See the stumbling blocks within us
17th Sunday after Trinity
MARK 9 38 - END
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.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. 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.
‘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; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 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., 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, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
‘For everyone will be salted with fire. 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.’
My guess is that every one of us could tell stories about the stumbling blocks in your life. I can too easily name and too quickly blame people, events, and circumstances that have tripped me up. Stumbling blocks.
Today’s gospel tells a story about John and the other disciples running into a stumbling block, an outsider who, as John tells Jesus, “Was not following us.” John does not say that this man interfered with the disciples’ work, that he had a different purpose, or that he opposed them. He simply says, “He was not following us.” Never mind that the man was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. He was not one of them, and that seems to be their stumbling point. I don’t know what that meant for John and the other disciples but I know that today it often means the other does not look or dress like us, does not speak or act like us, does not think or believe like us, the other does not do it our way. He or she is not following us. Whatever it was for John and the disciples, they felt threatened by this man. He was casting out demons, alleviating oppression, offering a new life, all in the name of Jesus. Chances are the man was getting a name, status, and recognition and the disciples were not happy about it. Last week’s sermon had the disciples arguing among themselves as to who was the greatest this week they are complaining about this man, this stumbling block to their power, status and recognition. Last week we had Jesus taking a child into his arms and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” The child is a symbol of vulnerability, powerlessness and dependency on someone to care for them. Jesus and the disciples are still in the same house as last week, probably the child is still on his lap. Jesus is probably wanting to continue his teaching - John, however, wants to make the conversation about this man, this stumbling block. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he “was not following us.”
Isn’t that what we often do or want to do with our stumbling blocks? We draw lines in the sand, circle the wagons, divide into us and them, and try to stop them. I see that happening in the world news today and if I am honest I have sometimes been a John – have you?
Jesus, however, takes a different approach. He isn’t so concerned about another who causes us to stumble. His concern is focused on us, not the man in question. Jesus is once again asking us to look at ourselves, to be self-reflective. It’s as if he's saying to John, Don’t you worry about that other man. You worry about yourself. He’s asking us to look within.
The greatest stumbling blocks are not outside us but within us: anger and revenge, the judgments we make of others, prejudice, our desire to be right, our unwillingness to listen, the assumption that we know more and better than another, living as if our way is the only and right way, pride, fear, being exclusionary, our busy-ness, lies, gossip, our desire for power and control. These, and a thousand other things like them, are what cause others and us to fall. It is not only about us, but about our government, our justice system, our church and the rules it applies.
This is not an easy or comfortable conversation and I don’t like it any more than do you. But it is something about which Jesus is adamant. You can hear that in the images he uses: drowning by millstone, the amputation of hand or foot, the torn out eye, the unquenchable fire, hell, and the worm that never dies. We don’t need to take those literally, but do we need to take them seriously? I think so - Jesus uses those images four times to talk about our betterment. “It is better for you,” he says. That’s what this is about. None of us want to be a stumbling block to another or to ourselves, as Jesus said, to “be at peace. Here is my suggestion. We make our mantra for this coming week, ‘First, do no harm’ and we make that the guiding principle for all that we say and do and then we will become building blocks instead of potential stumbling blocks.
What if John had offered that man a word of encouragement and invited him in?
Finally the last verse:
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.’
We all know the attributes of salt, it brings out flavour, it cures and preserves, it aids buoyancy, it helps to heal wounds just apply all those in spiritual terms and you will be a sermon writer before you know it!
Above all this coming week be at peace within yourself and be at peace with one another. Amen