I’m a big fan of Christmas movies and specials, which is ironic because I’m not a big TV and movie watcher the rest of the year. Every December, though, I cycle through my favorites: It’s a Wonderful Life, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Elf, Christmas Story, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Emmet Otter, and the list goes on…
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.