If your right hand offends you…
Once, when I was on vacation, I went to church and the Gospel reading was the same as this morning’s. The priest got up into the pulpit for the sermon, and said, very solemnly “If your right hand offends you, cut it off.” He then pulled out the largest meat cleaver you have ever seen, waved it around, and said, “Alright- WHO’S FIRST?”
All joking aside, this is a word from Jesus that often gets lumped into the category of “difficult sayings of Jesus.” As his own disciples said, “Lord this is a hard teaching, who can accept it?”
You may remember that two weeks ago, Jesus told us in the gospel to “take up our cross and follow him.” As I told the choir and choristers then,- take up your cross- it doesn’t mean death. It might. But to be given a cross in Jesus’ time meant to run afoul of empire. The cross was a method of execution for crimes against the state – the power of the Roman Empire- and Jesus was public enemy no. 1. After all, he advocated for things like protecting the powerless, and upsetting the dominal social paradigms of privilege and wealth.
So I believe that when Jesus says take up your cross, he is telling us to upset the dominant paradigm. Each Christian in each new age has to ask – what is empire in my world, and how do I upset it? In doing so, how do I follow the example of Jesus, if I do indeed claim Jesus as Lord. One example for us today is to be found in the ongoing stain of racism and, lately, the insidious white supremacism that masquerades as nationalism. Take up your cross- upset the empire of privilege and oppression.
Similarly, Jesus’ command to physically remove body parts is not so much a command to let the amputations begin, but to consider all those parts of our life we encounter daily, and to assess how we use them to build up the kingdom of God or how they get in the way of our following Jesus. After all, sin is simply anything that separates us from God’s love- from being in right relationship with God.
Last week, a radio program in enjoy, called “RadioLab” was talking about neurochemistry-how the brain is wired; when we experience pleasure, a chemical called dopamine floods neuro-receptors in our brain. This program was related to cell phone usage and how it creates a false sense of reward and dopamine is released- almost the same impulse as what happens in the brain with people who are addicted to gambling; but when we experience those surges, the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in decision making, rationality, and consequences) shuts off. Now as someone who has had over 12 yrs experience teaching adolescents, I can tell you all about the pre-frontal cortex and what happens when it’s not fully developed. Decision making, knowledge of consequences, control over impulsiveness- it’s all there- when it’s fully developed. But even
when it’s fully developed, there are impulses more powerful that attract us and shut down our ability to make good choices. So do we ever have full control in ourselves? Each one of us here knows what we keep returning to that keeps us from living our best life united with God in Jesus Christ. The great poet W.H. Auden referred to it as “the gin of old sin.”
If your right hand offends you…
If your pride offends you..
If your need to be right offends you…
If the way things are going “these days” offends you…
If the unfortunate self-righteousness of some progressive movements offends you…
If you, like the Israelites in today’s lesson miss the cucumbers, leeks, garlic of yesteryear and you feel your strength is dried up; if that offends you…What to do with these things?
How do we remove them? It’s so hard! So entrenched. Like bone connected to sinew and muscle and ligaments and blood vessels and skin- too closely connected to our own body, our own being to separate-
It would have to be violent, right?
It would have to be painful, and not our first choice of dealing with the issue…
A caution: it’s not just about removing the things that get in the way- that can lead to a strictness and puritanism that doesn’t come from God- a line from one of my favorite hymns says “We magnify God’s strictness with a zeal he will not own.”* it’s also about using those parts of our life to be Jesus’ hands and feet here on earth- did you hear that fabulous line in this morning’s opening collect? “That we, running to obtain your promises….” RUNNING. Get out of my way- I am RUNNING towards the great things God has planned for my life and my church. Imagine. Imagine. Run towards the promises
and not stand around like the Israelites in today’s OT Lesson or the Disiciples at the beginning of today’s gospel and say “Well, only the qualified people can do the job.” Don’t wait for a rector or a priest or the staff to do this discipleship- our job is to equip YOU. Love, Equip, Serve- it’s our new motto at st Thomas. Moses said “Would that ALL the Lord’s people were prophets.” Jesus said “No one who does a deed of power in my name will lose the reward.”
Love, equip, serve- at today’s offertory, all the stewardship and pledge materials that are about to go out will be brought up to the altar and blessed so that God can use them, through us, to enable St Thomas to love, equip, and serve YOU and the world. This is not a membership to a dues-paying organization or a contribution to an annual fund. This is a sacred (root word of sacrificial) gift of Thanksgiving for all God has done for us. While they are being brought up, we will sing the words we’ve been singing for a few weeks now- I hope they’ll take on new meaning for you:
For the harvest of the Spirit, thanks be to God;,
For the good we all inherit, thanks be to God;
For the wonders that astound us,
For the truths that still confound us,
Most of all that love has found us, Thanks be to God.**
Did you catch the line in today’s 2nd lesson?
“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.”
( I bet you thought I was going to preach on that line, didn’t you?)
But let us, just for a moment, think about the phenomenon of singing. From a purely rational, scientific standpoint: We force air through tightly stretched folds of muscle. They vibrate- those vibrations are amplified through our facial bones, sinus cavity, and chest cavity, and sent out into the world as vibrating waves of air- sound waves.
Those waves hit the ears, are picked up and funnelled to neuro-receptors that organize them into a pattern that the brain makes sense of and we interpret the vibrating air as sound.
Now, think about how much garbage we take in through our ears on a daily basis- listening to the news, or the rabble around us. Last week was a doozy for this. So much anger, hurt, awfulness coming into our ears- sound vibrating, interpreted. Should we cut our ears off? What if we were to take that energy and send it back into the world, CONVERTED-
changed- into singing? That’s even better than unplugging- that’s taking what the world meant for evil and converting it- a conversion. Scrubbing it clean and making it vibrate with a new pattern: A changed life.
What if we sang TOGETHER, amplifying the waves that each other produces? so when we sing together as a choir, and especially as a whole church, we amplify that to a greater thing than we can do on our own- even the best singers in our choir cannot accomplish what we can all accomplish together. We have to do this together, in community.
We have to talk to each other about Jesus, and what it means to follow Jesus in true discipleship as a gathered community. If we can’t do that, we can’t go out and serve the world and bring them into this wondrous banquet. I know it’s hard sometimes to “go there”- to be vulnerable- and as a polite Episcopalian talk out loud about things like what Jesus Christ has done for you and for those you love– it’s hard. But let’s try it. And to give you some material, here’s a thought: Engage with what you hear and see on Sunday mornings- ask yourself- what is God saying to me? When you sing a hymn or hear the choir anthems, ask yourself- what is the connection between the text and the lessons? Engage- here’s why. It will give you the language and the tools you need to talk about Jesus and to talk TO Jesus.
What I am talking about here is basically a rewiring of the neural pathways- we can unlearn those habits and circuits and paths that separate us from being what God has designed us to be. We can cut away what isn’t bearing good fruit; we can water and fertilize what is. But we can’t do it on our own- that’s the lie of the ages; we need to respond to God’s working in our lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and then become disciples of Jesus Christ through a discipline of prayer and action.
We can become a new creation. But it does take work- hard work.
Really hard work.
Almost like separating bone from flesh.