The following was preached on Sunday, September 27, 2015 at the Congregational Church in Exeter.
9:38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
9:39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.
9:40 Whoever is not against us is for us.
9:41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
9:42 “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.
In seminary we were taught to never preach a sermon that didn’t give the people who heard it reason to hope. In preaching classes we would preach, and then we would subject ourselves to a sort of “brutal grace” in which our classmates and professors would all tell us what we could have done better. The one question that seemed to come up the most was, “But what hope will people take from that sermon?”
What’s true of young seminarians is also true of just about all of us. We sometimes struggle to find, and talk about, hope. And when people do talk about it, it sometimes sounds a bit disingenuous. It becomes the stuff of commercial sound bites and political campaigns. Buy this and you’ll be a better person, or vote for me and you’ll have a better country.
And so it sometimes sounds naive to talk about hope. We probably talk more about false hope on a daily basis than we do about hope, and that’s sad. But maybe we do that because along the way we have had too many experiences of putting our hope in the wrong places and we are all a little more streetwise for it. We start to believe more in the inevitability of everything going wrong than we do in hope. And gradually, we become people of fear.
Today’s Scripture text puts, quite literally, the fear of God into us. And yet, at it’s heart, I believe it’s one about hope.
Jesus is teaching the disciples and he says something that has always struck me with fear: “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.”
That’s a frightening visual. Have you ever seen a millstone? They are huge and heavy, and no one could help but sink if they had it around their necks. And yet, Jesus tells us that that would be better than what would happen if we put a stumbling block before a child.
Now, it’s never said explicitly that he is talking about children there. In face, he may well have been talking about all believers, but I love the idea that maybe Jesus was talking about children. This was, after all, the same Jesus who told his disciples to let the little children come onto him, something so remarkable for a time when children were treated as little more than property.
And it’s fitting for today too. Because every time we baptize a child in this church it’s a tremendously happy occasion, and our joy today is literally doubled as we baptize twins. Today their parents are making vows to raise them in this faith, but we also once again make the vows as a congregation to help them do just that. They become, in a very real way, our spiritual responsibility.
And so, that line from Jesus might be hitting a little close to home right now. Because the hard truth is this: at some time or another, with these children or with others, we are all going to take our turns at being stumbling blocks.
We won’t mean to, of course. But we will indeed mess up. Every parent does. Every grandparent does. And every loving adult in a child’s life does at one time or another. We use harsher words than we mean to. We make light of something that is important. Or we fail to make time when it’s needed the most.
I remember when I missed up like that once. Earlier in my ministry I was working with a young child who had been through a series of foster homes and had lived through trauma and losses of trust that no child should. And he kept trying to use my computer while we were supposed to be working on something else. I was trying to redirect him but he kept asking me for the password. And finally, without really thinking, I told what I thought was a little white lie, meant to divert his attention away from the computer and back to the task at hand. I said I didn’t know the password.
And that was fine. For a while. Until he saw me log in. And he looked at me, and I could see how upset he was, and he said “you lied to me!” And I knew that he had been lied to so many other times in his life, and I had just become one more adult who did the same to him. And I felt like that millstone that Jesus talked about had landed right on top of me.
He forgave me. But I never forgot that. And I came to understand that messing up was inevitable. We are all going to do it. But in the end, what matters most is that we never destroy a child’s hope. Because when we do that, that’s when Jesus says it would be better for the millstone to be around our necks.
Now, for most of us here, more mainline and progressive Christians, that might be hard to hear. We don’t really talk about any kind of divine punishment or “hell” in our tradition. And when we do it’s not a lake of fire like you may hear about in other churches. Instead, hell is the absence of God. It is the absence of hope. And in in so many ways, that’s the worst sort of hell imaginable. And I often wonder whether hell isn’t as much a place of this world as it is of the next. Because far too many people live without hope. It’s like a millstone around their necks.
And so often that millstone weighs so heavily around us that we can’t help but let it get in the way. And we teach our children that hope is indeed absent. We don’t think that’s what we’re doing. We think we are teaching them to be tough. We talk about the real world. But so often we cross that line, and teach them to be cynical and jaded way too early.
We take their hope away. We become stumbling blocks on their paths. We take away what they think is possible. And in doing so we shape what they believe is possible and impossible in their future, just a little at a time. And we make the world just a little less bright both for them and for us.
And so I think about those words from seminary; “Never preach a sermon that leaves people without hope”, and I realize that the same could be said for all of us, for the ways each of us preaches the sermon of our lives, especially to the young people around us: never do anything that takes hope away from them.
The biggest mistakes we make are the ones that take hope away from the young. And I don’t just mean in our daily lives, and in our own interactions with young people. I mean in all of our lives.
Look, for instance, at what we are doing to our very planet. Look at the ways generations have used it unwisely, and with thought only for themselves. And look at what we are preparing to hand over to the ones who will follow us. Will they receive this world with gratitude and hope? Or with fear, and resignation?
I hope it’s the former. I hope that they will hope in a better future. And I hope that they will live as people of hope.
But hope is more than just wishful thinking. Hope is a form of action. And we must hope a better future into being for the ones who shall inherit the earth. Because the children of today are the keepers of the promises and possibilities that will shape our lives.
And so we, you and I, must also become people of hope. We must become not stumbling blocks but stepping stones. We must become teachers of hope. Because if we want these children to live in hope, then we must become ever-present examples of hopeful people.
We can become the biggest cheerleaders to our young people. We can become the ones who encourage them to do the things that are hard. We can be consistent in our encouragement, and our prayers for them. We can be loving and honest, even on our hardest days. And we can make this world the sort of place that they will inherit with hope, and not fear. And we can start today.
Because today we are making hopeful promises. We are telling the two children we are baptizing today, by this action that they are too young to understand, that there is hope in Christ. We are telling them that even though they don’t yet know what it will look like, there are lives ahead of them that are worth putting their hopes in, because they will be filled with the hope of Christ and because we cannot yet know how good that will be. And we are telling them, as Christ’s people, as the ones who have been claimed by God, that we will work to build a world for them that is full of hope.
That is what baptism is about. It’s God’s claim of hope on our lives. That is what those waters symbolize today for our newest brother and sister in Christ. And that’s what our baptisms symbolize in all of us.
Before I came here, I lived in the mountains of Vermont. And I learned something watching the rivers there. I learned about how slowly, over hundreds of years, water can wear away stone, carry it out to sea, and form a new landscape.
That’s even true for millstones. As big and cumbersome as they are, in the end they are no match for relentless waters. And what better water to wash them away, then the waters of baptism. The waters of hope. They are washing over me, and they are washing over you. And they are taking away the stumbling blocks, renewing us and giving us hope. And it’s that hope that we can give to the next generation. Amen?