Note: I preached versions of this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois on September 29-30, 2018
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Years ago I was visiting a friend who was studying at an east coast university. I sat in on his class, which was partly about Martin Luther. After class he introduced me to some friends, saying “This is my friend Ben. He’s studying to be a Lutheran pastor. In a breakfast of eggs and bacon, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed. So in studying Luther, I’m the chicken and Ben is the pig.”
I’ve never forgotten that–“in a breakfast of eggs and bacon the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.” One of the hard things about hearing the Word of God regularly is that Jesus always seems to be raising the stakes, always inviting or pushing us from being involved in the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims to being committed to it. So Jesus speaks in these very strong, demanding terms, whether in blessing or bane.
In our regular lives we would probably call this way of speaking exaggeration, or, using the ancient Greek term, “hyperbole.” This means literally to “overthrow” or overshoot the mark. “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse”–no one will hold you to that. We know it’s overstatement to make a point.
And so it is tempting for us to hear Jesus use these strong figures of speech and think “this is hyperbole. This is exaggeration to make a point.”
That’s how today’s Gospel passage can be read, indeed has been read: “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.” Surely this is an exaggeration, right? A cup of water is a good start I guess, but if I were in charge of the structure of divine justice, I’d want to see a little more progress than that.
“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.” Whoa whoa whoa. One stumbling block? From anyone? That’s why pencils have erasers, Jesus.
And, Jesus says, if your hand, your foot, or your eye cause you to stumble, tear it out, because it is better to lose part of yourself and enter into life than to keep yourself whole and be cast into eternal death.
This one is tricky because it’s a metaphor–hands and feet and eyes do not actually cause you to sin. Even so, is this really necessary? Can’t we just, metaphorically, cover our wandering eye now and then? Can we maybe tie our erring hand behind our back once in a while? What if the stumbling wasn’t so bad, or it was a long time ago? What if I barely remember?
Sometimes, I admit, I hope Jesus is being hyperbolic. I hope he is waving his hands and stamping his feet to get our attention, and that the real judgment, the real requirement, will not be so stark.
Sometimes, I admit, I hope I can avoid the kind of self-examination I would need to find the causes of my own stumbling, to renounce those parts of myself, and cast them out.
And I know I’m not alone in that. I’ve talked to many people whose only purpose in coming to me for counsel was to be told that they can keep their eye, their hand, their foot. To hear that they can keep doing whatever destructive or hurtful thing they are doing and everything will be fine. Even when common sense–leaving Jesus out of it more a moment–and basic safety are screaming to let that thing go, we just will not do it.
But here’s the thing: I don’t really believe that Jesus is exaggerating to make a point here. I think Jesus is telling us that our actions, and our words, and our habits, and our view of things are much more important than we realize–for good or ill. They are, in fact, eternally important.
Cut off that part of us that needs to be righteous in our own eyes, that part of us that lives in denial, that part of us that excuses and minimizes. Because it is better to know you are in the wrong and enter into life than to believe you are innocent and be cast into hell.
It is better to know and to name your worst flaws and your most wicked moments, and enter into life, than to hide them from yourself and the world and so enter into everlasting death.
I have been thinking about this passage this week as I hear from many sisters in faith who are remembering all over again how their experiences of abuse or assault were denied, excused, or minimized. How the wrong they suffered was primarily treated as a problem for the man who did it.
To be clear, many men are victims of sexual abuse as well, at the hands of men and women alike. And yes, the reputations of both accuser and accused must be protected while investigation and justice run their course. But the anger, and the fear, and the exhaustion I have heard from these sisters is very humbling to me.
And I wonder what it would be like to really lay this burden down. For me and for my brothers who have offended our sisters, whether by word or deed, or simply indifference, to let go of our need to be righteous, to deny, to excuse.
I wonder if we can say, “I don’t remember doing that but I sometimes put myself in positions where I did not remember all my actions. So I take your word for it. I repent my actions and I ask how I may make amends.”
Or if we can say: ” did not know that what I was doing or saying was wrong, but I do now, and I am sorry.”
Or: “I was not aware of the effect my words and actions had on you and I should have done better.”
Or: “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you when you took the risk of telling me something was wrong.”
I say all of this as someone who has been on every side of this very human struggle: offending, offended against, passive bystander, participant in a mob mentality. That’s human life. We are always being asked to hear, to judge, to act. And the way we do these things implicates us very deeply. It cuts to the heart of who we think we are. It is painful to cut off that part of us that cannot bear to be wrong.
This is a hard truth. But in the Gospels, Jesus stands on the other side of every hard truth. Repentance is hard, soul-searching work. But it is also–and especially–a gift of grace, and a sign of God’s great favor. Nothing we surrender of ourselves, if it is good, is ever truly lost. God restores every hand, every foot, every eye, every loss.
More than that, Jesus creates a community of repentance unto life. That is what baptism does. It makes us part of a community that has salt within it, that is preserved by the grace that allows us to know ourselves and be known; the grace that allows us to be vulnerable to each other, to be honest with each other, to forgive and be forgiven without fear. The grace that allows us to lay our burdens down–the burden of being wronged and feeling that you must bear that wrong alone; the burden of doing wrong and fearing that it can’t be spoken, even to ourselves; the burden of looking the other way.
All of this Jesus takes into himself as his own. All of us who will face it, who will say it, who will surrender it, Jesus will take into himself as his own.
We acknowledge this today as we celebrate the gift of baptism and the community it forms–this community who would rather be maimed or halt or half-blind than resist our calling from death into life. We share this gift whenever we educate our children, introducing them to a God whose desire to love and forgive and show mercy is greater than any human experience they will ever have. We share it in welcoming new or renewed believers, who are connected or re-connected to the source of grace that is ancient as the universe. We share it in proclaiming the Gospel to the world and, especially, to each other. Because we all need it. We all need to hear it, and believe it, and be raised to new life by it. Even more than we need our most cherished illusions. Amen.