Today’s sermon is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.
Despite being the only player to win the World Series 10 times in his career, Yogi Berra, who died at age 90 this week, knew what it was like to get into a slump at the plate. He once went 32 straight at bats without a hit. When asked about his inability to hit the ball, Berra, as only he could, looked at the reporter and said, “Slump? I ain’t in no slump… I just ain’t hitting.” That’s putting as positive a spin on a negative situation as you can probably get, and at this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples could use some positive spin. Berra’s 32 at-bat hitless streak lasted only 7 games, but the disciples have been in a slump for weeks on end.
It all started back in Caesarea Philippi. Do you remember that story from a few weeks’ back? That’s the town where Peter first declared that Jesus was the Messiah. It seemed like he had made good contact, the ball was flying toward the warning track, but a gust of wind, or more accurately, Peter’s hot air, kept it from being a home run. As Jesus told the disciples what being the Messiah meant: being handed over to the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees, undergoing great suffering, and ultimately dying, but rising again on the third day, Peter was having none of it. He took Jesus aside to set things straight, but Jesus turned to him and said, “Get behind me Satan.” Six days later, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a high mountain where they saw Jesus transfigured right before their very eyes. Again, what could have been a homerun moment is marred by Peter opening his mouth despite not really knowing what to say.
As the foursome came down the mountain, Jesus was met by a crowd surrounding his disciples who were arguing with some scribes. With his head probably buried in his hands, Jesus asks, “What’s going on here?” A man steps forward and says, “I brought my son here to be healed. He is possessed by a demon that causes him to have violent seizures. I asked your disciples to help, but they couldn’t heal him. Can you?” Jesus, steam coming from hears, looked around and said, “You faithless generation, how much longer do I have to put up with you?!?” After Jesus healed the boy, his disciples asked him, “Why couldn’t we do that?” Jesus responds with simple, albeit crushing words, “You’ve got to pray to heal like that.”
They then headed off toward their home base of Capernaum and for a second time, Jesus tells the disciples that he will be betrayed, killed, and three days later, rise again. Just like the first go ‘round, the disciples swing and miss as they fail to understand what Jesus is telling them. Instead, they spend their time arguing over which one of them is the greatest. “The greatest?!?” Jesus responds, “If you want to be the greatest, you have to make yourself last and servant of all. Greatest?!? Psshhhhht.”
Hoping to turn the attention away from the disciples’ ongoing slump, John decides to tell Jesus about a success story. It seems that somewhere along the way, the disciples ran across an exorcist who was casting out demons in the name of Jesus, and the disciples told him to stop. Whoosh, another swing and miss for the disciples. Jesus, like a frustrated manager watching his best hitter swing at a ball in the dirt, first picks his jaw up from the floor, and then he says, “Why on earth would you stop him!?! For the love of all that is holy, don’t stop him. Anybody who has enough faith to use my name to cast out demons is a friend of ours. Honest to me, why would you stop him? He’s not using my name in vain, he’s using may name to take it to the demons and unless you think that leaving demons alone is a good idea, let him continue with is work because ultimately it is my work!”
Having endured what they thought was the full wrath of their rabbi and friend, the disciples stand there, with their hands in the pockets, staring at their toes, just hoping that he’ll go away for a while, but Jesus isn’t finished. He knows they still don’t get what he’s about. With all the fury of a frustrated Saban or Malzahn, Jesus goes for broke on his hitless disciples, letting loose a tirade full of images so grotesque that we almost can’t believe they would come from the mouth of Jesus. “Look, y’all have got to stop. Stop being a stumbling block for those who are trying to follow me. In fact, if you want to be a stumbling block, why don’t you take it, tie it around your neck and throw yourself into the sea. We’d all be better off. Stop competing with one another. Stop trying to seize all the glory to yourselves. Stop building walls to keep others out. As soon as you draw a line marking who’s in and who’s out, you’ll always find me on the other side. Get rid of anything that is holding you back from living fully into the Kingdom of grace that I’ve been telling you about since the very beginning. I mean it. Get rid of whatever is causing you to stumble: hands, feet, eyeballs. Chop ‘em off, gouge ‘em out! Better to be maimed than full of undying worms and unquenchable fire.
These are harsh words from Jesus. So harsh that plenty of preachers are going to tell their congregations that Jesus couldn’t possibly have actually said them. You know what? I’m pretty sure he did because he needed his disciples to understand the consequences of their sinful faithlessness. This slump that the disciples were going through came at the most inopportune time. It wasn’t that the season was just getting started, but the playoff push was on. Jesus was about to enter Jerusalem for the last time. Things were about to get a whole lot more difficult and Jesus wanted to be sure that his disciples were prepared for what was coming.
Fast forward 2,000 years and these words are still very difficult to hear. Partly, they are difficult because we don’t like to hear such violent language from Jesus, but mostly because we really don’t like being confronted with our own sinfulness. We’d much rather blame it on a stumbling block or shrug our shoulders and say, “the devil made me do it.” The reality is that we, like the disciples, are perfectly capable of leading ourselves to sinful behavior. The things which cause us to sin lay squarely within ourselves and in the choices we make. For those who pull us into sin, the penalties are severe, but even then, we made the choice to follow their lead. The hard truth of Jesus’ teaching on sin is that we are responsible for our own actions – things done and left undone – and are therefore responsible for the consequences of our own sinful behavior.
Jesus uses hyperbole to teach this lesson, but that isn’t to say he doesn’t mean what he says. The consequences of our sin are harsh, both for we who do the sinning and for those we sin against. It would be better, that is to say, less traumatic overall to remove the offending body part before the sin occurs than to endure the suffering the follows our sinful deeds. We’ve all picked up the pieces after a harsh word, a youthful indiscretion, or the wanton disregard for another human being. If, by the grace of God, we’ve found ourselves to be remorseful when it was all over (for the sin rather than its consequences), then perhaps you’ve said to yourself, “It would have been better to have ripped out my tongue than to have ever said those words.” Jesus’ words may be harsh and they may be exaggerated, but they are true and worthy of our attention. In a few moments we will kneel together and bare our souls to God as we confess our sins. The silence before our confession may feel painfully long or perhaps too short to even think about starting to list them all. Either way, Jesus invites us to take this opportunity for a clean slate seriously, to lay aside those wrong desires that lie deep within us and which cause us to sin, and to receive his grace and mercy and enter into the kingdom whole, holy, and fully loved. Amen.
 Thanks to Scott Hoeze at the Center for Excellence in Preaching for opening up the image of an upset Jesus – http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-21b/?type=the_lectionary_gospel
 Again, thanks Scott Hoeze