mantegnadescentlimbo

Level Ground: A Universalist Preaches on Hell

Click here to read the service bulletin, including biblical readings

I heard a remarkable story a few years ago, about a series of events that took place on and around September 11, 2001. Unlike many of the stories that captured our attention that week, this one went largely unnoticed at the time, and took place far away from the cities of New York and Washington.

Many of us remember that all airplanes were grounded for several days after the attacks. This created quite a crisis for those who happened to be traveling. Many planes were diverted away from landing at American airports, and landed instead in the tiny town of Gander, in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. Waiting on the Tarmac for some kind of resolution, many were stuck on their planes for almost 24 hours.

Gander has a population of about 10,000 people. The number of passengers from 39 flights stranded there on September 11 was 6,500, well over half the size of the town. No one would have blamed the people of Gander if they had said, “Listen, we’re very sorry, but our town is just not set up to receive this many people at once.” But that’s not what happened…

The people of Gander opened their hearts and homes to the stranded travelers. They came with food, supplies, and offers of housing. The life of their town was disrupted for the next five days as citizens accommodated the needy travelers. They went out of their way and over the top to care for strangers in need.

Toward the end of their time in Gander, one of the stranded passengers had an idea. He spoke to his fellow passengers on Delta Flight 15 and took up a sizable collection. This money went to establish a university scholarship for the people of Gander as thanks for the generosity shown during a time of crisis. To this day, that scholarship continues to provide assistance for people of Gander to attend college and university.

There is nothing that binds people quite like coming through a crisis together. I hear this frequently from combat veterans and emergency responders. I have experienced it myself among my colleagues in ordained ministry. We may not have much else in common, but we share this one experience, and that binds us together as one forever.

In today’s gospel, Jesus describes a similar crisis that binds people together and erases the lines we tend to draw between ourselves in daily life.

We continue to hear from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount this week. The section we read today is called ‘the Antitheses’ because Jesus is reinterpreting many of the commonly known laws of the Jewish Torah. He follows a certain formula, starting with, “You have heard that it was said…” and ending with, “But I say to you…”

At first glance, it appears that Jesus is overturning the old commandments, but in reality, he is deepening them (or “fulfilling” them, to use his words). Specifically, he addresses the commandments surrounding murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing oaths.

Jesus invites his followers to move beyond keeping the letter of the law to examining the spirit of the law. He does this because we humans have a strong tendency toward self-justification in morality. We like to set ourselves against one another in battles for superiority. Our spiritual life is no exception.

Examining my life according to the Ten Commandments, it seems at first that I am doing pretty okay (sort of). Sure, I haven’t always told the truth, rested when I needed to, or been grateful for what I have. If my parents were here today, they could give several examples of times when I did not honor my mother and father. But I can honestly say that I’ve never worshiped a pagan deity, robbed a bank, murdered another human being, or cheated on my spouse. So, at first glance, I’m scoring about fifty or sixty percent on God’s ‘Top Ten List’ of commandments. But when I listen to Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel, my score drops dramatically.

I have never killed anyone, but I have harbored hatred and bitterness in my heart toward my fellow human beings from time to time. I have never committed outright adultery, but I have had a wandering eye and nursed unhealthy fantasies that would destroy my family, were I to act on them. I have never renounced the worship of God, but I have pledged my allegiance to things that are not God and allowed other concerns to take precedence over my baptismal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The same could be said by any of us, if we are willing to be honest with ourselves.

What this means is that none of us has the right to set ourselves up as morally superior to another person. As St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans:

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23)

An honest consideration of the spirit of the law reveals that everyone stands on level ground at the foot of the cross. As sinners, saved by grace, we simply have no time to stand around in judgment over one another. We are all going through this crisis together.

So, what then is this crisis that we find ourselves in?

Jesus tells us repeatedly in this passage: it is hell.

Jesus talks about the evil one and the fire of hell no less than four times in this short passage.

Now, many of you may find it odd that I bring this particular detail up. Many of you have heard me say, on numerous occasions, that I tend to lean toward the theology of universalism, meaning that I believe God will save all people in time. For me, the belief in universal salvation is not born out of political correctness, liberal idealism, or a desire to avoid the harsher parts of the Bible I don’t like. I have several sound biblical and philosophical reasons for believing this, mostly relating to the character of God. However, I recognize that not all Christians agree with me. In the history of the Church, faithful Christians have devised many different ideas and interpretations about who and how many people will be saved for eternity. In the end, the decision about that will be made by the only one who is qualified: God, who judges the world with absolute fairness and absolute mercy. Hence, it is not for human beings to set limits on how far the redemption won for us in Jesus Christ can extend.

I am a universalist, but that does not mean that I can simply ignore Christ’s teaching about the very real danger of sin and hell.

When Jesus talks about hell in today’s passage, the word he uses is Gehenna. This is a reference to a real, physical place: the Valley of Hinnom on the southwest side of Jerusalem. We read in 2 Chronicles that this is a place that ancient Israelites used for human sacrifice to the Canaanite god Moloch in Old Testament times. The descendants of these Israelites were horrified by what their ancestors had done there. They kept the site from being used for any other purpose. Like the Auschwitz concentration camp, where Nazis sent countless Jews to their death, Gehenna stood as a perpetual reminder to history of what must never be allowed to happen again. By Jesus’ day, it had become the city dump of Jerusalem, where people would bring their trash to be burned. The sin of Israel had caused the Valley of Hinnom to become a stinking, perpetually burning pile of garbage that was good for nothing else. Our English translations have rendered his word Gehenna as hell.

I see hell, not as something that God will do to us in the afterlife, but as something that we do to ourselves in this life. I have sat at the bedside of addicts going through the shivers of withdrawal, and it is hell. I have spoken with parents who have seen their children gunned down in front of them by police, and it is hell. I have been to the overcrowded orphanages of Romania, and it is hell. I have listened to LGBTQ youth left homeless by self-righteous parents and pastors, and it is hell.

Jesus directs our attention to Gehenna as a warning about the very real and observable consequences of sin. If we occupy our lives with the relentless pursuit of property, pleasure, and power, we put ourselves in danger of becoming something disgusting and worthless. We develop ingrown souls that don’t care about being part of God’s plan for the world. If I were to translate Jesus’ warning in modern terms, I would say that those who despise and degrade their fellow creatures are in danger of “the ovens of Auschwitz.” Even as a universalist, I would say to you this morning that hell is real and the dangers of sin are real. This is the common crisis in which we all find ourselves as human beings on planet Earth.

But God has not abandoned us in this crisis. Even though we have turned away from God, God has never turned away from us. In Jesus Christ, the Word of God took on flesh and dwelled among us. He broke bread with outcasts and sinners. He healed the sick, opened blind eyes, and raised the dead. He challenged the status quo and called the people to move beyond the letter of the law to the spirit of the law.

When we humans, in our selfishness, could bear no longer to hear this message of grace and truth, we tried to silence Jesus by nailing him to the cross. But even then, after all hope was lost, the power of love overcame the love of power: God raised Jesus from the grave, in the words of an ancient Orthodox hymn, “Trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb, bestowing life.”

This risen Jesus invites us now to respond in faith by coming to his table, to share his broken body and shed blood in the Eucharist, to become one with him in body and spirit, and one with each other in the common loaf and cup. In this Sacrament, we receive Christ into ourselves and look forward to the day when hell will be conquered and emptied forever, our sins and sadnesses will cease, and all people will be made one in Christ.

Like those stranded travelers on September 11, we are bound together by the common crisis we have endured, and look forward in hope to the common destiny that awaits us in Jesus.

Inferno of the Living

The Reverend Archene Turner

I heard this amazing sermon yesterday on the monthly Quest podcast from Church of the Larger Fellowship.  It was originally preached on December 12, 2009 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington, VA.  The preacher is Rev. Archene Turner, a Unitarian Universalist minister.  Many thanks to Rev. Turner, who has granted me permission to reprint her words here.

A friend suggested that I read Invisible Cities, a short novel by Italo Calvino that consists of dialogues between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan because she found the stories meaningful. I certainly found Polo’s thoughts about inferno provocative:

“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

I think we are living in an inferno. People acknowledge we are living in an economic crisis but family, we are in a moral crisis too.

A recent survey found that one in four families had been hit by a job loss during the past year and nearly half had suffered a reduction in wages or hours worked. For the working poor, already struggling, the current recession is knocking them down another notch – from low wage employment and inadequate housing toward erratic employment and no housing at all. Barbara Ehrenreich recently went back and interviewed some of the people in her 2001 best seller, Nickeled and Dimed, about the working poor, the quarter of the population that struggle even in the best of times. She called her article “Too Poor to Make the News”, because the media is looking for what has been called “recession porn” – stories about the incremental descent of the well off from excess to frugality, from ease to austerity.

A Typical story reads “Sarah and Tyrone Mangold … she was selling health insurance, and he was working on a heating and air conditioning crew. She got laid off in the spring, and he a few months later. Now, they had one unemployment check and a blended family of three children.

They ate at his mother’s house twice a week. They pawned jewelry. She scoured the food pantry. He scrounged for side jobs. Their frustration peaked one night over a can of pinto beans. Each blamed the other when that was all they had to eat. “People get irritable when they’re hungry,” Ms. Mangold said.

Mr. Mangold, no longer objects to using food stamps. “I always thought people on public assistance were lazy,” he said, “but it helps me know I can feed my kids. “

Stories like this often includes phrases like “Those we serve are now our neighbors, our former colleagues and hard working individuals struggling to make ends meet.

I wanted to SCREAM. Were not the people they served before our neighbors, our former colleagues and hard working individuals struggling to make ends meet? And “we’re hearing from more and more middle class people who have never in their life gone to a food pantry..they are very, very frustrated and angry.”

Who goes to food pantries for kicks ?

I thought about the hundreds of people I had seen at some of the ALIVE’s programs. On Halloween Day, that pretty unseasonably warm, Saturday morning, UUCA members Diana Day and Ann Marie Hay took the time to show me ALIVE’s child development center, food distribution and shelter as others prepared for monsters, ghouls & goblins.

The people I saw in the food distribution center did not appear angry. They were unusually quiet and respectful. Many of them looked like members on my own family tree – white, Native, Asian and Pacific Islander, African, Arab and Latino/a descent.

Perhaps the frustration and anger had passed out of them. Maybe there is a difference in people’s minds of climbing up a ladder than going down one. To me a rung on a ladder is a rung.

I thought of Polo’s two ways to escape suffering the inferno. The first is to accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it.

Many people do not know about the people ALIVE serves in Northern Virginia. We think need, struggle and hunger are in a distant land. Africa, New Orleans, the District of Columbia – but oh no, not here, not in our neighborhoods or in our religious communities or at UUCA.

We can live our lives so we no longer see what is happening in our world. We pretend that things are not happening all around us and we become a part of the inferno.

Most people when they think of an inferno think of Dante.

UU minister John Nichols noted that when Dante wrote:

“The Inferno” he was actually at the mid-point of his own life, struggling with disillusionment. He imagines that he was chased down into a vast h*** by wild beasts that threatened to tear him limb from limb. He passes beyond a sign reading, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” and then he knows that he has reached the outer suburbs of Hell.

Descending into the Hellish pit he finds the trail winds downward like a canyon in the shape of a corkscrew. The farther one descends, the greater the sins of those one passes.

The fiery temperature in Dante’s Hell drops dramatically where it houses people with a diminished capacity for caring. At the lowest level are those who have killed in themselves all love for others. Their souls are encased in ice.”

Okay confession time – I’ve never read Dante’s Inferno. I was raised on another story about Hell, about a rich man going to Hell and a poor man to Heaven. The rich man is surprised to see the poor man in heaven by the side of Abraham. In his suffering, the rich man pleads to Abraham to send the poor man to give him water to quench his thirst. Abraham says that the chasm is too wide to be crossed.

Martin Luther King Jr and other preachers have interpreted this story to mean that the rich man did not go to hell because he was rich;, but because he allowed the poor man to become invisible to him. He passed this poor man every day and failed to help. The rich man was blind to the need of others. Even in Hell, he held on to his notion that he was better than the poor man and could ask that he serve him. It is interesting that the rich man wanted the people in heaven to care and help him, but he had failed to do this in his own life on earth for others.

Perhaps our souls are encased in ice or destined to hell because we are blind to the needs of others. We might be that way because we ourselves are barely holding on. In “The Working Poor: Invisible in America, David Shipler writes that ‘in the house of the poor the walls are thin and fragile and troubles seep into one another’. Perhaps those troubles seep into our own lives, too, because our lives are just as fragile.

That is why I say we are living in an inferno and even Hell some days. Each of us walks that tight rope of hanging on to make sense of our own world . Something in us says “just do for you and yours.” I want to tell you to resist this urge. The act of doing the exact opposite – reaching out to help others– is the balm that heals us and is the very essence of who we are as religious people and what will lead us into a moral recovery.

Polo says the other way to escape the suffering in the inferno is to “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

Polo does not say do things to make YOU endure and give YOU space – he says THEM. The act of caring for someone else is the message I would like to share with you this holiday season and do it to have faith in life like the old man in the reading.

Let us move from our past into our future building a better tomorrow for everyone.

Let us work together to create a world where we value people instead of things and we give the gift of ourselves to our one human family.

The song we just learned says “all of us are all united, we are family united and the other song asks what can I give..the answer is simple…give your heart.

So in this December season, make a list and check it twice of let’s say, three acts of kindness that you would not typically do for others. It can be our Unitarian Universalist holy trinity.. Do these acts with no expectation of a thank you or a need for acknowledgement from the other person or people because these are things you are giving YOURSELF to pull you out of the inferno of the living.

So may it be.

Ashe.

Rejecting Rejection: An Easter Sermon

The Risen Christ by He Qi

My first Easter sermon at First Presbyterian, Boonville.  The text is Matthew 28:1-10.

Philip Gulley and James Mulholland tell a story in their book, If Grace Is True (HarperCollins: 2003), about a scene that is probably familiar to all of us (especially those of us who are parents).  It goes like this:

When I was about five years old, I demanded my mother buy me a certain toy.  She refused, explaining she didn’t have the money.

I recall flying into a rage and screaming, “I hate you!”

My mother was utterly unperturbed.  She didn’t spank me and send me to my room, though that would have been understandable.  She didn’t break into tears.  She didn’t drag me to a therapist.  She most certainly didn’t buy the toy.  She simply said, “Well, I love you, and your hate can’t change my love.”  (p.110)

I think most of us have been there, am I right?  If you haven’t experienced it firsthand, you’ve probably seen something like it in public.  As the father of a two-year-old, I’m intimately familiar with what goes through a parent’s head in a moment like that.  I worry about making a scene.  I wonder what other people must be thinking about me as a parent.  I’m scared that, no matter what I do, I might be psychologically scarring my child for life.

But when I see other parents dealing with similar meltdowns in public, I don’t judge them.  In fact, my heart goes out to them.  I don’t think they’re bad parents.  I see others like me who are just doing the best they can in a difficult moment.  The only parents I worry about are the ones who return the rage in kind.  You know what I’m talking about.  All of us lose our cool with our kids on occasion, but it’s pretty obvious when a parent in public crosses the line verbally or physically.  In the effort to maintain control of the situation, they lose control of themselves.  Those are the parents that other people tend to worry about.

Imagine what people would think if the mother in Gulley and Mulholland’s story had shouted, “I hate you, too!” and stormed out of the store, leaving this five-year-old little kid to find his own way home.  We would be horrified!  We would run to the child’s aid and probably call the police.  We would say that such a mother deserves to be locked up in jail.

Unfortunately, there are those among Christians past and present who believe that this is exactly how God behaves.  Those who turn their backs on God, so they say, are doomed for eternity.  Those who reject God will be rejected by God.  They claim that God, who is infinitely holy and righteous, must respect the freewill of these unrepentant sinners and allow them to receive exactly what they deserve.  Most Christians who believe this can quote lots of Bible verses to support their position.

What I can’t understand is this: if we would call the police on any human mother who abandoned her child in that way, then why wouldn’t we do the same for a parental deity who abandons even one of God’s children to eternal torment?  Why should we worship God for doing that for which we would incarcerate a human?  It doesn’t make sense.

Fortunately for us, that is not the God who we worship.  The God of love revealed in Jesus Christ is more like the mother in the first story from Gulley and Mulholland’s book.  When we scream, “I hate you!” at God, God responds, “Well, I love you, and your hate can’t change my love.”  This God rejects the rejection of the rebellious children.

This God would rather leave the ninety-nine sheep in the field to go search for the one who is lost.  Jesus tells us in Luke 15 that this good shepherd searches until that lost sheep is found and carries it home rejoicing.  Jesus teaches his followers to love their enemies because that’s what God does.  He says, in Matthew 5:44-45,

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Not only did Jesus teach us about God’s love, he showed it to us in the way that he unconditionally accepted the most messed-up and undesirable people of his day as members of his own family.

More than any other story in the scriptures, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection shows us just how far God is willing to go in order to reject our rejection.  Last Sunday, and then again on Good Friday, we heard the story of how the powers that be in the world rejected Jesus.  The political and religious authorities wanted to shut him up.  His closest disciples betrayed, denied, and abandoned him.  Last week, we also looked at the hard fact that you and I are really no different from the crowds who shouted, “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday and “Crucify!” only five days later on Good Friday.  The cross stands as a reminder of the lengths to which we, the people of this world, will go in order to reject Jesus.  Like five-year-olds throwing temper tantrums, we scream, “I hate you!” to God at the top of our lungs.  With all our pretended power, we lash out with the very worst torture and death that we can muster.  Intoxicated by our ability to inflict death, we delude ourselves into thinking that we’re so strong.  We can even make God go away… permanently!

But then, on the third day, on that first Easter Sunday, something happened.  It says in today’s reading from Matthew that there was an earthquake.  Matthew is the only one of the four gospels to record this fact.  What does it mean?  I like to think it means that something fundamental at the very heart of reality shifted in that moment.  The power of life overcame the power of death.  The very worst of human hatred was undone by the very best of God’s love.  In the cross, the world rejected Jesus Christ.  But in the resurrection, God rejected the world’s rejection.  This is what Easter is all about!

As if this weren’t enough, look again at what happens in verse 10.  Jesus appears to the two Marys and gives them a message for his “brothers” (meaning the twelve disciples).  Remember that the last time we saw any of them in Matthew was in 26:56, when they were all running away from Jesus in his hour of need.  They rejected him.  But the risen Jesus nevertheless calls them “brothers” and invites them to return to the mission they had begun together.  He rejected their rejection.

This is (very) good news for people like me who struggle with our loyalty to God.  If God were to respect my freewill and give me what I deserve (and sometimes ask for), I would be abandoned like a five-year-old in a department store with no way home.  I am thankful that God does not respect my freewill, but goes out of the way to seek after me until I am found.  I am thankful that God has rejected my rejection.

What does this mean for all of us?

Maybe you are a Christian, but you struggle with things like sin and doubt.  Well, the good news for you is that you don’t have to impress God with your morals or your dogma.  The only thing for you to do, in the words of the theologian Paul Tillich, is “accept the fact that you are accepted.”

Maybe you’re here today and you’re not a Christian.  Maybe you want to believe in something, but can’t wrap your mind around some theological point or maybe you’re sickened by the judgmental hypocrisy of those who call themselves Christians.  The good news for you is that the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ is not the cold-hearted and small-minded bookkeeper of conventional religion.  The God I believe in is not standing at a distance, waiting to burn you in hell.  My God is just as angry about the pretended piety of so-called “saints” to which you have borne witness.  Likewise, God is not threatened by honest questions on a quest for truth.

Whatever your individual struggle may be, what I want you to take away from this Easter is that, in the resurrection of Jesus, God has rejected your rejection.  Sure, you might kick and scream like a kid having a tantrum.  You might even deny God’s existence or yell, “I hate you!” to the empty sky, but in those moments, the God I believe in just holds you that much tighter with an eternal love that will not let you go.