(Mark 9: 38-50; Number 11: 4-29)
Thanks be to God. That seems like a weird thing to say after this passage. I’m more inclined and perhaps you are also to say: “uhh, did I hear that right?” “what did he just say?” “”is this guy kidding?” or “what does that even mean?” This passage has me a lot more inclined to ask questions like “why” and “what?” rather than giving thanks for the comfort and strength the scripture provides.
I’ll say, I was not excited when this scripture was assigned to me, I laughed awkwardly and frustratedly the moment when Steve suggested over coffee and donuts that we do a sermon series on the gospel of Mark, which by the way—thank you, Steve—and this passage was the assigned lectionary reading for the day. This passage doesn’t sound like good news, it sounds like scary fire and brimstone, bad news. But, this is a message of good news, this is a message that is hard and challenging to hear but it is a message that we need to hear, a plea delivered to us from Jesus and a plea that we ought to seriously consider and work through—tough as it may be to hear.
We heard two things in this reading that we Presbyterians don’t much like to talk about: sin and hell. We gloss these terms over in seminary, we begrudgingly mention them in Sunday School classes when we have to, we shy away when we hear them mentioned in the text and I’m personally getting a little itchy up here talking about them in my 3rd month as your associate pastor.
We often think of sin as the laundry list of bad things that good Christians don’t do and don’t think about. The twentieth century Swiss physician turned theologian, Paul Tournier tells a story of a pastor who asked the young people in his confirmation class a simple question: “What is religion?” he inquired. A boy in the class immediately replied, not a doubt in his little Swiss head, “Religion,” he said “shows us the things we must not do.” Those things—those are the things we often think of as sin, the things we must not do.
Let me offer a different, more in depth definition of sin.
Frederick Buechner, who many of you know and love, has a beautiful definition of sin. Buechner writes: “sin is whatever you do, or fail to do, that pushes other people and God away, that widens the gap between you and them and also the gaps within your self.” Sin by Buechner’s definition is those things in your life, those moments that pull you away from God, that pull you away from recognizing the love of God in your life.
This passage is both awkwardly and painfully graphic and harsh, yes– and after struggling with it for the last week, pulling it apart for meaning, praying over it, digging through commentaries and original language meanings, I’m still a little frustrated with it.
A quick reading of this text tells us that the text and Jesus are encouraging us to urgently and abruptly rid ourselves of sin– Make no mistake, Jesus is speaking hyperbolically when he says to tear out your eye if it cause you to stumble, please, do not go home and tear out your eye after hearing this sermon. This sense of hyperbole is notoriously recognized amongst scholars as something that would be understood by the hearers of Jesus’ message at the time. Even with the hyperbole though, even without the literal translation of this passage—the passage still calls on the disciples to immediately rid themselves of sin, to do any and everything that one can to quickly pull away from sin and pull away from those things which are keeping them or you from serving God. This message understood hyperbolically is a little easier to take in but still, it frustrates me.
It frustrates me because Jesus knows us, Jesus knows us completely, having walked this earth as a human, tempted by sin, experiencing the fullness of human life and suffering– Jesus knows us. So it frustrates me because Jesus knows, Jesus gets how hard it is to pull away from sin, Jesus gets how hard it is to cut off things that are causing you to stumble, Jesus knows that it is a long and hard and challenging path. Jesus knows this, so it frustrates me that Jesus expects us to aggressively, abruptly, urgently cut sin out of our lives.
I believe you and I both know that it is a long and hard fought path to recognizing the places in our lives that cause us to stumble, the things in our lives that keep us from God, it is a long path to recognize those things, to recognize the need to eliminate them from our lives and then to gather up the wherewithal to struggle through letting those things go.
Perhaps the thing that causes you to stumble or thing that causes you to struggle is a person, or a dependency on substances, or selfishness, or greed. Recognizing that problem in your life and weeding it out of your life is a process much more complex and involved than simply cutting something off.—much more complex and involved than tearing it out and removing it from your life—as simple as here today, gone tomorrow.
Struggling through an addiction may make cutting your hand off look easy. These real life problems, these real life struggles, stumbling blocks or sins, whatever you want to call them—they’re hard, they’re hard to deal with, they’re messy, they’re challenging to get through. So when Jesus calls on us to so abruptly cut them out of our lives, I get a little frustrated. Frustrated because the Jesus who knows us, knows the complexities of human life, suffering and struggles seems here to not get it, seems here to not be able to name the frustrations and struggles that go along with following Christ, that go along with identifying the things that keep us from being good disciples.
I’m not quite certain why Jesus gives such an abrupt and hard to hear challenge—perhaps its because he is so concerned with us, so concerned with us, so concerned and involved and loving towards us and compassionate for us that the Jesus who knows us and cares for us wants to keep us from hell. Keep us from the hell that would be living with these stumbling blocks in our lives. When I say hell I want to offer another more in depth definition, a definition that is different from the horned devil in layers of fire that we often think of. This definition comes from theologian Daniel Migliore, author of Faith Seeking Understanding –literally the systematic theology textbook. Migliore writes:
Hell is simply wanting to be oneself apart from God’s grace and in isolation from others. A self-chosen condition in which, in opposition to God’s agapic love and the call to a life of mutual friendship and service, individuals barricade themselves from others. Hell is a self-destructive existence to the eternal love of God.
The hell Migliore references here and the hell I’m talking about is a hell that Jesus was probably talking about too—the word in Greek referenced in this passage is “Gehenna” — an ancient city outside Jerusalem that practiced worship of false idols, a place where the wicked and cursed were sent. This was a literal place outside of Jerusalem a place filled with hate and self-centered worship, a place where people served themselves and not God, a place where people looked to false worship and not to the eternal love and grace of our God.
So I think, perhaps, when Jesus delivers these horrifyingly scary and urgent messages, he does so with a sense of loving urgency, a sense of care for our lives—to keep us from living a life separate from God.
I think this because at this point in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus knows what is coming, he has begun to tell his disciples that the time is coming near, that he will soon be crucified, he is aware of the imminent end to his earthly ministry and he is working hard to fully accomplish it. So when he delivers this message so urgently and abruptly he does so in the same manner I picture parents do as they prepare to send their kids off a new life adventure.
This is the message your mom or dad gives you when you’re getting ready to move or leave for college the days before when they make sure that all the things they have taught you over the years have sunk in, that you are ready to be out in the world all by yourself, because they love you with a deep, insane, indescribable love that so badly wants you, wants us, to be ok, to be happy and satisfied, to live fully in the life of God.
Jesus calls us to not simply to follow him, not simply out of odd irregular unnecessary orders but because he loves us, and he knows that the better thing, the better, more wholesome loving wonderful way of life is a way of life lived serving God in mutual love of one another.
A pastor friend of mine named Sam, a Lutheran missionary to Kenya told me about his first Sunday serving at the Nairobi Lutheran Church, a Swahili speaking congregation. Sam arrived in Kenya a few days before his first Sunday as the pastor at the church and tried to muster up some Swahili in the days before the sermon. On Sunday at the time of the sermon he said he turned to his congregation and said the only words he knew how to say “Bwana ni penda” or “God is love” and sat down. He said, I couldn’t say anything else, those were the only words I knew but they were the most appropriate words I could think to say.
On Thursday, I got a text with one of the sweetest and most adorable videos. A video of the sweet little girl we baptized last week, Molly Mobley, singing along to a worship song with a giant smile on her face and a Ritz cracker in her hand. You hear her singing along to the words “God is Yuv.” God is love.
There is a reason my pastor friend Sam and sweet Molly both use that phrase, “God is love.” Its simple, its commonplace, we all know it and have heard it. When it all boils down, God is love. God works to bring us into that love, Jesus urges us to recognize that love in our lives, to live in the light of the love of God. God is love, y’all. This scary sounding passage, this weird harsh language, it all boils down to the very simple fact that God is love.
God is love and God wants for us to be loved, to experience the love of God and to live fully in that love. So crazy as it sounds this weird scary sounding passage is a message of love. A message pleading with us to find and do all the things we can to live in the love of God, to live in right, good and wonderful relationship with each other and with God.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, AMEN!