William H. Willimon - "Hell, No" (October 1, 2000)
|Today's gospel has some stark alternatives.
|Jesus says make a choice.
|Choose this day where you will be.
|It is better to mutilate yourself,
|to cut off your arm, to pluck out your eye
|than to end up in hell.
|Why does Jesus speak thus?
|I will remember a few years ago we have a Sunday
|called a Student Preacher Sunday
|and Jesus was in a very similar mode in another gospel,
|the text assigned for that Sunday
|where Jesus says if I tell you
|you've heard it said you shouldn't commit adultery,
|I say if you've looked at a woman lustfully
|you've committed adultery.
|If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out,
|if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
|The student preacher selected for that day
|began his sermon, I stand before you as a one eyed,
|one handed preacher.
|Why does Jesus talk like this?
|Scholars reassure Jesus often spoke in hyperbole,
|exaggerated overstatement to grab our attention.
|Rabbis often spoke in hyperbole.
|Jesus says it is better to go
|into the kingdom of God mangled
|without an eye, without a arm than to have
|your whole body cast into the fires of hell.
|A whole healthy body is good.
|But Jesus says even this is an asset worth sacrificing
|in the tug between the kingdom of God and hell.
|Now of course around here we don't talk much about hell,
|hell is not one of the more uplifting Biblical themes,
|but in today's gospel Jesus undeniably gives us hell.
|He doesn't really call it hell.
|In the text it is Gehenna, the Aramaic name,
|place name, Gehenna.
|Gehenna is an actual place just outside the walls
|of Jerusalem, this isn't Dante's Inferno.
|He's talking Gehenna.
|It's a place in the Hinnom Valley South of Jerusalem
|just outside the walls.
|Centuries before Jesus Gehenna had been a place
|of pagan idolatry, human sacrifice occurred there,
|and maybe that's how it got its first bad name.
|And maybe that's why by the time of Jesus
|Gehenna had become for Jerusalem the town dump.
|Rubbish, bones, decaying carcasses, smoldering fires
|filled this desolate valley of Gehenna.
|And Jesus says it would be better for you
|to pluck out your eye and go into the kingdom of God
|sans eyes than to have your whole body thrown
|on the rubbish heap of Gehenna.
|I can't imagine in Jesus day there was that much
|rubbish to be thrown away before plastic bags
|and old tires.
|If Gehenna was a detestable rotten smelling
|disgusting place in Jesus day
|I'm sure it would pale in the comparison
|with the Durham Dump.
|Each year each of us produces something over
|two tons of rubbish.
|Years ago Vance Packard wrote a book, The Waste Makers,
|in which he first noted we are a throw away society.
|A society that not only produces and consumes,
|but because of that also wastes.
|We cast off, our economy is a waste producing mechanism.
|As a teenager my friends and I would sometimes drive
|to the dump outside of town and when the wind was right
|and we could stand it we would wander amid the refuse
|of this culture.
|It was amazing to us what people would throw away.
|We delighted in discoveries, a perfectly good bicycle
|needing only a chain, two new tires, a handlebar.
|A stack of vinyl records someone had thoughtlessly
|heaved away, most of them cracked.
|A crate of mayonnaise hardly used.
|Later in a course in Biblical Archeology
|I learned that the most important thing
|at an archeological dig is broken pottery.
|Archeologists use these pot charts to date
|the various levels of a city's refuse.
|What will future archeologists poking around
|in our garbage think of us?
|I don't know if you've ever been to a rubbish site,
|perhaps even the thought repulses you.
|We desperately attempt to keep piles of rubbish
|out on the edge of town far from view,
|not in my backyard.
|However, there is something fascinating to me about a dump,
|'cause here is the end of the line,
|here is where everything finally ends.
|All objects of our affection, all household goods cast off.
|Everything ends here.
|Everything that having lost any shred of dignity or beauty
|or usefulness, everything ends in the garbage, Gehenna.
|At the town dump one may find something worth saving
|occasionally, but not often, 'cause things go to the dump.
|After they're so mangled and broken
|that there's no longer any shred of dignity
|or beauty about them.
|And Jesus says, you've got to take care,
|you've got to make your choices wisely.
|Choose this day where you are headed.
|Better to let go of some aspect of body or soul
|than to have both body and soul thrown
|to the garbage dump of eternity.
|Your life is precious, don't let your life be discarded
|upon the trash heap, God doesn't make garbage, people do.
|God made you.
|I once was in a place in one of our once great
|American cities and old Victorian houses lined the streets,
|but now the windows were boarded up
|and the doors and there were rotting cornices
|and trashy yards.
|This has once been a neighborhood where people had life.
|How can we do this to our cities?
|And what are the people that are forced
|by economic necessity to live in such ugliness?
|It does seem as if this society just has a way
|of producing Gehenna.
|I remember visiting a church member
|who had been committed to our state's hospital
|for the mentally ill.
|I found her after walking down circuitous sterile corridors,
|foul smelling, locked doors where periodically
|there came frightening sounds,
|and I found her sitting in a room,
|a room with only one steel bed and one steel chair.
|I forced a cheerful, well how are you today?
|And she responded, I've been dumped here.
|This is the end of the line for me.
|It filled me with horror.
|She had become refuse.
|The hospital was located in the Eastern part
|of the Capital City, but its address was Gehenna.
|And I've been in shoddy nursing homes,
|I've been in wards where we kept the chronically
|mentally ill, in places for the severely retarded,
|in centers for the chronically addicted,
|all the euphemistic names like North Side Care Center
|or Oak Hill or something like that,
|but in the light of today's scripture call them Gehenna.
|Gehenna is any hellish place where human beings
|are discarded left to rot, treated as refuse.
|And Jesus says no child of God's good creation
|is meant for Gehenna.
|Jesus stares our hellish possibilities in the face
|and rebukes them, he speaks words, it sounds strong, stark,
|but let's be honest, life has got its grim, hellish places,
|and right there Jesus plants his flag
|and sounds his clear call.
|If you, then it is better for.
|Do you remember that phrase in the ancient apostles' creed
|been long since removed by Methodist sensibilities.
|Where we say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate,
|he was crucified, dead, and buried.
|The phrase he descended into hell.
|The third day he rose from the dead
|Jesus descended into hell.
|And the creed is referring to that ancient Christian belief
|that in those three days between his death
|and his resurrection he descended into hell.
|But when you think about it Jesus was always
|entering those places that we avoid,
|those places out on the margins, out on the edge of town.
|Those places that we put far from view
|so we don't have to see them and the people trapped therein.
|The shotty nursing homes, the pitifully ill equipped places
|for those suffering.
|These human warehouses for those who can't cope,
|the town dump, Gehenna.
|This year we've been in the lectionary
|in the Gospel of Mark, and in the Gospel of Mark
|we have seen Jesus confronting demons
|and touching the untouchable and rebuking devils
|and possessed people and healing and driving out
|all that dehumanizes and degrades.
|And when you think about it he spent most of his earthy life
|with those who had reached the end of the line.
|That's where he was.
|Once upon a time there was a man who wasted his life,
|wasted his God given talents,
|he abused himself, abused others.
|When he died, relatively early, body and soul,
|mind broken, he woke to his horror,
|trapped in the misery of hell.
|Let me out he plead, let me out he cried night and day
|banging against the locked gates of this place of torment.
|Let me out, let me out.
|Then he became aware on the other side
|outside there was a voice.
|Outside the door to Gehenna he heard a banging
|against the gates and a voice saying, let me in.
|Let me in.
|And it was the voice of Jesus.
|Jesus not only warns against but actively struggles
|to save us from Gehenna.
|Jesus uses strong language, hyperbole,
|to seek out the lost in hell.
|And those of us attempting to follow Jesus
|are not permitted resignation saying,
|well this is the end of the line for me.
|We must be faithful to the treasure that God entrust us
|in our lives, our talents, our responsibilities.
|A hand, an eye, a foot is meant as a gift
|to be expanded for glorious work,
|and yet corrupted by our sin better to cast it off.
|The church is made up of people who treasure their lives
|and not only their lives, but they are determined
|that we will not let our lives slide into nothingness
|and despair simply because some aspect of our lives
|we find difficult to control.
|I know a man that grew up in a family that had wine
|with each special meal.
|From time to time he enjoyed what he called
|a social drink at parties.
|In college he enjoyed the pleasures of alcohol
|and its sociability.
|But in midlife he found he was developing an addiction.
|He said while it was okay for him to take a drink,
|he thought, now it was like the drink was taking him.
|He became what we call a teetotaler.
|To this day he never touches the stuff.
|Even though he enjoyed fine wine
|and its attended pleasures he discarded this gift
|rather than risk losing his life.
|The church is to be the sort of place
|that keeps people from going to hell,
|keeps attempting to salvage, to rescue people,
|to preach to people that they are precious and beautiful
|and not destined for the ash heap of the world.
|And with Jesus we who follow Jesus
|ought to be instruments in bringing people back from hell.
|I once served a church that had been built
|over the town's early garbage dump.
|In the early days when the community
|was just a little cluster of houses
|with some residence people began dumping refuse,
|mostly beer cans from town bars
|in a swampy area out on the edge of town.
|Eventually as the town grew the city fathers
|prohibited dumping in the area.
|When it finally came time to build a church
|the only land that the church could afford
|was that land over the town dump
|graded over beer cans and other rested refuse
|and they built a church.
|And whenever you would plant a piece of shrubbery
|around that church you would dig down about six inches
|and hit beer cans.
|And I always took that as a parable,
|not only for that church, but the whole church.
|One of the best things the church does
|is to take the refuse of this world and build on it,
|making something beautiful out of that
|which the world has discarded is beyond redemption,
|'cause no one is beyond God's ability to redeem,
|and that includes you.
|There are things in your life, good things,
|that you maybe ought to think of discarding
|lest they be for you your destruction.
|And so I have two points, point one,
|choose this day whom you will serve,
|decide zealously to guard the good life
|God so graciously has given to you.
|What do you need to discard in order that you may
|salvage that best self that God has given you?
|Is there somebody you know that you need to go tell
|Is there some great Gehenna you need to enter
|to bring out and redeem with Jesus the lost?
|Later after this stark teaching
|Jesus himself would reach the end of the line.
|He would be put up on the cross at a place called Calvary
|and if you stand even today at Calvary,
|if you get a high enough view which Jesus certainly had,
|you can see all the way over to Gehenna.
|If you want to meet Jesus the first place
|to look for him is in hell.
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