Sermon: Love the Hell Out of This World

There’s an old joke about the theological difference between Universalists and Unitarians before our merger in 1961. I’m not normally keen on making jokes about our religious heritage, we’re not taken seriously enough in the mainstream (and sometimes not taken seriously enough by ourselves) so I’m not sure we need to take ourselves down a notch in that way, but this joke is pretty theologically revealing. It’s on the nature of Hell. Universalists believed that God was too good to condemn anyone to Hell. The Unitarians believed they were too good to be sent to Hell.

It’s based, in a way, on an internalization of the conservative Christian critique of liberal Christianity. Religious conservatives will argue that religious liberals don’t take sin seriously enough in the world, and think faithful liberals are too easy on themselves, that religious progressives think too highly of themselves. I tend to see it differently. For those of us who believe in God, we tend to lean toward a compassionate being, or a creative Force that is life-centered – not punishment centered. And for those religious progressives who are not believers, it’s less about getting what one deserves, and more about living a life that reflects the gift we’ve been given in this singular life. We can choose to squander that gift in greed, or ego or hate, or we can live fully into that gift with openness, mindfulness and a fair bit of reverence for its preciousness. In either case, it’s remembering that sin, or evil, or harm happen in the world, and we have an obligation to address it with responsibility, and sometimes with culpability.

How many folks remember the classic TV show, Mash from the late 70’s to early 80s? It was a great comedic retelling of the Vietnam War. It’s hard to imagine war could be retold comedically in a way that so many folks would love the story, but it was masterfully written. There’s a short scene between two characters I want to briefly quote from between a soldier named Hawkeye and the chaplain, Father Mulcahy, that explores the nature of Hell.

Hawkeye: War isn’t Hell. War is war, and Hell is Hell. And of the two, war is a lot worse.

Father Mulcahy: How do you figure, Hawkeye?

Hawkeye: Easy, Father. Tell me, who goes to Hell?

Father Mulcahy: Sinners, I believe.

Hawkeye: Exactly. There are no innocent bystanders in Hell. War is chock full of them – little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for some of the brass, almost everybody involved is an innocent bystander.”

Good writing. This traditional view of Hell is almost comforting in an odd way. We imagine a place that has neat lines. Where right and wrong are clear. Of course, what’s morally wrong conveniently matches our own views of right and wrong. Theologically, I don’t believe in Hell because I have faith in an all-loving God. Intellectually, I don’t believe in Hell though for that psychological reason; too often it’s wielded as a club to beat down on anyone who have differing social values. I distrust theological arguments that lift up one’s closed view of the world, one’s sense of ego or self, above the worth of others. Loving the Hell out of this world, isn’t about wishing a metaphysical bad place to be gone, it’s about loving this world in such a way that we don’t create hells on earth ourselves.

If the character Hawkeye is right, War is just War. It doesn’t have the clear cut lines of right and wrong we imagine with Hell. There are times when it’s tragically necessary. And there are too often times when it expediently fills the appetites of greed, or hate.

This week is another example of why I try to avoid predicting my sermon topics far in advance. War was not supposed to be the focus. Yet, sadly this past week has seen an insane escalation of violence in Palestine. Syrian’s are still trying to receive aid from what amounts to a genocidal government. And we are recommencing air strikes in Iraq, along with food and water drops, to protect religious minorities in the country from ISIS. War is not Hell, it affects innocent bystanders.

There are aspects of each of these tragedies that appear to require the use of force to protect innocent bystanders. There are aspects that are grounded in a history that has brought us to these horrid places. As a Fellowship that is designated a Peace site, I want to focus us on the cyclical nature of violence. It’s often easy to point at those religious extremists over there with their rage and violence fomenting rhetoric and pretend that it arises in a vacuum. That Hell doesn’t exist, except for how other people make it. It’s comforting to believe that. I’m not sure it’s entirely true. And I don’t say this to exonerate murderous violence. Those that perpetuate such acts, own their responsibility. However, when we think of these horrors as black and white, or us versus them, we only feed their hold on the people in their grasp. Even if we save the victims, we enshrine the world view of Good versus Evil. When we anticipate wrongness in others, perpetually, we create that wrongness.

I’d like to give a couple of examples. Last year there was a twitter post where a white young man wrote, “Am I racist if I feel uncomfortable about a guy with a turban on my plane because this isn’t ok with me.” Just this past week, Asishpal Singh replied, “Ugh I know what you mean, I get really uncomfortable whenever I see a white man walk into a movie theater or elementary school.” Racism, artfully responded to, in 140 characters or less. There are very real problems in the world. International terrorism does happen. Domestic terrorism does happen. But when we neatly and uncritically lay the blame at the feet of certain people, who of course are very different from ourselves, we worsen the problem. At the very least, we’re not allowing our senses to accurately deal with the tragedies before us.

If you think I’m reaching when I say this, there was a report this past June showing that CNN revised its own data to appease gun rights advocates. They initially reported that there were 74 school shootings in the prior 18 months since Newtown. They later revised those numbers down to 15 under pressure from gun rights advocates to “redefine what a school shooting was.” Instead of dealing with the tragic facts of a situation, let’s play word games so that our individual opinion isn’t at stake.

Spiritually, what’s going on? We once again place our ego at the alter of idolatry. We have an opinion that one race or class or gender or sexuality of people is bad, and we maintain our fear so that we don’t need to challenge our views – we don’t need to check our ego. Our precious ego stays safe in its cultural enclave. We also make it impossible to address the problems of the world as they actually are, because in order to address them as they actually are, we would have to refrain from worshiping our sense of rightness.

I read a recent article by Rabbi Jill Jacobs in the Washington Post. She is the Executive Director of T’ruah, which mobilizes 1,800 rabbis, cantors, and their communities to protect human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories. She spoke of a time when she was part of a delegation of U.S. faith leaders to Indonesia discussing religious pluralism. The group was welcomed with a poster that indicated how much money this local Muslim Community center had raised for Palestine, “and prayed for the health and safety of all Muslims . . . and for an end to “the Zionist entity.” Her article goes on to report how one attendee asked during the Q&A, “‘I have a question for the rabbi,’…“Why do Jews kill Muslim children?”’

The Rabbi replies, “Heart pounding, I stood up. I spoke of my pain at the loss of life among Gazan civilians, tragically including so many children. And then I took a deep breath. “I noticed the poster in the entranceway,” I began. I praised the group for raising money for humanitarian relief. But, I continued, “When you call for an end to the Zionist entity, I want you to know that you’re talking about my family and my friends and my people.” [The Rabbi] spoke of [her] own commitments to Israel, of the significance of Israel to the Jewish people, and of [her] firm belief that a two-state solution will allow both peoples to live securely and peacefully.”

The Rabbi ended her recounting with this, “To [her] shock, the audience applauded. Afterwards, many of those present told [her] that they had never before thought about who might live in Israel. That they had never thought a two-state solution to be possible. That they had believed that Jews wanted only to kill Muslims. And they crossed out the final line of the poster.”

…Religiously speaking, we are not likely to be the people that broker peace in the Middle East, or end our own nation’s cycles of perpetuating war. However, we do have control over how we view, react and respond to our assumptions and our experience in the world. I belief managing our own views begins to process of changing a nation’s culture. We always must begin with the one person we actually have control over their views and actions – and that person is ourself.

All the Rabbi accomplished, which is amazing in itself, is two-fold. Firstly, she showed compassion for the violence that has affected innocent bystanders in the world while admitting that violence is wrong. And then helping people realize the world is more complex than us versus them. That there are families on every side imaginable. That each side is not monolithic. Life is not a game of Risk where it’s the yellow pieces versus the Red pieces.

Just last month, 100 Imams in the UK issued a joint statement. “In the open letter released to coincide with the holy month of Ramadan, they said: “As the crisis in Syria and Iraq deepens, we the under-signed have come together as a unified voice to urge the British Muslim communities not to fall prey to any form of sectarian divisions or social discord.

“Ramadan, the month of mercy, teaches us the value of unity and perseverance and we urge the British Muslim communities to continue the generous and tireless efforts to support all of those affected by the crisis in Syria and unfolding events in Iraq, but to do so from the UK in a safe and responsible way.”

One Imam responded to the BBC saying, “”I think a lot of work needs to be done and it is not only the responsibility of the Muslim community or the imams.

“It is law enforcement, (and) intelligence services who all need to work together to make sure young British Muslims are not preyed upon by those who want to use them for their own political gains.”

That last response is so relevant for us here in the States as well, regardless of individual religious persuasion. We need to work together to make sure our people are not preyed upon by those who want to use them for their own political gains.

The major religions of the world, that have stood the test of time, may have some very different theological beliefs or assumptions. But each has at their core a deep valuing of mercy, compassion, and community building. When one faith strips another of their ties to mercy, compassion and community building, it’s a clear sign that the perpetrators are worshiping their own ego’s as small gods unto themselves. When adherents of those same faiths do it themselves to their own religion, likewise, they are worshipping something other than what their scriptures indicate. We conflate our importance, our need to be right, our need to lift up own own selves above others – and we do so by calling for the opposite of mercy, compassion or community building. We are guilty of inverting the cornerstones of faith.

And we do it by anticipating the worst. Our theme for the month is this very word – anticipation. It can be positive or negative. Today we hear it in it’s negative form. I know how that other side is going to think, or act, or believe. I know what their real motivations are. I know they’re going to be really different from me which means we can’t find common ground. Holding onto that stance makes it nearly impossible to love the Hell out of this world. Though it becomes increasingly easy to sow the seeds of discord, violence and hate – the very foundation of what we imagine Hell to be about.

Let’s take this down a notch to the everyday. We live in a country where certain kinds of violence are exceedingly rare, and other kinds are all too common. We live in a nation that extolls the virtues of the American Dream, including a history of immigrants making it here, yet we have at least one Governor who will send the National Guard to block children from fleeing rape and gangs because those kids seeking asylum don’t have the right paperwork – right paperwork I might add that my own great-grandparents never needed when they came here from White nations of origin. And just a few weeks ago we had another form of religious terrorism happen to one of our congregations in New Orleans. During a regular Sunday service, while the congregation was sharing a moment of silence for a beloved long time member, a baptist congregation sent protestors into the service to disrupt them because our denomination supports a women’s right to control her own body. Some may say that’s not really religious terrorism. Though I imagine if we had our memorial or prayer time interrupted when we were honoring a beloved deceased friend, we’d feel very invaded. It’s not the time or place for such protests or news grabbing.

The LA Times reports, “On Sunday morning, the Rev. Deanna Vandiver was leading a service at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, a graceful, Gothic-style brick building in the city’s Freret neighborhood. The sanctuary, with 70 or 80 people, was nearly full, and included a group of teenagers who had just finished a week-long training in social justice.

The room was silent, as the congregation prayed for a young mother of two who had just lost her battle with cancer, for a social justice lawyer who had recently died, and for peace in Gaza. That’s when the shouting started.”

The Rachel Maddow Show goes into more detail with an interview with the minister, Rev. Vandiver, who described how during this moment of silence, the radical anti-abortion protestors unbuttoned their shirts and revealed their group affiliations shouting malice and hate. It’s unbelievable to think, right? The youth, who just finished a week long training in religious leadership, got up, invited the members to join in hands and begun singing. The protestors were welcomed in if they could be respectful, or out if they could not be. In the face of hate, the youth led the congregation in song. They loved the Hell right out of that sanctuary.

Later the protestors begun shouting and waving signs – again unbelievable – outside the window of the nursery room to the babies inside. The youth that were there caring for the babies, picked up the children and brought them to the inside of the building away from the windows (leaving notes for parents of where they went.)

As we close, and prepare for another week ahead, I’d like us to take the courageous actions of the youth in New Orleans as a life lesson to reflect upon. How we respond in any given moment reflects the character of our faith. Ours is not to war, or shout back, or hate. Part of loving the world, means that when folks around us act in ways that are hateful, we may sometimes need to pick up our kids and bring them to a safer place for sure. But their behavior does not need to change our character. Loving this world means not giving into the hate in others; remaining our best selves in the face of other people’s worst selves. Things, behaviors, attitudes and actions surely must change or adapt, but our character does not. We can continue to show compassion and mercy in the building of community, whether it’s here, or across the globe.

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