Thursday, September 27, 2018

Stumbling Block Millstone

Last Sunday, my colleague, Fr. Chuck Walling, preached a beautiful and challenging sermon that helped us see more clearly what Jesus did when he took the child in his arms. In response to his disciples' arguing about who among them was the greatest, Jesus picked up a little child, holding it in his arms, and declared that one who welcomes a child welcomes him and the one who sent him. Fr. Chuck invited us to think of Jesus using a Madonna-like image to challenge the stereotype of how children were to be understood and received in order to challenge the stereotype of how God receives us. It is that image of Jesus holding a child in his arms in a gesture of love and admiration that fills the second half of this Sunday's gospel lesson.

Jesus, perhaps switching gears, looks at the disciples and announces, "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." By "little one," Jesus may have someone or something else in mind, but a continuous reading of Mark 9 suggests that the child, if not still in his arms, is nearby. And, even if the "little one" refers to someone else, perhaps the sort of person who would perform an exorcism in Jesus' name despite not officially enrolling as a disciple, the focus on surprising welcome is still behind his words. As much as he encourages his followers to welcome a child in his name as central to their identity, now he warns them that putting a stumbling block in the way of an unexpected follower comes with dire consequences.

But what does it mean to cause one of these little ones to stumble? Shhh, we say to them, your opinion isn't important to us. Please sit over there where you are out of our way. Ma'am, you may be more comfortable if you take your disruptive child out of church. What do you know? You're only a teenager. The world is falling apart; just look at the newest generation. These newcomers and their children are taking over our church. I can hardly tell that it's the same place I've loved for decades.

Different generations have different ways of expressing meaning and value even if they still value the same thing. Love of country, love of church, love of family--they are true in every generation, but they might be shown in different and, at times, contradictory ways. Jesus asks us to trust that those who are following him, who believe in him, who are showing the fruit of their relationship with him, are on the right path even if it is a different path. "Those who are not against us are for us," he says. Those are radical words in a culture of constant litmus tests, in which we evaluate and dismiss anyone as "other" or even "enemy" for not agreeing with us in every respect.

Children often bring out the best in us. Politicians are stereotypically shown kissing babies because people like first. But welcoming them, making space for them, adapting the community to meet their needs is challenging if not threatening. Jesus may have taught his followers some easy lessons, but those didn't get written down. This is a difficult teaching. Any who causes one of these to stumble, anyone whose policy or practice is an impediment on the path of someone who is pursuing Jesus, is in dire trouble. If we didn't need to pay attention to that warning, Mark wouldn't have bothered to write it down. We wouldn't be hearing it on Sunday.

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