This is the text of a sermon for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture it references is Mark 9:38-50.
If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off…
It’s an extreme image, even for Jesus, who didn’t shy away from speaking bluntly. At our lectionary group on Tuesday, one of the ministers who comes told us that it is within the memory of his congregation that they had a person there who did indeed cut off his foot, in the belief that this would help him to be closer to God.
To most of us, it seems immediately obvious both that Jesus meant this saying more metaphorically, and that in fact it’s not our feet, our hands or our eyes which cause us to stumble in the sense that he meant it. The danger for us, though, is that having got that far in thinking about this saying of Jesus we might go no further with it.
To stumble, in this sense, is to sin; and in the Scriptures it’s a term used of three different kinds of fault; doing the wrong thing, the immoral thing; accepting wrong teaching; or refusing to believe. We are used to thinking of sin as “doing the wrong thing,” – even if traditionally Christians have obsessed far more over some types of wrong doing than others – but I think particularly in our secular, pluralistic, multicultural society it is hard for us to get our heads around the idea that accepting wrong teaching or refusing to believe in God are sinful, and perhaps even have dire consequences.
So that sends us back to first principles. How do we define sin? I often suspect that although we come here, week by week, and confess our sin, we are comfortable to be a little bit vague about the specifics; to move very quickly from the idea that we have sinned to the idea that we are forgiven, and to focus on what makes us feel good about our relationship with God. But I’m going to take this morning’s reading as an invitation to cut through some of that vagueness.
While the Scriptures have a very great deal to say about sin, to my knowledge there is only one place – in 1 John – that attempts a clear definition of sin. John tells us that “sin is lawlessness.” And when we remember that Jesus told us that the law could be summed up in two commandments, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, we could expand the idea that “sin is lawlessness” to say “sin is the failure to love God with your whole self, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”
I think that’s a useful definition because it helps us to understand why accepting wrong religious teaching can be a sin; if you believe something about God which is not true, that’s not accepting God on God’s terms; it’s not loving God for who God is. It’s a bit like if someone tells me a lie about someone else, and I believe it without putting in the effort to investigate it or to find out the truth; that’s not loving of me towards the person who’s been lied about. Taking the time to find out the truth about God is part and parcel of loving God; otherwise you might just be having warm fuzzy feelings about an illusion, your own fantasy of God, rather than the reality.
Anyway. So. Sin is the failure to love God with your whole self, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
But – getting back to what Jesus said about cutting off and tearing out what causes us to sin – I wonder how often we actually ask ourselves what those causes are?
There’s a famous – and fascinating – study which was done at Princeton University in 1970. In it, seminary students were told to prepare a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then sent to the other side of the campus to give the talk. One group of students was told to hurry, and the other group was told that they had more than enough time. On the way, they each encountered an actor slumped in an alley apparently in need of help.
What was interesting about this study was that the students who were told to hurry did not stop to help the apparent victim; the students who were told they had plenty of time, did stop and help. All of them were seminary students, devout, committed Christians; but being in a hurry to be somewhere else crowded out their ability to love their neighbor.
And I can relate to that. If I’m honest with you about what causes me to fail to love God with my whole self, the answer is that frankly I’m too busy. I get a particularly seductive version of that, too, because if I’m busy with my work, well, it’s God’s work, right, and that’s a good thing, so it can’t be sinful for me to be doing more of that, can it?
But the truth I need to own up to is that it doesn’t matter how many sermons I write, how many pastoral conversations I have, how many activities I plan or emails I answer; if I haven’t made time to be with God, to connect with God and build genuine relationship… well, I’m not really loving God with my whole self, and I’m not giving God the time and space to be at work in me.
That’s my sin. And I can make excuses; mum of a young child, priest, too many responsibilities and not enough sleep, but perhaps what this reading is asking me to do is figure out what in my life might need to go, in order to make the time I say I don’t have. I might even need to let go of my own pride and ego and be more willing to ask for help; even though some days that makes cutting off a foot sound appealing!
I’m sure I’m not alone in this. The specifics may vary from person to person but the underlying problem is the same. It is easy to get caught up in our own wants, our own fears, our own priorities, and forget that all of those things are ultimately temporary. Love of God and love of neighbor have more enduring implications, as Jesus so starkly reminded his hearers with his description of hell.
I don’t want to get all “fire and brimstone” on you. I don’t think it’s very encouraging or helpful, generally, nor do I want to try to guilt trip or frighten you into doing what I think you should. That’s not what this is about.
So I’m going to leave you with questions to take away and ponder on your own; what is it that gets in the way, for you, of loving God with your whole self? What is it that gets in the way of loving your neighbor? What is one thing – just one thing – that you can do to shift one of those things that get in the way? You don’t have to fix everything all at once, but even one thing will make a difference; and then when you can see the difference, that’s encouraging and it’s easier to build a sense of momentum and progress.
And after all, even small things matter; Jesus said that whoever gave so much as a cup of water would by no means lose the reward.