The Rev. Frank
Close to the Center
While in seminary, I worked one summer as an intern at St. Elizabeths, a large mental hospital in Washington, D.C. The Gospel reading for this morning was a part of a legend at St. Es—a legend that came from taking Jesus’ words too literally. And of course, if you are going to start taking Jesus literally, you wouldn’t want to begin with a story like this one.
According to the legend, a hospital chaplain preached on this text and used Jesus own words that if our hand offends us we should cut it off and enter into heaven maimed rather than to go to eternal punishment with both hands in tact. A client in the congregation then took those words literally and while on the grounds of the hospital hijacked a chainsaw in use by the grounds crew and took the text and the sermon to be literal rather than metaphoric. The point of the legend was to make sure that we chaplains understood the value of simple, straightforward teaching that avoided metaphors, which lent themselves to misunderstanding.
Jesus could have used this advice. His disciples seemed to never know when to take Jesus’ words literally or figuratively. Surrounded by a hungry hoard numbering in the thousands, Jesus said to his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” It turned out that time he meant literally and the next thing the disciples new they were taking up basketsful of leftover fish and bread when a short while earlier they only had five loaves and two small fish. But just after that Jesus told them to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees.” The disciples wondered if he was pointing out that they only had one small loaf of bread in the boat, but this time Jesus was speaking figuratively of the Pharisees and not of literal bread.
When Jesus told his disciples that he must undergo suffering and death only to rise again to life on the third day, they did not know to take him seriously. This must be another one of his figures of speech. But Jesus really was telling them that he would actually suffer, be put to death and then be raised from the dead.
It was as if the disciples went from pop quiz to pop quiz always getting the answer wrong. But remember, even if Jesus occasionally called them on not understanding what he had said, Jesus never lost faith in his disciples. He stayed with the twelve he picked through thick and thin, and they stayed with him, though they often misunderstood what Jesus was really up to. Of course, we have the gift of hindsight, and so much of what Jesus said and did makes more sense after the darkness of Good Friday and the light of Easter morning.
Take our reading for today. Jesus said that if you put a stumbling block before those who believe in Jesus, it would be better for you to have a great millstone hung around your neck and for you to be thrown into the sea. Jesus is not advising us to start strapping millstones around our necks and take a flying leap into the sea. Jesus is showing how serious it is when we cause a fellow Christian to stumble in their walk of faith. Rather than choosing to leap into the sea with a great millstone tied to our necks, Jesus was kind of hoping we might decide not to cause one another to stumble in our faith.
Then Jesus goes on with a series of body-mutilating metaphors, suggesting that cutting off a hand or a foot, or gouging out an eye is a better option than allowing those selfsame body parts to cause us to sin. The suggestion of self-mutilation is gruesome, so what is Jesus up to here? I am totally and completely convinced that just as Jesus was not keen on us drowning ourselves in the sea, he is also not suggesting we limp into heaven with only a single hand, foot and eye, where we used to have pairs of all three.
I think Jesus is challenging those who follow him to consider the costs of discipleship. Jesus is not holding out a cheap grace in which following him leaves our lives unchanged. Instead, Jesus is suggesting that we might have to make some changes that cost us dearly, as dearly as losing a limb. And further, the cost will not be the same for everyone, for each of us has different things that cause us to stumble.
One person could attend a business convention to Las Vegas, dabble in a bit of gambling and leave unphased. While another person could go, get hooked on the lure of easy money and soon find that they had gambled away more than they could afford to lose. For the first person, a little gambling while in Vegas was nothing more than a brief diversion. For the other person it became all consuming. The person consumed by gambling, would have to cut themselves off from that activity completely no matter what the cost to their psyche.
The list could go on and on of ways people get into unhealthy patterns. One person can have a beer here and a glass of wine there, but another person finds that one drink soon leads to another and another and having any always leads to having too much. The second person needs to own up to being an alcoholic and he or she would have to cut that part of their life away. For an alcoholic, giving up drinking could be more traumatic than merely cutting off a hand or a foot.
Jesus warns that whatever it is that causes you to stumble, whatever it is that leads you further from God rather than closer to God, whatever those unwholesome, unhealthy influences are, you are going to need to cut yourself off from those influences or you may find your whole self lost body and soul.
The challenge is just as great for each of us. It is no less a challenge in elementary school than it is in work or retirement. Each of us makes choices about who we spend time with, what we do. Any choice we make that causes ourselves or someone else to stumble in their faith is a problem to address. If you are in middle school and your friends are talking about using drugs and alcohol, then you need to cut off that conversation or cut yourself off from those friends if they can’t drop the subject. If you are in high school and hanging around the wrong crowd, it doesn’t matter whether you are into the bad stuff they are doing or not, keep hanging out with that group and eventually you will be doing what they are doing. What about adults? If you have a pattern of life you find acceptable when out of town on business that you would never find acceptable at home, then you need to cut yourself off from that activity.
You get the idea. The thing is, I have no idea where those challenges come in your life. So, I can no more tell you how to make all the decisions you need to make than you can make mine for me. But, I can suggest that if you are doing things you outright know are wrong, then you don’t need me telling you what they are anyway. For a gray area, where you are not so sure whether something is good or bad, pray about it for a while and see where God is leading your heart.
It might not be easy to make a change. Jesus knew that. That’s why he compared changing your way of living to lopping off parts of your body.
I want to finish with a story. A rich man’s limo driver retired. This was no small problem for the man as his house was at the end of a precarious narrow drive which wound steeply up a mountain. The man did not trust just anyone to drive the limo up that dangerous stretch of road. His staff culled out the top three prospects, ensuring that the candidates were well-experienced limo drivers. The man then interviewed the candidates after they had a chance to drive his car up the tricky driveway.
He asked the first driver, “How do you feel about the driveway? The edge is so close, could you drive my limo up it safely?”
“No problem,” the driver assured him. “I could come within a foot of the edge the whole way up and you would never be in danger. I have complete control of any car I drive.”
The second driver boasted, “I could drive so close to the edge that you would only see the drop to the forest below out your window and yet there wouldn’t be the slightest danger. I would have everything under control.”
When asked the same questions, the third driver said, “I could hug very tightly to the cliff wall without any danger that we would sideswipe the mountainside. We wouldn’t need to get too close to the edge.” He was hired on the spot. The man was not interested in the drivers who wanted to hug the outside edge of the driveway. He wanted the driver who stayed closer to the mountain.
You can stray a bit toward the edge and live. But Jesus warns that you really don’t know how far you can go without getting burned. So don’t test the boundaries like the stereotypical two-year-old, stay close to the center, where you’ll find the God who loves you has had a place for you all along.
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526