Proper 21, Year B, 2018
St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
If you have been watching the news or following social media, you’ll know this week has been one that will not be long forgotten. This week has seen pain, anger, fear, and hurt glaring illuminated in the national spotlight, and has highlighted how we as a people collectively continue to fail the most vulnerable in our midst. It has also proven yet again that living the values of the Kingdom of God seems a nearly impossible task. I have said before that you will not hear me preach on politics, and that is true. I will absolutely never preach on anything if it holds no relevance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I will not take partisan sides from this pulpit, and I certainly won’t be telling you, as the clerical authority in this community, how to vote. That does not mean that I will fail to call to attention what I see around us, or that I will shy away from applying the values of the kingdom of God to our current situations when I truly believe it to be appropriate and necessary.
There is an often used quote that has been attributed to 20th Century theologian Karl Barth, but has also been attributed to Billy Graham, Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Lincoln, and even Martin Luther. The quote itself is that a good preacher should preach, “with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” What Barth does actually say is that as people of faith, living in the world, we need both the bible and the newspaper, but to interpret our newspapers from our bible.
I would argue further that our newspapers give us context to apply many of the teachings of Jesus Christ to the world around us. The reason we so value the Gospel, the reason that we are so focused on it, why we have a special book just for reading the Gospel and why we make such a to do about it in the service is that the Gospels of Jesus Christ are the only objective experience of God we have. Everything else in the Bible, the prophets, the letters, histories of the Jewish people, the Revelation, it is all subjective experience of God by prophets, apostles, historians. The Gospel is different because Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God in our midst, is speaking. What the Word incarnate, the Logos, has to say is the objective experience of God because anyone standing next to him at the time could hear what Jesus says. So these words spoken by the incarnate God ring through all of eternity, and whether Jesus is talking to a crowd of five thousand on the plains near Bethsaida or speaking privately to his disciples, they are for us to apply to our lives and the world around us after prayer and discernment.
Now with all that lead up, I can only imagine how nervous you are to hear what I’m about to say next. Rest assured that now, acknowledging that the world around us is dark and full of turmoil, not unlike many many times in our past and future, we turn to our Gospel lesson to see what it has for us. Recall last week Jesus is teaching the disciples about those like children, the vulnerable people in society who have no standing, and that in order to be the greatest, one must serve the least of these. We are still in the midst of this encounter where Jesus is holding the child and speaking to his disciples. Then John offers more context about the discussions they were having. I can only imagine that John is patting himself on the back as he is telling Jesus what the disciples have done. There was someone else doing the work of the disciples but refusing, as John puts it, to follow them. John doesn’t say this other person is refusing to follow Jesus, quite the opposite, but he doesn’t want to join up with the disciples and that’s what they don’t like. Jesus of course corrects them, because what matters is the work, what matters is pointing people towards Jesus and towards the Kingdom of God, not whether you’ve got the membership card to prove it. It isn’t important what tribe you belong to, what group you work with, or whether you are willing to follow the disciples. Jesus is clear that proclaiming the Gospel, doing good in the name of Jesus is far more important than anything else. And that is why, in a nation that seems so divided, in a current situation that has drawn such severe battle lines based on clan and not on the Good News, we can look at our newspaper and look at our bible and begin to see that we are called to something very different. Jesus offers us an alternative if we instead decide that the weak, that the ones who need healing, and that the values of the Kingdom of God are more important to us than what man made political party is in power. That is also why it is so important for us to be ecumenical partners with those who would also proclaim the Gospel and seek the truth. We are blessed to have Holy Cross, the Lutheran Church here in Mountain Home, as those who we can work with, and I continue to make contacts with local clergy, congregations, and social organizations that can partner with us. When we work with these partners it’s important for us to recognize that we come from different angles, that we do not have the same experiences, or that we will not all agree on every aspect of life. As long as we are proclaiming the Gospel, as long as we are working to exemplify the values of the Kingdom of God, then we are doing that important work in following Jesus. That is how we take up our cross. That is how we stand together to shield the least of these from the vileness, the inhumane treatment from the most base of humans, from the onslaught of power hungry villains for who money and prestige matter more than human life.
Then Jesus continues…“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Jesus is really good at imagery. I was listening to a podcast on this week’s lectionary readings and the commentators joked about finding a millstone to use as an illustrative object. Well, they are not easy to come by these days, and in fact it would take several of the strongest of us to carry it in to the church. So you can see the image Jesus is evoking here by putting a millstone around the neck and thrown into the sea. That’s how serious Jesus takes this next piece of the Gospel. It is a grave error to cause those who need our support the most to stumble, to stand in the way of those who have no privilege or standing and keep them from the Good News, or worse, lead them from it. And then if any part of you causes this, Jesus says, you should remove it. Now folks, this is metaphor. Let’s not be like the early church father Origen of Alexandria who decided to remove a certain part of his body he deemed causing him to stumble…
Though it is metaphor, it is still a strong and useful image. If your eye causes you to stumble, it’s not the fault of what you’re looking at. It’s you. If your facebook perusing causes you to stumble, cut it out. If your political leanings cause you to stumble, cut it out. If 24 hour streaming news cycles cause you to stumble, cut it out. If anything in your life causes you to stumble, that is your opportunity to let go of those things and return to the loving arms of Christ.
We are right now in a vicious cycle that has highlighted one of the many deep-rooted cultural sins in this country. I know I focus on us here, but please understand that I find that to be far more relevant than, like John does, to pat ourselves on the back for casting aspersions on others. We cannot afford to support narratives that cause survivors of assault to stumble. There are few fellow humans, I would wager, that feel more powerless at times than such survivors. Do not mistake my meaning: this has nothing to do with the outcomes of investigations, nothing to do with the outcomes of political posturing or games of controlling the sand castle. This has to do with extremely vulnerable people, hurting beloved children of God that need us to stand for nothing more than the values of the Kingdom. They are simply one example of the many ‘least of these’ we encounter in life. One could spend hours listing all the ‘isms’ that seek to rob the children of God of their humanity. What matters is that we step away from the mobs, that we do not join in the chanting of, “Crucify him!” but rather welcome those who have no power as though we welcome Christ.
In a preaching conference I attended during my time in seminary, I took a breakout session entitled, “Preaching the Gospel without being Political”. When the session began, the first thing the teacher said was, “I’m sorry if the title of this session is misleading. I want you to all understand that if you preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, people will accuse you of being political.” It is important to be willing to not fit in, to be denounced for going against the grain if we are truly to follow in the footsteps of Christ. It is not political. It is not posturing. It is not virtue signaling. It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the incarnation of the God we follow and are called to give our very lives for. Nothing can come before that, or we have lost our way. Stand for those who have had their dignity taken from them. Stand for the weak, for the sick, for those who society has cast aside or worse. Jesus did.