Jesus’ Hardest Words: Sermon for February 12, 2017

It’s good to be back in the pulpit this morning after being sidelined for the last couple of weeks. I’m grateful to Heidi Heath and Alex Simpson for stepping in to preach while I recovered from my concussion.

I’m particularly grateful because they both preached on the same larger subject that I’ll be talking about this morning, and so in a real way I’m just building on the foundation that they’ve already put in place over the past two weeks.

As timing would have it, these multiple voices came in the midst of one of the most significant and dense parts of the Bible. For a solid month the lectionary gives us Gospel readings from the Sermon on the Mount.

Now, Jesus was a interesting sort of teacher. Most of his big lessons came not from lectures or speeches, but from stories and from questions. Jesus was much more likely to teach something important by telling a parable, like the ones about the Prodigal Son, or the Sower and the Seed. Or, he would let the people figure out the truth for themselves by asking them questions and having them come to a conclusion.


Carl Bloch’s painting, “Sermon on the Mount”

What he was unlikely to do was exactly what he does do here, and that is to effectively preach. And yet, one day he saw crowds gathering and he went to the top of a mountain, and he began to teach the people. Later Christians would call this the “sermon on the mount”, but I like to just think of it as “Jesus’s big sermon”. This was the time that he laid bare so much of what it would mean to follow him.

The passages that Heidi and Alex preached about are well known to us. They are calls for Christians to live as examples of God’s love in the world, and to take hope, even when it seems like the whole world is stacked against goodness and kindness.

But then, right after those words, comes this passage. And there’s a lot in this passage that makes me nervous. First, if you are angry with someone, says Jesus, you will be judged. Later, if you look at someone with lust in your heart, you are committing adultery. Or, if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out. Or, if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Or, if you marry a divorced woman, you are committing adultery. And in a lot of these, Jesus is talking about going to hell. Or finally, don’t swear. Just say, “yes or no”. Nothing more.

So, things don’t look so good for me here.

I mean, I’ve been angry before. To be honest, I think I had every right to be angry. And, frankly, I’ll be angry again. It might be righteous anger about some great social injustice, but it could just as easily be about someone cutting me off in the Starbucks drive-through.

And then there’s lust. Remember how Jimmy Carter once talked about lusting in his heart when he was president, and everyone laughed at him. Well, he was a good Baptist, and he was talking about this passage. Truth be told, we’ve probably all lusted at one time or another.

And then there’s this stuff about tearing out eyes and cutting off hands. My eyes cause me to judge others, or to envy them. And my hands…sometimes my hands are idol, and we can’t have that. Other times I’m so proud of the works of my hands that they cause me not to be humble. But, I plan on keeping both eyes and both hands because, frankly, I don’t think any of us would have hands or eyes if we followed this one.

There’s also this divorce passage. I’m not divorced, but I am married to a divorced woman. Does that mean I’m committing adultery? Do I need to go home this afternoon and say “sorry, honey…you’re on your own”?

And then there’s the swearing. I’ve sworn on legal paperwork, and I’ve sworn in far less legally-mandated ways. In other words, everything Jesus talks about here in this passage, I’ve done.

So, I don’t know about you, but reading these I feel pretty sure that I’m probably going to hell.

You too? See you there.

Now, to be honest, I don’t actually think I’m going to hell. I don’t think you are either, by the way. If you want my honest opinion, I’m not sure there is a hell. And if there is one, I think it is this: I think it is the absence of God. And because I believe God’s love and grace are stronger than anything we could ever do, I don’t think that God leaves any of us there.

But there was a time in my life when the thought of hell caused me real distress. I didn’t grow up in a church that damned people to hell. We were Christmas and Easter Presbyterians. But I did grow up in the South where the churches who preached a literal hell were all around, and they were very vocal.

I remember when I was six years old and a kid at the playground told me that if I had ever told a lie in my life I was going to hell. I have no idea what I could have lied about at age 6, but it probably involved taking extra cookies or something. No matter, I was damned.

And then there were those times when I was in high school, and the local megachurch talked about homosexuals and how they were going to hell if they didn’t change. And I knew they were talking about me. And I knew that there was no hope.

I think I may have started studying theology because I wanted to know that I wasn’t damned. Along the way, I came to believe that not only was I not damned, but I was loved beyond measure by a God who is full of grace. I came to see the fear-based churches that had proliferated in my hometown as a sort of anxious reaction to our own understanding of our humanity. We humans are imperfect beings, after all. How could God love us?

I confess, though, that when I read this passage my old fears come back. What if I’m not measuring up? What if I’m wrong? What if the way I’m living isn’t good enough.

What if I’m not perfect?

I’m not, of course. You probably aren’t either.

And here’s where I have one small point of agreement with those fundamentalist churches I used to know: we are indeed imperfect beings. We will sin. We will fall down. But unlike those fundamentalist churches, I don’t tell you this because I believe God is ready to throw us all into the fires of hell. I tell you this because God is ready to welcome us home.

The reality of life is that none of us is perfect. None of us will ever keep even one of the Ten Commandments perfectly, let alone all ten. All of us will disappoint ourselves, and one another. All of us will fail from time to time.

Jesus knew that. He knew that it was inevitable. But he also knew this: he knew that in God there is grace. God is willing to love us “as is”. More than that, God is delighted to love us like that. God may have high standards for us, ones that we try even still to reach, but God does not expect our perfection. God just expects us to keep trying.

And so, that’s much of how I understand the Christian life. There is a way that things should be. This world should be filled with love, kindness, and justice. Were we all perfect, it would be. And then there is the way that things actually are.

And so, it’s tempting in the face of that to throw up our hands and say “well, we will never get it right, so what’s the point”. But that’s exactly when we need God’s grace the most. That’s exactly when we need to hear God saying to us, “it’s okay…keep trying…I still love you”.

And so, we keep trying. And we stay in relationship with God and with one another. And, little by little, the world is transformed.

I used to try to do the right thing out of fear. I feared a God who I thought kept the fires of hell burning.

Now I try to do the right thing out of love, and out of gratitude for God’s grace.

I’m not sure if I’m any better at getting it right from time to time, but I can tell you this: I’m a whole lot more sure that I’m doing it for the right reasons. And I’m a whole lot more sure that God loves me, and that God loves us all. Even when we mess up. Maybe especially when we mess up. God is still there loving us through it. Amen?

The Worst Case Scenario: A Sermon on Hell, and Other Choices – September 30, 2012

Mark 9:38-50
9:38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

9:39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.

9:40 Whoever is not against us is for us.

9:41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

9:42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

9:43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.

9:45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.

9:47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,

9:48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

9:49 “For everyone will be salted with fire.

9:50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Growing up, I was terrified by the thought that I might go to hell. I didn’t grow up in a household that talked about hell, or believed in a God who would angrily send us all there, but none-the-less it was all around me. Kids at school who went to more fundamentalist churches wore t-shirts that said things like “hell is hot”. Billboards on the side of the road asked me where I wanted to spend eternity. And one time in elementary school, on the playground, one of the kids I was playing with told us that if we had ever told even one single lie, we were going to hell.

I reacted the way any kid might have. I laid in bed, night after night, convinced I was damned. It wasn’t the last time. For a long time I felt stuck between my understanding of God as a kind, compassionate, loving parent and God as a ruthless judge who would damn us all. In the worst times, I didn’t want to get closer to God. I wanted to keep a safe, respectful distance. God, or at least the God I heard the voices around me talking about, was a truly frightening tyrant.

I’ve had a long spiritual journey from that place. I believe now in God’s goodness and love and compassion. I don’t believe in a God who is any more willing than any other parent to see God’s children parish. I believe God is good. But when I read texts like today’s, some of those same, scary feelings come back to me.

Jesus is talking to his disciples and he’s using a lot of “if…then” statements. Specifically, he’s saying “if you do this, then it would be better if you just did this.” And they’re terrifying. If you do anything to stand in the path of a child, it would be better if you put a stone around your neck and threw yourself into the sea. If your hands cause you to sin, cut them off. If your feet cause you to sin, cut them off. If you sin because of something you see, pluck out your eye. Because, Jesus says, it is better for your to be drowned, and limbless, and without sight than to go to hell for all eternity.

See…terrifying. And also, maybe it makes you feel a little hopeless. It sounds like Jesus is telling us that we are better off dead, or at least significantly maimed, then we are living a life in which we sin. If we take this text literally, we might even think that it’s worth giving up completely. I’m never going to win, we might say. I’m never going to be perfect. So, if I’m going to go down in flames, I might as well have fun, right?

I’ve talked to a lot of folks who have come to that conclusion. Feeling like they had to choose between being perfect or being human. The stakes have seemed so high, and the odds so impossible, that the best way to deal with the impossible situation is to try your best to ignore it, or try to forget about all of this stuff altogether.

I think that’s why I meet so many folks who are interested in coming back to church, but who are worried about what they might find. They’ve given up on trying to be perfect, and they’ve lived their lives. Sometimes the road has been smooth, and sometimes it has been rocky. But in every case, they’ve found that ignoring, or walking away from, a relationship with the spiritual has left something in their life to be desired.

So what do they, and what do you, find when this text is read? What do you do with a text that talks about hell and how hopeless it is for us all, when at the same time you come to this church because at some level you believe that God is good, and that there is hope for you and for the world? How do you have a relationship with God, and also believe that you are created to be good?

Is there another way to read the text? One that is true to the relationship that we all have with God? What if we understood hell as something different? And what if we came to understand our voyage there as something we undertake ourselves, and not something God dooms us to?

I grew up hearing that hell was a physical place, a lake of fire and pain and no hope. And there are certainly some Christians who believe that. But there are other interpretations too. Throughout the history of Christianity, hell has more commonly been understood not as a physical place, but as a state of being. Hell is a state of separation from God. Hell is a place where there is no hope, because God is not there. And I would add, because we do our best to keep God out.

The good news is that we are not good at keeping God out. Eventually God finds a way in, and God opens our heart again. And, though we tend to think of hell in terms of what comes after this life, I think that some of us go through hell on earth. And I think God can save us from that hell on this side of eternal life as well. I’ve seen too much evidence of God’s saving grace in my own life, and in yours as well, to not believe in God’s absolute ability to save us from the hells on earth that we choose.

But I also believe that we don’t have to choose those hells. When Jesus was talking about those choices we make it sounds like we are choosing between destroying ourselves or going to hell. It sounds like the right answer is to destroy ourselves in order to avoid hell. But, really, Jesus is talking about turning away from the things that would keep us from God, and, quite contrary to choosing death, choosing life.

That’s the good news. God is calling us to life. But the bad news is this. It won’t be easy. Because some of the choices we might be called to make, might feel as painful as cutting off our own arms.

What do some of those choices look like? Well, they’ll look different for all of us. But what are the things that are keeping you separated from God? What are the things that tear you away from your relationship with the divine? What are the things that demand your energy and anxiety and resources, and lead you to a place of disconnection?

Addiction? Prejudice? Anger? Self-righteousness? All good candidates.

Or maybe it’s things themselves that are separating you from God? I’ve been reading lately about how as a country our possessions are increasing, while our generosity and giving are decreasing.  We feel so stretched that donations to charities have fallen precipitously, even while during the same time period as we have seen an increase in people buying, hoarding even, more stuff. Non-profits are failing, but the self-storage industry is booming because we have run out of space in our homes, and in our garages. The more we have, the safer we believe we will be. The better we will feel. But we rarely find that it works that way.

And we are teaching our children to be like us. One statistic I read said that kids in the US and Canada, a small fraction of children worldwide, own 40% of the toys in the world. And that’s not about the kids. That’s about the parents. That’s about us and what we are teaching by our own example. And we could very well be helping them to create their own hells on earth.

But what if there were a better way? What if we turned away from the distractions, the mill stones we tie around our own necks, and instead chose life? What if we turned away from the things that distract us from our relationship with God, and instead choose God? What if we found that the door out of hell had been opened long ago, and that God was waiting for us to walk out of it and into new life?

The good news is God has already chosen us. The door has been opened by God’s grace. And our only job now is to be grateful, and to love God. It’s really that simple.

I’ll close with this. One of the prayers that means the most to me is one that truly emphasizes the simplicity of the spiritual life that God calls us to. It is one that has been adopted by many who have been through their own personal hells on earth. And it’s one that all of us can relate to, because it lays out the truth of what it means to live in a complex, complicated, and sometimes painful world with faith in God’s grace.

It is said that it was written not far from here, in Heath, Massachusetts, by a minister from our own tradition. You may know the first three lines, but there are more, and they are just as good. And they tell us how we can escape hell, and choose life: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that You will make all things right, if I surrender to Your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.

“You’re Still Here” – Sermon for May 22, 2011

John 14:1-14

14:1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.

14:2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

14:3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

14:4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

14:5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

14:7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

14:8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

14:9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?

14:10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.

14:11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

14:12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.

14:13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

14:14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

You may have heard that there were some folks who thought you wouldn’t be today. You have have heard that yesterday, May 21, was supposed to be the end of the world. A very small sect of Christian faith was trying to tell the world that yesterday at 6pm, local time, the rapture would happen.

And you’re all here! Which means either, one, the rapture didn’t happen, or, two, as a church we have a lot to worry about.

I think it’s the first.

Now the idea of the rapture is pretty new in Christianity. It has really only come about in the past few centuries, and it has never really been accepted by anything more than a vocal but very small minority of believers. They believe that there will come a day where believers are suddenly taken up into heaven while non-believers are left behind here on earth. They base their idea on one short, disputed verse in one of Paul’s letters. And they really, really believe it.

The group that was responsible for the idea that the world was going to end yesterday is based out of California. Their leader did some complicated but questionable mathematical computations and somehow decided that yesterday was the day. There could be no doubt. And so his followers spread the word on billboards, and the internet, and one on one on the streets.

They were positive he was right. So positive that I read an article about one family that had planned to spend down all of their savings so that yesterday they would be left with nothing. Another woman quit her job and went with her husband to tell people on the streets, even while her teenage kids didn’t believe a word of it.

I had a few people ask me this week, “Does your church really believe in this May 21st, end of the world thing?” And I responded that despite all the press this very small sect was being given, 99.99% of Christians did not believe the world was going to end yesterday.

But did you notice how much attention that .01% got? Did you notice how interested some people were by it?

It’s been a problem since Paul wrote his letters to the earliest churches. The early believers thought that Christ would come back in their lifetimes. Paul struggled to assure them that the fact Christ hadn’t come right back didn’t mean that they weren’t loved or saved or remembered.

Since then there have been thousands of different ideas about the end of the world. Hundreds of doomsdays. Hundreds of times that people have said that we are on the verge of an apocalypse. Hundreds of May 21st. And on those days, each time, true believers who stood and waited at the appointed hour only to find that nothing happened to them.

I thought about that family with the teenage kids yesterday. I read an article about them in the New York times. They had been spreading this message about the end of the world to everyone, but meanwhile, their kids had felt neglected. They talked about needing to take the SATs, worrying about how to pay for college now that their parents had spent down their college funds, and even just going to the high school parties that were taking place yesterday night.

One son talked about how it was hard for him to make plans for his future because he felt like his parents didn’t care about his future. They didn’t believe he had one.

It was easy to make jokes about the end of the world yesterday. There were plenty of them. I confess I may have made a few.

But really, at 6pm yesterday, I am aware that for a very small group of people, their worlds did come to an end. All that they truly believed was revealed to be false. All their work and sacrifice and misdirected energy became clear. All their worst fears were revealed. And they were lost.

We may be tempted to say that they got what they deserved. But really, they’re not so different from us. They’re just an extreme example of our worst tendencies to neglect the lives that God has already given us.

In today’s Gospel passage Jesus talks a little about what comes after this life. He tells us that he is going before us and preparing a home for us in God’s house. He tells us that he will one day bring us there himself.

And even then, with him right there, the disciples wanted details. Thomas asked, “Where are you going and how can we know the way?” Philip said, “Show us God and then we will be satisfied.”

They had him in front of them, reassuring them, telling them it would be okay, and even then they couldn’t focus on what was in front of them. Even then, they were more worried about the next life than this one.

And every generation of Christians after them has done the same things. We have wanted to know the details of what happens next. We have wanted to know the exact date and place and time. We have wanted to prepare ourselves for the end of the world. And sometimes it has looked as extreme as the group that waited at 6pm yesterday, and other times it has looked a lot like everyday life.

It’s normal to wonder. It’s normal to want to have some assurance that God is bigger than our world. It’s normal to want to know that God’s love will save us all in the end.

But when we become so obsessed with the details that we forget to live the life that God  has given us here, the life that God has made good, we miss so much.

I’ve talked before about growing up in the South, and how that has forever affected my view of religion. Growing up I always heard the question, “Are you saved?” I was told over and over that if I was not, I would burn for all of eternity in a fiery hell. The summer I was 15, I thought about that a lot. So much so, that I got pretty depressed about it. I’d lie on the living room couch and watch the ceiling fan and think about it. Life, the way the Christians I knew presented it, seemed life was this awful test that no one could pass. I certainly wasn’t good enough to earn my way into heaven, and if I was going to everything else felt pointless.

I went back to school that fall and slowly the questions went away. But they were always there. It wasn’t until I got to seminary that I started to truly believe that this life was not meant to be a test, and that God wanted us not to live in fear, but to live in gratitude.

I learned in seminary what I should have learned from the Christians I had known my whole life. That in the end, we are sorted into the good and the bad. We are not saved or discarded. Instead, we are all loved by a God who sees our imperfections and gives us grace anyways. In fact, gives us grace because of it.

The measure of our life here on earth, no matter what God has in store for us next, no matter when Christ will return and change everything, is how we respond to the grace that we have already received. Do we live in fear, whether waiting for May 21st or lying on the couch thinking that we will never be good enough? Or do we meet that grace with gratitude? Do we turn our lives over to God and say “no matter what happens, I know I will be okay because your grace is so overpowering…so, please God, use me”?

We are at our best as Christians not when we are spreading fear. Not when we are worried about what comes next. Not when we are doing good works because we are afraid we might not be good enough for God’s love. We do our best work when we know that God’s grace has already taken ahold of us, and will never let us go. We do our best work when we are simply trying to say thank you for a gift so great that we can never really understand it.

It’s May 22nd. And the world has not ended. And neither has God’s grace, nor our gratitude. I don’t know the details about the end of the world, or the next life, or anything like that. But I do know this: God will be there. And if God is there, it will be good. Amen.