COMMUNITY CHURCH OF THE MONTEREY PENINSULA
P. O. BOX 222811
CARMEL CA 93922
Rev. Paul Wrightman, Pastor
Independent and United Church of Christ
September 20, 2020
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 email@example.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
WORSHIP SERVICE FOR SEPTEMBER 20, 2020
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
The word of death
presses its way quietly,
insistently into my mind
there’s no time to waste
in choosing love
this day is precious,
this moment – this one –
is all we have
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
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
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.
SERMON: IS THERE ANYWHERE WE CAN GO TO ESCAPE GOD – EVEN HELL?
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.