Stumbling Blocks


roper 21, Year B, RCL, Track 1 Psalm 124, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

Back in 2001, a small church in Colorado, no bigger than ours, prepared and served a Thanksgiving meal. The church had a concern for families in need as well as others who had no one to share a meal with. There was no way that the church’s small parish hall could accommodate the anticipated crowd so they partnered with a local elementary school in order to use their kitchen and cafeteria. That Thanksgiving they served 120 people. A few years later Amy, the three girls, and I moved into the house directly across from this school. The moving truck had left less than 12 hours before. There was no way we were going to be able to prepare a Thanksgiving meal when we were immersed in boxes and busily painting rooms. So we wandered across the street and enjoyed a beautifully prepared meal and a welcoming community of folks celebrating the bounty of the season.

Soon after this, the community dinner outgrew the elementary school’s cafeteria and the organizers had to move it to the Jr. High school. We were now feeding around 500 people and coordinating over 100 volunteers. This project was getting big, taking tons of volunteers, donations, and organization. But this same church was aging, fewer people were attending and many felt that they were losing control of this outreach. To be frank, we were very reliant on other churches to keep it going. Then, the nearest neighboring community decided to do their own community Thanksgiving dinner. Again some people felt hurt. There was a feeling of competition. The number of people we served that year decreased and it was a little harder to get as many volunteers.

Now, years later, they are now serving nearly 700 people and the United Way has taken over the business side of the outreach. I can only imagine that giving up control to such a large organization also had to be a hard decision for some. Yet it was necessary for the ministry to survive long term.

When ministries expand and take on a life of their own, we sometimes feel threatened. We want it to be our ministry. We want to do it our way. We may want the recognition, the feeling of success or possibly we want our group to feel that they are making a difference in the world. This is where I think we find the disciples today. John said, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” This “someone” wasn’t part of their inner circle. He obviously has heard of Jesus, possibly listened to him in gathering or in the synagogue. Maybe he was healed by Jesus and now feels empowered to speak and act in Jesus’ name. We have no idea how he knew to do what he was doing, and the disciples didn’t either. But the disciples felt threatened and wanted him to stop.

Jesus is with the disciples in the same house as last week. The kids are still running around and the little child remains standing in the middle of their conversation. We sometimes lose this continuity in the lectionary because scenes are broken up into smaller stories over several weeks. But this is where we find Jesus and the disciples today. With the child in their midst, Jesus says, “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.” What we find is that people who are doing good in the world are doing God’s work whether they know it or not. Maybe we think they aren’t doing it the right way, they aren’t serving the right kind of people, they don’t believe in God the same way we believed in God. Regardless of the reason, if we are trying to stop someone from doing good in the world we are putting a stumbling block in front of them.

We can put stumbling blocks in front of people overtly but we can also be more subtle by simply talking about the work they are doing in negative ways. In the community in Colorado, there were people who thought the money and effort could be used more efficiently or in better ways. I remember hearing a conversation at work where two people didn’t believe 500 people were actually served or that the number of volunteers being reported could possibly be accurate. “Why would so many people give up their Thanksgiving Day for this once a year soup kitchen?” Being intimately involved in the Thanksgiving dinner, and knowing my coworkers, I am quite certain that I never saw either of them participate in any way. And I thought to myself, “How would they have any idea about what actually goes on that day?” They were simply gossiping about something they knew nothing about. This type of conversation doesn’t build up the volunteers or the people that were being served or the good work that was being done. It simply tears it down and possibly negatively influences others who may hear their conversation.

There are consequences for our actions. If someone else overheard this conversation, they might believe what they were hearing and unintentionally spreading the negativity about the program. When we speak of the good works of others, even if we do not want to be involved, we add to the good that they are doing. These negative thoughts that may come from within us may be the parts of the body that Jesus is asking us to get rid of. In his hyperbole he says, rip out your eye, cut off your hand or your foot; if they cause you to sin. He isn’t being literal but metaphoric as to how drastically we should react to behaviors that cause us to stumble. Notice that Jesus moves from putting stumbling blocks in front of others to how our own sinfulness causing us to stumble. He doesn’t say we should chastise our neighbors for stumbling. He says we should change ourselves. We have the ability to cause others AND ourselves to stumble. But through Christ, our eyes can be opened to see how our actions affect ourselves and our neighbor; both good and bad.

James sees our actions in two parts. There are things we do for ourselves such as pray and sing songs of praise, and there are things we do for one another; pray, anoint, and confess. We know that his “list” doesn’t end here. In other places, he speaks of clothing the naked and caring for the needy, but today we are charged to be aware of the two parts of our spiritual life, personal and corporate, and I’ll focus on our corporate life. Each of us here today came for corporate worship in which we pray and even confess our sins as one body. But I wonder if we confess our sin to another as often as we should. When we apologize or admit we are wrong, we are confessing our sin to someone else. But sometimes we do or say things that are hurtful to others. Even if they haven’t heard us say it and we need to ask forgiveness. We can, and will, have an opportunity to do this today, but do we take the time, or come prepared, knowing of something that we should ask forgiveness for. Or do we just go through the motions, saying the words, and not absorbing the magnitude of this opportunity?

Confession is a gift. It is a gift to the person to whom we have wronged and it is a gift to the person who committed the wrong as well. When we confess, we are freed from the burden of holding the weight of our actions. And for some, confessing to another person allows us to tangibly feel the presence of Christ among us, instead of the feeling of confessing into the ether. Confessing our sins, whether to another or directly to Christ, is what we are called to do. But it is much harder to confess a sin that we actually name; for we have to acknowledge, at least to ourselves if no one else, that we are deficient and imperfect. When we confess to another we will usually receive absolution. Our friend may say, “I forgive you.” This is often the first step in mending a tear in a relationship. And when you confess to a priest, the priest will offer you absolution through Christ. This is no different from what Christ offers directly to you. But the words of absolution are much more tangible, coming from a corporeal body. All forms of confession mend the tears in our relationship with God. It is only through our repentance that Christ forgives us and that we have a fresh start, walking without the burden that we have laid upon ourselves. And I believe that it is by recognizing our own flaws that we begin to overlook the flaws of others. We see one another as the imperfect image of God that we are. And we find the grace to have empathy with one another out of our own flaws.

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