An Olympic Faith

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 16, 2014
Matthew 5:21-37

I hate cold weather. I hate snow. So the idea of hurtling down a frozen mountain while strapped to two flimsy pieces of fiberglass does not sound like my idea of a vacation. To me, if you are comfortable with jumping, spinning, and flipping around on skis, you should be given a referral to a psychiatrist, not a gold medal.

Nevertheless, I am a huge fan of the Olympics. I have been watching every night this last week. I’ve been captivated by the curling, stunned by the downhill skiing, and of course, confused by the figure skating.

Yet what has really surprised me, and it surprises every time the Olympics are on, is that that McDonald’s contributes so much to the Olympic games. Really, McDonald’s? We’ve just watched men and women cross-country ski for miles on end, they are icons of health, and then we have a commercial for chicken McNuggets. And what’s even more surprising, is that there is a McDonald’s inside the athletes’ village at the Olympics. Here we have the fittest people in the world, the most elite athletes doing extraordinary things with their bodies, so I find it hard to imagine that many of them are chowing down on Big Macs.

See, these athletes have been training for years to accomplish these amazing feats. Their diets are strictly regulated. These Olympians are eating whole grains, fresh vegetables, lean meats. These Olympians don’t scarf down french fries and McRibs. These elite athletes have cut those things out of their diet. Because even though that Quarter Pounder with cheese sounds delicious, they have cut it out.

Jesus says, “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Whoa Jesus. Just settle down a little bit. This is crazy talk. Because what if my brain causes me to sin, you want to cut that off too? What in the world is going on in this passage?

When we read this passage too quickly and we don’t think about the context, we don’t get the right meaning. Rather than thinking this is as a threat of eternal punishment, I want you to think of yourself as an Olympic athlete cutting McDonald’s out of your diet. And that is much closer to the real meaning of this passage.

Jesus is telling his followers that they must stay faithful to him and to the way of life that he offers. They must cut out whatever it is in their life that is distracting them from following Jesus, in the same way that elite athletes have to cut out whatever it is that inhibits them from being the best they could possibly be at the Olympics.

It’s easy for us to say, “well, I’m not going to cut off my hand or rip out my eye, so this passage has nothing for me.” Not so. Jesus is using your hand and eye as a metaphor for what is important to you, because hands and eyes are important. The real question that we must ask ourselves is: what is important in my life that stands in the way of following Jesus? Jesus is telling us to rip that thing out. Cut that thing off. And that’s the real difficulty in this passage. What stops you from following Jesus? Is it your money? Is it your greed? Is it the shame you feel over a painful memory? Is it your slavery to your work? Is the resentment you harbor in your heart of hearts? Whatever it is that stands in the way of following Jesus must go. It must be plucked out, cut off. Not physical hands and eyes, but the spiritual and emotional baggage we carry that gets in the way of loving Jesus. For athletes to compete at the Olympics, they have to cut the artery-clogging Big Macs out of their diets. For us to become more faithful disciples, Jesus calls us to cut out the soul-crushing Big Macs of our souls. Because if we don’t, Jesus says, we’re going to hell.

So let’s stop there and unpack that a little bit. It seems to be a harsh consequence – if you can’t make a sacrifice for me, then you’re going to burn in eternal hell forever. Too bad for you.

Again, that sounds like crazy talk, it doesn’t sound like the loving God we know. But only if we don’t know what he’s actually talking about. It’s unfortunate that we have translated that word as “hell.” Because when we think of hell it’s demons and devils and flames and ragged clothing. When Jesus says “hell,” it’s literally “gehenna.” He’s actually referring to the smelly, nasty, burning garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. Jesus is not talking about the place we picture of eternal doom and punishment. Because the images of hellfire, brimstone, and pitchforks do not come from the holy scriptures. We can blame John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Dante’s “Inferno” for those images. There’s so much more to hell than that.

Jesus is telling us that if we do not live with him, then it will be like we are living in a garbage dump. When we worship our money rather than worshiping God, then we will never be happy. When we won’t cut out the fear in our souls, then our life will be as peaceful as a burning landfill. When we do not have the courage to overcome our shame and live a life of gratitude, then we may as well be living in hell, gehenna, the garbage dump. Our lives will be smelly, and nasty, and short, and devoid love. The threat of hell, of gehenna, is real and present. That is, right now, we have the choice of cutting out the soul-crushing Big Macs that clog our spiritual arteries.

Let me put it this way. Imagine you are the world’s top cross-country skier. The single goal in your life has been to compete, and win a gold medal, at this Olympic games in Sochi. You have been eating right, staying in top form preparing for the big race. And then, the night before the big race you don’t eat your typical meal of grilled salmon and vegetables. You go straight for McDonald’s and chow down on a McRib, french fries, and a chocolate shake. The next day, in the middle of the race, your gut feels like it weighs a thousand pounds and of course, you lose. And that other guy gets the gold medal. Seeing that other guy with a gold medal around his neck would be hell. It would be gehenna. All because you couldn’t cut out that Big Mac, and fries, and a chocolate shake. All because you couldn’t cut out what was going to prevent you from winning the race.

Now, of course, the reverse is also true. You will experience heaven, a life of grace, when you do cut those things out. When you’re not controlled by the pursuit of money, but by the love of God. When you cut off shame, and live with gratitude. When you cast out anger, and live with peace – then you will experience heaven. Here. Now. If you can avoid the McRib and fries, you have a shot at winning that gold medal.

Now, it’s a tall order, say, to cut off all fear or all greed from our lives. Just like it might be hard to break a Big Mac habit. So, to cut out the thing that distracts you from Jesus, don’t think about the big picture, because that will just scare you off if the vision is too big. Focus on each day. Focus on each hour. Take small steps, one at a time, to climb your way out of the hellish dump, to climb out of gehenna. If you need to cut off greed, then work one day at a time to not go shopping. If you need to pluck out your slavery to work, then go one hour without checking your email. Don’t think to yourself, “there’s no way I can change myself. It’s just too hard.” Olympic athletes don’t become champions overnight; it takes years and years of training to get where they are. It will take years and years of small, baby steps, to make the big changes you want to see in your lives.

This week I don’t want to visit any of you in the hospital for chopping off your hands or plucking out your eyes. But I do hope to see you in that other hospital, the church, as you undergo spiritual transformation, as you learn to live a heavenly life. A life with Jesus.

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