“Let’s Go to Hell”

[Jesus] came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

How many of you have spent a considerable amount of time and energy during your lifetimes trying to make your life as safe and secure as possible?  We’ve certainly all been doing that to some extent during the last couple years.  But even before COVID hit, I think it was very common for us to want to be able to sit back and enjoy our blessings, such as our jobs, our homes, our families, our prosperity.  And we do need to count our blessings.  But seeking only after the blessings we call safety and security isn’t enough.  

In our gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus reminds us just what it means to be blessed.  Jesus turns our notion of a blessed existence upside down, by finding strength in vulnerability and warning us about the dangers of contentment.  We need to look more carefully at what a blessed existence really means.

Today’s lesson, from what is called “Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain,” includes these passages known as the blessings and the woes.  “Blessed are you poor,” and “woe to you that are rich,” says Jesus.  The hungry stand in contrast to the full, and the rejected to the accepted.  Those who weep are blessed, and those who laugh will later mourn.  So how are we supposed to respond to Jesus’ words?

Many of you may remember that years ago, our congregation routinely shared a time of personal welcome at the beginning of our worship service.  Not just on Communion Sundays, but every Sunday, we would “pass the peace” after the Call to Worship.  Although Passing the Peace is a very traditional ritual in the Christian church from earliest times, it has also been referred to as “a period of enforced sociability,” and “a practice of problematic significance.”  Personally I always enjoyed those moments, but nowadays during COVID it’s sort of a moot point (unless we reinstitute it as “Elbow-Bumping the Peace”). 

Whatever your feelings about this practice, let me make another suggestion.  Since we’re finally able to be back in the sanctuary, what would you say if I asked you to stand, turn to your neighbor, either elbow bump them, or even wave, and say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, go to hell!”

Several years ago the authors Bailey and McElvaney offered this rude-sounding remedy for churches in their book Christ’s Suburban Body.  Their recommendation wasn’t meant as shock-therapy, but was based on Christian tradition.  We read in the historic church’s Apostles Creed that during those three days before the resurrection, “[Christ] descended to the dead,” another term for hell.  And as the continuing presence of Christ’s body on earth, where should the church go in order to find the neediest souls, those farthest from God and closest to despair?  To hell.  As the hands and feet, eyes and mouth of Christ, where should members of all churches find themselves being drawn?  To hell.  So maybe pumping our neighbors’ hands or elbow bumping our fellow congregants while earnestly urging them to “go to hell” is one way we can reclaim and revitalize the message of the Christian Church.

Jesus’ words about blessings and woes can tell us a lot about going to hell – especially hell here on earth.  And it doesn’t take much imagination to uncover the hellish holes that we all see, listen to, or read about every day.  During the pandemic, we’ve been made aware of COVID’s excessive effect on already vulnerable populations.  Drug use has risen, eviction rates among  communities of color are up, financial distress afflicts many.  Drive through a poverty-stricken, drug-plagued neighborhood and you can see hell on the street corner and alleys.  We’re coming face to face with immigrants from Afghanistan and elsewhere, as they seek to escape the violence of their homelands.  

Hell-holes are all around us.  You can see hell in the faces of the hungry and the poor; but you can also see it in the empty on-line wanderings even of the wealthy who spend their days in front of video game screens, or in the consumerism that’s such an artificial comfort to an isolated nation.

Father Ralph Beiting was the founder of the Christian Appalachian Project, and he shared the following story of an Easter visit he and some of his volunteers made one year to families living along a Kentucky mountain creek bed.  They stopped at one shack where a man and a woman lived with their children.  The family’s only heat was from a fireplace.  They proudly ushered their visitors over to a corner of the dim room, where their two-month-old child lay – not in a crib or a bassinet, a cradle nor even a pillow-lined basket.  This child, the family’s most precious treasure, lay in a cage made of tightly woven chicken wire.  After a moment of stunned silence, one of the visitors asked the parents why they had their little child in this cage.  He never forgot their answer:  “We have to have him in this little cage so that the rats won’t eat on him.”  It wasn’t cruelty that motivated this father when he took the chicken wire and built the cage.  On the contrary.  Like every parent, he deeply loved his newborn son.  No doubt he built the cage with love in his hands and desperation in his heart.

Jesus recognized the hellish holes human beings can fall into.  In this morning’s lesson, he takes special note of those who are both in a material hell – the poor and hungry – and those in a spiritual hell – those suffering profound personal sorrow and rejection.  But it is those very people, the ones we might call the “unblessables,” that Jesus lavishes with his blessing.  “Blessed are you poor, blessed are you that weep, blessed are you when people hate you.”  For those who appear to be in great circumstances – wealthy and well-fed, carefree and trouble-free, Jesus predicts dire consequences.  It’s to those we think of as blessed that Jesus issues a somber “woe to you.”

For Jesus, the issue is our relationship to God and God’s realm.  It’s easier for those who are meek, those who are in pain, those who are impoverished and struggling, to realize the need for God’s strength and support in their lives.  For those who are enjoying the strength of a healthy body, home, and bank account, the need for God’s intervening hand is not always so obvious.

The last couple years have been tough on us all, some far more than others.  My hope is that during this time we’ve learned not to take our blessings for granted.  When we’re satisfied, we’re in danger of smugness.  On the other hand, where we’re most vulnerable in our lives – those hurting, weak spots in our armor, those gaping wounds in our bodies, or those aches or bruises in our hearts – those are actually the very places where God touches us most deeply.  Those sorrows and pains can actually strengthen our security in knowing God.

Jesus went to hell to bless the unblessables.  And he calls on all his disciples to do the same.
God knows all the hellish holes we human beings can fall into – holes of depression and illness, financial struggle and unemployment, tears and grief, meaninglessness and emptiness.  And upon those – the poor, the hungry, those in pain, those excluded – God’s blessing is lavished.  God came into this world to bless the unblessables, and God calls on us to do the same.

Do we as a congregation dare to go to hell in order to fulfill Christ’s mission?  In the midst of a pandemic, we’ve faced many challenges and uncertainties.  But just such a time of questioning, such a time of vulnerability, is precisely the moment when God can touch us most deeply.  

As we emerge from the Omicron variant, and hopefully move closer to “normal,” rather than grasping for safety and security, this may be the best time to remember others who are even more vulnerable.  Those for whom even “normal” way back when wasn’t really very good.  Are we willing to reach out to those around us in love and support, and strive to reach even further – to those living in the hell of homelessness?  The hell of prison?  Are we willing to once again enter the halls of a nursing home or hospital?  The house of a neighbor who’s struggling with illness or isolation?  

I pray that we’re finally turning the corner after some difficult days – evident in the many of you who are here in our meetinghouse.  Wherever we go as the body of Christ in the weeks and months ahead, God will be with us.  Entering hell is the mission and ministry for which Christ has called the Church, this church.  May we all heed that call, that we might be blessed.  Amen.