Sunday, September 30, 2012

Stumbling Blocks

Mark 9:38-50
September 30, 2012

            I hate to admit this.  I’ll probably get some flak for saying it as well, but I’m going to be truthful.  It took me a long time, a long, long, long time, to accept the idea of lay pastors.  It irked me to think that some people had the option of spending three years attending weekend classes and coming out of that process able to be commissioned to serve a church.  It irked me because in pursuing my call, I went back to school for three years as a full time student, plus spent a year serving in a full-time internship in a church, so that I could be ordained and serve a church.  My way got me the same results as a person commissioned as a lay pastor.  Or as I would have once said, their way got them the same results as me.  But my way feels harder.    
            I was irked by the fact that they didn’t take the route that I took, but they still got to serve a church.  I was irritated at how much it seemed like I’d sacrificed and given up in order to be ordained, but lay pastors didn’t have to do that, they didn’t have to meet those requirements, yet we all ended up serving a church.  I know that my being ordained as a Teaching Elder gives me some advantages that commissioned lay pastors don’t have, but that didn’t stop my petty response to their ministry. 
            What finally changed my mind was working with several lay pastors, both here and in Iowa.  These are bright, hardworking, faithful, committed people.  Their route to ministry was different, not less, not inferior, just different than mine.  And as long as churches – especially small churches – have competent people serving them, who cares whether it’s an ordained Teaching Elder such as myself or a commissioned lay pastor?  Who cares about the different routes we took?  The Church, with a capital C, is being served. 
            But as I said, it took a while for me to catch up. 
            I do wonder if this same sort of pettiness is behind the complaints of the disciples to Jesus about this unknown exorcist. 
            It’s John who brings the matter to Jesus’ attention.  “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 
            Think carefully about what John said.  We tried to stop him, not because he wasn’t following you, but because he wasn’t following us.  Us.  The disciples.  He wasn’t doing discipleship the way they were.  He wasn’t part of their group.  He wasn’t one of them.
            If their suspicion and petty distrust over this unknown exorcist was as strong as mine had been about lay pastors, then I can well imagine that Jesus’s response was NOT what they wanted to hear. 
            “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.”
            Whoever is not against us is for us. 
            Think about what the disciples have to grapple with in this moment.  This person exorcising demons did not have to sit at the master’s feet in order to be able to do what he does.  He didn’t have to leave everything, family, friends, and livelihoods.  Although it’s not stated quite this way in the text, I think we can assume that the man had the power to do what he did because of Jesus’ name.  I doubt he just randomly used it.  He must have had strong faith that through the name of Jesus he could cast out demons.  But he didn’t have to be one of the in-group of disciples to accomplish that.  He wasn’t one of them, but he had faith and trust in Jesus.  And that gave him power. 
            He wasn’t one of them but he was still able to claim the power of Jesus’ name.  I’m sure the disciples were threatened.  I would have been.  I was.  Someone outside of the group being able to do what Jesus did, what Jesus claimed they could do, that was threatening indeed. 
            So if the disciples were feeling threatened and insecure, then what Jesus says next must have sent them over the edge. 
            “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.” 
            Then Jesus goes into great graphic detail about the hand, the foot and the eye.  If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.  If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.  Stumble in this context means sin.  And I suspect that the little ones he’s referring to are not just the little children that he spoke of in the passage before, but anyone who’s following him, hearing him, believing in him – whether it’s someone exorcising demons in his name or the widow down the street.  Don’t cause one of these little ones to sin.  Don’t be a stumbling block.  The word translated as stumbling block is skandalon or skandalezein.  You can probably guess what English word comes from this.  Scandal.  Whatever connotations this word brings up for you, it is clear to me that Jesus is exacting an emotional as well as intellectual response.  He is using hyperbole, exaggerated, dramatic, over the top language, to make a clear, no-misunderstanding-him point. 
            Don’t worry about what others are doing in my name.  Worry about what you are doing or not doing.  Think about the stumbling blocks, the obstacles, the hazards you create for others.  What do you do that wreaks havoc for these little ones? 
            Jesus puts the question back on them.  What do YOU do? 
            It’s a necessary question.  For the disciples.  For us.  What stumbling blocks do we put in the way of others?  What stumbling blocks do we put in our own way? 
            Do I spend more time worrying so much about the people that other pastors, other churches are attracting that I forget to just be present among you?  Is it too easy to be jealous and petty about what other people are doing in Jesus’ name?  Especially if I don’t always agree with what they’re saying or doing in Jesus’ name.  I have some pretty strong theological differences with people of other denominations.  Very often I find myself thinking, “Please don’t say that in Jesus’ name.  Not that.”  I spend a lot of time on social media trying to convince my non-believing friends that not all Christians think or believe like that.   Whatever that is this week.  Yet I think the point that Jesus is making in this passage is that it’s not about those other believers.  It’s about us.  It’s about me.  What do I do to put a stumbling block in the way of these little ones?
            I watched the movie Chocolat the other night.  Again.  It’s one of my all-time favorites.  And I shouldn’t have to explain why it’s one of my favorites.  The title alone should make that self-evident.  Any movie that features both chocolate and Johnny Depp is a good thing.  But the story of it is more than just chocolate and a love interest.  It’s about feeling threatened by someone who is different.  It’s about the fear that drives us when we’re threatened and insecure.  Towards the end of the movie the priest of this small French village where the story is set has to give a rather impromptu Easter sermon.  This sermon needs to speak and help heal a town that has been working very hard at scandalizing and blaming people whose only real crime was being different. 
            The priest says that we shouldn’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do, by what we deny ourselves, by what we resist, by who we exclude.  Instead we should measure our goodness by what we embrace, by what we create and by who we include. 
            I have no doubt that the disciples saw this unknown exorcist as a threat.  He was doing great things in Jesus’ name.  But he was different.  He wasn’t one of them.  I suspect they measured their goodness by their association with Jesus, their affiliation with his in-group of disciples.  That gives further understanding to their need to determine who was the greatest among them. 
            But when this person who is different, who is not one of them, does good outside of their group, it scares them.  So instead of embracing this as part of a larger ministry that’s all done because of the same person, they try to stop him.  And in John telling Jesus about it, they try to undermine this man’s healing work.  But in the end it’s not about this other person.  It’s about them.  Will they, in their fear, cause somebody else to fall away?  Will they damage someone else’s faith because they’re feeling insecure about their own?  Those are the stumbling blocks they need to be worrying about. 
            I can’t give you an exact answer to the nature of the stumbling blocks we construct.  I’m still trying to figure out the ones I personally create.  But I ask the question because it’s one that we all have to wrestle with.  What do we do that causes others to stumble? 
The good news is that we are not abandoned in our wrestling.  We are not left alone, but perhaps the greater good news on this day is that we also have power.  We have the power, just like that unknown exorcist, to expel the demons, break down the obstacles and remove the stumbling blocks, all in Jesus’ name.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Fighting For Control

               Homeless people have control issues.  Hungry people have control issues.  Low income people have control issues. 
               Before you cry, “Foul!” give me a chance to explain.  I’m not criticizing the homeless, the hungry, or the poor.  But I’ve spent a lot of time this past year serving a church surrounded by urban problems.  It's helped me to recognize that being disadvantaged doesn’t make you immune to control issues. 
                Let’s face it, wouldn’t you have them?  If all you owned in the world fit into a bag that you carried on a bike (if you were lucky), you might be somewhat controlling about that bag and that bike.  If you managed to find enough food to feed an animal – a cat or dog – and that pet was the one constant source of love and affection in your life, you might be controlling about who interacted with it.  Any threat, real or imagined, to your possessions or your pet would put you on edge to say the least. 
                So yes, the homeless, the hungry and the poor have control issues, and those control issues have to be taken into account when those of us who have homes and food and more sustainable employment set out to work and be in relationship with those who don’t. 
                I’m learning this each month at our Community Meal.  I applaud my congregation for seeing this meal for exactly what it is – an opportunity to feed people.  There’s no requirement for coming.  There are no forms to be filled out or criteria to be met.  We provide the food.  You come and eat it.  That’s all. 
                This past Sunday as the meal wound down and the majority of our guests had gone, Mark was still sitting at a table by himself, slowly working through his plate of food.  I don’t need any special training in counseling or psychology to realize that Mark is depressed, perhaps bi-polar.  The last few months he’s come in with a smile on his face.  This month he could barely look up from his plate.  I sat with him and talked a little, listened more, and realized how desperately hard it is for him to leave his bicycle outside while he comes in to eat.  He doesn’t want it to be ripped off.  Someone has offered to watch it for him, but is that person any more trustworthy than anyone else?  I understood as I listened that he just wants a little bit of control in a life, and a world, where he has none.  He has no real control over his environment.  He sleeps outside most nights.  He’s lucky, damn lucky, to have the transportation of a bike.  And he wants to control what happens to it, because he sure as heck can’t control what happens to him.  My offering to let him bring his bike inside while he ate didn’t really address the true problem.  He has no control. 
                So yes, the homeless, the hungry and the poor have control issues.   They’re human.  Being human seems to be a source of control issues.  I know I have my own.  In fact sometimes I feel like I don’t just have control issues, I am a control issue. 
                We want so badly to be in control, to have some say in what happens to us, and in how our lives unfold.  The hardest thing I’ve ever had to admit is that when it comes right down to it, I have no control whatsoever.  I live with the illusion of having control.  I work, I clean, I write, I read, I work out, all with the idea that somehow I control all of the elements of my life.  But the truth is I can’t control what happens to me.  I can’t control the future.  I can’t fully control what happens to my children or my parents or my friends.  I don’t want to fall into that clich├ęd phrase of “live each day as if it were your last,” yet there is truth to it.  Uncertainty is real.  Control really isn’t.  Ya just don’t know. 
                But this isn’t meant to be an exercise in depression or futility.  Instead I want to claim that our need for some modicum of control is one of the commonalities we all share.  We want control, but we also know that control is an illusion. So how do we deal with this cognitive dissonance?  For most of my life I’ve fought it.  My mother will tell you that from a very early age I was and continue to be determined to do things myself.  Am I stubborn?  Yes.  Independent?  Sure.  But I also want to be in control. 
                In 2008 I slipped on ice on the sidewalk outside of our house and broke my right wrist in three places.  Recovery required surgery, pins, eight weeks in a cast and 12 weeks of occupational therapy once the cast and pins were gone.  Never have I been less in control.  But I was determined to assert some dominance over the situation.  Two days after the accident I was in the house alone, unsteady because of all the pain medication I was on, yet I was still hobbling around the kitchen unloading the dishwasher one-handed trying to be in control.  While I became very adept at doing a lot of things one-handed – writing on the board when I was teaching, folding clothes, making beds – I still needed help.  A lot of help. 
                As much physical pain as I experienced during those months, the greater pain came from finally understanding that I couldn’t control everything. I couldn’t stop that fall.  I couldn’t go back in time and prevent breaking my wrist.  The most I could do was draw upon whatever patience I had and just get through each day. 
                What I really learned from that experience was that the opposite of control is not chaos as I’d previously believed.  The opposite of control is trust.  I know, deep down, that I can’t control what happens to me.  But I can trust that somehow I’ll get through whatever fire I’m called to walk through.  For me I trust in God.  That may not be true for you, but I don’t think a lack of belief in an elevated being negates our need for trust.  Trust in God, trust in ourselves or trust in the human spirit, wherever our trust is placed, the more we trust the less we need to control. 
                Perhaps the more we trust that we’ll be okay, the better able we are to see the needs of others and offer a hand of help.  Maybe then we’ll all be okay.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Greatest

Mark 9:30-37 (James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a)
September 23, 2012

            A Toddler’s Property Rights
            1.  If I like it, it’s mine.
            2.  If it’s in my hand, it’s mine.
            3.  If I can take it from you, it’s mine.
            4.  If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.
            5.  If it’s mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
            6.  If I’m doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
            7.  If it looks like mine, it’s mine.
            8.  If I saw it first, it’s mine.
9.  If you are playing with something and put it down, it automatically becomes mine.
10.  If it’s broken, it’s yours.  (Unless you find a good way to play with it, then it’s mine again.)
            For those of you who have ever raised a toddler, currently have a toddler, once were a toddler or know a toddler, you probably recognize and affirm the truth in these property rights.  I’ve spent a lot of time with toddlers, my own and others, and these property rights manifest themselves with every toy and in every game they play.  If you know someone who is anticipating a toddler in the near future, please pass on this piece of advice – batten down the hatches of their home.  It’s going to be a bumpy ride. 
            It’s not that toddlers aren’t delightful.  They are.  They are fun, they’re silly.  They’re joyful.  It’s just that I’ve yet to meet a toddler who knows how to share.  In fact, I’m not convinced that any one of us is born knowing how to share.  We have to be taught.  While it may be hard for children, it’s equally hard for adults.      
            We have to be taught how to share.  And it seems to me that the people who share well are the people who have also learned to put the needs of someone else first before their own.  They are the people who are aware of their own desires, but know that sometimes the needs of others come first. 
            The disciples are struggling with this concept when we meet them in this particular passage from Mark.  Jesus and the disciples are on the road again.  They are traveling away from the crowds who had gathered around Jesus after he, Peter, James and John had gone up a high mountain for the transfiguration.  They passed through Galilee, and as they did Jesus taught them again that the Son of Man will be betrayed into human hands.  He will be killed.  After three days he will rise.  But the disciples, who heard this same message in our passage last week, still don’t understand the reality Jesus is trying to communicate, and they are too afraid to ask him to explain, so they remain silent.
            Then they reach a house in Capernaum.  After they’re settled in, Jesus asks the disciples about the argument they were having while they were traveling.  Again the disciples respond with silence.  They don’t answer him because they were arguing about who among them was the greatest, at the top of the disciple heap.  Which one of them would win the prize as the greatest disciple of all? 
            For Jesus this becomes a teachable moment.  He doesn’t rebuke them for their argument or their ambitions.  He doesn’t roll his eyes and tell them they just don’t get it.  Instead he sits down and calls the disciples to him.  He picks up a little child and sets it among them.  Then he takes the child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
            Jesus took a child, a being with no power, no wealth, completely dependent on others for its very existence, and placed that child among them.  Not only did he bring the child into their midst, he equated himself with that child.  Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me.  And if you welcome this child, if you welcome me, then you also welcome the One who sent me.
            Jesus likens himself to a child which ultimately means that the child is likened to God.  The least one becomes the greatest.  The disciples can argue and posture and dispute all they want.  The least one becomes the greatest.
            How do you think the disciples felt about that?  Not only were they informed that none of them was truly the greatest, they were also told and shown that they would have to be willing to share their visions of glory with a lowly child.  In fact, from what Jesus is telling them, that child will rank even higher than they will, his disciples, his followers, his best supporters.
            I imagine that this was a bitter pill for the disciples to swallow.  But no matter how it stuck in their throat, they were forced to be accountable for their selfish ambition.
            Selfish ambition.  Aren’t those the same words James uses in his epistle?  In fact he uses this particular phrase twice.  In verse 14, “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.”  And again in verse 16, “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
            Were the disciples engaged in selfish ambition?  Was it selfish ambition that drove them to debate their hierarchy of stature?  Who was the greatest among them?  Was it Peter?  James?  John?  Thomas?  Andrew?  Who?  Who would be the right hand man to the right hand man?  Yet it seemed that their spotlight must be shared with a child!  Quite a blow to their selfish ambition!
            The disciples, in their very human nature, wanted there to be a pecking order, with one of them clearly at the top.  That pecking order would never have included a child.  They were practicing selfish ambition, and according to James it is our selfish ambition that gets us into trouble; that keeps us from sharing.  Disorder, wickedness, and evil of every kind come from this selfish ambition.  Perhaps Jesus wanted to demonstrate in the most tangible way possible that the disciples’ selfish ambition would not earn them the glory and greatness they desired and thought they deserved. 
            But is it wrong to have ambition?  It is our ambition that drives us.  It is our ambition that pushes us to strive, to reach for goals and to seek higher ideals.  It is our ambition that pushes us to succeed.  How many of us were told directly or indirectly that a little bit of ambition will get us ahead? 
            I certainly have ambition.  My ambitions have changed and refined over the years but I still have them.  I doubt that I’m alone in this.  What are your ambitions?  Are they career oriented?  Are they about family, your children, your grandchildren?  I find myself becoming more and more ambitious for my children, which I know can lead to a whole bunch of trouble if I don’t keep my desires for them in check. 
            I think though that our ambitions are a lot like our priorities.  I think that’s the point James is trying to make.  Just as we often have to reprioritize our lives to align them with God’s priorities, we also have to align our ambitions.  Is ambition by itself wrong?  I don’t think so.  But when our ambitions become selfish, if they drive us to use people in order to reach them or if they pull us away from God instead of drawing us closer, then our ambitions do lead to the disorder and the wickedness and the evil that James writes of so emphatically.
            A few years ago the theatre department at the college in Decorah, our town in Iowa, put on a production of Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt.  I knew very little about the play before I went to see it.  I’m not entirely sure I understood it any better when I left.  But I did understand this:  Peer Gynt was an irresponsible, arrogant, self-centered yet charming young man.  And at the end of the play, at the end of his life, he was an irresponsible, arrogant, self-centered but not so charming lost and lonely old man.  Peer Gynt did nothing for anyone unless it served his own purposes.  His own needs, his own desires came first – always – above friends, above family, above loved ones. 
At one point in the drama he finds his true love, and for a moment you dared to hope that he would at last become the caring, devoted, giving man he had the potential to be.  But even this great love could not hold him or ground him, and he went on his way, hurting others, hurting himself.
            In one scene Peer Gynt finds himself at the center of a community of trolls. They are repulsive creatures, and Peer Gynt wants nothing to do with them.  He is tricked by the Troll King’s daughter into an engagement and he looks for escape.  The Troll King threatens him and curses him and shares with him the trolls’ motto and creed, “To thine own selfish be true.”  But Peer Gynt rebuffs the Troll King and dismisses his motto.
            Years later he meets the Troll King once more.  Now the King is old and stooped and living out his last years in misery.  He tells Peer that he is one of them, he too is a Troll.  Peer protests, “I am nothing like you!”  But Peer has spent his life fully living out the troll’s beloved creed, to thine own selfish be true.  Peer’s ambitions, his desires, his lofty illusions and dreams have been nothing but selfish.  And at the end of his life he dies alone, his selfish existence having driven away all others who might have comforted him and loved him in his last hours.
            To thine own selfish be true. 
            Generosity, sharing may be a virtue that we must be taught, yet I also know that we don’t all adhere to the creed “to thine own selfish be true.”  We rise above that creed.  The ministry and work of this congregation, including the Community Meal that we will serve this afternoon, continues because so many of you reject the idea of “to thine own selfish be true.”  Yet selfish ambitions have a way of sneaking up on us, even when – especially when – we think we’re doing something strictly for the glory of God. 
            I suspect that could have been the original motivation for the disciples’ argument on just exactly who was the greatest.  They were trying to follow this humble teacher, this man they believed to be the Son of God.  And they wanted to be the greatest at that following.  Yet how did Jesus respond to their ambitions for greatness?  He didn’t scold or argue or labor through one more lecture.  He took a child, a being who in that time and culture was barely seen as a person.  Jesus took this child, a helpless, powerless, defenseless little one and said, “See this child?  Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me.  And when you welcome me you welcome the One who sent me.”  This child, this least one, is truly the greatest.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”