Sermon 9/27/09, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50
Today’s gospel lesson of those times when I feel like the author had a few scenes of Jesus’ teaching that he didn’t know where to put, and just sort of jumbled them together in one scene. We have several snippets in today’s text, words from Jesus, that at first don’t seem to go together. Follow me through the text. First, we have the disciple John coming to Jesus apparently upset because someone else was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, someone who was *not* one of the twelve. Apparently, this bothered John and the others – they tried to stop the man because he wasn’t one of the inner circle. But Jesus tells them “whoever is not against us is for us,” and he tells them to let the man continue in his work. Then, Jesus says, “For truly I tell you,” implying that what he says next will be a conclusion to what he has said so far. “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” Next, Jesus begins warning against putting stumbling blocks in front of any of “these little ones” – here I assume he is speaking about the child that still must be at the center of their circle, the child Jesus used as an example of who to welcome in our reading last week. He says that anyone that puts a stumbling block in front of a child would be better off with a great millstone hung around their neck, thrown into the sea. Then Jesus, still talking about stumbling, seems to shift gears a little, saying whoever has an eye or hand or foot that causes them to stumble in sin would be better to cut off these body parts in order to enter the
What’s the message for us in this jumble of texts? Can we find a lesson in this mix of teachings? Turning back to the beginning of our text, we see that the disciples are upset because someone else is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Why are they upset? If already, so early into Jesus’ ministry, and early into the disciples’ own outreach, if already, others are taking up the cause, taking the message of Jesus, and using God’s power to heal, to free others from demons, wouldn’t this be a good thing? Shouldn’t they be happy to hear the effect that their message has had already? But instead of being happy about the obvious success of the message of the kingdom of God, they are upset and possessive – they want to control the message – control who spreads and how and who gets credit for it. So they try to stop this man, saying, “because he was not following us.” Already you can hear in their response that they are speaking of who is following the collective them, rather than who is following Jesus. Already they’ve forgotten that they aren’t the leaders – they’re servants of the one, the only one, they’re following.
Would we be any different than the disciples if we were in their place? Actually, I think we are in their place. We’re much the same as the disciples. Unfortunately, the church universal today is the center of a lot of fighting among its members – fighting among the various denominations, fighting among the various members within denominations. What is everyone fighting over? Our fighting may take different forms, focusing on how to interpret the scriptures, or social issues like sexuality or abortion, or even on organizational structure – but the main idea is usually the same – we believe we do things the right way, and that the others are doing things the wrong way. That’s perhaps to be expected. But, often, because we believe we do it right and they do it wrong, we actually spend more energy trying to stop them from doing what they’re doing than we do just doing what we’re doing. In the long run, Christianity as a whole doesn’t have a great public image. Right now, we are struggling to remain relevant and important in people’s lives. But instead of functioning together as the body of Christ, we compete with each other, in congregations, denominations, and between them, and end up losing the interest in the process of those with whom we seek to share the gospel – the good news about God’s redeeming, unconditional love.
Jesus tells the disciples that even a small gesture like giving a cup of water is an act that is part of this kingdom of God – and so even a man casting out demons who is not one of their group – if he is doing it in the name of Christ – as an act of the kingdom – this man too – this act too – it is an act worthy of God’s reward. It may not be the way the disciples wanted it done, and it may not be done by who they wanted to do it. But frankly, Jesus indicates, it isn’t up to them to decide. In fact, he continues, they do more harm by criticizing than the other man does by casting out demons. He says that what they’re doing is putting stumbling blocks in the way of others in their journey of following Jesus. And Jesus says that putting stumbling blocks in another’s path is the greater evil. In fact, he feels so strongly about this that he says it is better for a person to throw themselves into the ocean with a millstone around their neck than to be the one who puts a stumbling block before another. Those are very strong words – an expression of hyperbole or exaggeration to be sure, or indeed, we would all be without eyes, hands, and feet. But the image lets us know exactly how Jesus feels.
We all make mistakes. We all sin. And God asks us to repent and again journey in God’s direction instead of our own. Our own sin is one thing. But when by our actions we lead others into sin – that’s another, more serious matter. When, by our actions, we keep others from following God, and prevent them from answering God’s call to them, Jesus tells us that this is a very serious thing. So, in the life of the church in the world, when we work against each other and not with each other, or at least in support of one another, we not only restrict our brothers and sisters in Christ from doing what God has called them to do, we also keep them from reaching people in need of God’s message of love.
When Jesus talks about the eyes and hands and feet that cause sin, I think he’s saying that when someone stumbles on a path, it’s smarter to remove the cause of the stumbling than to remove the person traveling, or to have the person change paths. The person is right, the path is right, it is only the source, the stumbling block, that is getting in the way. We have to be more honest with ourselves. Most of us, thinking about stumbling blocks, can probably quickly call to mind times when others have been stumbling blocks for us. That’s easy. But that’s not what Jesus is saying. He is speaking directly to us: “If you put a stumbling block before [some]one . . .,” “if your hand causes you to sin.” Jesus isn’t asking us to think about what others have done to us. Jesus is asking us to think about our actions toward others. Today, each of us must think about our actions, and our actions only. Where in our lives have we caused someone else to stumble? Where have my actions – your actions – prevented someone from answering God’s call? We hope, I’m sure, never to be responsible for such a thing. But I’m ready to admit that sometimes I want to tell others they’re doing it wrong, going about ministry wrong, getting the details wrong, following God wrong. I’m tempted to tell them how to do it right, like I do. I’m tempted to put a stumbling block in their path, even though I wouldn’t want to call it that, but you can believe that as a pastor, there’s not a thing in our spiritual lives that I don’t have at least an opinion about! But if what I do – if what you do – if what we do as a congregation, or denominations, or as an entire faith tradition actually puts distance between someone else and God? Jesus says we better think seriously about the consequences of such actions.
I’ve mentioned to you that James is one of my favorite books of the Bible, and it is again the source for our second text today. In part, James is a favorite because James is very practical and straightforward in talking about how to live as a disciple. The apostle Paul might get the credit for his theological depth in all his letters to the churches, but to me, James does the important thing – he tells us how to live. He translates what Jesus has taught into how the early Christians should act with one another. And so James tells us what it looks like when we stop working against each other and start working with one another and for the sake of Jesus. In our passage today, James is writing about the power of prayer, which is just to say the power of actually talking to God, and the power of acting out of concern for one another. “Therefore,” he says,” confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” Healing in the community comes from this mutual relationship of intentional care for one another, under God’s love.
This congregation has certainly been through a long time of transition. Now, I’ve been here with you for three months, and I’ve been working to get a sense of where you’ve come from and who you are. But I think, after a time of transition, a time of waiting and preparing, you are also ready to move forward. There’s a lot going on in this congregation that I’m excited about. The Spirit of God is moving among us. God is calling us. We are ready, I think, to follow Jesus, down the challenging, surprising ways paths of discipleship. But before we go any further, I want us to pause here today – to pray for healing, to ask forgiveness, to share forgiveness, wherever there has been pain or hurt in the process of transition. I want us to pause here today and try to identify the stumbling blocks on our path – what is holding you back from following Jesus with your whole being? Where can you help clear someone else’s way? Today, following the benediction, I will remain in the sanctuary to offer prayers with you for healing, any kind of healing that you might need in your life – physical, emotional, spiritual. If you choose, I invite you to come to the rail, kneel or stand, and I will make the sign of the cross on your forehead with holy oil, and pray for God to guide your life on a clear path of discipleship.
And today, I’m asking all of you to pray for God to help us to remove those stumbling blocks from our path, so that nothing stands in the way of our walking with God. Because I think we’re standing on the edge of the wonderful things God is hoping and dreaming for this community. I think we’re standing at the starting line, and I’m so anxious for us to really embrace this journey together.
Jesus said, “whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will be no means lose the reward.” Amen.