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Level Ground: A Universalist Preaches on Hell

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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.

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Becoming What You Already Are

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Have you ever looked in the mirror and been unhappy with what you see?

Most of us have, at some point or other. We’re unhappy with the way we look, or the clothes we wear, or the house we live in, or the life we’re living.

Advertising executives make a fortune by promoting and manipulating that impulse within us. If only we buy this product, they say, our unhappiness and self-doubt will simply fade away. With their help, they say, we can be as happy and beautiful as the people we see in TV commercials.

It’s all lies, of course. We all know that advertisers are really just trying to get us to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need in order to impress people we don’t like.

But here’s the thing: in order to effectively sell the lie, advertisers are preying upon a very real fear and very real desire that exist within each of us. The fear is that there is something wrong or missing inside of us, something that would make us profoundly happy, if only we had possession of it. The desire is the drive to be something other than who we are.

Want to look young and attractive forever? Buy this cream! Want to be an adventurous tough guy? Smoke the same cigarettes as the Marlboro man!

Religious advertisers have gotten in on this action too. Want to be free of that gnawing sense of guilt and loneliness? Join this church! Read this book! Attend this conference!

What all of the above have in common, from cigarettes to church conferences, is the claim to cure our sense of inner emptiness by way of some outside product. They claim that they can make us into something other than what we are. And it’s all a lie.

Christ, on the other hand, does the opposite. He offers us no quick-fix product or easy 3-step solution to our insecurities. On the contrary, Christ saves us by bringing us more deeply into who we already are.

In today’s gospel, Christ uses two images to describe this process: salt and light.

He begins by telling his followers, “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt, as we know, is a seasoning for food. We don’t typically eat it by itself; we put it on other things. It adds flavor. But what would happen if salt somehow lost its taste? Jesus tells us, “It is no longer good for anything”.

The second thing Christ tells his followers is, “You are the light of the world.” Light adds visibility to a dark room. If we hide it under a basket, we’ve lost the point of having light altogether. It belongs out in the open.

The common ground between salt and light is that they both add something to something else, whether it’s flavor to a meal or visibility to a room. Their presence deepens the experience of life. And they do this, not by becoming something else, but by being precisely what they are. Salt tastes salty by nature; light is bright by nature.

In the same way, Christ’s saving work in our lives is a process by which we gradually discover, embrace, and embody the image of God within us. The Christian saints of the East call this process ‘theosis’ or ‘divinization’.

According to Eastern Orthodox theologians, the ‘Image of God’ is who we really are inside. It is that part of our deepest selves that reflects something unique about God to the world. We humans can tarnish or cover this image by our sin, but we can never fully erase it.

The redemption won for us in Christ removes the dross of our sin, restores the flavor of our saltiness, and removes the basket from over our flame so that our inner light can be more clearly seen by the world. And this inner light is not our own, but only a reflection of God’s light, just as moonlight is a reflection of sunlight.

This is how Christ’s plan of salvation differs from that of advertising executives and Pharisees. The Pharisees were a religious group who promoted the product of biblical law as a way to change people into something other than what they are. The Pharisees said, “Come to us and follow our program, and you will be acceptable to God.”

They had a very public reputation for being very pious and righteous, so it must have been very disconcerting when Jesus said to his followers, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Who was more righteous than a Pharisee? Jesus might as well have said, “You have to be more Catholic than the Pope” or “climb higher than Mount Everest” to enter the kingdom of heaven. Such an order would have seemed hopeless to the average person.

And I think that’s exactly the point that Jesus was trying to get across. It is hopeless. You can’t get there from here. If you’re trying to win your way into God’s good graces by becoming something other than what you already are, the battle is already over and you’ve lost.

Ironically, the path to holiness leads, not farther away from sin, but deeper into it. We exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees by admitting that we can never live up to it. We ascend by descending. The first step toward finding a solution is facing the problem. The fulfillment of the law begins with our failure to uphold it.

This way of thinking runs counter to the logic of our consumer culture, which brainwashes us to run away and hide from our brokenness, fearing that we could never be loved if others knew what we really are.

The promise of Christ, the “double-dog-dare” of grace, is that there is indeed a light within you. A light that was placed there by God and shaped to reflect God’s own light in a way that is utterly unique in the world. This light is our true beauty, and we will not find it by running away from what we are. We find it by grace, which gives us the faith to remove the baskets from over our candles and “let [our] light shine before others, so that they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.”

Redefining Success

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Károly Ferenczy [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Introduction

What would you say are the marks of a successful church?

Here are some of my ideas for North Church:

  • We’re going to court some billionaire investors. Not donors, but investors. We want to incentivize their giving by promising a lucrative return. Once we have their money, we’re going to make use of it.

  • First of all, because we need to keep them happy (so they’ll keep sending us money), we’re going to turn our upstairs balcony into a skybox where our wealthiest members can observe the service in comfort, with leather recliners and a full wait staff serving champagne and caviar.

  • For our music ministry, we’re going to hire a full-time, paid, professionally trained choir (we already have the best organist in Michigan, so we won’t need a new one of those). Our contemporary worship team will get brand new, state-of-the-art AV equipment.

  • We’re going to get TV cameras so our service can be broadcast live via satellite around the world.

  • We’ll get paid endorsements from celebrities like Derek Jeter (add Christina Hendricks and George Clooney for sex appeal), who will tell everybody how great North Church is.

  • And finally, we’ll need to protect all this new stuff, so we’ll need to get a security force to guard the church. And I’m not thinking just some smiling, helpful rentacops either… I’m talking about SWAT team gear with assault rifles: I want such an overwhelming display of power that nobody will even THINK about messing with our church.

If we had all of those things (i.e. money, fame, and power), we would be a successful church, right? Wrong.

Blessedness

Jesus’ definition of the word success is different from the one accepted by the rest of the world. The world has a very self-centered definition of success, but Jesus presents us with a God-centered definition of success. The word he uses is blessed, which can also mean successful or lucky when you take away the spiritual side of it. That word blessed, by the way, comes from the Latin beatus and is where we get get the word Beatitude from. Blessedness, from the God-centered perspective of Jesus, is quite different from the world’s self-centered idea of success.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The world sees wealth as a sign of success: the Armani tux, the Vera Wang dress, the Italian sports car, the yacht, and the mansion. The world looks at people who have those things and calls them successful/lucky.But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdoms of this world (governments, corporations, institutions) cater to the desires of the haves, but the kingdom of heaven (Jesus’ vision of an ideal society) will serve the needs of the have-nots. On the day when God’s dream for this world comes true, no more will Senators and CEOs vote to give themselves raises and go on vacation while the people whose jobs they cut sleep in shelters and line up outside soup kitchens. That’s not going to happen anymore.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

The world looks at people who seem to be happy and calls them “successful.” Today is Super Bowl Sunday, the one day a year when people watch TV just as much for the commercials as they watch it for the program. How many people plugging products in those commercials will be average-looking folks, looking bored, and saying, “Meh, I guess this product is okay…”? Not very many, I think. TV commercials are full of beautiful, smiling people who are excited to tell you all about how a particular cleaning solution changed their lives forever. They want us to believe that we’ll be as beautiful and happy as they are if only we buy what they’re selling. The world says that happy people are successful people, but Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus invites us to not buy into that “cult of happiness.” Jesus doesn’t want us to turn away from the pain of this world, he wants us to look at it and do something about it. That’s what compassion is: Showing up with food or clothes, visiting the shelter, the drop-in, the hospital bed, the courtroom, and the prison cell. That’s the kind of love Jesus showed us and it’s the kind of love he wants us to show others. Wherever there’s pain, there’s Jesus, so that’s where we should be too.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

The world says that successful people are tough-minded alpha-dogs who stand their ground and don’t compromise. Those are the big-shots who end up in running the show. The world puts them in charge of things. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek (i.e. gentle, flexible), for they will inherit the earth.” I like this one because I read a book by a couple of biologists last year that talks about how competition is not the only driving force behind evolution. They make the case that cooperation plays just as big a role in the ongoing development of life. When God’s dream for this world comes true, the ones in charge will be the ones who know how to work well with others and value relationships more than ideologies.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

The world believes that truly successful people lack for nothing. They have everything they could ever want. They benefit from the way things are. Insulated by wealth and power, they don’t sense the urgency of the situation or feel the need to challenge the system. But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (i.e. justice, fairness), for they will be filled.” That last part is especially ominous because history has shown, time and again, that poor people will not stay quiet and submissive forever. If the leaders will not change the system, the people will change the leaders. Jesus has been proven right more than once: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

The world says that successful people know how to give as good as they get. If you hit them, they hit you back. They make an example of you so that others know not to mess with them. That’s the politics of power. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Real power, according to Jesus, comes from knowing that you could rip your enemies to shreds but choosing not to. What’s more is that mercy is contagious: it comes back to you. It stops the cycle of violence from going around and around and escalating until the situation is out of control. The United States and the Soviet Union spend the latter half of the twentieth century with nuclear missiles pointed at each other in the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). But then the Cold War ended, not with a mushroom cloud, but with a party: people singing and dancing as the Berlin Wall came down. The doctrine of MAD-ness did neither side any good in the end.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

The world says that successful people are savvy: they know how to read between the lines and close the deal. They’re street-smart; they have guile. Successful people know how the game is played and stay two steps ahead of the competition. These savvy, successful people are sure to see great big dividends on their investments. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Savvy, street-smart people see the world for what they can get out of it, but they’re missing a whole other dimension of reality. Those who see the world like Jesus does get to see the hand of God at work in creation. These blessed folks know that they’re not alone and that life has meaning. I like to compare this one to the scene in Star Wars when Han Solo is laughing at Luke Skywalker as he trains to be a Jedi Knight. Luke says, “You don’t believe in the Force, do you?” Han replies, “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen *anything* to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls *my* destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.” Han is savvy but Luke is pure in heart. Luke is learning how to see the world through a different set of eyes and so, as Obi-Wan Kenobi said about him, he’s taking his “first steps into a larger world.”

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

The world defines success by winning. Whether it’s trophies on the shelf or notches on the bedpost, the world wants to know about your conquests. This was especially true in ancient Rome, where the empire was built on the doctrine of Pax Romana: world peace through global conquest. They believed that Roman order would prevail over the barbarians of the world by the mighty hand of Caesar. And Caesar himself was worshiped and given a very special title: “The Son of God,” Sol Invictus, “the Unconquerable Sun.” But Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers (not the conquerors), for they will be called children (lit. ‘sons’) of God.”

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Finally, the world says that respect is a measure of success. They say a good name is as good as gold. If people listen to what you say, you’re successful. If you get invited to the White House to advise the President on a matter, you’re successful. The world says it’s good to be admired and respected. Those who possess the kingdoms of this world are accorded respect, whether they deserve it or not. But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice the parallel with the first beatitude. God’s ideal world belongs to the have-nots, the disrespected, the ones without a voice, and those who suffer and die for standing up and speaking out for what’s right. When God’s dream for this world comes true, these are the people we’ll be listening to, not the flattering bootlickers who only tell powerful leaders what they want to hear. We need people of conscience who will “speak the truth in love” to the powerful ones in charge. That’s what prophets do, but they’re almost never listened to or given the respect they deserve. Nevertheless, Jesus calls them “blessed” and commands us to keep doing it.

Conclusion

Jesus redefines success. He takes the world’s self-centered idea of success and replaces it with his own God-centered idea of blessedness. In the mind of Christ, success is not a blessing and blessing does not look like success. God’s blessing is upon the poor and oppressed peoples of this world, the ones without a voice, the ones who weep in the night, and the ones who are literally starving for change. God’s blessing is upon the gentle, the compassionate, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.God’s blessing is upon those who face the pain of this world and do what they can to make a difference. God’s blessing is upon those who are a blessing. And so it is that I say to you:

May God bless you and make you a blessing, this day and every day. AMEN.