Stumbling Blocks and Salt
A sermon on Mark 9:38-50
Whoever you are and wherever you find yourselves on your journey of faith, know that you are most welcome here to receive God’s goodness, mercy, and love. Amen.
I always start my sermons with this prayer, but today I am very conscious that applies to me as much as to any of you. I need God’s goodness, mercy, and love – for all kinds of reasons. Today, one of those reasons is that this is a tough text for me to preach. For one thing, I am painfully aware of how it calls me out.
You see, at times in my life, I have done almost exactly what the disciples do at the beginning of today’s gospel story. The details are different – I have never tried to stop an exorcist because he was not part of my group – but I have stood in defensive, self-righteous judgement over other Christians because they don’t practice their faith the way I practice mine. As a recovering fundamentalist it’s a common temptation. We formerly fundies tend to rail against the damage done by our own former lifestyle.
But while challenging genuine harm is vitally important, there is a danger of falling into factions… of marking out boundaries lines and setting ourselves up as judges of who the “real Christians” are. It’s a danger I must constantly be on the watch against.
I was confronted by this sin when my family moved to Italy, and there were very limited options when it came to English-speaking worshipping communities. The only church that was a logistical option for my family was led by a decidedly fundamentalist missionary pastor. We participated in this community because we needed a church, and because the people and the worship were beautiful and nurturing, but the preaching was deeply disturbing. I rarely got through a sermon without biting my tongue and grinding my teeth as the pastor preached a judgment-heavy, legalistic version of faith that held almost no congruence with the gospel I find in scripture.
But the theme that got under my skin most consistently was his repeated rants against “false Christians”… of which I was clearly one according to his theology. It was deeply alienating… and it was also revelatory. Because he was holding up a mirror for me. He was forcing me to see the way that it hurts the body of Christ when we say (as the disciples said, and as he said, and as I sometimes said): “we saw someone (doing something) in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.”
I knew that this preacher was wrong to reject my kind of Christianity because I know it really does help people. I also realized that I was wrong to categorically reject his kind of Christianity, because three years in that community showed me that he really was ministering to people too. That church was building community, and nurturing faith, and meeting real needs.
That’s not to say that they didn’t also do some harm… and as I member of the community I had the chance to speak up when I saw harm being done by the judgment-based theology being taught there… But those objections weren’t about factions. They weren’t about us vs. them or self-protective group loyalty… they were about calling MY community to bring hope and healing to the suffering.
And, you know, bringing hope and healing to the suffering is what the exorcist in the gospel story was doing. He was healing people! Of course Jesus tells the disciples NOT to stop the man from doing deeds of power in Jesus name – because he’s doing good, not harm!
In fact, Jesus tells them that the work of compassion doesn’t even need to be done in Jesus’s name. Anyone who so much as gives a cup of cold water to those who bear the name of Christ will be rewarded. As one thoughtful commentary I read this week explained, Jesus’s response to his disciples “is a results-oriented response… as opposed to a clannish one.” Jesus is saying that what we should be paying attention to is NOT whether people line up with our group. It’s what the consequences of their actions are.
Because when we do the opposite. When we focus on defending our group rather than helping the people who are hurting… we are putting down a stumbling block to faith and to grace.
The example of my church in Italy, and the way it challenged my own clannishness is the “safe” illustration of this teaching… but it’s not the most pressing application in this moment. This week the Christian church, and all Christian people, have been confronted by a much more immediate challenge regarding how we are going to engage in the very public and deeply divided national conversation about sexual assault.
The foreground for that conversation, of course, has been the hearings and votes on the Supreme Court nomination, but that’s not where it’s most relevant to the people in this room. None of us have a vote or a platform to sway what happens with the nomination, so it doesn’t really matter what any of us think about it.
But what does matter is the way we engage this conversation. Because this conversation is much bigger than Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Ford.
This conversation is affecting every other person who has ever been a victim of sexual assault.
This conversation is affecting the messages that our young people are getting about what our society expects of them and the protections it will offer.
This conversation is affecting all of us because the way this conversation is playing out it is calling us all to line up on our partisan sides and to live in fear of what the other side is scheming.
But today’s gospel directly challenges us to REJECT that call, to repudiate the task of defending our group and casting judgment on the other, and to instead look at the consequences of our own actions; to look at OURSELVES and ask “am I putting a stumbling block before one of these little ones?”
In the context of this reading the little one is the child Jesus still has on his lap from last week’s reading, but from last week’s reading we also know this child represents anyone who is treated as least, or as unworthy… anyone who is vulnerable to exclusion or rejection.
So in our context, we need to ask who in OUR circle is being treated as least or as unworthy… who is vulnerable to exclusion or rejection… and how are we creating stumbling blocks to their experience of the gospel?
From what I have observed, there are a devastating number of survivors of sexual assault who are feeling very vulnerable this week. Who are re-living their trauma. The trauma of the assault, the memories of of what happened, and how it made them feel... and also the trauma of what comes after. The shaming things said to them when they told their stories. Or all the reasons they decided not to tell their stories.
I know, because I am hearing their stories and because I have my own #metoo memories, I know just how deep the pain has been this week, and just how much we need to hear a word of grace, rather than suspicion, from those who bear the name of Christ.
That’s not to say that survivors are the only ones feeling vulnerable this week. I know there are also some – rightly or wrongly – who are feeling a genuine fear about the prospect of false accusations. There are others who are being confronted by their own past behaviors that they had been taught to believe were OK, and who are now grappling with confusion and shame as they learn how much harm those behaviors can do. It’s not the same kind of trauma, but it should still lead us to the same question:
Am I putting down stumbling blocks to the gospel?
Is my engagement with this conversation causing harm, or is it witnessing to a real path to grace and healing?
Jesus makes it clear in this story that this is what his followers should be concerned about. He wants self-evaluation, not concerns about the other guy. When Jesus’s disciples try to turn his attention to the exorcists unauthorized ministry, Jesus says (as one commentary paraphrases it)“stop the finger-pointing and start getting your own house in order, or else your hypocrisy will cause the little ones to stumble.”
And by “start getting your own house in order” he means getting serious about cutting out of your life the things that cause harm. Cut off your hand if you need to, or your foot. Gouge out your eye! It’s hyperbole, but it’s meant to shock us into realizing that Jesus is deadly serious about this.
The gospel is supposed to change us, because if it doesn’t then our broken witness could be the thing that causes someone else to stumble; the thing that breaks someone else’s faith.
So if there is anything in our lives, in our speech, in our loyalties, in our social media habits that is putting a stumbling block in the path of someone who path is already rockier than it should be, then we need to literally cut it out.
I KNOW how hard that is, especially in our deeply polarized context where any ground given, any failure to defend is cast as a betrayal of our “side”... but this isn’t about sides! I’m not taking sides! I’m calling MY community to bring hope and healing to the suffering.
Because we have a mission in the world.
At the end of the gospel reading Jesus calls his disciples to have “salt” in themselves. In the ancient world salt was both a preservative and a purifier. It worked to protect and to cleanse. And that’s what our job is. To protect and to cleanse.
In a beautiful reflection on this passage, theologian Debie Thomas invites us to imagine what it would be like if the church actually acted according to that mission. If we set aside our polarized identities, if we cut out the fears, and suspicions, and defensiveness that act as stumbling blocks and just did the work of the gospel together:
She predicts that if we did that…”We’d become The Company of the Blessedly Wounded, yes, with our missing limbs and our patched-over eyes. We wouldn’t look as shiny and unassailable as we did before. But we would be path clearers. We’d be stumbling block removers. We’d be healers and exorcists. Best of all, no little one would ever lose her way again because of us.”
It’s a whole lot harder than pointing our finger at the other guy. But it’s the gospel.
Thanks be to God.
 http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/9/25/be-at-peace-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-nineteenth-week-after-pentecost. accessed 9/26/18.
Debie Thomas, “If it Causes You To Stumble,” from: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1954; accessed 9/25/18