Stumbling Blocks or Stepping Stones?

(Proper 21B, Mark 9.38-48)

October 1, 2006

 

Jesus said to the twelve, “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.” (Mk 9.42)

 

Last Wednesday evening, in the midst of our Bible study on the book of Mark, a theological discussion spontaneously broke out.  And we started talking about how different dominations, different arms of the Christian faith, often have very different understandings or teachings about the Gospel.  Here we are – all calling ourselves Christians – but with big differences of opinion about some very fundamental things. 

We were particularly talking about a recent article in Time magazine – you may have seen it - the one that on the cover is the front of a Rolls Royce Phantom (my son tells me that is a $320,000 car) – except instead of the classic Rolls hood ornament on the car, there is a cross. 

And the caption reads, “Does God want you to be Rich?”  And that is also the title of the article, which looks at the answer to that question through the eyes of several well known televangelists, pastors and religious scholars.  And their answers are very different, depending on how they read the Bible and what verses they choose to accentuate. 

Now we did not come to any real conclusions last Wednesday; however, just the fact that that was the topic of discussion and is a cover article in Time magazine, reminds me of the opening sentences of our Gospel lesson this morning.  In fact, in the Time article, a spokesman for the traditional side of Christian teaching goes so far as to say that a certain televangelist is not a true shepherd.  He says, “He's not one of us.”

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Sound familiar? 

In our Gospel reading this morning, the disciples are complaining to Jesus that others – others who are not among their number - are beginning to preach in Jesus’ name.  And well, of course we stopped them from doing that, they say. 

But Jesus surprises them with his response.  In fact, I think that it probably surprises us also.  Because he simply says, what’s the big deal?  It really doesn’t matter to me that they have a different perspective.  And it certainly makes no difference that they are not in my inner circle and have not heard and seen everything that you have heard and seen.  And it doesn’t matter that they do not know me as well as you do.  What matters is that are not preaching against us.

That’s it – Jesus’ sole criteria for who the good guys are – those that are not against us.

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That is so different from the political rhetoric that we hear in the world these days.  The usual pronouncement is, “If you are not on our side then you are against us.”  In other words, in order to not be in opposition to a particular group, you have to be one of them.

But Jesus is applying the opposite standard.  He says, as long as you are not opposed to me, then I count you as for me.  He says, “Those that just so much as give you something to drink because you are my follower, will reap their reward in heaven.”

When we use the world’s way of looking at things, our theological differences divide us.  We are defined by our differences, rather than the things that we have in common. 

But when we use the measuring stick that Jesus gives us, we are drawn together; because we realize that we have more in common than we have apart. 

But more importantly than that, Jesus says, “Keep your eyes on me.”  When you start worrying about what somebody else is doing in my name, then your pride has become a stumbling block for your own walk with God. 

Just last week, we read how the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among them.  And now, no sooner does Jesus rebuke them for that transgression, and they are trying to prevent outsiders from doing what they think is exclusively theirs.  Same problem, isn’t it?  And Jesus again makes it clear, on no uncertain terms - that is not the right behavior.

The mission is to spread the Word of God to all corners of the earth.  And the mission field is huge, and the workers are few.  So do not to be so protective; don’t be exclusive about how that happens.  There is still plenty for you to do.

Jesus says, the problem when you are exclusive or protective about who is part of my church, then you become a stumbling block to those who are seeking me.

And woe to you if you are a stumbling block to those who seek after me.

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“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.”

A great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

Now that is a very hard saying.  And it is followed by several more hard sayings that threaten all sorts of maiming to various body parts as being preferable to falling into sin.  So let’s talk some about sin and its consequences this morning.

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Now we read those harsh statements about cutting off your hand or tearing out your own eye as hyperbole – as being intentional exaggerations for the purpose of making a strong point.  But the fact that we don’t take the sentences literally does not mean that we ignore the point that Jesus is making.  Jesus uses strong language in order to get our attention – so pay attention.

Take your lives seriously (he says) – there are serious consequences to you and to others when you allow things to cause you to stumble – cause you to neglect your relationship with God.

Understand that you have great power to do good or to do harm.  Much greater power than we might imagine.

I believe that we often underestimate the influence that we have on others through how we live out our personal faith.  And Jesus wants us to understand that is not something to be casual about.  You are being watched all of the time – certainly by your children, by the young people in your life – but also by adults whose faith is not yet formed. 

And how you model your life with Christ is noticed.  And Jesus wants that model to be a stepping stone for others to grow in faith; and not a stumbling block that causes them to go the other way.

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We have many opportunities every day of our lives to be the Christian models that Jesus wants us to be.

I will never forget the time when Robert was young – probably 5 or 6, and we were in the car together when another driver did something particularly stupid and obnoxious.  And I just automatically sat on my horn and made a few hand signals indicating my opinion of his ancestry . . . . and I hear a voice from the back seat: “What does that mean, Dad?  Are you going to fight that man?”

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How we conduct ourselves during our every-day lives is noticed.  Whether it is when we are driving, or at our jobs; or shopping at the mall or eating at restaurants; or when we are home with our families.  Jesus wants us to understand that we have a lot of unrealized power – and much more influence on others that we probably think.  Jesus says, take that power seriously.  And take your obligation to be good Christian models seriously.  And look at what and how you are doing – and not at the other guy.

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And that is particularly true of how we conduct ourselves as a church family.  It is easy to be cliquish and territorial; to come here and just talk to our friends, or take on a sense of ownership in a church. 

And it is important to guard against that.  We want our ministries to be stepping stones, not stumbling blocks.  We want everything that we do here to be; stepping stones toward a greater understanding of everyone’s relationship with God. 

And we must be careful that our love of our church and our sense of ownership of this place does not cause us to act in a way that excludes rather than includes others.  Because, woe to us if we become stumbling blocks.

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And Jesus again points to the children; to the future of the church and reminds us that it is imperative that we not cause our young ones to stumble in their faith.

We have a baptism today (at 10:30).  And as you know, in the baptism service, we not only renew our own Baptismal vows, we also stand up and declare that we will do all in our power to support the child that is being baptized.  Particularly we promise to support their lives in Christ. 

So we are all promising to be stepping stones in the lives of the children of this church.  Because we all take the responsibility of raising and nurturing all children in the Christian faith.

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As I was preparing this sermon, I thought of this little card. 

It is a list of ten things a Father should do; and I have had it with me since my children were very young.  And I still pull it out and read it every now and then.  It has some good advice: 

Be a man of your word;

I like this one:  Treat your family as if the preacher is present. 

Be a consistent Christian in home. 

Don’t be afraid to admit when you are wrong;

Let children interrupt your work. 

And others.  And what I have always prayed when I pull this card out and read it; is that when my children are adults,

that they will reflect back on me as one who was a guide along their path of life, and not as an obstacle that they had to overcome in that path.

And that is my prayer for all of us this morning.  That we would be Stepping stones; not stumbling blocks for everyone that we meet.

Amen.