Discipleship is a Bloody Business

Homily, Discipleship is a Bloody Business
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 2021
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Tequesta, FL

The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF

Today’s Lectionary Readings:

Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Learning to ride a bike is a bloody business. 
When you fall—not if—the skin on your knees will break.
You will taste the salt of tears on your lips,
From the streams on your cheeks.
Your chest will hold the fear of another stumble,
And your ears will be ringing with the mantra, 
“Never again, Never again.”
But you get up again.
Wiping gravel from your palms,
Unashamed of amputated wheels you’ve outgrown,
Committed to whatever it takes.
Because while the pain of shedding blood
Can sometimes feel too much to bare,
The cost will be worth it
With the wind in your hair—
It’s a bloody business.
But it’s in the rising from the earth 
and starting again that you know 
you’re really living.

The last few weeks we’ve been hearing in the Gospel of Mark about the cost of discipleship. And discipleship, according to Jesus, is a bloody business. Two weeks ago Jesus demanded for his disciples to take up their cross. Last week he redefined greatness by calling for his followers to be the least. And today we get the startling and violent language of amputated limbs and hell-fire. Discipleship is a bloody business.

For us we can write these passages off as metaphor and hyperbole, but as Jesus and his followers preached their way through the countryside drawing ever nearer to Jerusalem, for them the reality of a bloody cost to their way of life became ever more present under the looming shadow of the cross. The stakes were high, and there was no room for wishy washy faith. And so Jesus’ words drew a line in the sand. “There’s no room for stumbling”, he says, “so if you’re stumbling, you better do something about it now before it’s too late.”

While we may not feel the same sense of clear urgency as did Jesus and his disciples so long ago, his words on discipleship and his teaching on stumbling continue to be relevant for us today as people who know what it is to stumble.

We all stumble. We all fall. Sometimes through ill intent. Sometimes through weariness. Sometimes through selfishness. And sometimes through simple negligence. But we all stumble. So the question this gospel passage raises before us this morning is, what do we do about our stumbling? 

And it’s an important question because often we don’t want to do anything about our stumbling. We don’t even want to acknowledge it. Because to acknowledge our stumbling is to acknowledge that something about the way we live isn’t working. And if something about the way we live isn’t working, that means we have to change the way we’re living. And we don’t want to change. Because change is hard. Change means letting go of things we’ve held onto so tightly for so long. 

And deep down we know that we need that change, because we already feel the pain of our stumbling. We can feel that our unhealthy habits in life drag us down, whatever they may be. We know something isn’t working because we hurt, and yet we’re still afraid of changing, of trying something new. We’re afraid that doing something different will hurt even more. 

And so Jesus’ words this morning are challenging because it feels like he’s adding insult to injury. If we’ve stumbled, we’re already on the ground cradling our wounds and here comes Jesus asking us to amputate our hands and feet and gouge out our eyes. Is this really an answer to what we should do about our stumbling?

This week my son Bear has been learning to ride his bike without training wheels, and I imagine he may have felt similar sitting there on the ground next to his toppled bike with tears in his eyes when I asked him to get up and try again. “But daddy, it hurt,” he said. “I don’t want to fall again.” 

The thing about learning to ride a bike is that falling—stumbling—is inevitable. It’s part of the process. But what do we do with that stumbling? As we practiced this week, each time Bear fell we stopped to think about what went wrong. Maybe his eyes weren’t watching the direction he was moving in. Maybe he overcorrected his steering. Maybe he put his foot down too early after braking. Whatever it was that went wrong, we identified it and then Bear would get back on the bike and change the way he rode on it. He used his stumbling as an opportunity to learn and grow so that with time he fell less. And that’s not to say that stumbling was a good thing. It still hurt. And while he learned from it it wasn’t his goal to fall. But it was an opportunity to change his riding habits so that he could be a better cyclist.

I think that’s the heart of this teaching from Jesus. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.” In other words identify where you went wrong, and change what you’re doing whole-heartedly. Let go of whatever it is that led you to stumble, and take up a new way of living. Try something different. The Christian word spread throughout the whole of the gospels for this kind of change is “repent.” In Greek it’s the word metanoia, which literally means to change one’s mind or to turn in a new direction. And so Jesus’ words here about severing yourself from whatever causes you to stumble is about repenting of old habits and taking up a change in life. 

And it’s certainly true that that process of repentance—of changing—is in itself painful, but unlike the pain that comes from stumbling, the pain that comes from changing one’s habits ultimately leads to healing and new life. Like the repeatedly scraped up knees from falling on a bike, this pain leads to something that’s entirely worth it in the end. 

This morning I don’t know what pain you’re experiencing. I don’t know what’s causing your stumbling. Maybe it’s an unhealthy relationship. Maybe it’s an addiction. Maybe it’s attachment to a certain kind of social privilege. Perhaps it’s shame from an old sin or bitterness from an old wound or just plain selfishness and pride. I don’t know what wounds you are cradling. But Jesus is offering you an alternative. And while it may seem like the alternative is just as painful or more painful than what you’re going through now, it’s an alternative that ultimately leads to healing. 

And I know this work of identifying our struggles and learning from them to change our ways is intimidating—that’s discipleship—but you belong to a faith community that is willing to walk with you in that work. The people around you are willing to walk with you. Father Doug and I can help you with tools and practices that have been handed down for centuries of Christian tradition for this exact work. No one expects you to do it alone. I was right there with Bear each time he fell and running along side of him as he got back on the bike. And even when Jesus stumbled with his cross at Golgotha, someone was there to help him carry it the rest of the way. It’s your work, but you don’t have to do it alone. 

We can choose to hang on tightly to our attachments and wallow in the dirt next to our toppled bikes, or we can get up, learn from our mistakes, and change our ways—repent—let go of whatever causes us to stumble. 

Christian discipleship is a bloody business.
But it’s in the rising from the earth 
and starting again that we know 
we’re really living.