Sermon for 18th Pentecost, September 26, 2021: It's Scandalous! (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Things were not going well in Moses’s congregation. The people of God had a strong craving and they wept and said, “We remember the food we used to eat.” We remember how things used to be! And Moses, fearless leader that he was - turned right around and started whining to God about the people. “Lord,” he said, “Why did you give me this job? These people are whiny. I need help!” So the Lord sent him seventy duly elected elders and they spoke the word of the Lord to the people – and that helped - but it only worked once. Then Moses received word that these two guys, Eldad and Medad, - who were not among the elders, who are not in the who’s who of biblical saints, and who hadn’t even bothered to leave the tent to go outside and see the Lord when he came by – had just started preaching and prophesying away all on their own – and everyone wanted to know, who are these guys?
It’s a good question – and one that’s still – and perhaps even more – relevant today. A 2021 New York Times article suggests that “as denominational Christianity declines almost across the board, magnetic independent leaders have stepped into the void. ‘There’s this idea that you can’t trust anybody except these [charismatic] individuals… It’s a symptom of our time. People don’t trust institutions, and people think that all mainstream institutions are corrupt: universities, science, government, the media [and churches].’”
We’ve all heard this, but I wonder if we’ve really taken a good look at the big picture. Waning motivation within traditional “denominational” churches like ours, the lack of trust among young people in any and all institutions, the rise of spiritual or predictive practices like astrology and tarot, and the rapid and frightening decline in church membership across religions around the globe are not separate phenomena. They are intricately and undeniably related – and they suggest that Jesus knew exactly what he was warning his disciples about in today’s gospel.
“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.” And then he goes on, speaking the famous and harsh words that we, as fans of the gentle good shepherd, can hardly believe came out of our Savior’s mouth: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off… and if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.” And then, adding insult to injury, our merciful Lord threatens us with hell.
There are several scholarly notions of what Jesus means when he speaks of “hell,” but I see it in terms of separation. If heaven is ultimate union with God, then hell is the opposite - being completely cut off from the love of other human beings and the much greater love of God. For those who follow Jesus and believe that his way saves us from the fear, violence, and hatred in this world, there is no greater threat – and yet Jesus still makes it. Why?
First of all, it helps to remember what Jesus and the disciples had been talking about when John came to tell Jesus that he saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’s name. In last week’s gospel Jesus took a small child and put it in the midst of the disciples, famously telling them that whoever wants to be first should humbly choose to go last. So we know that Jesus’s reference to “little ones” in today’s passage means young or vulnerable people – those who are most in need of our attention and most susceptible to corruption - and Jesus is always most protective of the vulnerable.
Secondly, you might want to know that the Greek word that in the version of the Bible we use is translated as “stumble” may be better interpreted as “scandalize.” So, what Jesus is really saying is, “If any of you scandalize people who don’t know my way, it would be better for you to separate from the evil within you than to be permanently separated from me.” So now let’s look at what people who call themselves Christians have been doing lately. Oh wait, it’s exactly that. From stories of sexual abuse by clergy people to the recent tale of a pastor who sent out a fundraising call so he could purchase a private jet because he says he can no longer fly commercial because he won’t get a COVID vaccination – the words “Christian” and “scandal” appear together more often than “peanut butter” and “jelly.” And we can protest all we want that “Those are not our leaders and that is not our church,” but the truth is that the very word “Christian” has been poisoned. Our children have indeed been scandalized – and they have chosen to cut themselves off. If we are surprised, then we have not been paying attention- and if we blame them then we are in denial.
Many people believe that prophesy involves the ability to predict the future, but that isn’t what it means. A prophet is someone who speaks to the people on behalf of God. The Bible names many prophets, but we also recognize that there are others among us today. The problem, of course, is sorting between true and false prophets - just as our larger problem is to determine when it is right and good to cut off a poisoned, diseased limb and when we are merely choosing to ignore the voices of those whose words we simply do not wish to hear. There is a difference between pruning and excluding.
The sin of exclusion has been present in Christ’s church from its inception. Over the years, the church has espoused segregation, misogyny, murder, and war – all based on the words of so-called prophets who claimed to speak with authority from God. Yet, it is clear from the prophet Moses’ words to his own people that exclusion is not the will of God - but also that the Holy Spirit can rest on any of God’s people.
So how do we know? How do we remove the stumbling block that is the scandal of The Church without losing the welcoming, open, inclusiveness that is constantly commended to us by Jesus himself? Oddly enough, the writer of the letter of James and members of Generation Z have the same answer: relationship. According to a recent survey, “over half of young people … have little trust in the very religious institutions with which they identify… Where trust in religious institutions is low, however, trust in relationships with people in those institutions is extremely high. Faith leaders who want to appeal to Gen Z need to focus on gaining trust through relationship.” Or, as James suggests, the power of prayer, the strength of faith, and the healing of forgiveness can be found in godly community, not in individual prophets -no matter how charismatic they are.
Human beings are communal animals, meant to live and love together. It is in community that we listen and discern together- and it is as a community that we act on our beliefs. It is not enough to tell each other that we are glad we are not those Christians. We must also turn to those Christians and talk to them – to remind them what our Lord has said. Being in relationship with one another means telling the truth – even when it’s hard. The Church has sinned, but Jesus Christ has not. Prophecy on behalf of the God who created us. Speak words that bring togetherness, healing, and love. You are the people of God. Be in relationship – and be at peace with one another. AMEN.
Ruth Graham (February 1, 2021), “Christian Prophets are on the Rise: What happens when they’re wrong”? The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/11/us/christian-prophets-predictions.html
Josh Packard & Caspar ter Kuile, (September 23, 2021), “Gen Z is keeping the faith: Just don’t expect to see them at worship,” Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2021/09/23/gen-z-is-keeping-the-faith-just-dont-expect-to-see-them-at-worship/