Harrowing Of Hell
October 19, 2012

Salted by Fire

Preacher: The Rev Doyt Conn

This Sunday we have guests from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and I am glad they are here.  Their timing is perfect for highlighting the message from our Gospel.

John, the apostle, approaches Jesus and says, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

And I can imagine Jesus rolling his eyes, because I would have rolled my eyes.  But I know Jesus didn’t roll his eyes because that was a sign of contempt and there was no room for contempt in the Kingdom of God.

And I still would have rolled my eyes, out of habit, at John’s statement.  He had been with Jesus from day one, and still he was under the impression that Jesus was out to build a dynasty, and become king. Come on!

Jesus has a better answer: He said to John, “Whoever is not against us is for us.  For truly I tell you, whoever gives a cup of water because of me will not lose their reward.”

John and I have the same problem, maybe some of you are like us.  He is judging the man casting out the demons, and I am judging him for his judgment.  The eye roll is my tell, even when it happens on the inside.

How easy it is to judge someone; how treacherous that is to our relationships and the equanimity of our hearts.   Judgment is a capacity we are given as creatures made in the image and likeness of God.  It is a characteristic that can be freely chosen and employed as either a good tool for discerning a particular situation, or a wedge for driving apart relationships.  When used as a wedge it is more hazardous, Jesus says, than a millstone around the neck of a man swimming at sea.

That is pretty extreme language that we are not used to hearing from Jesus.

“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 the unquenchable fires of hell.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worms never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” (Mark 9:43-48)

Do you want me to read that again?

I could do so by just quoting the very last few verses from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.

When people heard Jesus say these rather bleak things they weren’t thinking condemnation; they were thinking quotation. They were hearing Isaiah.  He was the popular prophet in the time of Jesus, and they knew his words by heart.  They identified with the way he railed against the idolatry that separated the people of Israel from God.  The words Isaiah spoke, after all, were to the people of Israel in exile in Babylon, where they were under the thumb of the Babylonian overlord’s oppression.  The people of Israel saw this oppression as their deserved punishment for the idolatry they practiced back in Jerusalem against their God.

That is how the people of Jesus’ day felt as well, under the oppressive rule of the Roman hierarchy.  They saw this oppression as their punishment by God for their idolatry.

But that is not the God that Jesus knew, or lived with in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus takes the words from Isaiah and redirects them away from a punishing God toward the self-induced punishment of separation that we inflict upon ourselves and others through our own judgment.

And the punishment Jesus links to this judgment is hell. For the people hearing Jesus this wasn’t a metaphor, it was real.

Hell in Greek is Gehenna, which was the name of the valley outside the walls of Jerusalem where day and night smoldering piles of trash burned.  Occasionally, one would see a body there, a body no one claimed, a body no one was in relationship with, a body no one wanted to bury. It was tossed in the smoldering piles of trash, where worms would eat it, as the flesh slowly burned off the bone.

The contrasting image is handing a cup of water to a thirsty person.

That is the hope for Christian character formation, to build impulses of charity and reduce impulses of judgment. Character formation is what we have been talking about these past couple weeks.  It is about training ourselves to spontaneously give a cup of water rather than judging the motivations of another person.

Character formation happens, one way or the other, accidentally or intentionally.  The question is: are we managing the process or not?

I have a friend who was given the opportunity, by chance I guess, to fully reconsider the content of his character.  He considered it a gift, a gift from God. He was a Christian man.  I called it being salted by fire.

We were roommate and worked together for an international relief organization.  His name, coincidentally, is John.  He was much older than I was and came to this work as a mid-life course correction.

Previously he ran a law firm in Boston.  He was an aggressive guy, hard driving, nose to the grindstone kind of guy.  He was an athlete and perpetually training for triathlons.  One day during a training session in Cape Cod bay, near a home he owned, John was salted by fire.

A speedboat ran him over and lopped off his left arm.  They didn’t know if he would live or die.  Neither did he.  He was transported by medevac to Boston, and he recalls listening to the whir of the rotor and asking himself: should I live or should I die?  And he heard back: it is better to enter life.

John was salted by fire.

To understand this metaphor it is helpful understand salt.  In Jesus’ day it was used for many things.  To preserve food.  To purify water.  To wash the after birth off new born babies. It was also used to ruin an enemies field or poison their well.

But, then like now, salt was used to enhance flavor in food.  They probably brined meat just like we do, soaking it in salt water before cooking to open up the flavor.  Salt, you see, binds to the protein molecules, loosening up the fibers so when cooked the meat becomes as delicious as it was meant to be.  To be salted by fire is a metaphor for breaking something open so it can fully become itself.  One way or another, we are all salted by fire.

John was and in this new openness he found joy and peace. Things came into better balance for him, which is paradoxical given that now he had just one arm.  Life slowed down.  It had to as a structural necessity.  Patience became one of his abiding characteristics; a characteristic learned by heart as he relearned to tie his shoe with one hand, and tie his tie with one hand, and to cook his dinner with just one hand. John was salted by fire.

He sold his homes, and left his high pressure job.  With less to manage, he could spend more time managing his character.

The thing I remember most about John was that he was happy.  He laughed a lot.  It was his habit.  It reflected his character.  It was the water he poured out on a thirsty world.

The habits of the heart, the impulses of our character have impact.  It is the water we pour out upon this thirsty world.

The question is: What is in your cup?  What do you pour out upon the world through the content of your character? Is it the same water you would pour out if you had only one arm or one leg or one eye?