July 4, 2021 Fr. J. Devin Rodgers
Sunday mornings my parents would put my brothers and me in the car and we’d drive North on St. Route 45 to attend church in a neighboring town. Situated along this stretch of roadway, right before you descend a massive hill, known to the locals as “ski slope hill” is an aluminum billboard. Plastered across this sign, in big bold font are the words.
“God has a judgement day coming!”
That’s it. That is all the sign said. There were no advertisements for churches, no phone numbers to call, nor any other practical advice, simply:
“God has a judgement day coming!”
It scared the daylights out of me.
Of course, we don’t have to view judgement day in a negative connotation. In the Nicene creed we state this week after week in worship. “he will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
Yet, there was something judgemental about this judgement day sign, as a child I couldn’t put my finger on it. Looking back decades later it dawned on me why this sign scared me as a child. It wasn’t what the sign was saying, it was what the sign wasn’t saying, but I was even at a young age picking up elsewhere.
From watching cartoons, listening to my friends at school about their own religious upbringing, seeing other road signs, experiencing Christians passing out terrifying tracts at the county fair, the message that culture teaches us about religion is not one of love, but a list of rules that are set and a subsequent debiting and crediting against your soul depending on whether you’re good or bad.
Week after week I passed this sign and was afraid. I remember day dreaming on those rides to church doing an examination of my own conscience.
What did this judgement day look like?
Sometime in the not so distant future that dreaded day would arrive. I pictured a fire and brimstone God, an old man with a scowl on his face. He wore garments that looked similar to a nighty, had long hair and insane beard. People from all over the world lined up in front of his seat and his assistant had a gigantic book. The person came forward and the book opened to his or her page. A list of credits and debits was listed.
“Helped an old lady across the street.” Good job!
“Cheated on a math test” ts ts ts
“stole a candy bar from CVS at age 7!” HOW DARE. YOU!!!!!
Let’s just say it was terrifying.
This version of God was like a far more, way angrier, less loving version of Santa Claus. Watching you at all times, always checking in. Unfortunately the stakes were higher than getting coal.
Thankfully, a few minutes after passing that sign, we’d arrive at church and my young self developed an idea about a far more loving God. He was pleasant, tried to help people, was a loving guy, also with a beard, but loving none the less. His son came down and we’d dress up like his family and friends at Christmas.
At Easter we’d talk about him suffering, and dying and how that meant we were forgiven. This God was far more concerned with what you did that was nice for other people. This God was sad when you did bad things, but unlike your mom or dad was a lot quicker to forget about it and go on being pleasant.
This God had a judgement day that came around, people were really excited about it because they’d get to go to heaven no matter what. They’d feast for an eternity and be rewarded for all the good things they did.
As a child, this is the God I eventually followed and chose to pay attention to instead of the angry roadside billboard judgey God.
Here’s the problem.
Today I reject both these versions of God. One God is unloving, the other allows for “cheap grace” that requires zero accountability or reponse on our part.
Neither of them is accurate and neither of these God’s fits into what the Bible tells us about God and what Jesus actually shows us about God.
God is not a God of checking up on our good deeds and bad behavior.
Despite what we may pick up from popular notions of the Big Man or Woman or how about just simply God,
There is no naughty and nice list.
There is simply God and if we want to get simpler than that. There is simply love.
This God isn’t concerned with keeping behavior tally marks. In fact, and thankfully for us, love tears the tally sheet up and throws it away.
God is a god of freedom and liberation.
God frees us from this system of debit and credit against our souls
Paul understood this.
In the second letter of Corinthians Paul tells the Church about a man who had a mystical vision or out of body experience of sorts. This man apparently experienced absolute magnificent splendor too vast for words to capture. Paul doesn’t talk about this however. Paul talks about the opposite, his utter weakness, a thorn in his side that simply no matter what will not go away. He compares this weakness to a messenger from Satan himself.
When I read this, at first we might imagine the immense fear that Paul carried around with him because of this thorn. Was he afraid of that fiery, angry, furrowed browed God also? Did he fear being cast out?
He very may well have. Paul mentions that he asked God to remove it from him.
God’s response to Paul’s prayer is illustrative of the actual God.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. God is not sitting in the clouds looking down on us and making tally marks waiting to judge. Instead God is always extending grace to free us.
Freedom is found solely on examining the human condition and recognzigign that Christ freed us from that condition of being stuck, trying to be good enough, worrying about being bad. Christ freed us from shame and instead invites us to look at the pain in the world, the pain in our lives, the pain in our country and in the lives of our neighbors and realize that the only standard by which we are judged is love.
Paul also happens to describe this type of holy love. “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love keeps no record of wrongs. Love rejoices with the truth. Always protects. Always trusts. Always hopes. Always perseveres. Love never fails.
For Paul, for you, for me. Love frees us. Love liberates us and therefore, by grace, we can always choose the path of love.
Which reminds me of another road sign that I first drove by when I was 18 on the way to Miami University. It sits south of Rt. 71
You might know this sign.
“Hell is Real”
It’s written with slightly scarier letters.
I drive by that sign often. I assume it was put there to scare people into turning their lives around because it is immediately followed by the then “thou shalt not” version of the ten commandments.
The fear tactic doesn’t work.
I’m not afraid.
I’m not afraid because I know the sign is true. Hell is real. We know hell is real, because suffering is real. Jesus experienced this first hand.
Hell exists everytime we reject the divine image in another. Hell exists when we respond to a neighbor not out of love, but out of pride. Hell exists when we destroy what God calls good. Hell exists when we look at ourserlves or our neighbors not as good sees us but through the lie of shame.
Hell is real and it shows up as the thorn in the side of every human being that has ever lived.
We don’t need to be afraid because Hell has been defeated and will be ultimately be defeated.
But by the grace of God what makes us weak is made our power.
So I would like to propose a new sign.
If Hell is real, the opposite is also true.
“Heaven is real”
Heaven is real when the sick are cared for. The hungry are fed. The lame walk. Heaven is real when all people have a seat at the table. When all discover that freedom is only found in loving our neighbor as ourselves.
We therefore have a choice. Heaven or Hell.
We can choose heaven. Doing so means examining ourselves, our nations, our churches and see where we are falling short from the way God would have us be. Where are we ourselves lost? Where are we causing others to be lost?
We can choose to see the thorns and be afraid or see the thorns and respond in love.
Chose love. Choose patience, mercy, kindness, hope. Choose love.
Fear Not! Perfect love casts out fear.
The power of Christ, perfect love, dwells in you.
This is a sign we can proudly display, not by the side of the road, but in our lives.