To Hell With You (February 15, 2015)

Jacob Marley in chainsA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Text: Luke 16:19-31

I suppose there are several elements of today’s service that are playing with fire, if you’ll pardon the play on words. I don’t know that I have ever before preached on hell. I’m sure I’ve referenced it but only to say that I do not believe in a literal hell – the lake of eternally burning fire depicted on the cover of today’s bulletin or the threatening expletive that is the sermon title. However, as we make this road by walking, Brian McLaren has asked us today to consider “Jesus and Hell.” To help us in our exploration, he has given us two texts – the story of Lazarus and the rich man from Luke and the separation of the sheep from the goats in the 25th chapter of Matthew. Both texts promise dire consequences for those who do not pay attention to the poor and needy of this world.

McLaren argues that originally the Jewish faith had little interest in the afterlife, but through centuries of acculturation to Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Zoroastrian and Hellenistic beliefs and practices the faith changed to accommodate visions of life after death. Clearly Jesus believed there was more to life than what one experiences between birth and death. But when he offers these parables of judgment, is his purpose to describe what the life to come is actually like? McLaren doesn’t think so and neither do I. In commenting on this text, David Lose reminds us that “…a parable is a parable…Parables aren’t told to give [us] a complete theological system or to address ultimate questions once and for all. They are meant to give us a glimpse – often [a] surprising, even jarring glimpse – into the kingdom of God. They present various slivers of the ‘kingdom logic’ of the God who regularly surprises us with God’s compassion and concern. So,” he concludes, “maybe this parable isn’t interested in explaining to us how people get to heaven but rather invites us to look at the people around us – right here, right now – from the perspective of this peculiar logic of God” (David Lose, “On Stretching Parables, 9-23-2013,” workingpreacher.org).

This is consistent with what McLaren argues in our Words of Preparation when he says that Jesus was actually “un-teaching about hell” while offering a “transformative vision of God” as one who “loves everybody, including the people the rest of us think don’t count” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 113). It doesn’t seem far-fetched to me to suggest that the rich man ends up in a hell of his own making. There is a different set of values for life and death in the beloved community of God. The standard belief among those to whom Jesus ministered was that goodness is rewarded with prosperity and general well-being while sin is punished by poverty and illness. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that same belief system strongly operative today, perhaps even in our own lives. It makes us uneasy, then, when Jesus tells stories like the rich man and Lazarus or the separation of the sheep from the goats. We worry that he might be saying “to hell with us” because of our privilege and how we exercise it.

The rich man – notice he doesn’t even get a name in the parable, though later tradition called him “Dives,” which is really just Latin for “rich man” – is not just rich. He’s over the top in letting everyone know he’s rich. Think of someone who is exorbitantly extravagant in flaunting what they have. Richard Vinson, in his commentary, says the sort of rich person Jesus describes would have been the subject of satire and lampooning, much as she or he might be today. These satirists would have been “…making fun of a real trend toward conspicuous displays of wealth during the first century, as the so-called Pax Romana brought unprecedented disposable income to Rome’s upper crust.” Sound familiar? “Romans often lamented the loss of the old values of thrift and Spartan simplicity, and some emperors tried to enact…laws prohibiting expensive clothing or jewelry or foods. Luke’s rich man is thus both a recognizable type-character from satires and comedies and an icon for a whole class of real people” (Richard D. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Luke, p. 530).

It’s not just that the man had money; he was a fool with his wealth. His arrogant attitude allowed him, daily, to step over poor Lazarus, sick and disabled, begging at his door. Lazarus might have survived on the scraps from the rich man’s table, but even this was too much bother for this rich man. He left Lazarus to die “like a tramp on the street.”

This is where Jesus’ great reversal gathers momentum. The rich man may not have had eyes to see, but God does. Lazarus is not rewarded for his piety or his poverty. He is graced by God’s compassion. He finally finds comfort in the “bosom of Abraham.” Remember, God “loves everybody, including the people the rest of us think don’t count.” God’s compassion and grace are of a different order than our own vision of reward and punishment. For God, everyone counts.

Now, ironically the rich man dies about the same time, perhaps a victim of his conspicuous consumption. He practiced a gluttony which certainly could not have been good for his heart – literally and figuratively. In the Jewish system of Jesus’ time, Hades and the arms of Abraham were the places where souls went to await the final judgment, the Day of the Lord. Is there a possibility that intermediate stations provide time and space in which one might yet reflect and repent before the final end? The text doesn’t address this.

Suffice it to say that the rich man remains clueless even when “tormented in the flame.” Though he can see across the chasm that separates them (indeed, as he could see across the reverse chasm that separated them before they died,) he still does not see Lazarus as a child of God. “Send Lazarus to cool MY tongue.” “Send Lazarus to save MY brothers.” Not a word of remorse or repentance for the way he treated Lazarus who, in the beloved community of God, is also his brother. He just doesn’t get it and Jesus is saying that, until you get it, nothing changes. Until you see with the eyes of your heart the suffering of your sisters and brothers your heart will remain cruelly and lethally congested.

Most of you know by now, that Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite gospel stories. In it the great Victorian author provides a spot-on commentary on this parable. Remember how, in the beginning, we meet Ebeneezer Scrooge, of whom Dickens writes, “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster…He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”

But, as we know, Christmas is a time of miracles, and old Ebeneezer, who is decidedly not extravagant with his wealth but is equally without compassion, is given a wondrous opportunity to repent. Several spirits appear to help him see the error of his ways. Unlike Jesus’ parable, spirits do bridge the chasm with a message from the heart of God. The first of these is his miserable old partner, Jacob Marley, who walks through the doubly locked door to Scrooge’s chambers, dragging an onerous chain made up of “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.”

Marley’s message is this:

“It is required of every man…that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world – oh, woe is me! – and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!

“I wear the chain I forged in life…I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

Scrooge trembled more and more.

“…A very little more, is all permitted to me. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house – mark me! – in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!”

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labor by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.

“[Humankind] was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

“At this time of the rolling year…I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

“That is no light part of my penance…I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”

Dickens’s parable is no less and no more fantastic than the one told by Jesus. To hell with you is never God’s desire for us or any aspect of creation. Like Marley’s chains and the rich man’s torment, hell is something of our own creation, “forged in life, made link by link, and yard by yard, girded on of our own free will…” It is fortified every time we step over Lazarus at our doorsteps, simultaneously seeing and not seeing. And, Marley’s wisdom notwithstanding, it is something we can let go of by letting go. Scrooge gets it in the end, Jesus gets it all along. In the words of another old spiritual, “All my troubles will be over when I lay my burden down.” To give myself over to life in God’s beloved community is to undo the chains and embrace the goodness of God’s creation. It is to enter into partnership with God who loves everybody to make sure that everybody knows they count. The good news is that it’s never too late to choose to live in God’s goodness and grace. God help us to find our way.

Amen.

Going to hell

As I said to the Bible study on Tuesday, “This week we’re going to hell.” Of course, I didn’t mean literally, but this week’s theme in We Make the Road by Walking is “Jesus and Hell.” Both Hebrew scripture and the New Testament use language of judgment and punishment. These are among the most challenging texts in the Bible. I confessed to the Bible Study group that I find Mathew 25:31-46 a particularly difficult passage. How easy it is to walk by or even step over the “least of these” without even seeing. The parable’s punishment for failure to see is particularly harsh.

I don’t think the story’s intention is to scare us onto the “straight and narrow,” but it is a powerful challenge to wake up and pay attention. Luke’s story of the rich man and Lazarus follows a similar trajectory. The rich man’s sin is not his wealth per se; it’s that, day after day, he steps over the destitute Lazarus without seeing him. “Let those who have eyes see and ears hear,” Jesus reminds his followers over and over. I don’t believe that Jesus or God desires that anyone “go to hell.” The challenge, the invitation, is to wake up, to pay attention, to practice compassion and to live love.

In Adult Spiritual Formation, Susan Bradley will be sharing with us from a couple of trips she’s made recently – one to Haiti to teach photography to young Haitians and one to Cuba with a group of musicians. This session may well open our eyes to parts of the world with which we are not sufficiently familiar.

See you Sunday at 10:00 AM. Bring some others along to share the day.

May we continue to grow together as God’s people.

Pastor Rick  

Fire Next Time (August 11, 2013)

sermons.fwFIRE NEXT TIME

A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, August 18, 2013

Text:  Luke 12:49-46; Hebrews 11:29-12:2

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign.  Said, ‘No more water, but fire next time’…”  The playlist that runs through my mind opened immediately to these words from the old spiritual as soon as I read the opening verse of today’s text, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

The text and the song conjure apocalyptic images of final judgment with evil punished, fire and brimstone, death and destruction.  It’s not at all a pretty picture nor one I would ordinarily turn to, let alone preach.  But we know that there is a thread of apocalyptic judgment that runs through the Bible. This is another of those Sundays when the lectionary gives us a text we might happily skip over.  But, as with last Sunday’s text from the same chapter of Luke’s gospel, it may be good discipline to stick with the passage to see if it has anything to say to us.

Many of us have difficulty believing in a literal hell, a burning pit presided over by a literal devil.  It’s old imagery that we have outgrown, moved beyond, left behind, if, indeed, it was ever part of our belief system.  We have given ourselves over to a God of unconditional love, infinite compassion and boundless grace.  We find comfort and a measure of security in a God who, in Christ, is in the process of reconciling all of creation to God’s self.  We embrace a God who will not hold our sins eternally against us.  But then we come up against a passage like today’s. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!,” Jesus declaims.  How did his first followers hear this?  What are we to do with it?

Well, one way too frame it is to accept that there will be a “Day of the Lord,” a day of judgment.  Matthew writes in his gospel of that day when “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:41-42).  Or we may be more familiar with the parable in which the sheep will be separated from the goats with the latter being sent “into eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46), which Matthew describes earlier as “the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22).  It’s not a pretty picture, not one we want to spend much time contemplating.

Though the imagery may be dated, from a vastly different time and place, it may still serve as some sort of stark reminder that there are consequences for the choices we make, for the way we shape our lives and for the commitments we make and break.  Unconditional love does not liberate us from responsibility; infinite compassion compels us to do likewise; boundless grace calls forth our own graciousness.  It is not enough to take and take without ever giving back some of the blessing with which we have been blessed.  Truth be told, most of us are neither sheep nor goats but some sort of crazy hybrid that sometimes gets it right and other times fails miserably.

I’m not at all convinced that Jesus was really in favor of a place of eternal punishment.  I think that what we have here is a man on a mission to which he is deeply and passionately committed.  Have you ever felt a sense of urgency about something, ever felt stressed over getting something accomplished or doing it right, ever been intensely eager for the conclusion of a journey or the fulfillment of a promise?  I think this is where Jesus was on this day as he made his way to Jerusalem and what would surely be a day of reckoning for him.  He was just a little impatient and frustrated with the failure of his followers to grasp fully the significance of the journey they were on and what he had been trying to teach them along the way.

The fire he longed for was not a destructive one, for he loved this crazy hybrid flock that followed him.  He wanted only the best for them.  He wanted them to find with and through him the abundant fulfillment of the reign of God.  He knew it was wonderful beyond their imagining and he wanted them to see it to.  The fire he longed for was the purifying fire that would burn the chaff and leave the wheat.  It makes me think of the text for the great aria and chorus from Messiah, drawn from the prophet Malachi, “But who may abide the day of his coming and who shall stand when he appeareth, for he is like a refiner’s fire. And he shall purify the sons of Levi that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.” Or to draw from my playlist the words of that grand old hymn we sometimes sing, “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply.  The flame shall not hurt thee, I only design thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”

Jesus is showing a very human desire to get on with the work at hand, the coming of God’s reign on earth.  He is eager that his followers lose the dimness of their lenses and see clearly with his heightened vision what God has in store for them all.  He knows he will not be with them much longer and it is urgent that they be ready to pick up his work once he is no longer with them in person.

Of course, they also needed to know that there were hard days ahead, that the road would not be easy, that they would suffer hardship and persecution before all reached God’s intended was fulfillment.  To take the road of righteousness would have consequences, some dire, for those first followers.  Persecution and even martyrdom would come to some of them.  The writer of Hebrews has a graphic list of what the faithful faced over the centuries.  There was a cost to discipleship that went along with the promised joy of its fulfillment.

The peace that Jesus offers, the peace that passes understanding, is not simply the absence of violence, it is a deep peace grounded in justice and nurtured by righteousness.  It is a peace that is only fully realized when the reign of God becomes the way of the world and the world is finely turned right side up.  Before that there may indeed be turbulent times with division among friends and within families.  It’s not that Jesus wants to undermine peace and bring division.  These are the inevitable result of the shift from the way of the world to the way of God.  They are incompatible and will always be in tension.  David Lose writes, “…those invested in the present order; those lured by the temptations of wealth, status, and power; and those who rule now will resist this coming [realm of God] for it spells an end to what they know and love (or at least have grown accustomed to). Hence Jesus – though coming to establish a rule of peace – brings division, even to the most intimate and honored of relationships, that among family”

It seems to me that this perspective might have some meaning for us.  Clearly we don’t find ourselves living in a place and time where we are persecuted for our faith.  After all this is a “Christian country,” is it not?  At least, that’s what some argue.  But what if we stood truly and deeply for the realization of the reign of God in the here and now?  Are there things about our own “present order” that would come into conflict with our faith if we practiced it as Jesus envisioned it?

David Lose, again, raises this question about our way of life and faith practice, “Is the relative ease of the Christian life in this land entirely the result of cultural acceptance or is it because we fail to live into the gospel Jesus announced?”  He continues, “Throughout Luke’s account, Jesus announces a new community – he calls it the [realm] of God – that is governed not by power but by equity, where all those in need are cared for, where forgiveness is the norm, where the poor are privileged, where wealth is shared rather than hoarded, and where the weak and lonely are honored”

Those seem like elements of the reign of God, of a life in Christ we might still strive to embody – governance through equity, care for the needy, a path toward forgiveness, offering recognition to the poor, sharing wealth and honoring the weak and lonely.  This sounds like a way of living we might still look forward to and work to create.  At the end of chapter twelve, the writer of Hebrews encourages us as people of faith, “Therefore, since we are receiving a [realm] that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29).

Maybe the old spiritual is not so far off.  No more destructive punishment as in the account of the flood.  It will be the fire next time, but not a destroying fire, rather we may experience a refining fire that will consume the detritus of our lives and refine our gold.  Like those pioneers of our faith, that great cloud of witnesses, we will be free to run the race, laying “aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” unencumbered by the false hopes and inadequate promises of the present order.