Sermon: Proper 21 RCL B – “Switch the Tracks”

The podcast is available here.


At the height of a political corruption trial, the prosecuting attorney attacked a witness. “Isn’t it true,” he bellowed, “that you accepted five thousand dollars to compromise this case?” The witness stared out the window, as though he hadn’t heard the question. “Isn’t it true that you accepted five thousand dollars to compromise this case?” the lawyer repeated. The witness still did not respond. Finally, the judge leaned over and said, “Sir, please answer the question.” “Oh,” the startled witness said to the judge, “I thought he was talking to you.”

You ever notice that when people start criticizing someone, we always assume that they are talking to someone else or, when we realize they are talking to us, we turn into Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver: “You talking to me!”

The same is true when hearing the words of Jesus.  Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  We think, “Whew!  Thank goodness he was talking to Peter and not me.”  When he says, “Woe to you, blind guides,” we are happy in knowing that he says that to the religious leaders, but not to us.  When he says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all…”… well, we probably know that he is speaking to us, but what does he really mean by “last” and “servant of all.” (hmm)?  But today, there really is no way of escaping Jesus’ words, because he speaks very plainly, and I might add, in a very Stephen King-ish manner: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off… And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.”

I suppose there have been a few—mentally deranged—individuals who have taken this saying of Jesus literally and set out to follow it to the letter, however, to do so is to miss the point.  Yes, if you have sin in your life, cut it out, remove it, but the foot, the hand, the eye are not sinful in and of themselves.  They are in fact good, as they were created by God.  So if we are not to take this literally, then what is Jesus speaking to us about?

Back in 1967, the philosopher Philippa Foot came up with the moral problem that has become known as the “trolley dilemma.”  It is a fairly simple scenario: you are standing next to a trolley line and in front of you is the switching lever that if pulled will divert the trolley from the main line onto a secondary line.  There is only one problem.  On the mainline are five workers who do not hear the trolley approaching and even if they did they would not have time to escape.  They will all five be killed unless you switch the train onto the secondary line, which brings about a second issue: there is one other worker on that line who is also unaware of the oncoming train and will not have time to respond.  So the dilemma: you can let the train remain on the mainline and five individuals will die or you can switch the track and only one individual will die.  What do you do?  Ok.  Let’s complicate it a bit more: the one individual on the sidetrack is not a worker.  It is your child.  What do you do?  And everybody says, “Sorry, five guys I don’t know, but your toast.”  That is the trolley dilemma.  So how does this apply to what Jesus is talking about? 

Well, as you are already aware, Jesus is all about upping the ante.  If Jesus were proposing the trolley dilemma to us, the mainline of the trolley system would be the same, but your place would be different.  If Jesus were making the rules, you would be the one on the secondary line, but… and here’s the fun part… you would also still be in charge of the switch.  Let the trolley stay on the mainline and five people die.  Switch it… and you die.  And you know what our minds immediately go to: not quantifying, but qualifying.  Not, five live, one dies, but what if those five on the mainline are say, participating in a gay pride parade?  What if they’re Muslim?  Atheist?  Hmm.  Switch the tracks or not?

It hasn’t been too long before that Jesus said to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Just prior to our Gospel today was the reading we had last week: Jesus told the disciples that he was to be killed, yet a short while after hearing this, the disciples argued over who was the greatest.  In the beginning of our reading today, the disciples are upset because someone else is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, they are doing the work of God.  Finally, Jesus has had enough.  He says, “Look!  You are setting up obstacles to people coming to faith.  You’re trying to set up a club where someone gets elected president and then you all get to choose whose in and whose not.  That’s what the religious leaders are already doing!  You are to be different.  I am calling on you to… switch the tracks.”  And, yes, he is talking to us.  And unlike so many leaders today, Jesus is not asking us to do something that he is not prepared to do himself.  “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”  And he is not doing this for the righteous alone.  “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”  Through his death on the cross, Jesus “switched the tracks” so that he could become “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”  Jesus did not quantify or qualify.  He did it for the whole world, regardless of whatever preconditions we might place on someone.  He placed no stumbling blocks before the little ones, so that all might come to the saving knowledge of God.

Jesus said to the disciples and he says to us, “This isn’t a club.  I want you fully committed, prepared to ‘switch the tracks.’”  And he asks, “What is a foot, or a hand or an eye, compared to the Kingdom?”  Foot, hand, eye: good!  But sometimes, even that which is good can be a hindrance to some and needs to be sacrificed.  Sometimes those things that are good and which we hold most dear, need to be cut out—sacrificed—so that the work of the Kingdom can be accomplished through us.  What does that look like?  I think it is different for everyone, but you’ll know it when it comes.

I know of someone who debated long and hard over going to seminary.  Finally, a day arrived that they were determined to make a decision, so they travelled out to a friends house, climbed up a mountain, and took a seat.  After awhile they said to God, “Look at how beautiful this place is.  I’ve never been anywhere as beautiful as this.”  And God the Father said to them, “I’ll show you things more beautiful than this.”  After more time passed, they said to God, “But I have friends here.  I’ve never really had that many friends, and You know it.  I don’t want to leave my friends.”  And God the Son said, “In order to do the Father’s will, I had to leave my friends as well.”  I’ve probably shared that with you before, but after those words, I was out of arguments.  I switched the tracks.  Trust me, that doesn’t make me a saint and, looking back on it, it wasn’t a sacrifice, but the point is, we must be prepared to offer up the hand, foot, eye… our very lives, so that God’s will can be accomplished through us.

Our friend St. Josemaría Escrivá wrote, “Lord, if it is your will, turn my poor flesh into a Crucifix.”  Switch the tracks.  Make yourself a living sacrifice to God and serve Him and His will without reserve.

Let us pray: Gracious Father, you gift us with all the good gifts that make us who you created us to be. Help us to know and find your will and to trust that you will help us to understand the path you call us to journey in life. Where there is doubt give us courage. Give us hearts open to your quiet voice so we can hear your call. Help us to know your faithfulness and help us to be faithful to that which you call us.  Amen. 

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