How is your faith? Do you have faith? Can you define your faith? What do you have faith in?
These are not questions I am posing to you. These are questions that were posed to me and about thirty other spectators this week. I was riding across campus and I heard a commotion going on to my right as I was bicycling around the Memorial Union Building. A youngish man wearing black suspenders was raving about how this other young man was a homosexual and was going straight to hell if he did not change. He was surrounded by laughing and giggling college-age women who had their cameras out and were recording what I assume they understood to be the idiocy of the moment.
The street preacher then asked the aforementioned questions in rapid-fire fashion. I thought they were good questions. A group of women began to leave and he asked them forcefully where they were going? They responded, “Straight to hell according to you!” “But seriously,” they countered, “We are going to class.” He responded, “Just the same, straight to hell!” I bicycled away before I became any sort of focus for him. I do not enjoy street arguments but I do enjoy their theatrical aspects. But, if you want to know why I even stopped in the first place, it was because I was concerned that someone needed to be stood with against his diatribe. It turned out to be nothing but a sad circus act.
The street preacher has faith, however. He believes in a doctrine and a tradition of Christianity that says that God sends people to hell very easily for not believing the right things. He believes that Jesus died for his sins, the sins of the world, but that Jesus’ death does not save anyone who does not declare their allegiance to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. He does not believe, obviously, that a gay person can accept Jesus and still be a gay person. He believes that I am going to hell and am sending people straight to hell by preaching and talking about God and Jesus differently than he does.
I read a study last week that showed that those folks who have the strongest aversion to homosexuality often also score very high on having had many erotic same-sex fantasies, which they have an unconscious tendency to suppress very strongly. None of that surprises us, really. But, it makes this really cute guy on campus spouting antigay rhetoric not necessarily a good source of information about God sending people to hell, because at heart he quite possibly is simply trying to stay straight and he is scared to death by his own sexuality.
Fear of the multi-faceted human condition is what often motivates people to create and maintain horrible theologies and beliefs about God. Our sexuality has been chief among the uncomfortable realities over which people have sought to use God to decry its very existence as little more than a sinful, pragmatic necessity, rather than to embrace it as one of God’s greatest gifts. One of the Scandinavian countries has been in the news of late because they begin age-appropriate sexuality education in kindergarten and maintain age-appropriate sexuality education throughout the years—and lo and behold, both young men and women report first sexual encounters as being safe and enjoyable rather than being abusive and so often painful physically and psychologically (as is so often reported in our country where abstinence-only education still reigns supreme).
My faith belief is that God observed everything that God had made and declared that it was good. Jews— Jesus was a Jew—have a tendency to celebrate sexuality, while Christianity is embarrassed by it and seeks to act as if it does not exist (and when it does exist Christianity has a tendency to want to define its appropriate expression very narrowly).
Jesus has precious little to say about sexuality. Paul, as in the Apostle, had some to say about it, as did the early Christian community that followed Paul more than Jesus. I’d rather we said nothing than continue to rob ourselves and those we value of a good sexuality that ought always to enhance our life experience. Several of us heard The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor speak last Monday morning on the topic of vocation and she was excellent. She spoke at length of the areas of life where Divinity or God can be experienced and she included erotica as one of the five areas where God can be most easily and meaningfully experienced. They did not teach me that in Sunday School or in Seminary, and they should have—and so should we be so teaching. We spend a lot of time and energy asking what we ought be teaching about in Sunday School. It’s not that difficult, is it? We ought to be teaching about those essential areas of life that our children will all have to struggle with and master in their lives. We need to hoist our Puritan ethics and fear of sexuality back on the boat they came over on. Sexuality needs to be lovingly taught and embraced and enjoyed, by all of us, in full recognition of the wide spectrum of experiences and needs we human beings have.
I get asked once or twice a week whether or not I fear God. Normally in those same questions, hell is clearly implied as being connected to those fears. In the Hebrew Scriptures or the Old Testament the same word is often translated as either fear or awe. Most of us would not see those terms as synonymous today.
I do not fear God, nor do I think you should. I have tremendous awe of all that is Divine and holy. However, as a statement of my faith, what is awe-inspiring for me is that God is loving, understanding, provocatively engaged in all of life, sustaining the created order, is hopeful, and the source of novelty, providing reasons to keep on keeping on and not just ending it all.
My faith, which has been evolving for a very long time, understands God as intimately involved in every moment of experience. Every moment! God cares deeply—perhaps not about what we will have for lunch today, but God cares deeply that we can have lunch and cares and tugs and lures us to see to it that, within our power and capabilities, those who do not have lunch easily available get lunch, because we made it possible. God is not guilt. God is the urge to love as completely and ably as possible.
I want to divert just a bit in this sermon about my faith. One of the reasons that it has taken me so long to evolve progressively and meaningfully forward in my faith journey is because I grew up being told that all the decisions about who and what God is had all been made and all I needed to do was fall in line and be a good soldier for the Lord. I was taught by sincere, Bible believing, mainly good people who believed their primary task in life was to save me and all others from the pits of perdition, the fires of hell.
As a person of faith, I am a follower, I prefer to say, of the Ways of Jesus of Nazareth. I spend my free time poring over Bible pages seeking with earnest conviction to know what Jesus said and valued, rather than what people after the time of Jesus had to say about Jesus, or worse yet, what they made up about Jesus and what was important to him. And, this important Jesus did not have any of the New Testament. It was written after him, to a large degree as a response to Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus talked about the Holy Scriptures, he was talking about the Jewish Bible, the Hebrew texts, what is often referred to inappropriately as the Old Testament. It was not old to Jesus, it was the Testament and he certainly found aspects of it crucial to his understanding of who and what God was/is.
Hell is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. Nada. Zilch. It is mentioned 13 or 14 times, depending on the word used, in the Christian Scriptures. Now, I knew this in general, and I wanted to know for sure, so I googled it. I couldn’t help but laugh that when I typed in, “how many times” into the search box the current most-often-searched-for phrases were searches for how many times was Kentucky Probate Clerk, Kim Davis married? Her efforts to be found faithful are being laughed at in the same ways that students laughed at the street preacher on campus. Our faith does need to have a sense of humor, but we should not be so ridiculous as to deserve to be mocked and laughed at. We can and should do better.
Let me tell you about hell. It is mainly a Christian construction to create fear in people. It is mentioned almost exclusively in the Book of Revelation, which barely deserves to be in our group of Holy texts, and every one of the sayings of Jesus in the Book of Revelation is made up—they are not historically valid.
The word “hell” occurs only 14 times in the NIV. The New American Standard has it only 13 times. What was even more astounding was that, like the Jewish Old Testament, neither of these leading Bibles has the word “hell” in the Old Testament. The “creator,” according to these top-selling Bibles, agreed with the Jewish Old Testament that the concept of the place of eternal torment for the unrighteous could not be found in the first three quarters of the Bible. Adam was not warned of “hell.” Abraham never heard of “hell.” Moses, who brought the Creator’s Law into the world, warned that “the wages of sin is death,” Sheol, the grave. God never ever warned about being roasted, toasted, and endlessly tortured. David, when chasing after Bathsheba, suffered the consequences of his sin, but eternal torment was not on his mind. Besides, the Lake of Fire is not Hell. Hades is Hell. And according to Revelation, the “Lake of Fire” (Gahanna) is uninhabited. Gahanna is the Lake of Fire described in Rev 19 and 20. It is presently uninhabited, but the Beast and the False Prophet will be cast into it at the end of the tribulation (Rev 19:20). One thousand years later, Satan will be cast into it (Rev 20:10) and will be followed shortly by the lost people of all previous time periods (Rev 20:15). They will then enter Gahanna, at the same time, in their resurrected bodies.
The people that I grew up with seem to get off on the thought of unbelievers & sinners painfully roasting for all eternity with no possibility of parole. I find it amazing that Christians needed a savior (Jesus) to show “ultimate love & forgiveness,” but at the same time, came up with a “roasting in the Lake of Fire for all eternity” type of Hell that wasn’t there before.
Now, the Jewish version of Hell is not found in the book but is talked about by a few Rabbis. It is very different from the Christian version. According to Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar, “Hell is temporary — not permanent. Hell is a therapy — not an imprisonment. Hell is a consequence — not a punishment. Hell is a washing machine — not a furnace.”
My faith, which relies so very much on the person, Jesus of Nazareth, informs me that we are each and every one of us loved and valued by God, now and forever, eternally, if you will. This means that God values those that I cannot find a way to value. Men and women who have done truly astoundingly evil deeds not only once but repeatedly are valued by God. It is not in my faith to send anyone to hell even for a good washing. It seems that that is the duty of God alone.
I have one last thing about my faith that I would like to share. I have a tremendous love and appreciation for the life, the challenges and the lure forward provided by Jesus of Nazareth. There have been and will be many who ignite the very presence of God in our midst and Jesus is one of them and did excellently—as if he needed my valuation.
Jesus has been made into something more than he ever dreamed of being. The church that happened, the communities that formed after his death have raised him very high—onto a shelf even and a pedestal that I doubt he’d agree with. The Jesus of history, the flesh and blood human, would keep jumping back down and bringing healing to the sick, seeing to those unable to envision the reality of God and sounds of acceptance and love to those who grew deaf to being made acceptable and lovable long ago. But, he can’t do that, so he has us—who he said would do even greater things than he. Was he deranged in saying that or does he know that God believes in us way more than we do in ourselves?
He left behind one of those children’s story moments that defines for us—more than we really want to have defined—what it means to be a follower of the Ways of Jesus. In the time of Jesus, a child was lowest on the priority list (no “women and children first” here). Even in medieval times, Pilch writes, Mediterranean cultures put a low value on children: “Thomas Aquinas taught that in a raging fire a husband was obliged to save his father first, then his mother, next his wife, and last of all his young child” (The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B).
Our own Western culture would reverse that order, so it’s tempting for us to sentimentalize the action of Jesus in picking up a small child and exhorting his followers to welcome “one such child” in his name as a way to welcome him. Isn’t it a sweet scene, when Jesus tenderly cuddles a child and, we imagine, appeals to the soft hearts under the tough exterior of these big, rough men? It is indeed a sweet scene that we imagine, but that’s not what’s going on here. Jesus is once again saying something not sweet, not sentimental, but perplexing, even disconcerting, and certainly provocative.
Those poor disciples are experiencing one more boat-rocking paradox, one more radical up-ending of the way they think things ought to be, and hope they will be, when Jesus comes into their idea of glory. He’s already told them that if they want to gain their life, they should lose it (8:35). Now, when they want to find their way to the top, to claim greatness, he’s telling them to lay claim instead to the last and lowest place. To illustrate his point, he takes a child in his arms and tells them that when they welcome this little one, they welcome him, and they even welcome the One who sent him.
This latest command makes no sense in the world of the disciples. Wait. What? Welcome someone who doesn’t have the power or ability or place to welcome us in return? No expectation of reciprocity? We might say, no return on our investment? No quid pro quo? First, our Teacher-Messiah keeps talking about suffering and dying instead of victory and glory, and now we have to welcome and even value small, insignificant, powerless people?
A long list of “the devalued” society who were both powerless and vulnerable. Megan McKenna provides a long list of such people who didn’t “count”: people “who were old, handicapped, sick, illiterate, cast out as unclean. This group included peasants, farmers, shepherds, widows, slaves, the unemployed, aliens, immigrants, prisoners, homeless.”
Or, as Taylor puts it, Jesus didn’t just tell them but showed them who was greatest: “twenty-six inches tall, limited vocabulary, unemployed, zero net worth, nobody. God’s agent.” In other words, “there is no one whom we may safely ignore” (Bread of Angels). No one whom we may safely ignore.
Jesus lived his life mirroring his values, and we are asked to offer our lives, our priorities, our gifts, our very selves, along with the honor, the power and place and prestige that we long for. These are some of my faith priorities…. What are yours?