In the first years of my ministry I worked in areas where there weren’t a lot of other young women clergy. The typical ‘uniform’ for me back then was black pants and a women’s black clergy blouse that was for some reason cut exactly like a man’s shirt. One day after the newness of wearing the collar had worn off I remember looking in the mirror and realizing with horror that the person staring back at me was basically a female version of Johnny Cash.
But what could I do? At the time I didn’t know of any clergy fashion alternatives, so I chose to embrace my inner-Johnny Cash. I continued to wear an almost all black ensemble- even in the summer, and I was taking guitar lessons and learning how to do what my teacher called the “boom-chicka-boom” strum that he made famous. Actually that’s about the end of what I have in common with Cash. I’m guessing that Cash’s story is not too dissimilar from others in the entertainment business- he had his struggles with alcohol and drugs and was arrested multiple times for causing trouble related to that before finding sobriety. I was struck by this quotation about Cash that was on one of the movie posters for Walk the Line, the biopic about his life. It reads that “Cash began a rough-and-tumble journey of personal transformation…he evolved from a self-destructive pop star into the iconic Man in Black, facing down his demons, fighting for the love that would raise him up, and learning how to walk the razor-thin line between destruction and redemption.”
“…Learning to walk the razor thin line between destruction and redemption…”
You know I’m not sure that you have to be a troubled pop star to relate to that. Maybe you find destruction a bit melodramatic- swap it for something milder if you want- but it sounds a lot like life actually, and it’s a good description for a journey of faith. Or at least, it’s the picture that Jesus is painting in Mark’s gospel this morning.
If your hand causes you to stumble, CUT IT OFF! If your eye causes you to stumble- TEAR IT OUT! And it’s very clear that these aren’t suggestions they’re imperatives, because it’s better that we should enter life, enter the Kingdom of Heaven lame or maimed than to be thrown into hell.
I’m not any happier about this Gospel than you are by the way.
Jesus is exaggerating intentionally to make a point. There may be isolated incidents where people have cut off hands or plucked out their eyeballs, but as a rule, even the most committed Biblical literalists interpret this passage metaphorically. Jesus doesn’t want us to take him literally. But he does want us to feel the urgency behind his words, and he wants us to take that sense of urgency seriously.
Why did Jesus feel that sense of urgency? What was he so riled up about anyway? Leading up to this story in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is rejected in his home town of Nazareth, John the Baptist loses his life, the Pharisees are starting to rally serious criticisms against him; and even his closest disciples are missing the point. Whoever wants to gain their life must lose it, Jesus said in a gospel we heard just a few weeks ago. But life is hard, and people did lose their faith. They were distracted by worldly concerns, by their pursuit of wealth and by their desire for other things.
2000 years later, these things are still distractions. In fact, they’re probably the main distractions for many of us. Losing faith doesn’t always mean that people stop believing. Sometimes God just gets replaced by something else.
In his book The Soul of Politics, Jim Wallis talks about these distractions, though he calls them materialism and over-consumption. He describes the ways that it contributes to injustice and to the damage of our own souls. In our society he says, there is…“always more to buy but nowhere to find meaning…”
Wallis and many others have gone as far as calling consumerism one of the socially accepted western addictions. As someone who regularly goes into Target determined only to buy toilet paper and walking out with a DVD, a new sweater, a book, and a Starbucks coffee, and maybe even the toilet paper, I think that they might be onto something.
I don’t need all of that stuff! I wonder though how many of us decide what we want and need by what others have and by what the stores can provide, and in some cases by how much credit a bank is willing to grant. We organize our lives around what we need, right? And in the end, our possessions end up possessing us.
In certain parts of the world people still live in relatively close proximity to monkeys. They’ve had to learn how to catch them without harming them, and they’ve found that they can catch even the larger ones by using just a small cage. What they do is put a banana in the cage and close it up, leaving an opening large enough for the monkey’s hand, but not for the hand clasped around a banana. A monkey comes along and sees it, reaches into the cage and grabs the fruit and all of a sudden finds itself trapped even though its outside of the cage. The monkey could set itself free by letting go. But it won’t.
You know, sometimes the very thing that we cling to or that we grasp for to make us feel whole and good and safe is the very thing that makes us trapped. It’s a cruel irony, isn’t it?
The love of God and a journey of faith can make us whole and can set us free. But we have to let go of stuff that has become important to us in order to receive it. You don’t have to become like mother Teresa. You just have to create time and space in your life for God.
Belgian naturalist Charles Dubois said that “the important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for who we could become.”
Wherever you are on that journey of faith- whether you’re walking that razor thin line between destruction and redemption or whether you feel more stable than that- I bet you can think of something that is holding you back- something that is preventing you from knowing God on a deeper level.
Let it go. Cut it out of your life. You won’t be who you were before. But what you leave behind cannot compare with who you will become as you embrace the love and freedom we have in the crucified and living Christ.