No Cause for Stumbling - A sermon for Pentecost 18B

Mark 9:38-50

It seems as if scandals are breaking out all around us. It’s true that scandal sells, so the media will share the news. You can’t blame them. If inquiring minds want to know, then they will give them what they want.  

Speaking of scandals, here in Michigan we got a front row seat as one of the more seedy political scandals unfolded right before our eyes. It’s rare that a legislature gets so embarrassed that it decides to kick out two of its own, but when these two state representatives not only had an affair while in office, but tried to cover it up using tax payer money, you can understand why action had to be taken. What made this scandal even more noteworthy is that these two legislators ran on a “family values” platform. So, the real scandal was their hypocrisy.

But, if the news hour doesn’t provide you with enough scandalous news, there are other options, including a highly regarded TV show simply titled Scandal.  I’ve not watched it, but I understand that it’s about politics. That probably should not surprise any of us!  Then, if you’ve been scandalized enough, you might decide to throw up your hands, declare pox on all houses, and retreat to a more pleasant state of being. 

We adults may forget at times that children might be watching us and listening to us. So, what are they seeing and hearing as they run around in our midst? What message is being conveyed? What stumbling blocks are being placed in their way?

It seems clear that the disciples were having a hard time understanding Jesus’ ministry. They were still focused on getting the best seats in the house, but Jesus kept talking about the last being first. Not only that but Jesus kept talking about children and how they represented God and God’s realm. So, as the disciples argued about who was the greatest, Jesus took a child in his arms and told the disciples that if they welcomed this child then they welcomed him, and therefore the one who sent him. And as I was reminded by a fellow preacher at Preaching Camp on Monday, this child might not have been the cleanest or the best behaved. He might have been a child living on the streets. Now John comes to Jesus to complain about some exorcists who were casting out demons in Jesus’ name, even though they weren’t part of Jesus’ group. After Jesus tells them not to worry about those other people, he returns to the little ones and tells the disciples: “don’t scandalize the little ones by causing them to stumble.”  

Parents often learn the hard way that their children are watching and listening, and love to imitate adult behavior. So be careful what you say and what you do in front of the children. You don’t want to cause them to stumble.

Later on in Mark’s gospel we find Jesus blessing the little children being brought to him for a rabbinic blessing. You know, just like parents have been bringing their little ones to be blessed by Pope Francis. Of course, Jesus’ disciples were a lot like papal security.  They wanted to discourage such distractions. They had things to do, people to see, and couldn’t be bothered with little children. The only problem for them was that Jesus, like the Pope, was only too happy to oblige them. Jesus told the disciples that “the kingdom of God belongs” to the little children. It’s not because children are innocent, so we need to be innocent. Remember Jesus said that in the realm of God the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. And in the ancient world, children lived at the bottom of the social pyramid. That made them last, but in welcoming the child Jesus makes them first.

On Thursday morning Pope Francis spoke to Congress, and through them to us. It was a very powerful speech delivered with a soft tone. Those who have ears to hear will have heard a call to take care of “the least of these” as well as the earth on which we live. As powerful as that speech might have been, what happened afterward may have been even more powerful. Although the Speaker of the House had invited the Pope to join him and other Congressional leaders for lunch, Francis decided to have lunch with the homeless instead. And he looked a lot happier with the homeless than with the power-brokers!  Probably the same was true of Jesus! In the realm of God, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first! So, don’t put a stumbling block in front of the little ones! 

As we’ve been moving through these four readings from the Gospel of Mark, we’ve been encountering a rather unsettling portrait of Jesus. While he loves children, he’s not Santa Claus! In Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus, we see two realms colliding with each other. On the one side there is the realm of this world. It is marked by the demonic, idolatry, scarcity, injustice, violence, and death. But Jesus has come to bring the realm of God into the world. This realm is marked by the worship of God, abundance, health, justice, community, peace, and life. We live in the midst of a conflict zone. Jesus is calling us out from the old realm into the new, but it’s not easy to break free. That may explain a lot about church life. It’s possible that we still have at least one foot in the old realm. That can often cause the little ones to stumble. 

Did you feel sort of uncomfortable with Jesus’ answer to this problem? Did Mark’s account cause you to stumble a bit? I mean, what do you make of Jesus telling the disciples that if they caused the little ones to stumble and perhaps stop following Jesus that they should tie a millstone around their necks and be tossed into the sea? That’s pretty drastic. If that’s not enough, what do you make of Jesus talking about cutting off hands and feet or poking out eyes? That’s just a bit unsettling, isn’t it?  What do you make of this? What message is Jesus sending in these rather unsettling words? 

I can lessen the angst a bit, perhaps, by pointing out that Judaism never permitted self-mutilation. Besides that Jesus was known for his use of hyperbole. Every once in awhile he went over the top with things, perhaps to see if we are paying attention. Whatever is the case, it does appear that Mark wants us to take this message of God’s realm seriously and consider carefully our witness in the world.    

What is our witness as a congregation in a time when people simply don’t trust institutions? When it comes to our political institutions, it almost seems as if crime bosses have a better reputation than politicians. As for the institutional church, its reputation hasn’t fared much better. As a member of the “clergy” I am constantly reminded that mine is no longer counted among the most trusted of vocations. A Gallup poll taken in 2013 showed that for the first time ever, less than half of those polled rated clergy as honest and trustworthy. We rank behind nurses, pharmacists, schoolteachers, medical doctors, the military, and police officers.  Fortunately, I suppose, we still rank ahead of politicians! Yes, our witness has been undermined by the scandals in our midst. 

We continue to hear about the growing numbers of disillusioned young adults leaving the church. It’s not only because they don’t find what we do relevant to their lives, it appears that they’ve been watching how the church behaves and have decided that we’re just a bunch of hypocrites. Whether we think the criticism is fair isn’t the point, because if we’re honest they may have a point. It’s quite possible that we are more concerned abut survival than loving God or neighbor.

What kind of stumbling blocks are we placing before the little ones? What are the little ones seeing and hearing in our midst? Are we exhibiting the values of God’s realm or that of the world? Is our salt still salty, or has it lost its savor?

We occasionally sing that old song: “They will know we are Christians by our love.” It’s an easy song to sing, but difficult to live. Does the world really know us by our love? It’s not that we’re always going to agree with each other. After all, as Disciples we value our freedom, but even in our disagreements about things large and small, can we exhibit grace to each other?  Can we be at peace with one another so that the little ones might believe? Remember that the little ones are watching and their listening, and Jesus says: Don’t put a stumbling block in their way.  
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 18B
September 27, 2015


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