“Removing the Stumbling Blocks”
Last week we in worship we joined with congregations across the world in Just Peace Sunday proclaiming that Peace is Possible and that it is time for the followers of Jesus to lead the way. We talked about how Jesus is the model for peace and to follow Jesus means to choose a different path. A path of peace based on love and justice rather than power and domination. We talked about the work of waging peace requires that we surrender ourselves to whom God says we are, we take on God’s vision of peace for all of humanity, and we depend on the Holy Spirit to give us the courage and resources to go against the status quo and institutions of power.
Once again, in today’s lectionary reading from Mark we hear the command of Jesus, at the conclusion of a teaching, to be at peace with one another. We also notice that this is a command and not a request. Jesus doesn’t say “if it suits you, be a peace with each other” or “if is it easy be a peace with each other” or “if you feel like it be at peace with each other” or “if the other guy is nice to you, be at peace with each other.” Like all of Jesus’ commands, there are no conditions, no prerequisites, nothing about how the other person is acting or what he or she is doing — just a very straightforward, direct and to the point command to be at peace with each other. If Jesus gives us this command at the end of a teaching I think it behooves us to explore what the teaching can tell us about going about this very hard work of being at peace with each other.
I have to confess that this is a very difficult passage to tackle. There is much more in it than we could ever hope to talk about in one sermon. It would take a sermon series to fully unpack this passage and explore all of its dimensions. As such, today we will just be scratching the surface of what this teaching has to say to us about being at peace with each other.
My friends, this is not a feel good teaching. This teaching is meant to disturb us, to make us uncomfortable. This teaching calls for us to do some very serious self-inspection and reflection. Jesus doesn’t pull any punches in this teaching and hearing it should be like getting a cold glass of water thrown in our face. It is meant to shock us and motivate us.
This is a teaching for those on the inside — us — the followers of Jesus. At this point in his ministry, Jesus is not talking to the general public but is speaking directly to his followers.
In the lead up to this passage, we find the disciples arguing amongst themselves about which of them is the greatest. Jesus quickly shuts down their argument by telling them that whoever wants to be first must be willing to be last and must become a servant of all. Then in our passage today, we find the disciples peeved because someone other than them is going around performing exorcisms in the name of Jesus — something that Jesus earlier on had given them the authority to do. Their pride was wounded, their exclusive authority, at least what they thought was their exclusive authority, was being challenged. Someone else was stealing their thunder, their place in the lime light, their brand and they weren’t happy about it. So they come to Jesus asking him to stop the other guy from casting out demons because he wasn’t part of the inner circle. He wasn’t one of them.
In response to their anger and wounded pride, Jesus refers to the “little ones.” It is our tendency when we hear little ones to think immediately of children. That certainly is part of this, but here Jesus is using it in a much larger scope to describe what Matthew calls the least of them. It is the people found out of the margins of society. The outcasts, those that are typically powerless and at the mercy of others. Those who live in the shadows and go unseen. Those who are seen as “less than.” In our present day society, this tends to be the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the immigrants. You know, the ones that we tend blame all of our problems on. Today, all too frequently, it also includes people of color, other religions, and those who do not fit into our narrow definitions of normal. You only have to listen to about 10 minutes of the current on-going political speechifying to get a sense of whom I am talking about.
Jesus makes it perfectly clear what we can expect when we put a stumbling block, an obstacle, in the way of others from experiencing the fullness of the kingdom of God. It is the same message the Hebrew prophets gave to us. When we do so, we bring about our own destruction. Jesus says it is like having a thousand pound rock around your neck and being thrown into the ocean. In other words, there is no escaping its effects. It is life and soul killing. It clearly is not the way of peace.
At the end of the teaching Jesus tells the disciples to “have salt in yourselves” immediately followed to be at peace with each other. Bible scholars are divided on what exactly Jesus meant when he said to have salt in yourselves. It is an ambiguous statement that could be interpreted in multiple ways. One interpretation that makes sense to me in light of the earlier posturing and complaining by the disciples is that he is telling them to focus on their own selves and to quit judging others. It is Jesus saying, as he did in other teachings, to employ self-reflection and judge our own pride, sin, and shortcomings. For me, this sends the message that peace begins first with us. This interpretation, I think, also sheds light on the difficult and graphic portion of this teaching about cutting off our hands and feet and plucking out our eyes and being cast into the fires of hell.
A key to understanding the teachings of Jesus is when he exaggerates he wants to make sure we understand the importance and gravity of the point being made. Therefore, in this passage, when he talks about cutting off our feet or hands or plucking out an eye, he is not being literal but through the use of extreme hyperbole he wants to convey how serious he is being and to get our full attention.
In very vivid language, Jesus is telling the disciples that if they want to be in peace with one another they must through serious self-reflection reveal and name their complexity in putting stumbling blocks in front of others. Once owned and named the work of deconstructing the stumbling blocks can then begin. And, make no mistake about it, they must be destroyed if we are to be at peace with one another. Again, Jesus is quite clear about it — get rid of them totally or suffer the very painful and long lasting consequences.
The point being made here by Jesus, I think, is that if we address our own pride, our own sin, and our own shortcomings peace is possible. If we quit the finger pointing and quit trying to be God ourselves by judging others, we can find a way to live in peace.
Marcus Borg in his book “The Heart of Christianity” says that one of the things that Jesus was during his life on earth was a social prophet. He says that Jesus was “a prophet of the Kingdom of God –of what life would be like on earth if God were king and the kings and emperors of the world were not. As such, he was a radical critic of the domination system of his time that channeled wealth to the few and poverty to the many.” My friends, if we are to be peacemakers, if we are to be the followers of Jesus, we must follow in Jesus’ footsteps and likewise become radical critics of the domination system of our time that is creating and maintaining the stumbling blocks of injustice, hate, and violence.
When we look at the life of Jesus, we also see that he was not passive. He directly confronted the stumbling blocks and like Jesus, we too must directly confront the stumbling blocks of our time. We must move beyond these walls and engage injustice directly. Some would like to draw a distinct line between the spiritual world and the secular world saying that the church should not become involved in the workings of the secular world. However, that is not the example that we find in Jesus who actively confronted the secular institutions of power and domination of his time. Dietrich Bonheoffer said, “It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.” He went on to say, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
How do we that? Again, we look to Jesus as our model. Here I am borrowing from a study guide called “Jesus and Justice” published by the International Social Justice Commission of the Salvation Army, who although their own history when it comes to their inclusion of the LGBT community has not been very good they are addressing it and making changes. “Jesus, [they say] envisioned opportunities for people whose plight in life was curtailed by oppressive constraints and life‐denying forces. Jesus lived right and righted wrongs. And for those of us who claim to be Jesus’ followers, Jesus’ mission on earth in his time is our mission on earth in our time.” They go on to say that, “pursuing justice for the sake of others was his intent and practice.” To me, this is another way of saying Jesus was dismantling the stumbling blocks. He did this by including the excluded, showing compassion toward social outsiders, protesting gender inequality, and embracing the excluded. He challenged cultural practices by rejecting racism, giving dignity to second-class citizens, and risking his own reputation in the process. He confronted the powerful by challenging unjust behavior, confronting the spiritually arrogant, and reordering political power. Jesus advocated for the oppressed, the poor, and the privileged.”[i] Jesus, filled with God’s vision for humanity gave his life to removing the stumbling blocks of discrimination, exclusion, inequity, poverty, sin, and injustice.
Johan Galtung, a pioneer of peace research, has defined what he calls positive peace and is what I believe Jesus means when he says to be at peace with one another. Positive peace is much more than just the absence of violence. It also includes the absence of all kinds of social inequalities and injustices and its focus includes not only what is absent but also what is present. From this perspective, peace is defined as the presence of things positive, ranging from integration, justice, harmony, equality, freedom etc. I believe that positive peace is the way of life Jesus is calling us to live.
Jesus invites us to pick up our cross and follow him. I personally can’t think of any better use for our crosses than to do what Bonheoffer suggests and stick them into the wheels of injustice. The wheels that prevent us from being at peace with one another. I think Jesus would approve. Amen.