Seventeenth Sunday of Trinity
Readings: Num. 11, 4-6, 10-16, 24-29: Ps 19 7-14: James 5 13-20: Mk 9, 38-50
Hymns: Be thou my vision, Help us to help each other, Come down O love divine, Crown him with many crowns
It was grave-cleaning day some years ago, and those townspeople who hadn’t come home for the Christmas Eve service and Christmas Day visiting went home to their villages for what is usually a rather festive occasion: crosses are cleaned, grave stone righted, and picnics eaten as all catch up with the gossip and prepare for New Year’s Day.
Suddenly, Dennis, a very rich and very corrupt town lawyer, originally from the village, stood and said loudly: ‘Put your hands up all who know you are going to heaven!’ Now this village is not in England but Eastern Borneo, but people’s reaction was similar: heads down, shrink as small as possible and hope this moment passes. It didn’t, but got worse: ‘Well, I’m putting my hand up because I know I’m going to heaven because I follow Jesus.’ There followed a long awkward silence, as it was clear to all that in the speaker’s terms they failed the follower test: but after a few weeks, there was a good deal of sour comment.
Quite apart from his massive financial thievery, which put one stumbling block in his Christian listeners’ way, Dennis’s bragging was culturally unacceptable, and was thus another stumbling block. Moreover, he tried to divide the group and to exclude most which is another stumbling block, as Jesus pointed out to the disciples complaining about someone healing in Jesus’ name but without his authority. I’m not suggesting our corrupt lawyer’s hand be cut off and his tongue too, even though Jesus does say that those who damage or prevent the salvation of others procure disaster for themselves. Dennis’s arrogant words shamed the village-based Christians of that area, already shamed enough by the sometimes unhelpful attitude of certain clerics to them or indeed by others in the village who have become rich over the years and left.
But stumbling-blocks are found not only issues over identity or group membership, or pathetic squabbles about who has the right Way to God –illustrated most horribly by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – but about behaviour which is totally at odds with the words spoken. Take two priests I know of in England – and pastors, priests, wardens, and elders the world over – who attack their wives physically yet smoothly preach the word of God. In their continued and unrepented sin against the body of an equal child of God, each spouse-abuser is a stumbling block to the faith of those they serve, however elegantly they preach or pray. And of course the stumbling block to faith in God occasioned by the continued abuse of children in Christian as well as in other religious traditions- Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish- by the actions or with the knowledge of the institutions’ leaders is a stumbling block of Himalayan proportions.
In short, anything which is done, apparently in faith but with the result of damaging, demeaning or excluding others is a stumbling block for the growth or their faith, and thus a sin by the one whose behaviour created the obstacle.
But sometimes the stumbling block is within ourselves, if we feel less confident than others, less clever, less skilled: how easy it is silently to fear our secretly doubt-filled faith marks us out as failures, unacceptable to God. May we hold onto a past sin, still guilt-filled, and that eats away at our faith, although if we can take seriously the forgiveness of God for sins of action or inaction we have recognised and regretted, who are we to reject God’s forgiveness? The stumbling block may be involuntary, as with Moses. Initially he felt unable to lead, to prophecy, or do anything demanding speech because he stammered, and so spoke through the voice of his brother Aaron. How good that he accepted God’s choice, for he did not try to diminish but to support his complaining people, rejecting the gifts God was giving them – freedom and food, manna, from heaven to be collected and eaten by all. Even though they were frankly talking nonsense about their wonderful life in Egypt –forgetting they were slaves there and remembering only tender fish and fat melons- Moses still heard and took seriously his people’s anger and fears. Being their leader, he got the blame, and he, being human, blamed his leader, God, in a wonderfully irritated complaint. Taking him seriously too, God reduced the burden of sole leadership by taking some of Moses’ own blessed spirit and dividing it among 70 men, the future Sanhedrin or Jewish court. Immediately, they prophesied- but only once, two who had not been in the main group prophesying later.
Joshua then chose to put a stumbling block in the way of the two lone prophetic speakers as he tried to silence then, just as Jesus’ disciples tried to silence a Jesus imitator. Were both trying to prevent attention being drawn away from Moses and Jesus, and protect their own future inheritance? Joshua was Moses’ chosen designated successor, and the disciples would seem themselves as trainee leaders of God’s people. But Moses, like Jesus, would have none of that, being interested only in this day, in those people, that person, under discussion: ‘Would all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them,’ responded Moses.
The disciples, Joshua, and indeed the hapless Dennis, were both so hung up on their own interpretation, their own view, their own identity as religious leaders, that in a sense they forgot a crucial point: God is for all. God expects us to have and to live our faith with integrity, and that can only be if we have to courage to be authentically the person we were and are called to be. Salt, as Jesus says, is not much use if it has lost its saltiness, and if we lose the main point, love of God, love for our neighbour, and love for ourselves, salt-mine of defensive rules adds nothing to our lives, in this world and the next.
Seventeenth Sunday of Trinity