May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
Gospel readings like the one that I shared this morning make me nervous. It isn't because they might turn people away from Jesus or because they might cause people to consider the Christian Bible to be way out in left field – it is because people might actually take Jesus' words here seriously in a literal manner and carry out what he says to do! Without going into details I can tell you that an older pastor whom I respect once shared with me a letter written by a young man whom he was counseling. This young man was led to actually cut off a part of his own body because it was the main focus of an obsession, of negative, sinful behavior. In a fit of despair a young man suffering from mental illness was led to mutilate his own body because he picked up a Bible and read these very words, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off… if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out, for it is better for you to enter life maimed than to be thrown into hell.” And I have a feeling that it has happened on more than one occasion.
I do not believe that Jesus is telling people that they should literally cut off parts of their body so that they might not go to hell. First of all this message does not fit in with the overall themes of Jesus' life which have to do with healing, wholeness, being saved and experiencing joy and peace. Jesus is always interested in bringing things together, not driving them apart, and that refers to the physical body as well as the spiritual. The only driving out that he does is of demons when someone is possessed, but he never cuts off a part of their body so that they might live a demon-free life. He does everything that he can to restore them, save them and heal them. Shalom is a Jewish term which literally means peace and wholeness, and Jesus came to bring God's shalom. Encouraging people to cut off parts of their body do not promote wholeness but fracturing and discord.
Secondly, Jesus was pretty adept at using different kinds of literary devices meant to catch peoples' attention and to challenge them. One of the major ones is the parable – a story that is not historically true, but that contains truths about life that teach us what the Kingdom of God is all about. Another literary device is hyperbole, that intentional exaggeration which is also intended to capture a person's attention. I shared examples already with our children about hyperboles (For those reading online they are, “The King's nose was three feet long, my dad can lift over two tons, that food was so hot my ears were smoking, that boy runs fast than a car, I'm 20 feet tall this month, I must have walked over a hundred miles, he cried so long he made a lake, I'm so hungry I could eat a horse, and you have a million toys at your house!”) The purpose of using such a literary device is to emphasize a point that is very important to the speaker. This is what I believe Jesus is doing here – employing the literary method of hyperbole to stress a very important point. So the question is, what is so important that Jesus wants to get across to his listeners and to us?
Well, his exaggerations come in the context of welcoming, accepting and acknowledging. Just before this encounter Jesus was dealing with the disciples who were arguing over who among them was the greatest. He answered them back by saying that whoever is the greatest is the person who is the best servant of all, and that the first will be last in the social order of things. Now it appears that the disciples have witnessed someone outside of their group who has been casting out demons in Jesus' name. Imagine the disciples' jealousy since they were unable to cast out the demons from a boy shortly before this encounter!
Jesus' response is that no one who does a deed of power in his name will be able to speak evil of him. He turns the popular saying of, “Whoever is not for me is against me” on its head by saying, “Whoever is not against me is for me!” Jesus is not trying to cut people or things off from the kingdom of God; Jesus is trying to include people and things in the kingdom of God! He takes some drastic steps to do this – by challenging the hearers so much with threats of having hands, feet and eyes removed – but the whole reason behind it is to impress upon us just how important it is that the community of God be whole and united in our ministry on this earth so that we may be whole and united when we celebrate around the throne of God.
Let me give you an example of what I am talking about. Many of you probably know that about 6 years ago the ELCA decided to set a goal for ourselves of raising $15 million in an anti-Malaria campaign. I know that we gave to that project through some special offerings, VBS and I think through our outreach endowment. We celebrate the news recently that we reached that goal of $15 million! We Lutherans certainly are generous in our outreach aren't we!?! We can certainly pat ourselves on the back for doing this and other things to alleviate suffering in the world.
Well, a few weeks back I started noticing signs out front of Maple Grove United Methodist Church on the corner of Henderson road and High street. The signs were encouraging people to give to their United Methodist sponsored Anti-Malaria campaign. Well my first reaction was, “Hey – that's our thing! Don't they know that we Lutherans are supposed to be the ones who are ridding the world of malaria? How dare they horn in on our turf!” But the more I thought about it, the more I heard Jesus' words, “Whoever is not against me is for me.” Surely we Lutherans are not going to wipe out malaria by ourselves. It might even take more than us Lutherans and Methodists working together for it to happen. As a matter of fact, the more folks that we have in the ministry of healing the world of malaria and all kinds of disease, illness and evil, the more we are living into the kind of discipleship that Jesus is calling us to. He doesn't want us to cut off relationships with the Methodists any more than he would want someone to cut off their hand or foot. As a matter of fact, he wants his church to be whole, just as much as he wants his disciples to be whole!
This has been an issue with God's people going way back – Moses even had Eldad and Medad who missed the meeting of elders and still prophesied with the spirit just as much as the other 70 did! Anyone who shows hospitality or mercy in Jesus' name is one of us. For all of the many things that divide us and cut us off from each other, we have this promise, this fact. God desires that we not only love each other and follow Jesus as one, but that we experience the joy of eternal life as one. There are no threats in any of that, even though Jesus wanted to get our attention with some striking exaggerations. There is, though, a wonderful promise that where together we give others that cold cup of water to drink, there we proclaim to the world the unity that we share in Jesus, no matter our family names, denominations or affiliations! Thanks be to God that we are a whole body; may we celebrate our ministries and the ministries of all Christians in our neighborhood in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.