“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.” (Mark 9:42)
I have an old seminary buddy whom I’ll call “Jack” (because that’s his name!). Jack told me this story about his seminary intern parish, a large suburban church which was in a long process of recovering from a particularly unpleasant episode. It seems that this congregation was once active and thriving and doing boat loads of ministry. The senior pastor was charismatic and popular and completely involved in all aspects of congregational life—attending every committee meeting and keeping constant contact with the many members of his flock. He was active in the community and the local paper frequently featured his picture.
One morning, however, parishioners saw their pastor’s picture in the paper and they didn’t exactly beam with pride. The pastor had been arrested in a sting operation while soliciting a male prostitute.
One half of the congregation resigned their church membership overnight.
How very painful it is when people we love and respect disappoint us. If those people are supposed to be church leaders, their misdeeds can be annihilating to our faith. In the Gospel lesson assigned for Pentecost 18 in the Revised Common Lectionary (Mark 9:38-50), Jesus warns us about putting stumbling blocks in the way of the “little ones.” I guess “little ones” could be interpreted as children or those who are very new in the faith. I’d also include in that category those whose faith is fragile, who limp through this life exhausted by economic oppression and bereavement and loneliness. They come to us looking to see the face of Christ, and when that face turns out to be one scarred by our selfish, human weakness, then Christ evaporates and they are left with nothing in which to lodge their brittle hope. And shame on us when we cause that disillusionment.
This week Pope Francis is visiting Philly, and I certainly hope he’ll be addressing the ways church folk frighten people off from church. Sexual abuse or scandal are certainly at the top of the hit parade, but they’re not the only kind of stumbling blocks with which we litter the ecclesiastical ground. There’s arrogant judgment, rather like that which our boy John displays in the Gospel lesson. He just can’t see how anyone who isn’t a member of “the club” could possibly be a true follower of Jesus.
Of course, we also have to beware of judging those who judge other people. Bitterness over our own disappointments causes bitterness in others. We stumble and others trip over our writhing bodies.
And let’s not forget lack of forgiveness. The church, after all, was never a place for perfect people. Jesus didn’t hang around with a very accomplished crowd himself. Throughout the Gospels the Apostles keep saying stupid things and getting the message wrong. Maybe one of the hardest things in our life of spiritual community is finding the grace to see the hurt in those whose words or actions so offend us, and, in seeing that pain, choosing to pray for its healing rather than dwell on the putrid taste it leaves with us. I’ve always liked the saying, “The Church is not a country club for saints, it’s a hospital for sinners. And if you go to a hospital, don’t be surprised if you find sick people!”
In these times when the institutional church faces so much change and chaos, we might also find ourselves tempted towards what Martin Luther called a “great and shameful sin,” despair. As congregation close or merge and restructure, it is tempting to think all will soon be lost and that we are truly living in the “Post-Christian Era.” Hopelessness, however, not only denies the power and love of the Holy Spirit, but puts a stumbling block in the way of God’s Word. It is the challenge for those of us in the church to offer that cup of cool water to a world that doesn’t even know it is thirsty.
I’m as guilty as the next guy of putting stones in the road of faith. I’ve grumbled, doubted, made snarky remarks about religious practices with which I disagree, and mentally condemned those I thought were screwing up the Christian church as I think it should be. And I’ve got to get over myself. If the church loses its salt, it’s going to be one tough mother of a time putting the flavor back in. I think the Pope has added a little salt by his message of kindness and compassion. That’s what we’re supposed to be about.
Stay salty, my friends. Be kind, be patient, be hopeful. Don’t screw it up for others, okay? And thanks for visiting this week.