P. O. BOX 222811


(831) 624-8595










Rev. Paul Wrightman, Pastor


Independent and United Church of Christ


September 20, 2020


Dear Friends,


Hope you are all well – well in the narrow sense of not being ill, and well in Julian of Norwich’s sense of totally at home with yourself, others, and God.


The Zoom worship service got off to a good start last Sunday. ​​ It’s definitely a work in process, and I appreciate everyone’s patience as we continue to improve. ​​ If you would like to give this format a try, just email me by noon tomorrow and I’ll see that you get a link.​​ ​​ My email address is​​ paulccmp@yahoo.com.​​ ​​ All you need to do to access the service is to click on the link directly above the blue Zoom box on your email. ​​ You will continue to receive the​​ email and/or print versions of the service unless you tell me to discontinue them.


There’s a good chance that ADA MORTON will be able to join us for the Zoom service tomorrow. ​​ Ada has been having some health issues recently. ​​ Please keep her in your prayers.


Thank you, Heidi, for this week’s beautiful virtual bouquet.


We will not be having Zoom worship for the next two Sundays (September 27th​​ and October 4th). ​​ Way back in January, before the pandemic hit, Elizabeth and I reserved a place in Mammoth Lakes for some vacation time. ​​ Luna, our new​​ puppy, will be coming with us. ​​ The email and print versions of the worship service will go out as usual.


We continue our sermon series on the most important texts in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. ​​ Psalm 139 challenges us to think about death and beyond. ​​ Sounds heavy, but God’s Word takes us to an amazingly good place.


Stay Safe, Take Good Care, and Always Remember that Jesus IS Emmanuel –

God WITH Us, Paul




INTRODUCTORY READING  ​​ ​​ ​​​​ Diane Berke, Contemporary


The word of death

curves around my heart

like a question mark


who are you really

what do you care about

what do you really want

what matters

The word of death

presses its way quietly,

insistently into my mind

reminding me

there’s no time to waste

in choosing love

this day is precious,​​ 

this moment – this one –

is all we have

why wait

why leave unspoken now

a single word

that love would speak

why leave undone

a single gesture

love would express

what could possibly matter more

than love now

than peace now

than forgiveness and freedom now

what foolish reasons

or excuses of fear

do not pale next to the truth

that love is here

that now is all there is eternally

How can I choose less

than to love

with all of my heart, mind, and soul


and life

and everything​​ 



The word of death

comes into my life

bearing a sacred promise

and gift –

calls me to awaken today to life

and the truth of love

as all that matters

and is

and lives.


SUGGESTED MUSIC  ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ Precious Lord Take My Hand with Lyrics  ​​ ​​​​ dsasil  ​​ ​​ ​​​​ You Tube


OPENING PRAYER  ​​ ​​ ​​​​ St. Augustine, 354-430


All shall be Amen and Alleluia.

We shall rest and we shall see,

We shall see and we shall know.

We shall know and we shall love.

We shall love and we shall praise.

Behold our end which is no end.



Our Father who art in heaven

hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come,

thy will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our trespasses

as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory

for ever and ever.



SCRIPTURE READING  ​​ ​​ ​​​​ Psalm 139:7-12, NRSV


Where can I go from your spirit?

Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning

and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,

and the light around me become night’,

even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is as bright as the day,

for darkness is as light to you.






Rev. Paul Wrightman


(The underlining​​ simply indicates​​ what I would emphasize if delivered orally.)



The extreme place to go to escape God has traditionally been assigned to hell, so we will be looking at several contemporary approaches to hell from several significant thinkers.


Concerning hell, two extremes need to be avoided. ​​ One is the breathtaking ease with which many Christians​​ assign​​ others to hell. ​​ The other is the casual​​ dismissal​​ of hell as a concept that is beneath contempt.


Close to the heart of the Christian tradition is the concept of human free will, which has as its corollary​​ the understanding that real​​ choices​​ bring real​​ consequences.


So this sermon is going to take​​ both​​ free will and hell​​ seriously, placing them in one side of the ring, so to speak, and on the other side of the ring placing God’s relentless love.


We are going to let these realities battle it out and see where we get.


An obscure but​​ significant​​ reading from the First Letter of Peter tells us that Jesus went and “made a proclamation to those in prison.” ​​ Many translations render this as “Jesus went and preached to those in​​ hell.” ​​​​ (1 Peter 3:18-19)


The early church understood this text to mean that Jesus visited hell on Holy Saturday, the day after Good Friday, with the specific intention of offering those self-imprisoned there the gift of freedom – and heaven.


I thought it important​​ to include this text, and, of course, the wonderful reading from Psalm 139, because they speak powerfully of the breadth and depth of God’s love.


Our Scripture reading from Psalm 139 represents a major breakthrough​​ in Israel’s understanding of life after death. ​​ For most of Israel’s history, the concept of life after death simply did not exist. ​​ The souls, or spirits, of persons who died were believed to be​​ gathered to a region known as “Sheol,” or the “netherworld,” which was really more of a​​ nonplace than a place. ​​ Here, persons were mere shadows, or ghosts, and there was no relationship possible with either God or other people.


What we see happening in Psalm 139 is God’s Spirit gifting the psalmist with the insight that there is simply​​ no​​ place, not even Sheol – and, by extension, not even​​ hell, where one can go to escape God’s presence.


Psalm 139 is one of Israel’s earliest affirmations that God is present even​​ after​​ one’s death, with the implication of an on-going relationship with God.


The poetry of the Psalm soars as the author celebrates the new-found insight that because of God’s incredible love and care there is absolutely​​ no​​ place where God​​ cannot​​ be:


“Where can I go​​ from your Spirit? ​​ Or where can I flee from your presence?


If I ascend to heaven, you are there;


If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.


If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your right hand shall hold me fast.


If I say ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.’” ​​ (Psalm 139:7-12)


The​​ Scripture text from the First Letter of Peter​​ links​​ this understanding of God’s all-pervasive presence to the person of Jesus, and portrays Jesus as visiting those in “prison,” or “hell,” with the hope that they will choose God and freedom.


Something that needs to be clarified immediately is that​​ God​​ does not​​ judge​​ people or​​ send​​ people to hell. ​​ It is clear from the judgment scene in Matthew 25 that people​​ themselves​​ choose heaven or hell according to how well they have loved their neighbors in need.


Given the importance which God places on the exercise of free will, God simply​​ respects​​ the​​ choice​​ of heaven or hell that a person has freely made on his or her​​ own.


But is God’s love​​ really this​​ limited?


Today’s two Scripture readings give us​​ warrant​​ to​​ speculate​​ on​​ how​​ God​​ continues​​ to​​ relate​​ to those who have chosen hell.


Several of our finest contemporary theologians feel that God’s relentless love pushes God to take​​ extraordinary​​ measures​​ to free people from their self-imposed prison of hell. ​​​​ Four thinkers who attempt to say something meaningful about God’s​​ continuing​​ love for those whom traditional theology consigns to the rubbish heap of​​ hell are C. S. Lewis, Rob Bell, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Karl Rahner. ​​ Each of these thinkers is deeply in love with God and wants to​​ run​​ with God’s relentless love as far as it will go. ​​ Let us look briefly at the thought of each of these persons in turn.


We begin with C. S. Lewis, whom many evangelical and mainstream Christians consider to be one of the brightest lights in theological heaven. ​​ In a small volume,​​ The Great Divorce​​ – the word “divorce” describing the rift between heaven and hell, Lewis described hell as a vast grey city which keeps growing​​ larger​​ because the people there​​ cannot​​ stand​​ their​​ neighbors, and keep​​ abandoning​​ their houses to move further​​ apart​​ from each other.


On a regular schedule, a celestial bus is dispatched from heaven to hell. ​​ All​​ who​​ want​​ may board the bus which is bound for heaven. ​​ The bus stops on the outskirts of heaven, where its occupants disembark. ​​ There they are met by a relative or friend who does​​ everything​​ in his or her power to convince the resident from hell to​​ let​​ go​​ of their​​ self-centeredness, to​​ accept​​ God’s​​ healing​​ love, and to​​ make​​ the​​ move​​ from​​ hell​​ to​​ heaven.


Sadly, all but one of the characters in this brief science-fiction-type novel choose to​​ remain​​ in hell. ​​ They would​​ rather​​ be​​ alone​​ with their selfish selves for​​ all​​ eternity​​ than to​​ open​​ themselves​​ up​​ to the love of​​ others​​ and the love of​​ God.


Lewis says in another work that the doors of​​ heaven​​ are always​​ open​​ –​​ wide​​ open – but that the doors of​​ hell​​ are​​ locked​​ –​​ not​​ locked by​​ God​​ on the​​ outside​​ keeping people​​ in, but locked on the​​ inside​​ by the person’s selfishness and refusal to accept God’s healing love.


Rob Bell, in his book​​ Love​​ Wins, goes so far as to question the​​ very​​ existence​​ of hell. ​​ In a provocative chapter called “Does God Get What God Wants?” Bell maintains that what God wants is the salvation of​​ everyone, and that the existence of a place or state-of-being called “hell” would​​ contradict​​ God’s loving nature. ​​ 


Lewis would counter that human​​ free​​ will​​ is absolutely​​ crucial​​ for any kind of real relationship, and that God​​ refuses​​ to be held​​ hostage​​ by people who want nothing to do with love of God and neighbor.


Is there any way​​ out​​ of this impasse between Lewis and Bell? ​​ Our next two thinkers attempt to accomplish an end run around this dead-end.


Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar asserts that Jesus’ descent into hell, commemorated each Holy Saturday, signifies Jesus’ utter​​ solidarity​​ with sinners. ​​ 


As the expression of God’s infinitely merciful love for sinners, Jesus​​ identifies​​ completely with them. ​​ Seemingly abandoned by God on the cross, Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” ​​ In this moment Jesus​​ experiences the “hell” of God’s absence more acutely than would be possible for any other person.


Then, on Holy Saturday, Jesus goes to be​​ with​​ sinners in still​​ another​​ way, in what is traditionally known as his​​ descent​​ into​​ hell.


If we define hell as the adamant choice to​​ close​​ one’s heart to God, then it would​​ seem​​ that hell is the​​ one​​ place where God​​ cannot​​ be. ​​ 


By going there​​ anyway, Jesus​​ refuses​​ to​​ accept​​ that choice and expresses God’s adamant​​ unwillingness to​​ leave​​ us to our own worst selves.


As Von Balthasar puts it: ​​ “And exactly in that way, [Jesus}​​ disturbs​​ the absolute loneliness striven for by the sinner: the sinner who wants to be “damned”​​ apart​​ from God,​​ finds​​ God again in his loneliness, but God in the absolute​​ weakness​​ of love. . .enters into solidarity with those damning themselves. ​​ The words of the Psalm, ‘If I make my bed in the netherworld, thou art there’ thereby take on a totally new meaning.”


In spite of this brilliant attempt on Von Balthasar’s part,​​ one could​​ still​​ raise the question whether or not God is violating a person’s​​ free​​ will​​ in coming thus to​​ badger​​ him or her in hell. ​​ 


To which the answer must be that by becoming​​ weak​​ and​​ vulnerable​​ in this way, by humbly​​ risking​​ the​​ rejection​​ of his love, Jesus is doing​​ everything​​ that God can​​ possibly​​ do to elicit a​​ free​​ response​​ of love.


So rather than Jesus’ so-called “descent into hell” being God’s​​ overwhelming​​ of human free will, we can see it as God’s​​ last​​ resort​​ to get people to love in return.


Karl Rahner further focuses on the paradoxical nature of human free will. ​​ He bluntly asks the question: Does Jesus’ descent into hell to be with those who seem to have rejected God violate free will?


Then Rahner, in a brilliant judo-like move​​ flips​​ the question​​ on​​ its​​ head: or, could it be that by his loving and healing presence to those in hell, Jesus​​ restores​​ their free will?


Free will has often been defined as the​​ capacity​​ to​​ choose​​ in a​​ God-like​​ way. ​​ Thus, a​​ truly​​ free person paradoxically, like​​ God, can​​ only​​ choose the​​ good.


Saying “no” to God,​​ according to​​ Rahner, is not a sign of​​ free​​ will, but rather of how a person still needs​​ healing​​ in order to​​ become​​ free. ​​ Once healed and​​ truly​​ free, that person, like Jesus, can only say “yes” to God.


In considering these theological takes on the traditional Christian teaching on hell by some of the greatest thinkers of our time, what strikes​​ me​​ – and what I hope strikes​​ you​​ – is the relentless​​ love​​ of God, a love which is​​ so​​ relentless that it is even willing , like a hound of heaven, to​​ pursue​​ a person into their self-imposed hell.


I like to think of God’s love as a force as​​ gentle​​ yet​​ relentless​​ as​​ erosion.


Traditional Christian teaching maintains that it​​ is​​ possible for a person to definitively reject God. ​​ In tension with this, traditional Christian teaching also maintains that God is​​ love, and​​ nothing​​ but​​ love.


The question, then, is this:​​ what if God​​ rejects​​ our rejection and instead​​ slowly,​​ quietly, and​​ relentlessly​​ – like​​ erosion​​ – keeps on offering us a way out of our self-imposed exile?


In terms of human time, it might look like God is investing millions of years loving someone who to all intents and purposes​​ wants to be left alone.


But​​ what​​ if​​ on the billionth invitation the person being invited by God​​ accepts​​ the invitation?


And​​ what​​ if​​ God is​​ committed​​ to loving each and every one of us​​ in precisely this way?

Even C. S. Lewis, the great defender of the possibility of a real hell, hints at the very end of​​ The Great Divorce​​ that when the​​ really​​ real​​ comes into being – St. Paul would say when God becomes all in all – there is no longer​​ room​​ for hell. ​​ 


While, of course, none of us knows for sure, and I accept the criticism that this sermon is wildly speculative, it still seems to me that one can make a strong case, based on God’s relentless love, that the mystical vision granted to Dame Julian of Norwich so many years ago​​ is​​ actually a profound insight of the way things​​ will​​ be at the very end:


“And so our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortingly:


I​​ may​​ make all things well,


and I​​ can​​ make all things well,


and I​​ will​​ make all things well.”







Which of the four Christian thinkers mentioned in this sermon – C. S. Lewis, Rob Bell, ​​ Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner – do you resonate with the most and why?









CLOSING PRAYER  ​​ ​​ ​​​​ (Author Unknown)


Think of –

Stepping on shore, and finding it Heaven!

Of taking hold of a hand, and finding it God’s hand,

Of breathing new air, and finding it celestial air,

Of feeling invigorated, and finding it immortality,

Of passing from storm and tempest to an unbroken calm,

Of waking up, and finding it Home.


SUGGESTED MUSIC  ​​ ​​ ​​​​ Be Still, My Soul  ​​ ​​ ​​​​ SE Samonte  ​​ ​​ ​​​​ You Tube




Patiently and persistently, God loves.


Relentlessly and unconditionally, God loves.


Now and forever, God loves.







Independent and United Church of Christ