Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
November 17, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Why do people go to church? That is a question many of us church professionals grapple with a lot. Maybe the answer should be obvious to us, but to me at least itís not. Yet knowing the answer is important. How can we try to give people what they need if we donít know what the need is that keeps them coming? This was a particular puzzle for me early in my time as a seminarian. I was a seminary intern at Prospect UCC in Seattle, and I asked the pastor there why she thought the people of that church came. She answered that there were two things involved. People are looking for community in a radically individualistic and fragmented society; and people who have had significant success in societyís terms, as most of the people of that church had, are looking for an opportunity to give something back to society. They find that opportunity in the mission work of the church. With all respect to that pastor, of whom I am genuinely fond, I found then and now find that answer unsatisfactory. My reaction is: Those things are true, but people can find fellowship and an opportunity for service in the Kiwanis or Rotary Clubs. Yet they keep coming to church. Why church precisely?
It seems to me that the answer has to lie in what it is that the church, at least when it is being truly church, offers that the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs donít. What we offer that they donít, I think, is spirituality. At least I hope we do. We try. What differentiates us from the secular service clubs is primarily that we are very intentional and explicit about seeking, establishing, and celebrating our connection with the world of Spirit, that is, with God, specifically the God revealed to us and Whom we know in and through Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Savior. In church, we confirm and celebrate the fact that we are Christians, and we try at least to grow in our understanding of what that means for our lives.
And primarily what it means, I think, is that we know that our lives are not meaningless. A lot of really famous theologians have taught that what troubles contemporary people most is not the weight of sin, or the feeling of unworthiness, or fear of eternal damnation. Rather, what makes the lives of so many of our fellow humans, and to some extent maybe our own lives, seem so often empty is that we donít know what it all means. Millions and millions of our fellow Americans go through life with the nagging feeling that something is missing, that there has to be more than this. There has to be more than material prosperity. There has to be more than what our culture calls success. There has to be more to life than simply basking in the fact that we are Americans and therefore, supposedly, more blessed by God than other people. (That, at least, is what our contemporary culture tries to tell us). Maybe most of us canít even say very clearly what it is that is missing; but I agree that what is missing for most of us is a sense of meaning, a belief that our lives matter, that it isnít all just, as Shakespeare said, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound fury, signifying nothing.
When we come to church, we find that missing element. We find meaning, or at least I hope we do. We find it in part in Scripture passages like the one we heard this morning from Paulís letter to the Thessalonians known as 1 Thessalonians. (There is a letter called Paulís Second Letter to the Thessalonians, but in all probability Paul didnít write it.) First Thessalonians is, scholars believe, the oldest of the New Testament writings, the first written document of the Christian tradition that became part of the Christian Bible. The passage we have this morning from chapter 5 begins in a way that may sound rather odd to us: "Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of Lord will come like a thief in the night." Those lines probably have to do with the expectation of the early Christian movement that the Second Coming of Christ, and with it the end of history as we know it, would happen very soon. We donít have to worry too much about that.
The passage gets more meaningful for us, I think, when Paul begins telling the Thessalonian Christians that they, and we, are "children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness." Thereís a difference, Paul is saying, between Christians and those who, as Paul believed of the Pagan Greeks in the communities in which he founded his churches, do not know God. OK. But what does it mean for Paul to say that Christians are children of light and not of darkness? Well, light is a nearly universal symbol for Spirit, for God. Thatís one thing that I think it means to say that we are children of light. We are children of the realm of Spirit, children of God. In addition, people who live in light, unlike people who live in darkness, can see where theyíre going. Christians, then, are children of God who can see where theyíre going.
And where are we going? Salvation! Paul says: "God has destined us...for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us...." Salvation! God intends our ultimate good. God wants to save us from---from what? Aye, thereís the rub. From what? The Christian tradition has always had one very handy answer to that question. Why, from damnation of course! From hell. From eternal torment. But letís take a look at that answer for a minute. Any time you hear someone say what salvation is, there is in the answer an assumption about what it is we need to be saved from. If salvation means going to heaven instead of hell when we die, then thereís an assumption in there about the human condition, about what it is we need saving from. The assumption is that we need saving from sin and from the just wages of sin, namely, damnation. Most contemporary Christians probably grew up with this understanding of salvation and of what Christianity is all about. Most Christian churches probably still preach that message.
Well, I donít know about you, but that answer doesnít speak to me much. The God I worship is a God of infinite love, of grace, mercy, and forgiveness. I know Iím far from perfect. I know I do that which I ought not do and leave undone that which I ought to do. I know that I am a beneficiary of a profoundly unjust world economic and political order that is maintained for my benefit by the economic and military power of my country at the expense of most of the worldís people. I know all that. And yet I do not believe that I am destined for damnation, or for "wrath," as Paul put in this morningís passage from 1 Thessalonians. I donít love God out of fear of damnation. That simply isnít what the philosophers would call my existential dilemma, the thing that keeps me from ultimate happiness, and I doubt if it is yours. Although most Christian churches continue to speak as though it were, I donít think it is the existential dilemma for most contemporary Americans. So, is there a different answer? Yes, I think there is. You see, I believe that Godís grace, Godís love for us is so profound that it has the power to save us from whatever it is that we need saving from. And for me, and I think for most contemporary people in Western cultures, what we need saving from isnít sin but meaninglessness. In more highly intellectual circles in any event, it has been common, even fashionable, in the last several decades to say that our lives really have no meaning, or perhaps only the limited, finite meanings we choose to give them. That attitude, however, leads almost inevitably to cynicism, to a life centered on narrow satisfaction of the ego, to disregard of the needs of others, and ultimately to despair. Our faith has a better way.
Our faith gives our lives meaning because it tells us that we are children of God. We are the sons and daughters of that greater than which nothing can be imagined, to use a phrase from medieval scholasticism for God. We are the children of the creating, sustaining, and redeeming power behind the universe. We are, in short, the children of God. And more than that: God loves us! God cares passionately and intimately about each and every one of us! God wills only that which is good for us. God does not wish us ill, even when we forget about God and live as though there were no God. As Paul puts it, God has destined us for salvation. And therein lies the meaning of our lives. How can our lives be meaningless to us when they matter, and matter infinitely, to God? How can our lives be meaningless when we know that God came to us in Christ, taking on our frail, mortal human form and living our human life to the hilt, and even unto death, so that we might know more fully Godís love for us? Our lives have meaning because God gives them meaning even when we donít.
Maybe itís hard for us really to experience what this means. After all, God can be so abstract, can seem so distant. But I think many of us have had the experience of feeling meaning in our lives because of the love of other people. These days, when sometimes I am tempted in my grieving to feel that my life lost most of its meaning when Francie died, I remember that I still have my children to love, that they need my love now more than ever, and that they love me. That sure gives my life meaning, even when God seems remote. I trust that you have all had a similar experience, or at least I hope you have. Love gives life meaning, both our love of others and even more so othersí love of us. As Christians, we love God, and we know that God loves us. If human love can give our lives meaning, how much more can our relationship of love with God give us meaning! Human love is finite. With time, as we die and are forgotten as those who knew and loved us also die, it passes away. Not so with the love of God. It is infinite. It is from everlasting to everlasting. It never dies. It never fades away.
And so, let us live lives filled with meaning by the love of God. As Paul puts it in our passage this morning, let us "put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation." Salvation into lives of meaning and love through and in the love of God. Itís what God has destined us for, and that, my friends, is great good news indeed. Thanks be to God. Amen.