Do-It-Yourself Salvation

Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C.
18th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A): Philippians 2:1-13
16th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B): Mark 8:27-38

Our song this morning comes from a country music legend named Tom T. Hall. Born in 1936 in Oak Hill, Kentucky, Hall had a successful career in music, writing many classic country songs, including “Harper Valley PTA,” which went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts when Jeannie C. Riley recorded it in 1968. He wrote many other songs like “I Love” and my personal favorite, “I Like Beer.” Today’s song was not one of his top hits, but it is a classic from 1972. It’s called “Me and Jesus.”

Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’.
Me and Jesus, got it all worked out.
Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’.
We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but there is an ongoing craze in our world — a craze that leads otherwise sane people to do things like buy hammers, nails, wood, wallboard, and other items, take them home and commence to using them.

This is what they call the “DIY craze” or the “do-it-yourself” craze. It’s so popular there is even a cable television station dedicated to it, called, oddly enough, the DIY Channel. There, you can spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, watching home renovation warriors do it all themselves, from plumbing to roofing to deck building — all without a general contractor in sight. As someone who is mystified by this craze, and truly has no desire to take part in it, I find myself in home improvement stores a lot. Whenever I find myself trailing behind Wanda in the hardware section, or even better, the power tools section, I look around and say to myself, “We’re in Lowe’s. It must be Saturday.”

There’s a cartoon called “Baby Blues” that illustrates this point beautifully. The man of the house announces that he’s headed to the hardware store and wonders aloud if anyone wants to go with him.

He says, “I’m talking about hours of pointless meandering up and down endless warehouse aisles as I ponder every gadget on the shelf, trying to figure out what it’s for.”

Finding no takers for his offer of joining him, he gets in the car, only to have his wife remark, “If you want to spend the morning alone, why don’t you just say so?”

He replies, “It feels less selfish my way.”

But when it comes to salvation, the Apostle Paul is urging us to be just a little bit selfish. We have to take a stroll down the seemingly endless aisles of life, pondering every offer of salvation from the world, be it through love, money, power, sex, prestige, and figure out whether or not that’s going to give us what we need. Besides, as the old saying goes, if you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself — especially when it concerns salvation.

I know a man, who once was a sinner.
I know a man, who once was a drunk.
And I know a man, who once was a loser.
He went out one day and made an altar out of a stump.
Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’.
Me and Jesus, got it all worked out.
Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’.
We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.

I think what I hate most about home improvement projects is that no matter how they may seem on the surface, they are never easy. The books may have pretty diagrams, clear instructions and pictures of what your project is supposed to look like in the end — but somehow, it’s not as simple as the book makes it out to be. For one, it always takes longer than you think and costs more than you’ve budgeted. Adjustments are always going to have to be made, and you may even have to call in a few friends to help you out. You may even do a few things backward and have to start over in some areas.

Just like building a deck or a new addition, building our own salvation will be an exercise in trial and error — in reading the instructions and getting them wrong — in finding an extra screw or internal gizmo that didn’t get in the first time around and tearing it apart and doing it all over again. It will require more trips to Lowe’s — more trips to the Bible, more trips to church — more conversations with trusted friends and spiritual advisors.

Have you noticed, however, that as you work on a project, there appears to be a never-ending stream of people who will stand off to the side and give you advice on how best to complete your project?

They’ll criticize your tools. They’ll tell you they’re not good enough, sharp enough or the wrong ones for the job. They’ll criticize your plan: “Oh, you shouldn’t put a door there. It should go there.”

“Really, you want steps there? How about over there?”

“You’re going to use that color? Oh, I don’t like that.”

There will even be those who will insist that you move out of the way while they finish the project for you.

As LGBT people of faith,  we have to work doubly hard on our salvation because we have so many people lining up to tell us how to do the job — or insisting that they can get the job done for us, if only we’ll let them take over. Then there are those who tell us that we’re all wrong to begin with and unless we remodel ourselves into something we aren’t, then and only then, will we have found salvation.

Paul gives us good news, “work out your own salvation.” This is a do-it-yourself project, and we don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.

Jesus brought me through all of my troubles.
Jesus brought me through all of my trials.
Jesus brought me through all of my heartaches.
And I know that Jesus ain’t gonna’ forsake me now.
Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’.
Me and Jesus, got it all worked out.
Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’.
We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus is concerned about what other people are saying about his own do-it-yourself project — bringing about God’s realm in the world. He asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They tell him all the gossip. He’s John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. Then Jesus asks the crucial question that is at the heart of our do-it-yourself salvation project, “Who do you say that I am?”

This is the nuts and bolts of our salvation project — who do we say Jesus is? In answering this question we find our blueprint for salvation. But we have to be careful in how we go about finding the answer to that question. Whenever I’m perplexed over an issue, whether it’s theological or just an ordinary subject, I tend to read books about the subject. I’ll talk to people who know more about the subject than I do — or I believe they know more about the subject, but ultimately it may not be the case.

As LGBT people, there are plenty of people clamoring to answer the question of who Jesus is for us. Their usual answer is that Jesus is the one who can take away our homosexuality or gender identity issues. As I sought to learn more about my own salvation, I spent a lot of time on Internet message boards, arguing with people who believed that and thus thought they knew more about my salvation than I did. This passage was one of their main talking points, especially this one line: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

What that passage meant to my anti-gay friends on the message board was that I had to deny my sexual orientation if I was to be a “true” follower of Christ. They believed that I had to engage in this denial because they read the Bible in a way that condemned gays and lesbians. My homosexuality was my cross to bear. I always balked at this translation, because if I have to deny my sexuality, why don’t they have deny theirs?

The Bible condemns plenty of behaviors heterosexuals take part in — like adultery, prostitution, and child molestation. (A point of fact, most child molesters are heterosexual in their adult relationships, so homosexual does not equal pedophile.) But simply because some behaviors are forbidden does not mean that their entire sexuality is to be denied. Same goes for gays and lesbians. We too are forbidden to engage in adultery, prostitution or the sexual abuse of children, but that does not mean that we have to “deny” our sexuality to follow Christ. It means that we, like all human beings, must use our sexuality responsibly and honorably.

On this Pride weekend, let me make this clear for anyone still having doubts: Nowhere does the Bible condemn loving, committed gay and lesbian relationships. Any relationship, gay or straight, that uses or abuses another person sexually or breaks covenant with one another sexually is condemned — and that’s it. There’s no other argument that needs to be made.

So, what is this passage telling us then, if it’s not that we’re to deny our intrinsic sexual orientation or see it as a cross that must be borne? The Greek word used here means “to forget one’s self, lose sight of one’s self and one’s own interests.”

That is the key to do-it-yourself salvation.

We can’t afford any fancy preachin’.
We can’t afford any fancy church.
We can’t afford any fancy singin’.
You know Jesus got a lot of poor people out doin’ his work.
Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’.
Me and Jesus, got it all worked out.
Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’.
We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.

Paul is not saying anything new to the Philippians. He’s merely repeating what Jesus has already said. If you want salvation, there is a guide, and like all do-it-yourself projects, it reads easy enough on paper, but it’s terribly hard to do.

Here’s your guide to do-it-yourself salvation:

Step 1. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit.” This is the essence of “denying self.” When you do your work in the world, do not be selfish or conceited. Do not work for your own worldly success — instead look to Step 2: “In humility regard others as better than yourselves.” Yes, that means everyone is better than you — the cashier at Walmart, the president of the United States, the angry anti-gay protestor at the pride march. They are all better, or superior, to you.

Paul tells us that we must remember our place — as followers of Christ we are to be servants of the world, not masters. Lest you balk at this kind of instruction, let’s talk a minute about the difference between power and authority. We cannot accept the idea that anyone, especially those we don’t like, could be “better” than we are. But, that feeling comes from our human need to have power over other people, and to avoid some people having power over us. Our discomfort comes from our own will to control others, to make them think like we do, or believe like we do. If that’s our attitude, then what makes us any better than those who want to make us think like they do, or believe like they do? We simply get into a vicious circle of trying to dominate, change, coerce, or annihilate each other.

Paul is offering the Philippians, and us, another way. Think about how this works out in a community that embraces this concept that everyone is better than me. If I think Andy is better than me and Andy thinks I’m better than him, how will we treat one another? We will treat one another with kindness. We will be considerate of one another, honor one another, and try to outdo one another in compassion and love.

We’ll be like the living versions of those cartoon chipmunks Chip and Dale who kept outdoing one another in courtesy. “You first,” Chip would say to Dale. “No, you!” Dale would reply. “No, I insist, you first,” Chip would say. On and on it would go, and so it is a model for our community to learn how to honor one another and love each other without condition.

How does this work in the world away from our community? Instead of wanting to dominate, or have power over others, if we give honor and glory to people seeking those all those earthly things, we get something better: Authority. Think about Mother Teresa. This is a woman who had absolutely no earthly power. She didn’t lead a nation. She didn’t lead a powerful corporation. She wasn’t even a rock star, even though she was treated like one wherever she went. What was the difference? She had authority. How did she get it? She didn’t get it by forcing anyone to do anything — she did it by lovingly sacrificing everything for others. She regarded everyone she met as better than herself — someone in need of serving, someone in need of love.

Pastor and author Tony Campolo reminds us that Jesus was constantly turning down the temptation to be in power — to lord over other people and force his will on them. According to Campolo, Jesus was saying:

I don’t want political power. I don’t want economic power. I don’t want religious power. I want to change the world by lovingly sacrificing for the poor and the oppressed because the more I sacrifice and love, the more authority I will have. In today’s world, we need a Church, we need families, we need persons who are ready to sacrifice to meet the needs of others. That’s what changes the world.

Our missionaries who have returned from South Dakota know this kind of sacrifice. They sacrificed their time, their energy, their money, their very bodies, to go help a community of people who are in deep need. They regarded the needs and the lives of those people at Pine Ridge to be more important than their own needs. They knew these people were better than they were. They slept in a bunkhouse, not a fancy hotel. They lived communally, at least for a week, sacrificing the creature comforts of home, because they regarded the residents there as better than themselves. In their sacrifice, they have earned authority. We will listen more closely to them. We will hold their wisdom a bit more tightly, because we have seen the sacrifices they have made on behalf of others in deep need.

As LGBT people we get tired of not having worldly power. We want the power to change things — the power to gain equality in all areas of life: In employment, in marriage, in housing, in government. But, power is based on coercion. We cannot seek our equality through power — instead we must gain it through authority. But, authority is not coercive. Instead it is sacrificial. When we have authority we do not act from selfish ambition or conceit, but out of humility.

Paul is inviting us to put on the mind of Christ — to see the world as Christ sees the world — broken and in need of a good old fashioned do-it-yourself renovation project. For this job, however, we don’t find our tools at Lowe’s or Home Depot. Instead, we find them in the Christ that offers true salvation and true authority. We can seek for salvation in things of this world, but it will always be empty salvation, and one that leads to a lust for power over others.

When we have the mind of Christ, however, we understand Paul’s final do-it-yourself instruction for salvation: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Remember, in our stories there is no “us and them” — it’s “some of us for all of us.” When we truly believe that, we’ll have no trouble working out our own salvation — and gaining the authority we need to change the world.

Instead of using power to force others to believe that we too are God’s children, or that homosexuality is not a sin that will toss us from God’s realm, we will use our authority. We get that authority by continuing to love others, to put their needs first, to serve even those we’d rather not serve. The old song says, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” That means our deeds speak more clearly than our words. We know Christians when we see them, even if that person is a professing atheist. Those who show forth love, compassion, patience, kindness and mercy in our world have worked out their own salvation, no matter what worldly label they put on it.

I invite you this morning to get to work on your own salvation. Paul says we must do this with “fear and trembling,” but don’t let that scare you. What’s he’s saying is that our attitude must be one of awe. God has done amazing things in our midst. Our response is one of gratitude, of service. We honor our amazing, still speaking God, by accepting the responsibility of working out our own salvation. As you go about this divine do-it-yourself project, remember, you’re the foreman on this job, in partnership with God. You answer to one authority and one authority only. Don’t allow anyone to be backseat renovators on your salvation. You and Jesus have it covered. You don’t need anybody to tell you what it’s all about.

Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’.
Me and Jesus, got it all worked out.
Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’.
We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.