SERMON 9-27-20 Proper 21 Pentecost 17A, St. Luke’s, Bartlesville, OK
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
Are You Saved?
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he writes “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Some folks get this little phrase a bit mixed up. Some folks would tell you that you have to work to attain salvation, as if Jesus’ work on the cross was insignificant. Paul, I believe is teaching us that our relationship with God is not a passive, “one and done” baptism ritual along and we just keep living like grace has no power to change us. Nor is our relationship with God like Pelagianism, which holds that humans have the free will to achieve human perfection without divine grace at all. In other words, our salvation is not about what we do, but about what God does with us. Grace, or the power of our relationship with God is a participative journey, and it is one, which we never take alone, because God journeys with us.
Driving down the road to the office the other day, a car passed me with one of those old-fashioned bumper stickers that read, “Are you saved?” That certainly caught my attention especially the use of the word “save” in the past tense. Some of us have been asked this question by overzealous folks wanting to convert us. Even some gospel tracts include this question on them; you know the ones found stuffed under our windshield wipers at the local supermarket.
There is something really intriguing about the question, “Are you Saved?” It implies that when it comes to salvation, the one asking you the question has somehow arrived at salvation already, and they want to know if you have too. Over the centuries, one of the things theologians have wrestled with about salvation, is whether being in the state of God’s grace is something that happens in a particular moment without anything left to do afterward, over whether salvation is a transformative period of time that includes work and struggle. Some have argued that it maybe even both. I imagine, based on Paul’s intent in his letter to the Church in Philippi, his design for a bumper sticker would not ask “Are you saved.” Paul’s version would probably ask, “Are you BEING saved?” Salvation is a past, present, and future transitory excursion, by which we grow in a deeper love and commitment to Christ, each and every day.
Have you ever experienced love at first sight? Many of us have, and I know I did over 22 years ago. For some of us, we might have taken one look at our first love and proclaimed on the spot, “you’re the one,” but even then, the relationship had not yet reached its completion had it? Rather, many of us came to know our heart’s desire for the other gradually, and the love grew as we learned more about each other, as we did things together, and as we spent time together. The growth of a deeper love for another person might begin in a solitary moment, but the relationship becomes more profound, more mysterious, and more fulfilling only with time and effort over weeks, months, and years.
Our love and commitment to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ may begin in a moment, but it too must grow over time. The invitation from the Spirit is an ongoing, past, present, and future work going on in us, a work to which we are called to respond. Living in the Spirit is not a “one size fits all” proposition. We have available to us a variety of Christian practices and disciplines that can help form us, deepen our love for and with Jesus, and draws us closer to Our Lord.
Benedictine spirituality is very attractive to many folks, and it is deeply woven into Anglican spirituality, mainly because it is unpretentious and accessible. The Benedictine monks embrace a very simple practice in their cycle of daily prayer, work, and recreation. They embrace a deep awareness of God’s presence in all things. In prayer, the monks commit to intentional time with God in which they can become acutely aware of the Spirit’s presence. In the simplest of chores like washing dishes, folding linens, or even mopping floors, they even then, become acutely aware of the Spirit’s presence in the mundane. Awareness is central to the monk’s life as every moment is spent loving God every day, and in everything they do.
Working out Salvation
“God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Imagine what the relationship with our first love would be like, if only one party put in all the effort. What if he or she left little love letters for you? What if he or she spontaneously embraced you when you least expected it? What if he or she whispered their love in your ear? Despite all that, what if you never responded to simple acts of devotion? It sounds like a one-sided relationship and it is unlikely that love could blossom into a life-long commitment.
The Spirit is actively working in us, bidding us, leaving love letters of her work in the pages of scripture. The Spirit is embracing us when we least expect it. The Spirit is whispering grace and mercy and joy into our ears. God is at work in you, enabling you both to will and work for his good pleasure, but we need to be aware whether we are responding? We who are working out our salvation, we who are growing in a deeper love of Christ, do not have to be monks to embrace the practice of awareness of God’s whispers and embrace. When we begin to recognize, to become aware of the Spirit’s tugging on us, inviting us, and bidding us, our spiritual journey is well on its way to deepening love and grace. We are working out our salvation. So, we become aware of the Spirit, but then, what comes next? The answer is, “we simply respond.”
Invited to the Kingdom
In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us about two sons who were invited to share the work of their father’s vineyard. One acknowledged the invitation but did not go. The other son refused to go, but later recanted and went and worked. This is not a parable about how sons and daughters need to obey their Father’s wishes, in order to win their father’s approval. The point here is that both children were invited to share in the father’s work and their father’s abundance, and each responded to the invitation in different ways.
We are called to respond to God’s love, with love in return. We are invited to respond with love, not out of fear, or out of some misguided motivation to win God’s favor. We are invited to respond because God first loved us. Some folks believe that if they work hard enough, pray often enough, attend church frequently enough, and do mission work without ceasing, they will win the prize of God’s grace. Some folks may not realize that they are in essence trying to win love, rather than accepting and responding to a love that comes without strings.
“No strings attached” grace is not something that can be coerced or forced through manipulation. God does not coerce or manipulate us, and we cannot manipulate or coerce God. Love is a choice and we have the choice to respond to God’s abundant Grace, or we can simply ignore it. Jesus says, “I promise you life everlasting.” The point is, if we ignore God’s never-ending invitation, we will miss the joy, peace, mercy, and fullness of a complete life in Christ, which we have been promised. When we respond to God’s grace, we begin to work out our own salvation and like any relationship, it is no longer a one-sided proposition. When we become aware of the Spirit’s tug on our lives, our hearts will to align with God’s, and we respond to grace with a life fully dedicated to God.
“Are you saved?” or “Are you being saved?” Past tense, or present reality, or both and, which is it? The wonderful mystery of growing in a deeper love and commitment to Christ can only be cultivated when we respond by spending time with God. If we study of scripture, we embrace the narratives of others who have followed Christ before us and there, we find reflections of our life story in the narratives of those who have gone before, and we can become aware of how God was present in their lives. If we engage our talents and time, we allow God’s use of our spiritual gifts in the service of others, we are responding to the call to go into the vineyard and work for the Kingdom of God. If we tell the world the Good News, the transforming grace of God’s love in our lives, and we share in the ministry of love, mercy, reconciliation and grace, we are responding to God’s love. Sisters and brothers, the invitation to a life of discipleship is always before us, and the most important question we should ask ourselves every day is this, “Am I growing in a deeper love and commitment to Our Lord Jesus Christ?” Rather, maybe this is the more accurate and simpler question, “Are you BEING saved?”