In Which Jesus Says Some Odd Things

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Mark 9:38-50
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

***

Back at the beginning of the summer, I set myself the challenge of preaching through the gospel of Mark. Even with the lectionary giving us four choices a week, it’s still tempting for me to pick the one I like best, or the one that resonates most with my view of faith. But I knew that if I decided to stick with Mark, occasionally I’d come up against pieces of scripture that leave me stumped.

Well, folks, here we are.

This is not an easy passage. Not with the millstones and the amputations and the hellfire. It’s one that makes me shudder, because at first glance, it sounds like Jesus is advocating self-harm to atone for the guilt of our mistakes. And I am one million percent not down with that.

Luckily, the work of preaching—and of listening to sermons—is slowing down and taking that second, third, fourth, and fiftieth glance. So let’s take this one slow. Because what I can tell at first glance is that Jesus wants me to take him seriously here. Whatever is going on, it’s big stuff.

Our scene opens with the disciples proudly tattling to Jesus about how they have successfully stopped someone else’s healing ministry. So far, so familiar. This is the story of Mark—watch the disciples mess up, watch Jesus facepalm.

Only it’s a bit more than a facepalm this time. Jesus is done. He has been trying to get through to his disciples for years, and still they cling to their old, prideful, exclusionary ways of seeing faith.

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

It’s one of the most chilling images in scripture. Execution by drowning, for the crime of tripping someone up.

Part of what I struggle with so much here is that image of the stumbling block. To my ears, stumbling is simply not that bad. Tripping someone is petty, sure, but it’s a crime out of high school movies. It seems like the equivalent of Lucy pulling the football out from underneath Charlie Brown, making him fall. Mean? Totally. Worthy of a death sentence? Not so much.

It gets worse. Jesus continues, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.”

This is gory and graphic and it feels entirely excessive. Not to mention counterproductive—if you are a clumsy enough person to stumble, losing limbs and eyes is not going to help!

All of us know what it is to stumble. To mess up. To look back on something we said or done with regret. But the work to be done there is atonement and reconciliation, not self-mutilation!

I really do get hung up on that word “stumble.” So I was immensely grateful for the insight of linguist Sarah Ruden this week, who shared with the presbytery Bible study group that the word our Bibles usually translate stumbling block really isn’t a stumbling block at all. It’s a hunter’s trap.

Specifically, it’s the trigger for a trap. The stick that holds the trap up, where the bait is, so when the animal wanders into it, the trap comes crashing down around them, immobilizing them until the hunter can come and kill them.

Well, that’s entirely different. Let’s try this again.

“If any of you set a trap for one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to be trapped, cut it off; if your foot causes you to be trapped, cut it off; if your eye causes you to be trapped, tear it out.”

Still harsh if taken literally, but I hope your imaginations pinged on something here: Jesus is still in the metaphor.

Some animals, when they are trapped, will gnaw off their own legs to escape the trap. It’s painful, but it gets them back to freedom. It saves them from death.

Humans have been known to do this too, if any of you have seen the movie 127 Hours. I have most emphatically not, because even talking about this stuff is grossing me out plenty.

Metaphorically, this is what Jesus is saying: do not set traps for other people, and get yourself out of the traps you are in. Do not go after other people with the intent to harm them, and do not allow yourself to get stuck in what harms you.

When Jesus says its better to walk around one-armed or one-eyed, he’s not saying it’s better to suffer than to trip—he’s saying it’s better to be free than to be caged.

Jesus says that those who keep doing damage to others and themselves will be thrown into Gehenna, one of the places in the ancient world that stood in for the kind of hellish existence where there is nothing but pain and suffering, that you can never escape from. Jesus is not threatening them with hell, but warning them of it—if you cannot cut from your life that which hurts you and others, it’s going to be hell for you.

But the alternative is true as well. If you can cut out what causes you to hurt others, or to hurt yourself, then the kingdom of God is wide open to you. You can get free. You can be free. It’s not impossible. It may be painful, the process of finding your freedom. But you can get there. And it will be so, so much better when you do.

It is so, so, so hard to cut what hurts us out of our lives. Like an eye or an arm, it is often something we’ve come to depend on. An addiction. A defense strategy. A belief in our own unworthiness, or entitlement. A trauma we can’t move on from.

All of us have messages that keep us trapped and in pain. Part of the work of being healthy, of becoming the strong disciples that Jesus calls us to be, is walking away from those messages.

As a teenager, I had to cut out of my life the message that I was unloveable. It didn’t happen overnight. It took years of crazy hard work to cut that message out of my heart, and to use the biblical phrase, it hurt like hell. But the freedom I found at the end of it has been life-giving in the most fundamental sense of the word. That’s a trap I escaped from. I give thanks to God for that.

There are others I’m still working my way out of. I give thanks to God for God’s help in it.

I have a friend who lashes out at others when he is hurt. He was abused as a child and he learned that to keep himself safe, he had to go on the attack. But he also knows that he is hurting others without reason, and so he is doing the hard, hard, hard work of cutting that instinct out of his life. And the relationships he has now are healthier and more full of love because of it. It’s a trap he’s escaping from. It’s hurting him to do it, but it would hurt more to stay trapped there.

People can get trapped. So can institutions, which are just people in community. My beloved alma mater nearly closed because the Board had gotten trapped in a way of thinking that we were irrelevant, that nobody wanted to come to a women’s college anymore, that we couldn’t overcome very real financial realities. After the announcement of the closure, women came out of the woodwork to save the college, to prove that an institution that could produce so many fierce, loyal, successful, courageous women was absolutely relevant. The transition was painful in the extreme—faculty lost their jobs, beloved programs were cut, battle lines were drawn. And yet, slowly, we are cutting off the belief that we are a dinosaur, and finding new freedom to create an institution that supports women for the 21st century.

Even this church has its traps, its pitfalls. We have a painful history of schism and anxiety. We have painful stories of people who love each other being torn apart. We have painful memories of having to scrimp and sacrifice for a chance to just survive. I wasn’t here for that, and some days I can forget it ever happened. Other days I can see that trap looming heavy over us, just waiting for someone—maybe me!—to blunder into the trigger mechanism. To get stuck again, stuck in the worry that we are not strong enough to face difficult realities, whether they are financial, political, or spiritual.

That is not a trap we have any business falling into.

We are a strong congregation. We have weathered storms and those of you who are here, chose to be here. That’s incredible. We are generous to a point where I come home crying some days. We love each other, not just in theory, but in practice. We trust God more than any earthly asset. We welcome children and strangers both. We have leaders who go above and beyond so often that they don’t even realize they are doing it.

We don’t need to get trapped in fear. As a congregation, I can guarantee you that there will be hard days. But God is for us, and I have every faith.

Animals who freeze in traps get dead. Animals who stay put in the hope of avoiding pain only incur more pain. But animals who make the hard, painful choice to cut off what got them in trouble in the first place get free.

Friends, being a disciple is not for the faint of heart. But whatever has you trapped today, I want you to believe this: there can be freedom for you. There is always a way out.

God is a God of freedom. God is a god of grace.

We don’t need to be trapped. We don’t need to be hurt. We can escape.

We can be free.

Amen.

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