September 30, 2018, Cut It Out – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000100
I’m going to start this morning with two stories. I saw a story in the news just a few days ago about a 69-year-old man named Myron Schlafman who recently made a public statement about something that happened this past summer. Myron’s hand got caught in a meat-mixing machine while he was making sausage at his home. He said that he knew he would bleed to death if he didn’t sever his arm above the wrist and get it free from the machine. So he did. And when the first policemen arrived they were able to apply a tourniquet and stop his bleeding until the emergency medical help arrived. And so, Myron lost his hand, but he survived. He told his local radio news, “I’ve always appreciated life, but not as much as I do now.”
The other story is about a boy named Zach that we met 24 years ago, when our son Nicholas was in the hospital in Burlington. He was a really nice kid, very cheerful and friendly, about 10 years old at the time, and he was in the hospital because he had been having severe pains in one of his legs. His parents had taken him to the doctor to figure out what was causing the pain, and it turned out it was a type of cancer. The only treatment that would keep the cancer from spreading to the rest of his body was to amputate his leg, just below the knee. So when we met Zach he was preparing to go in to surgery to have his leg cut off.
I tell you the tragic stories of these two people, Myron and Zach, to illustrate a fairly obvious point. The reason for amputations, the reason people cut off an arm or a leg, or any other part of the body, is that if they don’t cut them off, they will die. Amputation is a horrible and painful thing, but when it comes down to making that decision, the only alternative to amputation is death.
An odd fact about the gospel passage we read just now, where Jesus talks about cutting off the hand or plucking out the eye that causes us to sin, is that it may be one of the only passages in the Bible that nobody ever thinks of taking literally. There are people who like to make literal applications of pretty much anything you might find in the Bible – there are churches who forbid women to cut their hair or talk in church, or require them to wear head coverings. There are churches who try to enforce the keeping of the dietary laws of the Mosaic covenant, there are any number of passages that Christians, over the years, have taken out of context and tried to make into literal, concrete laws. But to my knowledge, no church has ever seriously suggested amputation as a remedy for sin. Which is a good thing.
The problem is, in not taking Jesus’ words literally, we have also tended to not take them too seriously. We tend to read this passage lightly, I think, and with a sense of relief, because we know Jesus is being metaphorical here. And if we think about these verses at all, we tend to assume that Jesus warning us to avoid those things that might lead us into doing bad stuff. Kind of like a little reminders we might put on the refrigerator door to stop us when we are tempted to make ourselves a forbidden bedtime snack – something inspirational like “A minute on the lips, a lifetime on the hips”. Or maybe it’s something like the jar we keep where we make ourselves donate a dollar everytime we say a bad word. Or more seriously, we think it is like avoiding the company of people we used to hang out with at the bars, where we always ended up drinking way too much. That comes nearer the truth.
But here’s the thing. God isn’t all that concerned about you breaking your diet, or saying the F-word again, or drinking a few too many beers. There are things that are wise for us to work on in our lives. There are behaviors that are really stupid, or even harmful, that we certainly do well to avoid. But Jesus is talking about real sin here, not breaking rules, not being naughty. And sin, real sin, isn’t just bad for you – it will kill you. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote that sin comes from the longings and passions in our hearts, “which conceive and give birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
We can define the way of death easily enough, because it is the exact opposite of the way of life. We can sum that up in a single word: love. Love God, love your neighbor. That’s what Jesus told us. Abundant life is loving. So sin, simply put, is not-loving. It is really that simple, but it is anything but easy. Sin is the resentment and bitterness we feel against someone who hurt us deeply. It’s the contempt we feel for the person whose beliefs and lifestyle go against everything we hold dear. It’s the fear and mistrust we have for those who look and talk and act completely differently from us.
What makes sin so deadly serious is that it comes from inside of us, and it makes perfect sense to us. Sin isn’t some weird, inhuman activity. Most sin is logical, and justifiable, and reasonable.
It is entirely rational not to forgive a person that did something inexcusable to us; someone who hurt us in a way that can never be un-done. Years later, the wound is still raw to us, painful to the touch. How could we ever forgive them? How can we not hate them?
We are perfectly reasonable in holding someone in contempt if their beliefs are antithetical to everything we believe, maybe to everything Jesus ever taught. We can quote chapter and verse, endlessly, proving why their beliefs are not only wrong, but hateful. We may even be right.
We instinctively fear and mistrust people whose skin is a different color, who talk in a way that is strange to us, who worship a God who is unfamiliar to us, or who don’t believe in God at all. It’s not right, but it makes sense.
Sin festers in our most intimate experiences, our deepest pain, our earliest connections. Sin is conceived by the feelings and convictions that we allow to become part of our very selves. And when it is fully grown, it brings forth death.
Jesus said, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” Sin corrupts the way we see other people and the way we interpret what they say and do. If we refuse to forgive someone we stop being able to see them as they truly are, because we see them only through the distorted lens of our anger and bitterness. If we have been taught to fear someone we see only what is different and strange about them; we become blind to our commonalities as human beings. If we condemn someone, we can’t see anything but the splinter in their eye, and we become completely blind to the enormous log in our own eye. “Tear it out.” Jesus said. “It’s a whole lot better to live with one eye, than to have two eyes and end up in the hell of hatred and bitterness.”
Sin also influences what we say and do, it twists our choices and manipulates our impulses. If we hate someone in our hearts, we will do things we would never think ourselves capable of. Think of the horrific, cruel things that have been done by ordinary, nice people – people who were really no different from us – in time of war, or in a moment of passion, or in the midst of a mob. Sin – refusing to love our brother or sister – is like gangrene, that eats away at the spiritual tissue of our hearts and minds, and manifests itself in physical ways as well. Like cancer, sin spreads: from that first perfectly reasonable grudge or misgiving sin will grow into full-fledged, deadly hatred unless it is removed. Because sin is always malignant. And sin is always deadly.
But it isn’t inoperable. These words of Jesus, as disturbing as they are, are words of hope. But also, it is really important to realize that he’s not giving us an easy fix. If amputation is a hard and painful process, we’d better know that getting rid of the sin that infects us is at least as hard, and at least as painful. It can be a long, slow, bloody, painful process to cut away the rotting flesh of our prejudice, or to cut out the cancer of our unforgiveness, or to tear out the tangled root of our bitterness. It can take years, literally. But it will save our lives.
And we are not left to do it alone. If those two policemen hadn’t arrived quickly to put a tourniquet on Myron’s poor severed arm he would certainly have bled to death, even after the horror of cutting his own arm off. If Zach hadn’t had a team of surgeons and oncologists to safely perform the amputation, the cancer would have spread and he would certainly have died. We are not left to our own devices in dealing with the deadly sin in our lives. We have the help of the Great Physician, and no matter how hard and painful the process, we will live, and what’s more, we will live abundantly.