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.”

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