Numbers 11: 4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19: 7-14
Mark 9: 38-50
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. Robin J. Steinke
Grace, mercy and peace in the name of the Triune God. This pericope reads a bit like a poorly written term paper where every fleeting thought you had or might have researched finds a place in the essay. (I have even written some of those essays). This text begins with an exorcism, continues to describe stumbling blocks with dire and violent consequences, and concludes with some seemingly disconnected verses about salt and fire, all within the wider context of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship.
I want to draw our attention to one part of verse 42, skandalon, a “stumbling block”. I suspect we could all agree that none of us wants to be a stumbling block for anyone trying to follow Jesus. Perhaps we are most familiar with the external kinds of stumbling blocks, those things which keep us from following Jesus. Perhaps the stumbling blocks are people who disappoint us. Folks who when you see their behavior, you ask yourself, How can that person call themselves a Christian? Their very presence seems to be a stumbling block to following Jesus.
There are also external events which call one to question how that activity points to Jesus. Sometimes congregational annual meetings can take on this kind of character, where folks are arguing about things unrelated to following Jesus.
Perhaps the toughest stumbling blocks we encounter are those internal blocks we create which prevent us from following Jesus. The arrogance that presumes we have it all figured out; the self-doubt that seeps into our hearts and minds which conveys that nothing we do could possibly be good enough to follow Jesus; the self-doubt that surrounds you like the fog rolling in on a cold morning and preys on you with questions like you aren’t good enough; These are stumbling blocks of mis-directed trust. We trust more in our own judgments or ability than in the risen Christ.
It is easy to make a leap to assume that our call then is to figure out what are the stumbling blocks and attempt to carve them into stepping stones, you know, smooth out the rough edges. We could stack up all the things we believe to be stumbling blocks, external and internal, people and events, over here and all the things we think are stepping stones over there and just commit to avoid those things in favor of these things.
It sounds simple enough. There is just one problem. If we begin or continue to trust in our own capacity to judge what the stumbling blocks are and what are the stepping stones, then we have failed to take seriously the power of sin and evil. We mis-direct trust away from God and turn trust to ourselves and our own judgments. We simply do not know what the stumbling blocks or stepping stones might be for another to follow Jesus.
On the first day of the semester I received a phone call from a pastor who graduated a number of years ago. I was a bit surprised to hear from her but always delighted to chat with an alum. It is with her permission that I share this much of the conversation. She began by saying, “Dean Steinke, I called to tell you how … much … I …. R e a l l y . . . hated your ethics class.” I was a bit stunned and the only response I could muster was, “can you say more?” She described how much she really wanted clear answers to moral issues. My response would often be, it is more complicated than that, you first must understand the nuances of the problem and the richness of diverse resources which come to bear. Clearly she found this nearly impossible. I had no idea at the time that this work was such a stumbling block for her. She continued the conversation by sharing that she now finally gets it and went on to explain a congregational situation that is being resourced in a helpful way from her thinking and work in that course. The point is that we may not know what aspects of our life or work prove to be stumbling blocks or stepping stones. I did ask her for some coaching on what might accelerate the learning curve.
She simply needed time to live into her context so that she could see her earlier work in new ways. Joseph Sittler, well known ethicist and theologian comments on Luther’s phrase, “to be a saint is to be a forgiven sinner” in the following way: “To equip … the saints does not mean to provide people with exterior additions to their sainthood…like shoulder pads and helmets. Instead, it means to equip in the internal sense: not an adding-on-to, but a maturation, nurturing, deepening, opening of vision, growing in faith.”
It is tempting to think of stumbling blocks as personal, private issues to which we each may respond as our individual situation warrants. Sittler cautions us that “it is tempting to regard God primarily as a God for solitude and privacy and only secondarily as a God for society. We have a God for my personal ache and hurt, but no God for the problems of human life in the world. This is where the church has tended to be privatistic, solitary, filled with religious sentiment of a personal kind.
Sittler notes that we are invited to expand our notion of God to acknowledge that God is not only the One to whom we flee in times of trouble, but God is also the maker of heaven and earth-God of all that is. When we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life,” the reference is not just to religious life, devotional life, prayer-book life. It means all of life.” (Sittler, 35)
These verses in Mark are not primarily about ways that we might figure out what are the stumbling blocks and how we might carve them into stepping stones. This is a story about Jesus who invites us to trust him with the whole of life and with our whole hearts. God has formed us for more than ourselves. We are created to envision more than we can accomplish and that which is beyond our own possibilities.
What then is our response to this word about stumbling blocks? I think our only response is to confess. I end each evening with a prayer I learned from my internship supervisor. He taught me this prayer at the end of one particularly challenging day. It is simply that God bless what God can and forgive the rest. What I continue to learn is that I try not to presume what needs blessing and what needs forgiving.
Come all you stumbling blocks and stepping stones, come all you saints and sinners, come all you who have been bent low with the struggles and strains of life. Come to stand before this table of God’s life and love given you as a gift. Come ye disconsolate, with outstretched hands and open hearts, come in the poverty of your brokenness and our communal brokenness. Come to this table of grace and receive God’s gift for you. That’s the good news for today.