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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Do you need a savior?

“Prepare the way of the Lord” – Luke 3:1-6
Advent II – December 10, 2006 – The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
The Rev’d Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

Do you need a savior?

It’s an important question to ask. Indeed, it’s one of the central questions of Christmas.

That may come as a surprise to some of you. Some of you are thinking, "Gee, I always thought that one of the central questions is: What do you want for Christmas?"

And second like unto it is this: "What’s in your wallet?"

Do you need a savior?

That question is embedded in this morning’s gospel. That is what John the Baptist – the voice crying out in the wilderness – came to proclaim. This is who we are to prepare for. This is why every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low and the crooked made straight and the rough ways made smooth: so all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Do you need the salvation of God?

One of the littlest of our children in this congregation recently went with her parents to Radio City Music Hall to see The Nativity Story. I’m told she was absolutely enraptured by the performance, positively caught up watching the story which she had only been read now dramatically unfold before her eyes: the sweet baby Jesus, meek and mild, the young Virgin Mary, the strong, silent Joseph.

Just before the dramatic ending, when, of course, Santa makes his entrance and the Rocketts dance on stage . . . . (Funny, I don’t remember that part from scripture. Well, never mind.) . . .the melodious voice of one, speaking in very measured tones from behind the curtain, calls out the rest of the story. That this child that was born would grow to be the savior of the world. That he was born so he could die for us . . . .

At which point, this wonderful precocious child of our community sat forward on the edge of her chair, looked with wild bewilderment at her parents and said, “He DIED? He’s DEAD?”

It’s shocking to think about that in the midst of being swept up by the romanticism of Christmas. I have that same feeling every Christmas Eve. After the Christmas pageant has been performed and plastic Jesus has been laid in the crèche. After the Chrismon tree has been decorated and the church has been greened and we’ve had the Great Cookie Exchange.

After all of that is said and done, we celebrate Eucharist together, and we remember the crucifixion and death and resurrection of Jesus. I always find that jarring. Do you? I mean, it just ruins the mood of nostalgia and cozy comfort. I suppose that’s why, at least on Christmas Eve, we rush back to it, light our candle tapers, dim the house lights, and sing Silent Night on our knees. Then, we walk out of the church and into the night to see the luminaries lining the walks. If we’re lucky, a light snow will fall, and the Radio City Hall Magic of Christmas will be back.

In the darkest part of the darkness of Christmas night, the question still follows us like the voice of one, crying in the wilderness: Do you need a savior? It’s a question our Evangelical brothers and sisters love to ask – and answer. And, they know the CORRECT answer. They love to remind us of the wretchedness of our human souls. How we were born in sin because of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden. How we need Jeeee-sssuuuusss to save us from our manifold sins and wickedness.

I don’t know about you, but while I sometimes envy their certainty, that’s not why Christmas is important to me. I’m not looking for that kind of savior. Oh, I like the story of Creation as much as anyone. It’s a great story. Adam and Eve. Paradise. Perfect bliss. And then that pesky snake comes in and seduces Eve to bite the apple who seduces Adam to take a bite – even though they’ve both been told not to – and in one swallow the state of humankind is absolutely ruined for everyone else for generations to come.

Indeed, that story is pivotal to the rest of the stories of our faith – yes, even the Christmas story. The answer to the question of whether or not you need salvation can be found in the story of Creation. The story of Christmas depends on the story of Creation.

Now someone is saying, “Wait a minute. What can the Creation story mean to intelligent, post modern Christians today? What possible significance does it have to those of us who understand a few things about evolution and science as opposed to myth and romance?

This is still the Episcopal Church, right? We don’t have to check our brains at the door in order to have faith, right?

Or, do we? If we were really paying attention to the story might we, like the precocious child in our congregation, buy into the Radio City Music Hall version of the Nativity of our Lord? Or do we want the one interpreted for us by the “real Christians”? Will we, on Christmas Eve, participate in the Eucharist and suddenly sit forward in our seats and ask, in absolute stunning shock and horror: “He DIED?”

Or, is there some middle ground? Do you need a savior? If you, yourself, don’t feel a personal need for a savior, then do we? You know, the rest of us. Does the human condition need salvation? From what might we need to be saved? If we don’t buy into the story of the Fall in the Garden or “original sin” or that we were naturally born with the stain of sin and wretchedness on our souls, then why do we need a savior? What difference might it possibly make? What good news might we possibly hear in the prophecy of John the Baptist?

Do you need a savior?

Well, here’s my answer. It’s in the form of a story. Of course. It’s about my 9th Christmas. That was the year I got my own room. I am the eldest of four children and there were only three bedrooms in our apartment. My parents fixed up the room in the attic just for me. Oh, at the time, the room was bare – almost Spartan – but I knew it had great potential once more of my things were moved in. I was absolutely thrilled. I felt this was going to be the best Christmas ever.

I was all snuggled into my bed, surrounded by my comforter, reading my favorite Nancy Drew book when my mother called up that it was time to turn off the light and go to bed. That’s when I discovered the problem. The light was in the center of the room. In the ceiling with a pull string. That meant I had to get up from my bed to turn off the light. Which meant that, once the light was off, I would have to make it from the center of the room back into my bed before the monsters who lived under my bed came out to attack me.

How could I do that? I decided to ignore my mother. It became a pattern in my life.

My mother called again. I felt the tears well up in my eyes, and my throat began to burn. I couldn’t let her know that I was crying. Big girls don’t cry and I didn’t want to loose my big girl’s room so soon after getting it. So, I screwed my courage, threw off the covers, and ran to the light, turned it off, and ran back into my bed – walking so fast I’m sure my feet did not touch the floor.

But, I knew. I just knew that the monsters would come and get me anyway. I knew they didn’t like to be fooled and they had been tricked out of getting me. Soon and very soon they would start to appear. I shut my eyes tight and waited for the inevitable.

Suddenly, miraculously, I heard a “click” and I opened my eyes to see a small sliver of light at the bottom of the door at end of the stairs that led to my attic room. My mother had turned on the hallway light. Perhaps she had heard the anxiety in my feat as I ran to turn off the light.

But, in the midst of the darkness there was light. A small sliver of light, but light. That light was all I needed to feel safe. To find some sense of security. To be saved from my worst nightmare and imagination of the unknown.

Jesus is, for me, that small sliver of light at the bottom of my worst fears and imaginings.

I don’t know about you, but I need that light in my life.

When people fail me – when they disappoint me – I need that small sliver of light in my life to give me hope. When I fail others – when I disappoint them – I need that small sliver of light in my life to call me back to my best self again. To confess and repent and try to do better and be better. To lift me from my depression and call me into peace and joy and love and hope.

Do you need a savior?

Well, whether you need one or not, one is on the way.

Do you need a savior?

Ready or not, here he comes – again. There is the voice of one crying into the wilderness of our lives. It is saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord” – who may not come as you expect in a great, flashy show, but as a small sliver of hope.

A minute dollop of peace.

A tiny scrap of joy.

A seemingly insignificant morsel of love.

Even so, it will be enough to save you from your worst imaginings of the world, your harsh experience of others and the deepest fears and terrors you suffer in the wildernesses of your life.



Grace said...

Hi, Mother Kaeton,

Do you feel it's possible that many of these aspects of our faith are equally true, that it's not an either or kind of thing? I think we are created in the image of God, wonderfully and fearfully made. But, at the sametime, whatever the cause, who can fail to see that we are also fallen and broken? Even our best motives are mixed. We can hurt those that we care the most about. All of us fall terribly short of the perfect love of Christ. And, surely, in comparison to the holiness of God, even our very best is far from righteous.

In union with Christ, we can be radically changed, and share in the life of God. Our lives are actually hidden in Christ with God.(Col. 3:3) Bishop Katherine has shared an awesome Christmas message sharing this very reality.

But, Mother Kaeton, how can we be saved corporately if we are not also saved individually? Jesus is the Savior of the whole world, but He has also personally become my Savior and Lord.

david+ said...

You know, we come down on opposite sides of several of "the issues" with which tec is engaged right now. And so I think its important to write and say how much your message blessed me. Thanks for that little sliver of light.
As "grace" suggests, I think that it is a case of both/and rather than either/or regarding our soteriology. Have you listened to Fr. Thomas Hopko's lectures on Sin? Without specifically naming them, his lectures lay the evangelical rhetoric about--as well as the liberal abandonment of--sin aside in order to promote the paradosis: the Ancient Faith that has been handed down... I commend them for your meditations.
Again, thanks for the joyful sliver.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I preach both/and and not either/or because - despite whet the neo-Puritans would like us to believe - it is classic Anglican theology.

I understand the theological position behind your question ("How can we be saved corporately if we are not also saved individually?).

It's an important theological position.

My task, as preacher, is to create a climate where all are invited to explore the many and varied important and valid theological positions.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

By the way, David, I deeply appreciate your note.

And, of course, it is both/and, not either/or.

This is the postion the neo-puritan, quasi-orthodox, evangelicals proclaim as "classic Anglicanism."

And, it is decidedly NOT>

Grace said...

Mother Kaeton,

I understand. You want very much to identify, and meet people where they're at with the gospel. Thank you for sharing with us something of what Jesus means in your life!!