Sermon Given September 26, 2021
If I kept a list of my least favorite Bible verses, today’s Gospel lesson would be on it. I’m an LGBTQ person in America, I’ve heard enough people telling me that I’m going to hell that my brain often connects a core part of my identity to fire and brimstone language. That’s even with growing up in a household with parents who are allies and taught me different lessons about homosexuality and the Bible. In American Christianity, there’s simply become this overwhelming link between hell and gayness. We don’t often talk about one without talking about the other. At least, that was my experience growing up, even while I was being taught an open and inclusive Christianity. I still heard the street preachers. I still saw Jerry Falwell on TV. I still had debates with my friends about the topic. I still learned the link, if nothing else because I had to defend myself against it.
So when Jesus talks about hell, I get nervous. I don’t like it. I want to separate myself from it, because I know some people who think that’s my destiny. Even if I don’t think that’s true, that hurts. So I look at scriptures like today’s and I see Jesus asking me to cut off pieces of my identity, some things that I love most about myself, in the name of conformity, of fitting into a particular Christian culture that I’m honestly not interested in joining.
But if we peel back the layers of American theological debate, if we break this bond between hell and gay or hell and any particular identity, what do we find without all that garbage?
I won’t say that the passage gets any easier. I don’t think we are called to be the kind of people who feel good about a passage that talks about getting hands and feet cut off. That language is meant to disturb us into attention. It’s supposed to make our stomachs jump and flutter a bit. Jesus is calling us to sit up a little taller in our chairs and lean in. But what is the message?
This passage starts directly after last week’s passage. Jesus is still in a house in Capernaum with his disciples, having just taught them that those who want to be first must be servant of all. Jesus has just placed a child on his knee and asked them to welcome such a child as they would welcome him. They are talking about welcoming and being servants of those around them. It is in this context that John tells Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.”
They discovered this person who wasn’t part of their movement using Jesus’ name for miracle work. Surely Jesus would want to stop that. Surely Jesus would want to have control of what happened in his name. But Jesus is just fine with that healer doing their thing in the name of Jesus. Jesus tells the disciples, “Whoever isn’t against us is for us.” In other words, don’t try to control it all. If someone is doing good, that’s enough.
Jesus then goes on. If someone is trying to do the right thing in Jesus’ name, trying to learn and grow in their faith, and another leads them astray, it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the one guiding them in the wrong direction. Teachers have the greatest responsibility. We have to be careful not to let our hang ups and our sins get in the way. It is not a light responsibility to act as a servant to another. It takes a lot of setting yourself aside and working together.
It’s within this context that Jesus starts talking about chopping off hands and feet. It’s not about chopping out parts of your identity, things that make you a whole and complete person, it’s about removing things that get in the way. It’s about allowing yourself to be present with others without your baggage hanging over it all. Sometimes, moving or removing that baggage feels like chopping yourself apart. It’s painful, necessary work.
As part of my chaplaincy training, I spent two weeks with people in addiction recovery. I wasn’t a teacher, I was a fellow student. We didn’t pretend I had any addictions, they knew who I was, but I worked the program alongside them. And I saw within the program a framework for people to excise those things from themselves that caused shame and guilt, turning instead towards helping each other. One of the first assignments was to make a list of fifteen things you had done wrong, listing whether they were done while sober or intoxicated, have others who had already done this assignment review the list and make suggestions before reading the list aloud in group. You didn’t just make the list once either. This happened three times. Three times, you were required to share fifteen things you had done wrong, that you felt shame about, with a group of people. After each time, those who had finished this level would give feedback, then there would be a group acknowledgement that these things were shameful, sometimes downright evil, but they no longer had to define us. We had the ability to leave those things behind and start new.
The process was agonizing, especially since I don’t have an addiction. While I heard many lists of what people did drunk or high, my lists were overwhelmingly things I did sober. These were all things that made me feel like a bad person, like a terrible human being, and I had to share them with a group of twenty people. But there was also catharsis in doing so. This program, based in AA, taught me the purpose of confession, what we call in our prayer book the Rite of Reconciliation. The act of saying it outloud somehow broke the hold that these actions had on me, the feeling that I would somehow be less if all these things were known. It allowed me to cut them off, to leave them behind, and to not play them over in my head in the middle of the night. Shame survives and thrives in silence and secrecy. Once it is said out loud, once it is confessed, it loses a lot of its luster and power. The central belief of the Alcoholics Anonymous program is that when shame is controlled and expressed, addiction can be tamed. When we express our guilt and shame out loud to another and seek amends, we have better control of ourselves and better connection with God and each other. Jesus says to us today, strip yourself of all that junk that holds you back. Cut it off. Pluck it out. Otherwise, it has the power to consume you. After sharing my lists with the group, I shared them in the rite of reconciliation with my spiritual mentor and friend. After going through them, before the words of absolution, she said, “I bet it feels good to let that go.” Then she promised that God forgave all of them. Every single one.
These things that hold us back, that keep us in cycles of self-destructive behavior, can kill us if we don’t deal with them. They can destroy relationships, cause others harm, and throw us into a pit of despair. Jesus says that they can even throw us into the fires of hell. The hell Jesus is referring to here is not Dante’s Inferno. He’s not talking about getting poked by red demons with pitchforks. He’s referring to Gehenna, also known as the Valley of Hinnom, right outside of Jerusalem. This is the place where some Israelites, in direct disobedience of their LORD God, made burnt offerings of their children to the god Moloch, hundreds of years before Jesus walked the earth. They murdered kids in order to find favor with a god who did not exist. They threw everything into the wrong thing. They were consumed by this horror. This valley is where everything wrong became justified, where people took the shameful things that should never be done and embraced them, calling them good. It was a place of torture and torment, where innocence was lost. It was a place of evil. Jesus says, don’t go there. Don’t allow yourself to get pulled into that kind of mindset. Don’t lose the value of others as you are consumed by your own baggage. That’s not God. That’s not good. Cut those things off that lead you to that valley. It will only bring death.
Instead, learn how to deal with your own stuff. We’ve all got things that aren’t healthy, that aren’t life giving, that eat us up. We don’t have to let them destroy us. They don’t need to define us.
And sometimes, we need an outsider, someone who isn’t part of the group, to make us even stronger. Whoever isn’t against us is for us.
Let’s not let our stuff get in the way of what God is doing. Let’s not twist evil things into something that calls itself good. Instead, let’s move boldly forward, confessing our sins in assurance of God’s forgiveness and mercy. Amen.