February 8, 2015
Those of you who have Brian McLaren’s book, We Make the Road by Walking, know that the title of this week’s sermon is “Jesus and Hell,” not a title I cared to put on the reader board. I don’t want our neighbors to think we spend a lot of time thinking about, much less threatening hell. McLaren is really inviting us to rethink the stories Jesus tells in which someone ends up in hell by pairing two of his stories with the last chapter of Jonah. If you’re interested, I have made a few copies of Brian McLaren’s sermon for today’s topic—they are in the library. McLaren does a great job explaining how Israel’s neighbors imagined the afterlife and how they influenced Jewish beliefs in the first century. The Jews did not imagine a place of punishment until they were conquered and exiled in Babylonia and Persia. The understanding of hell that was prevalent in Jesus’ day came from that time. They believed that those who were bound for heaven were religiously observant, respectable, prosperous, and healthy. . .all signs of an upright life. Those who were destined for hell were not religiously astute or observant, economically poor, socially suspect, and physically sick or disabled. . .signs of a sinful, undisciplined life. Jesus also believed there was an afterlife, but he often turned the popular belief upside down: “proclaiming a transformative vision of God, teaching that God’s intent is not to destroy, but to save;” that God’s last word is always love.
I don’t know whether you believe there is a place called hell. I don’t. I believe in the infinite power of God’s love to redeem and transform, even after we die. God has all of eternity to heal us and make us whole. I believe God’s last word is always love. I remember so clearly an older woman in a church that I attended many years ago saying that she hoped that she and her husband had done enough good things to go to heaven. The two of them practically held up one corner of the church. They served on several committees and worked on every mission project. Whenever the church doors flew open, they were there. All I could think to say was, “Of course you’re going to heaven.” Now I think: How did the Church let that couple down? How is it that those two people didn’t trust the love of God? How did they not know just how beloved they were? Furthermore, why is it that I’m still having to tell Sunday school children that God doesn’t have a “smite” button and they don’t have to fear an evil demon named Satan or the fires of hell? How did we sell that concept so well and not the unconditional love of God?
It may be because humans like the idea of punishment for people that do us wrong. If there is no punishment for someone who does evil things on earth, we think there ought to be some justice in the hereafter. Believe me, I know how controversial it is to say that I don’t believe in hell. One woman left a church that I served as pastor because she couldn’t bear to think of Hitler getting a room in heaven next to her father. Seriously, are we worried about the neighborhood we live in in heaven? Now bring that back to earth, and we, myself included, may find ourselves in the same boat as Jonah or the wealthy man in Jesus’ parable. I have a hard time imagining God’s love for the members of Al Qaeda or ISIS, for gang members, drug dealers, or even someone who rudely cuts me off in traffic? Can we believe that God loves these people as much as God loves us? That’s a leap of faith!
If life really could be made fair, the tables would be turned as they are in Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus. Those who have suffered in this life would find comfort in the next and those who were comfortable would endure suffering. But wait! The rich man can’t believe that’s really fair. What did he do to deserve hell? Could there be a clue in his insistence on still seeing Lazarus as a servant to do his bidding even from hell—“bring me water,” “send him to warn my brothers?” I like the response that Father Abraham gives the rich man, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Which I take to mean that warning people about hell won’t change their behavior. Moses and the prophets already taught us about God’s mercy and God’s expectation of just behavior. We can ignore the prophets and continue to create hell on earth, or we can heed their wisdom and co-create the Kingdom of God—our choice.
I didn’t ask Bob to read the other gospel lesson McLaren chose for us this morning, Jesus’ parable about the sheep and the goats, because it is so familiar. But one way to read that parable is that people who share their food with the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit the sick and those in prison co-create the Kingdom of God. Their respect and consideration for the needs of their neighbors allows them and those that they serve to enter the community of the beloved that God prepared for us from the beginning. But those who refuse to share their bread and drink, who ignore the needs of the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner create a world in which violence begets violence.
I’m afraid that’s the world we live in. But it does not have to be. We have a choice. When I was a teenager, our college youth group presented a skit from the television show “That Was the Week that Was” in churches all over west Texas. In the skit, a person dies and finds himself or herself standing in front of a clerk at a desk between two unmarked doors. The clerk looks up, smiles, and says, “Welcome. Heaven on your right. Hell on your left.” The recently deceased doesn’t understand. Shouldn’t that decision already have been made? The clerk repeats, “Heaven on your right. Hell on your left.” The person begins to make a case for having earned heaven, but the clerk merely repeats the choice. Then the person lists all of the mistakes and sins of omission, and the clerk once again repeats the choice, “Heaven on your right. Hell on your left.” Eventually the person throws open the door to hell and a new person steps up to the desk. The clerk says, “Welcome. Heaven on your right. Hell on your left.” The choice is ours, and the authors ask why we choose hell when heaven is an option.
We have the same choice to make many times during the day. Care on our right. Indifference on our left. Kindness on our right. Neglect on our left. Love on our right. Contempt on our left. We make the road to the community of the beloved by walking in God’s love. The love that Jesus believed would transform us and our world. Because Jesus was convinced that God has the last word for you and for me and for our enemies—and that last word is love.