“Sin: Separation” Colchester Federated Church, September 30, 2018, Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Mark 9:38-50)

Today’s Gospel text is difficult because Jesus addresses what causes us to sin and specific kinds of sin.  It’s never easy to face sin on an individual level or in the world.  It’s also been a hard week nationally.  We have heard testimony during the Supreme Court Justice nomination hearing from both Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh that’s especially difficult for survivors of sexual trauma to hear.  We have witnessed the fall of Bill Cosby as he was sentenced to prison for sexual assault.  And we continue to hear about instances of the abuse of thousands of children by predator Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania and Germany most recently.  Though we know that people in positions of power abusing vulnerable people doesn’t just happen in the Catholic Church.  All these painful news stories can bring up many memories and emotions—please know that you are loved and that my door is open.

My friends, Jesus addressed the topic of sexual abuse in Mark’s Gospel because unfortunately these sins have occurred from the beginning.  Mark Chapter 9 verses 42-48 deal specifically with (quoting from The HarperCollins Study Bible here): “male sexuality in relation to the practice or the temptation to practice the sexual abuse of children and other sexual transgressions.”[1]  We can’t be silent about difficult topics in the Church, not when innocent people are being hurt.  Jesus himself wasn’t silent about sexual abuse.  His words today can give us courage especially given how triggering and tragic recent events have been for many.  While some of us may not want to hear about this topic in worship (especially since we’ve been inundated in the news), we can’t pretend that these situations aren’t happening and ignore those affected by sexual trauma.

On a week such as this, we can remember that Jesus the Christ called us to love God with everything we’ve got, love our neighbors, and love ourselves.  When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, that was his answer—love.  Now love of self is part of that equation Jesus taught us.  Survivors finding their voices and telling their stories is how some people show forth self-love and acceptance.  Silence in the face of abuse can destroy one’s spirit.  At the same time, telling one’s story is an intense act of vulnerability.  Sometimes that story can only be shared with loved ones.  Sometimes people tell their story to a much larger audience, though it may take years to be able to go there because of the trauma.  Jesus is there with us whenever we are most vulnerable.

Remember that Jesus put a vulnerable little child in the midst of his disciples (as we heard about last Sunday) and commanded all of us to truly welcome children in his name.  Today Jesus doesn’t mince words when he declares, “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.”[2]  This is what Jesus had in mind for his fellow men who sexually abused children.  That’s what this verse is about.  Being weighed down by a millstone and thrown into the sea to drown when someone in power hurts the powerless and tries to destroy their future.  Why was Jesus so harsh?  Because preying on the most vulnerable who can’t even fight back is evil.

Jesus goes on, “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.”[3]  There is no mistaking what Jesus is talking about here either.  Foot is a standard euphemism in Hebrew for male genitalia and eye refers to lustful gazing.  This story from Mark’s Gospel is a man (Jesus) speaking to other men about sexual discipline.  In particular, Jesus is telling them that the sexual abuse of children can land one in Gehenna (a place that symbolized eternal punishment by fire) which we translate into English as hell.

It’s safe to say that Jesus was looking out for the powerless and had strong words for his fellow men on the topic of sexual discipline.  Not words that should be taken literally.  As in, if one gazes lustfully upon another person who is not one’s spouse or partner, one should tear their own eye out.  Nevertheless, these words aren’t meant to be taken lightly.  Jesus meant what he said as he was giving a series of warnings about how to properly conduct ourselves when it comes to our use of power and our sexuality.

For survivors of sexual assault and abuse (no matter at what age or stage of life those incidents happened), these serious words from Jesus can be held close.  Because there is no doubt that Jesus stood with survivors, and was trying to prevent people from being survivors in the first place.  By preventing acts that would cause all of that hurt and pain.  These stern teachings Jesus had about sexual discipline are right here in the Gospel according to Mark.  He talked about this because Jesus was thinking about protecting innocent people, especially children.  Jesus loved with a love greater than we can imagine and had overwhelming compassion for those who others ignored or despised.  And as Jesus will declare wholeheartedly in the very next chapter: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”[4]

So we know what Jesus was talking about and why.  We understand the seriousness of his words even though people don’t have to literally remove limbs in the face of lacking sexual discipline.  We also believe that God’s grace extends to all people.  God can redeem and forgive people in ways that we may never be able to understand.  It may not be possible for a survivor to forgive their abuser and let them back in their lives.  But forgiveness can sever the unhealthy tie that binds them to one another.  The survivor can let their abuser go in peace to not drink that poison anymore for themselves.  Though this process can take years and won’t look the same for every person.

So yes, Jesus’ words are directed at his disciples about sexual discipline.  But we also know that all people are capable of sinning.  Perhaps not in these specific ways or to these degrees that we’ve been hearing about this week or that Jesus is addressing in this text.  Though if we’re honest, we sometimes separate ourselves from God, from one another, and from who God is calling us to be.  That’s the best definition of sin I know—sin is separation.  Separation from God, each other, and what God dreams for you and me.  When we sin, we sever the healthy connections in our lives much like Jesus spoke about severing parts of one’s very body.  Sin cuts us off from our very source of grace and that can be downright painful.

Sometimes in Mainline Protestant denominations like ours (the American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ), people will say that we should abandon the language of sin.  It’s too negative.  It’s harsh.  People don’t want to show up to worship on Sunday and feel bad about themselves, focusing on what we’ve done wrong.

We can keep in mind Episcopal Priest and Professor Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation where she encourages us not to abandon the traditional language of sin and salvation and grace because sin’s not going away.  On a week like this week, we know deep in our bones that sin is not going away.  It can be hopeful if we focus on God’s gift of grace.  As Taylor says, recognizing sin in our lives is about measuring “the full distance between where we are and where God created us to be—to suffer that distance, to name it, to decide not to live quietly with it any longer—that is the moment when we know we are dead and begin to decide who we will be tomorrow.”[5]

This process is hard, but it will be good news.  If we have never felt this distance caused by sin, we’re either really lucky or we’re not paying attention and naming what we’re experiencing.  Because it’s revelatory to hear this description of sin as this feeling of being dead inside and distant from who God dreams we can be.  Sin is separation.  And then we can experience this moment where we start to turn back to God (that’s what repentance means) because we’re destined for better things.  The distance is awful.  We suffer in our souls because of it—and we start asking ourselves what it would feel like to surrender. Surrendering to God’s grace freely offered brings acceptance and peace beyond our human capacity to understand.

What Jesus had in mind all along for his disciples was being grounded in God, whole and healthy and loved so that we can go out and love the world in his name.  There is no doubt that sin is here, that there is evil in this world.  That we all have the capacity to cause each other pain by both our words and actions whose effects can last for the rest of someone’s life.  Those traumas we may experience no matter our age can be triggered no matter how much healing we’ve experienced.  Though Christ’s call to love one another is timeless because sin’s not going away.

The good news, the life-giving news, is that we also have the capacity to love one another without judgement and conditions, to believe one another when we vulnerably share our stories of survival.  We can enact and embody that love commandment Jesus gave us extending a particular welcome to those most vulnerable who may need us.  We can come back to God in the face of our own sins, not allowing ourselves to be separated too long from God, from one another, and from who God is calling us to be.  May God bless you and keep you, always.  Amen.

[1] Footnote for Mark 9:42-48 in The HarperCollins Study Bible, 1742.
[2] Mark 9:42, NRSV.
[3] Mark 9:43-48.
[4] Mark 10:14.
[5] Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation, 43.