The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Thorny Theology Themes Series
Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ,
Fort Collins, Colorado
*Preceding the sermon, the Time with Children was a telling of the Disney story of Frozen and singing of Let it Go. Our hymns in the service are referenced in the sermon: There is a Balm in Gilead and Nearer My God to Thee.
From the earliest advent of storytelling, the question of salvation, deliverance, renewal, and liberty have all been at the root of our storytelling: from the Vedas of Hinduism, Sacred stories in the Bible, to those of The Iliad, folktales around the world, and even Disney movies, the question of salvation is at the root of our spiritual/ethical discourse as humans. Our Scripture today comes from the Gospel of John which was written by people [The Johannine Community] who didn’t actual know Jesus as human but were many years later, like us, trying to make sense out of this religion without the founder present in person. They were a persecuted people, threatened daily with total destruction by the empire. Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night in fear (a story only mentioned in John). Nicodemus is understood by scholars to represent a group of people rather than an individual. He gets at the root of salvation: it is something deeply personal, a coming-out process from the night, wholeness, and also the idea of rebirth for all. This story of salvation Jesus tells Nicodemus is both deeply personal and also completely communal.
Since I am about to preach on one of the most controversial and sensitive topics in all of religion and humanity, I really need your prayers. Will you pray with me? God, I ask for your blessing and assurance before preaching knowing that all of my words are inadequate to describe your love, completely insufficient to explain your grace, and unable to fully announce your salvation. Therefore, O God, in urgency I pray that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts may be good and pleasing to you, our Rock and our Salvation. Amen.
In 2013, I was in the middle of my Systematic Theology coursework in seminary. When we got to the section about Soteriology (The Study of The Doctrine of Salvation) it was time for spring break. I left on my annual pilgrimage to Boston to visit my half-brother and my two wonderful nieces still thinking about salvation and its meaning. No sooner had I arrived in their home and sat down than my nieces both, simultaneously, started singing loudly at me! Let it Go… Let it Go…! They were extolling, laughing, and preaching a new “gospel” of their new favorite thing in the whole world: Disney’s Frozen. A story that on the surface was filled with all of the usual Disney tropes of princesses, talking snowmen, assorted villains, and a happily ever after.
As I listened closer, I realized that this was no normal children’s movie. In fact, I am convinced that it is Disney’s MEA CULPA to the universe for all of their previous work. In Frozen, Disney subverts almost all of its traditional characters, values, genders, and norms in one film. **SOILER ALERT** First, the price “charming” is the villain with political motivation for his courtship and declarations of love. The closest thing to a “Wiseman” is a talking snowman named Olaf with a penchant for warm hugs and melting, and the “witch” who causes winter to overcome her realm, who lives in the ominous North Mountain [The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe], and who conjures monsters… is actually the one being oppressed, isolated, and denied her true self. It is the winter witch character who needs saving. It is a story of salvation, of coming out of the closet about one’s true self, about finding true authenticity, and about the empowerment and power of sisterhood—without help from men. The men are mostly either villains or in the way. It is about the complexity of the categories of good and evil.
As I listened and learned the “Gospel of Frozen” from my 8- and 10-year-old Jewish nieces—the most important part was that salvation, rebirth is something that comes from finding truth and acceptance from both inside and outside of self. It is something that starts within, but it requires family and friends to affirm and make whole. Salvation in Frozen is both personal affirmations, but it also takes others allowing us to live publicly in affirmed spaces. When she sings the song, Let it Go, Elsa comes-out to herself and finds empowerment… but that self-affirmation is only the start of her isolation and an outward winter. Salvation is both personal and social. Salvation needs community social justice, but it also requires true inside work, affirmation, rebirth with God.
This is a little different from the salvation narratives many of us grew-up with:
Have you been or are you saved? Have you asked Jesus Christ into your heart to be your personal Lord and Savior? [Evangelicals are good at consistency and regularity of elevator speeches.] Are you born again? For many of us Progressive Christians, either born into churches like Plymouth and/or especially those of us converted to the mainline from more evangelical or fundamentalist backgrounds like mine in the Assemblies of God “The A.O.G.,” these phrases are more than thorny theological themes. They are theological-PTSD trigger words. Amen? The wounds of picking the thorns of those theologies out of our hands [gesture and gaze down to look like picking thorns out of hands and chest.], feet, ears, eyes, and especially our hearts [Pause and look around] … remain forever.
What those of you who grew-up in progressive theologies like ours at Plymouth might not really understand is how long, decades even lifetimes, it takes for the anxiety and fear associated with questions about personal salvation to dissipate. What if they were right? What if when I said my salvation prayer, I didn’t do it right? What is what they said was true? To convert from a Christianity focused on personal salvation and that worldview (salvation vs. damnation) to Plymouth and the UCC’s communal or societal “social justice” or “Social Gospel” understanding of salvation is a challenge. It is a true change of religion…a rebirth.
This is because we have been offered, consciously and subconsciously, a dichotomy and dual worldview. Either you are in the Christian Camp of Personal Salvation and Personal Faith through Jesus Christ as a way to avoid damnation… OR a Christianity based in Social Justice, Communal Culpability, Social Sin, Social Gospel, and the example of Jesus as a road map for living in communities where we seek heaven while living. In the former, Jesus Christ is the vehicle of salvation to carry us through life and death; while in the latter, his life and example are simply a divine roadmap for us to attempt to follow for salvation in this life. Biblically, we find evidence for both interpretations.
May I suggest, my dearly beloved, that one may be fundamentalist on either side of this divide? Are we fundamentalist social gospel Christians? Perhaps, the best understanding of salvation falls somewhere in the middle.
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”[b] 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, [I like it better in the KJV… VERILY…] I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] 11 “[Verily], I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you[g] do not receive our testimony.
This passage from the Gospel of John is used by Evangelicals as the proof text for a born-again theology. There is a sense of being born in a new way through Spirit when we come into a place of faith. There is also in it a deep sense of community: “We speak… (not I speak) of what we know and testify to what we have seen.” This text is both personal and communal.
I bought a house and inherited a pet that bites: a rose garden with red English roses, yellow, and pink roses. On the first day tending my roses, for the first time in my life, a plant bit me. Still, after a lot of practice, I regularly get bitten by these thorny, beautiful, symbolic flowers. We may not have the roses, the flowers without the thorns. While our Social Justice/Social Gospel salvation is mostly roses, it too has thorns. While a personal salvation understanding has its many thorns (which many of us know all too well), I have learned to also embrace the roses of the theology I grew-up with. So, briefly, let’s compare and contrast the roses and thorns of both ways of seeing salvation: Progressive/UCC Salvation Theology and Evangelical Salvation Theology:
Roses of the UCC: Starting with the UCC: When we say social justice or social gospel in the United Church of Christ, we are talking about our soteriology—our theology of salvation. Systematically, we progressive, Mainline Christians interpret the Bible as an arc of narrative and human experience in community working itself out in the here and now (this lifetime). We look for heaven in this life and salvation in how to treat people and the planet. It is expressed in freedom, and liberation from systems of oppression. We do this through our participation in God’s arc of justice, equality, and improving living conditions for all people. What are the roses of our theology? The rose of this theology is that we live this life fully, Amen!? For us, the word salvation is a synonym of wholeness, of liberation, or authentic life on a communal or corporate level. We do tend to be corporate.
At best, we do not, as a matter of theology, focus on individual behavior or values as problematic or sinful. The roses are beautiful in the UCC! We really believe that we can make this planet into God’s Realm here and now. Wow! That is truly beautiful and remarkable—something to own and recognize. We can save people through living authenticity. We can make salvation come through reconciling communities and learning our history and claiming it and trying to make it better. We find roses of the Salvation of Jesus Christ in the UCC as a salvation from meaninglessness. God gives us purpose and judgement. Jesus is our salvation from a lack of purpose. If you don’t believe me or think you need more saving, ask the Nominating Committee. We can find more purpose for you. This is a communal view of salvation. Salvation is worked out through how we act as communities over time. Deliverance is a gift from God, but we are called to be Christ in the world building God’s realm here and now: feet, hands, and presence. A rose for us is that we are empowered by our theology to seek a better world, make change, be educated, and to never stop trying for better society.
UCC Thorns: But we too have thorns, friends! Our thorns are that we can focus so much on the communal, the reconciliation of communities, and societal sins and ills in Washington DC and Denver (We enjoy finger pointing at the lies and societal sins of others in capitols without remembering our own internal untruths and lies.) that we forget about the ministry of people with their real lives and real need for personal healing and hope.
Likewise, our sense of God and God’s salvation power gets tangled up and confused with our own works and actions to save the world. I call this one “The Tillichian Thorn” after Paul Tillich. This thorn is that we forget that we and our denominations are not God. As your pastoral care minister, I know that people are miserable, alone, wrestling with life. Our message of “work harder” and to give more to change the world only works to a degree before it too can destroy lives from a sense of powerlessness or failure. What is wrong with me? Why isn’t our work changing the systems? Does this mean God isn’t real?
In our theology it is also much harder to start over. There are really no fresh starts, no new beginnings in the UCC. Everything is too communally, historically, and politically situated for that. We all own the burdens and sins of the past of our communities without hope of redemption in our lives—because salvation isn’t up to one person to solve. Salvation is generational work for us. Our thorn is that we are all bearers of the sins of our communities over the eons.
Finally, the saddest part, the thorn that hurts me as a former Evangelical and former hospice and hospital chaplain is that for many within our UCC theology of salvation—we don’t dream of, imagine, and hope for true tangible reunions with our beloved and with God and Jesus after death. If you grew up in the UCC, a vague sense of afterlife is commonplace, but it is hard for converts. While we might hint at it as possible…perhaps…maybe, we don’t claim that hope in the same way—and that is our loss. Mostly we picture floating energy masses. We don’t imagine a hug and a recognizable embrace from an embodied loved one, a son, a mother, a mentor. We are so embodied in life as progressives, yet we don’t allow ourselves to imagine God’s incarnate power after death. Our post-mortem imaginations are super boring in the UCC and our after-death expectations usually revolve around hoping that its peaceful! We set the bar low for God’s possibilities. That is perhaps the biggest thorn. Salvation is not part of our thinking about death. We speak more in terms of transitions than salvations.
Okay, now for the Evangelical reading of salvation thorns and roses.
Evangelical Thorns: Many of us, including myself, are here today because of the all too deadly and painful thorns of evangelical salvation theology. Because these theologies focus on the individual person, it has developed a set of “good and bad” behaviors conveniently supportive of institutions and The Patriarchy. These rules define the need for this salvation. Yes, I said it—many of the traditional “sins” can be traced to political power, especially Victorian norms, and its maintenance by certain social groups over history: white, male, straight, able-bodied, and married. For some of us, that means Bible as weapon used to abuse and destroy lives and to keep others in line. Love the sinner, hate the sin. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard that. As a result, two more thorns exist for this understanding of salvation. One is a resistance to modern, good, intellectual Biblical interpretation that casts doubt on their ancient list of sins. That list is too precious to their power to question even if it has little to do with their core faith. We know from text study and history that many of the things called “sins” by Evangelicals are modern superimpositions on an ancient text. Recognizing intellectuals challenges their entire system of power. Lastly, Evangelical salvation is so focused fundamentally on the individual that they become blind to the great social sins, political expediency, and they ignore whole parts of the Bible that are crystal clear on social orders for equity, care of widow, refugee, orphan, and communal response.
The Evangelical Roses: The evangelicals have a rose, however, something sacred and wonderful. They carry a beautiful rose of a deep sense of God’s presence, comfort, and work in their lives. They live with their ears close to their hearts and observe life with keen interest looking for communication from God. For this reason, while sins are easy, mistakes are almost impossible for Evangelicals. Conversely… for the Mainline Progressives mistakes are easy and ridiculed (whispered about as “poor strategic planning…”) while sins are hard or impossible. This shows where we locate power. For an Evangelical, there are no mistakes. This makes them much better and more faithful risk takers. Try, try and try again with God and there is no wrong. Even a sin can be used by God for learning and good. While us liberals use the word “intentionality” and “intentional living” like it’s going out of style, the Evangelicals actually do it. God is active, and they are attentive to details like Sherlock Holmes detectives. While many cradle Mainliners like to ride this off as “fake” or “pretense,” I can tell you that the Evangelicals I know live that reality in authenticity and conviction. Let’s see what God will do? God is Good… God is great! Those are some upbeat and honest phrases Evangelicals utter when they are at their theological best. They are very good at intentional living.
Finally, the biggest and best rose is a rose that triggers many of us progressives to tune out and run away right when we should be leaning in. They have is this “born-again” language about Salvation that comes from our passage today in John 3. It is the language of rebirth. What the Evangelicals mean when they say “born again” is a fresh start in faith and in life. They mean a new life in Christ. They have an expansive understanding of what is possible in restarting life in faith that we rarely have. When someone tries to tell you their born-again story, listen, because they are trying to share something intimate… akin to a coming-out story.
This is why they are so much more effective at running 10-step programs, at running prison ministries, running rehab programs, and ministering to those with economic diversity and hardship. They meet people when they actually wish that they could be reborn. Statistically, as privileged upper middle-class churches, the progressive church can rarely imagine wanting a rebirth—because life is good. We don’t minister to people at the bottom of their lives because our theology doesn’t offer as much. Because in the Mainline, we focus on big systems and social sins (big solutions and movements) …we are good at giving money, starting programs, etc. We write letters or are in DC lobbying from the top to create better policy and improve the prison systems from the top, while the Evangelicals are in the cells changing lives from the bottom. Can’t we say that both theologies are necessary and maybe part of God’s work? While the Mainline has roses in systems, the Evangelicals are really good at and have roses of giving people at the lowest, hardest points in their personal lives hope at starting over from the point of birth. It is never too late for God. It is never too late—no matter what systems of oppression you were born into. Never too late.
Friends, in seminary in Georgia and as a geriatric hospital chaplain (CPE), I had to find a way to speak to the born-again Christians around me. I found that in silently naming my coming out experience of personal liberation as a moment when I was born again… saved. It was my Elsa moment of admitting that I had a gift, a blessing, a skill in this life to celebrate rather than hide. Hiding it was only causing winter for myself and others. Yes, I have been born again many times—once in first grade at Heritage Christian School down at Prospect and Ellis (and, yes, it was a powerful moment of love and grace), and again in high school in my family’s living room saying, “I’m gay and God loves me!” I was born again when you ordained me and renamed me “Reverend” with a laying on of hands. Rebirths through God’s power for wholeness are endless. How many born-again moments have you had in your life when God offered you a fresh life? Do you need one?
I want to tell you of what I know… and testify to what I have seen. We are shown a way for us to hold our progressive theology, our social Gospel, but to also honor the good that a more personal understanding of salvation holds. Our language of coming out and authenticity is compatible with the theology of being born again. The Evangelicals won’t make that translation, nor do we need to aggregate them by telling them we are translating into our language—but it is a way to reinterpret what they intend by that salvation language. We can have conversations about salvation theology with Evangelicals—if we translate their language into ours. The only difference is for us, we believe that sin means falsehood both in society and in our personal reality, and we also believe that we can be born again (start over) many times in our lives rather than just once.
Coming Out as gay and being reborn in Christ are similar experiencing of claiming wholeness and promising to move forward in love with God and Christ. If we can be the church to name the common human experience of both of these, we will have a rose garden for all people. Forcing the Gospel and Scripture 100% into either communal social justice or 100% personal salvation will cause a winter for us either inside or outside. This is Elsa’s lesson in Frozen. Why can’t we believe in social and personal deliverance and community possibility?
When they translated the title song from Frozen called "Let it Go" from English into French, they had a problem. “Let it go” is too long in French for the tune. So, instead they translated it into: "Liberated, Delivered/Saved… I won’t lie anymore. Liberated, Delivered/Saved… it is decided that I am leaving!” [More information on translating this song.]
Libérée, délivrée (Liberated, Delivered/Saved)
Je ne mentirai plus jamais (I will never lie again!)
Libérée, délivrée (Liberated, Delivered/Saved)
C'est décidé, je m'en vais (It is decied… I’m leaving)
Et me voilà ! (And here I am!)
Oui, je suis là ! (Yes, I am there!)
Libérée, délivrée (Liberated, Delivered/ Saved)
Le froid est pour moi, le prix de la liberté (The cold is for me the price of freedom.)
Frozen is about what happens when we find acceptance of self but don’t follow that up with claiming the gifts of community and family. We might know who we are, but the process of salvation for Elsa is frozen until her sister Anna comes to let her know that she is loved in her new identity and power. Salvation, friends, is both personal relationship with God and self, but as today’s Scripture shows us, it also requires the “we.” May we always be un-fundamentalists from every perspective. Amen.
 Translate by Jake Miles Joseph
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
Dr. David L. Petersen
Plymouth UCC, Fort Collins
“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down.” So begins Psalm 137, a psalm that refers to a momentous time in the history of the Israelites. Between 600 and 580 before the Christian era, many of the leaders and much of the population of Judah were forcibly removed from their land and taken to several cities in the Babylonian empire. It was a wrenching event, since the centerpiece of their religion, the temple in Jerusalem, had been destroyed, and many of their cities had been burned to the ground. Their religion had focused on, among other things, the offering of sacrifices, which according to their beliefs could only be offered at the temple. Such religious practices were no longer possible. The people had lost their homes, their land, and their central religious shrine.
Fortunately, most, if not all, of us, will never experience that sort of exile. We know about other exiles, for example, the exile of the Cherokee people in the first half of the nineteenth century from their homeland in Georgia to what is now Oklahoma. But that is not something we’ve lived through. There are, however, other kinds of exiles, if we mean by exile "a prolonged and usually forced living away from our normal lives due to dynamics over which we have no control." We can be sent into exile by economic forces, by ill health, by social forces, and by psychological forces.
We can be sent into exile due to economic forces. This happened to my father’s family during the depression. My grandfather was employed by a woodworking company, which had lost much of its business. As a result, he moved his family to Arkansas, where they were able to live off the land and at much less expense than would have been the case had they stayed in Illinois. They were really in exile, away from all their family, away from their church, and away from the place that they knew as home. This wasn’t self-exile; it was a forced migration due to pressures against which they could not stand. We know people in that kind of exile.
We can be sent into exile due to the forces of ill health. A person can be forced to leave one’s healthy self and made to live with a compromised body. Last month, Sara and I visited a friend who is in the final stages of her struggle with brain cancer. We knew her as a terribly bright, energetic, and funny person. I worked with her on a number of editorial projects and within the context of our professional society. That was then; this is now. Now, she lives in exile from that former self, having suffered brain damage from the cancer and paralysis from a stroke. She is in exile, isolated from the person she formerly was. We know people in that kind of exile.
Social forces can drive people into exile. Children can be subjected to bullying and ostracism on social media and in person, so much so that they become suicidal. Jamel Myles, a nine year old who lived in Denver, committed suicide last month due to over a year of bullying at his grade school. He confronted social forces against which he could not stand; he lived in a social exile. We know people in that kind of exile.
Psychological forces can send us into exile. When a parent, a spouse or a child dies, the forces of grief batter us like a flood. We are moved away from the comfort of home to a land that is desolate, missing the person whom we had loved so much. Grief can move someone into a psychological exile. We know people in that kind of exile.
All of us are subject to these powerful forces that can drive us into various times of exile. How can we respond? The Old Testament offers at least three resources for how to live in exile and they come from three different biblical books.
First, the book of Lamentations. This brief book expresses the feelings of shock and grief that ancient Israelites experienced when their country was defeated, their capital and temple was destroyed, and much of the population was taken into exile. The poet uses the technique of personification, allowing us to hear how the city of Jerusalem, personified as a woman, responds to these events:
“She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks” Lam 1:1
She says, “For these things I weep, my eyes flow with tears…my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.”(1:16). “Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me.” (1:12).
There is a clear message for us: Mourning and crying are a normal, even essential, response to exile. They help us cope with the deep emotions created by the experience of exile.
The message: Mourn and weep!
A second Old Testament response to exile occurs in Psalm 137. This psalm is a song about two cities: Babylon and Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the defeated city; Babylon is the city to which the Israelites had been exiled. We hear their voices from where they now live in exile:
“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs:
And our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand wither.” (Vv. 1-5)
Not only had the Israelites been taken into exile, they had been ordered by their captors to entertain them with songs that they had sung at home, before they were taken into exile. To this, the Israelites said "No way. We are putting our musical instruments up in the willows and we are not going to forget Jerusalem."
There is a clear message for us: One can resist the forces that have put us in exile. We may not get out of exile. But that doesn’t mean we give in. And we must remember what is like to be “at home.”
The message: Resist and remember!
The third Old Testament response comes from the book of Jeremiah. The prophet Jeremiah himself was not taken into exile by the Babylonians. Rather, he was forcibly moved to Egypt by some of his fellow Israelites. Before being taken to Egypt, he wrote a letter to those in the Babylonian exile, telling them how to survive.
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer 29:5-7)
Jeremiah knew that some of those who had been taken into exile expected to return soon. And he knew that others were despondent, living away from their home. We don’t often think of prophets as offering “pastoral” advice, but that’s exactly what Jeremiah did. He told those in exile: try to live productive lives, build houses, have families, and pray for the city where you live since your welfare depends on its welfare. Those may have been surprising, even shocking words for those who received his letter, but they were wise words.
There is a clear message for us: when we are in exile, we should build and pray, especially for the welfare of where we have been put so that we can live and flourish.
The message: Build and pray!
Most of us live in some sort of exile at one or another point in our lives. There is no one way to respond when we are in exile. But our religious tradition offers us at least three cogent and compelling ways to respond:
Mourn and weep!
Resist and remember!
Build and pray!
Dr. David L. Petersen is a Plymouth member, Old Testament scholar, and an editor of the Common English Bible,
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