I had a recent facetime call
with a friend who is in seminary.
She was exhilarated by the intellectual stimulation
of learning about the Hebrew Scripture
as well as New Testament literature,
discovering all kinds of things she never knew before.
Biblical scholarship and archeology
is alive and thriving these days,
offering us new and renewed perspectives.
She did not seem troubled
by the startling implications her new knowledge has
for doctrines and long-held beliefs.
But it did make her nervous to realize
she would eventually be a preacher
who would be called upon to share things
that might be troubling
to members of her future congregations.
I told her not to worry too much about that, I don’t.
It is possible I have become jaded
as a result of preaching too long.
You see, when I re-read Jesus
as he appears in today’s Gospel,
and think about all the biblical commentaries
and sermons over the years
that bend themselves into complicated yoga
positions in order to make Jesus
I feel like a parent
peering into the kid’s room in total chaos
and thinking, “enough of this!”
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off;
if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off;
if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.
Better to maim yourself than go to Hell.”
But kids, don’t try this at home.
Couple Jesus’ very bad therapy protocol
with the story from the Book of Numbers,
and it is a real horror show.
We have a scene in which thousands of people
are weeping with hunger
and in response to their pitiful vulnerability
and serious discomfort,
God gets “very angry.”
Not only is God without compassion here,
Moses is too!
He wants to know why he has been
saddled with these woeful people –
if I am supposed to change the diapers of these
whimpering, needy people,
just kill me right here, and right now, he says.
Jesus’ diatribe from Mark,
and the grumpy Oz behind the curtain in Numbers,
are like an abstract painting we keep turning
to figure out which way is up and which way is down.
I want to use this moment to pick on “Hell.”
Hell is an idea used by bad religion
as a fear-mongering cudgel.
If Hell is anything, it is poetry
not a piece of supernatural real estate.
The word Hell comes from the word, Gehenna,
which actually was a piece of real estate.
Gehenna was the site of ancient Canaanite sacrifice –
ritual human sacrifice.
Children were sacrificed at Gehenna.
Not to be too gruesome about it,
they were cut open and bled like a lamb
in order to access the Canaanite gods.
Israelites were horrified by such a brutal custom
and as they became the dominant culture in Canaan,
human sacrifice was outlawed.
Remember the story in Genesis,
of God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac
and then in the nick of time,
replacing Isaac with a sheep?
That was an anti-child sacrifice story.
It was told to explain why Israelites
did not sacrifice their children
the way some of their neighbors did.
Take a leap forward 700-1000 years,
and we have essentially the same story
told about Jesus being sacrificed for our sins –
this time God did not intervene
and Jesus replaced the sheep
only to became the lamb that saved us from Hell.
The idea of a ritual sacrifice to God or the gods
is not very compelling in the 21st century,
but it was an idea powerful enough to
change the world in the 1st century.
Mixed up in the midst of that idea about
human sacrifice, is also the idea about Hell.
Let’s go back to those ancient Israelites for a moment,
the ones who scorned the idea of child sacrifice
and rejected human sacrifice altogether.
They created a garbage dump at Gehenna.
They created a garbage dump
on the very spot where Canaanites
practiced child sacrifice.
That is a pretty dramatic denunciation
of the Canaanite practice.
In Jesus’ time,
Gehenna was still a garbage dump,
but at that point it was the municipal dump
for the city of Jericho.
So imagine if you can,
the image of an arid climate
in which dirt is baked by the sun
to a clay-fired hardness.
With no modern earth-movers,
imagine what that municipal dump looked like,
and maybe more disgusting,
what it smelled like.
In the ancient world,
that was the place where dead bodies
were abandoned by families too poor
or indigent to claim a space in a burial cave.
Human and animal carcasses
rotted and were burned with other refuse there.
Gehenna was an endlessly smoking pile of trash
baking in the sun
where charred and worm-eaten human remains
fueled a fire that was never quenched.
While Dante is still the primary source of images
used for the threat of Hell,
they are images rooted in actual real estate,
in a smoking pit of nastiness
outside of Jericho.
It is a bitter irony in today’s international politics
to realize the very idea of Hell,
of a place of eternal judgment,
actually comes from Persia, modern day Iran.
It was an idea that exiled Hebrews
brought back with them from Persia,
and to which images of Gehenna came to be applied.
Hell as a piece of real estate
somewhere in the supernatural,
where a vindictive and parsimonious God
condemns the misbehaving for all eternity,
really ought to be updated
if we are going to continue to wield it.
Images of Hell based on an ancient trash heap
should become those of Buchenwald, Auschwitz,
Cambodia, Rwanda, and Sudan.
We have too many graphic and terrifying images
from within our own generations
to remain content with Gehenna.
Personally though, I reject the idea of Hell.
It seems absurd to me
and I simply cannot make sense of it.
Pew Research indicates a majority of Americans
still believe in Hell, even as a majority also,
conveniently, believes they will not end up there.
Mostly I cannot get my head around a god
who balances the scales of justice
in ways we would insist on them being balanced.
A god sadistic and vindictive enough
to torture us for our moral failures,
including the mentally deranged
who were victims of their own physiology.
That is a god who stands in painful contrast
to the ancient prophetic notion
of the God of Israel who loves mercy more than justice.
But on top of that, we live in the 21stcentury
when the idea that human beings occupy
the center of God’s attention
seems as odd and quaint as a flat Earth.
Knowing what we know about the Cosmos,
and knowing how much we do not know
about the Cosmos,
the image of God as a moralistic accountant
keeping score on our lives with a golden abacus,
seems, well, it seems utterly implausible.
But who knows? I could be wrong
and that is exactly how God manages things.
Still, I doubt it.
I could, and have in the past,
found ways to make these stories
from Numbers and Mark
rest easier with our 21stcentury domesticated religion,
but these days I find myself disinterested
in trying to perform such reconciliations.
The common theme between these two stories
is not a bad one,
even if surrounded by troubling imagery and ideas.
Clearly, the punchline that comes from
Eldad and Medad,
as well as the stranger casting out demons
in the name of Jesus,
is that we need not be from
the same tribe
or the same party
or the same group
in order to all be about the same mission.
Our socio-economic status,
our ethnicity, gender, and race,
all are neither here nor there
when it comes to serving as agents of God’s love.
Rather, we are who we are
and we need not attempt to be someone else
so long as we do not harden the membrane
of our community
to only welcome and include people like us.
I dare say there are agents of God’s love
in every army of every nation on the planet;
agents of God’s love
in every religion,
in every political party,
in every tribe;
there are agents of God’s love
living among the billionaire class
and among those poor as dirt;
agents of God’s love
living every life-style imaginable,
and those life-styles we can’t imagine.
They may not look like us,
or talk like we do,
or have the same ideology or theology,
but if they are doing the work of God’s love,
we are with them
and they are with us.
It would be a very simple truth to agree on
if only we were better at recognizing one another.