Hi all and Happy Sunday! It was so nice to have clear skies for worship this morning.
Here is my sermon. I was having a hard time coming up with a children’s sermon – there’s something about Jesus telling the disciples to cut off their hands and feet if they cause them to stumble that just doesn’t translate well to children’s ministry, ha! Eventually I just gave up and asked Allison, our church school director, what their lesson was going to be. They were learning about Daniel and how God makes us strong so I brought in a free weight and talked about different kind of strength.
Rehoboth Congregational Church
January 27, 2019
Taking Jesus Seriously
Jesus did not really mean that, right?
I mean, this is why we like the New Testament; violence in the Old Testament and (with the exception of the demon-possessed pigs plummeting to their deaths) love in the New Testament. Up until this point, the Gospel of Mark has been filled with beautiful imagery where Jesus feeds people, heals people, teaches his disciples, prays for and with others and calms an angry sea.
This is the Jesus we all remember learning about as children.
Jesus love me, this I know;
for the bible tells me so
Well, wait; what is the bible telling us now?
Surely, Jesus did not actually mean that it would be better for us to cut off our hands and our feet than to have them cause us to stumble? Surely Jesus would not suggest that, if we put a stumbling block – or a temptation – in front of someone else, that it would be better for us to have a mill stone tied around our neck and then be thrown out to sea?
It has to be a metaphor, right?
After all, this is the same Jesus saying this that, not even ten verses earlier, welcomed a child into his midst and then gently cradled them into his arms.
The juxtaposition of these two passages – interactions that appear to have happenedalmost one right after another – is striking.
So it is a metaphor, then; it has to be. The hands and the feet, the eye-gouging and the being pitched overboard – this is all a metaphor for something else, something softer and easier for us congregationally-rooted protestants who don’t like fire and brimstone preaching or theological guilt tactics to swallow.
Yes. It is a metaphor.
I was all set to go with that approach this week and then I read a commentary that caused me to pause, step back and really think, not only about what Jesus was said here, but also what he meant.
It is tempting when reading this passage to default quickly to the assumption that Jesus is employing hyperbole merely to capture his audience’s attention. Various commentators reinforce this response.
(Which, let’s be real, is exactly what I was getting ready to do.)
Lest the force of Jesus’ radical claims be diluted, however, one dare not automatically and carelessly dismiss the shocking words Jesus pronounces as mere exaggeration.
Wherever one ends up on this matter, it is altogether clear that readers better take Jesus seriously and not slide into mealy-mouthed, easily swallowed encouragement to good behavior and responsible stewardship, or to a limp list of moral imperatives. If Jesus did not intend his words to be taken literally, he most certainly intended that they be taken seriously.
I have to be honest – passages like this make me uncomfortable. I like the fact that people do not feel a lot of pressure to come and be part of our church community. I like that this is a guilt-free space, that we do not put a lot of unnecessary obstacles in place for people to participate in the community and receive the gifts of God’s grace.
And yet, sometimes I think it might be too easy for us to use that as a crutch; as an excuse to not push ourselves and one another to grow in our faith and to be better and more faithful Christians.
I think one of the reasons it is hard for me to read this passage and not get a little bit defensive, is because I see myself in the one whom Jesus is admonishing. I know that there have been many times in my life when I have caused myself or others to stumble, when I have made bad choices and when I have not lived up to the grace given to me. And so this passage makes me uncomfortable, because I believe in the power of grace; of redemption and of second chances. I believe that the Assurance of Grace is one of the most powerful moments in our worship service because it reminds us that, despite our imperfections, we are loved and forgiven.
After all, Jesus died to save us from our sins; why do we now have to cut limbs off because of them?
But the more that I think about it, the more I realize that the really powerful message in this passage is that there isa difference between believing in grace and knowing that we are overwhelming loved by God and also holding ourselves accountable for our actions and for our faith.
Because, in the end, we should always be seeking to be better, to dig deeper and to try harder.
This morning, instead of trying to explain away the harshness of Jesus’ words, I want to sit in the discomfort of them. I want to dive in, headfirst, into what he was saying, even if it is hard and uncomfortable, learning and understanding what it truly means to be a follower of Christ.
Because I do not think I am doing anyone any favors if I get up here and say that the way we live our lives does not matter – because it does. The way we live our lives matters. Period.
And I do think it is important to highlight the point Jesus made to his disciples earlier when they told him they saw a man casting out demons who was not following them and so they tried to stop him. Jesus told the disciples not to stop the man; that just because the man was not following them did not mean that he was against them.
And then Jesus immediately went into this narrative about temptations and stumbling blocks, I think because he wanted to point out to the disciples that it was more important for them to focus on their actions and their faith than it was for them to be concerned about the actions and the faith of others.
After all, it is the way we live our lives that matters; and we need to take this seriously. We need to seek to do God’s work in this world; listening to what God is calling us to do and not just doing what we want to do. We need to constantly try to grow in our faith – whether it be through prayer or reading the bible or participating in the church community or getting involved in some sort of missions project. We need to evangelize (even though that is kind of a scary word for us) so that the message of the Gospel – and of God’s love – can reach more people. We need to seek reconciliation with those people in our lives for whom our relationships are strained; we need to bread together and lift up that which we hold in common, instead of dwelling on our differences. We need to stop ourselves when we realize we are gossiping or speaking poorly of others. We need to make doing church a serious priority in our lives, doing the basic things Jesus called his disciples to do – pray together, break bread together, feed the hungry, heal the sick and help the marginalized. We need to set priorities in our lives based on faith and then be realistic about whether or not we are living up to them. We need to look in the mirror – at ourselves, not at others – and make sure we are living up to the grace that has been given to us.
Remember that when Jesus said these things, the stakes were high; for the second time, he had foretold his death and resurrection, and yet his disciples did not understand. But he understood; he knew what was going to happen. Jesus knew that his time on earth was limited, that it was going to be up to the disciples to continue this ministry that he started after he was gone; there was a sense of urgency to his words that is palpable, even 2,000 years later.
But that sense of urgency is still true for us today.
Should we take these words literally? No. But should we take them seriously? Absolutely.
I think we can all agree that the world is a little nutty right now. So often I have to shut off the news, because I am overwhelmed thinking about what I need to do to try to fix everything or where to even begin. But what I have learned over the years is that, in times of uncertainty, the best way that I can affect change is right here, in my local church. It is here that I can grow in my faith; where I can hold myself accountable (and ask others to hold me accountable, as hard as that can be sometimes for me to hear). It is here that I have the opportunity to serve others. It is here that I can join my voices with the voices of my brothers and sisters and Christ as we come together and worship the God who creates us, redeems us and sustains us.
This morning I encourage you to take these words seriously. Come to worship. Attend the reflections that Mike leads during Fellowship so you can talk more about the sermon and about what you think the scripture means and how it can apply to your life. Get involved in the life the church community. Pray on a regular basis. Read scripture at home. Be honest about who you are, but also who you want to be – knowing that grace will carry you from one point to another.
Let us take seriously the words and the call of Jesus, knowing that the stakes are just as high today as they were when he first spoke them. Let us heed the call of the Gospel to be good and faithful Christians. Let us, like Jesus called the disciples to, have salt in ourselves and be at peace with another.
Thanks be to God!
Stern, Richard. Feasting on the Gospels: Mark (A Feasting on the Word Commentary). Page 291 – Homiletical Perspective.