant with our own time, taking care of the sick.

Saved. And, your life will be filled with meaning.

“Salvation Story: Saved From Self”

I am a free person until the dessert menu appears. Once the chocolate ganache cake is finished and I have freely licked the plate clean, I am once again free.

I am a free person until I get the call that a daughter has been hospitalized. After seeing her in the emergency room, her feeble smile and getting to hold her in my arms, I am free to breathe again.

I am a free person.  I can leap off the tallest parapet in the land…though gravity works.

I am a free person.  I shop at Meijer, Kroger, Fresh Thyme, Whole Foods and I miss my Marsh.  At each store the children’s cereals are all in the Cereal Aisle.  And each colorful, children’s cereal box is at the level of my naval.  I suppose I am free to grab my favorite, Apple Jacks, Family Size, but my physician and others have indicated that a cereal with a bit more bran would be more helpful for my body.

I AM a free person if not for my body.  Which thirsts.  Hungers.  Grows tired.  Needs to breathe.  And, fortunately, my body is ABLE to function in a world designed for fully-ABLED bodies to function in.  Though I am finding some doors more difficult to open at my age.  “Dad, the sticker says, push.”  Of course it does, daughter, I was simply checking to see if the door could freely swing both ways despite the label.

I am free.  Though the idea of some of these scientific discoveries which state that the state of the ittiest of bittiest pieces of my body are simply flying all over the universe and against my will is…troubling.  It is like being a fifty-five year old man who is conscious of limiting the amount of fluids he drinks after 6:00 p.m. and still has to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.  Troubling to my sense of freedom.

I am free but I also puzzle about God’s plan like the poet Linda Pastan.  She writes in her poem, “On the Question of Free Will,”

noticing the skeleton
on every leaf

and how
the lion’s mouth
and antelope’s neck
fit perfectly,

I wonder
at God’s plan
had Eve
refused the apple.

Sometimes, I wonder that too. 

I am free to wax philosophically and theologically – eloquently in my mind where others might want me to be a bit more waning than waxing – but regardless of what others may think, after all I am free and live in a free country where my freedom is what is important, so I will wax philosophically and theologically and wonder at God’s plan. If God has a plan than what of my free will?

Which gets me to wondering even more about all this talk about free will and how free will is a gift from God – some say free will is the real fruit from the Garden of Eden – but then God never mentions that God gave us the gift of free will.  Maybe freedom is SO free that even God couldn’t give it to us as a gift?  Because there is no such thing as a gift freely given.  Because then by it’s very nature it wouldn’t be a gift.  Nor would the gift be free.

It’s a good thing that when my mind freely wanders and rambles I don’t have to make sense. I am free.

And then I freely wonder…though Jesus doesn’t talk much about freedom, except in quoting from that passage in Isaiah at the start of his ministry, “I have come to let the oppressed go free,” though Jesus doesn’t talk much about freedom he does walk that freedom talk over and over and over again. But…no, AND, God is always about AND not BUT…AND is a freedom word…BUT is a prison word…AND isn’t it interesting that Jesus never talks about HIS freedom but always acts FOR the freedom of the other.

Jesus gives sight to the blind man so he is free to earn a living by not begging. Jesus stops the stones being thrown so that a woman can be free to go on living. Jesus has compassion on the thousands who have been following him. It is late. People are hungry. Jesus’ disciples come to him and say, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But Jesus answered them, “You give them something to eat.” Feed them to free them. Jesus asks us to cross over to the other side of the road for the sake of the other who is lying beaten and broken on the other side of that same road we are walking on as well. Over and over and over again, Jesus berates religious authorities that attempt to constrain, limit, define and control how people live their lives. And that wonderful last act of Jesus as he breathes his last breath, dying on the cross? The temple curtain, call it the temple flag, is torn in two so that all may freely experience the divine.

Jesus acts so much for and so often for the freedom of the other that Paul even writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free.”

Well, alright, then.  I am free!  Christ HAS set me free!  This is a good day.  I am free to read Paul Galatians, chapter 5, verse 1.  And I am free to stop reading there.  Why read further?  Paul has made his point.  It is Good News for me.  I am free.

And, my interest is piqued.  Paul’s words pique me, poke me, prod me – is this being piqued, poked and prodded something different from the exercise of my free will?  Or, once I exercise my free will to begin a book, the duty or obligation to finish the book is part and parcel of my free will which I exercised to begin the book, right?  Wrong? I mean, Paul endured death for the words which he wrote in life.  He chose to write what he wrote knowing that writing, “For freedom Christ has set us free,” would create a bit of a problem for say, Caesar, who, in his freedom, thought that his way was the highway.  You know that saying, All roads lead to Rome.  Literally, all WAYS lead to the Way of Rome.  And then Paul and those earliest followers of Jesus Christ called themselves followers of The Way?  Sounds like they had a death wish.  How can walking along the road of The Way and NOT walking along the road of all ways that lead to Rome be a very smart exercise of free will?

Sounds like a pretty stupid and selfish way to NOT save one’s self.

I need to return to where I started.  I…am…a…free…person.  Christ has set me free.  I am choosing to read more of what Paul has to say.  “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”  Wait a minute, Paul.  Twelve verses earlier you gave me my freedom and now you are taking it away?  Why?  I don’t have to wear a mask if I don’t choose to.  But then…you’ve turned this whole notion of freedom in Christ upside down and around and about and all catawumpus-like, haven’t you Paul?

I am free on The Way but not for me.  You sneak, Paul.  Any self-respecting, knowledgeable, wise philospher/scholar/religious thinker/teacher knows that the discussion about free will is all about the individual’s free will.  Who are you to change the pronoun of this age-old, as-long-as-humans-have-been-around-age-old, way of thinking?  How is it possible for me, myself and I to have free will…but not free will for me, myself, and I? 

As I freely process this I can’t help but think, Paul, freely think, mind you, that you are making the radical suggestion that our lives are not about us?

This whole line of thinking started with simply exercising my free will to ask for the dessert menu, to look over the dessert menu, to freely choose the chocolate ganache cake and to take a bite.  Look at all the difficulties I have been through from simply choosing to take a bite. Mind you, to take a bite of chocolate ganache cake and NOT freely choosing to take a bite from, say, a slice of apple pie.

“Salvation Story: Saved From Sin”

The story of salvation continues…

I began planning for this sermon series before the COVID Pandemic.  My thinking was that “Salvation” would be a good topic to cover after our Lenten season of “Encountering Jesus.”  Well, the pandemic got in the way of those plans and delayed “Salvation” for a month or so.  And, I now had some more time to think about all the myriad ways one can think about salvation.  And like Pooh, I sat on my thinking log and went, “Think, think think.”  All of that thinking didn’t bring me any closer to salvation.

This week, though, salvation fell into my lap.  As some of you know, I am a fifth generation pastor.  My great-grandfather, Harvey Garland Waggoner, was the pastor at First Christian Church in Dixon, Illinois, during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.  I have been seeking anything of his in the family archives from that time period so I could learn how to be a pastor in a pandemic.  No luck.  What I did find this week was this…

My great-great-grandfather John Garland Waggoner

“What Shall I Do to be Saved?  A Sermon by Elder J. G. Waggoner.  Price 5 cents.  pp. 16.  A plain and faithful presentation of the scriptural answers to this question.”  All of my work already done one hundred and forty years ago by my great-GREAT-grandfather, John Garland Waggoner.  And, at a very reasonable price in today’s dollars: 5 cents in 1880 is about $1.25 today in 2020.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of that 16-page sermon.

(I love the sentence in the advertisement: “It would be a good tract to circulate in Chicago just now.”  Makes me one wonder what was happening in Chicago in 1880.  Probably not much different than today.  Would John Garland Waggoner write the same thing about The Windy City if he knew that his great-great-grandson would be born there eighty-five years later?)

Of course he would, because the next sentence, “It is a good tract to circulate anywhere,” indicates that he knows that sin is present anywhere…and all the time.

Which brings me around to today’s salvation topic: Saved From Sin.  The author of the Book of Hebrews writes, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”  Very true.  According to the Temple laws laid out in the Book of Leviticus every sin offering at the Temple in Jerusalem must be accompanied with a blood sacrifice.  That is how it worked…back then.

In the two songs in our service today, we sing the words found in those traditional Christian hymns, “washed in his blood” and “the old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine.”  Blood atonement.  Getting right with God, atoning for one’s sin, can only happen with blood.  The 20th-century pastor and theologian, Reinhold Neibuhr tells a wonderful story about blood atonement in his parish in Detroit.  “The old gentleman was there too who wanted to know whether I believed in the deity of Jesus.  He is in every town.  He seemed to be a nice sort, but he wanted to know how I could speak for an hour on the Christian church without once mentioning the atonement.  Nothing, said he, but the blood of Jesus would save America from its perils.  He made quite an impassioned speech.  At first I was going to answer him but it seemed too useless.  I finally told him I believed in blood atonement too, but since I hadn’t shed any of the blood of sacrifice which it demanded I felt unworthy to enlarge upon the idea.”

And I really feel the same way today as Neibuhr did one hundred years ago in 1920.  I am unworthy to enlarge upon the idea.  Speaking of large.  How about this idea of atonement?

“I want bigger virgins.”  Because if you offer yourself to the volcano, say your name is Joe Banks played by Tom Hanks in Joe Versus the Volcano, then, who knows, maybe your sins and the sins of the tribe will be absolved by the Volcano God. 

Maybe.  I do know this.  I am not one to throw myself into a volcano for the sake of absolution for the sins of the world.  Reinhold Neibuhr was/is correct.

I am not worthy to enlarge upon the idea of being “washed in the blood so divine.”  I AM grateful that the blood so divine flows through MY veins and arteries in this COVID pandemic-time.  Whereas the blood of 127,000 people and counting in our nation has ceased to flow – 51,000 of those deaths of people in nursing and retirement centers.  Two, Ed Alley and Jack Henneberry.  My mentors, teachers, coaches and friends.

They did not have to die from COVID-19.  And though I am unworthy to enlarge upon the idea of blood atonement, I will enlarge upon our understanding of sin for which blood atonement is made. 

Here is my sin.  Here is our sin.  Ed Alley and Jack Henneberry did not need to die from COVID-19. 

I was on a men’s retreat at Bedford Christian Camp in 1994 when I first met Ed Alley who was on staff for that weekend.  Big, tall man.  Bald.  Bearded with a joy-full face.  I asked him what his role on the weekend was.  Ed replied, “I am here to simply bless, bless, bless.”  As the principal for Western Avenue Elementary School, Jack Henneberry always ended the morning announcements with “Be kind to each other.”

Good advice.  Biblical advice.  Bless, bless, bless.  Love one another.  How to be saved from sin?  How to be saved from our separation from the God of Love?  Love one another.  Bless one another.  “Be kind to each other.”