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 Spare a Hand for Jesus

Sermon - 9/30/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 9:42-38

So our text this morning continues from the text we looked at last week (for those who were here), from the ninth chapter of Mark's gospel. In that story, you'll recall, Jesus is teaching about the meaning of discipleship, and to illustrate this notion that the first must be last and a servant of all he brings a child into their midst and embraces that child and says "Whoever welcomes such a child welcomes me".

So we continue this morning, and read in the ninth chapter of Mark, versus 42 through 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.


Just checking to see how many two-eyed people we have this morning :)

So, in 1731, a congregational preacher by the name of Jonathan M. Edwards gave a sermon in Northampton, Massachusetts, that began a revival across the colonies known as the "First Great Awakening" in this country. It's estimated that the result of that revival was a quadrupling of church membership across the colonies. Ten years later, Edwards preached another sermon which helped spur the second wave of that Great Awakening that is considered a classic in American literature, actually. That sermon is "Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God".

In that sermon, Edwards said: "The bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart and strains the bow. It is nothing but the mere pleasure of God -- and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood".

Really good stuff, right? "Oh, sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in! Tis' a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath that you are held over in the hand of God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in Hell. You hang by a slender thread with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it and ready every moment to singe it and send you asunder and burn it off. And nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment".

What a fun guy :) Finally, we got good preaching! The irony is that Edwards was not known as a fire-and-brimstone preacher. He was actually known as a very soft-spoken, intellectual guy. Much the product of the of the Enlightenment, who used reason and ration to appeal to people. And his main point was that were it not for the grace of God, expressed through the sacrifice of Jesus, we'd all be lost. We'd be doomed. And though his preaching sparked a revival across the colonies, his own congregation grew tired of it and they fired him. So you wonder why I don't preach that way :)

So, I have to tell you, I got this far in my sermon preparation this week, when Judy and I watched the movie "Cabin in the Woods", produced by Joss Whedon. Oh, my, gosh! How many have seen it? Well, I won't spoil it, but it's recommended by our daughter. The first thing I have to say, is if you are bothered by gore or violence, do NOT watch this movie. I told Paulina that I was convinced that Whedon grew up Southern Baptist where they always sing hymns about the blood of Jesus. Because he has no problem with blood, and lots of it. Paulina says if you do not like the movie, you cannot be her friend, just so you know :)

Some people have asked me, when are we going to start Theology on Tap again, and after watching this movie, I thought this would be a great one for conversation. And the question I'd want to ask is: Does God require sacrifice for an atonement for sin? Because I think that's the question that is underneath the movie. Of course, my kids say I see theology in every movie :) So please do not go watch the movie thinking you're going to see a nice religious film -- not even close to that. I thought about using a clip from the film, but somehow flesh-eating zombies in worship didn't seem to fit very well :)

But the question I want to discuss with those who have seen it, or go see it, is precisely the question raised for me by Edwards' sermon 260 years ago. Mainly, is God really that angry with us? Is that what we want to teach about God? That God will send us to eternal damnation for our terrible sin. Is that what Jesus taught?

What if God is moved more by compassion to save than anger to destroy? Isn't that the God we have come to know and love and to worship?

Now, of course, anger can be a great motivator, right? Ask any football coach. When your football team is an underdog and gets no respect (not that I would know anything about that as a Duck :). But what kind of energy does anger create? And is that the kind of energy that we want to claim for God? Is it the kind of energy we want to claim for ourselves? If you fill your life with anger, you're not going to be a very happy person. So I choose compassion. And I choose to believe that God does too. I just don't buy the idea that God can be so small as to be offended by our attitudes toward God.

When we were in Fresno, there was a Pastor of another Disciple congregation nearby who told us that the Elders of the congregation called on every single visitor to the church. Immediately after coming to church, an Elder would call, have a nice cup of coffee together in their home and nonchalantly would ask: "So, if you died tomorrow, are you going to heaven or hell". I'm convinced that religion that is focused on heaven and hell is the ultimate narcissism -- it's all about me, and my eternal destiny. I'm sorry, but that is not the Christian faith that I know, that I profess.

By the way, that congregation has since left the fold, is no longer a Disciple congregation (no surprise).

So what do we do with a text like this, that assumes the existence of a literal Hell which we understandably should go to extremes to avoid? Even if it means self-mutilation. One approach is like that of the Jesus Seminar, that says more likely this is the voice of the early church than it is of the historical Jesus. In other words, this is an example of how the message of Jesus gets altered by the end-of-the-world heaven-or-hell kind of thinking that was prevalent in the wake of that terrible war on Jerusalem just about the time the gospel of Mark was written.

And while that approach can be helpful, the reality is that this is still part of the Gospel on the lips of Jesus, so it's not something we can ignore or write-off, even if it was not recorded in the exact way Jesus said it.

So, I do not accept the premise of a physical Hell filled with fire and brimstone. Did you notice here it's not brimstone -- it's fire and maggots. Read the text, the 'worm' that it talks about, that was part of the image of that time. I'll take brimstone over maggots any day :)

But for me, Hell is is a metaphor, for that life without God, that life in opposition to God, turned against God.

So what I do accept and affirm in this text is the seriousness of discipleship contained in these sayings. Being a disciple of Jesus is not an casual, light-hearted thing. Committing to the way of Jesus is serious business.

Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote, in the "Cost of Discipleship", that Christian classic: "When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die". Now, even though Bonheoffer himself became a martyr of Christian faith at the hands of Adolf Hitler, I have no doubt that when he wrote that book in 1937 that was the furthest thing from his mind. He did not mean that literally, he was speaking metaphorically, of the ways in which we are called to new life in Christ. Continuing on, he writes: "It may be a death like that of the first disciples, who had to leave home and work to follow him. Or it may be a death like of Luther's, who had to leave the monastery and go into the world. But it is the same death every time. Death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old at his call".

So we often speak of baptism in this kind of language. As participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Baptism is a metaphor, in action, being buried in the watery grave and raised again, symbolizing the transformation from an old way of life to a new way. From the way of the world to the way of Christ.

Jesus uses here two other metaphors, to emphasize the seriousness of the way. This image of the millstone hung around the neck, and amputation. Now, neither are meant literally -- I hope that's obvious. Both are meant seriously. So imagine with me for a moment a conversation between King David and Jesus (use your imagination).

David confides in Jesus: "I just saw this beautiful woman bathing, and I couldn't resist, she was so beautiful, I was filled with such desire for her".

Jesus: "If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out :) It's better you build a kingdom with one eye, that you enter Hell with two".

David: "Oh my gosh, what do I do? Do I have to pluck it out myself, or do I get someone else to pluck it out?"

Jesus: "It's a metaphor, you idiot! How'd you get to be King?!"

David: "Oh, what a relief! You really had me worried, Jesus".

Jesus: "If you're relieved, you don't understand a thing of what I'm saying. Compared to what you need to do, plucking out an eye is easy".

David: "Well, what then must I do?"

Jesus: "You need to look carefully at the lust on your heart, and ask 'What is it that you need to cut out of your life to avoid the evil you otherwise will do'".

And David went away very sad because he had much evil on his heart for the husband of Bathsheba.

You see, these are gruesome images which by design are shocking. It's kind of why that Whedon film works. But the point is not self-mutilation, it's self-examination. They are designed to wake us up, to get us to take a hard look at our lives. Are we being faithful to our calling in Christ in every part of our lives? Or just in that part that comes to church on Sunday morning?

Does our calendar and our bank account reflect the values and faith that we profess? And if not, are there parts that we need to cut out, that we need to change? So maybe Jesus didn't use these exact words (and I don't believe he used threats of Hell to make his point), but regardless, there's plenty of evidence that he could be very direct and even harsh when he needed to be. Telling that rich man that he lacked just one thing, he needed to go sell everything he had and give it to the poor. Telling the Pharisees that they were being hypocritical, washing the outside of the cup and ignoring the inside. Telling the angry mob whoever is without sin may cast the first stone.

Now, I am not particularly big on the idea of telling people they should consider self-mutilation as a way to get right with God. I have a hunch it would not be an effective evangelism tool :) But if we believe being a follower of Jesus really does mean something, then maybe we should not be shy about laying it on the line to show we are serious about our faith.

If we accept our roles as stewards of God's earth, and the conclusion of the great majority of scientists (save those running for Congress ) that climate change is a reality, then maybe we need to say clearly that following Jesus means cutting back (if not cutting out) our use of fossil fuels.

If we believe Christ really is present among the hungry and the homeless (as Jesus says in Matthew 25), then maybe we should include in our confession of faith how we intend to show God's preferential option for the poor.

If we value the role of education, not only in our faith but also for the good of society, and that God calls us, as Paul writes, 'to the renewal of our minds', then maybe our support of public education should be more than vocal. Adopting a school, or assisting with after-school programs, or starting a program of our own as part of our mission.

I'm simply suggesting to show that we are ever as serious as Jesus is about our faith, instead of cutting off a hand, maybe we can give a hand to someone in need.

Instead of cutting off a foot, maybe we can go the extra mile, walk in that crop-walk for the hungry, put our feet where our mouths are.

Instead of plucking out an eye, maybe we can open our eyes to see Christ in the midst of this world where we often least expect. And then to help others.

To see the way God would, that we live as disciples of Jesus.

Maybe. Do you suppose we can?


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