Friday, September 28, 2012

Hell (Sept 30, 2012)

Homily Yr B Proper 26 Sept 30 2012
Readings:  Esther 7:1-6,9-10;9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50


The response to our psalm this morning, which we repeated several times together, was  “We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler.”  Now, when that psalm was written, the way a fowler, or bird-hunter would catch a bird would be to set up a trap or snare, so that when the bird landed in a particular place, it would trigger the snare and a net would fall on the bird.  And as the bird would try to get away, flapping its wings and running with its feet, it would get all tangled up in the net.  And the more it would struggle and flap and kick, the more tangled it would get, caught up in the cords of the net and unable to get away. 

It is, I think, a good image of our human situation.  Often enough, we seem to get all tangled up in a net, and the harder we try to break free, the more we seem to get stuck.  Sometimes we end up dragging other people into the net, and they become tangled as well. 

In our scriptures, the net that tangles us and prevents us from being free is called sin, or sometimes evil.  Sometimes we are the ones who are responsible for the net, sometimes its others who throw the net on us, but often it’s just a tangle of cords that seem to be all around us and our communities, something in the system that is of our own making, but no one seems to be able to get rid of it.  And that is tragic.

Do you remember the incident of Korean Air Line 007 which was shot down over Soviet Airspace in 1983, amidst allegations that it was a spy plane?  269 people died in this tragic event, and the world was brought to the brink of nuclear war.  Now over twenty years later, now that the Cold War has ended and we have access to classified documents and the transcripts of the plane’s flight recorder we have a clearer idea of what happened.  It seems that a sleepy crew of the passenger plane with an imperfectly calibrated auto-pilot system made the mistake of leaving the plane on auto-pilot as they left Alaska heading towards Japan.  They drifted into Soviet airspace.  The Soviet air force scrambled two MIG fighters to intercept flight 007.  The pilot of one of those planes was a Colonel named Gennadi Osipovich.  He wasn’t even supposed to be on duty, but he had switched shifts with another pilot so that he could volunteer at his son’s school the next day. 

When Osipovich flew his MIG jet alongside the flight 007, he recognized it as a Boeing civilian plane.  His superiors insisted that it was a spy plane and ordered him to shoot it down.  Osipovich tried to make radio contact.  Nothing.  He flashed his lights.  He waggled his wings.  Still no response.  He fired warning shots.  He was told six times by his ground controller to fire on the plane.  And under the pressure of time, just as the Boeing was about to leave Soviet airspace to re-enter international airspace, he fired his missiles and brought down flight 007, sending 269 people to their deaths, an act that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Gennadi Osipovich was caught in a net.  He was caught in a net of suspicion, of hostility between East and West, of Cold War military procedures, of a history of spying and airspace violations.  He was caught in a net of sin and evil that was so tangled that he found no way out.  Gennady Osipovich is a tragic figure.

God wants to free us from the net that has us all tangled up, the net that turns us into tragic figures like Gennady Osipovich.  God has promised to put the entire world right, showing up evil for what it is and judging it so that it no longer has the power to infect his good creation.

Which is why in our Gospel reading today, Jesus talks to his disciples about hell.

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.”

What do you think of when you hear the word “hell”?
Hell is something we don’t talk about much in the church, at least in the Anglican church.  In part that is because our common notion of hell is grounded in the picture that arose in the middle ages, in the writings of Dante and others.  The most common idea about hell in our culture is that it has something to do with the after-life, that when people die, that God will sort them into two lots, and the good people will go to heaven and the bad people will go to hell, a place of damnation and eternal punishment.  And that sort of picture makes many of us really uncomfortable, uncomfortable with the notion that a loving God would let some people end up in that sort of hell.

So I think that it’s important to go back to our scriptures, to go back to the teaching of Jesus to try to understand what he meant when he used the word “gehenna”, the Greek word that we translate as hell.

It’s a word that Jesus doesn’t use very often, recorded just a dozen times in the New Testament, and three of those are in today’s gospel reading.  So let’s look at today’s reading.

Notice, first of all, that in Jesus teaching, the opposite of hell is not heaven, but life.  If you look at Jesus’ sayings, they say that it is better to enter life than to go to hell.  The emphasis is not on life after death, but on life, now and in the future.  Notice as well that in the third saying, Jesus switches from saying “enter life” to “enter the kingdom of God”, something that in other places, Jesus will say “has come near” or “is in your midst”.  Again, this isn’t just about an afterlife, he seems to be talking about something that is both present and future.

And the word that we translate as hell is also revealing.  Gehenna, the word Jesus uses, is actually a place name.  It is the Hebrew name for the Valley of Hinnom which is found on the south west side of Jerusalem.  It is the garbage dump of the city of Jerusalem, the place where garbage from the city is dumped and burned, with a fire that burns day and night.  Not only is garbage dumped there, but sewage from the city also ends up in the Valley of Hinnom.  To make matters worse, child sacrifice used to be practiced there, because of this the valley had been condemned as an evil place by prophets such as Jeremiah. 

This is the word that Jesus uses in today’s gospel.  Gehenna is the valley where evil, filth and garbage are sent to be destroyed in a fire that burns day and night.  Gehenna then, is a real place, a real garbage dump, which becomes the image of what God will do to destroy all that is evil and filthy, the eternal fire which burns all the garbage that has polluted God’s good creation.

This is the New Testament image of hell.  Hell is the place of fire which burns everything that opposes what God wants for the life of his people and his good creation.

Are people oppressed by war and violence?  To hell with war and violence.

Does a little child suffer from abuse?  To hell with child abuse.

Does someone you know suffer from addiction?  To hell with it.

To hell with all these things that oppress us and prevent us from living life as God intended us to live.  Let them burn and be destroyed.

And Jesus, using the exaggeration typical of his culture, tells his disciples, even if it’s your foot that’s the preventing you from living life as God intended, well to hell with it - but don’t you go with it.  Better for you to enter life, to enter the Kingdom of God with only one foot.

Of course, it’s not our foot that’s the problem.  But remember the net that we were talking about?  The net of sin and evil and garbage that we so often get all tangled up in?  It’s that net that God will judge and send to hell for destruction, so that we can be free to enter life, to enter the kingdom of God without being all tangled up in it, without being caught in it.
That is good news.  But that doesn’t mean that everything is easy.  Because it’s hard to get ourselves untangled from the net.  In fact, we may have gotten so used to being stuck in the net that it starts to feel comfortable, a bit like home in a perverse sort of way.  We can’t get untangled by ourselves.  We need to be saved, like the bird who is set free from the snare of the fowler and enabled to fly once more.

Jesus says to us, turn and follow me and I will set you free.

We all get tangled up in the net of sin and evil.  Some of it’s our own fault, much of it is out of our control.  But if we turn to God, God has promised to forgive our sins and to set us free.  The net will go to hell, to be destroyed in the fire, so that all God’s creatures can live as God intended them to live, now and for all eternity.


With acknowledgement and thanks to Dr. Thomas Long, who told us the story of Gennadi Osipovich in Ottawa at a 2009 clergy conference.

No comments:

Post a Comment