The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s138g09 Sunday 26 27/9/2009
'whoever gives you a cup of water' Mark 9.41
As I looked at this reading my mind was drawn to the word 'stumbling block' and 'to stumble'. We are not to put a stumbling block before anyone, and the attitude of God to such a one is spoken of in no uncertain terms. Then three times we are to take similarly drastic action if our hand, foot or eye causes us to stumble. However as I have gone through the church, time and again, people in the established congregation criticise what someone else is doing which is inevitably different from what has gone before. They put stumbling blocks in front of others 'this is the way we do this here!' they say. They deride anything that might eclipse their own contribution.
As I think about it, I suppose that giving someone a cup of water is the opposite of putting a stumbling block in front of someone.
The word for 'stumbling block' and 'to stumble' is the same it is transliterated as scandalize. In modern thought this immediately conjures up thoughts of sexual immorality, however it is certain that scripture views the word quite differently. St Paul says that the Cross is a 'stumbling block' to Jews and it is the same word in Greek. This has nothing to do with sexual immorality.
This immediately puts before us the conundrum that the Cross is a deliberate stumbling block put there by God, but we are not to put stumbling blocks in front of others. So we can rationalise that if we upset someone else and they go away, well it's the stumbling block of the Cross! How easy it becomes to avoid these very stern words of Jesus.
For me the only way around this conundrum is to see that the Cross is not meant to be a stumbling block to anyone. It is only in this way that it becomes a stumbling block to those who believe that there cannot be such free access.
The Cross is only the stumbling block for those who restrict access to God to others. It is a scandal to such people that God would associate with ordinary people, like the tax collectors, the prostitutes and the sinners with whom Jesus associated. In this sense they erect stumbling blocks for themselves and others.
I am reminded that this year it is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin. As I remembered this it came to me that the traditional paradigm of the universe was that it was created in six days and everything was complete. Charles Darwin turned this upside-down, suggesting that creation evolved over the centuries and indeed continues to evolve. It seems to me that the six days of creation puts a stumbling block in front of us all to be a part of the ongoing creation. Any growth is into the fullness of some pre-ordained standard to which some elite have attained, but few others. We are ever children growing up. This subordination engenders a competitive atmosphere. The evolutionist theory allows us to be who we are and continue to grow and hopefully to grow past 'the survival of the fittest'. We are all part of the evolutionary process. Each and everyone has a contribution to make. Because no one has to strive to measure up, we are enabled to be in collaboration rather than competition with others.
And it seems to me that the church has held a creationist view of her beginnings. Jesus came, was killed and rose again, and from henceforth the deposit of faith has been bequeathed to us and to all people, fixed and immovable. We are ever children growing up. Some elite persons, called saints, have attained the goal while the rest of us strive and usually fail. This subordination similarly engenders a competitive atmosphere. Here we have a religious stumbling block, which essentially trips up all and sundry on their pilgrimage towards co-operation.
So the church has to depart from this creationist mythology to allow us to evolve. It is not that there is anything wrong with what has gone before, but we have to remove stumbling blocks to the future.
Do we really think that everything was good in the 'good old days'? The fact that the halcyon days of the church in the 1950's in Australia have essentially evaporated should tell us that that theology was essentially defective. Children were to be seen and not heard. 'The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate.' Even today, in some places within 'the church' women are still marginalised and gay and lesbian persons are alienated. These are brick walls - not just stumbling blocks.
We are on a pilgrimage and along the way we are to encourage one another, rather than putting stumbling blocks in people's way. We are to give cups of water to others.
The important thing is that Jesus here is saying that whoever encourages us will not lose their reward. The paradigm of encouragement extends beyond the confines of the church but includes all others. Indeed anyone who does some good thing to another person simply because that other person is a human being and therefore worthy of assistance is doing that good thing in the name of Christ.
Stumbling blocks make people trip over as they travel the path they have chosen. They force those travelling along their own path to stop and take some other path, like the path that the person who put the stumbling block in place might try to direct. But giving someone a cup of water allows a person to continue on the path they have chosen, and indeed encourages and enables people to continue on their path of life.
I write this as I sit in Synod listen to debates. The business can seem so remote from Christian ministry. But at the Synod dinner last evening I sat with some people who I hadn't met beforehand. One spoke of his ministry at the local courthouse. He, with others, provide a cup of tea or coffee to those about to appear in court and their relatives and friends. In this particular place the indigenous people are disproportionately represented in those waiting for trials. This person was speaking on how we, the 'invaders', have blighted the lives of the indigenous population and how he hopes that their court hospitality helps to affirm and encourage those whose lives have been so blighted. Another at our table spoke about how indigenous people are precisely the same as us, with the same aspirations and outlook. He made the point that their family ties are often far more important to them than for many Anglo Celtic people. A third person spoke about her work as a doctor in Nepal. It makes me proud to be a member of this church and encouraged and thankful that ordinary people are responding to the injunction of Jesus to give a cup of water to others. It doesn't depend on me, and my words. The final words of my sermon essentially wrote themselves :-)!
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