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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Possiblity In Jesus Hyperbole - September 27, 2015

And you thought being last of all and servant to all was tough. Now, in order to guard yourself against sin, you must cut off these most useful appendages and pluck out your eyeballs.

What is Jesus saying to us here? He can't be serious – can he?

Well – he is serious. But I wouldn't say he 's being literal. I don't believe we need to set up a new group of worship assistants to come with saws and blades and whatever else to help one another maim ourselves in order to keep from sinning.

But why would Jesus say these things? What's he trying to do here?

As those of us who have any experience with teaching may recognize, he's using a different teaching method. He's using hyperbole to get his point across. We've all used it – made ridiculous or exaggerated statements that are not meant to be taken literally, but are meant to get some point across.

One might think of the hyperbolic tales of Paul Bunyan, his massive physical presence and his giant blue ox. In one story we read, "Well now, one winter it was so cold that all the geese flew backward and all the fish moved south and even the snow turned blue. Late at night, it got so frigid that all spoken words froze solid afore they could be heard. People had to wait until sunup to find out what folks were talking about the night before." These fantastic images build our understanding of how strong and tough and resourceful the people were – people who came to places like the north woods to carve a living out of lumbering around the turn of the last century. The stories lift up American values like courage and heartiness.

Sometimes these hyperbolic moments are born of frustration. Moses has reached one of those moments today with his children – the Israelites. The people's complaint drips with melodrama: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”

So Moses offers up a hyperbolic prayer of lament to God: “Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child.” Even if he wanted to, Moses couldn't have birthed and nursed a child, obviously. But the responsibility of leading God's people through the wilderness is as hard as he perceives a mother's job is to birth and nurture children.

I imagine that's where Jesus is with the disciples today too. He's been telling them that he will be betrayed, judged, killed and on the third day, rise again. We've had example after example of how the healing balm that Jesus brings is indeed for the Jewish people and much, much more than that. It's global healing. We get the distinct impression that this is Jesus' main teaching to the disciples at this point in the journey up to Jerusalem. But the disciples just don't get it. Notice the language here as John scrambles to report to Jesus the work that has been done for the sake of the Kingdom of God that day. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

 “Us,” John? Don't you mean Jesus – that he was not following Jesus? It sounds like the disciples are still thinking in terms of who is greater and certainly Jesus' 12 chosen are greater then someone outside that little circle who is successfully casting out demons in Jesus' name.

It's interesting to recall a story we skipped over in our readings these last few weeks here. It is the story of a man who brought his son to the disciples to have an unhealthy spirit cast out of him. The disciples tried, but they could not do it. Then Jesus came and healed the boy. Later they asked Jesus why they couldn't cast the spirit out. “This kind can come out only through prayer,” he said to them.

The disciples' inability to pray that spirit out in Jesus' name is rubbed in their faces when they see an outsider doing precisely what they could not. Like a bunch of tattle-tale toddlers they run to Jesus to tell him about the kid coloring outside the lines – but don't worry, Jesus, we took all his crayons away and stopped him. It seems to push Jesus to the limits of his patience. You can detect the exacerbation in his tone. “Don't stop him,” he says. He is frustrated at how to teach the wideness of God's mercy in a way that the disciples can understand. And so Jesus goes for the hyperbole.

First he says that the smallest and simplest gesture of offering someone a glass of  water is all one has to do to be rewarded with God's favor.

Then he says in order for us to secure our place in the Kingdom of God, in order for us to ensure we will not land in hell when we take our final breath in this place, we would have to cut off our limbs, disfigure our faces, limit our ability to reach out, step forward, see the world around us.

And in his final bit of hyperbole, Jesus talks about God purifying the whole of creation with salted fire and then somehow, impossibly, how that salt could lose it's saltiness.

He's a brilliant teacher. He essentially points out to us that God's favor for us rests in the simplest acts of love, like offering a glass of water to a thirsty neighbor.

He's shown that if it were up to us to ensure God's favor, we'd have to incapacitate ourselves to the point that we could do no harm to another. But in those very acts we also kill our capacity to see that thirsty neighbor when she approaches, to walk with her to the well and to offer her a glass of water. In our incapacity we would not lose the saltiness God created in us, but we would lose our ability to flavor the world and heal people and creation all around us.

So obviously Jesus does not expect us to cut off our limbs and blind ourselves-- even though our hands and feet and eyes can reveal our imperfections.

As individuals, our eyes will likely look to unholy things. There will be days when we push someone away from us rather than gather them in with our hands for an embrace. There will be moments we follow our feet as they walk away from God rather than to God.

This is a noteworthy reminder for us as a community too. The hand, foot and eye are the parts of the body that Paul uses in his first letter to the Corinthians to illustrate the body of Christ in the church. “(1Cor 12)

Our community eye may linger too long on challenges associated with keeping the brick and mortar aspects of this community together and forget to watch with a keen eye places our Christ-centered love is needed. Our hands may indicate who is in, and who is out. Our feet may walk away from the table and font too quickly, causing us to hurry away from our divine directive to love and care for that world out there.

But we are salty creatures and God gives us faith which calls us back to who we are and whose we are. In Jesus, God has already paved the way for us to be forgiven and cleansed of those misunderstandings, mishandlings and missteps to which we are prone.

We don't have to damage ourselves because God in Jesus already suffered the ultimate damage … on the cross, in our place and winning victory over it all.

We cannot lose our saltiness and we are freed in Jesus to offer it abundantly to restore the world.

And the idea that we can secure our eternal favor with God in offering water to a thirsty neighbor – well that's just ridiculous – clearly an over simplification – or is it? Is this part of Jesus' teaching hyperbole too?

Turns out Jesus is also pretty good at irony because mingled in with these exaggerations and mock suggestions is this little nugget that seems impossible, it seems too humble or like it sets the bar too low, but it actually is true. All we have to do is offer a cup of water in Jesus' name and our reward can never be lost.

The truth of that teaching comes alive in our assembly this weekend as we welcome Susan Steinhoff as our sister in Christ through the sacramental waters of holy baptism. We offer her the gift of living water that quenches her thirst forever. We are reminded of our own baptism and dedication as she is marked with the cross of Christ forever.  We offer that cup of water and it shimmers and flows freely over Susan and then spills out to all of us who surround her. We remember how in baptism we commit ourselves as servants to each other as we go along on our faith journeys and as we come together as the hopeful sign of Jesus' Church in a weary and very thirsty world. And with our feet and hands, with our eyes, our saltiness and this flowing font, we bring life to the other prayer we hear from Moses' lips today: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Amen.


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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