September 27, 2009

A One-Eyed World

Mark 9:38-50

Have you noticed that people in the church don’t talk much anymore about hell. It didn’t use to be this way, of course. In one of the libraries at Yale, we have the original notes for a sermon that Jonathan Edwards preached in Enfield in 1741. It was titled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Pastor Edwards painted a picture of us - all sinners that we are -- dangling as a spider or some loathsome insect over the flames of hell. God’s wrath towards us, he preached, burns like fire; he looks upon us as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the flames. And when was the last time you heard a sermon like that? Well, you’re not going to hear one like that today either. But we can’t be so quick to dismiss what Jesus is talking about when he speaks to his disciples about being thrown into hell.

While this is not a topic of churchly conversation all that often, at least in the churches that I’ve attended, interestingly it does come up a lot in casual conversation elsewhere. How many times have you heard somebody say “What the h__?” Interesting, isn’t it, that the world has taken over this language that used to be reserved for the church. And I think what that means is that hell, however we think of it, is no longer a serious concept for the most part. Rather than a fearsome, terrifying reality, it has become a casual swear word.

But when Jesus speaks of hell, he is not talking about something casual and inconsequential. So what exactly is he talking about? In the common imagination, hell is some kind of horrible underworld, down there, filled with flames and little cartoon-like devils tormenting the souls of the damned with their pitchforks, And although the Bible does speak about the flames of hell, it also contains a much wider and somehow more radical definition of hell. The writer of the second letter to the Thessalonians, for example, speaks of “the punishment of eternal destruction, [which is being] separated from the presence of the Lord”(2 Thessalonians 1:9a)(emphasis added). Hell, then, according to a biblical view, is separation from God.

It’s like this. Do you remember the story Jesus told about Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31)? Lazarus, a poor beggar, lies at the rich man’s gate as the rich man comes and goes on his daily rounds, stepping over that living heap of rags, ignoring him, not even really seeing him. When they both die, Lazarus goes to heaven to the arms of father Abraham and the rich man goes to hell. As he suffers in the torments of hell, he sees Lazarus in a place of comfort and love, and begs Father Abraham to send him fetch him some water. But the gulf between the two of them is too wide to cross at that point. The rich man has separated himself from the love of God forever because he separated himself from the godly love of neighbor in the here and now. And maybe the truth of that story is that the rich man existed in a living hell on this earth but was not able to see that.

This separation from God is not only a way of thinking about hell. It is also a way of thinking about sin. Sin, according to the Apostle Paul, is anything that does not proceed from faith (Romans 14:23). Anything that does not proceed from faith, anything that comes between us and our trust in God, anything, in other words, that separates us from God.

It is this kind of sinfulness that Jesus is addressing when he talks to his disciples in what is surely is a grand case of hyperbole. He gives outrageous examples to make his point. 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. It is better to live in this world with one eye than to be in hell with 20/20 vision.

So here’s a question. How can your hand or foot cause you to stumble? How can your eye cause you to stumble? As my colleagues and I are so tragically aware, a hand can be a weapon; it can kill and destroy. Less damaging, perhaps, but also offensive, it can remain closed when God calls you to be generous and open-handed. Your foot can lead you down the wrong path so you lose track of the way of faithfulness. And what about your eye? Do you know the old saying that the eyes are the windows to the soul? I think what that originally meant was that you look in someone’s eyes and you can see what their soul is like. But a window opens both ways, doesn’t it? So what enters the window of the eyes inhabits the soul; what you see becomes who you are. Those in monastic life talk about this when they speak of keeping custody of the eyes. Custody of the eyes. It means to control what you look at, to turn a blind eye, so to speak, to that which would contaminate your soul. It means keeping your focus on what is good and pure by avoiding offensive distraction.

It takes a conscious effort in the monastery to do this. Imagine, then, what a challenge it is for us. Our world is full of images of violence, destruction and exploitation. Through television, movies, video games, internet we open our souls to an ungodly reality, one that diminishes, demeans, and destroys the value of human life. The American Pediatric Association estimates that by the age of 18, American kids will watch 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence (Hartford Courant, September 25, p C6). You can’t even drive on the interstate without encountering billboards that border on pornography. Advertising images fill us with covetousness and lust for things we didn’t even know existed. These images infiltrate our being, almost without our knowing it. They are offensive to God’s intention for the way we are to live. And there’s Jesus saying, “If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.” And when you have done that, when have only one eye, you will know what it is to live your life with a single focus.

So does that mean avoiding anything that is unpleasant? Does it mean closing your eye to that which is troubling in the world? It does not. In fact, we are called to seek out those places, the places of poverty and hunger, homelessness and injustice, oppression and disease; to seek them out and then to see them as God sees them, with a single focus on healing and restoration, on generosity and forgiveness. To look at the world with the eye of God is to see how God intends all of life to be. It is to see it and then to work to make it so.

This single minded godly focus breaks down our separation from others, those who have lives or practices or beliefs that are different from ours, and it draws us into the presence of God as we engage the wider world. In that sense, it is a turning away from sin because sin is anything that separates us from God. And maybe by extension, sin is also anything that separates us from any of God’s creatures, anything we do that causes a little one to stumble. Notice how radical Jesus is in opening up our view of those who are to be included in God’s love. They don’t have to follow us; they don’t have to be like us. All they have to do is offer the gift of life in their own way – what Jesus calls a cup of water.

And when we have removed the offensive distractions from our lives, when we can look on the world with a singleness of purpose, when we can be filled with clarity about God’s view of things, it is then that we understand God’s intention for all of life, an intention for oneness, for unity. No separation between us and others and no separation between us and God. No more hell on earth, or in the hereafter, but rather a vision of the kingdom of God in the world. May we see it and live it, even here, even now. May we create God’s on-eyed world. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

September 25, 2009

In the mail

In our family, we think that you can mail just about anything. I have gotten rocking chairs, an air conditioner, and pecan pies in the mail – and once, a whole set of bent wood lawn furniture. My mama mails me a lot of things. So when I came home and found a package from her, I was pleased but not surprised, at least not until I opened it. It was full of fresh North Carolina okra, cut by my daddy and sent off to me “up north.”

I cooked it the way we do at home: roasted with a little olive oil in a very hot oven and then sprinkled with sea salt. As soon as I took the first bite, I was transported in my mind to our kitchen table. It was a taste of home, so good, so fresh, so precious.

Food is necessary for life, of course, but it is not just nourishment for the body. It also feeds the soul and strengthens the ties to those we love. The okra is more than a vegetable; it is a love letter from home.