Text: Luke 6: 20-26
Sermon Title: The World Series is Done, Hell Freezes Over, Saints Rejoice
Preacher: J. Michael Smith
Location and Date: Mattoon First United Methodist, Mattoon, IL, November 6, 2016
There are too many subjects I want to fit into this sermon this morning! It’s All Saints’ Sunday, so I want to talk some about that. Then there is the scripture lesson for today. It’s a tough one and it needs a little explaining: especially the pessimistic parts about how people who laugh now will soon weep, people who are well fed will soon go hungry, and people who are highly respected are about to be humiliated. Third, the Chicago Cubs have just won the World Series, and as a life-long Cubs’ fan, I cannot resist taking a swing at that story. Fourth, I also want to say a word today about “hell.” Folks have been saying for decades that when the Cubs won the World Series it would cause hell to freeze over. The pulpit seems as good a place as any to discuss the implications of hell freezing over. And fifth, speaking of hell, we still have two more days to go before this election is over.
So you are invited to meander with me as I move through these five topics…and we shall discover whether a word of good news can be found in their juxtaposition.
Let’s start with the World Series. The Cubs won a baseball game on Wednesday night. It was a typical Cubs game: they made 3 errors, botched a bunt with a runner on third, stranded runners in scoring position eight times, had a pitcher throw a wild pitch so awful that two runs scored before the catcher could chase down the ball, struggled over the two bone-headed pitching changes the manager made, and blew a 5-1 lead. The game took an excruciating, nerve racking four hours and 30 minutes to play. Somehow the Cubs managed to win the game, as they occasionally have won games like that, over the last century.
But this ordinary-Cub game was the seventh and deciding game of the World Series. For the first 36 hours I was lost in my own feelings. I had idolized the Cubs by the time I was 5 years old. I’d watch them (usually lose) on WGN television in the afternoons, then I would go out in my yard with a whiffle ball and bat. In my playful imagination I would replay the game, and with my assistance, the Cubs would always win.
As I grew older, the team became harder to idolize, especially after the seasons of 1969, 1984, and 2003. But idolism was transcended by love. And the Cubs required a lot of love if you were going to stick with them. There was always a sadness to being a Cub fan: especially when heroes like Ernie Banks and Ron Santo died without ever getting to throw out the first pitch of a World Series game.
And so it was that I retreated into myself for the first 36 hours, to absorb the astonishing news that the Cubs were world champs. But by Friday morning it was time to link up with the rest of the world. The authorities set Friday morning for a parade (through Chicago) and a rally (at Grant Park) to celebrate the World Series victory. And behold, 5 million people showed up, the seventh largest gathering in human history, the largest gathering ever in the history of the United States.
And then I noticed another thing happening: sportscasters (not at all Cub fans) started referring to Wednesday night’s ( “Cubs-are-about-to-botch” it) game as one of the greatest of all time. And then I came across another news item: people were writing on the Wrigley Field wall (off Sheffield Avenue) the names of all the Cub fans who never lived long enough to see THE DAY.
When I opened Facebook, hundreds of people were remembering deceased relatives who were born, lived a full life, and died without ever seeing the Cubs win the World Series. It was like Memorial Day and All Saints’ Day all rolled into one. I was feeling a bit relieved that my daughters did not need to post on their Facebook, “wish dad could have lived to see this.” My grandfather was only four months old when the Cubs last won the World Series. My grandson is only a few months old now. That makes 5 generations between championships.
All these facts leave me wondering: How could this one game trigger the largest gathering of human beings in U.S. history. How could this one not-very-well-played game turn into an impromptu remembrance of hundreds of thousands of people who are deceased? How is it possible for an ordinary event, person, or thing to become so inextricably intertwined with greatness? We’ll get back to that at the end of the sermon.
When I was a little kid, I used to talk, each year, about how the Cubs were going to win the World Series that year. And the Cardinal fans, (there were always so many of them around,) would correct me. They would tell me that, no, the Cubs were not going to win the World Series until hell freezes over. Sometimes Cardinal fans would tell me that the Cubs don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. Other times they would tell me that it would be a cold day in hell before the Cubs won it all. And if I met the occasional atheist Cardinal fan, they would just say, “Yeah, the Cubs will win…when pigs fly.” So if my Christian Cardinal fan friends and relatives are to be trusted, that means that since we were here in church last Sunday hell must have frozen over.
Perhaps we preachers ought to address the implications of that. It is, after all, a very theological subject. The ordinary Christian (admittedly, not the Bible) would define hell as the place where we go for eternity in order to face the unpleasant consequences of our bad behavior or our lack of faith here on earth. In popular opinion, hell is filled with fire, and it hurts because it burns, and it stinks, and it’s nerve wracking noisy, and all your neighbors are mean and malicious, and it never ends, and everyone there regrets that they didn’t go to church more often.
So now that hell has now apparently frozen over, it’s time to ponder whether everyone there is going to get a break. Are there times when hell may not be permanent? I’ll get back to that question at the end of the sermon.
This brings me to the third piece of today’s sermon, speaking of hell, even though we only have two more days of electioneering, it appears that the fever of hatred and contempt is going to go right on rising no matter how the vote count goes. American political discourse has become a hell on earth. Only 59% of Americans believe in a literal hell, according to a recent survey. But if you let me take a poll, I’d bet that 110% of Americans believe that this election is hell on earth. It has come to symbolize the evil that has infected our political process. Is there any hope that this hell will soon freeze over? I’ll get back to that question at the end of this sermon.
The fourth piece of today’s sermon comes from the scripture for the day: Luke 6. The scripture today is a bit of a shocker. It starts out nice enough, before it turns nasty. The poor will at last see their fortunes improve. The hungry will be filled. Those who weep will find their tears turned into laughter, and those who are hated will at last be rewarded for their troubles. The first half of his monologue makes us think what a nice guy Jesus is. But then he turns a corner and it get ugly. “You who are having fun, you’ll soon be in tears of grief,” he says. If you need refrigerators and cupboards and pantries and freezers for all your food, days of famine are coming. If everyone thinks highly of you, well…the higher they hold you the farther you’re going to fall.
Why does Jesus make a point of saying that what’s happening now isn’t going to keep happening? Why is he emphasizing that everything in life is transitory, the good and the bad? Why is Jesus trying to convince us that we don’t know as much about tomorrow as we think we do? I’ll get back to that question at the end of my sermon.
Then fifth: today is All Saints Day. From the beginning of the Christian church, people in the church felt a closeness to those who had died in the faith: a closeness they could not explain logically. There were those who had already died, but their power and love kept lingering in the lives of church members, growing, staying relevant. Church people are convinced that there faithful Christians should not be forgotten, even though they die. And so it is, in our various ways, that we remember and commemorate the saints who have done on before us. We can sense, in the mystery of how God works, that time itself is deconstructed, and that space is deconstructed, and our separation from our beloved dead is only an illusion. There is a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, praying for us, reminding us, rooting for us. And there steals upon our ears their distant but sure song: that the God of all love and justice can be trusted, and we can be confident, even in the fiercest moments of our battles. So there is this question, is it possible for an ordinary person, an ordinary follower of Christ to be much greater than any of us previously supposed? And this is where we come to the end of the sermon and get back to all our questions.
What appears to be ordinary usually isn’t; what appears to be forever never is, except for the goodness of God
Things are not always what they appear to be. Some people may appear to be lovable losers, but since when do losers draw the seventh largest crowd in human history? Since when does a loser evoke hundreds of thousands of memories of the dead who once blessed our lives? Things are not as they appear to be.
What appears to be a typical Cub game is really not. What appears to be an ordinary forgettable Christian is not…so ordinary…but a life that in fact has been an extraordinary vehicle for God’s love and grace. Things are not always what they appear to be. Those who seem to be dead and gone forever are discovered to be in the midst of a cloud of witnesses blessing us right now. What appears to be sufficient for our lives: food, favor of others, fun, fortune…what appears to be sufficient turns out to be temporary. What appears to be an argument for pessimism (money problems, unrequited love, loneliness, invisibility to others) they all turn out to be nothing much, short term, insignificant in the big picture.
Just when we think the Chicago Cubs will never win the World Series, they actually do, and they do it in a manner that is very Cub-like. Just when we think hell will never freeze over, the suffering suddenly stops, it is time for even God to let go, and life and society is renewed. Just when we think we’ve been totally overrun by political insanity, God will actually bless America by mending our every flaw. Just when we think pigs will never fly, we find out that they don’t have to because the walls we needed them to fly over, the walls that separate us, those walls turn up dismantled, and all this talk about pigs flying isn’t necessary. Just when we think we can never be happy again because our present miseries are overwhelming us, just then God dumps everything over and we are born anew. Just when we think we do not need God, or God’s people, because we are happy just as things are, well fed, well entertained, out of debt…just when we think we don’t need to change anything: our lives, our church, our society…just when we think the status quo is quite fine, the status quo disappears like thin smoke on a windy day. Just when we think we shall never see our loved ones again, we get word that they are going from strength to strength in the service of God’s greater kingdom, and we shall hope to join them someday, and in the strange way God has arranged reality, they are closer to us even today than we have imagined.
This is a season of wonder: by the powers of God the gates of hell shall not prevail against us. This is a season of wonder: the Chicago Cubs winning it all, the saints of yesterday swelling their mighty chorus of praise and joy, the citizens of earth freed at last from shackles and fears of hunger, sorrow, and poverty. The nation healed from poisonous politics, and bigots and bullies, and anger and angst. This is a season for people of faith, who see what others do not see, this is the season for people of faith to sing to God those words that only people of imagination can voice.