July 16 | “A Way Out of Hell”





“A Way Out of Hell” 
Texts: Exodus 21:33-36; Matthew 5:23-24
Speaker: Joel Miller

There’s a scene from the movie Gandhi that’s stuck with me since I first saw it.  Mohandas Gandhi was an attorney from India during British colonial rule.  He found a basis for nonviolent philosophy in his Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita.  He was also deeply influenced by the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, which he thought might be worth trying out on these British Christians occupying his country.  He became a leader of the Indian National Congress, even as he traded in his comfortable lifestyle and Western attire for homespun cloth and simple food produced in a self-sufficient community.  He developed a vision of a free India that honored religious pluralism and cultural diversity. Through nonviolent public campaigns and numerous imprisonments, Gandhi led India to independence from Britain in 1947.  But violence broke out between Indian Muslim nationalists, and Hindu Indians.  As he had done several times before, Gandhi went on a hunger strike, pledging not to eat until all Indians would stop attacking each other. 

The scene I’m referring to happens at this point, toward the end of the film, as leaders are gathered around Gandhi’s bedside, his energy depleted from fasting.  They’re telling him the fighting had finally stopped.  Suddenly a wide-eyed man bursts in and begs Gandhi to eat so he can stay alive, but that he himself was going to hell.  Gandhi replies that only God can decide this.  The man insists, saying that he killed a child.  The Muslims had killed his boy, so in his rage he had retaliated.  Gandhi takes in the gravity of this confession and replies to the man: “I know a way out of hell.”  He tells him he must find a child, a child whose parents had been killed in the fighting, and raise the child as his own.  Only it must be a Muslim child, and he must raise the child as a Muslim.  The man staggers backward, and then kneels down at Gandhi’s bed before leaving. (Video clip HERE)

If you haven’t seen the film – or it’s been a while - I highly recommend it.  It’s been the only required family movie night this summer both because I want our girls to know Gandhi’s story, and I saw this Sunday coming and needed to brush up on the context for this scene.  Who says guys can’t multi-task?

I don’t know if this encounter actually happened, but it portrays the spirit in which Gandhi approached human failings and the even deeper capacity for redemption.  It’s the same spirit that guided Jesus in his ministry, that led him to say and do what was needed for people to escape their own version of hell.  Like the story Mark told two weeks ago with the rich young ruler, when Jesus replied that if he wanted to have abundant life he should sell all he possessed and give it to the poor.  It would be, certainly, an act of radical charity, but it would also free the young man of what possessed him. 

Or when Jesus replied to a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years, who had spent everything on ineffective health care, who had ventured to reach out and touch Jesus’s cloak and knew instantly she had been healed.  When, after this, she is singled out from the crowd and comes trembling before Jesus, Jesus calls her “daughter” and tells her to go in peace.  “Your faith has made you well,” he says.  Not “my power has made you well,” but, “your faith has made you well.” The woman is restored not just to physical health, but to a sense of self-worth and kin-ship, a beloved daughter of the Creator. 

You don’t have to believe in a hell of eternal conscious perpetual torture as punishment for wrong belief in order to recognize that life can be hell-ish - when we continually harm others and ourselves.  Or the hell of being caught in a family system that asks one to adapt to the continuous harmful behavior of others.

I don’t think that’s what that “Hell is Real” sign on I-71 south thinks it’s saying, but it does get partial credit for confident use of metaphor.  Plus it makes a pretty great soccer rivalry name between the Crew and FC Cincinnati.  
This is not a sermon about hell, but it is, I suppose, a sermon about a way out of hell.  

The opposite of the hell of addiction, of lying to oneself and others, of the cycle of suffering that – as folks have shared these past weeks - gets passed down from one generation to the next…  The opposite of this hell, according to the 12 Steps, is making amends.

After admitting to powerlessness, step 1; after turning over control to a higher power, steps 2 and 3; after doing internal work and recognizing ones shortcomings, steps 4-7, we get to Step 8:

Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

And Step 9:

Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

In the Sermon on the Mount there’s a brief statement that sounds a lot like steps 8 and 9.  Matthew 5:23-24: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your sister or brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  It’s a profoundly relational view of the meaning of worship.  The purpose of ritual and religious practice is ultimately about right relationship, which could include making amends. 

Since I had hell on my mind I noticed that the statement right before this is a caution about how broken relationships can lead to hell. Or, more precisely, Gehenna, the Greek word often translated hell that originally referred to the valley outside Jerusalem where folks would burn their trash - animal carcasses and such.  Matthew 5:22: “But I say to you that if you are angry with your sister or brother, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a sister or brother, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the fires of Gehenna.” 

In other words:  If your relational life is starting to look like a dumpster fire, Matthew 5:22, then verses 23-24, rather than writing a bigger check to the church to assuage your guilt, first go make things right with the people you’ve hurt.  Then deposit your big check to the church!

The practice of making amends is woven throughout scripture, including the oldest parts of the Torah, Exodus 20-23.  It’s pretty practical stuff addressing the overarching commandment of being a good neighbor.  If you dig a pit and leave it open and somebody’s ox falls in and dies, that’s on you.  Just saying you’re sorry doesn’t cut it.  You need to pay the owner the value of the dead ox.  And if your ox gores your neighbor’s ox, well, ox are gonna ox, so you split the loss evenly between you.  But if your ox keeps goring other oxes and you don’t do anything to prevent it - build a fence, cut off the horns, etc - that’s on you.  You’ve got to make restitution, make amends to set things right.

Step 8:  Made a list of all persons, and oxes, we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

In the spirit of open and honest conversation, I’ve never done this – the unedited Step 8.  I’ve never made a list of all the persons I’ve harmed.  And when I tried to start a list this past week I got stuck pretty quick.  Depending on the degree of harm, this could be a very short list or a very long list.  And I’m sure I’ve harmed people without being conscious of it.  Maybe I’ve said hurtful things from this very spot.  I’ve likely written a few careless emails over the years.  And I’m pretty sure I cause harm to the nonhuman world just by being a 21st century American. 

It may be clear who and what appears on such a list, or it may not be, which is why I appreciate the second part of this step – “became willing to make amends to them all.”  Willingness to right wrongs can be a whole orientation to life, and it can keep harm from accumulating or festering, especially in one’s closest relationships.  

And sometimes making amends takes place on the collective level.  Like with our regional church conference, Central District Conference, CDC, at our annual meeting last month.  CDC has become known as a conference that affirms all qualified persons for ministry – male, female and nonbinary, queer and straight.  But this wasn’t always the case.  In 1987 the conference pressured Keith Schrag to relinquish his pastoral credentials after he came out as gay.  Essentially, unordaining him.  Keith continued to lead a small fellowship in Ames, Iowa, but without the affirmation and support that other pastors receive.  About a decade ago a couple of us from the CDC ministerial committee met with Keith to hear his story, and this past year the current ministerial committee, which includes our own Robin Walton, initiated a process of making amends, consulting with Keith at every step.  This culminated in a liturgy of lament, repentance, and truth telling during a session of the annual meeting; along with commitments to hearing grievances of others harmed by the church.    It concluded with a reinstatement of Keith’s credentials, which he received graciously, and which brought a large portion of the room to tears. (For more background see this article by Sarah Werner)

Keith has been retired for some years now, and there’s no way to undo the pain of past decades, but this was a public way for the conference to live into repentance and transformation, sort of a reverse confession booth where rather than confessing your sins to the church, the church confesses its sins to you.  Which aligns with step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Our congregation stepped into collective reparative action several years ago as part of our commitments to undoing our addiction to white supremacy.  Our church budget, composed of all our annual pledges, currently includes $15,000 for reparative debt payments, listed under our facilities budget, part of the cost of ownership just like an electric bill.  The funds are split evenly between Indigenous-led and Black-led organizations each year.  We’re hoping to raise that amount to $20,000 in next year’s budget cycle.  As Adam highlighted earlier, this is something of a movement now, and we’re part of the Repair Network across Mennonite Church USA of congregations working at this. 

There are a lot of open questions about how collectives make reparation, make amends.  Who gets to speak for the whole?  What percentage of the community has to agree with what’s being done before it counts as representative?  How does one generation makes amends for the harms of past generations?

Making a list of persons you have personally harmed has its own set of open questions, most of them having to do with how - or whether - the person who has been harmed wishes to engage.  Open questions aren’t intended to have simple answers.  They are questions we live with.

There is an important thread that runs through all these stories – the Hindu man Gandhi charged with raising a Muslim son, Jesus’ teaching to be reconciled before leaving a gift at the altar, CDC’s reinstatement of Keith Schrag’s pastoral credentials, reparative action toward Black and Indigenous folks.  It’s the same thread that runs through the 12 Steps.  We might think of the one who has been harmed as the one who needs healing, but the common thread here is that it’s the one who has done the harm that needs healing, or even a way out of hell.     

And as we’ve said before, we’re all insiders on this story, even if we don’t fall into any of the standard categories of addiction.  The making of amends is what brings us into a fuller participation in the kin-dom of God.  It’s not easy, but it is gospel.