WTH? // Pastor Katy McCallum Sachse // September 27, 2015 // Mark 9:38-50
Well, that’s a great reading, right? Feels like gospel? Feels like good news?
There are conversations to be had about this text today. Not boring, at the least.
What I want to invite you to do first is to find one or two people close to you, maybe intentionally find somebody you don’t know, introduce yourselves, and then – because this is a light topic of conversation for someone you just met – I’d like you to share for a moment or two, what is it that comes to mind first when you hear the word, hell. So, introduce, meet each other, and then lightly talk about hell for two minutes.
Okay. So, what did we come up with? What did you hear?
I came up with a few things. I find that you can’t possibly talk about hell without at least one reference to The Far Side (slide).
There are plenty of famous quotes about hell, one of which is from Jean-Paul Satre; personally, I prefer a slight variation on that theme.
Hell is an interesting topic. It’s not one that comes up all that often, actually – the Bible mentions hell a lot less than you might think, given the number of people who stand on street corners and yell about it. Mostly, in those cases, hell is a fear tactic. If you do something wrong, if you put a foot over the line, if you are the wrong kind of person from the wrong religion or you make the wrong decision, then, this is what’s waiting for you after you die.
Jesus doesn’t talk about hell much at all. But he sure does today, in this passage from Mark, and so it’s worth us talking and thinking about it too. What on earth does this passage mean for us?
This is an odd passage, but let’s start out with the assumption that it has to be consistent with everything else Jesus does. I don’t think Jesus woke up on this particular day and decided, you know just for today, I’m going to threaten these people with eternal damnation, but after that, I’m totally going back to love. It’s not consistent. Jesus is about healing and restoring and wholeness, not mutilation and fear and intimidation.
So, fine. If hell is not a threat, it’s not hanging over your head to make you behave, then what is it? Then what is this passage about? Let’s think about that a little.
There’s a clue in the text around this, and it comes from the word itself, the word hell. Jesus is using a specific word. We translate it hell, but the word Jesus uses is an Aramaic word, a proper name. Gehenna. And this is significant. Because Gehenna was an actual location at the time, in Jerusalem. It was outside the walls of Jerusalem; it was the garbage heap, the landfill, for the city. And in the first century, there’s no sanitation system, no running water, no sorting your recyclables – everything goes into this heap. People burned stuff there, because you needed to get rid of it. So it was on fire, all the time. And it was full of all the disgusting stuff you don’t want to think about: food waste, human waste, animal waste, everything. Everything people wanted to get rid of, never see again, never deal with. And it stayed there.
This means when Jesus is talking about ‘hell,’ his original hearers would not have heard the same thing we do. Not a place of eternal damnation where the devil is going to poke you with a pitchfork or make you solve story problems for eternity, but the landfill. The garbage dump. It was real. The hell that he was talking about did exist. It was between and among and around and within his people, right there. It was a place of pain, and danger, and fear, and death. It wasn’t waiting for them after they died. It was next door.
So what about all this cutting off your arms and legs business? This doesn’t sound much like anything else Jesus says either.
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out. If you are harming someone else because of your foot, get rid of it. It’s hard to get past the visceral reaction to that.
So what if we back up a step and think instead about what we do with our hands, our eyes, and our feet? My hands reach out to the people I love. I use them to cook, and caress, and connect. And I can use my hands to type a nasty comment in an email or on Facebook. I walk past someone who is asking for money, and my hand grips my purse extra hard – not just because I am not going to give the money, but because I am afraid. And why? Why am I afraid of someone in need?
Our eyes see beauty. They can notice the smallest of details. And our eyes can do other things too. They can see someone’s skin color, gender, appearance, and make a snap judgment. Eyes can avoid the faces, the needs, the pleading of others. Eyes look with suspicion instead of openness, reflect fear instead of hope. We look at each other and, in an instant, without even realizing it much of the time, generations of prejudice and assumptions and fears and anxieties are broadcast all over our faces.
Feet. Feet that can walk toward those in need, and that can just as easily turn away. Feet walk across the street to avoid something unpleasant. Feet that we cover in good shoes while many go barefoot. Feet that can carry us through familiar places, places where we know we are safe and comfortable, where we know what we are doing, and stay away from places of risk, or pain, or hurt. Because there’s more to our bodies than just pieces put together. What we do with our physical selves, our hands and feet and eyes and everything else, both reflects and shapes who we are. And it changes things for other people too.
One of my favorite writers is Barbara Brown Taylor. She writes a sermon about this text, and in it she says this: “why doesn’t all that make us flinch? Why aren’t we as careful of our souls as we are of our bodies? At the very least, these scary words of Jesus are shock therapy, designed to get our attention and keep it. What we say counts. We have power we do not even know about, and it is absolutely crucial that we use it to build up and not to tear down.”
This whole thing about cutting off your limbs rather than going to the garbage dump starts out because Jesus’ disciples are using their eyes and hands and feet and mouths to cut somebody else off, cast somebody else away. This is someone they don’t really know, but who is doing things they don’t like in Jesus’ name. “He’s not following us!” they tattle to Jesus, like they’re on the playground. Us? You wonder. Who is supposed to be following who, here?
So Jesus turns to his friends, his very dear friends, whom he loves. Perhaps he can smell the stench of Gehenna in the air, that awful stinky garbage smell. Listen up, he says. Why would you throw anybody away? Why would you cause a little one to stumble, or see any of my children as someone to be discarded? Chop off your own arm, if you have to. Look deep inside and tell the truth; admit your own selfishness, and prejudice, and self-righteousness. Find out what in you wants to cut other people off, cast them aside, and get rid of that. Even if it’s as hard as untangling your blood vessels, do it. Because the things we do and say, matter. Not because if we screw up we’re going to burn in hell for eternity, but because when we intimidate, or harm, or dismiss other people, we are lighting fires. We are building garbage heaps. We are creating hell, right here, and right now. This stuff matters, Jesus tells us.
I wanted to come up with some perfect, magic story that would bring all this together, about how hard it is to tell the truth about ourselves, or about the places we have experienced that felt like hell. The times we have contributed to someone else’s isolation, or the times we have felt utterly cut off.
But I suspect that the stories that really matter are the ones we are carrying around with us. Our own experiences of causing pain, or of suffering it. Of benefiting from a prejudice, or of being the victim of it. Of staying silent when we should have spoken, or speaking when we should have listened. Of cutting someone off and throwing them away without even realizing we were doing it, or of looking around and realizing that we are sitting on the garbage heap.
We come here, at least in part, because we want to lay down those stories, and struggle with them, and find God in them someplace. And for that, there is one last thing to say.
Outside the walls of Jerusalem is a garbage dump, a place of isolation and pain and suffering and death. People tried to push that stuff away, to put it someplace where they would not have to see it. You want to get rid of that, all that ugliness. Put it outside. Build a big wall. And try not to think about it anymore.
Outside the walls of Jerusalem is where Jesus was crucified. That garbage dump is essentially the place in which the cross was standing. You and I, whether we want to or not, in spite of our best efforts, we experience pain and suffering and separation. And we cause pain and suffering and separation.
And so, that is where Jesus went. That is where Jesus goes. Jesus goes outside the walls, where people think only garbage belongs. He goes to a place of suffering and separation and death, and he experienced all those things, completely and fully. He did that so that we would know that there is no place separate from the love and grace and the mercy of God. That there is no hell, because there is no place in which God is not. That when we throw people away as if they were trash, or we feel that we ourselves have been left on the garbage heap, there we will find Jesus waiting for us, waiting for the people who are cast aside.
Jesus’ hands had welcomed sinners and hugged children and fed the hungry. His feet has walked across borders and tucked under the tables of outcasts and been washed by women who cried for mercy. His eyes had seen mercy and joy and pain and brutality. And when those eyes and hands and feet were placed in a tomb, his friends must have thought that all hell had broken loose.
But God is about the business of building up, not tearing down. Of healing, not wounding. Of welcoming, not throwing away. Of making a world where justice and peace are at home. We are welcomed into that life, with all our wounds. With the pain we have caused and the pain we live in. We have power that we do not even know about. And it is absolutely crucial that we use it to build up and not to tear down. Because that is exactly what God always chooses to do for us. Amen.