The Gospel according to St. Mark, the 9th chapter:
“36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
38 John said to him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." 39 But Jesus said, "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. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42 "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. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 "For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."
The Gospel of Our Lord
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen
As you consider this reading, imagine Jesus, who took a child and put it before the disciples, holding that child in his arms the entire time as he spoke these words.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me. . .”
And then he hugs the child a little tighter.
Jesus cares about the most vulnerable among us.
In some ways Jesus’ teaching is like our nation’s constitution. It is there to protect the weak and most vulnerable. The powerful among us need no protection.
Earlier in this Chapter we read:
When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
Last week my sermon was titled “Unbounded Grace” and I talked about how there is no limit to the grace and forgiveness offered by Jesus. In God’s Kingdom none of the prejudices and statuses that define our human perspective matter. All are welcome. All are loved. Even the unlovable are embraced.
This week there is a threat spoken.
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.
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off;
And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off;
And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out;
And Jesus hugs the child a little tighter.
You see the stakes are high.
At stake are the lives of our children and everyone who comes after us.
Stumbling blocks: Those things that get in the way and cause them to fall away.
In 2006 authors Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons published a book “unChristian”, which detailed their findings in a study of young adults who were not part of the Church. They simply asked the question “why?” and then listened. What they found was that these young adults viewed the Church as:
- (1) Hypocritical
- (2) Too focused on getting converts
- (3) Antihomosexual
- (4) Sheltered...old fashioned, boring, out of touch with reality
- (5) Too political (but not about things that matter to them!)
- (6) Judgmental"
The irony here is that in suggesting that the Church is all of these things they are themselves making a judgment, one of the things they abhor. And of course, in saying that I am making another judgment.
But if we listen further and hear these words not as a judgment, but simply as a witness to their experience and desires what we hear is this:
· They long for genuineness and integrity where words and actions are in harmony.
· They want to be accepted for who they are, not who you and I want them to be
· They long for a spiritual experience that is relevant to their world, their lives.
· They want to be part of a community that is open to all, and not defined by any one political perspective
· And finally, acceptance and love of all people is important to them.
The bottom line is that our youth, like the generations before them, are seeking and longing for something—and in large measure they are not finding it in the Church.
I struggle with this because as a pastor I’ve helped to shape the Church over the last generation and to an extent, I feel like I’ve failed. My own children have not embraced the Church like Karla and I did when we were young.
And so I wonder if I have put a stumbling block before them.
Stumbling blocks and children. Protecting the powerless and vulnerable among us.
Jesus cares about that.
Another stumbling block isn’t specific to the church, but too often has also involved the church.
A staggering number of children are abused and neglected in our country, each and every year. Millions of them.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that:
One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.
One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives.
One in 5 women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college.
Last week I shared with you that I am one of them.
The most difficult thing about that experience is how it has shaped my reality and sexuality ever since.
The reason it is so hard for me to forgive that man is because ever since, throughout the forty plus years of Karla and my marriage it is like there is a third person in the room.
The harm that is done to a child when they are abused and neglected,
The wounds that are inflicted by the sexual exploit and violence against children,
Last a lifetime.
Yes, with help, healing is possible, yet even with healing the experience shapes and colors the very fabric of their being.
I am who I am in part because I was abused.
I hate that “victim” is part of my identity.
And so when I hear this Gospel lesson, I imagine Jesus, clutching that child ever so tightly in his arms, and with a trembling voice saying:
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!!!
During the coffee hour in Sandpoint the children would often play outside on the big toy, which was visible from the fellowship hall.
I was standing there, still in my robes, looking out one Sunday, when one of the little boys fell off the swing set and came up crying. So I ran out and picked him up and brought him inside to Judy, who was his day care provider and had brought him to church that day.
Later on in the afternoon I got a call from his mother.
“I have to tell you something funny, Pastor. When Ian got home from church today he told me about falling off the swing set. I asked him, “Well, what happened, were you alright?” and he replied “Jesus came and picked me up and brought me to Judy.”
I loved that.
I’ve had that a number of times during my ministry, where children thought I was Jesus. The beard, the white robe, it all makes sense.
But on a more serious level, isn’t that our calling—
To be the face of Jesus in the world?
One of the things about those young adults that responded to the “unChristian” study is that they do, often, deeply love and appreciate Jesus.
It’s just that for them, the Church has often not been the face of Jesus in their lives.
One of my most heartfelt prayers, which I wrote a while back, is:
“Hold me tight most precious Lord,
That I might follow you.
Grant me grace to live each day,
May I be born anew.
Lift me up whene’er I fall,
And never let me fade
From the grace filled light
Of your own sight
That turns the night to day.”
A warm embrace.
Grace filled love.
Being lifted up, when we fall.
And a light to calm the terrors of the night.
In short, the experience we long for is much like what we had in our mother’s arms as a child.
Or, in other words, I think that one of the deepest longings within the human heart is for a mommy and daddy, but mind you, not necessarily for a Mother and Father.
And by that I mean we simply long to be held tight, to be loved and accepted, and to safe and secure.
When Jesus called God “Father”, the word he actually used is “Abba” which means “daddy” or “papa”.
He didn’t use “patér” which is the formal “father”.
Is that the difference between ‘Jesus’ and the ‘Church’.
Jesus prayed to his daddy.
And the Church has insisted on praying to our Father.
We devoted so much of our time and efforts to the Motherly and Fatherly tasks of teaching and discipline that we have too often failed in being the mommy and daddy and simply showing unconditional love and acceptance.
As simple as that sounds, that may in fact be one of the greatest stumbling blocks we’ve put before our children.
We’ve been more concerned about how to live, and not concerned enough about how to love.
We may have gotten it wrong, but Jesus got it right.
And that is the hope for all of us, children and adults.
Jesus got it right.
We may have failed to be the mommy and daddy, but Jesus never faltered.
And what that means is quite simple.
You are loved. Whoever you are, and whatever you do, you are loved.