Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones

The following was preached on Sunday, September 27, 2015 at the Congregational Church in Exeter.

Mark 9:38-42
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.

IMG_2511We 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?

Questioning Advent: Day 11 – Wading In

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East Branch of the Deerfield River, Green Mountain National Forest

Vermont is a great place if you like to fly fish. The cold trout streams hold their fair share of browns, rainbows, and brookies throughout the late spring and summer and into early fall. During trout season I often find myself heading out to the national forest early in the morning, or rushing out after dinner to catch the dying light. I’ve found that even on a day when I catch nothing, the beauty of the river and peaceful rhythm of casting are good enough for me.

Vermont streams aren’t always easy to fish, though, particularly if you try to wade in them. They’re rocky, the stones get slippery, and the bottoms are so uneven that one step you can be standing on fairly solid ground, and the next you can be chest deep in water. I’ve found myself thrashing so loudly in the water that I’m sure I warned every trout in the river to stay way.

After a few full-body dunks in the Deerfield River I tried to fish from the shore. It didn’t work. The fish are smart enough to stay in the deep waters, and there are enough trees around the bank that my line didn’t last that long. I realized that if I really wanted to do this, I had to wade in.

John the Baptist didn’t get his name by accident (or because he went to First Baptist Church of the Wilderness). A better translation for his name might be “John the Baptizer”. He stood by the river baptizing the people who came to him, eventually including Jesus himself. For the ones who were baptized, the waters were the mark of something new. A rededication. A physical reminder of their immersion in God’s love and grace. All the while that John was telling the people to get ready for something new, he was baptizing them. The water became a symbol of what was next.

There’s something about standing in water that reminds me that I’m a part of something bigger than myself. The winter’s snow melts into the headwaters of mountain streams in Vermont. Those streams join to form a river that merges with others south of the border with Massachusetts, and by the time the Connecticut River gushes out into the Long Island Sound, there’s no stopping it. The ocean carries those Vermont waters further than I can imagine.

The same is true of our baptism. Whether we are sprinkled with water that came from a well, or a church faucet, or a bottle of Jordan River water that someone swears their aunt brought back from her visit to Israel, or whether we are dunked headlong into a lake, it doesn’t matter. That water changes us. And it makes us a part of something bigger and greater than ourselves. It gives us the potential to participate in something we can only imagine.

Just like I’ve learned that standing on the shore of a trout stream does little good, I’ve found the less I pay attention to the waters of baptism, the less fruitful my life is as well. In fact, what I’ve learned wading trout streams has taught me something valuable. When I wade into a stream, the more I try to stay in shallow water, the more likely I am to lose my footing. But the deeper I wade, the more I become one with the current, and the more I find myself standing on a solid foundation.

In Advent we are invited to stand in deeper water. In this season Christ calls us into our baptism in new ways. We are asked to step into a small stream that is heading towards incredible places. But we get to make a decision about if, and how far in, we will wade. Sometimes that river seems cold. Sometimes it seems treacherous. And sometimes it seems rocky. But I’ve found that every time I’ve waded deep, there has been a blessing in it.

Question: Where in your faith life do you find yourself holding back out of fear? What would it mean to immerse yourself?

Prayer: Creator of the the waters, the rivers, and the seas, bless those of us who stand on the shore. Call us into the living waters. Steady our feet on rocky ground. Keep us safe in the midst of the deep. And join us with one another, bound by the blessing of our common baptismal waters. Amen.

“Water from a Rock”

Exodus 17:1-7
17:1 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.

17:2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?”

17:3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

17:4 So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

17:5 The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.

17:6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.

17:7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

During the Holocaust in the concentration camps at Auschwitz, a trial took place. It was not the trial of prisoners by Nazis. It was very different. It was a trial conducted by Jewish rabbis in the barracks, and the defendant was God.
The rabbis argued about whether God had abandoned the Jewish people. They argued about how a benevolent God could allow such bad things to happen to them. And in the end, the rabbis, good, religious men, found God guilty.
One of the biggest questions of faith is “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” Theologians have asked it for hundreds of years. Philosophers have pondered on it. And you and I have wondered too. Where is God when something bad happens?
I’m not going to give you a definitive answer this morning. Because, I don’t know. There are, in any given week, dozens of situations that I see and wonder why God is doing more to help. I used to feel bad about that. I used to think that I was disrespecting God. But wondering where God is and looking for answers is not the same as disrespecting God. If anything, it’s a form of taking God more seriously.
That was a little of what was happening in the passage. The Israelites are out in the wilderness. They have left slavery in Egypt and are journeying to a promised land. But Moses has led them far from home and they are thirsty. They begin to question him asking, “why did we even leave. And Moses calls to God and says, “They are almost ready to stone me.” The people begin to ask, “Is the Lord among us or not.”
We do it too when bad things happen. That is when we often find ourselves taking God more seriously. Seriously enough to ask where God is.
If you have been watching the news you have seen the pictures from Japan. You have seen the absolute devastation. You have seen destruction and loss of life and pain that will haunt the country for years. And maybe, at some level, you have asked, “Where is God.”
I’ve always rejected the idea that God does things to punish us. God does not going around using earthquakes to bring us in line. God does not cause tsunamis to prove God’s might. God does not will us to suffer in order to gain our love
But it’s easy to see how some churches have used what happened in Japan as a way of making people be fearful. Repent or else, we are told. Change your ways or you are next. And the underlying message, spoken or not, is this: those affected had it coming.
But God is not a God who hurts us. Rather, God is right there with us when bad things happen. And God is there in the aftermath.
When the people in the wilderness cried out loud enough, and when Moses went to God for help, he was given an unlikely answer: Strike the rock and water will spring forth. God tells Moses, “Your people will no longer go thirsty in my presence. I will save you.”
I believe it’s true that God hears our cries. And I believe that God does provide for us when we ask. But sometimes it takes longer than we might hope. And sometimes we have to go on a journey we wouldn’t wish to go on.
A close friend of mine, who has given me permission to tell this story, was sexually assaulted ten years ago. She was a very faithful person. And she was extremely proactive about her recovery. She saw a therapist. She went to a trauma recovery group. She even went to trauma yoga. She did everything right.
She managed to deal with the trauma of what was done to her, and to keep her faith. In fact, it was her faith that pulled her through it. But recently she told me that she was having a bit of a hard time. Trauma recovery is difficult and there are many layers and something you thought was done with has a way of coming back a little sometimes. And this time, it was hard for her to find God. No matter where she looked, God seemed far away. She’s one of the most faithful people I know, and I knew this must be devastating for her.
I think about Moses, taking a journey on faith. And I think about her, taking her own journey. I think about what it was like for Moses to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt. And I think about what it was like for her to say “I will not be defined by what happened to me anymore. I will be defined by surviving it.”
That was a hard journey to take. Many never take it. Many are happier living in the Egypt that they know rather than the promised land that they don’t. But she wasn’t, and she set out across the desert, and she is heading to the promised land. But right now she’s standing at the rock, just like Moses, asking God where God is. And God is telling her, “strike the rock. There’s living water in there for you. Strike the rock and know I’m here.”
I know she is going to get through this dark night alive. And she is going to be better on the other side. And the promised land that she reaches is going to be better than anything she could have imagined. But there’s no short cut across the desert when you’re looking for the promised land. There’s only the hard, hard journey and the doubt.
I look at Japan. They are not suffering because of their own actions. Just like the Jewish people at Auschwitz did nothing to deserve being there. Just like my friend did nothing to deserve being assaulted. They are suffering because sometimes, for whatever reason, bad things happen to good people.
But I know this: there is a promised land. It looks different for all of us. For the Jewish people in the camps it was freedom from persecution. For my friend it is to sleep without nightmares. And for the Japanese it is to rebuild homes and lives.
There is living water waiting to be struck from the rock. But we don’t know what it is going to look like. And sometimes, we may not know it yet, we are called to be the water that comes forth.
I read a story recently about a chef in California named Bruno. He had emigrated to this country and started out as a dishwasher. He worked hard and ended up opening his own restaurant. When he had more than enough, he began to donate financially to the Boys and Girls Club.
One day his mother came from Italy and wanted to see where his donations went. He took her to the Club and saw a boy eating a small bag of potato chips. He asks him if it was a snack, and the boy said “no”. It was his dinner. His mother overheard.
Now, I know something about Italian mothers, having one myself. And so, when his mother heard that and told him that he had to come back and feed them pasta, he had no choice. And for years now, he has been coming back and feeding dozens of meals a night to children who might otherwise not eat. When the economy went bad he lost a lot of his business. But he couldn’t leave the children without food. And so he refinanced his house, and kept right on serving.
There is water if you just strike the rock. And sometimes we can be the water that comes forth. We can be the strong shoulder to cry on. We can be the one who speaks out against hatred and oppression. We can be the one who sends help when our brothers and sisters can’t do anything else to help themselves. We can be the ones who be water to the thirsty in all sorts of ways
In just a few moments we will be taking up a special collection for Japan. Our proceeds will go to Church World Service, an ecumenical organization with a proven reputation for responding to disasters like this. They will make sure that your donations will get to the people who need them the most. They will make sure that water will spring from the rock.
And as for us, there will be a day when we are promised a new land. And if we dare to go, we will find at sometimes find ourselves in the wilderness. Dry and dusty and wondering where God is now. And we will have just enough faith that we will know what to do. And we will strike the rock. And somehow, God will give us water. We may not know what that water will look like now, but it will there. And we will not be allowed to go thirsty any longer. May it ever be true for us. May it ever be true for all God’s people. Amen.