Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Two Cheers for Hell

A sermon from Sunday, July 3, 2011, based on Matthew 11:16-30

This morning’s Scripture reading is a difficult one, for several reasons. First, it assumes an understanding of history, both ancient-to-Jesus and contemporary-to-Jesus, that may not be accessible to us today. We know the ancient reference to Sodom, of course, because of the story in Genesis 18-19, where the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by sulphur and fire from the heavens for their wickedness. I believe that the wickedness of these cities has been largely misunderstood, which is why the term “sodomite” in our English language has come to have an exclusively sexual connotation. Nonetheless, from that ancient story the name “Sodom” itself has come to represent a city that is fraught with wickedness and under judgment. That association, as best we can tell, was prominent in Jesus’ day as well. The very mention of the word “Sodom” seemed to represent a city that was almost pure evil.
While we know the story of Sodom, other ancient references in our reading today are not quite so familiar to us. The names of the cities of Tyre and Sidon also seemed to have some currency in Jesus’ day, where the mere mention of the name evoked a sense of evil and judgment. It is possible to scour the writings of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible and to find judgmental references to the cities of Tyre and Sidon. But, they don’t stand out in nearly the same way that Sodom does. So, whatever images the mention of those names might have evoked in Jesus’ day are somewhat lost to us. Even moreso, the names of the cities of Bethsaida, Chorazin, and Capernaum don’t stick out to us much at all. Of course, a close reader of the New Testament will recognize these names. We might even associate them with the region of Galilee and the home towns of some of the Apostles. But, what we don’t know aside from our story today is why any of them might deserve judgment. More often, they just get lost in the shuffle of unfamiliar names that often make reading the New Testament difficult for us. So, the first difficulty of reading our text for today is the historical distance between this text and today. This text seems to be all about far away places in a long ago time, none of which really resonates with us any more.
The second difficulty in reading this text is cultural. There is something about using the collective voice to praise or condemn an entire city that is very difficult for us to wrap our heads around. When we hear Jesus say that 'Capernaum' will be brought to Hades, we don’t know what to make of it. Even if we substituted names of more familiar cities, we still wouldn’t know what to make of it, because you and I are the recipients of a centuries-old way of understanding right and wrong, good and bad, praise or judgment, that is based on the actions and responsibilities of the individual, not the collective of cities. Jesus’ point is clear enough: He had invested time and energy in bringing the good news of the gospel to these cities, but they would not respond to his call to change and believe. John that Baptist had preached to them, and they rejected John’s message and gossiped that he must have had a demon since he lived an ascetic lifestyle. Jesus came to them not living an ascetic lifestyle and they rejected his message with the dismissive critique that he was a glutton and a drunkard. That’s the reason for the brief story of the children in the marketplace that Jesus tells. “You don’t want to dance to our flutes; but you won’t mourn to our dirges. There’s just no reaching you people!” The point itself is clear enough, but the cultural framework throws us for a loop. We ask, “Really, the whole city is going to Hades? What about Peter’s mother-in-law, living in Capernaum? We know that Jesus healed her and she got off of her deathbed and fixed everyone supper. Is she thrown into this lot of unbelieving people who rejected Jesus’ message?” There is simply something about speaking about collective responsibilities as ‘cities’ that does not jibe with our own cultural way of thinking about individual responsibility.
So, the historical distance between us and these ancient names and reputations, as well as the cultural distance between our way of thinking of individual responsibility and Jesus’ way of condemning collective responsibility makes this a hard text for us to comprehend. But, the third challenge for us is – in my mind – the most difficult. And that difficulty is theological. We struggle with any text that seems to be sheer judgment and condemnation. Now, of course, historically, the church has had no difficulty in passing judgment. Whether we are looking at the virulent anti-Semitism that has been fueled by the church over the ages, or the dismissive attitude toward women that continues to be preeminent in many branches of the church, or even the “God hates you and so do I” message of the Westboro Baptist crusaders, the church has earned a reputation of being a place of judgment and condemnation. The trump card for the church over the years, of course, has been “hell.” It just seems that too many so-called Christians seem to love gritting their teeth and preaching about “hellfire and brimstone!”
However, before critique the church wholesale, we should also recognize that the church has often been a home of reformers and protesters and advocates and martyrs, many of whose sacrifices have made it possible for us to be the broad-minded defenders of human rights and cultural differences that we imagine ourselves to be today. We should also recognize that as many people within the church cringe at the use of damning language and question the doctrine of hell, as outside of the church. So, while the church has spoken the language of judgment and condemnation far too often, the church has been an evolving institution, embracing new and often-controversial ways of openness as well.
The real problem that our reading today presents to us today is that it seems to be just another example of judgment and condemnation, where the worst of our tendencies once again raise their ugly heads. And because it sounds condemning – again – we are wont to dismiss it, or perhaps to glide over it and move on to other readings which seem to be more in keeping with the God we love, the Jesus we love, and not stuff like this.
This morning, however, I invite you to bracket the assumption that any reference to hell is yet another example of unloving, closed-minded, self-righteous hatred. I’m calling this sermon “Two Cheers for Hell,” because I want to go back behind the misuse of judgmental language, to see why the language of condemnation and judgment was so important for the prophets of old, for John the Baptist, for Jesus, and therefore for the church. I can’t call this “Three Cheers for Hell,” because then we’d be joining those hate-mongers that seem to relish the idea that everyone else but them in going down. “Two Cheers for Hell” is my way of expressing that there is something important to be said on behalf of condemnation, but that condemnation is never the last word.
If we begin with the assumption that “God is Love,” from beginning to end, then we still need the language of condemnation. “Sin,” for example, is not simply a matter of breaking some divine rules. “Sin” is a way of naming any activity – individual, or collective or systemic – that is destructive of life and community. If we begin with the assumption that, since God is Love, every individual has absolute dignity and purpose, then we need a language to condemn any activity – individual, or collective or systemic – that violates that dignity and treats individuals as if they do not matter. If we believe that, since God is Love, justice is the right way for women and men to live toward one another, then we need a language to condemn any activity – individual, or collective or systemic – that unjustly violates the rights and well-being of others. While condemnation cannot be the last word – and, therefore, I cannot believe in a literal, eternal hell – it is a necessary word, especially if we believe that God is Love from beginning to end.
When Jesus preached to the peoples of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum that God’s way is to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, to overcome evil with good, he was inviting them to embrace a way of living believing that God is Love. But, when they hear that message and dismiss it with the sarcastic criticism, “Oh, he’s just a drunkard,” they are sentencing themselves and generations that follow them to the ongoing circular life of violence and vengeance. And they had every chance to escape it! They had the chance right there – whether through Jesus’ presence with them or through John’s message – to escape that vicious cycle and to live in the reign of God. We need historical memory, to see what a trajectory of violence and vengeance looks like. We need a collective voice, because injustice is never confined to the individual who practices it. And we need the language of condemnation, because there are some actions that simply cut off the possibility of life and community. Because God is Love from beginning to end, condemnation can never be the last word. But, it is not just harsh language of hate-mongers. Condemnation is a way of recognizing that, within the Reign of God, hate, abuse, injustice, and violence cannot sustain life and community. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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