The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 30, 2018
Thanks be to God – the Astros are going back to the playoffs. It’s unfathomable, isn’t it? We watched them toil away in misery for years, and now, now, look at us. You remember just how awful those years were? Made worse only when the management traded away our favorite players. I was gutted when they traded Lance Berkman, then it was Hunter Pence, then it was Houston native Michael Bourn. And for what? We just kept on losing.
Of course, I now realize, just how short-sighted I was. And that my calling is to be a priest, not a baseball manager. The Astros, apparently, were willing to endure some short term pain for long term glory. Getting rid of Berkman, Pence, and Bourne, in the end, was worth it because we were able to get Altuve, Correa, and Bregman. We now have a World Series ring. And another playoff spot. It was worth trading away our favorites so that we could achieve that one great thing.
Jesus says, “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, to the unquenchable fire.” And so on and so forth with feet and eyes. Granted, this is one of the most difficult sayings of Jesus. Many a modern Christian have shied away from this passage because it seems so, brutal. But take a lesson from the Astros management; they understood this. I think there are some fundamental Christian truths we can glean from this, admittedly, tough passage.
Remember, this is all set up by the disciple John ratting out this stranger casting out demons in the name of Jesus. “Teacher,” John says, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Jesus has such a great reply: “whoever is not against us is for us.”
How can you be upset that, even though we got rid of our favorite players, we’re now in the playoffs? How can you be upset that people with demons are being healed? Look at the bigger picture. People are being freed. Demons are being cast out. People are being made new again. That’s the whole point, how could you be upset? Who cares whether this other man is one of the disciples of Jesus or not?
This, I think, is the proper way to look at this part about cutting off hands and feet. Jesus is not talking about hands and feet. He’s talking about the things we do, the things we have, that need to go. Things that we do and things that we have that are actually holding us back from a better life with God. That prevent us from seeing the bigger picture. It will be painful to let them go, yes. It will hurt, yes. It will feel as if we’re cutting off part of our body, yes. But the end result, the whole point, is that we will be more open to God’s love.
In other words, the way we’re living now is not good for us. To use the word that Jesus used, parts of our lives are hell. Now let’s be precise about that word; the word for “hell” used here is actually the name of the trash dump that was outside ancient Jerusalem. It was a burning, stinking, nasty place to be. It was the place where no one wanted to go. Jesus is using the image of the burning trash pile and saying, “is that what you want your life to look like?”
So, the options before us are clear. We can hang onto our old ways, we can hang on to the dumpster fire in our own life because it’s what we know. We’ve grown accustomed it. It’s our dumpster fire. The Astros could have kept those players and just kept on losing. In our pride, we could say that only people with the proper credentials can do things in the name of Jesus. Or we can do the painful thing and ask Jesus to help us to put out the fire, to do the painful thing and try living a better life, a holier life. To cut off those things that are putting us in that hellish place. We can ask Jesus to put out our dumpster fire.
It’s a tall order, to figure out what is burning in your life. To see what needs to be chopped out. It’s going to be hard, actually pulling out your credit card statement to see what it is that is keeping you from God. You might see a dumpster fire there. You might see that what you pay for cable tv is more than what you give to charity. You might see the envy you have for others. You might see that you depend on your money for your status, instead of depending on God’s love for your status. It’s going to be difficult, counting up the hours in your day. To see that you waste a whole lot of time talking about how you don’t have any time. To see that you can stare at Facebook for an hour but can barely pray for five minutes. Hell is the attitude, the dumpster fires of our own creation, that eat away our souls. And I tell you, some of those attitudes need to be chopped off and thrown away because they are holding us back from a better life with God.
And it’s a tall order, for us, as a culture, to look at ourselves. To see truly who we are and what we have become. To see the hells that we have created. A culture that refuses to listen. A culture that blames, objectifies, degrades, and shames. A culture that explains away evil as if it was of no consequence. And now I look at all the children entrusted to me in this church, and with tears in my eyes I see the culture in which they are being raised, and I’m heartbroken.
These are not politically expedient remarks, though they may be heard as such. Be that as it may. No, this dumpster fire has been going on a long time, long before I was around, long before you were around. This dumpster fire, this hell, has always consumed the heart of humanity. As Ecclesiastes says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” It has gone by many names, but we Christians call it sin. Sin is not just the things that we do. No, Sin is the power that hardens hearts, closes up ears. The power of Sin stokes the dumpster fire that is our common life. And I tell you, these sins of degradation, humiliation, and shame are holding us back – both men and women – from seeing the fullness of God.
But in Christ, there is hope. Jesus Christ himself, in these hard words from today, ought to give us courage to cut off those things from our life that we all thought were okay – the objectification, the little comments, the hurtful discourse, the sins – so that we can enter new life, together.
And on this day that we are celebrating the baptism of Michael Scott Richardson II, we take courage. We take courage that God has already done the chopping off for us. Jesus Christ has already broken down the gates of death, hell, and sin. Jesus Christ has already died so that we can live. We can stare into those baptismal waters with courage, courage to see who is calling us to become, a holy people.
That’s the whole point of this passage. That’s what Jesus is so desperately trying to get across. To peer into that baptismal font and see that some things in our life need to be drowned, and that Jesus is willing to do it for us. Part of us needs to die in those waters, so that something more beautiful, more righteous can come up out of it.
I realize full well that this may seem to be an odd sermon during a pledge campaign. But in fact, it all comes together. Because in the end, all I am asking you to do is to assess your own life in light of the love that God has for you. I am asking you to look at your giving, your habits, your behaviors – your identity – are you with Jesus or against Jesus?
Tomorrow morning, when you stare at yourself in the mirror to shave or to put on your makeup, take a hard look. Do you see the person Jesus is calling you to become? Do you see a Christian, whose whole life – time, money, words, actions – are glorifying God? And when you pop open the news on your tv, on your phone, take a hard look. And let that screen be a mirror on our society. See the things that we hang on to that are doing us no good, that are stoking these hellish fires.
And as you walk out of this church, peer into that baptismal font. And let those waters run down over your soul and Jesus will put out that dumpster fire. Because Jesus is calling you to become someone new.