Seventh Sunday of Epiphany – February 17, 2019
Jeremiah 17:5-10, Psalm 1, Luke 6:17-26
So often we spend a lot of time and energy trying to make our lives as safe as possible. It’s almost a matter of wanting to be able to sit back and count our blessings. We tend to make calculations about things such as our jobs, our homes, or our net worth and then conclude how blessed we are. Jesus turns our notion of a blessed existence upside down. He basically points out that we can find strength in vulnerability. Then He also warns us that it could be dangerous to become complacent and content. A blessed existence actually involves being sent to tough places.
When we either “Pass the peace” or merely greet the person beside of close by to us, not everyone is equally happy about it. There might be some who cringe and then put on a cheesy smile while shaking their hands with whoever they encounter, maybe even hoping this moment will be over with as soon as possible.
How would you react if I said to you this morning to stand up. Then turn to the person next to you, grasp each other’s hands firmly, look each other straight in the eye and then say “In the name of Jesus Christ, go to hell!”
Wilfred Bailey and William McElvaney make this rude sounding suggestion for one more Sunday of awkward “Peace be with yous” in their book, Christ’s suburban body. 1.) These two authors aren’t just making this suggestion for shock value. There is method in their madness. It is carefully thought through and has a theological basis. Does the Apostle’s Creed not describe the place that Christ went to as “hell”? While we as believers are the continuing presence of Christ’s body on earth, is this not where the church should go in order to find the neediest souls, those that appear to be the farthest from God and closest to despair? Aren’t we to go to hell, in this sense? As the hands and feet, eyes and mouth of the body of Christ as community, where should members of every congregation find themselves instinctively being drawn? To hell. Pumping the hands of the person next to you in church while seriously urging them to “go to hell” is a way to revitalise the mission and message of the Church.
It might not take much imagination to discover where the hellish holes are that we all walk or even drive by. Think of the man or woman standing beside the traffic light, the folks building shelters in the river valley, or perhaps even the deranged man getting onto the LRT. Just take a look into the faces of the drifting, mentally-maimed homeless, and you will see hell in their eyes. Even cruise through the local mall and note the aimless, empty wanderings of the well-off, walled-off, and see hell in the all-consuming consumerism to which their souls seem to be sold.
Jesus recognised all the hellish holes human beings can fall into. In this week’s gospel reading from Luke, Jesus takes special note of those who are both in a material hell — the poor and the hungry — and those in a spiritual hell — those suffering profound personal sorrow and rejection or loss. Perhaps you’ll recall the Johnny Cash song, lyrics by Kris Kristoffersen, Sunday morning coming down. One of the lines goes “there is something about Sunday that makes a body feel alone.” How true might that be? And it truly is a hellish feeling. It is those very people, the lonely ones we might call the “unblessables,” that Jesus lavishes with his blessing. For those who appear to be in superb circumstances — wealthy and well-fed, carefree, Jesus pronounces a timely warning. It is to those we would want to perceive as “blessed” that Jesus pronounces a somber “woe to you.”
I do want to make it clear that the blessings and woes could never be seen as two categories. They don’t stand for apocalyptic statusses, with blessed being close to God and the woes pointing to damnation. For Jesus the issue is one’s relationship with God and God’s kingdom. It is easier for those who are meek, “push-overs” or impoverished to realise the need for God’s strength and support in their lives. For those who are enjoying the strength of a healthy body, home and bank account, the need for God’s hand of help is not so obvious.
Each of us has areas of our lives where we think we are doing great. Progress seems steady and perhaps even inevitable. Jesus’ curse to the rich and successful, however, should warn us that these are precisely the places where we most need God. When we are satisfied, we are in danger of becoming smug. The other way round, where we think we are most vulnerable in our lives, those worrisome, weak spots in our internal make-up, are actually the very places where God can make us the most secure.
We cannot only allow God into certain portions of our lives and exclude God from others. Jesus went to hell to bless the unblessables. He calls on all his disciples to do the same.
Do we as a congregation dare to go to hell in order to fulfill our mission for Christ? Do we need to look upon a financial deficit in our budget as something negative? Is this not another blessing in disguise? Perhaps we might easily think of ten different “hells” we should visit during this next year. What about the hell of a homeless shelter that needs volunteers, the hell of a retirement complex where the residents have become “inmates,”? Wherever you and I go as the body of Christ, God will be with us. Entering hell is the mission and ministry for which Christ has called the Church. 2.)
1.) Wilfred Bailey and William McElvaney, Christ’s suburban body. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970)
2.) This message takes it’s inspiration from a Sermon by Leonard Sweet, “When a church needs to go to hell”, posted on sermons.com
Copyright 2019 – Heinrich Grosskopf, Minister of Dayspring Presbyterian Church
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