Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 30, 2012

2012.09.30 “Watch Out for the Trip Hazards” – Mark 9: 38 – 50

Central United Methodist Church

Watch Out for the Trip Hazards

Pastor David L. Haley

Mark 9: 38 – 50

September 30, 2012

 

“John spoke up, “Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn’t in our group.”

Jesus wasn’t pleased. “Don’t stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.

“On the other hand, if you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck.

“If your hand or your foot gets in God’s way, chop it off and throw it away. You’re better off maimed or lame and alive than the proud owner of two hands and two feet, godless in a furnace of eternal fire. And if your eye distracts you from God, pull it out and throw it away. You’re better off one-eyed and alive than exercising your twenty-twenty vision from inside the fire of hell.

          “Everyone’s going through a refining fire sooner or later, but you’ll be well-preserved, protected from the eternal flames. Be preservatives yourselves. Preserve the peace.” – Mark 9: 38 – 50, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson.

 

I’m finding that, as I get older, my coordination is not what it used to be. I drop a lot of things, and knock things out of cabinets as I try to get other things.

For example, recently I was putting a dish back into an upper cabinet. In doing so, I knocked out the plastic bowl next to it, which fell out of the cabinet and broke. Before it broke, it landed on a glass teapot sitting on the counter, breaking it, such that tea cascaded out all over the counter and onto the floor. It would have been hard to make a bigger mess.  Welcome to my world.

Fortunately, though, I’m not into falling yet, another hazard of growing older (as some of you have found out by bitter experience). I remember sitting in a paramedic Continuing Education class several years ago listening to an instructor talk about geriatric emergencies. “Eyesight and hearing diminish,” they said, “such that you can’t see or hear as well as you used to.” Joints  – such as the neck – get stiffer, so you can’t turn your head to see what’s behind you as well as you used to. Stability and balance are not what they were, such that objects which were previously non-threatening – like rugs, furniture, stairs, curbs, cracks in sidewalks, etc. – now become trip hazards. I remember whispering to the guy sitting next to me: “So we got that to look forward to.”  So far it’s hasn’t been a problem for me, but it has for some of us.  It’s been my observation over the years that even after such previously benign objects have become trip hazards, we have a hard time getting rid of them, because in our thinking, we want to think of ourselves the way we have always been.  How do we put it in the Church? “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.”

Whether or not we are endangered by trip hazards in our houses, according to Jesus in today’s Gospel, whoever we are, of whatever age, we are endangered by trip hazards in life, if not physically, spiritually. “Skandalon,” the word is in Greek, used four times from verse 42 through 47, the word from which we get “scandal,” although more often translated as “stumbling blocks,” due to the moralistic tone scandal has taken in modern times.  Trip hazards, or stumbling blocks are things that trip us up, or even more importantly, trip others up because of us. Because of their danger to us and others, we are to be on watch for them with vigilance, and be diligent in their elimination from our lives, in so far as that is possible.  The problem is, such trip hazards may be invisible to us, as much so as those beloved old throw rugs.  Let’s take a look at what Jesus had to say, that it might open our eyes to trip hazards in our lives.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ warning comes up when his disciples, in effect, try to change the subject. What happened was, Jesus made his second prediction that he would be killed, and on the third day, arise. But the disciples didn’t understand, and were afraid to ask. Then Jesus asked them, what they had been discussing on the road. He was met with a deafening silence, because what they had been discussing among themselves, was, “Who is the greatest?” Like a parent scolding his/her children, Jesus said to them, “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.” To make his point, he put a little child in the middle of the room, and cradling the child in his arms, said, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me — God who sent me.” (Mark 9:36 – 37

In the face of such a humiliating lesson, what would you have done?  Maybe what they did, which was to change the subject.  And so John said, “Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn’t in our group.” They might as well have added, “Would you like us to go beat him up also?”  In effect, it was the old line: “Hey, look over there!”

Jesus was not pleased. Why? Well, first of all, just a few verses back, his disciples had tried to do an exorcism and failed, because they had skipped their prayers. So now, someone else – not us succeeds; do you think there was any jealousy involved? Any parent with more than one child can recognize this from a mile away, as Jesus likely did.

Secondly, whoever they were, they were doing GOOD! So Jesus said, (in my translation): “OMG: whoever he is, don’t hinder him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. Whoever is not against us, is for us. Why, anyone just giving you a cup of water in my name, is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.” That is, God notices whoever is doing good, however and whenever they do it.

The sad thing is, the first hearers of Mark’s gospel would’ve recognized themselves, just as we still recognize ourselves. Though we might not be aware of it, in the early church there was real competition over who could use Jesus’ name, who was right, and who had authority. Such questions were exacerbated by persecution, conflict with Jewish-Gentile relations, and all the growing pains of an infant church seeking identity and faithful witness. It’s sad but true, but then as now, Christian groups disagreed with one another, contested each other, and even sought to censure one another.

Even now, we do the same, though in different ways. We see people doing good in the name of Jesus, and – depending upon who we are – we may question whether they are the right gender, have the “right” sexual orientation, are ordained, or have the right credentials. We may look down upon and disdain churches outside our tradition, that are non-denominational or non-liturgical or non-traditional, even when they are accomplishing good in the name of Jesus. In reality, Christianity has always been this way. God’s Spirit is like a river that just keeps overflowing the old banks, and when it moves beyond us, sometimes we old-timers disparage the newcomers.

In modern society, and especially here in Skokie, let’s push beyond the boundaries of Christianity, and acknowledge that there are a lot of other religious people who do a lot of good, such as Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus. In truth, as Jesus said, “They are not our enemies but our allies.” Some Christians disparage them by comparing their bad points with our good points, when in truth all religions have both good points and bad. Ever hear of the Christian Crusades in medieval times, and what a disaster they were?

No wonder Jesus warned us that finger-pointing and being scrupulous about others can distract us such that we do great harm, and become trip hazards to others. Great damage has been done when Christians are preoccupied with infighting and self-righteous proclamation. Even our best intentions to reprove others, whether Christians or members of other religions, can have unintended, even deadly consequences for innocent bystanders, as we saw in the last few weeks throughout the Muslim world.

Not surprisingly, Jesus returns the disciples’ gaze to where it really belongs, upon themselves, upon ourselves, upon the only real trip hazards we can do anything about. It’s as though Jesus says, “The problem is not with the outsiders; the problem is with the insiders.”  How are we getting in the way of the gospel? In what ways might we be trip hazards to others? What might the trip hazards be in our own lives?

To get across the extremity of his warning, Jesus resorts to extreme images. They are not to be taken literally, though throughout history, some have done so. Known as “semitic hyperbole”, it is exaggeration for effect, in order to make a point. Jesus uses over-the-top, BOLD and ALL CAPS language to get our attention, including that of hell, gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, a smoldering garbage dump outside Jerusalem.  Even then, it comes across as some of the most shocking images in all the Gospels:

“If you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck.”

“If your hand or your foot gets in God’s way, chop it off and throw it away. You’re better off maimed or lame and alive than the proud owner of two hands and two feet, godless in a furnace of eternal fire.”

“And if your eye distracts you from God, pull it out and throw it away. You’re better off one-eyed and alive than exercising your twenty-twenty vision from inside the fire of hell.”

In other words, causing another to stumble – especially “the little ones” – is so serious, that while we might think there would be nothing worse than losing a hand, foot, an eye, Jesus says there is, such that the consequences of a foot causing another to stumble are worse than living life maimed. It is an ancient term known as “pars pro toto” (part for all): partial sacrifice for the sake of survival. Do what you have to do.

What might such stumbling blocks be?  On a global scale, I think the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church has been such a stumbling block. As if abuse by priests was not bad enough, the cover-up, and re-appointment of such priests, was almost worse. The U.S. Catholic Bishop’s point man on sexual abuse, Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of Joliet, IL, said just this month, that “the hierarchy’s credibility on fixing the problem has been ‘shredded’, and that the situation is comparable to the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, when the episcopacy, the regular clergy, and even the papacy were discredited.” (“Bishop: Church Credibility on Sexual Abuse ‘Shredded’”, by David Gibson, The Christian Century Magazine, September 5, 2012).

On the Protestant side, the cultural captivity of the church over long decades, even centuries, to racism, homophobia, anti-intellectualism, war, and the Gospel of Wealth, has stripped the church of the power of the Gospel. There is a good argument to be made that the “little ones” of whom Jesus spoke, were not children, but those who are the last and the least, in his society and in our own: the poor and the oppressed, those who are discriminated against and treated unjustly; among whom, sadly, are too many children. It is these “special ones” for whom God has a special place, and truth be told, in the American Protestant Church we have not done well in reaching out to them. This has been a trip hazard on which many have stumbled.

As for the trip hazards in our own lives; they are the same as they’ve always been; there’s not too much new in the human race.  Sex, drugs, and alcohol are always popular, and get a lot of publicity; but the most deadly trip hazards are those we don’t talk about, at least not in church: pride and arrogance, selfishness and shame, our inability to forgive and move on. Trip hazards, stumbling blocks, they become in our lives, sending us sometimes to our knees, sometimes flat on our faces. What Jesus did not say in this passage is something I must: there is help for those who seek it. It is never easy; but that’s why Jesus said it is worth even extreme sacrifice, before they become trip hazards to us or to others.

As for me, I don’t know what my clumsiness portends; maybe, if I live long enough, I’ll wind up with some neurological disease like Parkinson’s Disease, like my grandfather and father, who both struggled with Parkinson’s late in their lives.  As Jesus said, we’re all going through a refining fire sooner or later.

In the end, I can’t say what our last judgment will be. But I do believe that when we go before God to account for this wonderful life we’ve been given, God will take note of how our lives were hindered, even tripped up by dead churches, and well-meaning but wrongheaded and sometimes hypocritical people. I expect that will make God mad, as mad as it makes us.

I believe God will take note of how we ourselves were sometimes our own worst enemies, standing in the way of our own good, hindering the best that was within us, tripping sometimes upon our own feet. I expect that will make God sad, as sad as it makes us.

But in the final measure, I believe God will only want to know from us, what we did with our lives, not what others did with theirs. What trip hazards did we struggle with, and eliminate? What sacrifices did we make, to better ourselves? What good did we do, especially for the “little ones,” the last and the least? Because the good news is this: while God has promised to remove our sins from us as far as the east is from the west, even the gift of a cup of water, God will notice.  Amen.

 

 

 

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