Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Reality of Hell

Mark 9:38-50
Do you believe in Hell? That is a question that would never have been asked fifty years ago. When I was fifteen everyone I knew believed in Hell. It was the final destination of the wicked. Hell was an eternal exile from God where sinners were subjected to fire, worms and darkness. Many a soul has been frightened into confessing belief in Jesus solely because they desired to escape from the eternal damnation so dramatically described in the writings of Dante and the sermons of Jonathan Edwards.
But that was fifty years ago. One of the amazing things about the Bible is we all know what it says but we seldom take the time to actually read it. We allow other people to do the leg work and then we base our acceptance or rejection of their arguments on conclusions we have already reached. Maybe it is time to take a closer look at the idea of hell.
In Mark 9 Jesus is reported to have said, “If you put a stumbling block before a little one, better you be thrown in the sea or go to hell, a place where  worms never die and the fire is never quenched.” That would seem to wrap up any doubts about the existence of such a horrid place. Yet a careful reading of the New Testament reveals 99% is about salvation and the passages referring to hell are actually quite difficult to find. The Apostle Paul, who is chiefly responsible for explaining the significance of Christ, fails to mention hell at all. The Gospel of John makes an astounding argument for universal salvation. So what gives?
In his book The Formation of Hell, Alan Bernstein makes a compelling argument that Hell was a Greek/Persian concept that filtered into Jewish thought three centuries before the birth of Christ. The concept of hell was not universally accepted. Orthodox Judaism during the time of Jesus and Paul did not believe in an afterlife so punishment after death made no sense. But some radical Jews had begun to consider the idea of an afterlife, a concept prevalent in other cultures.  With the believers of Jesus embracing the idea eternal life, naturally it followed that if there is a heaven, there must be a hell. The early church theologians grappled with the idea of hell for the better part of three centuries. Many early church fathers argued that God’s forgiving nature would not allow a soul to be separated from God for eternity. But Augustine ended the discussion when he ridiculed those who thought eternal punishment was too long. He claimed they were too tender hearted to fully appreciate the wrath of God. Ironically, Augustine, the greatest defender of Paul ignores Paul’s greatest contribution to the Christian faith, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God”.
So how does one reconcile the division between Paul and Augustine or between Mark and John? Are some folks so evil they deserve eternal damnation, or is God’s grace greater than any sin? If it is written in the Gospels, do you believe Jesus must have said it, or do you if wonder the writers of gospels might have occasionally editorialized those sayings? The writers of Matthew and Mark lived in a time of horrible persecution. If their gospels reflected the promise that God was going to get even with their tormentors, don’t you think this would have given First Century Christians a brief moment of joy? These are questions over which the church has argued since the death of Jesus and I suspect they will never be resolved. So let me add to your confusion by making a statement I am sure some of you will be find to be a contradiction.
I believe in hell, but not necessarily eternal damnation.
Let’s go back to the text. Jesus said, “If you are a stumbling block for another, or if your hand, or foot, or eye causes you to sin, change directions, or you will be thrown into hell.”
Friday a week ago I made the decision that eight o’clock in the morning would be the proper time to head for New Haven, Connecticut. We traveled up Interstate 81, avoiding Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia but discovered unless one goes to New England by way of Canada, New York City cannot be avoided. We hit the Tappan Zee Bridge at 5:00. Do I need to describe hell for you? Monday, after conversations with the local folk, we got back in the car at ten in the morning for our return. We had an uneventful trip all the way back to Nellysford. The decisions we make often determines the hell we create.
Do not think for one moment I am making light of the concept of hell. My “go to” definition for hell has always been “The absence of God”. Sometimes this is voluntary, sometimes it is thrust upon us, and sometimes it is caused by the hand of another. Most of us have seen the photo of Aylan Kurdi, a three year old child lying lifeless on a Turkish beach after the boat carrying his family capsized as they were attempting to escape the war in Syria. In a family of four only the father managed to survive. Can you even begin to imagine his personal hell?
We are besieged by events, both personal and international, that can send us into an overwhelming darkness. Recently a survey was taken at the University of Texas in which 26,000 students participated. 55% had thoughts of suicide, 18% had seriously considered it, and 8% had made an unsuccessful attempt. To more than half of those young people, hell is real. So the question becomes, can the church of Jesus Christ move our theological conversations from speculation on an eternal destination to a more pertinent dialogue concerning how our words and actions might address the darkness residing within the hearts of more folks than we might imagine?
I am convinced that we live in an age of agitation and isolation. In so much of my ministry I have discovered folks who feel utterly lost in their search for purpose, community, love, and self. They indulge in diversions such as alcohol, sex, recreation and entertainment as a futile attempt to distract from the emptiness of their lives. Once their motivation was a search for meaning, but disappointment and failure has turned a pursuit for excellence into the quicksand of hopelessness.  What they desperately desire is a way out of hell.
Tennessee Williams in his play, The Night of the Iguana, creates a conversation intersecting hell with hope.
Hannah begins. “I can help you because I’ve been through what you are going through. I had something like your spook only I had a different name for him. I called him the blue devil, and we had quite a contest between us.
Shannon interrupts, “Which you obviously won.”
Hannah responds, “I couldn’t afford to lose.”
“So how did you beat your blue devil?”
“I showed him I could endure him and I made him respect my endurance.”                   (stop)
So many folks who believe they have hit rock bottom are looking for a quick fix and the greatest failure of the church is we are more than happy to offer them one. Our magic elixir is, “Believe in Jesus and your life will be good.” Then when people come back complaining nothing has changed, we assure them heaven will be better than earth. What we have done is put a millstone around their neck. We have given them permission to opt out of this “evil world” and dream of a paradise where all the residents will look and be just like us. Why not invite them to hear an earthly story of endurance and hope? Why not invite them to hear the  story of the love of God?
The Old Testament centers around two trips to hell. The first is the exile in Egypt and the second is the exile in Babylon. According to the text, the Israelites were invited to visit Egypt and they overstayed their welcome. Their dependence on Pharaoh resulted in their loss of freedom. In the case of the Babylonian exile, Judah was dragged to Babylon kicking and screaming. The downfall of Jerusalem began when they forgot how to love God and their neighbors.
From this hell emerged stories of endurance, hope and finally salvation. It was not an easy road and it did not happen overnight. The wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land was filled with anger, panic and fear. The road through the desert from Babylon to Jerusalem did not seem feasible until the songs of the prophet promised the road less traveled would lead to a place they could once again call their own.
The story of salvation continues in the New Testament, only it is not the saga of a nation but a person.  Jesus met people exactly where he found them.  Be they rich or poor, fisherman or intellectuals, Biblical scholars or altogether ignorant of the Torah, Jesus said, “Follow me.”  He didn’t say the road would be easy because it wasn’t. He didn’t promise riches or fame and he was correct. But he did say, “Stay with me and you will discover a peace that is beyond your understanding.” The road Jesus walked was filled with wilderness and mountain tops.  The disciples were often disoriented, confused and even disheartened. What kept them on the road to Jerusalem was not a promise of eternal salvation but the assurance that every single day Jesus would be with them. No truer words have ever been spoken.
Paul summed up the promise of Jesus in one sentence. “Neither life, nor death, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depths, nor anything in all creation, will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In The Divine Comedy, Dante saw written over the gates of Hell the words, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” I believe Dante was wrong. God goes where there is suffering because God has suffered. God goes where there is pain because God has felt pain. God goes to those abandoned because God has been abandoned. God goes where there is no hope because that is what God has always done.
Hell is a lonely place. The question is will you join someone in their darkness? Will you listen to their story? Will you promise not to offer simple or even complex answers? Will you wait until they finally ask, “Why are you here with me?” And then will you gently sing to them a song of the One who has never left us. Will you sing to them a song of endurance amidst the pain, hurt, and loneliness of this world? Will you sing to them a song of hope and peace? Will you sing them a song of a God who will never let us go, no matter what? Will you sing to them God’s song of salvation, a song for today and a song for all our tomorrows.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Who Am I?

Mark 8:27-38
Before his death, Paul Harvey used to finish off a well told anecdote with the line, “Now you know the rest of the story.”  I always found these little tidbits to history enlightening.  Often when we read scripture, we end too soon and fail to capture “the rest of the story”.  By doing so, we stop short of fully appreciating the gospel message.
One of the great moments in the Gospels would appear to be Peter’s affirmation of Jesus as Messiah.  It began with Jesus asking a simple question, “Who do people say that I am?”  Much like children in the back of a car the disciples saw this as a chance to break the monotony of their long walk to the next town.  One disciple hollered out, “I heard a guy a couple of days ago say you were John the Baptist come back from the dead.”  Another answered, “I can top that.  I heard someone say you were Elijah.”  Then the responses got out of hand.  “A guy back in Galilee said you were Moses”.  Jesus stopped, turned, looked them square in the eyes, and said, “But who do you think that I am?”  Peter jumped right to the front of the line and replied, “You are the Messiah.”
  Peter had gone for the jackpot.  He had evoked the sacred title, once given to King David and now reserved for the one that would restore Israel to its past prominence.  Peter had called Jesus, the Christ, the Anointed One, The Son of David.  Peter had reached back and dared to claim that Jesus was the One for which Israel had been praying since days of Isaiah. 
Usually we stop with the Confession of Peter.  We praise the disciple for his insights.  While the rest of the disciples seemed to have their heads in the sand, you could count on Peter to come up with the right answer.  Or did he?  Let’s hear the rest of the story.
Once everyone had given Peter a round of high fives, Jesus began to teach.  If Peter had given the right answer, why did there need to be additional teaching?  We all remember the way the routine goes.  The teaching takes place, the test is announced, we study the night before and then we take the test.  If we pass the test we move on to the next lesson.  Peter submitted what we all believe was the correct answer.  So why did Jesus return to square one?  In this case, the correct answer opened up a whole new can of worms.      
Jesus’ lesson began with these words.  “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected and killed and then after three days rise again.”  Peter took Jesus aside and said, “Wait a minute.  That is not the plan.  We all agreed you are the Messiah, the Son of David. Let me tell you how this is going to work.  When the time is right we will gather all the folks in Galilee and head for Jerusalem.  The Passover might be a nice time.  The city will be filled with Jews from all over the region.  We will send some folks ahead to make the necessary arrangements.  Maybe we will have a parade.  We will put you on a white horse and cover you with a purple robe.  We know you talk all about that pacifist stuff so we won’t ask you to carry a sword but with the horse and the robe you will at least look like David.  We will march to the temple and declare that the reign of God has begun.  People will recognize you as the Messiah and run Herod and his Roman friends out of town.”
Jesus looked at Peter and said, “You have it all wrong.  You have human not divine things on your mind.”  The gospels of Luke and Matthew spend a great deal of time on the temptation of Jesus in wilderness.  Mark barely gives it two verses.  But here in chapter 8 we discover temptation is always before Jesus and his disciples.  Peter tempts him with an ancient title, Son of David.  But Jesus chooses to be called Son of Man. Peter believes that the anointed one can avoid suffering, rejection and death.  Peter believes there can be power without pain and glory without humiliation.  Peter had heard the stories of the Messiah all his life.  No where did he remember it mentioning suffering and death.  But Jesus never claimed to be the Jewish Messiah; he claimed to be the Son of Man.   What is the difference?  The Messiah, the son of David was distained to restore the glory of Israel.  Jesus, the son of man, was destined to overcome the sins of humankind.
Jesus said to the disciples, “Those who want to follow me must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”   If you are a regular at church, this is a phrase you have heard a hundred times. The cross has become the icon of Christendom.  The cross stands as the most recognizable symbol in our sanctuary.  Many wear the cross as piece of jewelry to adorns ones neck.  Taking up the cross identifies us as followers of Christ.  But could it be that this idea of taking up the cross has become somewhat sanitized?
When Jesus originally spoke these words the cross had not become the universal symbol for his movement.  Quite the contrary.  The cross was the symbol of Roman tyranny.  In order to nail home a point, often the roads of the Roman Empire would be littered with the bodies of thieves, bandits, murderers or anyone who acted out against Roman authority.  The cross symbolized fear and oppression.  If one broke the Roman laws, this might be the fate that awaits them.  Crucifixion was a not only a very efficient form of punishment, it was a very effective form of intimidation.  It reinforced the idea that death was the most awful thing in the world and people with any common sense should do everything in their power to avoid it. Yet Jesus wanted the disciples to embrace their greatest fear.
When I ten years old I encountered a very wise man who taught me a valuable life lesson.  I loved baseball and desperately wanted to play shortstop. But at my age, I was playing in a league with players older and faster than me. My coach took a huge leap of faith by playing me at this critical position.  But I had a problem. I was afraid of being hit by the ball.  My coach had an answer for my fears. He would take me out onto our rock filled practice field and hit ground ball after ground ball to me.  He didn’t hit the ball hard but he refused to let me wear a glove.  I had to stop the ball anyway possible.  Now anyone who has every played the infield knows the key to catching a ground ball is to get in front of the ball and keep your eye on it until the ball is safely in your grasp.  I used any part of my body to stop those erratically bouncing balls.  I got hit and occasionally bruised.  But eventually, I lost my fear of the ball.  Once on a smooth infield with my glove on my hand, I stood at my position and dared hitters to send their best stuff my way.
Some would insist that coach was crazy. I believe he given me a life lesson in approaching and controlling fear. You tell me. Is there anything worse than living in fear?  Jesus knew if the disciples let fear run their lives, then fear would become their god.  Their standard for behavior would be how much something frightened them.  If the task involved no risk, then they would do it.  But if fear ruled their lives, they would surrender before even stepping on the field of play.
Peter……. and most of us …..want a Messiah.  We want God to step out for us and pave the way to a life void of rocky fields and bruises.  But that is not what Jesus offered.  He said, “I cannot  give you a life without pain and heartache.  But I can offer you a life where you can face and overcome your greatest fears.”  Jesus said to Peter………. and to us, “Wake up.  Stop playing it safe. Pick up that cross, pick up whatever it is that causes you to be afraid and follow me.”
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Whatever it is that scares you to death, whatever it is that makes you do anything at all if it will go away, that is your cross.  If you leave it lying there, it will kill you.  If you run away from it, then you deny God the chance to show you the greatest mystery of all. Within the darkness of our worst fear, we can find the door to abundant life.”
Like Peter, we all want a Messiah.  Like Peter, we all want a life free from suffering and pain.  We want church to be uncomplicated and some how disconnected from the rest of life.  As Peter discovered, Jesus came to save us from whatever it is that causes the fear which manipulates our lives.  Perhaps that is why God rests on the Sabbath.  God is needed mostly on Monday through Saturday when fear ruins our days and suspicion captivates our nights. Fear is timeless and my guess is that each of us has something of which we are deathly afraid.  Jesus says to us, “Stop running, pick it your cross up, and follow me.” 
I am not suggesting that a little fear is a good thing to have. Otherwise we would make some very stupid choices. But no one can live in constant fear. Jesus offers us the chance to transform our fear into hope. Imagine picking up your cross. Imagine converting that which you fear into something you control. Imagine living the rest of the story, through the grace of God who makes all things possible.                           Amen

Sunday, September 6, 2015

In the Midst of Suffering

Mark 8:27-30


        Questions concerning the identity of Jesus are at the heart of most theological conversations. Was Jesus God? Was Jesus human? Why does it matter and if it matters what does it mean? It mattered enough in the 4th century that Christians literally went to war over those questions. That sounds a little insane, but as the early church was trying to identify what separated them from just being an off-spring of Judaism, the nature of Christ was at the center of those conversations. Today, 1700 years from Nicaea, the concept of fully human, fully divine slips off our tongue without hesitation and probably without much thought. We forget this radical concept uniquely separates us from every other religion. For this reason, I imagine the early church loved telling the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, an anecdote reminding them just how human Jesus really was.

        It is a strange story, perhaps even a dangerous story. Jesus was traveled to Tyre, an ancient seaport located in what is now Lebanon. Jesus had not only left Galilee, he was no longer in Palestine. Before we get too excited about this it should be noted crossing geographical lines during the time of Jesus was not quite as big a deal as it is today. Jesus did not carry a passport and there were no guards monitoring traffic. Jesus probably made the trip because many Jews choose to live in that region.

        The story becomes complicated when a local woman came to where Jesus was staying and begged Jesus to cure her daughter. When Jesus realized the woman was a Gentile, he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

        Every time I read this text I remind myself to take a deep breath and then proceed cautiously. A correct translation would be, “I came to bring God’s word to Israel. I don’t have time to deal with anyone else.”  If Jesus had used those words I am not even sure the story would have made it into the Book of Mark. But what is recorded is a horrible racial slur by the very one we hold up to be without sin.

        I told you to take a deep breath. If we claim Jesus to be without sin, a claim which is at the center of our belief that Jesus is the savior of the world, then our next few steps must be cautiously taken.  A traditional reading of this text would insist that Jesus did not insult the woman when he called her a dog because such an action would have been sinful and Jesus was without sin. In other words, what Jesus was actually saying, “O my cute Phoenician Collie, you know I will get to you when it is your turn. Be patient.”

        Some of us in the room might not be so quick to buy this explanation, especially since the woman responded, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” What is going on here? Only someone with a theology so rigid it allows no areas of gray could argue the words of Jesus were not hurtful.  But were they sinful? I think a better question might be are we so constrained by our traditional readings of the Bible that we are unable to experience the profound theological tension that Mark provides. In light of the truths Jesus was taught as a Jew, nothing he said to the woman would have been perceived as sinful. She was a gentile, therefore unclean. Jesus was to be commended for even engaging her in a conversation. But Jesus was also more than a Jew. His whole ministry embodied an examination of Godly and cultural truths. It was a path that would not be mistaken for a cakewalk.

        One of my favorite theologians wrote, “Before there was Christology, there was Jesus the Christ.” Douglas John Hall claims we sometimes let our theological principles overwhelm the humanity of Jesus, replacing a discovery of the real love of God with a quest for impersonal and rigid truths. The absolutes which Jesus confronted are not so different from the absolutes we confront today. As I grow older I am not so sure the theological principals adopted and declared sacred by centuries of white male theologians  always make sense to Christians who happen to be female, or of color, or of a lesser economic status or to be more exact,  folks that have regularly been called dogs by those of the highest religious pedigree. This passage does not intend to challenge the concept that Jesus was without sin. It goes much deeper. It argues against proclaiming inappropriate cultural traditions as Godly. 

        Imagine being Jesus. He made a casual remark about another human, a remark that would have drawn a laugh or two back in Nazareth, but the Phoenician woman was not amused. She confronted Jesus. To his credit Jesus quickly examined what he had said and was appalled by his own words.. The humanity of Jesus was confronted by the divineness of God, leading to a holy observation that everything Jesus had learned back in Nazareth was not necessarily the gospel truth. Jesus turned to the woman and essentially said, “How could I have been so blind? Your words have healed me and your daughter.”

        We all need to be healed and this particular sickness is not germ related. From the beginning of time we hear and repeat worn out phrases which become truth through repetition. You know the litany. Poor people are lazy. Young people are irresponsible. Old people can’t drive. Mexicans are drug runners, Blacks are thugs, Muslims are terrorists and so on and so on.  

        I am well aware that this world is filled with lazy and irresponsible people. I know there are folks who are just downright mean as well as folks involved in terrorist acts. But to designate behavior with a bias against someone because of their race, nationality or age is just ignorant. I suspect each of us has experienced some kind of prejudice.

        When I was in college my father took me into a respectable men’s store in downtown Richmond. He decided at some point in my life I might need a suit. Dad and I entered the store, wearing our usual attire of blue jeans and old collared shirts. There was more than one salesman available but none seemed in any hurry to approach us. Eventually my father got the attention of one of the men and asked if we might look at some suits. He looked down at us and said we might find something affordable at Sears.

        Up until that moment I never realized I was poor white trash. But it gets worst. I remember thinking to myself, “I know I have a tan, but he treated me like I was black.”

        Why is it that humanity at large suffers from such a deep insecurity that we always seem to be creating barriers that give status and value to some while denigrating others?

        Jesus stopped. Jesus looked at the person in front of him, not as a woman, not as a Phoenician, but as a genuine child of God.   Jesus saw her through divine eyes rather than through the tainted generalities of another’s bigotry.

        Generalities are lazy, irresponsible and make us look quite foolish. To make a mistake once is understandable. To do it twice really is sinful.  Did Jesus sin? That is not the question. Did Jesus step beyond a cultural misconception and experience a new truth?  YES HE DID!

        This is the savior I choose to follow.   TGBTG   Amen.