A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 27, 2009 (Proper 21, Year B)
I don’t do hellfire and brimstone very well. Though I admit it might be a little fun: pound my fist, do a little yelling, turn beat red, frighten people into better behavior, and literally scare the bejesus out of them. This morning we encounter talk in Mark’s gospel about the “unquenchable fire” and being “thrown into hell.” Not to mention the alternative of chopping off your limbs or gouging out your eyeballs. So if there was ever a passage that called for a bit of fire and brimstone, this is it.
But unfortunately, as I said, I don’t do fire and brimstone very well. It’s just not my schtick. But it is in my blood. The 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards – a distant relative of mine – used to evoke vivid images of hell from his church in Northampton, Massachusetts. In his famous sermon titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” he preached the following: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire: he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire.” Yikes.
It’s no wonder that during his revivals worshippers swore they could feel the heat of hell’s flames warming their pews while he preached. Which, in those unheated New England churches, may not have been a bad thing.
But this just isn’t the loving, merciful God that I’ve come to know. And, let’s be honest, Episcopalians generally don’t “do” hell. It’s not that we don’t believe in the power of evil or God’s judgment; we just don’t profess the notion of a physical place called “hell” with the requisite flames and a guy in a red suit with horns and a pitchfork. Rather, hell would be considered any condition of separation from God. Whether that exists in this mortal life – literally hell on earth – or in the afterlife. Yes, there is judgment. But it’s a merciful judgment, continually offering us the opportunity to repent and return to the Lord.
Nonetheless we can’t just skip over and avoid the passages we don’t like so we need to go into the belly of the beast, so to speak, and take a closer look at these images in Scripture. We need to examine the context of Jesus’ words to the disciples and discern what he might be saying to us in our own day. A nice light topic for a rainy Sunday morning.
First, we need to recall that Jesus is a master of metaphor and hyperbole. A phrase like “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” is a perfect example. Or, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, cannot be my disciple.” These are literary devices not to be taken literally.
And the three-fold commentary about chopping off limbs is in this vein. We hear that if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out. So, I hate to burst your hell-fire bubble but this is not actually a passage of judgment and damnation. Jesus isn’t trying to frighten the disciples into faith or maim them. Jesus is really talking about discipleship; about the lengths we would go to follow him. The phrases themselves – the whole rhythm of “If your (fill-in-the-blank body part) causes you to stumble, cut it off” – were familiar proverbs in Jesus’ day. His hearers knew they weren’t to be taken literally. Which is why the early disciples weren’t a bunch of amputees and why Christians today don’t leave coffee hour looking like the walking wounded. Jesus’ point is that anything that gets in the way of discipleship, of following him, must be pruned away. It must be cut out so that we are free to follow him without fear or encumbrance or the weight of the world.
So, Jesus was challenging the disciples to think about the commitment of their faith. Asking them, in effect, ‘Just how strong is your faith? What would you sacrifice in order to keep it? A hand? A foot? An eye?’
And, of course, the question gets thrown right back to us. What would you be willing to forsake in order to keep your faith? We don’t have to think about it in terms of a body part. I’m not asking you to give me a finger before you come up for communion. But what does your faith mean to you? What are you willing to sacrifice in order to live faithfully? Are you willing to give up golf on a beautiful Sunday morning to come to church? Are you willing to give up HBO in order to give more money to worthwhile causes? Are you willing to say “no” to youth sports that take place before noon on Sundays? Is there anything you’re willing to give up to be drawn closer to the risen Christ?
I’ve always thought the Scriptural image of the refiner’s fire is more helpful than the flames of hell. We get this image in the Bible a lot; the prophet Malachi uses it as an image of God, a metaphor for the way God tests the faithful and strengthens their faith. A silversmith will hold a piece of unrefined silver over a fire. But not just any fire – the refiner’s fire must be particularly hot. The silversmith has carefully selected the right fuel, concentrating the heat and flame in an oven. And just before he plunges the silver into the middle of the flame, he feeds the fire with oxygen so that the flames rage with ferocity. Finally he places the silver into the fire to burn away the impurities. Which is precisely what happens when we follow Jesus with all our heart and mind and soul. The impurities are burned off and we’re left spiritually shiny and new. Can you tell we visited colonial Williamsburg this summer? The point is that if we allow ourselves to enter into the fire, we will be neither consumed nor destroyed but purified. A better state than eternal damnation, to be sure.
Last week we had a baptism and we’ll have more in the coming months. And we sometimes get so distracted by cute babies that we don’t hear the questions posed to the parents and godparents. There are three affirmations followed by three renunciations. And the language of the renunciations is tough. Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? The answer to all of these is, hopefully, “I renounce them.”
All of which is to say that evil does exist in the world. And that’s one of the main points in this passage. When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “Deliver us from evil” we’re not just saying idle words. What is evil? Anything that throws a stumbling block into our relationship with Jesus Christ. We may not go for all the talk about the gates of hell and the fiery furnace, but evil is alive, well, and thriving in our midst. And it’s only the God of all love that can extinguish it.
I’m sorry I couldn’t do better with the hell-fire and brimstone this morning. Preaching a gospel of love doesn’t lend itself to it. I’d love to terrify you into being more faithful. But it just doesn’t work that way; and I don’t believe it’s truly of Jesus. Preachers do it all the time of course; especially on TV. And perhaps it fills the pews for awhile. But it’s not an authentic rendering of the God of love. Using scare tactics isn’t consistent with the God we worship. And although I admit it might be fun every once in a while, you’ll just have to get your fire and brimstone somewhere else.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2009