In this wonderfully dark and cryptic passage in Mark, Jesus tells his disciples two very important things.
1) Don’t be a stumbling block, especially to the young believers.
But instead 2.) be the salt of the earth.
The reading also talks of hell. Or what the original Greek text refers to as Gehenna...the garbage dump outside Jerusalem. While we should not overlook what might happen to us if we chose to ignore Jesus' warning I think we'd miss the more important lesson here if we only focused on that. Jesus is saying don't be stumbling blocks that will cause God to throw you away into the trash. (this is my take on it.)
WHAT IS A STUMBLING BLOCK?
So what is a stumbling block? What is Jesus warning us about? A simplest way to think about it might be like this...Let's say you have cancer. What do you do? You really have two choices. You can leave it in or cut it out. (tell my cancer story) For me it was an easy decision to cut it out. The stumbling block is a metaphor for the toxic cancer that invades our faith and causes others to stumble or fall away from God.
Jesus says...cut it out. It’s that simple.
I’M NOT A STUMBLING BLOCK, AM I?
Let's look at this from another side...Perhaps you have cancerous behaviors that cause people to stumble. Take smoking for an example. It’s your right. It’s your business. Yet your decision to smoke does affect others around you. I'm not just talking about the effects of breathing in second hand smoke. Research is pretty clear that if small child watches you smoke, it increases their chance of taking up the habit by 40%. This is true on many levels. I have three kids at home. Each one watching carefully everything I do.
Now maybe smoking isn’t your stumbling block. Maybe it’s your negativity, Or you're holding onto resentment and pent up anger. It could be greed, lust, cheating in business, or on your spouse. Maybe it's telling little white lies. Some of these things might seem harmless to you, but what about the person on the receiving end? Jesus says if your actions cause another person to fall away from their faith that’s not good! In fact...it's really bad! Again Jesus gives us two choices. Continue with our corrosive behaviors. Or cut it out. One, Jesus says, leads to death but the other to eternal life.
BUT GOD’S ON MY SIDE, RIGHT?
Okay, so let's assume we’re all Christians here today. And let’s say the cancer is a group of people right here in our church. We discover that their actions and behaviors have pushed others away from attending our worship service. What do we do as a church? Should we let the infection spread throughout the body of Christ? Or do we faithfully follow Jesus, who said tear out those things that cause us to stumble?
I know of a church that has lost three ministers and hundreds of people in the last five years all because of a few people who decided their will was more important than following God's will. Society has made it way too easy and acceptable for people to remove themselves from the problem, instead of removing the problem itself. This is not healthy, especially when it's a church that is affected.
As long as studies continue to report how people are abandoning church in droves, we've got our work cut out. I have learned many leave frustrated or hurt, often with a tainted view of faith and God...simply because of the cancers within Christianity. And this is exactly why Jesus warns us in such gruesome detail, “It’s better to lose one hand and enter life maimed, than it is to have two hands that will lead you to your destruction.” We have to cut it out.
We have to because...The world is watching. There are some who are just watching and waiting for us to stumble. And we are. The Dugger’s reality show, “Too many kids and counting,” is a great reminder of what can happen when one Christian doesn’t practice what he preaches. His sexual behavior became a stumbling block that affected all Christians, directly and indirectly. When his story was exposed the good news becomes bad news.
But...the world is watching...because there are also people out there who are seeking a higher truth. They are hurt and broken, in need of finding real meaning to their lives. People who need grace and love...redemption and peace. They may look to Christianity for answers. If we preach that Christ is the cure for the cancers corroding our world, then we better make sure our actions line up with Christ. Our light must be the light that helps others find their way back to God’s open arms of love.
If we are guilty of distorting the Good News, then cancer wins. If we fail to love all people, then cancer wins. If we are quick to pronounce judgment on others while ignoring our own sins, then we become the cancer, not the cure. We become the ones God cuts out and tosses away into the trash were worms never die and the fire never ceases. We make our own hell...right here on earth.
WELL THEN, WHAT CAN I DO?
I believe it comes down to this. Don’t be the cancer, be the cure. Begin to cut out those things in life that cause you to stumble and fall. Work hard to ensure that when you do fall, you don't take others with you. Stay focused on Jesus and not on you. Instead of chasing people away, invite them in to your life to see what Christ’s love is all about. When a person is down...lift him up. When they are hungry or sick...care for them. Jesus tells his disciples to, “have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” It's not by accident he uses the metaphor of salt either.
Look at this picture of a hotel in the salt flats of Bolivia. Most of the structure and the furnishings are made from salt. I'd like to think that if those tiny crystals in our saltshakers are strong enough to be building blocks for such a magnificent place, then I imagine being “the salt of the earth” can make us strong enough to be the stepping-stones that lead people to a much more heavenly place.
When Jesus spoke these words, salt was a precious commodity. You might know it was used for flavoring and preserving, and for homeopathy and medicinal purposes. Because it was a big part of the economy, it was often used for bartering. In fact, the Roman’s would ration salt as part of a soldier’s pay.
But did you know salt was also very important in Hebrew worship. By Jewish law, grain offerings, burnt offerings, and incense all had to be salted. Salt was also used to ratify covenants, including God’s Covenants with His people. And course Moses used it liberally as a means to make his mother-in-law's cooking edible.
There is a good reason why Jesus wants us, his disciples, to be the salt. Salt purifies our faith instead of polluting it. It cleanses our community, instead of contaminating it. It preserves God’s covenant with the world, instead of breaking it. Jesus wants us all to be blocks of salt which can be cut into stepping-stones.
WHAT IS THE KEY TO BECOMING LIKE SALT?
In a word, it's love. Salt purifies and sanctifies our love. If we claim to love Christ then we must love the world with the sacrificial love of Christ in our hearts. If we want other’s to love us, then we must show love first. As Pope Francis reminded us in his message to Congress last week, "the yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.” The Apostle John puts it this way, “The one who loves His brother abides in the light and there is no cause for stumbling in him.”
BE THE SALT OF THE EARTH.
If we abide in the love of Jesus, then we will follow Jesus who removes the stumbling blocks. If we abide in the love of Jesus, then the Holy Spirit empowers us to love one another. If we abide in the love of Jesus, know this we might stumble and fall from time to time. And that’s okay. Christ is there to pick you up. Let me leave you with this reminder, even in our stumbling the world is given a chance to see God’s grace at work. Salt, by its very nature, crumbles, but just the same...it can also be reformed.
As I was looking online I found a poem that I believe brings this message home.
“Isn’t it strange that princes and kings
And clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
And common folks like you and me
All are builders for eternity?”
“To each is given a book of rules,
A block of stone and a bag of tools;
And each must shape ‘ere time has flown,
A stumbling block or a stepping stone”
A stumbling block, or a stepping stone? Cancer or the cure? Which one are you? Amen.
Bible (NRSV) Mark 9:38-50; James 5:13-20
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Lewis, Karoline M. "Living by the Word: Reflections on the lectionary." Christian Century, September 16, 2015: 19.
Reynolds, David R. Sermon, Stumbling Block or Salt? September 2003.
Pope Francis speaks some very brave words of truth to some of the world most powerful (if not stupidest) people in the world. The US Congress.
Read the full transcript here:
Here are some excerpts:
"Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face."
"All of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried by, the disturbing social and political situation of the world today. Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism."
"Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice. We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises. Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent. Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good."
"Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best. "
"Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome."
"A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton."
Silence. It can be uncomfortable for some, making them feel nervous, anxious, and agitated. For others, it’s a welcomed blessing that is peaceful, calm, and serene.
We have a saying in our house, “Silence is golden, except when coming from children. Then you better go check to see what’s broken.” Kathleen and I know that if the parsonage gets quiet all of sudden then that’s a pretty good indicator something is being drawn on, cut up, ripped, destroyed, or being eaten that isn’t supposed to be. I don't know about you, but I need the noise to feel at home as much as I need the silence to take me away.
The author of Ecclesiastes notes, there is “a time to keep silence and a time to speak" Jesus practiced both sides of this coin very well. He often used silence as a means of getting closer to God. Having spoken to the multitudes, Jesus would abandon the crowded streets and wander in the wilderness, so he could hear that “still small voice” of God speaking to him. Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it this way, "Let us be silent that we may hear the whisper of God." We all need some peace and quiet to hear what God is whispering to us and to receive guidance, peace, and of course divine serenity.
There is a time for silence, but there is also a time to speak.
For example, when we speak to God in prayer. Jesus said "Ask God for anything you want in my name, and it will be given to you." Of course in social settings we use words to ask for things, or to express an opinion, or to simply take part in a conversation. Words also allow us to offer sympathy to someone in need. We use them to let people know we care. Of course there are times when our opinion isn’t needed. Or when a person’s pain is so great, that a quiet hug is all that needs to be said.
There are also times when we talk too much. And times when we don’t say enough. In the recent political debates, we see how one person's opinions can dominate a conversation keeping others from fully participating. And with all their talking, how many of these presidential hopefuls spoke out against the injustice of global poverty and malnutrition? Yes, Mr. Trump, “There is a time to keep silent and a time to speak.” A time to hear God whispering to us. And a time to take what God says, and put it into action.
I’d like to recall a story of a man who joins a monastery. Although he takes a vow of silence, he is permitted to say two words every seven years. After the first seven years have passed, the elders bring him in and ask him for his two words. "Cold floors," he says. The elders nod and send him away.
After seven more years, they bring him in and ask for his two words. "Lousy food," he mumbles. Again, the elders nod and send him away.
Another seven years pass and the elders bring him in and once more they ask him for his two words. "I quit," he declares. "We're not surprised," says one of the elders, "you've done nothing but complain since you got here."
For many of us, our silence, as well as our words, can be confusing, and often misconstrued. After 16 years of marriage I have come to learn that when my wife is silent, she’s either mad at me for something I said or did, or she’s busy thinking why on earth I didn’t do or say something in the first place. I have also learned to employ my right to remain silent.
In Mark’s gospel this morning, we read two examples of Jesus interacting with his disciples, and in both, the 12 are rendered mute. The first is when Jesus proclaims his death and resurrection, and the second is when he asks them a direct question. And this is typical, isn’t it? We humans often remain silent when we do not understand something or when we don’t want to admit something. It’s like we are embarrassed to show others that we are not the know-it-all’s we believe ourselves to be, or we’re too ashamed to admit the things we actually know. Dolly Parton once admitted, “I am not offended by dumb blonde jokes at all because I know I am not dumb. And I also know that I am not a blonde.”
This is the second time in Mark, Jesus reveals to the disciples that he will be betrayed, killed, and rise again. And what do they do? They zip their mouth shut. Either they don’t understand what he is saying, or they simply didn’t want to believe what they’re hearing. Last time Jesus spoke of his betrayal, Peter was quick to respond. And Jesus was quick to shut him down. “Get behind me Satan,” he said, “You of little faith.”
Is this the reason why the disciples are afraid to speak up? Perhaps they don’t want their faith measured. Or maybe they know that once they start asking questions, they are committed to the conversation. Asking questions makes us vulnerable because we cannot predict how the other person answer or react. Once we hear the truth, it’s hard to escape it. Yet it’s easy to shut down and become silent. Bury our head in the sand…and hope this too shall pass.
At some point we all will have a tough conversation with God. Therefore we must be “brave enough to start a conversation that matters,” as Margaret Wheatley writes. God doesn’t call us to be silent. Instead God calls us into a vulnerable and intimate relationship where our words have great meaning. God speaks to us, not just so we will know the truth but so we can proclaim it...with or without using words. For “There is a time to keep silent and a time to speak” in every exchange we have with others.
The second time the disciples are silent comes on the heels of a long, tiring journey. The 12 have spent much of the walk arguing over who was the greatest among them, believing they had the power to increase their own status and prestige. When Jesus asks, “What are you guys arguing about?" I imagine some of them looked down at their sandals, while the others looked at an invisible watch; anything to avoid answering the question.
How different are we? If Jesus were to step into your conversation and asked you point blank what you are talking about, would your answer honor God? Would your actions speak volumes about your faith? Could you stand before Jesus and tell him how you’ve cared for the widows and looked after the orphans, or how you fed the hungry, cared for the poor, visited the sick and imprisoned? in other words, do our actions reflect what our mouth proclaims? And will our answers live up to his expectations? This is a question the church must always ask itself.
It’s clear that Jesus sees through the disciples’ silence. And he can see through us. We all want to look good in public, to have power and prestige. But let us not forget God knows our private side as well. Perhaps more than we know ourselves. I believe what Jesus tells the 12 speaks clearly and directly to us as well. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and a servant of all.”
To illustrates his point he takes a child into his arms and declares that in welcoming the weak and the helpless the disciples will be helping him. In this lesson we learn our status among God will be measured by the way we faithfully serve God’s love, liberating the world through our inclusion and participation in with the people around us. Like entering into a conversation with God, our caring for the vulnerable makes us vulnerable. It’s in our vulnerability that we rely on God’s words and promises, and not our own.
Yes, “There is a time to keep silent and a time to speak.” Both sides of this coin challenge us to put our faith on the line with what God has called us all to do; that is to say...to enter into relationships and conversations we might not want to have; to make ourselves vulnerable, and open to embarrassment out of our love for God.
We can bring food to the Food Pantry, but to hand feed a person who cannot feed themselves is truly showing God's love. We can enter into conversations where people are proudly professing their disbelief in God, but it takes real faith to proclaim what you believe in a way that shows God's love is real and very present in the conversation. God wants us to be the voice of the voiceless and to live the living words of God through the grace and love that has been given to us.
We can say we want to be like Jesus, to follow in his footsteps and to always do the right thing...or we can begin the long, hard journey ourselves...and follow Christ to the cross of salvation. We can say all we want too, but God doesn’t want excuses any more than He wants our silence. God wants us to be actively living out our faith at work, on vacation, in our homes, in school and on our streets. In other words, God wants our actions to speak louder than our words.
This doesn't mean God wants us to be silent either. God wants us to proclaim the Good News. Love may not always need words to express how we feel. But love always needs you. It needs me. It needs us. It needs our faith to be committed to speaking God's love...in all that we do. Enough said.
Bible (NRSV) Mark 9:30-37; James 3:13-18 Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. Lewis, Karoline M. "Living by the Word: Reflections on the lectionary." Christian Century, September 16, 2015: 18.
Readings: James 2:1-18; Mark 7:24-30
(Opening Story) It’s not unusual for this church to help people who walk in off the streets looking for financial assistance or spiritual care. Even if their visits disrupt us from doing the other church duties, we try to take the time to help them as we are able. Why do we do this? Because every is worthy.
For a while, there was one person who would just walk into my office, most of the time unannounced. His name is (M). (M) is a sweet, little 5 year-old boy who attended the afternoon preschool class. (M) had no problem barging in to see what I was up to. He never cared who was sitting in my office, or what problems they might be going through. He came right in as if it were his home. Sometimes (M) would make a special trip to the church to drop off a cookies or a pie that he'd get his grandmother bake for me.
To be honest, I welcomed his visits. Why? Because (M) always came in with a smile on his face, and never left without giving me a hug. Such daily interruptions are wonderful reminders to us all of what it means to follow Christ. And what it means to put our faith to work.
The Syrophoenician woman, as she is known in Mark’s gospel, had everything going against her when she forces her way into Jesus’ presence. First, she is a woman. Second, she is a Gentile. Third, she is from the other side of town, where the rich have excluded the less fortunate Jews from establishing their homesteads.
We don’t know this woman’s name, but we can tell by Jesus’ initial reaction, that she probably had no right to engage him in conversation, much less demand anything from him. I imagine today it’s like a crazy person barging into the Oval Office and demanding a favor from President Obama. Of course, given the state of Congress these days, I realize that it's not too far-fetched.
The Bible records this story in both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark...Which tells us there is something important we ought to know. In Matthew’s version, the woman is a Canaanite who shouts out to Jesus. She calls him Lord as if she recognizes him as the Messiah. As her voice gets louder and louder, and more distracting, the disciples try to push her out of the way. But they are unsuccessful.
In Mark, she pushes her way into a private home and falls at Jesus' feet. She is less aggressive. Her posture tells us she is willing to show her vulnerability. In both stories she is driven by something more powerful than social protocol. She is a mother, a loving parent who is so desperate to save her child's life, that she is willing to lower herself to beg a Jewish man for help.
Why? Because her daughter’s life matters.
The part of the story that troubles me the most isn't her action but Jesus’ dismissive reply. We expect our kind, loving B.F.F. to say to her, “Of course I’ll take care of your daughter because that’s the kind of guy I am.” This Disney version is not the Jesus we get, is it?
Instead, we catch an uneasy glimpse of Jesus letting his proverbial compassion down. We get a cold, mean person who makes us feel bad for being needy in the first place. He blatantly tells the woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.”
Think about this for a moment. She’s a female, and he calls her a dog. Some modern commentaries and theologians have suggested that the word “dog” isn’t as harsh as it sounds; Jesus is merely referring to her as a pet. But no matter how we pepper this phrase, his words still have a sharp bite!
Melissa Bixler writes,
“Mark subjects us to a disturbing picture of Jesus casting a derogatory slur at a Gentile woman who comes to him for help. More than simple rudeness, his words re-inscribe ethnic boundaries and degrade the gender of a vulnerable woman.”
Bixler’s critique of Jesus seems as harsh as Jesus’ response to this unnamed woman. And perhaps rightfully so. I applaud her comment simply because she is forcing us to take a look at how we, and society as a whole, treat those who seek help from us. Do we divide people in little groups, or are we being inclusive?
In Matthew's version, Jesus makes it clear that he has come to save the lost sheep of Israel. But in Mark's story he doesn't make that distinction. In both cases we discover that Jesus is willing to cross the lines society has put in place.
Why? Because every life matters. Every life is worth taking a risk, and leaving our comfort zones to do God’s work.
Jesus came into the world destroy the boundaries that separate us. He came so everyone can experience God’s inclusive love. This is the good news! And it is why this woman will do anything to receive it. The disciples might be a bit clueless, but this woman knows her life,...and the life of her daughter matter.
She could have crept away feeling small and insignificant. But instead what does she do? She falls at his feet...And in doing so...she stands up for the marginalized and demands that their voices be heard. She doesn't resort to violence, like we might be inclined to do. Instead, she reasons with Jesus. She engages in conversation. And in the end, Jesus concedes.
Because Jesus knows every life matters. Every voice matters. Every story matters.
Across this big, colorful nation of ours there is a movement gaining great momentum. From the streets Ferguson to the streets of Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles and beyond...men and women are standing up together, making their voices heard. The church cannot ignore them...We can't can we cast them aside...and pretend it's not our problem. Instead we are called to join them on our streets...and in our churches...and in our hearts and in our homes.
Instead we are called to march with them…to walk arm-in-arm and shout for justice...and hold signs that declare, "Lives Matter." Black, brown, white, gay, straight, the homeless, the nationless, the unwanted and the undocumented, rich, poor, young, old, yours and mine…every life matters to God.
Whether we know it or not; whether we have faith or no faith, Jesus came into this world not to condemn us...but to redeem us,...to give us salvation (Jn. 3:16-17). He is the light that shines on the darkness we create. These are our demons. The demons that we allow to fill us with fear and anger and anxiety; the demons of addictions that destroy lives and families; the demons that send people out to the streets, to do things they are ashamed of; the demons of death. But Jesus casts out death and gives us eternal life.
Our Emmanuel, God among us, came to be with us, to walk with us and to free us from these evils that have crippled so many of us here today. Jesus came to reclaim God's righteous justice.
Why? Because every life is worth saving.
So why do we continue to act the way we do? What deep insecurity within us causes human beings to create rules that give value and status to some while denigrating others? In his inspiring epistle, James reminds the Christian churches of the dangers of being exclusive, especially of singling out one group over another. He writes:
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law, but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
As we wrestle with all the tough issues of the day, some which have caused painful splits in the church, we must remain inclusive. We cannot separate people by their religious beliefs or sexual orientation, anymore than we can separate them due to their gender, race, education, social or marital status, political affiliation, or place of birth.
If every life is important to God, then every life is important to us. Our church doors, like our Christian arms, must remain open in order to both receive and give God’s love. If we claim to have faith in Christ, then we must always follow his lead, not by pushing people away but by welcoming them into our lives. Why? Because every life matters.
In Matthew’s gospel, it's the woman’s faith that saves her daughter. But in Mark, it’s her words. It's her story, her personal testimony, that wins Jesus over. I invite us all to look at the words we use when we speak to or about others. Are they the words we would use in conversation with God?
Because the Syrophoenician woman spoke up lives were changed. Her story is a reminder to us all that there is an abundance of Good News to go around. We can't be too proud...to push our way through the crowd and beg for it.
So it might not be wise for us to waltz across the White House lawn and interrupt the president at work. But if my little friend (M) taught me anything it was this...Jesus says it’s okay to push our way into the kingdom of God’s heart and ask for peace. For it's there that every life will be received with great joy.
(move towards communion table)
Because every life matters...every life deserves a seat at God’s table...
Bartlett, David and Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4. Westminster John Knox Press. (Louisville, 2009).
Bible (NRSV) James 2:1-18; Mark 7:24-30
Florer-Bixler, Melissa. "Living by The Word: Reflections on the lectionary." Christian Century, Sept. 2, 2015: 20.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”