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St. Paul’s – Proper 21 – 9/26/21

I read, on one of those dictionary sites on the web, that hyperbole is an overstated, exaggerated statement as a way of expressing truth. Jesus is noted for his use of hyperbole. And today’s gospel depicts our Lord at his hyperbolic best.

Sometimes Jesus’ teaching is subtle and indirect. Sometimes, for instance, he will tell a story and then not tell you the explicit point of the story. But today’s gospel shows Jesus being straightforward and direct, reaching for hyperbole as a way best to make his point.

The great Catholic novelist, Flannery O’Connor was once asked why she put so many freakish, outlandish, outrageous people in her stories. O’Connor replied that when you are attempting to get into people’s hard heads and thick skulls you have to overstate your point. You have to exaggerate. And that is what Jesus does today.

Stark, staggering, bleak alternatives are put before us in today’s gospel. Jesus tells us to make a choice. It’s either/or. Choose this day where you will be. It is better to mutilate yourself, to cut off your arm, to pluck out your eye, and throw these vital organs away than to end up in hell. Why does Jesus speak in such a stark manner? Of course, the Bible scholars tell us that Jesus is speaking here in hyperbole—exaggerated overstatements designed to grab our attention. We are told that rabbinic teachers in that day often spoke in this fashion. Obviously, whatever Jesus is trying to bore into our thick heads must be very, very important.

Jesus says it is far better to go into God’s kingdom mangled—without an eye, without an arm—than to find one’s whole body thrown into the fires of hell. A whole, healthy body is a great asset. But Jesus says that it’s an asset worth sacrificing if the choice is between God’s kingdom and hell.

In our church, we don’t talk much about hell. Jesus himself did not talk much about hell either. Hell is not one of the more uplifting biblical themes. But here in today’s gospel, Jesus undeniably speaks about hell. He doesn’t really call it “hell,” but rather he uses the Aramaic name of a place, “Gehenna.” This was an actual place, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. He is not speaking of the place of the Italian poet Dante wrote about in The Inferno. (And we owe most of our concepts of hell to Dante rather than to scripture.) Jesus is talking about Gehenna. This is a place in the Hinnom Valley somewhat South of Jerusalem. Centuries before the time of Jesus, it had been a place of pagan idolatry and thus got a bad name. Maybe that is why, by the time of Jesus, Gehenna had become the town dump. Rubbish, bones, decaying carcasses, filled this desolate valley. Refuse was burned with fires and smoke that never was put out. Thus, Jesus says it would be better to pluck out your eye and go into God’s kingdom missing some part of your body than to have your whole body thrown on the rubbish heap of Gehenna.

Let’s back up and look at the larger context of Jesus’s shocking words.

He put it like this:If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

Commentators have interpreted little ones in various ways. And I invite you to try this reading.

Little ones are those we don’t take into consideration for the most part. People who are effectively invisible to us. That may be the poor, people of different races, women, or people living in distant lands.

We are all interconnected whether we realize it or not. And even when we act on what seems like noble motives, we may diminish the lives of others. Our economic gain may come at their expense. Our comfort may damage their ecosystem. Our political or social status may diminish theirs.

Thus, Jesus says, Take care. Make your choices wisely. Decide this day where you are headed. It would be better for you to let go of some aspect of your body or soul than to have both body and soul thrown into the garbage dump of eternity. Your life is precious. Don’t let it be discarded on the trash heap of life. God doesn’t make any garbage, and God made you. 

I once drove down a street in Chicago where once beautiful Victorian houses had been abandoned. All valuable copper had been removed from the houses. The windows were broken out. These once beautiful homes were now trashed. All the loving care that people had put into building these homes, their valuable resources, and the joyful family life that these houses once enjoyed had all been trashed. It was Gehenna all over again.

I remember visiting a church member who was going through great emotional difficulty. She had been committed to our state’s hospital for the mentally ill. I had to find her after walking down sterile, foul smelling corridors, where, from behind doors, there periodically came terrible sounds. She sat in a room with nothing but a steel bed and one chair. When I forced a cheerful, how are you doing? She responded, I have been dumped here for good. 

Can you imagine anything sadder? She had become a piece of refuse. The hospital was located in the Northeastern part of the Chicago. But its address was Gehenna.

I have been in nursing homes, in wards for the chronically ill, in homes for the severely mentally disabled, and centers for the chronically addicted. They all had names like, Northside Care Center, or something like that. But in the light of today’s scripture, you could call them Gehenna. Gehenna is any hellish place where human beings are discarded, left to rot, treated as little more than refuse.

And Jesus says that no child of God’s creation and love is meant for Gehenna. Jesus stares our hellish possibilities in the face and rebukes them. He speaks to us with words that are stark. But let’s be honest. Life can have its stark, hellish side. And that is what Jesus challenges with his warning.

Maybe Jesus is not so much giving us a warning as attempting to get us to see what is really important, how the life choices we make have long-term, stark consequences.

We say when we repeat the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus was, Crucified under Pontius Pilate, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. He rose… 

Jesus was the one who constantly descended into hell. Not just after he died while he was waiting for his resurrection, but throughout his ministry. He entered those places that we avoid, those places that we put out on the margins, out on the edge of town—the shoddy nursing homes, the pitifully ill-equipped places for those suffering from mental illness, the town dumps. We have seen him throughout this year in the Gospel of Mark, confronting demons, rebuking the devils that possess people, healing, and driving out all that which dehumanizes and degrades. He spent so much of his life with those who had reached the end of the line.

In Jesus, we are not permitted to resign ourselves saying, They have dumped me here, this is the end of the line. We can choose, we can decide to treasure the gift that God has given us in our lives, our talents, and our responsibilities. The lives we have been given are gifts of God that ought to be treasured.

The church is to be made up of people who treasure their lives and are determined that we will not let our lives slide into nothingness and despair, simply because of some aspect of our lives that we find difficult to control.

I know a man who grew up in a family that had wine with each special meal. From time to time, he enjoyed what we call a social drink at parties. But at midlife he realized that he was developing some addictive habits, showing some of the early warning signals for the inability to deal with alcohol.

To this day, he will never touch alcohol. Even though he enjoyed fine wine and the pleasures that came with it, he discarded this aspect of his life rather than risk having his entire life discarded.

And yet there’s more. The church is a gathering of people who are determined that none of God’s treasured ones should be tossed aside. Therefore, Christians are called to be the sort of people who keep going to hell. That is, we keep attempting to salvage lives, to rescue people, to remind them that they are precious to God, beautiful, and not destined for the ash heap of the world. With Jesus, we ought to be instruments of bringing people back to life. We are those who are to embody the great gospel message, God’s kingdom is here. Turn around, come forward, be saved, and join a great kingdom! 

In the momentous days after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, one commentator, an African American educator, talked about his own experiences as the sometime victim of acts of racial violence. When he was finished the interviewer asked him, How on earth did you get out of the situation you were born into? What gave you the courage and determination to lead a different life than the one that white supremacy and white racism tried to push you into?

The man replied, In the seventh grade I had a coach who believed in me. Up to that point, most adults that I came in contact with at school treated me like I was trash, like I couldn’t learn, and so they relegated me to the trash heap of life. But this man believed in me and thereby help me to believe in myself. You know the difference it can make in a child’s life when somebody believes that the child is valuable?

I hope that coach, who helped this young man know his true worth, was a Christian. That coach sure acts like a Christian.

William Stringfellow wrote: The Body of Christ lives in the world on behalf of the world, in intercession for the world…. For lay folk in the church this means that there is no forbidden work. There is no corner of human existence, however degraded or neglected, into which they may not venture; no person, however beleaguered or possessed, whom they may not befriend and represent…. Christians are distinguished by their radical esteem for the incarnation….by their reverence for the life of God in the whole of creation, even and, in a sense, especially, creation in the travail of sin. The characteristic place to find Christians is among their enemies. The first place to look for Christ is in hell. 

Choose this day whom you will serve. Decide right now zealously to guard the good life that God has so graciously given you. What do you need to discard in order that you may save and salvage your precious life? It’s our job as a church to help you make such momentous choices. And then it’s our job to help you keep faith and protect the treasure that God has given you in your life.

Choose this day whom you will serve. Decide if there is someone to whom you need to go and tell this message You are a treasured child of God, the life you have been given is treasured by God, and nothing and no one should be allowed to trash that treasure. Is there some great Gehenna, some trash heap of the world or in our own backyard…as close as Del Rio, that you need to enter in order to bring out and redeem with God someone who has been lost?

Later, sometime after this teaching, Jesus himself would be put upon a cross overlooking Gehenna. He, who had willingly entered into the trash heaps of the world, could see Gehenna clearly from Calvary. His own deepest experience of Gehenna was Calvary. Take that as a symbol for what Jesus does throughout his ministry. He warns us not to frivolously throw away the treasure of lives that God has given us, to choose life rather than death, and then Jesus goes to hell that he might defeat hell and win for God a kingdom of the ones whom the world once regarded as mere refuse.

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus, 

we pray for all those who have wandered, 

or who have been cast, 

into situations of bleak despair. 

We pray for those who have been so frustrated in their hopes and dreams 

that they have lost hope. 

We pray for those who have encountered so much prejudice and hate 

that they no longer are able to love. 

We pray for those who lie on beds of pain, spend their nights in agony, 

and have no relief from their suffering. 

We pray for those who have stopped believing in themselves, 

who have lost sight of their God-given gifts.

O great Savior of the world, great seeker of the lost, 

seek and save, we pray, 

all those who dwell in the land of thick darkness and deep despair. 

Stir up in us compassion and concern for those among us 

who think that they are beyond hope and help.

Protect and keep each of us from the snares of hell 

and restore in us a sense of the value and potential of our lives 

when lived in gratitude for your good gifts and in service to your Kingdom.

We pray in thee name of our descender into hell, 

our risen Lord, Jesus Christ.