Removing Stumbling Blocks

+ A sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) / Proper 21B / Ordinary 26B at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on September 30, 2018 +

Texts: Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29; Mark 9:38-50

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Who are you?

I wonder how you would answer that question.
How would you describe yourself?

Perhaps it would be by where you come from or where you live.
Maybe by your occupation or family history.
For some people, heritage is especially important – where your ancestors are from.
And for some, your citizenship is an essential characteristic.
Maybe you depend on sports teams or where you went to school to describe who you are.
Or maybe a political party helps to shape your worldview.
Maybe the identity of Christian is important to describe yourself.

Whatever the identity may be, we as humans like to create categories for ourselves – labels that tell us who we are.
From the earliest days of civilization we created tribes – communities of people who look like us, think like us, act like us.
We like to know who we are – and perhaps more importantly who we’re not.
We like to know who’s in and who’s out. We want things to be cut and dry – black and white – right and wrong.

And for much of human history, this sense of identity was a source of safety and security.
But it also quickly became a cause for conflict.
Rivalries for resources in a world of scarcity.
Battles for land or for superiority.
Struggles between created nations over artificial boarders or differing ideologies.
Wars over religion and whose god was more powerful.

And all too often religion becomes an instrument of this instinct to determine our identity.
We use it to define who we are and like to condemn those who don’t believe the same way we do.
We set up doctrines and dogmas to determine the true believers and exclude those who think differently.
We like to assume that ours is the only way and everyone else is wrong.

So perhaps it’s not surprising when the disciples get upset when they see someone who’s not part of their group healing in Jesus’ name.
They know this person is not one of them and not in the right circle – and yet he is healing in Jesus’ name, something Mark tells us just a few verses earlier that the disciples couldn’t do for some reason.
And now they see these outsiders healing people in the name of their teacher and friend.
So they go to Jesus and say, “Jesus! Those guys were healing in your name but they’re not following us.”
Did you catch that?
It’s not that they’re not following Jesus, it’s that they’re not following us – not following the disciples.
“We tried to stop them,” they say, “because they’re not one of us.”

I can almost hear Jesus’ eyes roll.
“Don’t you get it?” he seems to say. “Haven’t you been paying attention? My whole ministry, my whole life has been about breaking down walls – crossing those boundaries you seem to hold so dear. Going beyond tribalism and creed. Bringing God’s healing and saving love to all people. Don’t you see? I’m not trying to divide but to heal. I’m not trying to be exclusive, but expansive. I’m not here to create a club, but a movement. Whoever is not against us is for us.”whoever-is-not-against-us

I know this is a message I need to hear.
Just this week I can think of so many times that I discounted the work of another person or another group because they are different than me.
I’ve disparaged the ministry of churches that have a different theology than I do.
I’ve passed judgment on people because of their political ideology.
I’ve made up my mind on certain issues in the news and closed my mind to differing views.
And each time I’ve been convinced that I’m in the right – that I’ve got the corner on God’s thinking.

Perhaps you’ve done similar things.

We get so stuck in our group identities that it can be hard to see what’s happening outside of them.
We get so stuck in our particular blinders – identity blinders, partisan blinders, religious blinders – that we can’t see the good that other people are doing.
We can’t see the truth of their confession, of their proclamation because it doesn’t align with what we think should be the right way – because they don’t follow our way of thinking.
We can’t hear their prophesy.

“The Millstone” by Angie Whitson

What a burden this can be.
What an enormous weight to place around our necks this idea that only we have it right and everyone else is wrong.
That only we can heal the world.
How we must feel like Moses and cry out to the Lord that this burden is too much to bear.
That there is so much work to do, so much healing, so must restoration, so much feeding that we cannot do it all on our own.
We’re just one person, we’re just a small congregation, we’re just a small denomination facing decline in a world less and less eager to see church as a solution to our problems.
How can we bear this weight by ourselves?

But then we see, as Moses did, that God is all too willing to share the calling to which we are called.
That God is all too willing to share the Spirit given to us until it overflows beyond our expectations and ideas of scarcity, beyond our limits and parameters, beyond our processes and systems, flowing with abundance until we cannot help marvel at its power and wish that all people would be prophets.

And the Spirit keeps flowing and spreading across the earth until all people who do the will of God become prophets.
Until all people who seek justice regardless of tribe share in the work.
Until all people who do kindness regardless of creed bear the loving name of Christ and share in his mission.
Until all people who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and heal the sick, all these people are doing the work of the Spirit.
Because whoever is not against us is for us.

stumblingblockAnd Jesus warns us not to stop them, not to put a stumbling block in their way.
But if we’re honest, I think we’re pretty good at putting stumbling blocks in our own way.
We try to limit the movement of the Spirit, to curb its flow.
We try to fit it within our own vision of what is right that we find ourselves crying out like Joshua, “Lord stop them!”
We construct systems that cause us to trip, blocks on our road of faith.
Obstacles like misogyny, patriarchy, racism, white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, apathy, extreme partisanship, toxic masculinity and more.

And we see all around us how these stumbling blocks scandalize not only us but also our neighbors.
How they cause others to stumble too.
Like how we don’t believe survivors of sexual assault and doubt their motivations.
Or how we lock up children and force them to defend themselves in court.
Or how clergy systematically abuse little ones and are protected and hidden by the Church.

Jesus warns us with some strong language not to put up these obstacles, these blocks that cause us to stumble and fall.
He tells us it’s better to go through life handless, footless, and eyeless than it is to live with these barriers and create a hellish life for us and for our neighbors.
Because what could be worse than constantly tripping over these stumbling blocks?
What could be worse than fracturing our relationship with each other and refusing to heal the wound?
What could be worse than being stuck in this sin of our own making and reject reconciliation?
Surely this is hell in our world – hell on earth – when we choose to live in sinful and broken ways, to force others to live in these systems of death and destruction, to reject the life-giving and loving reign of God where relationships are restored and communities are made whole.

But if we live into the abundance that God is providing, if we commit ourselves to removing these barriers for ourselves and for our neighbors, we can see how the Spirit is flowing among us and around us surpassing our wildest imaginations.
We can witness the work of God happening all around us by people we may not expect.
We can join in the healing work happening around us.
We can see how the healing, feeding, clothing, and housing that is happening by people who don’t look like us, think like us, or believe like us is still God’s work in the world.
When we do remove these stumbling blocks, we get to see where the Spirit gets to work.

In the next couple years, the ELCA will celebrate 50 years of women’s ordination in our denomination and in that time – how 50 years ago we removed a stumbling block that barred so many people from entering the ministry because of their sex.
Since then our church has been blessed by so many prophetic preachers, caring pastors, and committed deacons.

“The six new female synod bishops-elect of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America sit for a roundtable discussion July 13, 2018, at the Lutheran Center in Chicago. From left to right: the Rev. Deborah Hutterer of the Grand Canyon Synod, the Rev. Patricia Davenport of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, the Rev. Laurie Skow-Anderson of the Northwest Synod of Wisconsin, the Rev. Susan Briner of the Southwestern Texas Synod, the Rev. Idalia Negron-Caamano of the Caribbean Synod and the Rev. Bishop Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld of the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller”

And this year has been a special reason for celebration – for the first time ever every newly elected bishop in 2018 in the ELCA was a woman.
Six new women joined the conference of bishops including the first two women of African descent.
Now there is still work to do and only 16 of our 65 synodical bishops are female, but we got to marvel at the Spirit’s work in our midst.
When this new cohort of bishops was interviewed for a news article, Bishop Susan Briner of the Southwestern Texas Synod said, “We’ve become a really settled people who have become very comfortable with the way we’ve always done things. So [we’re] trying to figure out, how do we be open to the Spirit and be open to the Spirit’s work? Because I’m telling you what, the Spirit is up to something if we just let her out [and get out of her way]…I am convinced that God is up to something big right now…bringing change and growth and newness.”

My friends, God is up to something.
Something beyond our understanding.
Something beyond our control.
God is working in our world in ways that we cannot always see through people we cannot expect.
This is not a time to focus on stopping other people who are doing Jesus’ work, but a time to removing the stumbling blocks in their way – in our way – that prevent us from doing Christ’s work.

Following Jesus cannot be about putting our priorities first, but his. It cannot be making sure people follow us, but that we follow him.

And when we remove these stumbling blocks, when we clear the way for God to work in, with, and around us, we see the Spirit move among us and throughout the world overflowing beyond our wildest imaginations into everyone who does the world of God.


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