If I ever get a tattoo, which is doubtful, it’s going to say, “Be careful what you wish for.” I was reading a commentary on today’s Gospel reading from Mark by Amy Oden at a website called “The Working Preacher” (www.workingpreacher.org) and she had an idea that I thought would be pretty good. She wrote, “As a sermon preparation strategy, use your social media platform this week to ask ‘What stumbling blocks do you put in the way of others?’ or ‘What stumbling blocks do Christians put up that hurt the cause of the gospel in the world?” I thought this was an excellent idea. It gives those of you who see the question something to think about in preparation for Sunday. It gives me a little bit of an idea about what kinds of things related to this might be on you mind. It opens up a little bit of a dialogue before we get here on Sunday morning. It sounded like a great idea all around.
So I did it. Back on Thursday, I posted the following: “Responses needed please. Do any of you, people of any faith or no faith, have personal stories or examples of a time when a Christian acted in a way that made you question or doubt the Christian faith? It could have been an individual, a church, a denomination, a ministry, or some other situation where someone or something is identifying themselves as Christian. I am thinking of using some of these stories (anonymously) in a sermon this Sunday. If you don’t wish to post a reply below, please send me a private message.” I already had an idea of what I wanted to do with the sermon, and I figured it was late in the week and so I’d get maybe a half-dozen responses; a dozen tops, and there would be two or three stories that I could pick out that would illustrate what I wanted to talk about.
I had twenty-seven different people post a comment publicly. A number of them posted multiple comments or shared multiple stories. I had about fifteen or so more people that sent me a private message – some of them shared as many as five stories that were either about their own experience or about people they knew. I didn’t try to count them all up, but there were roughly forty people and well over a hundred stories.
I was blown away. All of a sudden this little project of a day or so that was going to help me round out my sermon and make sure that it was on point had become so much more than I thought it would. I had far more than I had ever expected.
Before we get to that, let’s take a look at our reading from Mark. The reading starts off with the disciples snitching to Jesus. “Jesus, we saw some other guy doing ministry in your name, and since he wasn’t with our group we tried to stop him. But he wouldn’t stop, Jesus!” Jesus says, “Let him go! If he does something great in my name now, then later on he’s not going to be able to badmouth me, is he? Just let him be; if he’s not against us, he’s for us.”
When I read that, I was reminded of what President Bush said in his address to Congress after the attacks on September 11, 2001: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Hillary Clinton said something similar at the time: “Every nation has to be either with us, or against us.” As is often the case, Jesus is saying something different than American politicians say.
What Bush and Clinton were saying was, “If you do not line up with us, you are our enemy.” If you are not for us, you are against us. Jesus has it exactly the other way around. Unless someone is actively working against us, then they’re all right. “This guy may not be part of our group, part of our congregation, part of our denomination or our political party or our ethnic group or our whatever, but if he is not actively against us, then let him go.”
Then Jesus talks about what happens to those who put up “stumbling blocks”, those who interfere with other people in their relationship with Christ. He is warning mature believers, he is warning people who have believed in him and walked with him for a long time, that others are watching them. Jesus is letting the disciples know that other people are judging him based on how they act.
And it’s then that Jesus starts to get into the graphic imagery, by saying that it would be better to be drowned than to mess up the relationship between another person and Jesus. I’m going to quote Amy Oden directly, because I think she says it so well and so clearly: Carelessness in discipleship can do irreparable damage to those most vulnerable within the body of Christ. The next verses become more graphic still. Verses 43, 45, 47 each point to stumbling blocks that are part of us: hands, feet, eyes. Things we hold dear. Things we think we need. Through images of body parts, Jesus makes clear that stumbling blocks are not other people or things outside of us. They are part of us. These stumbling blocks might be events, practices, “the way we’ve always done it,” or our own pet causes.
Stumbling blocks that come disguised as precious body parts are so dangerous they should be severed. The violence of Jesus’ hyperbole here is inescapable. He uses an over-the-top, BOLDED AND ALL CAPS format to get the disciples, and our, attention. We are likely to think there’s nothing worse than losing a hand, a foot, or an eye. But Jesus says there is. The consequences of causing another to stumble are far worse than self-maiming.
“Carelessness in discipleship can do irreparable damage to those most vulnerable within the body of Christ.” It is that line which comes back to me when I read and think about all the pain that people shared with me and with others on Facebook. Instead of building on two or three of the things that people shared, let me pick out some excerpts from a large number of what people posted. I’ll just share these things in the order they came.
- Anytime someone throws the constitution to carry a weapon but use the Bible to say who can marry whom.
- When I was 14 I had a priest tell me I was a child sent from the devil because I questioned his interpretation of the scripture in a class. At 16 I had a sister at a different church tell me because I liked reading Alexander Dumas and Victor Hugo that I would either burn or spend eternity in purgatory for reading blasphemous words against the church.
- My minister at my church when I was younger was eventually found out to be, and convicted of pedophilia, and had done this to some of the children of our church. (note from Jeff – I heard this one, or something like it a lot.)
- Told I was the spawn of the devil because I doubted confirmation (Catholic). Night terrors for many years.
- When I was with the Church of the Brethren, my nephew joined the Marines and some at church said he was no longer welcome in “their” church.
- I had a minister put his hand on my leg when he gave me a ride home from vacation Bible school the summer between sixth and seventh grade.
- My high school youth leader used to ask me to sit on his lap. I was 16.
- At 14 I started at a church and became saved. I became a member of this church and started dating a boy there. We were together on and off for more than 3 years. I had a date with him on a Friday night and Sunday when I went to church a church rumor spreader come running up to me to let me know that the boy in question was engaged.
- When my husband was in CCU and my son was in ICU at the same time, and I was running our business, was such a stressful time in my life. I began to doubt my faith, and was even angry that God could let such bad things happen, instead of thanking him for looking out for them. I could only doubt him.
- I have a uterus so I am pretty much one of the causes of all that is wrong, evil and unimportant in most religions, except when someone is hungry, something needs cleaning or those 2 magical times I was pregnant in wedlock. (After the kids were born, I went back to being a problem because “working mom uterus” is the #1 cause of why we can’t have nice things.)
- I was brought up with a Christian faith and attended a Baptist church until I was in H.S. And old enough to decide I was not going to go to church. I can’t say that that decision was because of a loss of faith but more because of the hypocrisy of our church members. The members of the church we attended, both the elders and the youth, were very much the “praise God/Yeah God” on Sunday but then Monday-Saturday their actions/behavior were questionable (drinking, partying, discriminating people, cheating, lying, etc.).
- I have over the past year stopped calling myself a Christian. I am a follower of the Rabbi Jesus. Since the US has stepped into the modern western world with equal marriage, the Christian voice has been beyond hysterics.
- S. use of ‘enhanced interrogations’. Guantanamo.
- Watching the small town church in which I grew up in the 1970s smile and greet each other superficially after each service and rush to leave rather than authentically support the family whose father lost his job of 25 years, or my own family, whose father died at the age of 42.
- A woman who professes to be a Christian, but who is rude and demanding to waitresses and nurses.
- Hands down…..the way the Catholic Church has handled the molestation of young children.
- When my minister told me in Bible study as a kid that even the most horrible person I knew (pedophile) could get into heaven by asking forgiveness on his death bed and that animals don’t go to heaven because they don’t have souls. Heaven no longer sounded like a place I cared to ever be.
- (My parents were divorcing and other girls were bullying me.) I told my mom about this and she agreed to go talk to the priest about this. We met with the priest and told him what was going on. He was unkind and not willing to help at all. I felt that since our family was not wealthy and since my parents were getting divorced, we were thought of as unworthy.
- I had a friend who was going through a very rough patch that caused her to question her faith. She began reading a lot. She was a faithful church member. She even taught Sunday school. But when she began talking about some of the new ideas that she was reading about, we asked her to stop teaching Sunday School. She was very hurt. I begged the church and our minister to reach out to her… to love her more until she found her faith again. Instead they rejected her.
- Through my divorce my ex told a lot of awful, evil lies to our church family. The women in particular backed her quite a bit and fed her some awful, evil advice. She followed almost all of it because it came from “godly women” so it must be valid. It cost me a job and damaged a lot of relationships.
- The biggest fault I find with organized religion is … the hate. The duplicity. Where did Jesus teach that? Cherry picking Old Testament verses and ignoring others?
- A Church of the Brethren that would not let an interracial couple marry because it was not Christian but ignored the fact that the married pastor was having an extra-marital affair.
- Freshman year of college, in addition to church, I spent a couple nights a week in an all-girls Bible study group. Sophomore year of college, I started going out with other friends and making decisions that group didn’t approve of. Truth be told, I was really struggling with a lot of things and needed that group and when I turned to them they turned me away because they didn’t agree with my decisions.
- I work at a Christian College, and it just about destroys me when I catch my boss out in a “little white lie”
- I haven’t had a lot of positive church interaction in many years. I’ve given up on church and have lost faith in the last 20 years. There’s only so much that you can take before you give up.
- I’ve talked with several single Christian people who find it difficult to feel like they fit in at church meetings. They say that family members, church members, and friends keep asking them why they are not married yet. Some of the people make awful comments as if there is something wrong with a person if they are still unmarried after a certain number of years has passed. Few people give them credit for waiting on the Lord and for the way that many of them are truly seeking God’s help in being married to the right Christian person.
- When my daughter was born, she spent a week in the neonatal intensive care. When we brought her home, she had to be on a monitor every time she went to sleep. It gave off loud beeps when turned on and then every time she would stop breathing. Needless to say, the “beeper box” went everywhere with us. Outwardly, she looked like a normal, beautiful baby girl. So, there we were in church, she was with us in the chapel because nobody in the nursery knew infant CPR. Everyone was welcoming and smiling at the beautiful baby. You guessed it, she fell asleep. I covered the box with a diaper to stifle the beep, but you could still hear it. Suddenly, we were treated like pariah. She wasn’t a perfect baby, and suddenly they wanted nothing to do with us. It went from warm and welcoming to polar frigid. It made me hate going, and shortly I quit going altogether. Although, I still have a deep faith, I have never gone back to church. It seems so fake to me that these people would go every Sunday to be seen in Church, but not to live the life the church teaches.
- Widows and orphans also need to have more people in the church who understand their needs. I think many of them feel let down by Christians who forget that the Lord said to help the widows and orphans. I met men who were able to tell me how hard it was on them when their own fathers died when they were young. Those men tried to help me understand that it was going to be hard on my youngest son when his dad, my husband, died.…We did not find any one in the churches we attended to tried to reach out to my younger children who were still living at home after their dad died. As a matter of fact the church we attended when he got ill had people who totally forgot about us during that trying time.
- I was a member of the church for 19 years, and after my divorce no one reached out to me. Maybe because I was a bartender or because I was no longer a (name of her ex’s prominent church family.)
I could go on for a long time. I’m not anywhere near done, and almost everything I’ve shared here has been shortened. It’s sad. It’s depressing. I found myself stunned as I read all these stories of pain, of disappointment, of betrayal, of hurt and abandonment by the church or people within the church.
I found myself thinking of my own pain, my own wounds, the times that I have felt like Christians, either individually or as a congregation or a denomination have hurt or disappointed me.
I also found myself reading some of these stories and saying to myself, “Oh no, have I ever said something like that? Have I ever done something like that? I could see that happening. Have I been a stumbling block in that way?” Some of those things sound like things I might have done when I was not being my best self.
And some of these stories aren’t necessarily about what people did or said; some of them are about when no one said or did anything and they should have. When are the times that I have not reached out, when are the times when I have not offered Christ’s love, when I have not offered grace or help or respect?
In the midst of all this pain, there is hope. If you check out the dialogue and the discussion on my Facebook page, you will see people comforting one another, encouraging one another, reaching out to one another. Some of these are people that I know have never met each other, that I know have very different views of theology and politics and Jesus and the Bible. Some of them are still Christians and active members of a church. Others are “spiritual but not religious.” Still others no longer trust God. But they are still able to talk and share words of support, words of grace, words of love. These words are God’s grace and God’s love, even if not everyone who hears them will necessarily recognize them that way.
Some people commenting have reminded us that everyone falls short from time to time and that we are all in need of grace and forgiveness. One friend said he’d be interested to hear stories of how God had helped people come through this kind of pain, stories where one looks at their wounds and says, “My, that has healed well.” Those stories are there too. Just because I didn’t ask for them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Another friend reminded us not to judge Jesus by the actions of those who follow him. That’s good advice, and I also understand why it’s hard.
It’s been interesting following the commentary on Pope Francis and his visit to the United States. How many of you are favorably impressed with the Pope? Me, too. I feel better about him than I did about Pope Benedict, or even Pope John Paul II.
What’s is striking about that is that Francis’ teaching isn’t really different from theirs. Francis upholds traditional Catholic doctrine, traditional Catholic morality. What he does is present it in a different way, in a different tone. He presents it with humility, with love, with obvious concern for those who are hearing it.
That is what Jesus did. With Jesus there was accountability where there needed to be accountability, but there was always the option of mercy, the reality of love, the chance for grace. With Jesus, there is hope.
That’s what we try to hold up here at Washington City. Seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus. That’s what we try to hold up as a denomination. Continuing the work of Jesus. Peacefully. Simply. Together. That’s the vision that we have to share. That’s the story that we have to tell. That’s the kingdom that we are building. That’s the hope that informs our lives.
Do I live up to that ideal? No. Sometimes yes, but not all the time. None of us do. Our need is to let God’s grace change our lives, so that we can know that we are forgiven, so that we can forgive ourselves, and so that we can forgive others. Our call is to live in such a way that anyone who isn’t against us is for us. Our challenge is to live our lives with humility, with compassion, and with love. That’s how Jesus lived his life, and how he gave it for us. We need to listen to other people’s stories, and learn from them, and love them where they are. Just as Jesus loves us where we are. Amen.