What’s The Big Deal About Hell?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights joined the rest of the city of Pittsburgh in shock and grief following the brutal murders of 11 of our neighbors as they were gunned down at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood.  As has been previously noted in this space, we are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On October 28, we wondered what the Hell was going on – literally. Our gospel reading was Mark 9:42-50.  On a personal note, it was also the 28th anniversary of my ordination as a pastor in the church of Jesus Christ.  

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

I remember the question vividly – and terrifyingly.  I was about fourteen years old and attending a “Jesus People” music festival.  An older teen pulled me aside and after a little chat asked me, “But seriously, Dave – if you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?”

I remember being scared to death.  First, I was afraid of dying. Then, I was afraid of going to sleep that night.  Mostly, I was afraid of Hell.  I mean, I didn’t know much about it, but I knew it wasn’t a place I wanted to have a coke, let alone be there forever.  So I asked my friend: “Um, how do I get around this ‘spending Hell in eternity’ thing?”

He told me about “the sinner’s prayer”, in which all I had to do was ask Jesus into my heart, accept his forgiveness, and then – BAM! I was in the club. No Hell for this guy! Say this.  Believe that.  Get saved.

I liked it, for a while.  It felt good to be living without fear of going to Hell. After all, I had my ticket punched.  Jesus and I were good.  I wasn’t particularly interested in Christian growth or discipleship, and I only stuck around the church because there was a cute girl there… But mostly, I was in it to get out of Hell.  Amen. Thank you Jesus.

And I was not alone.  For many people, that is the essence of the Christian walk.  In fact, that question is at the heart of “Evangelism Explosion”, a training program that has been called “the best known and most widely used evangelism training curriculum in church history.”  According to officials at Evangelism Explosion, more than 10.7 million people were “saved” through this strategy in 2016 alone.[1]

We are afraid of Hell, aren’t we?  And we are fascinated with it at the same time.  And once we’re “saved” from it, we really get worked up about it, and make it our business to decide who’s going there and who’s not.

My formative conscious experience with the Christian faith was rooted in a fear of eternal torment. How interesting to note, then, that Jesus has been walking around the Holy Land proclaiming the Kingdom of God for years before he gets around to addressing the topic of Hell.  In fact, the passage you’ve heard is the only time that Mark mentions Jesus ever referring to Hell.

There are a couple of things that are worth mentioning as we encounter the text this morning.  First, you may or may not have noticed as the scripture was read, but almost all of your Bibles omit verses 44 and 46 from the reading. Why? Because the oldest copies of the Book of Mark do not include those verses.  When the first copyists were sharing this gospel, they could not help themselves. They were so entranced by Jesus’ description of the place where “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” that they had to add that phrase twice more.  They, like many of us, found the idea of eternal torment – particularly eternal torment of other, less-correct, people – to be so fascinating that they had to keep talking about it.

So what does the Master actually say about Hell?

For starters, he doesn’t really use the word “Hell”.  In fact, the word isn’t in the Bible.  Ever. I know, you may think that your Bible says “hell”, and it sure sounded like Peter said “Hell” a moment ago, but that word isn’t in Jesus’ vocabulary.  There are four words that show up in various translations as “Hell”: Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna.  The first two might be more appropriately translated as “the grave”; Tartarus is used a single time and it refers to a Greek concept having to do with a place of darkness that is below the dead.

When Jesus speaks about a place of torment here (and elsewhere in the Gospels), he uses the word “Gehenna”.  Gehenna is a place – a valley near Jerusalem that was once the site of human sacrifice. Hundreds of years before Jesus, God’s people committed the abomination of offering their children to the fire god, Molech (II Chronicles 28:3).  In Jesus’ own day, the place had become the town dump, and it was full of smoldering refuse as any kind of filth – including human remains – was burned.  There was so much death and disease in this place that the worms would never run out of food; there was so much garbage being added day after day that the fires would not go out.

When Jesus used the word “Gehenna”, he surely intended to communicate the idea of a place that was evil, painful, and, well, one of sheer torment.

So what is it, Church, that provokes the Lord of Life, the One who was always so quick to talk about the proclamation of “the Kingdom”, to call to mind the most disgusting place in Jerusalem when talking to his followers?

Well, let’s remember where we’ve been.  Last week, Jesus set forward a practice of discipleship that is built around the concepts of welcome and embrace and tolerance – particularly welcome, embrace, and tolerance for those who are at the greatest risk of being marginalized or disempowered.  Do you remember? He called a child into their midst and talked about welcoming and assisting the weak, the vulnerable, the accused, the left out.

Now this is huge, Beloved, and I hope that you can hear it. Although the concept of eternal torment was big in my introduction to theology, Jesus himself doesn’t bring it up…until when?  Until he perceives amongst his followers a temptation to abuse the vulnerable, neglect the weak, or reject the stranger.

In fact, Jesus says, if you do something like abusing the vulnerable, neglecting the weak, or rejecting the stranger, it would be better for you to disappear forever than to face the consequences of that.

Listen to me: Jesus doesn’t promise Hell to people who don’t believe the right stuff about him!  He warns of Gehenna as the logical destination for those who would sacrifice children or ignore the suffering of the vulnerable.

And look at the scale that’s involved:  if you so much as cause someone to stumble; if you place a small stone in their path that might bring them to disorientation or distress, it would be better for you if a “millstone” was tied to your neck.

In Jesus’ day there were two kinds of grinding stones. The first, perhaps more common, was a hand-held stone that women would use to pulverize grain into flour.  The second was much larger and required the strength of an animal to turn on a spoke. Guess which word Jesus used?

In other words, if you cause even some small offense to one of these whom Jesus calls “these little ones” – if you were to place a stumbling block in their path – then it would be better for you to have a giant millstone tied around your neck as you are sent to swim with the fishes.

Then Jesus launches into one of the most gruesome and confusing teachings of all, wherein he talks about self-dismemberment as a strategy for discipleship.  There is a common thread in many of the Bible’s teachings that has come to be known as the “better than” proverb.  In fact, we sang one such proverb last week: “better is one day in your house than thousands elsewhere…”  Here, Jesus makes use of the familiar “better than” form but infuses it with a dose of hyperbole and exaggeration for emphasis.  It is better, he says, for one to have a millstone tied around the neck, or to cut off one’s own hand or foot, or to pluck out one’s own eye, than it is to possess an entire body but to be consigned to Gehenna, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.

Does Jesus intend for people to take him literally here? Well, no.  And yes.

No, I do not think that Jesus is lifting up self-mutilation as a healthy spiritual practice.  As a child, I tried a variation of the literal interpretation of these verses. I’d smack my brother until he cried, and then he’d call on my grandmother or my mom, and I’d say, “No, of course, I didn’t hit Tommy.”  The adult would say, “Well, why is he crying? How did he get that bruise?”  And I would hold out my arm and say as innocently as I could, “I didn’t hit him.  My hand did.”

Here’s what I think that Jesus means when he gets into all that business about millstones and mutilation: I think he’s asking us if we are willing to consider the weak, the vulnerable, the “outsider” as being of greater importance that those other things that we hold dear.  Are you so attached to something that might be cause for distress for someone else that it will wind up leading you straight into Hell?

Jesus has preached about “the kingdom”.  Here, he talks about entering “life” twice and the “kingdom” once.  I take that to mean that he is focused on the Divine intention for our existence and our willingness to accept less than that intention because we are so in love with something that is other than God’s will.

How does this look in real life? Well, I spent last evening weeping in the rain with thousands of other people at the vigil in memory of those who were gunned down while they were at worship in Squirrel Hill. Let’s talk about that.

Can we see in this passage that refers at least obliquely to child sacrifice a call to at least engage in conversations that will lead us to talk about and search for ways to reduce the gun violence that leads to the deaths of far too many children of God every blessed year?

If Jesus were preaching today, might he say, “If your unwillingness to even talk about your interpretation of the Second Amendment causes you to stumble, then rip it up”? Look, I’m not saying you shouldn’t go hunting or shoot skeet, but we have to find a way to figure out how to deal with this.  We have to be open to conversation, and I don’t think that giving more guns to more people is the way that Jesus would solve this problem.

And you might hate me for saying this, but I can’t help myself, sisters and brothers.  Jesus has just finished a teaching in which he lifts up a child and says the word “welcome” four times in a single sentence.  Then he talks about the fact that anyone who interferes with the progress of one of these “little ones” would be better off dead. How does that square with the ways that so many in our world today are demonizing refugees and immigrants or those of a different faith; people who are looking for ways to exclude foreigners or anyone who isn’t “just like us”?

Please hear me, Church: I am not arguing for or against any particular side of any issue. I am trying to point out the ways in which the call of the Gospel is a call to live for and toward the other; a call to accept responsibility for the welfare of another.

O. Henry was an American writer of short stories known for their surprise endings. He tells the story of a little girl being raised by her father after her mother died. Every day, dad would come home from work and put his feet up; every day his daughter would come in and ask her father to play with her, to read to her, or to spend some time together in any fashion.Every day, he would reply that he was too tired, too busy, too weary – he asked for “peace”, and he sent her outside to play in the streets of the city.  The more he did this, the more she became a creature of the streets: hardened, embittered, and tarnished.  She died. When she arrived at the gates of judgment, St. Peter said to Jesus, “Master, here is a woman who is no good.  I suppose she’s headed for Hell?”  Jesus looked at Peter and replied quickly, “No, of course not.  Let her in.” And then Jesus’ eyes grew fierce and he told St. Peter, “But now go and look for a man who refused to play with his little girl, and instead sent her to the streets.  Send that oneto Hell.”

I think that the storyteller is on to something here – that the walk of faith is not about avoiding Hell, but embracing life according to the Kingdom that Christ proclaimed.  What are we doing to create a world wherein “the little ones” are given the best opportunity to embrace the fullness of life as God intended it to be?

I think that’s what Jesus means by his closing comments about salt and fire. It’s a summary to the teaching that we have heard these past three weeks.  As one writer says, “disciples whose lives are not characterized by lowly service nor by openness to Christians who are different nor by care for those who are young in the faith nor by rigorous self-discipline are like flavorless salt. They have lost the sharpness which sets them apart from their environment and which constitutes their usefulness…Christians… are to be harder on themselves than on others”[2]– those whom they welcome and assist in the process of discovering life in the Kingdom.

I think this is a hard word for us to hear, my friends, because we have a lot of attitudes and privileges and ideas and, well,stuffthat we enjoy. May we not enjoy them so much that we risk losing everything. Thanks be to God who gives us the opportunity to walk alongside the master in paths of humility and openness. Amen.


[2]Lamar Williamson Jr., Interpretation Commentary on Mark(Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), p. 172

How’s the Water?

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to listen for our story in the stories of the Book of Judges.  On January 26 we sat once more with the disturbing character of Samson, perhaps the greatest and undoubtedly the worst of the Judges.  Our text included selected verses from Judges 14 as well as I Peter 2:9-12.

TwoFishDid you hear about the two young fish who were swimming along and encountered an older fish?  “Morning, boys!  How’s the water?” he said as he passed them.  He went on his way.  After a few moments, one of the pair turned to his friend and said, “Water? What the hell is water?”[1]

I love that little story because it reminds us how easy it is to forget the fact that we exist in a culture.  Every day, we make decisions and choices based on what we, or what “everyone” knows.  This morning, as we continue to explore the book of Judges, we see how the story of Samson illustrates for us the ways in which it is so easy to allow someone or something else to define our environment and expectations.  When that happens, rather than looking towards God’s best, I am simply swimming thoughtlessly and often faithlessly along with the tide.

The Fountain of Samson in Kiev, Ukraine

The Fountain of Samson in Kiev, Ukraine

Let’s think about what we know already from last week’s reading.  Why was Samson born? “To begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” (Judges 13:5)  God is sending this person into the world so that God’s people might have an alternative way of living – so that they can reject the slavery, oppression, violence, and greed that characterize the cultures around them and live into the purposes of God.

So Samson is going to begin this.  How?  What is distinctive about this baby?  He is called to be a Nazirite.  One who is set apart, or consecrated.

OK, do you remember what a Nazirite looks and acts like? Are there rules for this sort of thing?  Of course.  Samson is not to allow his hair or beard to be cut; he is to avoid contact with anything related to grapes; and he is to avoid becoming unclean by contact with the dead, or by eating anything unclean.

That’s what we learned last week, and when we left chapter 13, young Samson was beginning to experience the Spirit of the Lord.

In chapter 14, which we did not read, he falls in love with a Philistine woman. Yes, that’s right.  The one who has been sent into the world in order to “deliver us” from the Philistines now finds himself drooling at the thought of marrying one.  That’s a funny way to deliver us…like sponsoring a “Gambler’s Anonymous” meeting at the casino.  But, well, you know…young love…

And so on his way to visit this young beauty, he has an encounter with a lion as he is taking the shortcut through the vineyard.  An observant reader such as yourself might think, “Self, I thought Nazirites were supposed to avoid contact with grapes.  Why is this Nazirite hanging around vineyards, let alone sponsoring a seven-day feast “as was customary” at the wedding?”


This sounds like a lot of grape wine.

At a Nazirite’s wedding.

To a Philistine girl.

The author of Judges reveals Samson as one who time after time receives the blessing or the empowerment of God, but who takes that blessing lightly.  More than any other character in this book of Judges, “the Spirit of the Lord” comes to Samson, but nearly every single time he uses the benefit of that encouragement and strengthening to vent some petty, vengeful, selfish rage.  The impression one gets is that Samson is a shallow hothead, and if we are honest, we see that the one who was born to begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines is, in fact, acting just like them.

Remember, my theory is that the book of Judges was given to describe the choices we make, and to consider in what ways we are willing to embrace God’s intentions of justice, freedom, and joy.

How’s the water, Samson?

In the passage you heard this morning from chapter 15, we discover that the leaders of the nation of Israel are turning Samson over to the Philistine authorities.  Why? Because evidently, they fear the Philistines more than they trust God.  Did you hear what they said to Samson?  “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us?”  Last week, we noted that the people of Israel didn’t cry out when they were suffering the oppression of the Philistines.  Here, we see that they take it as normal.  It’s just the water that they’re swimming in, that’s all.

Samson Slaying a Philistine, Giambologna (1560)

Samson Slaying a Philistine, Giambologna (1560)

The leaders of Israel cave in to the purposes of their Philistine rulers.  Samson hides out in selfishness and anger, and when he is finally brought face to face with them, the Spirit of God comes upon him.  And when the Spirit of the Almighty fills him, our hero, the Nazirite, grabs… the jawbone of a donkey.  A dead donkey.

Nazirite rule #1 – no grapes.  Gone.

Nazirite rule #2 – no contact with the dead.  Gone.

And in spite of that, Samson overpowers the enemy and slays a thousand men.  With the jawbone of a dead donkey.

And then, for the first time in his life that we can see, Samson cries out to God.  Do you remember how many times the book of Judges contains the phrase, “and the people cried out to God to save them from their enemies…”?  When the people realized how weary they were of sin and death and slavery and idolatry?  Do you remember when the people prayed BIG prayers and said, “Lord, save us”?

And here, the people don’t pray.  The people have given their leader over to the enemy.  One man prays.  And he doesn’t even pray a big prayer.  He asks for a drink of water.

Do you see how the faith is being diminished here?

Yes, God responds – because God’s grace is amazing.  But doesn’t this whole set-up seem wrong?  This can’t be what God had in mind when he brought the Children of Israel to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey – to a life characterized by God’s presence and God’s purposes.

It’s not.  Look at the last verse of chapter 15, which tells us that Samson “led Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines.”  Do you see?  God’s people.  God’s hopes.  But Philistine days.

How’s the water?  It’s Philistine water.  And what has happened in the last fifteen chapters is that our people have become increasingly defined by the purposes of others.  We have lost sight of the Lord and accept as truth conditions imposed by powers in our world – powers that defy the truth and beauty of God.

We believe lies, and we live as though we can’t change them.

And this is what is so frustrating and disappointing to me on January 26, 2014: that the people of God in so many ways continue to live in the days of the Philistines.  We continue to accept as truth the lies of the enemy, and to pretend that there is nothing we can do to change that.

We see that in our world.  This week, Oxfam released a report indicating that the world’s wealthiest 85 individuals have a combined worth that equals that of the world’s poorest 3.5 billion people.  One group of people, who could ride in a single Megabus (as if that is ever going to happen), are richer than the number of people who currently live in North and South America, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and Europe.

I took this photo of an heroic woman and her daughter (see that little foot!) carrying 100 pounds of food home during the famine relief effort in Malawi in 2013.

I took this photo of an heroic woman and her daughter (see that little foot!) carrying 100 pounds of food home during the famine relief effort in Malawi in 2013.

When that statistic came out this week, there was a collective yawn.  A few folks talked about “class warfare”. Some raised questions of justice.  But mostly, the people I talk to said something like, “Well, what are you going to do?  That’s the way that the world is. The rich get richer.”

They do.  We do.  But although these are the waters in which we are currently swimming, they are not the waters of God’s intentions for the earth.  I do not deny anyone the right to work hard and to benefit from his or her labor.  But as George Monbiot has said, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”

I don’t know how to fix it, but I would suggest that a world in which wealth and power flow increasingly from the many to the few is a world that looks more like the slavery and oppression of Egypt rather than the justice and sufficiency of the Promised Land.  The Church of Jesus Christ worships a savior who was born in poverty, raised as a refugee, lived as a homeless man, and was buried in a borrowed tomb.  We don’t need to attack the rich – but we dare not forget the poor and work for justice.

GunDrawing001In our own nation, we live in the days of the Philistines.  Every year, more than 30,000 human beings are killed in the United States by guns.  Every day, 32 Americans are murdered with firearms.  Every day, 8 children die of gunshots.

Now hold your horses, Second-Amendment Sally.  And don’t get all worked up, Gun-control Gus.  I don’t want to start an argument about strategy right now.  What I hope is that the people of God in the USA in 2014 can think about those numbers – 30,000 deaths in a year, 32 murders in a day – and say, “You know, that’s too many.”

Can the NRA and the people from the Brady Campaign agree on much? Nope.  But can the church of Jesus Christ say that it is not acceptable to simply say, “Hey, it happens.  People die.  Nothing we can do.”

Again, I don’t know what the answer is – I only know that this water is making me sick.  We will disagree on strategies and on policies and maybe even priorities.  If we knew that once a year, somewhere in the USA, a building the size of PNC Park was going to be wiped out, would we want to do something?  I hope so.  In the same way, I hope that we can begin to think that maybe losing 30,000 people a year to gun violence is preventable – that there are solutions that honor individual rights and responsibilities.  People of faith need to be talking about how to end illegal gun sales.

following-the-crowd_thumbAnd it’s not just in our world or in our nation.  It’s in our own lives.  How often do we allow the culture around us to define who we are, or who we are becoming?  We cheat on the test.  We drive like maniacs.  We get drunk and act like idiots.  We participate in all kinds of behavior which is less than God’s best for us.  Why?  Because everyone else is doing it.

Listen, beloved – this is not a sermon on the distribution of wealth or guns or personal choices.  It’s a call to be the people who know that the place we live in isn’t always shaped by God’s intentions but who act like those intentions are still valid.

When we live like this, we refuse to throw up our hands in despair over the evils of racism, domestic violence, or anything else, saying “What are you gonna do?”

When we live like this, we refuse to behave as if these are the “days of the Philistines” and we seek to act reflecting the love and mercy and justice of Jesus of Nazareth.  When we live like this, we acknowledge that our lives point to a greater truth.

The Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson and he slew a thousand Philistines in a fit of rage.  And for doing that, he got his picture in the Bible coloring books.  He’s a hero.

But can we conceive of a reality where the Spirit comes upon Samson and instead of satisfying his personal vendetta he used the power he got from God to establish justice?  Could Samson have used that power from God differently?

To be honest, that’s a rhetorical question, and right now I’m not particularly interested in that.

What I do want to know, this morning, is this:

What will you do, in the waters where you are swimming right now, when the Spirit of God comes upon you?

In whose days do you live?  What makes you sigh and say, “What are you gonna do?”

And what are the intentions of the God that you worship and serve? And how do you point to them…even if no one else can see them right now?  And will you help me point to them, too?  Because unlike Samson, we are not in this alone.  Let us work together to discover and demonstrate the purposes of God in and for this place. Amen.

[1]  Adapted from a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College

There is No “Base”

God’s people in Crafton Heights continue to walk through Jeremiah in the hopes that this man, who was called to point to the light in a dark, dark place, can help us to learn something about what it means for us to testify to the light in the midst of our own darkness.  

The reading for this baptism service was Jeremiah 7:1-19.

You know, you go to church long enough and you think you’ve seen just about everything.  You know what to expect, when to expect it…until you get to a reading like this.

I want to thank Don and Glenn for being our greeters this morning.  I always appreciate the fact that folks are welcomed with a smile and a bulletin, and maybe even directions to the coffee pot or the bathroom.  But today I am especially grateful that you did not do as the prophet Jeremiah, who stood one day outside the Temple and cried out to all who entered, “Don’t believe a word that is said in there!  You’re wasting your time! Don’t trust that guy…”  Yeah, I appreciate that.

Why would Jeremiah do that?

Why was the Temple built in the first place? So that people could worship the Lord, right?  The Temple existed so that God’s people could commune with God.  In that most sacred place, the Creator and the created could meet in worship and reverence.

Only now, says Jeremiah, there is a problem.  God’s people are not worshiping God.  They are worshiping someone, or something else.  In verse 9, God lists the practices that are apparently widespread: the people are guilty of theft, murder, adultery, and idolatry.  More than that, God says, the people are engaging in these practices and then sprinting into the Temple and saying “We are God’s chosen!  No harm can come to us in here!”  They are behaving, says God, as though the Temple is “base” in a real-life game of tag – the Temple is the spot where no one can touch them – not the Assyrians, not the Babylonians – they are automatically “safe” because they are on “base” when they’re in the Temple.

And the Lord’s response is, “Yeah?  How about I touch you? How about I teach you a lesson.  Do you remember Shiloh? The place where I first met you in this land, and where we first enjoyed worship together?  That place was sacred.  That place was amazing.  That place was beautiful to me…until you ruined it by disrespecting me and my commands.  And so I wiped that place out.  And I can wipe this place out.  I invented ‘base’, and this place is not it.”

In this passage, God sends his prophet to remind the people that what we say, do, and the ways that we act, and the things that we worship – that those things matter.  Don’t come strolling into worship, says the prophet, pretending that everything is just honky-dory when you know for a fact it is not.

Marc ChagallJeremiah Receiving the Gift of Prophecy, 1957

Marc Chagall
Jeremiah Receiving the Gift of Prophecy, 1957

Right after God tells Jeremiah to tell the people not to believe a thing they hear in church, he does something even more uncharacteristic of an all-powerful, eternal, omniscient Diety: he looks at the prophet and he says, “And you! Don’t let me catch you praying for these people!  Don’t ask me to release them from the consequences of their own choices, or to spare them the suffering that they’ve invited.  Do not pray for them – I will not listen to you.”

I have thought about God’s command to Jeremiah a lot in the last month.  I have tried to pray for our nation.  And I am having a hard time doing that.  Frankly, I’m not sure God is all that interested in what I have to say now.

Ever since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, our nation has been embroiled in a heated controversy over the issue of guns.  Guns and the power, the rights, and the violence that accompanies them.

And I am well aware that there are lots of you in the room right who are saying, “Oh, geez, don’t say it, Dave.  Don’t open your mouth on this one.  We really, really disagree.  Not on baptism Sunday.  We have company today.  There are idiots in this room, Dave, who don’t have the first idea about guns, and we think you might be one of them.”

Relax.  I’m not here to advocate for one position, or to suggest public policy changes.  I’m not stupid enough to make half of you mad at me this morning.  The way I figure it, I do this right, everyone will be angry by the time I shut up.  That’s all right.  George is preaching next week, and I’ll be gone.  You’re welcome.

What I feel compelled to do this morning is not to talk about the Second Amendment or gun control or other issues of policy.  I want to talk about what we see, and what we believe, and whether there are any areas in which we can agree before we talk about the Second Amendment or gun control.

Jeremiah 7:17: Do you not see what they are doing in the cities and in the streets?  Can’t we, the people of God, be aware of what is going on?  What is happening?  I see at least three emerging trends.

Too many people are getting shot.  Too many children are dying.  Is this not true?  Regardless of why you think that this is happening – whether it’s because guns are too easy to get or not enough people have guns or the laws are crummy or there’s too many of those people or whatever – can we agree that twenty children shot at an elementary school in a single day is too many?  Isn’t it true that 30,000 gun deaths a year in the United States is too many gun deaths?  Can you not see what they are doing in the streets?  They are killing.  They are dying.

Another thing that I notice when I observe our culture is that any form of security that is based on a weapon – or the lack of a weapon – is idolatry.  I don’t care if we are talking about a handgun, an assault rifle, a pointy stick, or an unmanned military drone patrolling above your home.  When we entrust ourselves, our well-being, our security, to an implement that has been fashioned by human hands, are we not saying that our security is brought by that which is not God?  And if I am counting on not God to save or protect me, my home, my nation – then am I not an idolater?  No law, no weapon, no alarm system, no bank account, no thing can give me security.  Can you not see what they are doing in the streets? They are trusting in idols.

And here is another: having power to use, or own, or possess, or do is not the same thing as having the moral right, or imperative, or obligation, or justification for using that power.  Sometimes we decide, don’t we, to not yell back.  Sometimes someone makes me angry and I don’t shoot them.  Sometimes someone hurts me and even though I could, I choose not to seek revenge.  Yet increasingly in our land, we see conflict being escalated because we use power indiscriminately simply because we can.  Someone has a gun, and they shoot it.  We have a fleet of drones, and so we rain death from the skies.  We are not obliged to do this.  We have choices.  And our choices are so often violent and murderous.  Can you not see what they are doing in the streets?  They are reacting blindly.

I made a huge mistake earlier this week.  I was meeting with our Seminary student, Al, and in talking about the aspects and importance of preaching, I said, “You have to challenge the people, Al.  A good sermon always dares the people to do something great.  A good sermon challenges us to be better than we are.”

Listen: maybe I’m right.  Maybe I haven’t alienated everyone in the room yet.  Maybe, just maybe, we can agree that too many people are dead, and that trusting in things instead of trusting in God is a fool’s errand, and that being able to do something is not the same thing as needing to do that thing.  So what?  What do we do with all of these gun deaths, with all of this gunfire, with a society that seems to be increasingly violent in so many ways?

Jeremiah 7:5.  The way that we make what happens in church worth listening to is to repent.  To “amend our ways”.  To turn around.

I, Pastor Dave Carver, need to repent of deaths of kids in Newtown CT and of human trafficking in India and of Terrorism.

“See, now, there you go.  I wondered when you were going to go getting all liberal mushy wishy washy on us, Carver.  The moment you mentioned ‘guns’ I knew that you’d wind up saying something stupid.  News flash: it’s not my fault.  I didn’t kill kids in CT, I don’t trade in human beings, and I am not a terrorist.”

I know.  None of you are, or do.

But I hope that you will join me in repenting anyway.  “Amend your ways…do not oppress the widow or the alien or the orphan…do not shed innocent blood…do not go after other gods to your own hurt…”

This is the great, challenging thing that I want to ask of you this morning: I want to ask you to own your baptism.  To say that you have a stake in this culture, that you have a place on these streets, that you have a voice in this crowd.

In a few moments, I’ll be taking little Piper from her mother’s arms and I will confess to you now that the only hands I have to hold that baby with are selfish, idolatrous hands.  The only tongue I have to pray for that baby with is an arrogant, deceitful tongue that looks for ways to shape the truth according to my own benefit.

Ron and Jessalyn are not bringing Piper to the church so that she can be initiated into a club where everyone is perfect and each of us is heading for eternal bliss on the heavenly shores because we are chosen and special and God’s favorites.  No, Piper is being welcomed to God’s family through the sacrament of baptism because it is this sacrament more than anything else that reminds us that we are not who we are supposed to be!  We are a dangerous, unstable people who, if we are not attentive to the call of God on our lives, are capable of great evil.

m3-baptism-windowI know that some of you came this morning just to see me baptize that little girl, and I have to tell you that we’re not doing it because it’s cute.  We’re doing it because we remember that the only thing that keeps us in a place where we can hear the voice of God is God’s grace.  You give me half a minute, and I’ll walk away.  But my baptism keeps me coming back.

So Repent.  And Own your Baptism.  And when we do that, we can speak the truth, respectfully, to our neighbors.  Our culture is increasingly divided – about the what Second Amendment means and promises; about my responsibility for myself or for the weak and the marginalized; about when we need to use some of the tools that we have and about which tools we should resolve to never use.  We will disagree.

So you, sinful and forgiven people of God who remember your baptism, you will disagree too.  Fine.  But when someone says something that is misguided or untrue, challenge them on it.  When someone uses language that is racist or demeaning, point out to them the violence of their words.

Can you not see what they are doing on the streets? Yes, you can see it.  And you have the ability to affect it.  Not by hiding out in the Temple as if it were some sort of base that protects us, but by trusting that the One to whom this temple is dedicated is the One who calls out to each of his arrogant, violent, selfish, children.  Like me.  And like you.

If we can own who we are and claim the forgiveness that is offered in this sacrament, perhaps then we’ll be able to pray for the children and those at risk.  If in our lives and in our actions we can point consistently towards integrity and justice and God’s purposes for his creation, knowing that God alone can protect us from ultimate harm, then maybe our prayers will have an effect…on those of us who pray, and on those for whom we pray.  By the grace of God, Amen.