Clearly out stumbling blocks
September 30, 2018
In two of our texts this week, Numbers and Mark, we get stories about one group of people judging another because they don’t act or believe the right way. That’s nothing we know anything about, right? Haha, right!
In the first reading, from Numbers, we will hear about the Israelites in the wilderness. They’ve been wandering around for some time by now, and Moses has been the main leader. Finally, he can no longer take their bickering, and cries out to God in desperation, saying, “I can’t take this anymore! Why did you put me in charge of this bunch? What did I do to deserve this?” God suggests a change in leadership structure, to allow leadership to be shared. Promptly, Joshua notices that some guys, who weren’t assigned leadership roles, are trying to lead! Tattle tail, tattle tail, he goes running to Moses, who responds, “Um, why would stop someone who is trying to help? Let them help!”
Our reading from James has some things to add about how we can live peaceably together, and then in Mark, we get a similar story to Numbers: someone is doing the work of Jesus, but not formally following him, and the disciples come tattling and finger-pointing. (Keep in mind, this is directly following the disciples bickering about who was the greatest, which we heard last week! Jesus literally still has that little child on his lap, the one who he told them to welcome.) Just like Moses had done, Jesus puts them in their place, saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” then he gives some guidance on how we might refrain from all this nit-picking of one another, and instead focus on our common mission.
Oh friends, it all feels so contemporary! As you listen today, think about the ways you have, even with good intentions, tried to bring others down a notch, or tried to get them to see things your way (that is, of course, the right way), or accused them of something before recognizing the behavior also in yourself. We have all done these things. Let’s listen to how humans have done them all along, and what God has to say about it.
This has been a pretty hot week for our country, politically speaking, particularly around the confirmation process for Judge Brett Kavanaugh. I know some who have been glued to the news, and others who have intentionally avoided it, because it has brought up painful experiences in their own life. The coverage and the resulting conversations have been full of mud-slinging, “what-abouts,” and attacks on individuals and on whole groups of people. Our country was not a beautiful, unified front to begin with, and hasn’t been for a while, but this week it seemed like our divisions were especially deepened and charged.
Now, I am a firm believer that Scripture cannot be honestly read in a vacuum. Because it is the living Word of God, it speaks to us differently based on what is going on in the world around us. Even as it remains steadfast and unchanging, this living Word of God reveals to us different truths, depending on what we are going through. It hits on different parts of our hearts. And so, in light of what is happening in the world around us, the line that hit me especially hard this week was the last one of Jesus’ sermon: Be at peace with one another.
Do you remember what that was like? Or, did that time ever exist in this country? Was there ever a time when people in our country were at peace with one another? Or maybe that line hits you today because of something going on closer to home: for so many families, being at peace with one another is a dream unrecognized, or even one that seems unattainable. And yet, I believe it is something we all want, right? I mean sure, there are some who really thrive on drama, but in the end, to be at peace with one another sounds to me like a pretty good thing.
Turns out, it was an unrecognized ideal for Mark’s community, too. Scholars generally agree that the community for which Mark was writing was dealing with some level of division. We don’t know what about exactly – perhaps it was gnostic versus orthodox views of Jesus, or people who had stayed steadfast in the midst of persecution versus those who had left when the going got tough and now wanted back in. Whatever it was, there were significant divisions. And so Mark includes this little incident from Jesus’ life and teaching as a way of inviting them to use Jesus’ story to reframe how they think about their lives, their commitments, their identity and their understanding of what makes up an authentic Christian community.
Two thousand years later, this story serves the same purpose for us. We, too, live with painful divisions, in our homes, in our country, in our world. We too, need some guidance from our Lord.
Of course, Jesus doesn’t offer the disciples or us any kind, sweet words. That would have been nice, wouldn’t it, because when we are in pain, we just like to be comforted, sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and move on. But in today’s text, Jesus takes a different route: he uses a shock tactic. The disciples come tattling on someone who is not doing things they way they think they should be done, and the harsh language Jesus uses in his rebuke is a really good reason not to read everything in the Bible literally – because if we did, we’d all be trying to stay afloat with millstones around our necks, with eye patches and wrapped stumps instead of hands and feet. These are not the sort of loving words we like to hear from Jesus! Could he possibly have really meant we should resort to self-mutilation when we realize we have sinned?
It is no secret that our president tends to exaggerate. He is so prone to exaggeration, in fact, that shortly after he began his presidency, people started explaining and defending his huge, blustery claims by saying, “Take him seriously, not literally.” The same principle can be applied to Jesus’ words here. Take them seriously, not literally. He uses this extreme language to get our attention, to show us how very seriously we are to take sin, especially sin that would keep ourselves or another from reaching God. Take very seriously the danger of stumbling blocks along this path – so seriously, in fact, that you would go to great lengths to be sure that these stumbling blocks are removed.
In Jesus’ hyperbolic language, removal is straightforward: simply cut it off and throw it into the fire. Drown it in the sea. Discard it. In real life, removing stumbling blocks is not so simple, because the stumbling blocks themselves cannot always be clearly seen. When I had breast cancer, the first step was to determine where exactly the cancer was, so we’d know what, exactly, needed to be removed. So it is with sin and stumbling blocks: the first step for removal, is to determine what is blocking your path to a life-giving relationship with God and with God’s people.
So, what sorts of things could be stumbling blocks for us? Think for a minute… Could it be your pride? Your insistence that you are right on an issue and anyone who doesn’t believe that must be ignorant or blind? … Could it be your temper, how quick you are to jump to judge and attack, rather than reflect and respond thoughtfully? … Could it be your envy, jealousy, or insecurity, and a desire to tear down another so you don’t feel so bad about yourself? … Could it be that thing that you just can’t bring yourself to forgive, because holding onto it gives you a sense of power and control over the offender? … Could it be an addiction, a place you go when you feel lonely or self-loathing so you can self-medicate, rather than finding your strength in God? … You see there are so many stumbling blocks in our lives. I can check several of those boxes myself, and many more that I didn’t mention. There are so many things, you see, that get in the way of the path I want to be walking, the path that leads to Christ, the path that leads to life.
Once we can recognize what those stumbling blocks are, we can hear Jesus’ harsh words more like redemptive ones: cut it off. Get rid of the stumbling block by whatever means necessary. Stop nursing the grudge. Cut off that relationship that is draining the life out of you. Reconsider that point of view that has kept you safe all these years, but is tearing down other beloved children of God. Change that unhealthy lifestyle. Kick the addiction.
Of course, life-giving as those choices may ultimately be, none of them is easy. In fact, they might even feel like what Jesus describes: like losing a limb, or like drowning, or even like death. In a way, it is – anytime you say goodbye to something that, unhealthy though it may be, has held a prominent place in your life, it requires a sometimes painful adjustment. As one commentator writes, “Jesus knows what he is talking about; it hurts to change! It hurts to cut off the precious, familiar things we cling to for dear life—even as those things slowly kill us. The bottle. The affair. The obsession with money. The decades-old shame. The resentment, the victimhood, the self-hatred, the rigidity.”
But, once we do cut those things off… there is where new life begins. There is where the pathway to God gets a little less rocky. There is where we can live into that final line of Jesus’ sermon: live peaceably with one another, experiencing the hope and love and grace of God not in some heaven some time and distance away, but right here, right now. Because that, my friends, is how God works: death must happen in order for us to get to new and abundant life in Christ. It may well hurt along the way. Jesus knows that! But the reward – whether a cup of cold water, or peace on earth, or life everlasting – is worth it.
I wonder what would happen in our country if we could follow Jesus’ advice: if citizens and elected and appointed leaders cut off the greed, and power, and pride, and the need to be right, and paid more attention to that little child that Jesus picked up last week, that he is still holding on his lap? That is, what if we put aside our stumbling blocks, and instead paid more attention to the least, the vulnerable, the abused, the victims of injustice, the weak, the wounded… and lifted them up, and heard their stories, and sought to be the light of Christ to them? We might just find that living peaceably with one another wasn’t some far-off dream after all. We might find that we would all be just a bit closer to the new life that is promised through Christ our Lord.
Let us pray… God of peace, you show us the way to life, but the way is rough and difficult. In your grace and mercy, help us to remove the stumbling blocks along the way, so that we might, with all your children, live peaceably with one another. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.