Br. James Michael Dowd, n/OHC
RCL – Proper 21 A – Sunday 21 September 2008
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Working Out Our Salvation
In the name of the Living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” That sentence, actually, it’s a phrase, from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, has always disturbed me. I’ve never been quite sure why – until this past week as I’ve been pondering what I was going to say to you this morning. That uneasy feeling, it seems to me, had something to do with the fact that the phrase itself indicates that I have some level of responsibility in my own salvation. That I cannot simply rely on God’s grace and the Redemption of the Cross and the Empty Tomb.
Now theologians have been debating this topic from the beginning of the Christian era and there are so many complex arguments coming from many points of view. So many, that it is easy to get lost in a maze of lofty ideas and pious thoughts. But the Scriptures are always the place to begin, when it comes to hearing God’s voice and gaining an understanding of what it is that God wants for our lives. So, while nothing I do, earns me my salvation – that is a pure gift from God if he so chooses, and he does so choose. But there is apparently an expectation that I will do certain things in response to that gift.
So, let’s look back at our first reading, from the Prophet Ezekiel. I’d like to read to you again those last few verses from the passage:
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live.
Get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! The Lord doesn’t mince words, does he? There it is – a command - short and to the point. And it seems the first thing to do is to get a new heart. The house of Israel was experiencing a kind of cynicism – remember the proverb that was stated at the beginning of the passage – about parents eating sour grapes and children’s teeth being set on edge? The people of Israel, at the time Ezekiel was prophesizing, were languishing in exile in Babylon. Being in a generally foul mood, they were spending their time blaming their ancestors for all of the sins they must have committed to get them into this terrible situation. Having been carried off into the Babylonian Captivity, they desperately needed to lay the blame for their own sinfulness at someone else’s feet.
But Ezekiel would have none of that. He made it clear that their exile was not the result of their parents’ sinfulness or their grandparents’ sinfulness. No, it was their own sinfulness that had gotten them into this trouble. And he was calling on them to rid themselves of their sinful ways and turn to the Lord and learn, once again, how to live.
Living in a sinful state seems to me a kind of self-imposed exile. It makes me think of one of the great American painters of the Hudson River School in the early 19th Century, Thomas Cole. Cole painted a great deal of the Hudson Valley, the Catskills, and New England, but one of my favorite paintings of his is called the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The focus of the painting is split between Eden, on the one side and the dark, foreboding world on the other side with a tiny Adam and Eve, naked, head cast downward, and shame seemingly weighing down their bodies as they depart Eden. This exile from Eden seems not unlike the Babylonian Captivity, or the exile we often feel when we have separated ourselves from God.
So, the response to this seems first to be: Turn. And that sounds exactly right to me. The concept of repentance found throughout both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is about turning around and facing God. Turning from our evil ways and turning toward the Eternal. Unfortunately, the Christian Church has sometimes become caught up in what I call the Great List syndrome. Depending on the denomination, each seems to have a list of the really, really, bad things we can do that make God really, really angry. And then, poof, it’s exile time.
But living in a sinful state is actually a little more complicated than that. The Great List seems to have little to do with what God means for us. Because with God, as opposed to humanity, it is always about Love, not Lists, not Laws. And frankly, love is a lot harder than Lists or than Laws.
And that leads me back to St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Listen, again, to how much God loves us:
Who, though he was in the form of God,
Did not regard equality with God
As something to be exploited,
But emptied himself,
Taking the form of a slave,
Being born in human likeness.
He humbled himself
And became obedient to the point of death –
Even death on a cross.
That’s what love is – totally emptying yourself – giving up all rights and privileges that may or may not be yours - and simply serving your sisters and brothers. Not giving in to the needs of the ego, or the needs of the intellect, or the needs of the heart, or the needs of the body. Simply serving. I believe, this is what Ezekiel was getting at when he called on the House of Israel to live. God does not need or want us to be the living dead. He wants us to be the living. And living is serving, even to the point of dying, if necessary.
This has played out in my own life. Every time I have been selfish, not put someone else first, or offered a hand to someone who needed some type of help, every time I have not emptied myself – I have felt somehow disconnected with the rest of humanity and with God. I walked away, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively, with my head down and covered with shame – just like Thomas Cole’s depiction of Adam and Eve. I have ended up in my own self-imposed exile from my sisters and brothers and from God.
On the other hand, every time I have risen to the occasion and emptied myself for another, I have felt totally alive, totally connected to all my brothers and sisters and to God himself. And that is because, as St. Paul says at the very end of this passage, “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Turn then to Christ, for he is Life. That is why St. Paul tells us that we should put on the mind of Christ and do what he did. That is how we are, with fear and trembling, to work out our salvation: turn back around and embrace life, serve others no matter how much is required of us, and become obedient to God, even to the point of death.
And what does that obedience look like? Christ, as always, is our example and our teacher. He tells us in this morning’s parable of the two sons that it does not matter what we say, what matters is what we do. Our presidential candidates this year seem to be throwing around the expression, “you have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.” I suppose that would be a way to sum up the parable and the entire lesson of today’s readings.
So, emptying yourself – not making yourself more important than anyone else is to put on the mind of Christ. And if we are walking the walk, it seems to me, Christ has taught us what that walks entails: if someone is hungry – feed them; if someone is lonely – comfort them; if someone is naked – clothe them; if someone is sick – care for them; if someone is mourning – love them. All of this may require a lot from you. It can be a long walk. But if we are obedient – even to the point of death then we have turned back to God, then we have lived. When we choose to live, God welcomes us back home, with his arms wide open, from our own self-imposed exile.