*Sermon preached on 30 Sep 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA. I found this a challenging text, precisely because I am not a little upset with the damage being done to the witness of the Gospel by those convinced of their righteousness, but absent of the humility that questions self. I have encountered too many who love the Lord, but not His church… or just won’t have anything to do with either because of toxic Christians. But, in being faithful to THIS text, the focus is largely on self, although touching on those larger issues. No sermon could handle it all. As always, I seek to be faithful to the text and pull out the things for us to think about together. Blessings, Vinson
Gospel of Mark 9:38-50 (New Revised Standard Version)
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. “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. 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; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Throughout the Gospel of Mark, the disciples often come across as clueless or confused, sometimes they appear downright resistant to hearing the word Jesus brings. They struggle to grow in vision. Today’s lesson got me to thinking back perhaps 15 or 16 years ago, when the wife of one of the sergeants in my Marine battalion called to say she wanted to see me. When she stopped by my office, she quickly got to the point: she wanted to divorce her husband. She was beyond frustrated with him, and eventually it tumbled out that she had another appointment after the one with me. It was with a lawyer.
She had come to me, just to mitigate her guilt over seeking a divorce.
She was fed up.
I asked her if she would be willing to try one thing, before heading onto the lawyer. Would she be willing to sit down with her husband? Right now?
“Fat lot of good this would do,” or something to that effect, she replied, “but OK.” After all, she didn’t want to feel guilty for seeking a divorce.
He arrived, not knowing what he was walking into, so I had him take a seat and filled him in. He went white and started to become defensive, until I silenced him with a simple request.
He and his wife would have to pull their chairs facing each other, so they were knee to knee and holding hands, able to look each other in the eye. Then I would give his wife a book to hold onto and he would not be allowed to speak until she gave him the book.
WHY I BRING THIS UP
It’s not easy to hear the heart of another, even though it may be the vital step towards reconciliation and healing. But in Mark, the disciples showed real confusion in this, in thinking the healing mission was really about them. Whether they admitted it or not, it was about how great they could be – instead of focusing on those victimized by suffering in life and needing a cup of grace. Like so often, their stumbles became to Jesus a means of teaching.
The exchange starts out very strangely with John speaking on behalf of the other disciples, saying “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” It’s almost as if they had said “We own you, Jesus, and those other folk – they will not displace us.”
I have to say about the Bible, the full humanity of those who seek God is not hidden, and it gives us a place to see ourselves in our own imperfections. In this case, the disciples observed the competency of others doing great things in the name of Jesus, and I suspect the energy behind their complaint was connected to how many times they themselves had failed to be very effective. Amid jealousy, it wasn’t about Jesus, but about themselves.
Quickly, Jesus turns the table on the disciples and their possessiveness. It’s time for them to take a hard look at their own behavior and how they themselves might be getting in the way of the Gospel. Implied is the question: How they might be stumbling blocks, tripping up others?
None of us wants to think such would be true of us, do we?
However, in the searing imagery of which Jesus speaks, is the undercurrent of concern as to our words and deeds, our attitudes and our behavior. In each of the verses from 42 to 47, Jesus uses a particular Greek word, “skandalon” from which the word scandal is derived, to speak of the obstacles placed in the path of others. It is a scandal indeed, that followers of Christ would harm others seeking him – a potent reminder that it’s just so easy to harm those fragile in their faith to the point that they are lost.
I have to think that as brief and cut to the chase as the Gospel of Mark is, for this exchange to be remembered and included is because the Roman church was having its own growing pains. Being a mix of Jewish converts from the area and Gentiles, brought its own tensions. Let’s face it, the Jews would have brought with them at least a basic understanding of the Old Testament texts, whereas the Gentiles were having to learn everything. It’s like those who become a follower of Christ as an adult, having missed out on Sunday School all those years, and feeling not a little embarrassed as to their limited Biblical literacy among those long churched. Or when one runs up against questions one isn’t prepared to easily answer – perhaps from lack of study, perhaps because some things even theologians argue about. Such are stumbling blocks, sometimes imposed upon self; sometimes imposed upon others.
This is why I asked those questions in an email to y’all. Just to get you thinking… and to become self-aware of what stumbling blocks get placed in front of others, or one encounters – that ouch.
Against this, there is the word of the Lord: “For truly I tell you,” said Jesus, “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
Things get noticed. All the time.
For instance, what we do at the Welcome Table gets noticed. This past Tuesday evening an older man came up and gave me $20 to put in the plate. Not for the meal, as he said he did not eat – but in gratitude for just experiencing a sense of community by sitting down and conversing with formerly complete strangers. But if we are to take the words of Jesus seriously, it isn’t just for us to do good, but to keep an eye on those things which may hinder the witness of the Gospel in the community, nation, and world.
For instance, how, as people of faith, are we engaged as a voice of reason amid what is an increasingly uncivil society, being the “salt” of which Jesus spoke?
What say you? [PAUSE]
When we look at the Reconciliation offering envelopes, perhaps we recollect that 51 years ago this ministry was launched as a way to help support efforts within the larger ministry of the church and in grants with congregations – to combat the systemic elements of racism which exist in our society. A just means to help remove a powerful stumbling block. Alongside it there are other needs for advocacy, such as better access to health care or other basic needs, as a witness to our love of people through Jesus Christ.
There is also the question I put to you as to what those “other Christians” do or say that just drives you up a wall. One response I received is a complaint I have heard for years, “They say things as if they have a direct line to God and if you don’t behave exactly as the Bible says you’re condemned forever.” No grace, and no inclusive table.
What things get under your skin? [PAUSE]
How about we contemplate the tough issues of the objectivization of women that dehumanizes, whether we are talking sexism, misogyny, or sexual assault. Who watched the Senate hearing on Thursday or watched the news about Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh’s testimonies? In its wake, I know what has astonished me are those Christians, some of great renown, whose concerns are focused on the impact upon the judge’s reputation, with little or no regard to Dr. Ford and her suffering. Do you think such a response protecting the male and diminishing the female, witnesses the love of Christ? Does it invite or close conversations for survivors, heal or add to injury for other survivors, open or close the door for conversation within the church?
It’s easy to have a dose of righteous anger, but as the Apostle Paul notes, that isn’t a license to sin ourselves. So what kind of vision would we hold up to so that we aren’t stumbling blocks, but pathways to the grace of God in Jesus Christ for others who suffer? [PAUSE]
So I go back to where I left off earlier. As the Marine’s wife began to talk, her energy began to pick up, quickly turning to anger as she vented all of her complaints. At first, her husband looked back at her with anger and defiance, with the whole “How dare you” kind of look. But, he did keep his mouth shut.
Able to see both of their faces, at some point I noticed an expression cross the wife’s face as she seemed to hesitate for but a moment. It was a look of surprise, one taking in that he was still there, holding her hands, sitting quietly, and listening – even if he didn’t want to.
Another 10 minutes went by, and as her energy started to taper off, her voice softened, and she began to weep. Words filled with anger gave way to words filled with sorrow, as the pain came out of her. Tears started down the husband’s cheeks, as I noticed the defiance had left his eyes and empathy had taken its place. Finally, finishing, she did something I didn’t expect, she thanked him before handing him the book so he could now talk.
He did not come back with his own tale of vindication, but with a couple sentences… words of humility… and deep sorrow. “I didn’t realize I hurt you,” he began, as he acknowledged what she had said and apologized. It was the beginning of a many conversations we would have, as the moment they began to move back toward love.
So I leave you with a question to ponder given the exchange that took place in Mark, and reflections upon those moments when we or others have been a source of hurt… stumbling blocks by another name. In hearing the word of our Lord, what would we change in ourselves in making room for others?