Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost – September 26, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
“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.”
I noticed this week as I was doing some worship planning that Halloween falls on a Sunday this year. I kind of wished I could have waited and preached on this text then. The gruesomeness would fit right in, right? Severed hands? Severed feet? Plucked eyeballs? Just think of the props I could find at one of those Halloween stores!
I hope it is obvious that Jesus is using hyperbole here. He doesn’t really intend for us to mutilate ourselves in our battle against sin. So why does Jesus speak like this? Why so graphic? Why so shocking? A colleague of mine shared a beauty of a quote from American author Flannery O’Connor. If you know anything about her stories, you know that she knew the value of shock. She once said, “To the hard of hearing, you shout and, for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.” That’s what Jesus is doing here. Knowing that we are hard of hearing when it comes to God’s Word, he shouts out with shocking language. Knowing that we are often blind to God’s will for us, he draws large and startling figures. He speaks of amputation. He speaks of the fires of hell.
We shouldn’t take Jesus literally about the amputation stuff, but we had better take him seriously! Jesus is using this vivid and disturbing language for a reason. He is trying to get our attention about something important.
Jesus is concerned about us being stumbling blocks to others. He is particularly concerned about the “little ones.” These “little ones” might be children. They could also be those who are new Christians, who are young in the faith. They could also be those who are toddlers when it comes to Christianity, who haven’t yet come to faith but are curious about it and asking lots of questions, like toddlers do. They could be those who are little in faith, those who maybe have been Christians for a long time but whose faith has become vulnerable and weak and little. These “little ones” could be those who are outside of the church proper, but are nonetheless doing Christ’s work.
Our sin as Christians can be a stumbling block to any and all of these little ones. I thought about telling a story giving an example of how children have been abused in church settings, but I just can’t do it. It makes me either cry or want to vomit. You know the stories. Do you think those stories aren’t a stumbling block – not only for the victims, but for others too? And so Jesus rightfully says, “Cut it out!” Some appendages literally need to be removed from the body.
Or what do you think it does to our newly confirmed Christians, our eighth or ninth graders, when they see people who have been Christians for 40 or 50 or 80 years engaging in gossip or being petty or stingy? What do you think it does to people who are curious about Christianity and then encounter Christians who are arrogant and prideful and self-righteous? Or what about that little one whose faith is just barely hanging on, who has been through a lot and whose faith is weak and little, and then when she finally comes to church she is snarled at by some grumpy church member? It has often been said, to our shame, that the biggest barrier to the Christian faith is Christians. And so Jesus rightfully says to all of this, “Cut it out! Cut it out now!”
Actually, he says more than that. He says that if you put a stumbling block in front of one of these little ones, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. Do you think Jesus means business here? Does he have your attention?
Instead of being stumbling blocks we are called to be salt. “Have salt in yourselves,” Jesus says, “and be at peace with one another.” In addition to being a flavor enhancer, salt was an essential preservative in the ancient world. And so we are called to live in such a way that we enhance and preserve the faith of others.
There are a lot of reasons people reject Christianity or walk away from the faith. Not all of them are our fault. Right now there are powerful cultural forces at work that are creating enormous challenges for the church, resulting in a decline in numbers and in influence. Sometimes it is our faithfulness that drives people away! Jesus talks about people rejecting us because they reject him, and there is nothing we can do about that.
But that isn’t what Jesus is talking about here. To us who are sometimes hard of hearing when it comes to God’s Word, Jesus shouts at us to pay attention to our actions and our attitudes. He shouts at us to cut sinful behavior out of our lives. To us who are sometimes blind to God’s will for us, Jesus draws large and startling figures to help us see how we might be a stumbling block to someone else, and to stop it.
Jesus warns us of dire consequences for our sin. He speaks of millstones being hung around our necks. He warns us of the fires of hell.
Thankfully, Jesus came to do more than shout and warn. Ultimately, Christ wore that millstone around his own neck as he bore our sin on the cross. Ultimately, Jesus descended into hell for us, taking our place there for a time in order to set us free.
And so today we bring our sinful hands and our sinful feet and our sinful eyes and our sinful hearts and we lay them at the foot of the cross. And by his grace, our Lord Jesus forgives our sin. And then he starts to put us back together. He gives all those body parts back to us, so that we might use them to love and serve, to build others up, to enhance and preserve, so that instead of being stumbling blocks, we would be salt.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church