I was called upon to officiate at a funeral last Saturday.
I didn't know the one who had died, as he was not a member of the congregation I am now serving and apparently his connection to his own congregation had waned since his wife's death and his deteriorating health made it impossible to get to worship. Regardless, it's always been my practice to take most any funeral. I can't imagine what it would be to not be cared for in such a fragile and tender time and so I have always done my best to fill that role whenever I'm called upon to do so. I find I've never regretted it. I almost always receive more than I give. This time was no exception.
On Thursday afternoon I stopped in to see his daughter and son. This is something I always do, but it is, of course, that much more important when I have no acquaintance with the family. I have found though that even if I do know the person, they will always know him better... so those calls are part condolence and part listening deeply so as to be able to shape a message which speaks to the hearts of those who are grieving.
They shared many things with me that afternoon. They talked about their dad's lifetime vocation of carpentry and his gift for mentoring others in his trade. They spoke of brokenness in relationships and healing experienced. They talked about his joy in his grandchildren and his love of history. And they shared with me the circumstances of his dying.
For he was certainly not old ---- only in his late sixties. I was told he had suffered a stroke a few years back and he had experienced circulation problems ever since. A few weeks ago when the doctor told him it was necessary to amputate his foot, else the infection would spread, he simply said no. He told his children he would be fine and in spite of their desire to keep him here no matter what, they bowed to his wishes. Within a few weeks he was gone.
He knew his limits, it seemed. He knew what sort of life would be acceptable to him and what would not. And amputation was clearly not part of it.
I respected his decision. It's not often that I hear of one who says finally that enough is enough and is willing to trust God with the rest. This man did.
So I suppose it is not difficult to see how I returned to that story as I grappled with this week's Gospel with Jesus' talk of voluntary amputation. Indeed, I have to say I have always found this to be a hard text and one I would rather just skip over on my way to the more palatable of Jesus' teachings. I, for one, can remember how these harsh words about cutting off a limb in order to keep you from sinning filled me with terror when I was a child. Back then I had no idea I could take this as metaphor, and maybe in the end, that's okay. For there is something in the violence of the image Jesus offers now which jolts me into taking it a little more seriously.
Indeed, Jesus seems to be saying that it may not look like life as you have known it or have come to appreciate it, but it is still life --- fuller life even --- if it is in keeping with the direction God would have you go. Jesus appears to be saying that some things are worth giving up for the sake of something better. Indeed, to carry out the metaphor of the man whose funeral I was part of last week, if something doesn't go, that which has infected us will take our lives anyway. At least it will take the only life that matters: a life that has to do with protecting the most vulnerable among us ---"little ones," to be sure, but perhaps even more precisely, those new to the faith, or struggling in the faith. It matters that much.
Now I suppose this may mean something different for all of us. I'm not sure I can say in any definitive way what it even means to "put a stumbling block before one of these little ones. '' For now I only know these words are prompting me to open my eyes and my heart to wonder at its meaning for me and for the larger worshiping community I call home. Indeed, I wonder if Jesus speaks of cutting out our fear to stand up for what is right or if he speaks of my ridding myself of my non-attentiveness to the struggle of others, so preoccupied I tend to be with my own journey. I wonder, too, if he also speaks of something more sinister that lives within me, perhaps in all of us, which will always tend to place my own comfort before that of others. And I wonder at what forms that 'stumbling block' takes. It seems in the end we are left to fill in the blank.
Back to the man whose funeral I was part of last Saturday. For him an amputation was just one more indignity, one more tearing away at his independence, one more breaking down of his perception of who he was. It was one step closer to an ending which seemed inevitably to be coming soon anyway. His life had been diminishing for some time now and he did not see this 'taking away' as bringing anything other than more of the same. And while no one knows what would have happened if his decision had been different, as I said before I respected his decision and am grateful for the peace he apparently had in it.
For you and me, though, the kind of taking away or cutting off that Jesus speaks of now is one that leads not to less, but to more. And while it is not what one might expect in looking for wholeness or completeness or fullness of life, it is, by Jesus' measure, the only 'life' that matters. It is life that it not just about me, myself, alone, but is one where I find myself all tied up with the well-being of the 'other': especially those most weak, most new, most vulnerable: "the little ones." Indeed, I can only pray that I will keep being shown the way to living the life Jesus points to now. And that the greater gifts Jesus envisions for God's people today will one day be ours to experience in all their fullness.
- Do you find yourself wanting to skip over these words of Jesus? Why or why not?
- How do you make sense of Jesus' words for us in the hard text before us now?
- Is it helpful for you to read these words literally or not? When you hear it metaphorically, how does it speak to you?
- What needs to be cut away or cut off in you to bring greater health or wholeness? To bring your community to greater health or wholeness?