John 20:1-18; Isaiah 65:17-25
March 27, 2016
Wow. What a beautiful song.
But the words have been bothering me. Not just because they aren’t the regular words you’re supposed to sing with Beethoven’s majestic melody. The words have been bugging me because there is a disconnect between these words from the hymn and the words from the scripture.
We sang: “Death and sorrow, earth’s dark story, to the former days belong. All around the clouds are breaking, soon the storms of time shall cease.”
We heard a biblical word this morning, not about the end of time, but about God being present with us in the midst of time; not about the end of “earth’s dark story,” but about the utter transformation of this very world.
This Easter hymn we just sang is about salvation. And these Easter texts we have read are about salvation. But they are very different kinds of salvation.
Now some of you are getting a little squirmy right now. You’re nervous about me even using the term “salvation.” The mere word brings to mind highway billboards and altar calls and glossy religious tracts. (I don’t know if any of you were handed a tract at the St. Patrick’s Day parade. I told Ryan it was impressive how much bad theology they had managed to fit into such a little document.)
So the word “salvation” puts us on guard. But salvation is what Easter is all about. We can’t celebrate the resurrection and ignore the promise of salvation that comes with it.
And I have no desire to deny the salvation claims of this hymn. “God has promised, Christ prepares it there on high our welcome waits.” It’s true.
As many of you know, my dad died during Lent three years ago. Four years ago many in this congregation spent our last Easter with our dear friend, Lola, singing together in her hospital room. I cling to these promises of eternal life with God. I do. I believe them and I cling to them.
But these are not the promises at the heart of today’s scripture readings. If we take the entirety of the Bible seriously, we cannot speak of salvation as something that is only relevant after we die.
We have to acknowledge the fullness of the biblical witness about salvation.
In the Hebrew texts, which are what we generally refer to as the Old Testament, salvation is about an improved earthly life. The Israelites are saved from slavery in Egypt. Women are saved from barrenness. Israel is saved from its foreign enemies. The prophets proclaim visions of God’s salvation that involve healthy bodies and equitable distribution of wealth.
Barbara Brown Taylor explains, “This very Hebrew understanding of salvation . . . was gradually replaced by a much more Greek understanding of salvation as something spiritual that happens to human souls in heaven.” So by the time we get to the New Testament, salvation has a broader meaning. Still, at least a third of the times “salvation” is used in the New Testament, it refers to people being saved from their earthly troubles.1
This morning’s biblical texts are not about heavenly salvation; they’re about the salvation that God enacts on this earth. That is the salvation we can experience right now. That is the salvation we can work with God to bring to others right now.
Isaiah writes: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”
This is an earthly salvation. A proclamation that the God who saved the people from slavery in Egypt will also save them from other unjust economic systems, from oppressive social structures, from disease and discouragement.
John’s resurrection story—like those in the other three gospels—is full of earthy details. The very real and heavy stone has been rolled away. The people are running on solid ground—hearts racing, feet flying. They have to bend down to look into the tomb. Mary assumes Jesus to be the gardener. An average person doing an average, earthly task.
The bold claim of the Resurrection story is that when Jesus died his spirit did not float up to heaven to dwell with God forever, but that when Jesus died, he came back to life in this world. He breathed the air and spoke to his friends and ate fish for breakfast.
Yes, salvation looks like angels and glory and eternal life with God. And salvation looks, according to Isaiah, like people building houses and getting to live in them. Like people planting crops and getting to eat them. Like people not laboring in vain.
Salvation looks like people who work full time being able to afford a decent place to live AND pay their medical bills. Like children being protected from trauma and abuse. Like people in a mental health crisis being offered a bed at a treatment facility rather than in a jail cell. Salvation looks, to borrow words from professor Regina Shands Stoltfus, like black people not having “to wake up every morning in a body that is presumed to be criminal.”
Salvation looks like so many things. There are as many salvation stories as there are people to tell them—more actually. I put together a whole list of salvation stories to share.
I was going to tell you about Anthony Ray Hinton who spent 30 years on death row in an Alabama prison before being exonerated of the crime less than a year ago. As he spoke to reporters upon his release, he said, “There is a God. He sits high, but he looks low.”
I was going to tell you about Dawn Maestes, who runs a tattoo removal business in New Mexico. Dawn herself has escaped an abusive relationship, and now she offers her services free of charge to other women who are trying to move past the emotional and physical marks their abusers have left—because sometimes these marks include tattoos of the abusers name as a sort of branding.
When I was trying to find more information about Dawn’s story, I stumbled across a story about Brian Finn in Toledo, Ohio, who is a tattoo artist. Rather than removing unwanted tattoos, he offers free tattoos to those who want to cover up other marks of abuse: scars from self-cutting and scars inflicted by others. He takes the ugly places on their skin and makes them beautiful.
And I was really looking forward to telling you about Lynnee Breedlove’s “Homobile” service. He provides rides, free of charge, to the LGBTQ community—gay couples, who the taxis won’t stop for; drag queens and trans women worried for their safety. Providing this service has saved his life as much as it has saved the lives of those he serves.
Salvation is all around us. And I had this great list of salvation stories to share, but then I realized that these kinds of stories can make us feel like salvation has to be big and dramatic and edgy.
I mean, maybe some of you will need to be saved from—or will work to save others from—unjust criminal sentences.
Maybe some of you will need to get a tattoo—or have one removed. Or you will take up a new career as a tattoo artist or tattoo removal specialist.
Maybe you’ll put a sign on the side of your car that says “Homobile” and start cruising around downtown on the weekends offering rides to gay couples and drag queens. Or maybe you’ll be a drag queen or part of a gay couple that needs a safe ride.
I’m not saying that big, dramatic, edgy salvation is off the table for any of us.
Easter itself is big, dramatic, and edgy to be sure.
But salvation is not always big and dramatic and edgy. We all participate—or have the opportunity to participate—in salvation every day.
This past week I went to a Justice Matters meeting for the Mental Health team. It lasted two long hours, and I have to say that it didn’t feel much like salvation. It felt like I needed to get out of that room and start working on this sermon. But when the new crisis center is up and running, it will save lives—in many ways. And if our work pushes the county to reduce the number of people put in jail, that will write even more salvation stories.
This Thursday is the Justice Matters solutions briefing—to which you are all invited. Our participation with that organization is one way we as a church join in God’s saving work.
And the jobs you do every day. Think about your work—whether paid or unpaid, what you do day in and day out—and the opportunities that gives you to participate in salvation. Caring for children; planning fund raisers; volunteering for Hospice and Ten Thousand Villages and LINK; advocating for women’s rights and gay rights and immigrants’ rights and racial justice and an end to the death penalty; writing beautiful words and making beautiful things and planting beautiful food and flowers; cooking meals and cleaning the church and reaching out in love to people who need to be loved—which is all of us.
Sometimes salvation is big and dramatic and edgy. Sometimes it fits in your pocket so you hardly even notice you are carrying it around.
That’s true of the salvation we work with God to offer to others. And it is true of the salvation God offers to us.
Let me tell you—and you know this—it’s a discouraging time in our world right now. So many hateful words flying around. So much fear. So much violence. And I read about it. And pray about it. I hold it for just a bit and look at it—that’s part of my job, really.
So I’m walking my dog, worrying about the state of this world, when I see the most glorious flower. Deep, dark pink; about the size of the tip of my thumb. Stunning. And it’s not just this one flower. There is an entire tree full of these perfect little blooms. And I think, “This is really over the top.” God must be crazy to lavish so much beauty on this one tree for me to see on this one walk.
In a time when I often feel overwhelmed with the sorrow and pain of the world, this moment of being overwhelmed by beauty was a salvation.
And I know that you have your own salvation stories to tell.
Let the good news of Easter remind us of the truth of our salvation. Let it remind us that we are called to do saving work with God in this world. And let it remind us that God reaches down to save us. Again and again. In so many ways.
Thanks be to God.
1Journal for Preachers, January 1, 2002;