The Common Good

A Sermon on Hacking Off Our Own Limbs for Jesus

Axe image, Pikoso.kz / Shutterstock.com
Axe image, Pikoso.kz / Shutterstock.com

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.

Listen along below! (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 two 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 anymore 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 that is not God; it's 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 percent 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 are an axe. And anything 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.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.nadiabolzweber.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.

Axe image, Pikoso.kz / Shutterstock.com

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