This reading from Mark makes me nervous. I don’t think that Jesus speaks in hyperbole lightly. When he spoke about cutting off limbs, it was to speak to the severity, the seriousness of what it means to follow him. Jesus wasn’t joking. This reading also makes me nervous because I feel like I recently followed Jesus’ command to cut things off by limiting my stomach. After all, it did cause me to stumble many times. Might Jesus expect me to follow suit with the rest of my limbs? This wasn’t a hyperbole. Jesus was speaking truth. It is harsh. It is difficult to hear. It is even more difficult to follow. Perhaps the truth is so important that Jesus felt it necessary to speak the way he did, as in cutting off limbs, gouging out eyes, and he did so in order to get our attention. Can you imagine the reaction of the crowd? “Whoa Jesus. That’s a little harsh don’t you think? You certainly don’t mean all of that. Cut it out.”
So it is not hyperbole. It is a consequence of truth telling. Jesus says that if we are the ones to get in the way of others discipleship, we must face consequences. And that, my beloved, is difficult medicine to swallow. We don’t want to think of ourselves as stumbling blocks. It is much easier to point to the people in our own lives that are stumbling blocks instead of the other way around. But we cause others to stumble. And if you stumble and fall enough, you may just give up. A stumble can quickly turn into a fall that someone cannot recover from. The disciples were stumbling blocks.
The disciples were upset that other people were casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Now, the disciples tell Jesus that they tried to stop this man because “he was not following us.” Jesus, we tried to stop him because he wasn’t one of us. Jesus, we tried to stop him because he wasn’t part of our group. Jesus, we tried to stop him because he’s an outsider. Jesus, we tried to stop him because he’s not part of the establishment. Jesus, we tried to stop him because he’s not part of the ol’ boys (or ol’ gals) club. Jesus, we tried to stop him because we’re the best at this casting out demon business. Because discipleship is a competition or something.
And Jesus loses it. If someone is casting out demons, why not let them? So what if he’s not an official disciple? So what if he hasn’t been following Jesus. So what if he isn’t familiar with Jesus’ teachings? By casting out demons he has been more of a disciple than the actual disciples. But no! The disciples weren’t going to have any of that. And like that, they became stumbling blocks. But we would never do that, would we? We would never get in the way of someone trying to follow Jesus, would we? Oh but my beloved, we do.
Being Christian is not a competition. But we do try and out-Christian one another. Sometimes we even try and out-Lutheran one another. It’s as if Jesus were giving away trophies or ribbons and we aren’t going to settle for anything but first place. A disciple is a disciple and it doesn’t matter how you go about it. But we put stumbling blocks in the way of others. I’ve heard the phrase “stay in your own lane” used quite a bit. I think it’s a nice way of saying mind your own business as well as speak only to your knowledge. Like if I told someone how to perform brain surgery, I would most definitely not be staying in my own lane. Anyway, we often just need to stay in our own lane.
We, or maybe it’s just me, throw stumbling blocks by discouraging or bad mouthing other denominations, churches, or even church leaders. “They have a praise band that just sing the same three songs over and over…that’s not worship.” Or “I went to a funeral there once and the pastor said this one thing and I swore to myself I’d never step foot in that church again.” Maybe “I just don’t understand their fascination with Mary. I just can’t get behind that.” It’s as if we believe that our version of Christianity is the best and everyone should worship, sing, and do liturgy just like we do. But instead of doing whatever we may think we’re doing with these words, people get discouraged and don’t return to church at all. When we put stumbling blocks out, we are not building the kingdom of God.
Perhaps we, maybe it’s just me, even throw stumbling blocks when we are within these four walls. When a new disciple enters our midst, do we look for opportunities to learn, grow, and travel with this disciple, or do we throw stumbling blocks? Did you see what they wore? They didn’t even know how communion works! Those kids were so misbehaved. I knew her mom and she was a mess! Stumbling block after stumbling block after stumbling block. We are not perfect Lutherans and we are not perfect Christians. It’s amazing we all have any limbs or eyes left.
Discipleship is a team effort. God did not design us to do this alone. We cannot build the kingdom of God all by ourselves. We aren’t expected to. This is why it is so important to be church together. It is important that we are the people of Elvira Zion, that we are the people of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and that we are people of the cross: Christians. Washed, claimed, loved, forgiven, and set free to serve others. Will every disciple do things the way we do? Nope. And how great is that! Can you imagine! The kingdom is going to be full of the most amazing and wonderful people because we are all so different! How glorious!
Once again, my beloved, Christianity is not a competition. When a disciple comes along, trying to further the kingdom and they don’t do things like you would, watch and learn. You don’t have to like how they’re doing it, or even what they’re doing. But as long as all disciples, including us, reach out and attempt to do Christ’s work in this world, then what does it matter? Under the shadow of the cross, we are all equal. At the table, we are all equal. At the font, we are all equal. God doesn’t hand out ribbons and trophies for best Christian. However, God does shower us with love. And when God showers us with love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness, it is done evenly.
None of us are forgotten. None of us are forsaken. There are no stumbling blocks between us and God’s love. Perhaps this is where the good news lies, my beloved. The stumbling blocks thrown in our path and even the stumbling blocks we throw in the paths of others will never be a stopping point for God. Perhaps Jesus isn’t asking us to cut off our limbs or take out our eyes. Maybe we’d be better off in exposing our hearts: opening our hearts to love that knows no limits. Maybe we’d be better off removing our fear and exposing our courage.Perhaps Jesus is challenging us to remove our pride and expose our humility. Christianity isn’t a competition, my beloved. In God’s kingdom, we are all God’s favorite.