Salvation Through Connection
The Rev. Kate Byrd
Salvation Through Connection
Delving into the lectionary each week when I preach is one of my favorite exercises. I love figuring out how the Spirit is speaking through these passages to us today. Trying to intentionally discern what these words from thousands of years ago might mean to us and our current events, issues, and state of the world today. But, this week when I was presented with our Gospel passage that Deacon Nancy just read, my excitement quickly dissipated. And, I found myself feeling, well, quite honestly, frustrated that this is what the lectionary handed me to work with for my final sermon here at Christ Church. One of the least well known parables, where we find the poor man Lazarus having his oozing sores licked by dogs, and the unnamed rich man being tortured by the hellfires of Hades.
Maybe my frustration comes from the fact that passages like these often drive me to question, who I am in the story. Which side of the chasm will I find myself on? Will I end up being lovingly cradled in the bosom of Father Abraham, or being tormented by the flames of eternal punishment and agony? Will I be damned because I have not experienced the desperate, unjust, pain of extreme poverty? Is the after life as simple as “the first will be last and the last will be first?” Is the universe, and moreover our God, that dualistic? As you can see this passage can quickly take me down a theological rabbit hole of my own notions and fears surrounding an individualistic understanding of salvation. Allowing my mind and thoughts to quickly, and often irrationally, take over. As the existential questions of heaven or hell swallow me whole.
This being my last sermon here at Christ Church, I of course could not leave you all without slipping in one final podcast reference. So, I will share with you today one of my absolute favorites, at least this week, which is The Liturgist. The Liturgist started as a podcast a few years ago, but has grown into a community and a movement centered around “breaking down the barriers that our society builds around religion, race, gender, ability, and sexuality.” Through “compelling discussion and non-judgmental community.” One of the Liturgists more recent podcasts was entitled Scrupulosity. If you are not familiar with the term (which I wasn’t until more recently), scrupulosity, also known as Religious OCD, is characterized by irrational moral or religious obsessions that are often coupled with corresponding compulsions and rituals.
In this episode of the Liturgist, Audrey Assad, a Christian singer songwriter, recounts her own struggles and journey with Scrupulosity, born out of her experiences growing up in a fundamentalist Christian home. Audry speaks to how a rigorous faith community centered around a God who demanded perfection, lest you wish to end up being eternally punished by hell fire, gave birth to her own Scrupulosity. As she describes the demanding nature of her OCD she depicts how it gave way to an image of God as a task master who depended and demanded Audrey’s absolute and finepoint adherence and obedience to her faith. Driving her to analyze every little thing she did, making sure it wasn’t somehow divergent from the rigourous demands of her faith or her God. Compelling Audrey to feel the necessity to pray the sinner's prayer 300 times a day, and often again 300 more times before bed. All while striving to please and live a life worthy of a God who may or may not approve of her actions, thoughts, or even life. Eventually leading her towards addiction and painful coping mechanisms, that ended up leaving her feeling deeply depressed and hopelessly isolated. Despite all the pain Audrey’s Scrupulosity brought her, what may have been the most painful and damaging of all was the shame story her Scrupulosity created. The story that told her she should not and moreover could not reach out to anyone, connect to others, or (heaven forbid) share her story. Because if she did, her shame story told her, everyone close to her would disown her, hate her, and cast her aside. And so, while Audrey lived in a tight knit community, she was never able to truly be herself, to share her story, or live into her community in any real or meaningful way. And, more tragically within that community she was never able to receive the support and help she so desperately needed and deserved.
What if the story of the rich man and Lazarus wasn’t really about who was going to heaven or hell. What if it wasn’t even about some future individual salvation that depends on us being correct. But, instead about a salvation available to us all right now that depends on us being connected. A salvation found not in being right, but being in right relationship. Because, (as Richard Rohr states in the Universal Christ) “the lone individual is far too small and insecure to carry either the ‘weight of glory’ or the ‘burden of sin’ [all] on his or her own.” We can only recognize, and live into the glory of God’s transformative power, I believe, when we realize our intrinsic connection to this world, to one another, and to our God. Because, that is where our salvation lies. In our ability to enjoy the abundant gifts and beauty that come from our connections to each other and to our God. A connection built stronger and spreading wider as we reach beyond ourselves to heal the chasms that have been created and perpetuated by isolation and fear.
I have certainly experienced this form of connection, this little slice of salvation, as I have been blessed with the opportunity to connect with all of you here at Christ Church. Your warm welcome and embrace of my family and myself has been a gift, especially as we came to you strangers in a strange land. You all quickly and without hesitation reached out and intentionally found ways to bring us into this community and connect with us. And, even though it has been a short time that we have been together. I feel as though you all have shared so much with me and my family. You have shared your homes and dinner tables, through feasts and family dinners. Your time and talents, as we have created new ministries like Team Wellness, and supported existing ones like Youth. Your children through baptisms and confirmation. Your loved ones through weddings and funerals. Your stories and journeys over coffee at City Market or through the intimate space of pastoral care. And, your support and confidence in my ministry as I have continued to grow and learn, especially from Fr. Seth who has been such an invaluable mentor to me, and through his sabbatical this past summer. The connections we have made and the time, space, and stories we have shared, have all shaped me not only as a minister, but as a member of the body of Christ, and for that I will forever hold you close to my heart.
As I leave you, I thought I might also share a bit of my story and journey with you all as well. In the Liturgists podcast Scrupulosity I was deeply moved and touched by Audrey’s ability to be vulnerable and reach across the chasm that scrupulosity had created in her own life. As Audrey shared her story, I was struck by a feeling of connection, hope, and maybe even a little salvation. Because, I myself have struggled with Religious OCD, as a teen, and still live with the ways it has reordered and affected my mental health. While my story and details are different from Audrey’s, the mental condition of Scrupulosity (of which I had actually not heard of until more recently) did create in my own mind a shame story that isolated me from my community, my friends, and my family for much of my teen years. It was not until, I came to a space where there seemed to be no hope, no way out, no possibility of a loving God who would save me from my own inner experience of hell, that one of my classmates reached out to me and shared her own story of struggle with mental illness. If my classmate had not shared her vulnerability and story with me, reaching across the chasm I felt in my own life, I am not sure where I would be today. But, I am forever thankful that she did, because her simple act of sharing allowed me to finally realize that there was hope, there was help, and there was life beyond the chasm and the hell of mental illness.
And, I am thankful to say that is where I live and move today, on the bridge that is being built over the chasm, as I continue to make connections, and continue to live into God’s transformative power. A power that lies most strongly in our ability to be vulnerable, share, and connect with one another. Which is I why I am sharing my story with you today. Not for pity or for shock, but for the simple fact that it has made me who I am today, it has allowed me to see and know a God who is greater and far more powerful than the simplistic idea of individual salvation based on merit, piety or chance alone. My story has allowed me to be vulnerable because it has taught me the power of shared journeys and connection, that allow us to mend to the chasm, and begin to bring all God’s beloved children into the power and love of a corporate salvation.
My prayer is that we can begin to know, believe, and see that we are all in this together. And use that knowledge to find the strength and power in our connections to the world, to one another and to God, as we continue to mend the chasm, finding together our common salvation.