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Friday, September 23, 2011

Life in the Wilderness: Traveling By Stages

Pentecost 15A 2011 
Exodus 17:1-17                                                                                                
        From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Friday night a satellite fell out of orbit and burned up on re-entry, except for a few pieces that landed wherever they landed.  This week the news carried stories about whether it was at all likely that any of us would get hit by a piece of satellite.  NASA calculated that the odds of a person being hit was 1 in 3200, but, because there are 6 billion of us on the planet, that means that the likelihood of you being hit was 1 in 3200 times 6 million, which is something like 1 in 2 quadrillion.  We had far better odds, NASA said, of winning the lottery, which is 1 in 175 million.
And yet, people play the lottery.  Maybe some of you were out in your yards Friday trying to catch a piece of satellite, but I think you’re smarter than that (plus, it was raining).  What makes the lottery so attractive is the remote possibility that we can become instantly rich, without having to work for it for years and years.  That’s not the only lottery people would like to win – wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a pill we could take that would make all our fat vanish overnight, or a process that would instantly implant all the knowledge we needed so we didn’t have to go to school for twelve or sixteen or twenty years?  How many of us would like to have an instant cure for cancer, or heart disease, or fibromyalgia, or lupus, or arthritis, so we wouldn’t have to go through surgeries and treatments and therapy?  I can’t count the times over the years when I have stood by a hospital bed, or said to a family grieving the death of a loved one, or said to struggling parents or to people whose marriage is dissolving, “I wish I had a magic wand to make all this better.”  And I wish that thirty-eight years ago when I was appointed to those three little churches in Madison County, I had known the little bit I know now about myself and life and God and ministry.  We all want to win the lottery.  But that’s not how it works.
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded.  When you look at a map of the Exodus, like the one on the front of your bulletin today, the route makes no sense.  Why didn’t Moses and the Hebrews make a beeline along the coast of the Mediterranean for Canaan?  Why did they wander around the Sinai peninsula, taking forty years to travel the same distance as from here to Baltimore?
The Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded.  Not stages from the old West, mind you.  They traveled by fits and starts.  They wandered, sometimes in circles.  They would travel a few miles, and then camp for months or for years.  And, amazingly, the Bible says all this was as the Lord commanded.  Why? 
In Margery Williams’ fairy tale too wonderful just for children, The Velveteen Rabbit, the rabbit is a toy largely ignored by the little boy who owns him, and he is kept in the nursery cupboard with the other toys.  He is befriended by the Skin Horse, an ancient and battered toy who once belonged to the boy’s uncle.  Other toys in the cupboard, especially the mechanical ones and the tin soldiers, make fun of the horse and the rabbit, because they aren’t real.  
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."[1]
The Hebrews needed to become real before they entered the Promised Land.  They had to leave behind their old ways of believing and acting, they had to be loved by God for a long, long time, and they had to learn a new way of thinking and being before they could live into the promise that God had for them.  And, the Bible tells us, some of them never made it.  Many died in the Wilderness.  Some wandered off on their own.  Some probably went back to Egypt.  They traveled slowly, starting and stopping, in stages, because that’s how God designed them.  And us.
Those of you who were trained to be teachers learned, somewhere along the way, about the work of a psychologist named Jean Piaget.  Piaget said that children pass through stages of intellectual development.  From birth to about age two, children learn through the motions they make and the sensations that result from those movements.  Our granddaughter, at fifteen months, has just learned to walk, and is learning to talk by experimenting with sounds she makes with her mouth.  The next stage, Piaget said, about to age seven, is when children learn that words and objects can stand for something else, but they are still very self-centered and assume that everyone sees things from their point of view.
From about seven to eleven, children learn that others don’t always see things the way they do.  They begin to imagine things outside their own experience.  Then, from about age eleven on, children can begin to reason in abstract ways, and think about possibilities and ideologies.
About fifty years ago a psychologist named Lawrence Kohlberg said that there are stages of moral reasoning that parallel what Piaget said about intellectual development.  Very young children behave so they won’t be punished.  Then they begin to see that other people have different points of view, so they begin to negotiate:  “what’s in this for me?”  The next stage focuses on social conformity:  “But Mom, everybody has a cell phone!”  Or, this is what good people do.  Then, Kohlberg said, young adults realize that there are different ideas about right and wrong, so they negotiate an agreement with each other so they can live with each other.  That’s the basis of a functioning society.
Now, developing intellectually or morally doesn’t come automatically on a third or seventh or twenty-first birthday.  Some people get stuck:  there are adults, for example, who steadfastly maintain that if a car is in front of you, even if you’re staying the same distance behind them, they’re traveling faster than you are.  There are adults who insist that God rewards you for being good and punishes you for being bad, and there’s only one way of looking at life and that’s from their own eyes -- which is what a three-year old believes.  This is why sometimes it’s so hard for us to discuss moral issues with each other:  people are operating at such different stages of their intellectual and moral development.
About forty years ago a young theologian named Jim Fowler took Piaget and Kohlberg’s stages of development and said there were corresponding stages of faith development.  Small children live in a wonderful world of fantasy and magic, and receive stories about God with trust from parents and others.  When children are school-age, they become much more logical and literal about their beliefs.  If the Bible says Jonah was swallowed by a big fish, then he was.  When children become teenagers, they are most influenced by the beliefs of their peers, and they have a hard time seeing out of their own box.  Young adults begin seeing outside their own boxes, and become disillusioned with their former faith.  That’s why there are so few young adults in church – they’ve outgrown their old faith, and are in the process of deciding what they do believe.  In midlife, people realize the limits of their logic and begin to embrace paradox and mystery, outside the boxes.  Lastly, said Fowler, a few people come to a place where they see a great oneness in diversity, and abandon themselves to serve others without concern for themselves.
I was blessed to have studied with Jim Fowler when I was in seminary.  His work has become hugely important in Christian education and faith development.  Fowler was trying to teach us that we all travel through the wilderness in stages.   We don’t get there – become real – all at once, like winning the lottery.  That’s a lie that was promised by generations of revival preachers who told their congregations that if they would just come down to the altar rail and give their lives to Jesus, then all their problems would be instantly solved.  I wish!  I believe in coming down to the altar rail and giving your life to Jesus.  I’ve done it.  I did for the first time at age seventeen, and it did change my life.  But it wasn’t winning the lottery.  I’ve had to grow and change and develop, much too slowly, and I’ve learned that I have to go to that altar rail every day and surrender my life to Jesus and let God change what God can that day.  And I expect that to go on, not just until I die, but for eternity.  We journey by stages, as the Lord commanded.
This is why if you still believe as you did when you were three, or seven, or seventeen, or twenty-seven, or as you did yesterday, you’re never going to make it to the Promised Land.  This is why all of you who come to worship but skip Sunday School, or our weekday Bible studies, or fellowship groups, aren’t on the journey.  If you can’t look back at the way you believed or thought or acted or felt a year ago and see some difference in who you are now, you’re stuck.  A friend of mine said some years ago that he measures his journey with God by asking himself the question, “Who do you love today that you didn’t love a year ago?”  If he can’t answer that question, he says he’s not following God.
Thirty-two years ago, when I was about to be ordained an Elder, Bishop Goodson lined up all of us who were being ordained in front of the Annual Conference, and asked us the same questions that have been asked all Methodist preachers since John Wesley formulated the questions in the 1700’s.  Goodson liked to do a little sermon between each question.  One of the questions is:  “Are you going on to perfection?”  Before we could answer, the Bishop said, “If you’re not going on to perfection, where are you going?  If you’re going on to imperfection, you’ve already arrived.”
We travel to the Promised Land by stages, as the Lord commanded.  This is how God made us.  There’s no lottery, no pill, no magic wand to bring us to the fullness of God’s design for us.  It’s long, hard work that literally takes an eternity.  And if you’re in the same place you were at seventeen, or last year, or yesterday, you’re in a rut.  And, as another preacher friend of mine used to say, a rut is just a grave with both ends knocked out.
We journey by stages. "It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."[2]

[1] Williams, Margery, The Velveteen Rabbit, New Your, Bantam Doubleday, 1922
[2] Ibid.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Life in the Wilderness: Quit Your Whining

Pentecost 14A 2011
Exodus 16:2-15                                                                                             
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but” against the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’“
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. 
One of the persistent themes of conversations I’ve had with people this past week, as we begin to genuinely recover from Hurricane Irene and examine how we felt during and after the storm, has been how stressed everyone felt after the worst was over.  Of course, as the wind was howling and trees were crashing down around – and sometimes on – our homes in our powerless dark, our stress levels were off the scale.  But two weeks later, so many people have shared with me that they still feel tired and anxious and on edge, as though they continue to carry a great burden.  These are people who came through the storm relatively unscathed.  Vicki and I, for example, only lost power for three days and had one significant limb come down from a tree in our back yard, but we’ve been aware that our baseline stress level – not counting parishioner emergencies or crises at Hallmark or the Orioles edging towards losing 100 games – is higher than normal.  I think we’re still recovering from the storm.
But, it seems to me and to almost everyone I ask, we all seem to feel on edge.  The stock market roller coasters up and down, and we wonder if we’ll be able to eat in retirement.  The news celebrates yet another governmental impasse, the debt continues to climb, people continue to search in vain for work, the weather gets weirder and weirder, loved ones fall in front yards and parking lots or get sick for no clear reason.  We are uncertain people who live in uncertain times with uncertain leaders.  Is it any wonder that the best of us feel numb in our souls, while the worst of us numb ourselves with drugs or destructive behavior or with the brain-destroying fare displayed on our television screens and video games?
The Hebrews had participated in the most miraculous display of God’s salvation in history.  God had sent seven plagues upon Egypt, culminating with the death of firstborn Egyptian children and the sparing of Hebrew children.  They had crossed the Red Sea as God drove back the waters with a strong wind, and then watched as Pharaoh and his army had been drowned behind them.  A cloud of smoke and pillar of fire had led them into the Wilderness with the promise that a new land filled with milk and honey lay before them.  And what was their response to these stunning signs of God’s love and power?  We should have stayed behind in Egypt where we had food to eat, instead of coming out here to die in the desert.
The Hebrews in the wilderness remind me of the skits years ago on Saturday Night live featuring Doug and Wendy Whiner, who managed to drive everyone around them insane with their nasal complaining about everything.  They go to a fancy French restaurant and whine that they can’t eat anything on the menu because they have diverticulitis, and want the chef to make them macaroni and cheese.  They get on an airliner and whine about everything so much that when the flight attendant announces that the flight is overbooked and they need some passengers to volunteer to give up their seats, the entire cabin rushes for the door.  Yes, the Hebrews are in a place they’ve never been before.  Yes, they are surrounded by uncertainty and confusion.  Yes, there is not a Food Sphinx around every bend where they can get food.  But wouldn’t you think that they might get a clue that a God who can create a universe, bring plagues, save children, roll back the waters of the Red Sea, and defeat the mightiest king and army on the face of the planet might be able to find them some food and water?  No.  Better a known evil than an unknown good.  We should have stayed home in Egypt and died building pyramids rather than pursue freedom.
The Hebrews, of course, are us.  So how might we stop our whining about what we don’t have and begin to open our minds and hearts and lives to the God who not only has blessed us over and over and over in the past, but who wants us to live futures overflowing with grace and mercy?
Listen to the people who are more attuned to where God is that where God isn’t.  The Hebrews, no doubt roused by the most cynical and trouble-making in their number, take their complaints to Moses and Aaron, who are God’s agents and witnesses.  Moses and Aaron listen to God, and point out what God is doing in the world.  Pointing out where God is at work in the world is the primary mission of the church, says theologian David Harned.[1]  What everyone else is doing is to point out all the places where they don’t see God.  I haven’t watched television news for many, many years, so on those rare occasions that I do watch it, I am astounded at its utterly sensationalistic focus.  Why is a murder in Utah a story on Richmond television news?  Because there weren’t enough rapes, robberies, and murders locally to fill twenty-two minutes of programming.  If it bleeds, it leads says the old aphorism.  Seriously, church:  stop watching and listening to news – with the possible exception of the weather.  Stop listening to talking heads on TV or radio.  Read news that is a week or a month old instead, news that has been seasoned by thought and deliberation and time.   The twenty-four hour news and opinion cycle feeds on sensation, violence, disaster, and fear.  It is a primary source of emotional and spiritual stress in us all, which is its objective, so it can sell us alcohol, lust, drugs, toys, vacations, and entertainment to numb or distract our dis-ease.
Where are the Moses and Aarons of our day?  Look around you:  we are surrounded by people who have amazing stories of God sightings (which is the focus of Julie Martin’s Wednesday night class).  I’ve heard some of you tell astounding tales of near-misses during the hurricane.  Yes, Margaret Boyle had a terrible fall and concussion this week, but it happened when she was surrounded by church members who loved her and cared for her until the Rescue Squad came:  it could have happened when she was home alone.  Mary Lou Frassmann fell this week in her front yard and broke her arm, but she told me that before she went outside, she put her cordless phone in the pocket of her robe – something she never does.  We just celebrated the tenth anniversary of the horrible events of 9/11, but for every tragic story of lost loved ones there are two stories of miraculous sacrifice and courage and healing.  At lunch last week Bishop Kammerer told me a postscript to the story in her sermon about the United Methodist churches that opened their doors after 9/11 for prayer while other churches were padlocking theirs. After 9/11 Muslim women in Charlotte were afraid to go out to grocery stores to buy food for their families.  United Methodist women in town wrapped scarves around their heads and accompanied their Muslim neighbors shopping as a sign of love.  In the midst of terrible anger and fear, God’s people could see where God was at work to save and to heal.
Amazingly, instead of letting these whining amnesiac Hebrews starve as they deserved, God fed them with quail and manna.  They weren’t fed because of anything they had done to deserve it:  on the contrary, it was so much more than they deserved.  But God loved them in spite of them forgetting the miracles that had just happened and their whining about the slavery they had left behind.  Nothing, St. Paul would say two thousand years later, can separate us from God’s love.
The Trappist monk and spiritual giant Thomas Merton was once asked how he could believe in God, given all the evil and ugliness and injustice in the world.  “You’re asking the wrong question,” Merton replied.  “Given the unlimited capacity of human beings to destroy the world, hurt each other, and reject the image of God within themselves, that there’s any love and hope and beauty left in the world, how can you not believe in God?”
Let’s quit our griping.  Yes, there are plenty of things wrong with the world, and we’re responsible for most, if not all, of them.  But, as I like to say, we are so much better than we deserve.  And in a world that uses hate and darkness and violence and fear to sell us what can never heal, let’s be Moses and Aarons, pointing out where God is still feeding his children, still forgiving their forgetfulness, and still listening in love through the whining.

[1] Harned, David Baily, The Ambiguity of Religion, Westminster, 1968

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Life in the Wilderness: Signed in Blood

Pentecost 12A 2011
Exodus 12:1-14                                                                                                
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

Lillian Daniel, a United Church of Christ pastor, recently wrote:
On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. 

Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets.  And in walks on the beach.  Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet? 
Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself. 

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person . . .  Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?  Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church. [1]
This fall – except next Sunday, when the Bishop preaches, and I have no clue what she’s going to preach about – we’re going to look at the story of the Exodus of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, through the Wilderness, and into the Promised Land.  While these are the appointed readings for this fall in the Revised Common Lectionary, I thought they were particularly appropriate as sermon material, because it seems to me that we are people caught between a familiar past and an uncertain future, following a dream but not sure where we’re going or if we’ll ever get there.  In so many ways, doesn’t it feel as though we’re wandering in our own Wilderness, especially this last week as the winds howled, the trees fell, our modern conveniences became useless, and we had no clue when rescue would ever come?
Hebrew faith really begins here with this story of the first Passover – an act of ritual observance that comes before the miracle, not as a memorial invented afterwards.  Passover is the central act of Hebrew worship:  the family gathers, clothed for a quick getaway, to eat a meal of a freshly killed lamb whose blood has been smeared on the outside doorframe of the house.  That night, as God passes through the land, God will spare the life of the firstborn child in houses marked with blood.  In all other homes – especially those of the Egyptians, even Pharaoh’s palace, there will be death.
Not exactly “spiritual, but not religious,” is it?  This is no walk on the beach, no apprehension of the beauty of Creation when the sun is on the horizon.  This is hard-edged stuff:  butcher a lamb, smear the blood, get ready to run, because people are going to die where there has been no sacrifice.
As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I’ve been thinking a lot about sacrifice.  The whole world was moved by the extraordinary sacrifice of the police and firefighters and other first responders in New York City and Washington, by the sacrifice of the passengers on Flight 93 who prevented that plane from being crashed into whatever its target was, and, of course, the sacrifice of the men and women who went to the Middle East to fight terrorism.  Next Sunday, I want us to spend some significant prayer time remembering those people.  But I’ve also been thinking about the sacrifices that weren’t made – how we embarked upon two wars without paying for them; how we were not asked to make sacrifices in our lifestyles or in our finances as Americans were in the first and second World Wars.  Now we are bearing the cost, with interest, of having avoided sacrifice when it was most needed.
One of the seven great evils in the world, said the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, is worship without sacrifice:  the essence of being “spiritual but not religious.”  Right from the start, the Bible requires sacrifice:  Adam and Eve are asked to sacrifice their wills for the sake of obedience; Abram sacrifices his home and security to follow God’s call; Moses forgoes a safe life herding sheep to confront the greatest king on earth; and in this morning’s lesson, the path to freedom begins with the death of a choice lamb, with the abandonment of all that is familiar, and with the sacrifice of personal choice to the call for radical obedience.  The Bible records the death of Pharaoh’s son and the death of thousands of Egyptian children, but surely there were Hebrew households that night who, “spiritual but not religious,” communing with God in the sunset over the Pyramids, elected to not sacrifice their best lamb, not ruin their doorposts, not leave their new granite countertops or plasma high-definition widescreen hieroglyphic tablets behind.  Odds are, there were dead Hebrew children that awful night too, because their parents did not want to sacrifice.
Blood, in the Bible, is the sacred sign of life.  But the blood on the Passover doorposts is a sign of life sacrificed.  Salvation from slavery and death only comes where people have followed God’s commandment to sacrifice.  It’s the same story in the New Testament:  Jesus’ shed blood on the cross does nothing to save us from our slaveries and our deaths if we do not follow his commandment to take up our own crosses, sacrifice our wills and commitments and priorities and our very lives to God.  Jesus dies for us so we can die for him.  Salvation is signed in blood – Jesus’, and ours.
Isn’t that why we find the stories about 9/11 so compelling?  Something in us is drawn, like a moth to a flame, to those stories about people giving their lives to save the lives of others.  That something is the deeply buried image of God, calling us to the life-giving blood-sign on the doorpost, on the cross, in charred wreckage in New York and Washington and a field in Pennsylvania, in Flanders’ Field and Normandy and Kandahar and Baghdad. 
There is no salvation where there is no flesh and blood – in being “spiritual without religious.”  This is hard, bloody work, that requires life and death and sacrifice, not happy thoughts and pretty pictures. Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.

[1] religious