Hell is Real

This was the homily from this week’s worship service, delivered by Hugh Hollowell. The text was from Matthew 16:13-20.

Having grown up on a farm, surrounded by farmers and spending countless nights rounding up the cows that got out because the fence was loose, I know a little bit about fences and, more specifically, gates.

Gates are funny things – they either keep things out or they keep things in. And if they do that, if they keep things out or keep things in, then they are doing their job.

In this passage, Jesus says, “…I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”

How does a gate prevail?

The definition of prevail is “to be victorious”. In other words, to win. How do gates win?

Gates win when they are doing their job – when they keep things out or in.

And Jesus says the gates of hell will not win when they are confronted by the church.

You get that? The gates of hell won’t keep the church out.

Jesus built his church, and the gates of hell won’t stand up to the church.

Jesus wants us to go to hell.

To invade hell, actually.

Nowadays, it is fashionable for pastors to say they don’t believe in Hell. But not me. I am convinced – Hell is real.

I once met with a homeless woman whose infant son had been raped. That family was in the middle of hell. Or the man whose addiction cost him his family, his job and his home. He is in hell.

Because hell is where we find the broken-hearted. Hell is where the addict is. Hell is where the hopeless are. Hell is where people go when they have nowhere else to go. Hell is filled with crushed dreams and loneliness and fear. Because hell is real.

The Jesus I know calls us to go to hell itself, to bust through the gates and to rescue the people trapped there. To spread the word that there is a new way to live and a new hope for humanity and that the way the world is isn’t the way the world has to be.

When we bust down the gates of hell, we will be bringing food for the hungry, clothing for the naked and good news for the ones who mourn.

Jesus has built his church – now it is up to us to storm the gates of hell. They need us there.


The God who waits on us

This was the homily from this week’s worship service, delivered by Hugh Hollowell. The text was from Matthew 14:13-21.

If you grew up in church, you probably know this story really well. And honestly, that’s a problem.

Because with stories we know really well – like this one – we edit the stories in our head. We have heard them told so many times, and every time it is told, it comes with a preacher or a Sunday School teacher who tells you, “The important part is X”. So when we remember the story, we focus on X, and edit out the other parts.

Like in this story – we remember there wasn’t enough food. We remember that there was bread and fish. We remember that there was a miracle, and everyone was fed.

And because we remember the story that way, the next time we encounter there not being enough food, we think, “Oh, I know this story. What we need is a miracle!”

But that isn’t what the story says. It says that when the disciples told Jesus there were people who were hungry, Jesus said, “Give them something to eat.”

That was Jesus’ plan – share your food. If the people are hungry, feed them.

It was only when what the disciples had to offer wasn’t enough that a miracle was needed.

But that really isn’t where we are today. Today, we say to Jesus, “They are hungry.” And Jesus still tells us, “Give them something to eat.”

But now, instead of only having fish and bread, we live in a country where we throw away 40% of all our food. Where, on the remaining 60% of the food, more than one in three of us are obese. We live in a country where people are routinely dying of over-nutrition, while others starve.

The problem with serving a God who performs miracles is that we expect them, and we respond to the pain of the world by waiting on a miracle.

People are hungry, and Jesus tells us to feed them. And this time, we have the food – we just need to do the self-criticism and hard work necessary to do it.

God sees the pain of the world

just like we do.

God hears the prayers of the brokenhearted

and the cries of the oppressed.

God is paying attention

and God is faithful.

God has a plan.

God has a plan to solve hunger

to fill the bellies of dying children

to right the wrongs that have been perpetrated

to recognize those who have been neglected.

God has a plan. God’s plan is us.

See, it is not we who wait on God to act, but God who waits on us.

Two kinds of kingdoms

This was the homily from this week’s worship service, delivered by Hugh Hollowell. The text was from Ezekiel 17:22-23 and Matthew 13:31-32

Sometimes, things are hard to describe. Imagine what it would be like to describe a kiss to someone who had never been kissed. Or describing the taste of bacon to someone who had never eaten pork.

That is Jesus’ problem here in the second passage we just read – he is trying to describe something awesome to people who have never experienced it, and so he is reduced to using metaphors.

The Kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like a mustard seed.

Oh. Well thanks, Jesus. That clears it all up.

OK, Jesus. We give. How is it like a mustard seed?

In the story Jesus tells here, where the Kingdom of God is compared to a mustard seed, there are several things going on you have to know for this to make sense.

The first is that there is a guy planting mustard seeds. That just did not happen – at least, not usually. See, mustard grows like crazy. It the book of Leviticus prohibited the planting of two kinds of seeds in the same field, and mustard grows like crazy and takes over the whole garden. So, if you planted mustard on one row and beans on the next row, then the mustard would eventually work its way into the beans, and your field would be unclean.

So, you kept mustard over in its own place, and you did not have to plant it but once, because it went crazy after that.

So, right off the bat, here we have Jesus saying the Kingdom of God is like a guy who is making his field unclean.


And then, Jesus says that the mustard seed, which is very small, grows into a huge, giant… shrub. And that shrub – that is what the Kingdom is like.

A shrub.

See, in the first reading today, the kingdom of God was compared to a cedar tree. For the folks of that time, a cedar was the tallest tree they knew of.

Imagine, instead of a cedar, we say “redwood” or “sequoia”. A tall huge, tree. And according to Ezekial, God is going to plant a cedar on top of the tallest mountain, and that cedar represents the Kingdom.

Majestic. Powerful. Mighty. Strong.

But Jesus says Ezekiel was wrong.

The Kingdom, Jesus says, begins with the unclean, and ends not with a majestic tree on a mountain proclaiming greatness to all who see it, but instead with a much more modest weed that at best grows into a small shrub that shelters the defenseless birds in its shade.

The Kingdom is coming, Jesus proclaims. But it doesn’t look like you think it will.

A lot of time and money and effort has been spent trying to bring about the Kingdom as envisioned by Ezekiel. A kingdom that proclaims greatness and power and might. Jesus invites us to another Kingdom, however – one that is nothing special to look at, but spreads like wildfire and shelters the defenseless.

The question before us is simply this: “Which Kingdom do we wish to be part of? And which Kingdom do we want to help build?”

Bad things happen.

This was the homily from this week’s worship service, delivered by Hugh Hollowell. The text was from Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

The Rabbi Harold Kushner says that all conversations about God either start with, or end with, the question: “Why do bad things happen to good people.”

Why, indeed.

The fundamentalist Christianity of my youth would answer that there are no good people, that the question is not why do some folks have it bad, but why are we not all burning in hellfire, because of our inherent unworthiness next to God’s righteousness.

That was not very helpful, you know?

I know a woman who spent her whole life working in a rural Mississippi school, teaching rural country kids to read. On the weekends, she taught Sunday School and in the summers, ran her church’s Vacation Bible School. She and her husband personally helped at least a dozen kids to go to college. The woman was a saint.

She was retired and serving as volunteer librarian for her small town when she found out she had cancer. The phones in this small town lit up, spreading the news that Martha was sick with the cancer, and that the family was asking for prayer.

The town prayed. All five churches in the town held prayer vigils. Every Sunday school class in each of those five churches put her on their prayer list. I bet it is safe to say that over the next six weeks or so, there were thousands of prayers for Martha.

But Martha died. Her last few days were horrible, as she coughed up blood and was drugged beyond sensibility on morphine to make the pain bearable.

As deaths go, that one sucked.  Not sure where our prayers helped.

And then there is a guy I know, who has impregnated six different women, taken responsibility for none of them, who is a crack addict, who is always stealing other peoples things, who defrauds the government and churches… and he is doing fine. He seems to thrive, actually. If I could pick who would get afflicted by cancer, this guy would be a candidate, for sure.

But no, he keeps rocking along, while good folks like Martha die horrible deaths.

And anyone with sense thinks this is sorta jacked up.

Why do people get raped? Why do people end up homeless? Why do good people lose the job they desperately need to feed their families?

Why, why, why?

I used to scream at God about this. I used to get so mad at God – I mean, God is in charge, right? God has a plan, right? Is this the plan? If so, it is a pretty stupid plan.

Then I read this parable.

In the parable, Jesus tells a story about a farmer who plants good seed, but an enemy comes at night and plants weeds. When the weeds show up, the workers want to pull them up, but the farmer says no, because if you pull them up, it will hurt the wheat. So they let them grow, and get rid of the weeds at harvest time.

One thing you probably ought to know is that this was no ordinary weed. It was a weed called Darnel, and it looks a lot like wheat while it is growing. In other words, it is hard to tell it’s a weed. It also was poisonous and had a pretty intense root system that wrapped itself around the roots of whatever was nearby, so if you pulled up the Darnel, it would pull up whatever was around it – in this case, the wheat.

OK, make sense now?  Maybe not. But you are not alone. It made no sense to the disciples, either.

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

So, Jesus is saying, “God has a plan. There is an enemy to God’s plan, who seeks to disrupt it. The weeds are mixed in with the wheat, and to pull the weeds means I hurt the wheat. But one day, the harvest happens. Then, the weeds will be destroyed and the wheat harvested and God’s plan will be fulfilled. ”

In other words, I hear in this that God is not yet completely in control. God has enemies that disrupt God’s plan. So right now, God’s plan is not fully realized. But one day, it will be.

And until then, we have each other.

Wasteful love

This was the homily from this week’s worship service, delivered by Hugh Hollowell. The text was from Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23

I grew up on a farm.

Well, a has-been farm. By the time I was born, we didn’t depend on the crops for our living. Dad worked in town, and so we just had a huge garden, and some chickens and pigs and goats.

Because ours was a farming community, and because Dad worked in town, I spent a lot of my time with farmers, and retired farmers. People who had spent their whole life planting seeds and then waiting to see if this year they would earn a living. To see if this year there would be money to pay the bills, if this year there would be new clothes for the kids, money to provide a Christmas.

These were people who were drop dead serious about farming. They farmed as if their life depended on it. Because, in lots of ways, it did.

So, the one thing you did not do was waste seed.

Every year, you would hold back a part of the crop to use as seed next year. That seed was the means to your whole livelihood. Every dream you had about the future was tied up in that seed. It was precious.

The ground was no less important than the seed. You had to bust it up, then run the cultivator over it, and then use the harrow to smooth the clods. Then, and only then, when the ground was at its most perfect, did you risk putting your precious seed into it. To do less would be wasteful.

So, when Jesus tells the story of the planter who scatters his seeds all over the place, my first thought is that this planter is a really bad farmer. He is risking his future on bad soil, and he is wasting his seed.

See, if you only have so much seed, you can’t take chances on the soil.  You only bet on the sure thing.

But this planter doesn’t think that way. This planter takes chances. This planter is willing to risk it. This planter is almost promiscuous with his seed, scattering it here and there. Maybe it will grow in the rocks. Maybe it will sprout on the path.  To not take a chance is to not ever know.

In the church I grew up in, I always heard this passage as an evangelism text. “You share the word, and those that are ready will snatch it up!” In the way they told the story, they wanted to make it a story about the ground.

But Jesus says it is a story about a sower – a planter. In other words, Jesus is saying, watch what the planter does in the text.

The planter takes risks on all sorts of ground. The planter is reckless and has hope that the seed will sprout on the rocks, on the path, in the thorns. The planter has hope, and the planter is generous.

That is what God is like, and what we are called to be like, by imitating Jesus.

When we follow the way that Jesus modeled for us, instead of only sharing our love and our hope with the people that are worth it, we love generously. We love hopefully, because we have high hopes that the love we share in the bad places will take root and sprout and bear something.

So instead of looking for the right kind of soil, we can focus on sharing love instead. Because unlike seed, there is enough love for everyone.

Imitating Jesus

This was the homily from this week’s worship service, delivered by Hugh Hollowell. The text was from from Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Children like to pretend to be adults. It’s one of the ways we learn how to be adults.

Children play with baby dolls, and pretend to be parents. Or they play fireman or cops and robbers or they play at their Fisher-Price kitchen with the plastic pots and pans. When I was a kid, my best friend was a guy named Paul, and I had stark blonde hair and Paul had black hair, so we would play the Dukes of Hazard, and I always had to be Bo Duke, because Bo had blonde hair.

The problem was, Bo was a little dense, so I always wanted to be Luke, his smarter, craftier cousin. Paul wouldn’t hear of it, though, because he had to be Luke, since Luke had dark hair. Later, it occurred to me that we could pretend to have a car, girlfriends and be 20 years older, but couldn’t pretend to have a different hair color. But by the time I figured that out, we no longer played together.

But pretending, imitating, that is all part of what it means to grow up, to mature, to learn.

In the passage I just read, Jesus says that this generation is like children that say ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ In their day, there would be circle dances of men at weddings, who danced to flute music, and women would act as professional mourners at funerals. So, Jesus is describing children who are pretending to do these things – the same way I would play church as a kid, complete with hymns and the offering plate – and the other children are not playing the game right. “We played the flute, but you did not dance!” “Play fair!”

This passage is a bit confusing, but it is really about imitating. About learning.

Jesus says his yoke is easy, and his burden is light.

If you plow a field with oxen, you really need two oxen – one of them is the experienced ox, and the other is the new one. They were strapped to each other with a device called a yoke. You have seen pictures of one – it looks like an upside down W. Because they were strapped to each other, the old ox taught the new ox how to plow.

The ancient Rabbi’s or teachers all taught different things. If you became a student of theirs, you attached yourself to the Rabbi, and did what he did. His teaching was his yoke, because you were strapping yourself to the Rabbi.

We don’t have Rabbi’s wandering around anymore, but we still strap ourselves to things. We see the stars on TV, with their bling and all, and we pretend to be like that, with our new cars and fancy clothes, buying things we cannot afford to impress people we do not like.

We go to the movies and see the bad guys get beat up by the good guys, and so we pretend we are like the good guys, looking for someone to beat up. The next thing you know, we have been in Iraq for 14 years.

We can’t help but to imitate someone – it is how we humans are. We learn by imitating. Jesus wants to teach us another way than the ways the world wants us to strap ourselves to. Jesus tells us his yoke, his way, is lighter. Not carrying all the baggage, the hatred, the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ that the powers that be try to get us to buy into that just weighs us down.

Instead, Jesus invites us to strap ourselves to him, to learn to live a life based on love and sacrifice.