Sermon Text: Romans 6:1b-11
June 22, 2014
First Congregational UCC – Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
As a child, I spent a lot of hours in the Sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church of Leavenworth, Kansas reading the hymnal. In our congregation, older kids stayed in worship and though I rarely listened to the sermon or paid much attention to the liturgy, I always enjoyed that weekly hour in the Sanctuary. I liked singing the hymns. I liked being greeted by people who reminded me of my grandma. I liked watching the littler kids fidget. I spent a lot of time just staring up at the stained glass and letting my mind wander. And I read the United Methodist Hymnal from cover to cover many times.
In my church, we said some kind of Creed from the hymnal each week. I remember reading the creed from the United Church of Canada silently over and over again and wishing that we would say it together some day. But, mostly, we said the Apostles’ Creed each week.
The Apostles’ Creed in the United Methodist Hymnal is kind of interesting. If you grew up saying it, you might remember that it has a line that says Jesus was “crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell.” Except if you were United Methodist, the bit about hell was eliminated. Replaced by an asterisk that noted, “Traditional use of this creed includes the words ‘descended into hell.’”
I puzzled over this. I was glad that the words had been eliminated. I found the idea of Jesus hanging around in hell to be patently offensive. I had a very high Christology as a child….I equated Jesus with God exactly and I could not bear the idea of God in hell. It was frightening to me.
As the years went by, I began to pick and choose which parts of the creed I would say aloud. I remember dropping Virgin as Mary’s first name. I remember going through a period where I wouldn’t proclaim belief in the “resurrection of the body.” I think saying creeds every week in worship is a good practice if for no other reason that it can really make you think theologically. It can’t be a bad thing to encourage our kids to think seriously about whether they believe something and are wiling to say it out loud, right?
Of course, beliefs evolve. As a kid, I thought if I said the wrong thing I’d be sent straight to hell. I don’t think that’s true any more. In general, belief matters a lot less to me these days. I’m not too interested in what people profess as their beliefs. I’ve been around long enough to notice that what you do and who you are matters a lot more than what you say you believe.
If I were to read the Apostles’ Creed today, I might leave some things out. But I would keep that part about Jesus descending into hell. Because what I’ve learned from listening to my fellow travelers in life is that descending into hell is an important part of living.
Jesus is many things to us as Christians. And for most of us, he is a model of what it means to be human. To live fully and abundantly, to pour ourselves out in sacrificial ways, to call attention to injustice, to hope against hope for a better way, to preach the advent of the Reign of God. And as a part of his human journey, Jesus teaches us how to die….and then live again.
If he experienced hell somewhere along the way, I am thankful. Because most of us will live through hell at some point in time during our lives. And we need to have the hope and assurance that God goes with us…even into hell. Perhaps especially into hell. And back. God pulls us back into life.
There is truly nowhere we can go where we are separated from God…God is present at weddings and births and in fields of dainty flowers, sure. But God is also present in hospital rooms, on the battlefield, in natural disasters, acts of terrorism, unexpected disclosures from loved ones, funerals, divorces. To all of us who have been through hell, we hear these words of good news: Jesus has been there too. And back again.
This is what Paul was talking about in today’s passage in Romans, I think. Paul writes that we are baptized into death with Christ Jesus. What an odd thing to say. He continues to say that we have been buried with Christ and will be raised from the dead, just like Christ, so that we might also walk in newness of life.
Hagar and Ishmael understood what it was like to walk through hell and back again. Tossed aside like trash, these two were cast out into the wilderness and left to die.
UCC pastor the Rev. Dr. Laurinda Hafner paints the scene:
Abraham gives Hagar a little bread and water and throws her out into the desert with her son. In that wilderness the inevitable happens. The bread and the water run out. The young boy Ishmael starts to die of dehydration. Hagar will eventually die too, but Ishmael is going to die first, in her arms. As the crisis approaches, Hagar cannot bear it. Are there more tragically poignant words than hers: "Do not let me look upon the death of my child....Let me not see or hear his dying."
Hagar's suffering, her desolation, pierces my heart. I am a mother – in fact, I'm the mother of a 13-year-old who is probably just about the age of Ishmael. I simply cannot bear the suffering of Hagar. Hagar cannot bear it, either: so the scriptures tell us she carefully lays her child under a bush and sits down about a bowshot away, so she doesn't have to hear her boy cry or see him die.
A bowshot away. As I was preparing for this message, I became interested in what would constitute the distance of a bowshot - it would have to be some distance, for a mother's ears are pretty keenly tuned to her child's cry. Before I had my own child I used to marvel at how mothers could hear their children crying in the soundproof nursery in the basement of the church while they were on the second floor singing hymns in the sanctuary. Hagar's going to have to go some distance to not hear through a mother's ears the cry of her dying son.
Can you see the hellish scene in your mind’s eye? A mother, distancing herself from her dying child because she cannot bear to see or hear his cries? She is powerless to save him. And so Hagar does the only thing left to do. She weeps.
There is power in the image of her tears leaking down into the dry desert land. In a dry and desolate place where the water has run out, this mother is still able to drip tears into the dry air. And as she cries a voice comes to her from the heavens. Though Hagar distanced herself and could no longer her hear son’s cries, God still hears his cries. When Hagar opens her tear-blurried eyes, she sees a well of water. Has it been there the whole time? Hagar returns to her son, lifts him from his misery, and gives him cool water to revive his body and spirit. Sustained and comforted, the pair – mother and son – walk away from hell. They move on, never to return. The boy grows into a man. He learns to hunt – to take care of himself and his mother. He marries. Becomes a father. And the promise given to Abraham, that he will become a great nation, is fulfilled in unexpected ways.
Story after story in our sacred texts follow this same cycle. Death and rebirth. A descent into hell and the return. I am always moved when I watch the film at the Flint Hills Discovery Center and the narrator explains that the four seasons on the prairie are death, fire, rebirth, and growth.
I find myself wondering….what new and amazing things could happen if we would allow old things to die away with dignity? Not to glorify death or suffering, but to simply realize that it is a part of living. And that death is always followed, in some way or another, by new life and growth.
Earlier this week the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled that the Washington Redskins can no longer hold a trademark on their team name. As a side note: this major civil rights victory was partially brought about by our sisters and brothers in the Central Atlantic Conference of the UCC who voted unanimously to urge their 40,000 members to boycott the Redskins.
Imagine what a powerful thing it would have been to see the spokeperson for the team stand up and say something like this, “We applaud the ruling of the US Trademark Board. We recognize that the time has come for us to hold a funeral for this offensive name. We look forward to rebirth under a new name.”
Wouldn’t that have been cool? Alas, that did not happen. But we all know it’s coming at some point. The days of unapologetically using racially disparaging terms are over, thanks be to God. The funeral is only a matter of time. And after that death will come new life.
Sometimes things die out because they are wrong, unjust, unfair. We moved as a nation to a point where we understood that miscegenation laws were wrong. We came to understand that love is love, regardless of race or ethnicity. And we are now moving towards a day where we can say the same thing about same-sex love. I know you will gladly join me in a grand and mighty funeral procession when the day comes that unjust laws preventing marriage among loving adults are laid to rest.
Of course, things don’t always die because they’re something wrong with them. Earlier this week I sent a letter to our former church in Bloomington requesting a letter of transfer for our membership. I was surprised at the sudden grief I felt writing that note. It seemed so final. I joined that church nine years ago…and now it’s over. We’re moving on to a new life in a new place. Sometimes funerals happen just because we are moving on to new adventures.
And sometimes, of course, things die out simply because their time is past. There’s nothing bad about them, per se, but it’s just time for them to cease or take a rest. This is an area where, strangely, we often don’t do a great job in Christian churches. We have a hard time letting go. We want things to continue on just because they’ve always been that way. We find it difficult to remember that sometimes it’s a good thing to say, “That’s been a good ministry, but it’s time to have a memorial service for it and see what’s next.” We need to let go of the old and trust that new life is waiting around the corner. This is hard to do.
Death, fire, rebirth, growth. Notice that death has to come first. We see in the cycle of the great prairie that the burning fires in the spring radically alter the landscape and give birth to new ecosystems. The great grasses that have nurtured livestock for centuries on these hills cannot grow without the fire that comes each spring at human hands. We have to be willing to say goodbye, to risk the fire, in order to move towards rebirth and growth.
This is scary stuff. It’s hard to let go. It’s hard to subject ourselves to radical change. And yet I am reminded of those words that Christians have been saying for centuries, Jesus Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
If we seek to follow the one who did all of that…suffered, died, was buried, descended into hell, and rose again….is there any limit to what we can survive? Is there any limit to the new life that is waiting to burst forth into our world? I’d say there is not. Thank you, Jesus, for going ahead of us into hell…and back.