You may listen to Mother Erika's sermon here.
My mother was good at many things. She was an enthusiastic and creative teacher. She was a beautiful public speaker. She made a mean peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And she was a dedicated and consistent speech temper-er. If my brother or I said something that she considered to be too extreme, especially too extremely negative, she would jump in right away to temper what we’d said. “Oh, you don’t really mean that,” she’d say. And then she’d suggest something she thought was more appropriate. An example, as I was pouting after banging away at a difficult piece on the piano: “You don’t mean that you hate this piece, honey; it’s just not your favorite.” Mom liked gentle speech – we couldn’t hate something or wish we would just die or never, ever, ever do something again. She would always try to moderate our extremes, temper our bitter words with a touch of sweetness, encourage speech that was a little softer, a little nicer. “Oh, you don’t really mean that,” she’d say. And most of the time, she was exactly right.
Maybe some of you have mothers like this. And maybe it’s because of mothers like this that I find myself wondering what Mary was thinking while Jesus was giving this charming little speech in today’s Gospel, how she was feeling when Jesus suddenly started talking about chopping off body parts. “Oh, Jeshua,” I can hear her saying, “you don’t really mean cut off your own foot; you mean watch out for where that foot might take you.” And, “Now, honey, wouldn’t it be nicer to say something like, ‘Try to look only at beautiful and holy things’ rather than telling people to gouge their eyes out?” You don’t really mean that, Jesus, I can hear her saying.
And the truth is, she’s right. He probably didn’t really mean what he was saying. Everyone who reads this passage can see that Jesus is using this extreme speech to make a dramatic point. He’s practicing the art of hyperbole, standing in a long line of Biblical figures who valued and carefully crafted the skill of purposeful exaggeration. We hear the same kind of extreme speech from Moses when he was confronted with the whining Israelite rabble: “Look, God, did I conceive all this people? Am I their babysitter now? If you seriously expect me to find meat to feed this bunch of babies, if this is how you value our relationship, then just kill me now. Take me. Out of. My. Misery.” This is the tradition of intentional exaggeration that Jesus has inherited, the kind of speech that Jesus is putting to work here. It would be better for you, he says, to be drowned in the sea than to turn another person away from me by your actions. It would be better to cut off one of your own limbs than to allow it to trip you up in your own discipleship. In other words: stay out of the way. Better to be drowned, or to go about life maimed, lame, or half-blind than to get in the way of your own faith or anyone else’s.
So yes, we’re on fairly safe ground not taking this text too literally. After all, we don’t hear about the great mass limb-chopping before the day of Pentecost, or of the band of one-eyed Christians who stumbled their way around Asia Minor because they had no depth perception. It’s safe to say that this extreme language is intended to make a point. It’s safe to say, “Okay, Jesus, we know that isn’t really what you meant, so we’re going to soften up your language just a bit.” How about, “Keep an eye out, Christians, for the things that get in the way of belief.”
But it is profoundly unsafe to let this word-tempering turn into a habit. We get ourselves into trouble when we start applying this tempering technique willy nilly, when we let our discomfort with other extreme things that Jesus said push us to try to find nicer, more appropriate, more doable, alternatives to them as well. And we do this all the time. We don’t mean to, and sometimes we aren’t even aware of it, but we do. We take “love your enemies” and say, well, maybe not “love” maybe just “be nice to” or at least “don’t be mean to.” And maybe not really your enemies but just the people who slightly annoy you. We hear “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel,” and we soften it to “Go to people who are already kind of receptive and try to casually slip the Gospel into the conversation.” We translate “do this in remembrance of me” into “do this when it is convenient for you.” We temper “take up your cross and follow me” and “feed the hungry,” and “love one another as I have loved you.” We don’t mean to, but we do. We let our own discomfort with this kind of extreme speech push us into trying to soften these words, into trying to make this speech more digestible, more politically correct, more socially acceptable.
The trouble is that Jesus spoke in extremes all of the time, and most of the time, he meant what he said. Sure, he may have spoken in hyperbole and stretched the metaphor to drive home his point from time to time, but not all the time. Love your enemies was not an exaggeration. I am the resurrection and the life was not hyperbole. Take, eat this in remembrance of me was not a suggestion. Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all is not an example of extreme speech that needs to be softened. And – and this is important – our level of discomfort is not actually a good indicator of when we should start tempering this bold speech. Some of Jesus’ words might make us uncomfortable, but that in itself isn’t a good enough reason to discount them. We are asked, we are commanded to listen to them anyway.
And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we’re actually asked to do more than just listen to these words of extreme love, extreme forgiveness, extreme mercy and truth and grace – we are asked to live these words, and we are asked to repeat them ourselves over and over and over again. We are asked to use this kind of extreme speech in our own lives, not to temper the way we speak about God to others or to ourselves. We are commanded to proclaim the Gospel with boldness, to boast in the cross of Christ, to visibly embrace the utter foolishness of God made man. If we don’t do this, if we don’t speak with the same strong words that Jesus did, then who in the world is going to listen to us? If the Gospel that we present to the world is merely lukewarm, then it’s no wonder that people will spit it out of their mouths. And, what’s worse, if we choose to do this – to speak in half-truths that are softened so as not to offend, or tempered so as not to make anyone uncomfortable – then guess what? We are setting ourselves up as dozens of little stumbling blocks to all of those people out there who would come to know Christ but simply need a compelling invitation. And you know what that means. It would be better for you to have a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea, it would be better for you to try to drive west on the Schuylkill Expressway at 5:00 on a Friday afternoon, it would be better for you to get stuck behind a Cowboys fan at the Linc, than to put a stumbling block before any and all of these little ones.
Now here is the good news. Right now, everyone in this church has the chance to get rid of the millstone. Because your stewardship committee has asked you to bring a friend to church on the second Sunday of October. This is the perfect opportunity to practice your extreme speech. And I do mean practice. You may need to actually stand in front of the mirror and watch the words fall out of your mouth. Words like: “You know, neighbor, when I serve soup to the homeless at Saint Mark’s, I actually see Christ in the eyes of those I feed. Would you like to come with me on Saturday?” Or: “You know, Dad, I can’t do an early brunch with you on Sunday because Sundays are holy days for me. Worship at Saint Mark’s grounds me and names me and sends me – would you like to come with me this week and we could do brunch afterwards?” Or: “You know, mother-of-playdate-friend, growing my children in the knowledge of God’s love for them is hugely important to me, and my church really helps me to do that. Would you like to come to our Family Mass and Schola with my family next Sunday?” Or: “You know, work colleague, I find God when I hear the choir offer their praises and prayers. Come hear them – and God – with me.”
This extreme speech – this strong, bold, radical speech – pleases God. These are words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts that are pleasing and acceptable in God’s sight. When we feel and speak in this way, not only do we remove the stumbling blocks from our own faith and from those we meet, we actually imitate Christ. And then the speech becomes not simply our own but the word of God made living and active in our mouths. God speaks in us when we speak this way, draws close to us to guide and strengthen us in our speaking. So we have two weeks – be bold in your speech, be extreme, and smile as you say that yes, that holy speech is exactly what you really, really mean.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
30 September 2012
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia