Sunday, March 29, 2009

March 29, 2009 - Marriage - Part 2

Audio Links: prayers, anthem and message HERE.

Ephesians 5:21-33; Matthew 22:23-33

Marriage … to stand with one another for the duration:
In plenty and in want; in joy and in sorrow; in sickness and in health; as long as we both shall live.

A sizeable commitment!

On the simplest level of life: we all want to love someone, and to have someone love us!
And we only have so much love to give.
In heaven, as Jesus notes, there will be no marriage.
In heaven, love will have blossomed full and complete.
We will love one another as Jesus loves us.
Without limit, without need, without sin!
But here and now,
Love is limited, and sin is real.
We do our best.
And we hope for love.

We fall in love, they say.
It just sort of “happens.”
We see someone – something clicks deep inside of us – a doorway is opened … and love begins to flow.
Scientists study our glands and follow the neurons; poets write of flowers and springtime … philosophers wax eloquent and profound … but whatever falling in love is, it’s powerful stuff.

But falling in love is only the preface.
Staying in love is our hope.

But love is tested and tried …

Who doesn’t wake up in the morning and take a look at the person sleeping next to you, and ask, “Who are you? And why are you here? Was I crazy? If only I had listened to my mother.”

Love is tested by the vagaries of life … by the reality of the person we love – no one ever totally conforms to our expectations and needs … neither our lovers nor our children.

The other day, I saw a child dash toward the street; the mother ran and caught it quickly, and gave it a couple of firm swats and said, “Don’t ever run to the street again!”

In that little moment of panic, fear erupted – and fear always generates anger – in that little moment of time, the mother was furious.
The child was humiliated – that was obvious – with a kick of the foot and throwing down a school paper, the child was disgusted with Mom’s behavior.
The mother quickly recovered.
She picked her child up into her arms, glanced at me walking nearby, mustered all of her motherly reserves, and said to her boy, “Are you having a bad day?”

Love … we have just so much of it to give away.

Last week, we reviewed an important passage from the Bible, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, wherein Paul establishes a spiritual foundation for marriage.

Now, at the outset, I want to be clear:
Statistics are not favorable for Christians.
In other words, Christians have as much difficulty with marriage as “other” folks do.
Because marriage is difficult!
But this much I know –
Our spirituality does and will make a difference, but spirituality has to be deep – our connection to Christ has to be greater than the power of sin, the power of the ego, the power of our past, and the power of the other person to hurt us.
Some folks are mile wide in their sentiments, but only an inch deep in their spirituality.
Now is the time to reach for Christ.
Now is the time to deepen the reservoirs.
Because drought will come. The harsh light of sin and sorrow dries up the shallow pools quickly; only deep reservoirs survive a drought.

Being a Christian is a grand and glorious business, and I wouldn’t trade my walk with Christ for anything in this world.
His love has kept me intact.
His love has seen me through some seriously bad times.
I think I’ve seen miracles.
Donna and I have been blessed to share a common heritage of faith … our family histories and our daily commitments - Christ runs deep in our veins.
Have we always done it right?
Of course not.
Have we always been true to Christ?

But the reality of Christ is greater than our faults and our failings.

In Christ, our true relationship to one another is revealed … out of reverence for Christ, says Paul, be subject to one another.

Love is mutual … no one’s in charge; no one’s the boss.
Giving and receiving … this is the way it is in our walk with Christ.

The rules of love never change … or shall I say, “the governance of love” …
Because love is the one rule that trumps all other rules …
Love is patient … love is kind.
Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way.
It is not irritable or resentful.
It take no pleasure in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
Love is strong – it bears all things.
Love is trusting – it believes all things.
Love is forward looking – it hopes all things.
Love is strong – it endures all things.

The one law greater than all other laws.
The governance of love – to love one another as Christ loves us …

The love of Christ for us … within us, and all around us.
And our love for Christ … and one another.
The governance of love.

The spiritual foundation of marriage … the three laws of love:
Christ in the morning; Christ at noon, and Christ at night.

Loyal …
Faithful …
Forgiving …
Patient …
Profoundly centered in others.

To combat the power of the ego … the spoiled self … the “I want it, and I want it now” attitude … the “screaming child within” that wants the candy bar, and when denied, shouts, “I hate you.”
Look, there’s a little of that, maybe a lot of that, in all of us, and it never goes away entirely.
So we manage it, as best we can.
And the best of this life is Christ!

To fulfill the Golden Rule – to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Not to wait, but to act.
Conditioned by the character of Christ.
To give and not to measure what’s received in return.
To love, even when it’s unrequited.
To forgive deeply.
To not count our hurts, but count on Christ.

Whenever a pastor speaks about marriage, there’s a quiet question in most everyone’s mind: What about divorce?

When I begin marriage counseling, I always make two things clear: I am absolutely committed to exploring every avenue of reconciliation, every possibility of hope – every device, every strategy, for making marriage work.
But I advise divorce if a threshold is crossed … a threshold of harm that sometimes a couple reaches … the point of no-return:
Drugs and alcohol …
Verbal and physical abuse …
And sometimes just the bent of character – oil and water, or something like that.
Though some would say, “God can work miracles,” and I quite agree, because I’ve seen miracles, but sometimes life just doesn’t work as we might hope and pray.

Divorce always hurts, and that’s why I work hard to heal a marriage, but divorce happens, and like anything else, we can make the best of it, and Christ is there.
God knows we’re not in heaven yet.
And until that time when we stand in the light of glory, we live in the shadows and shades of time, doing our best.

We get married with the expectation that it will last.
Every marriage begins with faith, hope and love.
But time and tide take us places we don’t plan on.
And sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
And rather than forcing folks to live down what they cannot live up to, I believe there is a time when folks need to call it quits and go their separate ways … find healing, and chart a new course.
Divorce is serious, but marriage must never be a prison.

Sometimes one of the partners has to make the decision.
It’s painful and sad,
Humiliating and embarrassing,

But this much I know.
There is always a future.
God’s love for us remains intact.
There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our LORD.

To folks who’ve had a tough time of it, I remind them:
God is always more concerned about tomorrow than yesterday.
God’s grace is all about a new day.
A new way, a new path, a new life.
God doesn’t live in the past.
God forgives it.
It’s all about tomorrow!

To make the best of it …

Expect a lot from ourselves, and a little less from one another.
We all only have so much love to give – and there ain’t no one perfect.

To those who are married, work hard at it.
Enjoy your love and celebrate the day – be patient with one another and keep on laughing.

To those divorced, don’t despair.
You will find a way through it; you will find life and love again, in some form or fashion.

To those who are married again …
Let the past go, but don’t try to kill the past.
The past is always there … for better or for worse.
As one woman said to a friend, “I know there are perfect people in the world.”
The friend asked, “Perfect? How do you know?”
The woman says: “According to my husband, his first wife was perfect, and so was his mother’s apple pie.”

Pathways for love:

Work hard on the spiritual foundations of life.
Believe in God, and pray to God for help to believe all the more.
Go as deep as you can, and then some.
Seek first the kingdom of God, and all other things will be added unto it.
Love God with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Forgive often, and forgive deeply.
Remove bitterness from your heart – confront it and confess it.
Pray often and read your Bible.
Worship regularly – have a Sabbath, and do it with others.
Be involved in good things.
Practice the fine art of apology.
Keep on learning.
Keep on growing.

Love is the desire of every heart.
Love is what life is all about.
Love one another as Christ loves us.

Amen and Amen!

Monday, March 23, 2009

March 22, 2009 - Marriage - Part 1

Audio version HERE.

Ephesians 5:21-33

Marriage is the stuff of comedy.

From Rodney Dangerfield’s “That’s no lady, that my wife” to a New Yorker cartoon – the wife opens a package and exclaims with delight to her husband: “You perfect angel. You got me exactly what I needed to exchange for what I wanted.”

A little girl and a little boy were at day care one day. The girl approaches the boy and says, "Hey Stevie, wanna play house?"
He says, "Sure! What do you want me to do?"
The girl replies, "I want you to communicate."
He says to her, "That word is too big. I have no idea what it means."
The little girl smiles and says, "Perfect. You can be the husband."

A dietitian was addressing a large audience in Chicago. "The material we put into our stomachs is enough to have killed most of us sitting here, years ago. Red meat is awful. Vegetables can be disastrous, and none of us realizes the germs in our drinking water. But there is one thing that is the most dangerous of all and we all of us eat it. Can anyone here tell me what lethal product I'm referring to?”
A young lady in the front row raised her hand, and said with conviction in her voice: "Wedding cake."

This week, and next, some things about marriage.

A single friend of mine, when she heard that I was going to do several messages on marriage, said, “You’re not going to make marriage the end-all and the be-all of everything, are you?”

I appreciate her comment.

Not everyone is married …
Some are married, but only for a time … a marriage might end with separation and divorce … or end with sickness and death … or end with a tragic accident.
Some chose to remain single …
Other chose to live with one another without the formal rites of marriage.

This morning, I’d like to reflect a bit on what it means to love someone … how to guard the love we have … and what does it take to keep on keepin’ on with love.

For centuries, marriage had little to do with love, and some might say, “That’s still the case.”
In centuries past, marriage belonged to the wealthy and to the powerful as a contractual means of guarding wealth and preserving power and passing it on to progeny … and who needs love for that?
Marriages were arranged between powerful families.
Hence, many a film and many a novel … about midnight rendezvous with a secret love.

In many parts of the world today, marriages are still arranged by the parents.
Though it may strike us as strange, partners in an arranged marriage often affirm it - “love is too unpredictable to rely upon when you’re young.”

In western culture, and surely here in America, it’s ALL about love … we are very much in love with love … the stuff of novels and movies and songs.

Where would country music be without love?
Tammy Wynettte’s “Stand By Your Man” …
Dolly Parton’s, “Jolene, Jolene … don’t take my man.”
And Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’”
Love found, love lost, and love found again.

Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” – which is probably a good song for tough economic times …

“Honey, let’s go out to eat.”
“Sorry, I can’t give you anything but love.”

Early in my ministry, I began to ask elderly couples about their marriage … how did they do it?

Over the years, responses were all very much the same … they look at each other, smile a bit, lift the eyebrows, and then say, “Well, we had our hard times, but we made it.”

Love isn’t easy, is it?
No matter how we slice it, dice it and serve it.

This morning, I want to encourage you in your life journey … wherever you happen to find yourself, whatever state of matrimony you may be in, whatever state of singleness or relatedness, or somewhere in between.

Keep on keepin’ on.

Our text this morning lays the groundwork for some very important things crucial to love.
Unfortunately, this passage has been quoted in piecemeal fashion by men, by the church, to subjugate women to the rule of men … nothing is further from the truth in this Scripture.

To the contrary, Paul builds a case for equality in marriage … with both partners on their knees before Christ.

Verse 21 says it well … Paul’s theme for all of life: Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
As someone once wisely observed: it’s a level playing field at the foot of the cross.

Paul begins where every Christian thought begins … with Christ!
And with Christ, and through Christ, a mutual regard for one another … out of a reverence for Christ!

Then, and only then, does Paul say:
Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.

Women are rightly very alert right now!
But it’s a graciously worded piece that undergirds a woman’s freedom … because it’s her relationship to Christ that sets the pace, the standard, for the way she relates to her husband.
So, we might ask, “What is it like being subject to the LORD?”

Think now of the LORD Paul knew … the LORD who met Paul in the light on the road to Damascus … the LORD who drained away Paul’s anger and violence, the LORD who bathed Paul in grace and gave him a life and gave to Paul a mission worthy of his strength and passion.

This LORD, who bore the cross of Calvary …
This Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world …
The Good Shepherd who leaves the 90 and 9 to seek the one lost sheep …
The LORD who meets the woman at the well …
Who calls Zacchaeus down from his tree …
Who heals blind Bartimaeus by the side of the road …
And raises a little girl back to life.

This LORD doesn’t take life away.
This LORD gives us life …
Abundant life … life filled with meaning and overflowing with purpose.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want …
The Lord fills my cup to overflowing …
Goodness and mercy follow me all the days of my life!

To even suggest that a woman relate to her husband as she relates to the LORD is a declaration of freedom and life …
The woman rightly expects to receive FROM her husband what she receives from the LORD …
Grace and love,
Affirmation and kindness,
Help and healing,
Encouragement and peace,
Forgiveness and mercy,
Companionship and friendship … all of that and then some!

Paul says to women:
What you receive from Christ, expect to receive from your husband.

Relate to your husband as you do the LORD.
Give yourself to your husband as you would to the LORD – creatively and thoughtfully – not slavishly or blindly as some have suggested, because no one gives their life to Christ that way, and never does Christ ever ask for anything so mindless.
And if I may go on a bit, often times the biblical mind works subtly on these points – sometimes what ISN’T said is just as important as WHAT is said.
The point?
If a woman fails to receive from her husband what she justly and rightly expects from the LORD, she is free to challenge her husband, counsel him, and if necessary, break the bond of marriage if the husband consistently fails to honor her!
If the husband will not give her fullness of life, she is under no obligation to sustain the marriage.
It takes two, not just one!
Paul is very clear: the way a woman relates to the LORD sets the pace for the kind of marriage a woman can justly expect!

A few verses later, Paul speaks to the husband: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … to make the church complete and beautiful – to be everything God intended the church to be … so it is, husbands – Christ sets the standard for our goals in life and the way we live.

This isn’t about dominance and control; this is all about self-giving, radical giving – to love your wife as Christ loved the church, and gave himself for the church.
It doesn’t get any more radical than that!

Paul drifts here between love for one another, and the love of God for the church – a great mystery, says Paul – how Christ loves the church … and when we think of Christ’s love for the church, we can only think back to what Jesus Christ said, No greater love than this, but to lay down our lives for one another.

So Paul says to the man: that’s why a man leaves his mother and his father, to be joined to his wife, the two becoming one flesh.
Who cares how your mama made apple pie and tucked you into bed at night … you’re married now, Bub, and you owe your life to wife!

Can you see how Paul is working with all of this?
Love is a mutual self-giving, a mutual surrender … as we lay down our lives for one another, at the foot of the cross.

To make one another the best we can be … for in the healing and health of the other, we find our own health and our own healing as well …
And it’s not just about marriage in the formal sense …
This is about love … any kind of love …
Paul goes on in his letter to speak about children and parents,
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” - this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”
And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

And then to slaves and masters - though Paul does not decry slavery outright, Paul redefines the relationship for Christians:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ…. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord … knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.
And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.

Again and again, Paul seeks to put all of this in relationship to Christ – because it’s a level playing field at the foot of the cross.

At the end of his treatise on marriage, and the mystery of the church, Paul concludes: Each of you should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

Finally, be strong in the LORD and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.

As I think about my own life, how I’ve loved Donna and how I’ve failed to love her, one thing is clear, painfully clear – the power of sin – the relentless self-interest that poisons the soul and disfigures our character.
We might do well to look at Christ once again.
Why in the world did he die?
Just for the heck of it?
So he could say, “Been there, done that”?
He died for the sins of the world … but let’s be careful here … the sins of the world, indeed … but that includes me, and that includes you …
All have fallen short of the glory of God.

One of the first things we learn in the love of Christ is why he died on Calvary’s cross … because I put him there, and so did you … and we put him there ten thousand times a day.
With grace amazing, and love immeasurable, Christ takes the nails we hammer into his hands and feet; he takes the thorns we press onto his head; we lash him with our pride and our relentless self-interest; we pierce his side with our vanity and our coldness of heart … we wrap him in linen woven by our own cleverness and spiced with our skillful excuses … even as we “worship” him, we bury him in a tomb hewn by our sin, far away from ourselves, lest his love change our heart and call us to newness of life.
“Thank you, LORD; we’d rather be left alone!”

Yes, all have fallen short of the glory of God!

That simple truth cuts to the core of our life … to heal us and bring us out of ourselves … this relentless self-interest prowling around the edges of our spirit.

In Christ, we learn … we grow … and we find our true selves.

In all of our relationships, Christ at the center …
In our friendships and in our families,
In our work and in our worship …
In our love for one another …
In our marriages …
Christ at the center!

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

March 8, 2009 - "The Gift and Power of Justice"

Audio Version - Click HERE.

In a new book by Diana Butler Bass, she recounts a conversation with a fellow scholar ten years ago who said to her, I don’t understand how you can still be a Christian.

Diana replied, I know it isn’t the easiest thing these days. But I just can’t get away from Jesus. I actually love Jesus and his teachings.

To which her friend replied: Jesus? I don’t have any trouble with Jesus. It’s all the stuff that happened after Jesus that makes me mad.

The question has rolled around in Diana’s mind for the last decade, prompting her to think long and hard about the faith, and what it means to be a Christian.

Diana suggests that there are two stories told by the church … one is all about conquest and control; power and possession; the other story, one of love and humility, welcoming and receiving.

The two stories are rooted in things Jesus said:

The first story, the story of love and humility, is rooted in the Great Commandment – Love God and love your neighbor.

The second story, the story of conquest and control, is rooted in the Great Commission: Go into all the world and make disciples.

Both said by Jesus.
Both important.
But both have to be lived in the right sequence.
Love has to come first. It’s the first story.
God is love says the Bible.
Love is what Jesus did and love is what he taught others to do.
The Great Commandment: love God with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.

The Great Commandment creates the Great Commission - go out into the world, make disciples; teach people about God; make baptism available to anyone who wants a clean start of things.
But do it with love, with kindness, with humility – shun power; resist violence; turn the other cheek; love the enemy, forgive constantly, and bear patiently with one another.

The Great Commandment underwrites the Great Commission.
If we love God and neighbor, we’re going to go out into the world; and if we go out into the world, it has to be the most loving act imaginable, and then some:
Not to conquer nations, but to heal them.
Not to control the way people think, but to help them think clearly.
Not to exclude anyone, but to welcome everyone.
No one has to be wrong in order for us to be right.
We have much to give, and we have much to learn.
We can learn from the Buddhist and the Hindu.
We can learn from the Muslim and from the Siek.
We can learn from our Jewish sisters and brothers.
We can learn from believers and unbelievers.
That’s how love works.
That’s how love feels.

If we love our neighbor, we will share our vision of God.
But we share with humility: we do with it love and reserve, restraint and thoughtfulness.

The Great Commandment; the Great Commission.
What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.

But something sad happened along the way!
The church presided over a divorce.

When Constantine converted and crowned Christianity as the state religion, the church quickly fell in love with pomp and power.
The cross of Christ became the sword of Constantine.
The blood of Christ shed once for all became an excuse to shed blood all the more.
The Prince of Peace became the violent king.
The Gospel of faith, hope and love became a powerful church filled with rules and rulers, rituals and rites.
The simple shepherd’s crook became a bejeweled crosier.
Bishops donned the robes of power, and wore a stylized Pentecostal flame on their heads - the kings claimed divine right to rule as they saw fit.
The kings appointed the bishops, and the bishops crowned the kings.
Power became the master, and Jesus slipped away.

When the church forgets the Great Commandment - to love God and to love the neighbor, we end up with Crusades, Inquisitions and heresy trials.

We end up with Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors killing Native Americans, destroying their villages, all in the name of Jesus.

In 1550, the Spanish Court called a halt to violent conversion, and called for a debate between Las Casis who supported a gentler approach to Native Americans and Juan de Sepulveda – yes, you heard me right, Sepulveda, who believed that Native Americas were a sub-human species fit only for slavery – so destroy their culture; convert them at the point of the sword, kill them if necessary, because we have Jesus on our side.

Neither side was able to claim an absolute victory, but the debate slowed down the practice of violent conversion and promoted the cause of the Native American - [].

I only recently came across this 16th Century debate – were any of you familiar with it? How ironic that Covenant is located on a street named Sepulveda.

Sadly, it’s a common story in the history of the church.
The expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.
The Salem Witch hunts of 1692.
Our own sad history of Presbyterian heresy trials, and we’ve had plenty of them.
The Scopes trial of 1926.
In our own time, Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy both of whom only recently passed from the American scene, and James Dobson who just recently has taken steps to retire.

It’s not a pretty picture; it’s not a pleasant story.
How ironic, that so many who hoist a Bible in hand, and shout the name of Jesus, should exclude so many and condemn fellow-Christians.
That some Christians have become expert in nit-picking – splitting churches and splitting families over small points of view.
That some who shed tears at Christmas time for the Prince of Peace cheer loudly when cruise missiles explode.
They who have received grace at the hand of God would turn around and preach a sick gospel of self-reliance for the poor and the oppressed.

Is it any wonder that millions of thoughtful people have turned away from the church … unwilling to turn a deaf ear to the sermons of hate; refusing to close their eyes to the injustice and discrimination perpetrated in the name of Jesus?
They want truth.
They want hope.
And above all else, they want love.
And if they can’t find love in the church, they will find it somewhere else because God is merciful and kind.
If the church should fail God, God will not fail those who seek God’s face and yearn for love.
God will meet them outside the gate; God will find them where e’re they go.

Just yesterday, I received this note via Facebook -

I'm not gay myself, says the writer, but it's been really hard for me to watch as churches have blatantly ignored science, alienated countless members (such as myself), and have managed to hurt so many people and their families.
I was raised a Catholic and have been continuously disappointed with the way my church has been run. Since we're now on a conservative streak under our current pope, things have gotten worse. From the covering up of abuse to the re-communication of ultra-conservative bishops who have denied the Holocaust and women's freedom (like going to college and wearing pants), the church is on a downward spiral.
So, please, keep up the good work and maybe you'll manage to keep some of the younger generations from leaving. Many of the people I know have fallen away from organized religion because it's going in the wrong direction. Instead of embracing and understanding others, it has been used to hate, instill fear in people, and take away rights. There is something really wrong with Christianity if people are *leaving* the churches so that they may love one another.

Thank God there’s another story to be told.
The rest of the story, as Paul Harvey might have said.
A story that has very much shaped Covenant on the Corner.

In our 61 years of life, God be praised, we are not, and have never been, a fundamentalist/evangelical congregation … that great divorce never occurred here.
We are a healthy mainline Protestant congregation – Presbyterian by name, committed to justice.

Our session has a worthy record on this score: from our stand on open housing in 1966 to our current stand against Prop 8 on behalf of marriage equality.
And our commitment to stand with CLUE in defense of workers in and around LAX.
Covenant on the Corner, you are rightly very proud of this story.
And so am I.
Though I’m here but for a short time, I’m grateful to be part of this good story - a story of kindness and justice and humility.
Your story has inspired me greatly.

We heard this morning from Rabbi Abrams and from Jueleo ; we heard stories of need and hurt … we heard about the work of CLUE and other groups – good stories, important stories.

We are a part of something good, and something godly!
Something right, and something righteous.

What a great story this is.
And as the world turns,
As the sun sets on the last 40 years when evangelicals and fundamentalists held the upper hand and mainline folks hung their heads, a new day is emerging.
The first story of love is being reclaimed and reinvigorated.
A new and vibrant generative Christianity.

The story of inclusion and welcome; a story with open doors and open minds.

A story of kindness, justice and humility.

And with that, let’s do our readings now … the Text will have the last word!

Amos 5:21-24 (p.854) - me
Micah 6:6-8 (p.866) - Ali
Luke 4:16-19 (p.61) –

Amen and Amen!

Monday, March 2, 2009

March 1, 2009 "Everyone!"

1 Peter 3:18-22

The following text was written "after the fact" - a Monday morning recollection combined with listening to the message posted at Covenant's Website.

What’s the oddest phrase in the Apostles’ Creed?

“He descended into hell.”
The place of the dead, the lower regions … as far away as anyone can go from God, and then some – a place of gray shades; even torment and suffering … a bad place, indeed.

But with an act of swift mercy and absolute kindness, Jesus goes there … to set the prisoners free … “those who were disobedient.”

Is there anyone beyond the reach of God?


No one is left behind.
Everyone is included in the work of God.

So let me do some venturing with you today.
Something I’ve been working on for a long time.
Wondering about hell.

It is a place, a permanent place … where all is lost, and the lost are without hope, forever?

My thoughts were triggered many years ago … early in ministry – every pastor has heard the same question in some form or fashion: What about the millions who’ve never heard the name of Jesus, who’ve never had a chance to receive him as LORD and Savior, or who’ve heard of him only in a poorly given presentation? Do they go to hell? Will they suffer torment there, forever?

I’ve wrestled with that question much of my ministry.
I’m sure some of you have asked those questions.
It’s a little more pertinent these days … we rub shoulders with folks of all different sorts of persuasions.
When we our neighbor is Muslim, our co-worker a Hindu, it’s a whole lot harder to think of a hell for everyone who doesn’t know the name of Jesus.

In recent years, I’ve come to some conclusions.
With the help of good reading and reflection on the Bible.

Some would disagree with me.
Some would cite chapter and verse.
Well, I can cite chapter and verse, too.
We can find Bible verses to support just about anything.
But it’s not about a verse or two.
It’s the over-all message.

I come to these conclusions after much work.

So, let me share with you.

There is but one reality in eternity – God!
God’s love, light, pure and powerful.

We all go to heaven.
Because Jesus went to hell.

For those who’ve known God, in some form or version, those who’ve sought God with love and justice – to be thrust into God’s presence, full and complete, will be heaven!
The culmination of a life-long journey of faith.
The fulfillment of love.

But for the one who fled God’s love.
Who sought life elsewhere.
Who turned away and loved themselves more than anything.

To be thrust into the presence of God, full and complete, will feel like hell – the love of God will feel like a fire, burning and destroying – the love of God, for the one who ran from it, will torment and trouble – for the one who fled the love of God, there will be gnashing of teeth and “endless flame.”

But not forever!

The love of God prevails.
God’s love wins the day.
The lost are found.
The blind are given sight.
Every creature, great and small, will find their place in the love of God.
Every knee shall bow,
And every tongue confess.

Everyone goes to heaven.

But preacher, you say, if everyone makes it, why bother with all of this? Going to church, teaching Sunday School, trying to be good?

If everyone goes to heaven, why bother with this?
I might as well go off and do whatever I please!

Perhaps the question reveals something of the human heart.
Why are we here?
To save our own neck?
To escape some imagined fury?
Some dark eternity?

But if that’s reason we’re here, it’s not much of a reason.
It’s the heart of selfishness.
And selfishness discredits the effort.

Attend a million worship services.
Give money and serve.
Teach Sunday School and sing in the choir.
And so on and so forth.

But if getting to heaven and escaping hell is what it’s all about, then it’s all upside down and defective.
The lousiest Christians are those who are here to go to heaven – it’s still all about relentless self-interest.

We’re not here to escape hell.
We’re not even here to go to heaven.
We’re here to celebrate the love of God.
We’re here because we love God, and we know love, because God first loved us!
We’re here to lift up the name of Jesus
Who suffered for our sins,
To bring us to God!

If everyone makes it, why bother with evangelism?
Why bother with a witness?
Why tell anyone about Jesus?

It’s all about love.

I’d like my neighbor to know where they’re going.
I’d rather have someone get there and want to be there … I bear witness to Jesus and seek the conversion of others so that when they stand before God, they’ll not be afraid or angry – they’ll love God all the more; they’ll recognize God, they’ll recognize the place.

But most importantly, a life suffused with God’s love is life worthy of the name LIFE.
A life suffused with God’s love will be a life of justice and peace.
A life at peace with eternity will be able to focus its energy on life, here and now!

God relieves us of any question about eternity, so that we can devote our time and work to the here and now – abiding in the commission of Jesus himself:
To bring good news to the poor,
Release to the captives,
Recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free,
To announce the years of the LORD's favor.

It has never ceased to amaze me that some folks should want a hell.
Motivated by the darkest of thoughts – wanting others to suffer.
I think a good many folks have a twisted definition of sin – “It’s what I don’t like when the other guy does it!”

Let’s be honest: we’ve all wished ill to others, and the ultimate ill we could wish is hell.

Interestingly, polls indicate that lots of folks believe in hell, but also indicate that they won’t go there.
If the polls reveal anything: hell is a place where we want others to go.

I think that reveals something dark and unhealthy in the human spirit.
The very thing that drove Jesus to the cross.

The history of “hell” is sad.
The more powerful the church grew in the Middle Ages, the more it talked about hell – lurid sermons and dramatic paintings – suffering and torment – the stuff of control!
With the church holding all the cards.

And if you didn’t abide with the church, you were “excommunicated” – barred from the communion of the church – the sacrament – and barred from the sacrament, you were bound for damnation.

In America, what with the revival movement on the frontier, hell became a means of frightening “sinners” into the kingdom.
If ya’ drink, smoke, cuss and dance, you go to hell.
If you’re good, as the preacher defines it, you go to heaven.

The line between the “in” and the “out” was drawn more firmly.
But I don’t think any of this holds water.
So much of it was designed to promote the power of some, and the powerlessness of others.
The powerful love hell.
The privileged love hell.
For others!

Wherever there’s power, there’s likely to be corruption.
Power corrupts.
And absolute power corrupts absolutely.

If there are harsh words in the Bible, and there are, to whom are they directed?
But to the powerful.
The privileged.
The priest and scribe.
To the religious folk who think they’re in … but the bible suggests they may be out, because of pride and lack of love.

Everyone will make it.
Because God’s love prevails!
The triumph of grace.
The lost sheep is found.
The lost coin reclaimed.

Paul the Apostle writes in universal terms – the world all!

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.


If you want a hell for someone, why?
What’s in it for you?
What’s important for you?

I think you’ll find that the desire for hell is a dark blot on your soul and has a lot to do with anger, a secret vengeance sought against others. A secret pride: that we’re Christians and others aren’t.

I offer these thoughts, not as some final word on the matter, but I believe firmly, as the hymn puts, there’s a wideness in God’s mercy.

Wider than we could ever conceive.
Bigger and better than we might want it to be.
Thing of the grandest love, and then multiply it a couple of billions of times.
The greatest moment of grace … multiply it.
And then, just a glimpse of God’s glory.

Sometimes the church has a very small god, so that the church can be big and important.
Sometimes Christians have a very small god, so that we can feel important and powerful.

Well, I’ve done my best with this …
I hope that I’ve given you something to think about.

A wideness in God’s mercy.
Who suffered for our sins,
Who went to hell and quench its flames
With tears of a mighty love.
The righteous for the unrighteous,
To bring us to God!

All of us.

There is a wideness in God’s mercy.

Amen and Amen!