A sermon on hacking off our own limbs for Jesus.

Mark 9:42-48

“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. 43If 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. 45And 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. 47And 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, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

9-30-2012 NBW Sermon <—- click here to listen along! (it’s to be heard more than read)

Were I one for object lessons I’d have brought a nice sharp axe with me into the pulpit today.  Because it’s only once in awhile that we get to hear Jesus talk about brutal self-mutilation as a sign of discipleship.

Growing up I was terrified of those verses in Mark’s Gospel that we just heard – the ones where Jesus suggests that if your hand causes you to sin cut it off and if your foot causes you to sin hack that off too and if your eye causes you to sin gauge the sucker out. I remember the Summer I was 11 years old when I stole candy from KMArt and then hid it in the heat duct in my room.  And I remember hearing this passage soon after that and thinking how my hand had indeed caused me to sin and then and there I decided to never steal again lest Jesus insist I hack off my own limbs.

The problem, of course, is that my hand has never caused a darn thing.  My eye doesn’t cause me to sin.  My foot can’t be held accountable for my missteps.  If you want to find the culprit behind my sin don’t look at my hand. Look at my heart. My poor feet just do what they’re told.

Not to mention the fact that if I don’t have the force of will it takes to not steal Butterfingers from KMArt then I hardly think I’d have the force of will it takes to amputate myself.     I mean, that just takes more focus and dedication than I have ever had.  Yet, it would seem, based on this text from Mark’s gospel, that this is what discipleship looks like. Being willing to mutilate your self to avoid sin.  If your hand causes you to stumble cut it off, it is better to enter life maimed than to have 2 hands and go to hell.  This is a text of terror for children.  It’s like the Gospel according to a grotesque Tim Burton movie.

Except the weird thing is that the reading we just heard talks of stumbling, not of sin.  So I started getting curious about the word stumble….and was then told this week by a much smarter colleague that “stumble” in greek is Scandalizo.  From the word group Scandalon…from which we get scandal.

So how does it change if we think of this text as saying we need to have cut from us the things that trip us up…the things that cause scandals and dramas. This week as I tried unsuccessfully to dodge all the bad political ads, I started thinking about what the word scandal means in the political world.  Scandals are when everything stops so that something small or smallish can be made into something huge so that no one will pay attention any more to the real story.  Scandals are always a distraction from the main thing.  And no one seems to love a scandal… a stumbling block like Americans do.

So I wonder if Jesus, rather than suggesting we literally hack off our own limbs is making a really strong point about how critical it is to remember what the real story is.  Maybe his warning against stumbling, against Scandalon is a warning against focusing too much on anything that is not the main thing.

 In a way, that’s a pretty simple definition of sin.  Placing something or someone or some accomplishment at the center and making it, and not God the source of our identity.  It’s loving something as God which is not God. Giving our heart to that which cannot love us like God can.

When these things feel like the main thing they need to be cut away.  Sometimes we might have the insight and will to cut from ourselves the things, the scandals, that distract us from the main thing.  Perhaps.  You may, in this very moment know the thing that needs to be cut out of your life and you may even have the fortitude to do it in which case that’s awesome.  Grab an axe.  But sometimes, and here’s the kicker, sometimes these things get ripped FROM us by God.

And if you think this is not already happening to you you may be wrong.  Because, seriously, I can’t tell you how often you guys say things to me like “I still can’t believe I actually am coming to church”

Translation: my resentment toward religion and how it’s hurt me is no longer the main thing. That scandal has been cut from me enough that I am now part of a spiritual community again and this doesn’t feel like what I had in mind but I’m happy it happened”

Or you say I can’t believe I’m going to seminary I can’t believe I am giving away 10% of my income I can’t believe I see my work in corporate America as a Christian vocation now. I can’t believe that I no longer hate some of the people I use to love to hate.  I can’t believe it.  When you say I can’t believe such and such has changed in my life…pay attention to that.

Because your bafflement at this stuff … you know what that’s called?  It’s called being a disciple of Jesus Christ. It’s called living as a person of faith.  I thought all this stuff about following Jesus was a matter of mustering up enough self-discipline and focus and dedication to amputate my own limb…and if we try to read the discipleship texts from Mark as a personal salvation manual then that’s what we are left with.  We imagine that we are the ones who have to hack off our hands and feet, gouge out our own eyes, give away all our possessions and shrink our camel-sized selves down to needle eye size.  But in fact it tends to be God who does this for us…who prunes us, feeds us, cuts us and our bank accounts down to size and shapes us.

This, as awful as it might sound, is one of the reasons we gather every single week and tell the same story.  The same one.  We gather as the people of God and tell the same story because in the end, THAT STORY is the main thing and I know for myself that I simply have to be reminded of it again and again because I am distractible as hell.

And here’s the thing…that story? The story of God’s redeeming work for all of creation that happens in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we tell every single week …that story? It’s an axe.  And the Eucharist is an axe.  And to be sure, the confession and absolution is an axe.  And any thing that you would put in the center, job, relationship, money, status, pride, accomplishments, politics, security…. these things that seem to lure you with promises that can really only be given by God…these things that lie to you and cause you to stumble…well the promise of this text is that all that would stand in the place of God and all that would keep you from God will be burned away.

That’s what happens. Entering the Kingdom can look from the outside or even to ourselves as if we are cutting off a limb or irrationally giving our stuff away.  But brothers and sisters God continues to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And sometime God does for us what we would never do to ourselves.

It’s like in our Wednesday night group when we heard UCC pastor Lillian Daniel say that she doesn’t go to church to have her needs met.  She goes to church to have her needs changed.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ will never meet your needs, but brothers and sisters watch out.  Because it WILL change your needs.  And that is about the most beautiful thing I can tell you.

About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at www.houseforall.org

  • Georg Luebeck

    Awesome! Thanks for adding extra dimension and insight to my own perplexed view of this story. True, we ‘box-in’ ourselves too often. An axe is sometimes needed to open up that box. Peace, Georg

  • http://theoldadam.com/ Steve Martin

    I didn’t realize that we could stumble, or sin?

    I thought that everything that we wanted to do was just fine, as long as we are really sincere about it.

    How is it that we could ever realize our great need of a Savior, if we don’t realize just how much we’d rather run our own show?

  • http://www.margaretfeinberg.com Margaret

    love your interpretation of a scandal–much more healthy and life giving (when we cut them away…) than those that blow up on the tabloids

  • jerry lynch

    I got to see sanctification as coming to a place of neutrality about my story, or the gradual reduction, cutting away, of what I found to be scandalous about myself, others, and the world. In my eyes, this is the work of God often through a “discipline” of Awful Mercy (the axe). Loss, failure, and disillusionment become gifts of the Spirit, the cutting, sometimes hacking, away of my needs for image, comfort, and safety and a host of other needless needs that seem ever so important. That arm that was long and could reach back to the past, with a dexterous hand to delicately pluck some old injustice or unfairness as justification for aggression or defense, is severed. And once gone, I get to see that it was actually picking my pocket of life, stealing precious moments of being and joy in the present.

    In AA, Steps Six and Seven tell the tale: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character”; “Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings.” By placing “principles before personality,” or making of ourselves a minute-by-minute “living sacrifce,” these “scandals” that divert our conscious contact with God are exposed and are offered to God for removal. We get to see that the trouble is not external, that anytime we are disturbed the problem is in us. In effect, nothing happens to us or for us: it all happens within us. Reality is only in the heart, the life we get and share is there.

  • fws

    “Look at my heart. My poor feet just do what they’re told.”

    You have come to the very heart of the Lutheran understanding of original sin dear pastor.
    I am a 56 year old gay man in the lutheran church missouri synod. I havent bolted to another church because really really need to hear Lutheran doctrine. I need to hear those Two Words that change everything. Those Two Words are “given and shed FOR YOU!” And this can only be heard when God sends a preacher and Christ himself comes to us and preaches a repentence (formula of concord art V) and the Law is taught just as you teach it, that drives repentence into our hearts and allows us to cling with empty hands to those Two Words.

    You are showing me that there is a renaisance of that heavenly doctrine in the ELCA. You have NO idea how much i have been praying for that and hoping to see that appear somewhere in whatever synod,

  • fws

    Lord have mercy!

    That prayer of mine has been answered in your very person Nadia bringing the words of our dear Lord Jesus of forgiveness. Bless you dear pastor!

  • Robert F

    Yes, the heart, the center of the person, not anything on the periphery, is the cause of sin. And only God can hack out that sinful center and replace it with a pure one.

  • kalimsaki

    From Risalei Nur collection by Said Nursi

    Man is such an antique work of art of Almighty God. He is a most subtle and graceful miracle of His power whom He created to manifest all his Names and their inscriptions, in the form of a miniature specimen of the universe. If the light of belief enters his being, all the meaningful inscriptions on him may be read. As one who believes, he reads them consciously, and through that relation, causes others to read them. That is to say, the dominical art in man becomes apparent through meanings like, “I am the creature and artefact of the All-Glorious Maker. I manifest His mercy and munificence.” That is, belief, which consists of being connected to the Maker, makes apparent all the works of art in man. Man’s value is in accordance with that dominical art and by virtue of being a mirror to the Eternally Besought One. In this respect insignificant man becomes God’s addressee and a guest of the Sustainer worthy of Paradise superior to all other creatures.
    However, should unbelief, which consists of the severance of the relation, enter man’s being, then all those meaningful inscriptions of the Divine Names are plunged into darkness and become illegible. For if the Maker is forgotten, the spiritual aspects which look to Him will not be comprehended, they will be as though reversed. The majority of those meaningful sublime arts and elevated inscriptions will be hidden. The remainder, those that may be seen with the eye, will be attributed to lowly causes, nature, and chance, and will become utterly devoid of value. While they are all brilliant diamonds, they become dull pieces of glass. His importance looks only to his animal, physical being. And as we said, the aim and fruit of his physical being is only to pass a brief and partial life as the most impotent, needy, and grieving of animals. Then it decays and departs. See how unbelief destroys human nature, and transforms it from diamonds into coal.

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