The Road to Heaven is Made of Band-aids and Duct Tape
I’ll admit that at first blush this gospel reading does not seem like “Good News” but instead “Confusing and Rather Alarming News.”
All of Jesus’ talk of cutting off hands and feet makes me a little edgy.
And by the time we get to the worm that never dies and the unquenchable fire, I’m squirming in my seat.
The bit about stumbling blocks brings back embarrassing memories.
I was an incurable klutz as a child.
Despite years of ballet lessons I continued to knock over lamps and crash into furniture until the immortal morning of the first day of my freshman year of high school when I opened the car door and promptly fell directly onto the ground in front of all my new classmates.
To add insult to injury later that same first day of high school—and I am not making this up—I fell over a rack of music stands in the hallway during passing period after fourth hour.
I went to lunch in tears, convinced I would be known for the rest of high school as that weird girl who falls all the time.
Luckily now I can hide my clumsiness most of the time but I still have the ability to wreak havoc both on my surroundings and my body.
Suffice it to say that if I took Jesus’ instructions literally about severing body parts every time they caused me to stumble I would be completely without extremities, missing my eyes, and probably bald since when I wore my hair long, I routinely shut it in car doors.
Those of us prone to tripping and falling get a little worried when the Christian life is described as a journey or path and Jesus himself is called the Way.
And yet who has ever walked the Christian path without stumbling?
Sin is a reality in our lives that causes us to fall into despair and grief. We’ll be walking along doing our best to follow Jesus when suddenly we have tripped over our own stubbornness or pride or self-interest and without warning, our footing is gone.
We stumble to our knees on the path.
I do not think it is a coincidence that Jesus’ teaching about stumbling in our gospel passage today is surrounded by Jesus’ teaching about children.
Immediately before today’s passage Jesus “took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’”
Immediately after our passage Jesus says, “ ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”
Have you ever seen a child learning to walk? All they do is stumble.
There is no way to learn to walk without learning what it is to fall.
So if we all stumble and fall in the Christian walk what is all this business of cutting off hands and feet?
Jesus says, “It is better for you to enter life maimed than have two hands and go to hell,” and, “It is better for you enter life lame than have two feet and be thrown into hell.”
The traditional interpretation has been that we should cut people and things and situations out of our lives that cause us to sin or else we’ll be thrown into the unquenchable fire.
But I’m wondering if there is another way to look at it.
Do you know what the original Greek word for stumbling block is? Skandalon, from which we get our English word “scandal.”
One of my favorite parts about Jesus is how scandalous he is. He’s always spending time with tacky people and horrifying those who understand propriety.
Jesus says we must enter the kingdom as children, and kids are not interested in propriety any more than Jesus was. So let’s remember what we all were only a few years ago and see what else we can learn.
Little kids are always busy.
There is always something important to investigate. For example, whether or not that tree in the backyard is actually home to a colony of fairies who will take you to their world if you whisper the right spell.
Or perhaps the topic of investigation is how to combine a bicycle pump, an anthill, and Kool-Aid in precisely the right way to create an airborne insect space station, ready to explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy.
In pursuit of these important goals often there is no time to consider such minor details as the laws of physics and the hazards of the natural world.
That is why little kids are always covered in scrapes and stings and bruises from tripping and falling and running into things, wearing Batman band-aids as badges of honor.
In the same way in our lives today, God wants us to run around outside and shout and pretend and make weird noises and explore God’s kingdom.
Explore God’s kingdom loudly.
Explore God’s kingdom rambunctiously.
Explore God’s kingdom with shoelaces coming untied and hands getting grubby, with bath towel capes and wooden spoon wands.
The type of people who try to build spacebound ant colonies as kids grow up to be the people in the gospel who say, “I wonder what will happen if we try to cast out this demon in the name of that guy Jesus?”
The type of people who hunt for fairy enclaves as kids grow up to the be the people in the church who say, “I wonder what will happen if we treat this homeless woman who has just walked in our doors as a wandering prophet with a word for us rather than a piece of trash to be swept out of the way?”
Jesus says, “It is better for you to enter life maimed than have two hands,” and, “It is better for you enter life lame than have two feet.”
I don’t think he’s talking about punishment or trying to eradicate sin from our lives by ourselves.
I think he’s talking traveling into the kingdom of God and getting hurt on the way.
I think he’s talking about living so bravely that we forget to harden our hearts against one another.
I think he’s talking about looking around the realm of glory and not seeing everyone looking scrubbed and ironed.
I think he’s talking about looking around the realm of glory and seeing bedhead and untucked shirttails, wheelchairs and limps and burns and missing hands and feet, all signs of a people who answered the call to take up the cross and follow him.
All signs of a people who gave their hearts away every day and did not count the cost of forgiveness or faith.
When Jesus says “It is better for you to enter life maimed than have two hands,” and, “It is better for you enter life lame than have two feet,” he is saying, “I would rather you choose to love and enter my kingdom not quite whole, having given away some parts of yourself and having lost other parts.”
The kingdom does not need perfect poster children but children with hearts held together by band-aids and duct tape, sure that if they keep hoping, the secret door to the fairy land will open or they and their pet ants will fly to the moon.
Sure that if they keep hoping they will arrive at the tomb and find the stone rolled away.
They will turn and hear Jesus call them by name.
And so entering the kingdom as a child does not mean attaining some false innocence or cuteness.
It means living life so sure of God’s love for us that we can sing loudly and get in silly quarrels in the back seat until God threatens to turn this car around right now.
But many of God’s children have bigger problems than backseat squabbles.
Just as sunshine and puppydogs and fingerpainting are the right of every child, so too violence and hunger and abuse are the reality of many children, five-year-old children and sixty-five-year-old children.
And so Jesus says, “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.”
Notice that Jesus does not say there will be no stumbling blocks, just that we shouldn’t be placing them in front of each other because God knows there are enough already.
When you’re trying to enter God’s kingdom it is all too easy to stumble over an alcoholic parent or two jobs that still can’t pay the bills.
There are stumbling blocks like a fancy house in the right neighborhood that won’t heal a broken marriage or a physical disability that causes everyone you meet to talk down to you.
We may encounter any one of a hundred sudden calamities or mundane injustices that are not content to make us stumble, but see that we fall flat on our faces, the breath knocked out of us, shame and pain and loneliness grinding our spirits into the dirt.
We, as children, live life in that way as often as we live it singing in the sunshine.
But despite it all, despite the stumbling blocks that litter the landscape, God still calls us to live life with reckless love for one another.
So maybe those stumbling blocks can instead be seen as milestones on the road to the kingdom.
We are both those who stand and those who fall, those who trip and hope no one’s looking and those who pretend not to see and are ready to catch us the next time it happens.
We may be missing a hand or a foot but we are pilgrims traveling just as sure into the place that is at once a mystery and a home, into the heart of God.
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