Sermon: Proper 21 / Pentecost 18 – “Stumbling Blocks”

To begin with today I would like to give you a quiz based on some old sayings. I’ll give you the first half of the line and we’ll see if you can complete it. However, in order to get these right you’ll need the wisdom of a first grader. Ready?

It’s better to be safe than… “Sorry”… Punch a 5th grader.
Strike while the… “iron is hot”… Bug is close.
Don’t bite the hand… “that feeds you”… that looks dirty.
A penny saved… “is a penny earned”… is not much.
If at first you don’t succeed… “try again”… get new batteries.

You have failed! I wonder how you would do against a fifth grader?

The Good Lord probably knew what he was doing by not giving me any children, but that does not mean I do not think they are wonderful. We are also fond to say in the Church, “The children are our future.” That may be a cliché to some, but it is true. When there are no children here on a Sunday morning, then we are in real trouble.

Jesus often spoke of children in his messages to the people. Last week, for Heritage Sunday, we read the lessons for the Feast of St. Matthew, but in the lessons appointed for that Sunday, the disciples had been arguing over who was the greatest, and Jesus said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Our reading for today picked up from there when Jesus said, “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.”

Jesus greatly elevated the importance of a child and placed a significant responsibility, not just on biological parents, but all of us who are responsible for the care of children. Consider the question we will all answer in a few minutes at the baptism: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this child in her life in Christ?” The response, “We will.” We, not only the parents and Godparents, but all of us as the Body of Christ, are making a vow to support the child as they grow in the Christian faith and life. But do we always live up to that or do we sometimes throw stumbling blocks before them?

A woman invited some people over for dinner. At the table she turned to her six-year-old daughter and said, “Would you like to say the blessing?” The girl replied, “I wouldn’t know what to say.” “Just say what you heard Mommy say,” the mother answered. The daughter thought for a moment, bowed her head, and said, “Lord, why on earth did I invite all these idiots to dinner?”

Do we put stumbling blocks before the children God has called on us to support? Unfortunately, yes. Sometimes it is unintentional, but other times blatant. There are the little things like cursing in front of them or at them to the more hurtful cases of abuse. By doing these things, we are placing stumbling blocks before them, because not only are they confronted with poor behavior, but they are also learning and may go onto commit the same offenses. You all know these things.
So did Jesus, but we also know that the teachings of Jesus often applied to many areas and not just the obvious and the same is true in this case. In this instance, the “little ones” we cause to stumble are not always young children, they can also be young Christians, those that are new to the faith or those who may only be asking questions about it.

Paul provides a perfect example of this works in is first letter to the Corinthians. He begins, Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one… However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through being hitherto accustomed to idols, eat food as really offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.  Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

What was the issue? Throughout the city of Corinth, there were all these pagan idols that the people would give offerings to. Sometimes, those offerings came in the form of meat that was placed on the fire. After it was there for a while, the pagan priest would remove it and the then cooked meat was sold.

Paul was saying that some look on that meat as evil, because it was offered to a false god, while others look on it as a tasty ribeye. In his view, there was no harm in eating it, it was just a tasty bit of meat, but he also understood that someone who was new to the faith might look at eating that meat as being sinful, because they did not fully understand the nature of the One True God. Therefore, he said to the people, “Don’t eat it. Not because it’s bad, but because it may hurt a fellow Christian who does not understand. Don’t eat it, because you may throw a stumbling block before them and harm their soul,” just as you and I today may harm the soul of a child by our behavior. Paul concludes, “Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall.” He is truly asking members of the church to make a sacrifice and set aside their own personal views and opinions for the greater good, so that others will not stumble.

That is a lesson that very much applies to us today. We are The Episcopal Church and are considered a broad church, that is, we hold a wide range of beliefs within our church. There are all sorts of ways to categorize those beliefs – liberal, conservative, orthodox, progressive, etc., etc., etc. – but it is often those categories that are stumbling blocks to many. If you throw down one of those stumbling blocks before someone and they fall, that is, if they walk away, then I can guarantee you, you will never have the opportunity to share with them the Gospel message. You will never have the opportunity to share with them the love of God. They will not listen to you and they will not hear the message that leads to eternal life in Christ Jesus, and to that Jesus says, “It would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

I know that is a pretty hard message – for all of us – but those categories do no justice as to who we are. They do not define what we believe.

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Descartes was one of those philosophers that if you think too hard about what he wrote, he’ll make your brain hurt: I don’t claim to fully understand everything he said, but at one point he describes how we as human-beings are caught in a kind of middle ground between God and nothingness.  Meaning we lack the absolute truth of God, yet because we are made in the image of God we can still catch glimpses of truth.  St. Paul put it into words I can more fully understand, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

None can claim perfect clarity on the things of God (if they do, run fast and far); therefore, instead of being instructed by our limited and often fuzzy knowledge of what we believe to be God’s truth, we should instead be guided by what our Savior has commanded: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  To that I’ll add, until you figure out how to do those two things, leave the details alone. On the last day, God will sort out the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff, the righteous from the unrighteous. That is His job, not ours. Our job is to follow his commands.

Embrace the “little ones” in our midst, supporting them with all your power in their life in Christ.

Let us pray: We pray You, O almighty and eternal God! Who through Jesus Christ hast revealed Your glory to all nations, to preserve the works of Your mercy, that Your Church, being spread through the whole world, may continue with unchanging faith in the confession of your name. Amen.

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