The Bill's Already Paid (On Salvation)
This has been a hard week in a hard month in a hard year. Deaths, memorials, political nastiness, an ongoing and in LA unrelenting pandemic, economic fall-out on individuals and organizations like this church, which is losing a quarter of its budgeted income because user groups and rentals other than NoHo Home Alliance are not able to pay rent. Violence: Monday, there was the attack and robbery of three transgender women in Hollywood. School started on line this week, bring exceptional heroism on everyone’s part amid all the challenges that remote learning brings. Young people hoping to attend college are arriving on campus, uncertain how the fall semester will go. Not to mention the incessant heat wave here in SoCal, and the treacherous dry lightning and hundreds of fires threatening Northern California into the mid-state.
So let’s just take a moment and name it. Name the challenges that feel like they have taken over your life this week: [ ]
Now that we have named them, let’s push them aside for a few minutes. Let’s push them aside---literally—and make space for the salvation that God offers. Let’s push them aside and make space for God to speak to us. Listen to God speak to us through the prophet Isaiah:
3For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.
When God spoke these words to the people Israel, they knew something of suffering. They knew something of struggle. They had lost their homeland, they had lost economic well-being, they had lost access to the Temple in Jerusalem, the place they could always count on encountering God. When God spoke these words to the people Israel through the prophet Isaiah, the people were in exile. In exile. Much like us—even worse at least in terms of being refugees conquered by a different empire, the Babylonians, and driven from their home. Israel was in exile, and so are we. And still—and most powerfully—God speaks to us: My salvation has gone out, God says. My salvation has gone out, my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.
Let’s push aside the challenges overwhelming our lives just for a moment, make space for God’s word: God’s salvation has gone out, will be forever and never end.
I have been thinking a lot about the salvation God offers this week. I had a very enriching conversation this week with a colleague, the highly learned and clever Rev. Dr. Jarmo Tarki. We were talking about how we can help people grasp the comfort and strength that comes from knowing the salvation that God offers us without us doing anything to earn it. That doesn’t mean that salvation is free. The price has been paid by God—in the torturous suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Because the price has been already been paid, it is free to us. And—critically--it is already available to us now, without us doing anything. Or to use Isaiah’s words: God’s salvation has already gone out. But what does salvation feel like?
Imagine you are hungry—imagine you are like Charlie Chaplain’s depression-era character “the little tramp.” You are hungry, famished, you haven’t eaten in days, and you are standing outside a restaurant on Magnolia Boulevard, watching, looking in the window of that nice restaurant, looking in at the waiters putting large platters of food cooked up on the line on trays that the waiters now carry out the doors to serve to the lip-licking patrons sitting at tables on the terrace. You are so hungry that as a waiter carries the platter past you, your stomach growls loudly and your mouth waters. The waiter notices you, your hunger, and gestures kindly to you. Come in on in, take a seat. You look sheepish. And politely, sadly wave the waiter off. You know your pockets and your wallet are empty. The waiter smiles, and gestures again, pulls out a chair for you to sit. You hesitate for a moment….and then, when you feel your stomach growl and your head feels faint, you think “what the heck,” and take a seat at the dining table on the terrace. As you look at the menu, your eyes grow wide: so many choices! The waiter stands before you with his pad and pen. And you run your fingers down the menu: I’ll take one of those, an appetizer, and one of those, a salad, and this, a meal, and lemonade, and afterwards, please bring me one of these, a luscious dessert and coffee—black, no make that with cream and sugar. TWO creams, Two sugars. For the next hour you, hungry you, you eat everything that the waiter brings you one plate after another. And when you have finally licked the dessert plate clean and you’ve drained the refilled cup of coffee. The waiter brings you the little vinyl folder with the check and places it on the edge of the table. You look around, what now? You have eaten your fill of salvation. How are you going to pay for it? You start rolling up your sleeves, ready to offer to do the dishes or sweep the floor. But before you have a chance to confess to the waiter, he slips back by to pick up the vinyl check holder again. But I haven’t paid yet! You protest. And the waiter smiles, what do you mean? He opens up the folder and there on the check someone has written: Paid. $0 balance due. Have a nice day! You shake your head in surprise. How could this be? Who has already paid for the food I have already eaten that I ordered off the menu? The waiter smiles again and points down the sidewalk at the receding back of a passerby who disappears. That guy—that guy already paid. I just brought the bill to show you. You stand up in tears, and throw your arms around the waiter, air kissing him, calling out thank you, thank you. And just as you are about to go, you turn around and ask, “are there any job openings here in this restaurant?”
Salvation is what God offers us to satisfy our hungers, salve our wounds, counter death. It is has already gone out. It’s already written up on a menu. It’s already being cooked for us. It’s already paid for. It’s ready to be eaten. So what is the salvation that you are hungry for today? What do you ask God to plate up for you and serve? [ ]
Salvation is what we long for. Salvation is what we pray for. Salvation is what God does. What God has already sent out to us, makes available to us: it’s already on the menu!. And it takes many forms: literal forms of food and clothing and dignity for the poor. Liberation from injustice for those who are oppressed by racism and bias. Faithful companions like dogs and family. The promise of eternal life continuing after our earthly life ends.
So what does it mean in our Gospel reading that Peter declares that Jesus isn’t just a reformer like John the Baptist or a prophet like Jeremiah, but Jesus is the Messiah? It means that Peter recognizes God’s salvation. Peter recognizes God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. It means that Peter sees God’s salvation on the menu, and doesn’t hesitate to order.
It is very hard in the midst of suffering, in the midst of struggle, in the midst of deep hunger to see that God’s salvation is here for us already. God’s salvation is on the menu for us, salvation has already gone out. But It’s hard to see it. It is my task as your pastor, it is our task as Christian community to help one another to eat of God’s salvation. To help one another stay strong while the ingredients are made into that dish that will satisfy us. To be like the waiter in my little tramp story, who says take a seat and eat and stay strong, the bill is already paid. It’s hard in the midst of challenges to see God’s salvation. But It’s why we worship every Sunday. It’s why we celebrate communion and eat a little morsel of bread and sip of wine. It’s the appetizer to God’s main-dish of salvation, it’s the aperitif that stimulates our appetite for the perfection of the salvation that is coming.
Stay strong my friends. God’s salvation has already gone out. Eat. The bill is paid. Amen.