Happy in Hell


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, December 1, 2013

Matthew 22:2-14

The Gospel reading today reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman. In one scene a faithful old Christian lady, is shocked to hear that “the landscape through which she is happily strolling is not Heaven but Hell.” She becomes very angry. “I tell you,” she insists, “I know I am not in Hell because I feel no pain.” She is then told that if she wants to she is free to wander over the hill and enter into Heaven. Then the warning comes that those who are happy in hell found Heaven to be intolerable.

All the characters that refuse to come to the feast are like her; happy in their individual hells, their safe, little cocoons, so satisfied with themselves that they do not even feel their own pain, the pain that tugs away at their hearts; the fear of not having enough, the fear of being alone, the fear of rejection, the fear of death. They do not see these things because they are buried deep. They do not know they are in hell because they have convinced themselves that they are not. All the disappointments of life they have tucked neatly away deep inside and they live in the vain hope that it will stay put and never surface. And they say, “We feel no pain.” Eventually, of course, they will, perhaps sooner than later. Those invited guests who refuse to come to the dinner are those who are happy in their own little “painless” hells.

The last two Sunday Gospel readings have also dealt with this same theme in slightly different ways which is ignoring the inevitable. Our lives are not going to last. Disease is coming. Death is coming. What is our “normal” today, will not be our “normal” tomorrow. I can walk now, but a motorized chair with four on the floor may be waiting for me tomorrow. Everything changes. Everything dies. Are we prepared for that or are we walking through a fantasy that tells me that I alone among human beings am not part of this cycle of suffering and death? Ignoring the inevitable is senseless. Ignoring the pain within does no good. They must be faced which is what an authentic spiritual practice helps us do and why so many avoid and reject it for way that allows and encourages perpetual avoidance.

The great Catholic mystic Bede Griffiths reminds us, that when we decide to “enter the closet” and pray, we enter “the mystery of suffering love,” our own and also that of others. Your pain is my pain and my pain is yours. We are all deeply wounded and these wounds are hidden in the unconscious. Meditation, prayer and sacrament open the depths of the unconscious to the light of awareness. I think that is the real reason we would rather not bother. We don’t want to go there. But if there is to be healing and transformation, the kind Jesus talks about, we have to let go of avoidance, stop resisting and allow the light of God to penetrate the darkness and reveal ourselves to us and heal our broken hearts and wounded souls. “Light,” writes the great Sufi poet Hafiz, “will someday split you open.” This is also an inevitability. This great work is happening in everyone, whether we know it or not.

But going within reveals not only darkness. It also reveals light. It reveals that God is already at work in cooperation with our divine core to subvert our crazy resistance. God is cooking something up with the sui chef inside of us putting together all the great big hodge podge ingredients he finds in there into a splendid recipe called “salvation.” Everything will become part of the delicious dessert that comes out of his oven. God is making something beautiful out of our lives!

Do you know that show on the Food Network call “Chopped” where the chefs open a basket and find ingredients out of which they are supposed to make something delicious? It can get crazy! What in the world can you do with pork rinds, turnip greens and fruit loops? But somehow a couple of them manage to come up with something a little better than edible, one chef gets tossed (“into the outer darkness”) and the show goes on until one chef comes out on top! Sometimes I just can’t believe what they come up with! I mean, what if all the ingredients are horrible? Doesn’t matter. Somehow they manage.

Well, that is exactly what God is doing in our lives: putting pork rinds, turnip greens and fruit loops together and coming out with something incredible! With God everything is possible. Everything in life goes into the bowl and somehow heaven comes out of the oven. This is the wonder of God’s great compassion. No ingredient in life is worthless. So, there is nothing to fear from life or death. It is a great adventure. How can we not watch with amazement until we see what wonderful result that comes out in the end?