When a doctor first discovers a tumor in the body of a patient, she often biopsies it. Moving forward, standard medical treatment, at least in my limited lay understanding, is then removal, removal of the tumor from the lung or bladder or breast. Beyond perhaps inhibiting the function of the afflicted organ, allowing the tumor to remain in the body provides opportunity for growth, for expansion beyond the organ itself. One of the first questions we ask when a doctor tells us that she has found cancer in our bodies is: How far has it spread? As far as the lymph nodes? As far as adjacent organs? The answers to these questions, to some extent, tell us how serious the cancer is. Few people look forward to surgery, but the removal of a tumor can give relief—because the surgery removes the affliction from our bodies.
This morning, Jesus commands the disciples a surgery of sorts, a removal of what afflicts them, a radical cutting off and a plucking out of whatever causes their distress. He tells the disciples: If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, remove that stumbling block. If the stumbling block is your hand, cut it off. Your foot? Cut it off. Your eye? Tear it out. Does Jesus speak in hyperbole here? Of course. He does not actually advocate that the disciples maim themselves. Just as surely as the hyperbole grabbed the attention of the disciples, surely it grabs ours. And while I do not believe that Jesus called for a literal cutting off of body parts that caused stumbling, the hyperbole underlines how radically Jesus called the disciples to remove the stumbling blocks inhibiting both themselves and their relationships with others.
The stories we tell about our lives are so often populated by the crimes or shortcomings of others. “So and so did this or said that. And that’s why I’m justifiably angry.” Certainly, there is blame enough to go around. Injustice and violence, stealing and cheating, lying and manipulation abound. Just like everyone else in this room, I grieve injustice and violence. I don’t appreciate cheating and stealing, lying and manipulation. More than that, in my head, I tell some tall tales about the people who don’t immediately drive forward when red lights turn green, about friends who don’t answer text messages, even about a business or a school or an organization that hurts me or discriminates against me or ignores me. I’m pretty sure it’s not just me; we love to tell stories about the crimes and shortcomings of others while ignoring our own anger and bitterness, our own passive aggressive behavior, our lack of understanding or lack of generosity of spirit. Yes, injustice needs to be righted. Those perpetrating injustice need to be held accountable. But also, Jesus commands, cut off your hand. Pluck out your eye. Allow the thing poisoning you to die. Usually, it’s not simply the injustice itself that poisons us but our response to it. Reliably making us uncomfortable, Jesus teaches the disciples and us this morning: regardless of what anyone else does, do your part to make peace.
Someone told me a story this week about a church he used to belong to. After years of active membership, his health began to limit his ability to participate, and apart from any request on his part, he was removed from the membership roster of the church. He called the church office. He emailed. No one returned his call; no one emailed back. The church got a new pastor, and twice, the new pastor contacted him but only to ask him for money, nothing else, not to ask how he was or where he had been. Years later, he tells me this story. He tells me this is the only hatred he has in his heart—for this church. Normally, wanting to be empathetic, I would say: How horrible what this church has done to him! How unfeeling, how uncaring! But he and I read this morning’s gospel together, and upon reflection, he said: I have to call and make an appointment with the new pastor. I have to figure out what happened. I have to let go of this hatred.
This week, this man has discovered the good news of Jesus’ teaching: peace can be found. Living in peace with others is possible, not because injustice and violence, cheating and lying, unanswered text messages and personal slights end but because we allow our own anger and hurt to die. Because we seek out answers to our questions instead of making assumptions. Because we dig just a little deeper before we make judgments about others or about situations in the world. When we ask our friends who aren’t returning our calls or text messages if we somehow hurt or offended them, when we get our news from a variety of sources since they are all biased, when we forgive others who have slighted us, when we don’t allow others to get under our skin or to rob us of our joy, we are able to live in peace with one another.
What’s your stumbling block? What relationship needs repair? What are you holding onto that would be better released? What are you closing your eyes to?
Being at peace with others is not contingent on someone else. Anyone else’s action does not determine ours.
And thanks be to God that this is exactly how God relates to us! We who make mistakes, who judge, who act out, who at times intentionally cause others pain, we who are not perfect, we are loved by God just as we are. Our sin does not separate us from God because God in Christ has not made our identity as children of God or our belovedness by God contingent upon our behavior. God has made peace with us in Christ, repaired the breach, and released the power of sin. Our sin is no stumbling block to God, so we rejoice: we already have peace with Christ. Now, be at peace with one another.