Note: Our seminarian preached this really wonderful sermon on Sunday. Her name is Susan Ironside. Remember that name and don't say I didn't tell you so. EMK+
Lent IV - March 22, 2009
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
Susan Ironside, Seminarian
A few days ago while eating dinner with my best friend Jane, a talented singer, she told me a fascinating story. She is the soprano soloist at a large Roman Catholic parish here in New Jersey. She sings weddings and funerals and tells me magnificent stories about her view from the organ loft.
A wedding is coming up in a week or so, and the bride and groom have hired Jane to sing at their wedding. No big deal. Jane does this all the time. Here is the thing that made this interesting: It’s a wedding in Lent, so that is a little weird.
Plus, the happy couple requested “Hallelujah” Not Handel. The one from Shrek.
It’s a Leonard Cohen song, which was made popular when it was covered by Rufus Wainwright and used in the Shrek soundtrack. It’s a fantastic song. But, my God is it depressing. It references King David from the Bible and his little Bathsheba problem. I will let you Google the lyrics on your own, but take my word for it.
This is not your typical wedding song. The song goes, “love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.” (Before I proceed, I swear I am going to put money in the Sunday school box for all of my flagrant abuses of the Lenten Alleluia policy.)
Love is not a victory march. Well, that’s true. Anyone who has ever loved anyone can tell you that. Love is not a victory march. But a cold and broken Hallelujah? It hardly seems like an appropriate wedding song in any season, but seems particularly out of place in Lent.
Before I leave the story of my dear friend Jane, I should tell you that Jane, an observant Roman Catholic, agonized about what to do. She is very fond of the happy couple, and knows the priest very well, and thought, well if he doesn’t care about that being sung in church, why should I?
But then she began to fear that she would be haunted by every nun who had ever taught her in Catholic School. So she did what I think was the only reasonable choice: She rewrote the lyrics, in order to salvage the song choice and quiet her own conscience. I am sure the happy couple will be delighted next week, when they hear Jane’s rewrite on their wedding day.
I wonder if she kept the part about Love not being a victory march but a cold a broken halleluiah. I will have to ask her when I see her next.
Love is not a victory march. In today’s gospel we hear such familiar words about God and love: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
That’s John 3:16. Some people say it is the most famous verse in the bible. When I watch baseball games, I occasionally see people holding signs that say simply “John 3:16” which is, I would imagine, some kind of tool for evangelism, but it strikes me as a weird kind of modern day Gnosticism. But never mind, it’s a famous verse.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Martin Luther said that it was the whole gospel summed up in one verse, and he had a point, I think. The verse comes out of an middle of the night exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus was wondering what Jesus was up to.
What was Jesus teaching? What did it all mean?
Jesus explains what he is up to by talking about God being so in love with humanity, that God gave Jesus to us. To save us. But what does that mean? What do we mean when we say that we are saved?
It’s hard for us, to use this language without quickly becoming unintelligible. Things like altar calls and referring to Jesus as our Personal Savior seem just as strange to us as singing Shrek songs at weddings seems to my friend Jane. But there it is, staring us in the face this morning. Right here in the middle of Lent, we hear from the Bible that we are saved.
By grace you have been saved—Paul insists in today’s Epistle reading.
"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” Jesus insists in today’s gospel
But what does that mean?
Here in Lent we are in the midst of the cold and broken hallelujah. Our Alleluias are safely buried until Easter, and our worship space looks spare, like we have battened down the hatches. Why? So that we contemplate our salvation?
Yes. So that we can practice disciplines which, as Elizabeth reminds us, train us for discipleship? Absolutely. We have set apart these forty days deliberately. With great care and intention we section this portion of the year and say: here is something different. Here in these days we do things differently, we eat differently, we pray differently. They are, in every way, set apart for us.
In the same way, when we talk about the salvation we have in Jesus, we are talking about something different and separate. And it is difficult to say exactly what it means, so we do run the risk of sounding unintelligible.
We are not talking about being rescued in the same way that the stimulus package promises to salvage the economy, with lists of factors to determine eligibility, and restrictions for qualifying.
Neither is the salvation offered by Jesus likely to save us from many things that we would most like to be spared. Jesus does not seem to save his people from injury, cancer, bankruptcy, job-loss, the stress of raising children, the difficulties of living in community. Jesus does not save people from dying, for the most part, I don’t think.
But then again, Jesus didn’t save himself from dying, did he? The people taunting at the foot of the cross got that much right: he saved others, they noticed, why can’t he save himself?
Here in these days of our cold and broken hallelujah- we are confronted with what it means to be saved by Jesus, what is at stake by our claims that these days mark the retelling of our salvation history. We are confronted with the fact that we follow a Savior who could not or would not save himself.
And yet we continue to hold fast to the truth of today’s gospel: For God loved us so much that he gave Jesus to save us.
Perhaps we need to consider the possibility that Jesus did not save us from something, but for something. We have been, and are being saved for some purpose. We have been set aside for something.
Clearly we are not saved from the hardships of this life, but we are still saved, I think, for something. You were saved, out of great love, by a God. And out of God’s great and vast love, a plan for you was made, to be set aside for something.
St. Paul was utterly convinced of this, and he wrote the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works.”
And I am convinced of this too, that I have saved, each and every one of you has been saved, perhaps not from anything, but most defiantly for something. I don’t know what you have been saved for, just as most days I am uncertain as to what I have been saved for, but I know that you and I have been saved, have been saved for something.
A nurse who had worked in an emergency room in Baghdad was interviewed on the radio a few years ago. She spoke about a day when an IED explored a few blocks from where she was working. Several Americans were killed, and many Iraqi insurgents were injured in the event.
Some of the injured were brought to her unit, and one of the Iraqi insurgents had grave, almost fatal injuries, and is was quickly determined that he had a rare blood type.
The blood bank was low anyway, but there was only one unit of blood available of the appropriate type. It had been donated a week before by a solder who was part of the squadron who had been attacked.
As the injured man regained consciousness, the blood donation having saved his life, the nurse found a translator and went to his bedside.
“Look there,” she said, urgently pointing at the now empty bag of blood which was still hanging on the IV pole. “That was the blood of your enemy, and it saved you. We were saving it. So that we could save you.”
And you know, it occurs to me this morning, as I hear this gospel and this epistle, that it makes all the difference in the world, being saved for something.
That is the essence of my identity and yours, and it is no small thing. It is the fundamental truth of who we are.