Harrowing Of Hell
May 25, 2014


Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

This week’s sermon is on entanglement.  The text is First Peter, and the theme of entanglement is drawn directly from the fact that this text is a tangled mess. I’ll tell you more about that later.

I sat down to start my sermon this week.  The bowl of stones was there on my desk, to the left.  You remember the inspiration it gave me last Sunday.  No such luck this time. I found myself wondering if I shouldn’t do something else besides writing a sermon.  Maybe, I reasoned, I should write a Weekly Word instead, and soon was on the ABC News website looking for an article on Islam.  As I was reading, other stories kept popping up on the right-hand side of my screen.  Here are some titles:

“Hero Cat Throws out First Ball at Baseball Game;”
“Mud Diver has Heart Attack;”
Something about the Royal family;
Something else about the Royal family;
“Dancing with the Stars Athletes Tell All.”

There we go.  That deserves a click especially when I was reading about the Taliban. Taliban vs. Dancing with the Stars…was it really a choice?  So I clicked.  And then I clicked again.  Then I clicked again.  And as I clicked different ads flashed on the screen, and the more I clicked the more the ads seemed to be speaking to me.  The next thing I knew an indeterminable amount of time passed (I’m not even telling you how much time).  It was as if I had been dropped in a maze that had no exit.  I had done nothing, learned nothing, and my mind was spinning with garbage images and solicitous advertisements that I could not instantly extricate from my gray matter.  Bad?   Yes!  But here is what is worse:  the next morning as I was sitting in prayer, some of that stuff was still floating around in my head.  I felt like an albatross entangled in fishing net.

Entanglement is real, particularly when we are living in the diaspora.  That is who Peter is writing to, after all, the diaspora.  As I said last week, they are the Christians living outside a cultural Christian context.  The diaspora has definition.  It is a community that gathers, as we gather, because community is the response to doubt, and doubt is a pushy and present patron in any culture where Christianity is not understood.  In the days of Peter, as today, people’s choices are heavily influenced if not molded by the culture in which they live.  Over time these choices can become self-reinforcing patterns that manage the person more than the person manages him/herself.   Now here is the problem:  after a time these self-reinforcing patterns are so ingrained that they seem normal and feel right, even if they are not really right or good for us.  Which is why we can feel entangled even when we are not sure why we feel entangled.

Have you ever felt entangled?  Have you ever felt pulled in multiple directions?  A young lady was recently telling me about the tangle of applying to the kingdom of Yale.  “One the one hand”, she said “you have to be way out of the box to get looked at; on the other hand you have to conform to all of the tests, applications and criteria to get in.”  Now when education becomes the greatest good, things can get messy.  Research indicates that a child with parents highly involved in the child’s education produced better educated people. Yet, an education is expensive, and mostly requires both parents to work, sometimes long hours, which pushes them out of the highly involved category and causes them to feel pulled in multiple directions.  Those are just two examples of the tensions of entanglement.  There are others.  I know I am sort of picking on education here, which isn’t fair, a good education in important. It is only when an education is set as the highest good that we become entangled.

Anything set as a higher good than God will get us into a tangled mess.  That is the argument Peter is making in his letter; anything that we set as a good higher than God will ultimately bind us.  This is the risk of living in the diaspora.  We take on the priorities of the culture, unwittingly, and turn them into our own hopes without knowing we’ve done so, which puts us at risk of entanglement.

Here is a precept of the kingdom of God.   I call this the Snowball precept.  It is easier to do what we have done than what we have not done, especially when what we have not done is contrary to what we are doing.  If you’ve ever chosen to watch TV instead of going for a run you know what I am talking about.  We tend to keep doing what we have done, and the more we do it, the more we have done it, to the point where it feels like we are not doing it at all, but it is being done to us!  That is the Snowball precept; it is good news when we are doing something good and bad news when we are doing something bad.  That is the reality of many of the kingdom of God precepts; they require choice, and when we don’t choose for ourselves, the culture will choose for us, and we may find ourselves in a tangled mess.

Peter brings to us some Good News today!  With Jesus’ presence in the world, and in our lives, hearts, and minds, we can never be so tangled that we cannot become untangled.  If you are tangled, Jesus can cut you free.  Peter makes this point ironically with a mess of scripture, based on a loose reading of Genesis chapter 6.  Let me unpack it for us.  The tale goes like this:  there was a time when most of humanity had lost their freedom to malevolent spirits, known as powers, principalities and authorities.  These bad spirits impregnated women, who then gave birth to children, genetically, if you will, rewired toward indifference to God.

This weird little story in Genesis falls right before the Noah story.  Peter claims all but eight people.  Noah, his wife, his three sons and their three wives, were victims to the powers and principalities.   The world became a tangled mess which God fixed with the flood. But the extra-biblical story goes on to say God imprisoned these bad spirits so they could never again rob humanity of their freedom.  The malevolent spirits knew their impotence, but humanity did not.  Humanity still believed their freedom could be stolen against their will until the death and resurrection of Jesus.

For as Peter suggests in his letter:  Jesus, though dead in body, was alive in spirit after the crucifixion.  During the three days we thought him in the grave; he was visiting the imprisoned spirits.  He proclaimed to them that now humanity knew that it was permanently and perpetually free to choose life in the kingdom of God.  I call this Peter passage a scriptural mess because that was a lot of unpacking to do to figure out what was going on.  The simplified point is this:  “Jesus sits at the right hand of God with angels and authorities, and powers and principalities made subject to him.” (1Pet 3:22)  That is what Peter is reminding the diaspora of in this letter, just as I am reminding you of it today.  The powers and principality of this world, whatever they may be are less powerful than the presence of Jesus.  In other words, no matter how entangled we feel by our situation or no matter how anxious we feel about our children, retirement, work, politics, taxes, global warming, or nuclear weapons… you pick the topic; no matter how big and influential these things seem in our life, they still are ultimately subject to Jesus.

Which brings us to the question then: “What do I do?”  How do I disentangle myself from all of the pushing and pulling of this worldly world?

Here is my spiritual prescription to untangle the tangles:

1)   Gratitude
2)   Focus

Gratitude is the knife that cuts through the entanglements of life.  Say thank you by setting aside Sunday morning.  Say thank you at the end of the day.   Say thank you when you are in it, when you are having a messy, messed up day that is pulling you all over the place.  Take a minute, no, a moment, to just recognize God and say thank you.  Gratitude is the knife that cuts through the entanglements of life.

Then, focus on learning more about the God we are thanking.   A friend of mine has taken to listening to the Letters of Paul while he skis.  I’ve followed his example by listening to the Gospels when I take walks.  A focused knowledge of Jesus is helpful in washing away the garbage that has leeched into our gray matter and got tangled there like an albatross in fishing net.

We become victims of adopted peccadillos and passions, and we end up losing our hope to the hope of someone else, or something else, like a power, a principality, an authority, or an institution.  We are worth more than that.  God loves us more than that.  Peter encourages us in our freedom to freely hope in God, and freely set God as our highest good.  So pick up Jesus and cut yourself free.