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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 12, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 16:19-31 and Jonah 4:1-11
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Imagine that you lived along the coast of what is now Humboldt County, say a thousand years ago. In the direction of the rising sun, there are trees that tower so tall they seem to touch the sky. You know they don’t, since you’ve been further east and climbed mountains taller than the trees and you haven’t touched the sky, but the trees are still impressive. When you stand at the water’s edge, you look out across a vast ocean. At the end of the day, you can watch the sun dip down across the edge of the ocean. You’ve traced its path, rising from behind the great trees arching across the sky, and descending down to the water’s edge, down to where the dome of the sky comes down to the earth.
Through your own observations (and maybe through the stories you’ve been told since your childhood), a model of the cosmos begins to emerge. The ground and the mountains and the lakes and the oceans are like a table, lumpy in some places and wet in others. Above is a dome on which hang the stars, the moon, and the sun. Water sometimes comes out of the sky, so there must be waters beyond the dome. And there must be something under the earth that holds it up, some sort of foundation. And, if you believe that there is a god or gods who seem to be controlling the capriciousness of life, they must live beyond the dome or under the earth (or people would have seen them by now).
I don’t know what sort of diagram of the cosmos a person who lived north of us between the ocean and the trees a thousand years ago would have drawn, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was something like what I’ve described. What I’ve described is what a Jew or Christian or Muslim of a thousand years ago would have drawn, would have understood. It would have been the cosmology they would have held. Well, it would have been the basics of it. Muslim cosmology of that time would have been more complex, with seven heavenly domes, one arching over the next, all over the earth. And there would have been seven earths. But the basic model was considered sound across these faith traditions.
The cover art on your announcement folder is a drawing of this model. You’ll notice scriptural references from the Christian Bible – both the Old and New Testament references – to support this cosmology. This view of the cosmos is typically called a three-tiered cosmology. The underworld is below; the earth is in the middle; and the heavens (or heaven) are above.
In her book, Grounded, Diana Butler Bass wrote about this cosmology: “Not so long ago, believers confidently asserted that … [w]e occupied a three-tiered universe, with heaven above, where God lived; the world below, where we lived; and the underworld, where we feared we might go after death. The church mediated the space between heaven and earth, acting as a kind of holy elevator, wherein God sent down divine directions and, if we obeyed the directives, we would go up – eventually – to live in heaven forever and avoid the terrors below. Stories and sermons taught us that God occupied the high places, looking over the world and caring for it from afar, occasionally interrupting the course of human affairs with some miraculous reminder of divine power. Those same tales emphasized the gap between worldly places and the holy mountains, between the creation and an Almighty Creator. Religious authorities mediated the gap, explaining right doctrine and holy living. If you wanted to live with God forever in heaven, then you listened to them, believed and obeyed.”
Jesus was born into a world that believed this three-tiered cosmos was reality. God was in heaven, and hell … well hell is more complicated. Brian McLaren writes, “The idea of hell entered Jewish thought rather late. In Jesus’ day, as in our own, more traditional Jews … had little to say about the afterlife … Their focus was on this life and on how to be good and faithful human beings within it. Other Jews … had welcomed ideas on the afterlife from neighboring cultures and religions.
“To the north and east in Mesopotamia, people believed that the souls of the dead migrated to an underworld whose geography resembled an ancient walled city. Good and evil, high-born and lowly, all descended to this shadowy, scary, dark, inescapable realm. For the Egyptians to the south, the newly departed faced a ritual trial of judgment. Bad people who failed the test were then devoured by a crocodile-headed deity, and good people who passed the test settled in the land beyond the sunset.
“To the west, the Greeks had a more elaborate schema. Although there were many permutations, in general, souls were sorted into four groups at death: the holy and heroic, the indeterminate, the curably evil, and the incurably evil. The curably evil went to Tartarus where they would experience eternal conscious torment. The holy and heroic were admitted to the Elysian Fields, a place of joy and peace. Those in between might be sent back to Earth for multiple reincarnations until they could be properly sorted for shipment to Tartarus or the Elysian Fields.
“Then there were the Persian Zoroastrians to the east. In Zoroastrianism, the recently departed souls would be judged by two angels, Rashnu and Mithra. The worthy would be welcomed into the Zoroastrian version of heaven. The unworthy would be banished to the realm of the Satanic figure Ahriman – their version of hell.
“A large number of Jews had been exiles in the Persian empire in the sixth century BC, and the Persians ruled over the Jews for about 150 years after they returned to rebuild Jerusalem. After that, the Greeks ruled and tried to impose their culture and religion. So it’s not surprising that many Jews adopted a mix of Persian and Greek ideas of the afterlife. For many of them, the heaven-bound could be easily identified. They were religiously knowledgeable and observant, socially respected, economically prosperous, and healthy in body … all signs of an upright life today that would be rewarded after death. The hell-bound were just as easily identified: uninformed about religious lore, careless about religious rules, socially suspect, economically poor, and physically sick or disabled … signs of a sinful, undisciplined life now that would be further punished later.”
The gospels certainly lead us to believe that Jesus thought there was an afterlife. The story of the rich man and Lazarus includes an afterlife – for both the rich man and the poor man. But we may have missed how scandalous the story is. “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and …”
Well, conventional theology would have said that he, the poor man, should have ended up in eternal torment and that the rich man would end up at Abraham’s bosom. But that’s not how Jesus tells the story. No, the roles are reversed.
In Jesus’ theology, “Heaven’s gates are opened wide for the poor and destitute who shared in few of life’s blessings; the sinners, the sick, and the homeless who felt superior to nobody and who therefore appreciated God’s grace and forgiveness all the more; even the prostitutes and tax collectors. Imagine how this overturning of the conventional understanding of hell must have shocked everyone – multitudes and religious elites alike.
“Again and again, Jesus took conventional language and imagery for hell and reversed it. We might say he wasn’t so much teaching about hell and he was un-teaching about hell. In so doing, he wasn’t simply arguing for a different understanding of the afterlife. He was doing something far more important and radical: proclaiming a transformative vision of God. God is not the one who punishes some with poverty and sickness, nor is God the one who favors the rich and righteous. God is the one who loves everyone, including the people the rest of us think don’t count. Those fire-and-brimstone passages that countless preachers have used to scare people about hell, it turns out, weren’t intended to teach us about hell: Jesus used the language of hell to teach us a radical new vision of God!”
All that said, Jesus was still using the conventional cosmology. But for me, the old, three-tiered cosmology has crumbled. Copernicus helped start that crumbling by describing a model that had the sun at the center with the earth revolving around it, rather than the sun going around the earth. Then we got airplanes and we didn’t see God in the clouds. And we sent spaceships beyond the earth, and we didn’t find heaven. And, it turns out, the earth doesn’t just revolve around the sun. The sun is moving through space, so the earth is moving in a spiral, a vortex. Take a look at the first minute of this video.
So, since the old cosmology doesn’t work anymore, where is God? God isn’t up there in heaven (because heaven isn’t “up there). No, God isn’t up there. God is with and within. God is with and within each one of us and with and within all of creation. And each one of us and all of creation is with and within God.
But what about heaven and hell?
As far as heaven goes, the old three-tiered model tells us that heaven is up and God is in heaven. Maybe rather than saying that God is where heaven is, we should be saying that heaven is where God is. That is, heaven is with and within each one of us and with and within all of creation. And each one of us and all of creation is within heaven. So heaven is where (or maybe better, heaven is when) the hungry are fed and the thirsty have clean water to drink and the stranger is welcomed and the prisoner is seen and the ill are healed.
Bass points out that “the book of Revelation is not a heavenly escape story. Instead, it tells the opposite tale. We do not go to heaven. Heaven comes to us. The end of history is not destruction; rather, its end is sacred restoration. When sin and evil pass away, a holy city descends to us …”
As for hell – well, it’s moved in right next door, too. If World War II taught us anything, between the Holocaust and the Bomb, we learned “that we are fully capable of creating the terrors of hell right here and no longer need a lake of fire to prove the existence of evil.”
The purpose of the fire and brimstone language of Jesus “was to wake up complacent people, to warn them of the danger of their current path, and to challenge them to change – using the strongest language and imagery available. As in the ancient story of Jonah, God’s intent was not to destroy but to save. Neither a great big fish nor a great big fire gets the last word, but rather God’s great big love and grace.
“Sadly, many religious people still use the imagery of hell more in the conventional way Jesus sought to reverse. Like Jonah, they seem disappointed that God’s grace might get the final word. If more of us would reexamine this fascinating dimension of Jesus’ teaching and come to a deeper understanding of it, we would see what a courageous, subversive, and fascinating leader he was, point us to a radically different way of seeing God, life, and being alive.”
Now, as we move into a time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… a time when someone confronted you with a mistake or fault and you didn’t respond well; or
… the parable of the rich man and Lazarus ; or
… the image of the rich man walking by Lazarus in the gutter and ask God if you are stepping over anyone in life.
 Diana Butler Bass, Grounded (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 4.
 Ibid, 113.
 Watch a minute or two of this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jHsq36_NTU&spfreload=10.
 Bass, op. cit., 269.
 Ibid, 6.
 McLaren, op. cit., 114.