Sunday, September 27, 2015

“Stumbling Blocks” (Mark 9:38-50)

Have you ever received one of those offers in the mail that tells you that you can get a wonderful, one-of-a-kind product absolutely for free . . . a product that you have been drooling for, but just couldn’t allow yourself to spend that much money?  You know what I am talking about.  The letter tells you that the stupendous and marvelous product is all yours . . . for free . . . all you have to do is to jump through a few hoops.  Jump through the hoops and its yours . . . all yours.  Of course those hoops are pretty big hoops to jump through . . . some are even flaming hoops.  The product is free if you do everything that it says in the fine print.

Unfortunately, few of us ever read the fine print before we jump in with both feet.  The result?  Well, we get tired . . . we get frustrated . . . we get angry . . . and, then we finally throw up our hands in disgust and call it quits.  Why?  Because that free product is not “free” . . . there are a ton of barriers blocking the way for us to get it.  A whole lot of stipulations.  Lots of hoops.  The company offering the product hopes that we get frustrated and quit . . . usually long after they have gathered all the information they want for us.  They keep their product, we get nothing.

This week we continue the conversation that Jesus is having with his disciples.  Remember last week’s conversation . . . well, the pattern continues.  The disciples have been informed about Jesus’ passion and resurrection . . . which they poo pooed.  Then there is the conversation about who would be the greatest . . . which Jesus corrects them and demonstrates with a small child the correct way.  But, the disciples don’t get it . . . they don’t understand what it is that Jesus is attempting to teach them . . . what it means to be a disciple.  They appear, at least in the Gospel of Mark, to be clueless, confused or even resistant to what Jesus is trying to teach.

For example, the disciples go into major finger pointing when they complain to Jesus that there is a person out there who is going around exorcising demons in Jesus’ name . . . but, they cry out, he is not one of us.  So the disciples told him to knock it off.  Jesus tells them to knock it off.  He tells them: “Do not stop him.  No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.”  Jesus does not care for this behavior . . . this finger pointing and power playing . . . especially from his disciples.  Instead Jesus wants them to pay attention to their own behavior.

Basically the disciples are telling this individual that if he is not one of “them” then he cannot play the game . . . he has to be on their “team”.  To be on their “team” he has to go through the same training that they have gone through . . . pay the same prices . . . jump through the same hoops.  If he is not willing to do all this, then he cannot be on the “team”.  If he is not on the “team”, then he needs to stop performing the miracles that he is performing.  As far as the disciples are concerned it is a cut and dry issue.

Now, if I was that guy—who already has the power to do what the disciples are doing—I probably will not jump up and down to join their “team”.  He already has the prize . . . he is already doing good works . . . already performing miracles . . . and, though he is not one of the disciples, he gives the credit to Jesus.  But, the disciples insist that he jump through the hoops.  They place stumbling blocks across the path . . . the path of faith.

The problem is not the guy doing the miracles, the problem is the disciples.  Jesus recognizes this and he turns the table on the He warns them that they are the ones in danger of doing harm.  Jesus points out that it is not those on the outside who are greatest threat, but those who are on the inside.  Remember how it is when a person points a finger at another . . . there are always fingers pointing back at the pointer.  Jesus proposes to the disciples that maybe . . . when they consider the situation . . . they are the stumbling blocks that are getting in the way of the gospel . . . getting in the way of the “good news”.

Do you remember all the issues that the Apostle Paul dealt with in the early church?  Remember all the arguments, fights, and schisms . . . the sense of competition . . . that were going on as the faithful debated over who could use Jesus’ name, who is right, who has authority?  The early church had plenty of problems and growing pains as they struggled with persecution, dealt with conflicts over Jewish-Gentile relations, and all of the growing pains of being an infant body of faith seeking an identity and faithful witness.  The bottom line was that Christian groups disagreed with one another, contested each other’s claims, and even sought to quiet one another through censure or just plain kicking the offending parties out.

Finger pointing and power plays have no business or place in the message of faith that Jesus offers to all.  In fact, Jesus warns that this behavior—these stumbling blocks—can do more harm than good, especially upon those who are on the outside looking in.  There is no good that comes from infighting and self-righteous proclamations about others.  Thus it is that Jesus turns the focus not on others, but ourselves . . . to our own behaviors, the ways that we speak and live the “good news”, and the ways that we place stumbling blocks in the way of that “good news”.

Jesus is talking about the danger that his own followers can do.  In verses 42 through 47 the Greek word—shandalon, which is an obstacle that people trip over and is usually translated “stumbling block”—is used in each verse.  Here Jesus is being clear . . . and blunt . . . that it is his own followers that can do more harm and that it would be better for them to drown than to cause that harm to the “little ones”.

The role of those who follow Jesus, especially those who were the closest—the disciples, is a huge responsibility thanks to their intimacy with Jesus.  They are looked upon as role models . . . people look to them to show them the way, they follow their examples, and are susceptible to their words and practices, and are probably quite vulnerable to their critiques and conflicts.  In other words, they are quite impressionable.  Thus it is that the disciples—and any follower of Jesus—needs to not be careless in their faith.  They need congruency between the words that they say and the actions that they take.

Jesus graphically describes these stumbling blocks by using parts of the body—precious parts of the body . . . hands, feet, and eyes.  These are parts of the body that we hold dear . . . parts that we think we need.  With these images Jesus makes it clear that stumbling blocks are not other people or things outside of us—they are a part of us.  These “stumbling blocks” might be events, practices, rituals, “the way that we have always done things”, or our own pet causes.  When the things that we hold dear and believe lead to abundant life instead become obstacles to others seeking the faith, it leads to a fate worse than severing or maiming those body parts—a death of unquenchable fire.  Jesus suggests that it is better to lose those body parts than to burn in hell.

Once again, Jesus turns the tables . . . and, considering the state of today’s “church”—that “church” being the “church universal”—in our nation and society; one has to consider if we—the “insiders”, have done more harm than good.  Remember the Apostle Paul and all the headaches he was dealing with concerning all of those new church starts . . . remember all those issues he was having to straighten out . . . all that finger pointing, posturing, and power plays?  The “church” hasn’t changed a whole bunch since then when it comes to those issues . . . we are still doing it.

I think that the number one reason that people are not flocking to churches hinges on those people telling the “church” that those who fill the pews are hypocrites.  That they encounter more stumbling blocks that keep them from being fully embraced into the faith than they fell welcomed.  That they see it as being “our way or no way” when it comes to being a part of the “church”.

So, what are the stumbling blocks we place in the way of those we encounter on our journey of faith?  What parts of ourselves are we using that creates an obstacle to keep others out?  What are we hanging onto that is more of a hindrance than a help to others seeking a relationship with God?  It is easy to point fingers at others and blame them, it is more difficult to look inward and recognize our own obstacles.

Jesus calls upon everyone to come into an intimate relationship with God . . . to come as they have been created.  In his words there are no hoops to jump through, no obstacles to get around, and nothing to make one stumble.  There is no fine print . . . no hidden costs.  It is pure grace, plain and simple.  The question becomes, why aren’t more people stepping into this intimate relationship with God?  Could it be . . . stumbling blocks of our own design?  We will never know until we truly pray and discern our own lives of faith.  Amen.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

“What If . . .” (Mark 9:30-37)

I have always thought that one of the most powerful phrases in the human language is: what if?  I realize that this phrase has the ability to go to the “left” or the “right” . . . to be “positive” or “negative; but, I believe that its power lies in its ability to make people think . . . to dream . . . and, to hope beyond their everyday situations . . . to think outside the box at all the possibilities and opportunities that there are and can be.

This morning I want us to consider our faith as individuals and as a congregation from the potential of “what if”.

The first “what if” . . . what if we, as followers of Jesus . . . as the church . . . stop controlling and predicting?

Jesus and the disciples are walking along.  As they are walking Jesus is sharing—once again—the topic of his ministry; in particular, its ending and beginning.  He tells them that he will be arrested, tried, killed, and rise from the dead.  This is not the sort of information the disciples want to hear.  It is contrary to what they are experiencing with Jesus.  One has to admit that to this point Jesus and his tag-a-long disciples have experienced huge success and overwhelming popularity.  The crowds have been huge . . . the adulation immense; so, why does Jesus keep raining on their parade?  Why does Jesus keep bringing up this anti-thesis of what they expect?

The disciples do have expectations that are based on what they have experienced and what they know.  In Jesus they see a movement . . . they see freedom . . . they see a kingdom restored out of oppression . . . they see power.  The popularity of Jesus affirms this . . . Jesus and his disciples are on the move to establishing a new kingdom and new power.  In that new kingdom and power the disciples see themselves in those cabinet positions—after all, they have stuck with Jesus through it all.  This will be their reward.

Isn’t that the conversation that they confess to Jesus later in our reading this morning?  Who among them was the greatest?  Isn’t that what any of us would think . . . isn’t that how things go to those who win the game and the war?

Control and predictability . . . if we do this and this, then this should happen.

To that Jesus responds with a complete reversal of the logical and the predictable: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and servant of all.”   Here Jesus challenges the thinking of his disciples . . . challenges them to think outside the box of conventional wisdom and expectations . . . to consider another way.  To think of the “what if”.

In a TED talk I recently viewed, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from Nigeria, spoke about The Danger of a Single Story.  In her presentation she stated that we—as human beings—have the tendency to allow a single story to define the world around us.  She shares that we humans have a tendency to allow a single story that we hear or read to definitively define a person, a group, a nation, a religion, or anything as one thing and way only.

She shared about coming to the United States to attend college and meeting her American roommate: “Years later I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States.  I was 19.  My American roommate was shocked by me.  She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language.  She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music,’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey.”

We are a people of the single story when we see the world through generalizations.  When we live our lives based on a single story . . . or we view the world through a single story . . . we place God and God’s creation in a box that limits God’s love and grace.

Thus it is that Jesus challenges his disciples with another story . . . another way of thinking.  Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Suddenly it is no longer about control and predictability . . . no longer about importance and power.  What if it comes down to the notion of vulnerability?  Isn’t that what children represent?  Vulnerability.

With children you get what you get . . . they are who they are . . . they don’t try to be something they are not.  They are open.  They are honest.  They live in the moment.  They live whole-heartedly who God created them to be.  They know their strengths and weaknesses . . . what they can and cannot do.  They are open to life . . . open to others . . . and, we adults spend a lifetime knocking the vulnerability out of them.

In the eyes of many, vulnerability is seen as a weakness . . . something less than.  Yet here is Jesus saying that it is this trait that is the key to all that he calls us to be in following him.

The disciples were not ready for this . . . nor are we if we are going to be honest with ourselves.  Yet that is what we are called to as the followers of Jesus.  We are called to be who God created us to be . . . wholly, holy, as imperfect as we are . . . we are to be who God created us to be.  Not someone else, but ourselves.  We are called to step into an intimate relationship with God . . . to offer ourselves as who we are . . . to receive the love and grace of God.

And, as Jesus implies, it begins with us.  It begins with us accepting who we are with our strengths and weaknesses—as imperfect as we are.  Accepting ourselves as we are and believing and living as if we are worthy—worthy of love . . . worthy of acceptance . . . worthy of belonging . . . worthy.  Then we begin to live our lives wholeheartedly as we have been called by God to do.  In the eyes of God we are all worthy.

No more games.  No more single stories defining us.  We are to be.  God created us . . . the least we could do is to accept ourselves as one who God loves.  We are called to live vulnerably.  To do that we have to let go of control and predictability.  We have to trust in God.

Lots of areas in our lives have been boxed by control and predictability—even religion.  Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty.  We say, “I’m right, you’re wrong.  Shut up.”  That’s it.  Just certain.

If there is anything I have learned in my lifetime as a follower of Jesus, it is that there is a whole lot of room at the table for everyone.  That there is no one certain story that defines what it means to be a follower of Jesus . . . a child of God . . . or what faith is.  That there is whole lot about this God that I do not know . . . that it is a mystery.  And, in knowing that, I have to admit that at times it scares me to death.  Yet, that is a part of who I am as a follower of Jesus . . . as a child of God.  It is a part of who you are.  We are vulnerable as we try to be who God created us to be.

And, guess what?  God can handle it.  God still loves us.

So . . . what if . . . Jesus is right?  What if we learn to let go and let God take the reins?  What if—two simple words . . . two powerful words . . . that can change our lives forever.  Think about it.  Amen.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

“What’s It Worth?” (Mark 8:27-38)

Do you remember the time that Jesus struggled . . . struggled with his faith?  It was towards the end of his earthly ministry . . . in the city of Jerusalem.  He had a meal with his disciples in that upper room.  Then he went to the garden to pray.  Remember his prayers?  He asked God to take away the burden of what was about to happen . . . the arrest, trial, and crucifixion.  He struggled with what he knew God wanted him to do . . . struggled with having to do it; but, in the end he offered a simple prayer to God: “. . . your will be done.”

It has always been my opinion that this is the most honest and hopeful prayer in the Bible . . . thy will be done.  As the followers of Jesus this is what we have been called to . . . to do God’s will.  As the children of God this is what we have been called to . . . to do God’s will.  To do what God wants us to do in order to establish God’s Kingdom in this time and place.  And, as much as I believe that this is the most honest and hopeful prayer that any of us could ever utter, I also believe that it is the most difficult prayer for any of us to live up to.


Because it comes with a cost . . . and extreme cost; or, as Jesus told us this morning in our scripture reading, it comes as a “cross” that we must bear.

Jesus tells us: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  And just how costly is picking up this “cross” and following Jesus?  Well . . . ultimately, it will cost us our lives.  Jesus continued: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.  What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?  Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”  Fortunately for us Jesus showed us the means of losing one’s life in the way that he lived his life, performed his ministry, and through the words that he spoke.  That was his invitation . . . follow me . . . be like me . . . sacrifice and serve.

Isn’t that the problem with the invitation that Jesus issues us?  It doesn’t fit into our culture . . . doesn’t fit into our society . . . it’s just not what we are taught in school, at home, or in life.  We are taught to be self-sufficient, pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and to take care of ourselves . . . we are to watch out for ourselves.  We are taught that it is a dog-eat-dog world and that only the strongest and most powerful survive.  We are taught that the amount of power and wealth one has provides one with status and importance in the scheme of things.  It is a consumer world that gets us up and going each and every day.  It is very self-centered and focused on ourselves.  It begins with the question: What’s in it for me?  With such a mindset it is difficult to jump in with both feet and fully embrace the invitation of Jesus to follow and be like him.

Think about the span of your life . . . think about all the money you have earned . . . all the money you have spent.  Think about all of the stuff that you have owned . . . the big stuff and the little stuff.  Think about the accumulation of a lifetime of work . . . all of your stuff.  That is a pretty steep price that Jesus is asking us to pay in order to follow him.

But, guess what!  Jesus means it.  Jesus literally picks up the cross . . . gets nailed to the cross . . . and, dies on a cross.  He ultimately gives up his life for the lives of other.  No greater gift is there than to give up one’s life for another.  That “cross” is a lot more expensive than we realize.

Yet, in our reading this morning, the disciples—especially Peter—get an inkling of what Jesus is trying to say.  Remember how our passage began this morning?  Jesus is telling the disciples and those listening about what would happen to him . . . describes it in detail . . . the arrest, trial, and even death.  Remember how this upset Peter, and Peter pulls Jesus aside to tell him to stop.  Peter rebukes Jesus.  But, who could blame Peter for wanting Jesus to be quiet and talk about other things . . . what Jesus describes is not pleasant . . . Jesus is going to die . . . Jesus is going to lay down his life for the lives of others.  The cost of this adventure is not going to be cheap . . . it will cost Jesus his life.  That is the “cross” that Jesus must bear . . . that is the prayer he prays to God, “Not my will, but thy will be done.”

The cost of faith . . . of being in an intimate relationship with God . . . is not cheap, nor is it easy.  Yes, it often means that one has to go against the prevailing mores and rules of society and the world.  Yes, it often means doing things we really do not want to do because no one else is doing them.  Yes, it means to think of others first, ourselves last . . . not something we are taught.  It is tough to let go of “I” and all things that we cling to that makes us “I” in order to open ourselves up to the people and world around us in compassion, understanding, and love.  It is tough to let go and let God have our lives . . . it feels as if give up everything . . . and, for what?

Yet that is the way that Jesus shows it to us . . . in his words . . . in his actions . . . it always comes down to love . . . love of God and others.  Part of the problem that brought on Peter’s rebuke of Jesus in our reading this morning is the fact that Peter and the rest of the disciples did not quite get Jesus and what he was doing.  They saw Jesus’ acts of healing and the miracles he did as signs of power.  They did not see them for what they were in the mind and heart of Jesus . . . acts of love.  And when Jesus describes to them the greatest act of love—giving his life for them and the world—they can only object.

As far as Jesus was concerned, that was their right . . . their choice . . . if they wanted to object.  Jesus was not going to force anyone to follow him or his ways.  At the same time, he warned them that in the end they would lose.  They would lose it all.  Everything.  But, it was up to them . . . the cost of gaining one’s life is to give one’s life . . . to God and to others.

As I have said before, Kris Kristofferson said it best in his song Me and Bobby McGee: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”  When we choose to follow Jesus and his way of living life . . . choose to give our lives over to this completely . . . what do we have to lose?  The truth is . . . we gain it all.

Life . . . what is it worth?  Not much if we don’t give it away to be in relationship with God and others.  That is the “cross” . . . that is the “cost” . . . we are asked to bear as we strive to grow deeper and closer to God and all God’s children.  It is a struggle . . . probably a daily struggle . . . but one we must endure if we are to ever realize the Kingdom of God.  May our prayer in these struggles be the prayer of Jesus: “Not my will, but thy will be done.”  Amen.