What I said this Sunday – Trinity 17

Here’s last Sunday’s sermon.

Mark 9.38-end

It has been called a sensational summer of sport.

Of course, we’re used to hyperbole from newspapers and television commentators, but for once they were right. And – against the expectations of so many crowning it all was what has now been called the greatest Olympics ever. And just in case you are inclined to believe all those who say that Britain is no longer ‘Great’ let me remind you that in both the regular Olympics and the Paralympics we came third in the medals table. The Paralympics were amazing. We were on holiday for most of it but I have caught up since with some of the footage. The biggest ever audience for a Paralympics. And how the athletes – both able-bodied and those with disabilities – have inspired us. The way that those with disabilities have been able to overcome those disabilities and compete on the world stage is truly amazing. And as for wheelchair rugby – from what I’ve read and seen it’s far more challenging than the regular game. The Paralympics have been so successful that some are now calling for it to be combined with the regular Olympics in future.

It can take a great deal of courage to overcome disabilities, and often those who are able-bodied have done little to help. Thankfully in this country we now have disability legislation to ensure those with disabilities can, as far as possible, live as full a life as the able-bodied. No-one, of course, chooses disability. So what are we to make of Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel where he seemingly and shockingly advocates inflicting disability upon yourself? He exhorts his listeners, “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. 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.”

I expect none of us would ever even contemplate such a thing. We certainly – I hope – wouldn’t contemplate doing such a thing to someone else, no matter how serious their offence! And we are horrified when we hear of regimes in other countries – mainly but not only Islamic countries following Sharia Law – who, for example, believe that an appropriate way to deal with the crime of theft is to amputate a hand or a foot.  How can anyone think that such barbaric countries are acceptable? And yet here we have Jesus suggesting that his listeners cut off their own hands or feet or pluck their eye out to stop themselves sinning. Of course, no-one ever took him at his word. Not at the time, and not since. It’s important to realize that in the Hebrew of Jesus’ time there was no easy way of expressing in the language shades of grey – it really was black or white. And in order to express the importance of dealing with sin Jesus uses an exaggerated emphasis to get his point across. Even in Jesus’ day no one took him at his word. There were no one-eyed or one-legged or one-handed people as a result of their own actions.

Let’s get this passage in som3e kind of context. The Gospel reading this week has a number of independent sayings, grouped together for convenience by Mark, but quite diverse in their meanings. The disciples are upset because someone who “is not one of us” is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Why are the disciples upset? Probably because earlier they themselves have been unable to cast out demons. Being human and somewhat fallible they are probably jealous and annoyed – so they try to stop the man. But Jesus welcomes all comers. In only the preceding verse as we heard last week Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Whoever does good, whoever shows love for others, he is saying, is showing it to my Father.

For Jesus refuses to separate people into “them” and “us”. Again and again he suggests ways of turning “them” into “us”, through the medium of love. “Love your neighbours,” he says, “love your enemies.” Because if we really love people in the way that Jesus loves them, they become not outsiders to be hated and feared but part of our community. But because it is difficult to do that, Jesus suggests radical surgery. He says that we should excise those parts of our ego which prevent us from loving others. Just as he tells the comic story of the man trying to remove a speck from his friend’s eye when he has a plank in his own eye, so here he tells his friends to look to themselves, not to judge other people: “If your own hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.”

Essentially he is saying that there may be aspects of our personality, our behaviour, our attitudes, that dis-able us as people – that prevent us from becoming the ‘whole’ people that God calls us to be. For we are called to get rid of anything that gets in the way of love. Throughout the Old Testament there is a recurring refrain: Be perfect, even as God is perfect. We must work actively to overcome those things that get in the way of that perfection. Even though true perfection is impossible in this life, for we all sin and fall short of God’s glory as Saint Paul puts it, that is what we must aim for.

And he goes on to suggest that his disciples should be like salt, flavouring the whole population and helping to preserve people. But, he says, salt only works when it is fresh. If it loses its essential saltiness, it is useless. One way of remaining salty is to recognise when we put stumbling blocks in the way of others reaching God. Perhaps the answer is always to keep love at the top of our value list and to look to our own faults rather than judging others. Let us never become like a sort of Christian Taliban, demanding dire punishments for those who do not follow our ways.

For Jesus welcomed everyone, no matter who or what they were. And he taught his disciples to do the same.