image from http://gardening-time.blogspot.com/2012/03/prunning-when-and-how-to-prune-trees.html
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
“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. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Well the lectionary passage for this week sure is a doozy. I don’t know what it is, but it seems like every time I have the opportunity to preach, I get the tough ones... Or, maybe they’re all just tough ones...
I was having lunch with a friend yesterday, and, as is becoming my Friday habit, I was bemoaning the struggles I was having with my sermon. As I was telling my friend how impossible this passage was, and about how nobody knows what it means, about how it contradicts itself and sounds ridiculous and impossible, she interrupted me and said, “Just give them Cheerios.” She read my confused expression and she said, “that’s why we give Cheerios to babies. They can’t choke on them.”
And there’s a lot to choke on in these verses. In the age of the Westboro Baptist Church and Mayan apocalypse predictions and countless asteroid- and alien- Armageddon movies, along with our own personal experiences of people telling us we’re going to hell because of who we love or how we pray or what we think of Jesus, all this hell and fire imagery makes us queasy, to say the least. This hell imagery brings up all kinds of baggage, even guilt, and shame.
And then there’s this contradiction in the text; one moment Jesus is telling the disciples that all it takes is offering a cup of water in his name to inherit the kingdom of God, and then right after that, he’s telling us to chop off our hands and our feet and pluck out our eyes and then go off and get salted with fire, whatever that means.
Plus, there are at least 8 different possible textual variants in this one passage, most of them having to do with our second to last verse, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” Because the scribes didn’t even know what this verse meant, they all tried different ways to explain it, by changing the words, combining concepts, and cutting stuff out. Even Matthew and Luke, who, it is believed, used Mark as a source, have conveniently left this verse out. So we surely can spend lots of time choking on all the academic parts of this verse, deciphering the original Greek, trying to determine exactly what Jesus said, and then what Jesus meant, and then how people have interpreted it, and on and on. But no one, throughout all of our 2000 years of history, can say with any certainty, exactly what this verse means. Ask Dan. He’s written 368 pages for his dissertation, all related to, somehow or other, what this one verse means. So there’s that to choke on.
Even the conflation of metaphors chokes us. We have water and kids and hands and feet and fire and salt and amputation and demons. It’s a big mess of pre-Modern world-views, imagery, and perspective. Plus, there’s the salt, which has all kinds of connotations. It was used to purify, to season, and to preserve. Salt was even used in sacrifices, and armies would salt their enemies’ fields in order to leave them barren. And there’s fire, which can be a symbol of God’s revelation, or of God’s wrath. And it was used to purify, or as a symbol of judgment, or as an image of the Holy Spirit. It’s as if we could put all these meanings on individual cards, throw them up in the air like a game of fifty-two card pick-up, and then randomly gather up which combination of images and connotations we want to use, and we wouldn’t, necessarily, be wrong. You feeling that tickle in your throat yet?
Then we read these verses as personal threats - especially if we are of the perfectionist persuasion. (Good thing we don’t have any of those in our congregation, huh?). In these verses, there is almost a demand for perfection, or else. If you don’t do this, you’ll have to do that. If you cause a little one to sin, too bad for you, kiss your hand goodbye. The expectations are impossible. Of course we’re going to cause a little one to stumble; anyone who is a parent, or has had a parent, or has seen parents knows this.
And this leads us to the thing that chokes me up the most, the extreme hyperbole - the exaggeration - used here. You do this little tiny thing, like give a cup of water, and you will be rewarded. But you do this other thing, like put a stumbling block before children, which maybe you’re not even aware that you’re doing it, and it’d be better if you were drowned in the sea.
So where are the Cheerios here? What’s the stuff that’s gonna feed us and not choke us up? What’s the stuff we can consume here, without it completely consuming us?
What if we tried to set these issues aside for a minute, acknowledging their complexity and confoundedness and frustrating mystery, and our own complexity and confoundedness and frustrating mystery.
First, let’s step back and get some context.
Who is Jesus talking to? - He’s talking to his disciples, those who, just minutes earlier, according to this text, have been fighting over who is the greatest of them all, and then, even after being rebuked by Jesus about this, start complaining about who’s a “real” follower and who isn’t. After scrambling over each other to prove who is the greatest, then they go and judge others who are doing good work, but just aren’t following them. Jesus is talking to people who have been following him for awhile now, and frankly, should simply know better. So maybe that’s why we get such harsh language and such extreme hyperbole.
Second, if you were to read all of chapter 9 and the first half of chapter 10, you’d notice how many kids there are. Children are all over these passages. A boy is healed earlier in chapter 9, last week’s lectionary reading was about how when we welcome a little child, we welcome Jesus, then we have today’s reading, which is about not causing a little one to stumble, and then a little later in the earlier part of chapter 10, we have that lovely story of Jesus blessing the little children.
So maybe some context will help us chew on this stuff a little easier. Jesus is talking to his disciples, who are currently being punks, and this is all in the context of children, who might have been looked at only as “potential adults” and contributors in their family structures, if anything, and are basic non-entities, even worthless, in the wider social situation. But this isn’t how Jesus sees them. Jesus is talking to people who think they are somebodies about people whom the disciples think are nobodies. Let’s hold on to that. It might help explain our hyperbole problem.
And what if we let go - at least just a little bit - of all of our worries about hell? Or at least, let’s just set it aside for a minute. Let’s put our fears and frustrations and judgments and doubts about hell up on a high shelf somewhere, at least for a minute.
Instead, let’s think of two things. Gardening. And Parenting.
I’ve been thinking a lot about pruning lately. We have this beautiful Japanese Maple in our back yard, but it’s starting to hover over our gutters, stretch against our back window, and is just getting all-around overgrown. But there’s a right time to trim, and a wrong time. It’s best, or so the interwebs tell me, to wait until it gets cooler and the sap in the tree stops running through the limbs before you trim them. We have to do this in our front yard too, as we have a great big oak tree whose branches are starting to get in the way, or even are starting to die altogether.
So, I read, that pruning, though drastic, is a way of wounding the tree in order to save the tree. If a tree has a disease, when you cut off the source of the disease, a plant has this amazing ability to seal itself off from that disease. But this has to be done just right. If you cut off the branch too close to the trunk of the tree, you’ll very likely cut too much, and kill the tree. If you don’t leave what they call a “branch collar,” which is this swollen part of the tree that connects the branch to the trunk, you could kill the whole tree. This “branch collar” is like this magical forcefield that is the barrier between the diseased branch and the healthy trunk. If you cut into the branch collar, you will very likely spread the disease into the entire tree itself, and kill the plant.
Pruning can be used to “train” young plants, to get them to grow the way you think is best or is most aesthetically pleasing or in the way that they will get just the right amount of sunshine and rain and nutrients. Pruning can be used to prevent the spread of disease. And pruning can actually encourage more flowering and growth. But here’s the thing. You prune healthy plants. If the entire plant is diseased, much greater intervention is needed, maybe even intervention that we ourselves cannot provide. But it’s good to prune healthy plants. It’s good for them. It fosters more life. It encourages growth. It prevents or treats disease.
Another kind of “pruning” can make entirely new life out of “old” life. It’s called grafting. And for some plants, such as apple trees, this is really the only way to create a new apple tree that will produce any apples, at least, anytime soon. You have to cut a branch from an old tree in such a way so as to enable that branch to connect to another plant, and thus become a plant of its own. It might be possible, at least according to those trusty interwebs, to plant an apple seed in the ground and hope for a tree to grow, but if it does grow, it probably won’t produce much fruit. You really have to graft the new from the old. That seems to be the best way to get new life, and, eventually, get some apples.
Pruning and grafting and trimming, these things aren’t about punishment for the tree. All these things can invite new life.
Now the day after Jonah, my son, turned three, he woke up, literally, that morning, and I thought, “what IS this thing, and what has happened to my son?!” He was whiney, and defiant, and resisting, and being an overall stinker. We’d put him down for bed, and he’d get out every fifteen minutes. He’d forgotten all the “please and thank you” manners we’d tried to instill in him for the last year, and instead of asking for things, demanded them. “I want cereal!” “Bring me my truck!” When we asked him to do something, he’d tell us to do it. “No, YOU go get my socks.” And when he’d reach his limit of one show a day, or one treat, or would demand something that he couldn’t have, when we said “no,” there were tears, and anger, and expressions of big big feelings.
Now this isn’t the Jonah I know. When he is freaking out, or being defiant, or hitting, or saying “No!” to things that he is usually pretty ok with, I wonder if it’s really Jonah in there. Maybe it’s exhaustion. Or maybe it’s his coping mechanism for all the changes and growth his little brain is going through. Maybe it’s his way of testing us. There are lots of reasons, I think, for his behavior, but he’s not happy, and we’re not happy, and ultimately, he’s not being his true self - and frankly, when we lose our temper and get frustrated ourselves, we’re not being our true selves either.
But what if we just let him act this way? What if we didn’t prune these behaviors and attitudes that, ultimately, are not life giving? That aren’t his true self?
But, it’s also important for Dan and I to remember that Jonah’s a healthy kid. He’s just 3. So we can prune him, gently correct and discipline him, when he’s doing something that isn’t his healthy Jonah self. I’d never think of putting Jonah in time out if he had a fever, or if he was bleeding, or if he was mourning or whatever. We prune healthy kids. Healthy kids can withstand and grow and thrive with a little bit of structure. It’s not about punishing him; it’s about giving him ways to experience new life.
When we think of sin, we typically think of shame, self-hatred, fear of punishment, that inherent thing in us that’s gonna end us up in burning hellfire. But if we take away all that hyperbole, put that exaggeration up on the shelf with the worries about hell and damnation, maybe excising sin is a little bit like pruning, cutting away that which isn’t us, that stuff that doesn’t give life. Maybe it’s simply like trimming our fingernails and cutting off our split ends. Maybe God wants to give us a chemical peel or slough off the calluses on our hands and feet.
When we tell Jonah “no” or put him in time out, this pruning feels to him, and frankly to us too, a little bit like getting his hand cut off or plucking out his eye. It feels scary and dramatic to us. It’s so much easier for us to give in to his every desire. We like things the way they are, we hate change, and we want to be accepted for exactly who we think we are. But here’s the rub. We’re not who we think we are. We are neither the rejected, dried out, diseased, dead stump in the forest. Nor are we the beautiful, thriving maple, whose sap makes perfect syrup and whose limbs are the homes for birds and squirrels.
We need a little pruning. We need a few time outs. We need transformation.
We need to be willing to let go of those parts of ourselves that don’t bring life. God is always on the side of life. What will bring more life, what will impede disease, what will increase hope and peace and joy and love. And sometimes we need to be willing to let go of those things that keep life from happening. Sometimes that’ll hurt. We will want to resist it because we’re choking on all those things that distract us from life. We’ll choke on the fear of what’s next, we’ll choke on the fear of losing that crutch we’ve been so attached to, we’ll choke on the shame that we think should come from being pruned, we’ll choke on the worry about what other people will think of us, we’ll choke on this horrible vulnerability when others, or even God, see us with this gaping gash where we had to excise the tumor.
But Jesus says, “Everyone will be salted with fire” - everyone has a tumor, or a diseased limb, or callused heels. Everyone’s nails grow a little too long. Everyone needs to be pruned. Salt has at least two functions here - to purify and to preserve. God wants to purify us so that we are our true selves, exactly who God created us to be. And God wants to preserve that at all costs. But here’s the key: God does the pruning, not us. And God does it only to encourage more life. Please, please, hear this. We don’t prune. God does. But we can be open to the pruning. We can allow God to prune. And God doesn’t prune to punish, or to smite, or to horrify or to torture. God prunes only to create a space for new growth, for new life, to make us more completely who God created us to be. Can we be open to the pruning of God? Can we let God prune us? Can we trust that God knows how to bring about more life?
Everyone needs purification and preservation. We all need a little salt, to be salted with a little fire, or to take the hyperbole and the scary hell-language out, - we all need a little pruning, both to purify us, and to preserve us. “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Thanks be to God.