Friends, when the preacher is ready and geared up to write the annual stewardship sermon for the kick-off of the Every Member Canvass, he opens the lectionary with great anticipation. He hopes, of course, for a word of hope and uplifting grace, something that will inspire the hearts of cheerful givers to support the work of the Cathedral in the coming year. Maybe the Beatitudes, or some image of the heavenly banquet, or a story about Jesus playing with a bunch of beagle puppies. Could there be anything better than that? (That’s in the Gospels, right?) Imagine then, if you will, my countenance a week ago on Sunday afternoon when I opened my bible and read the Gospel for today [Ahem]: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off, it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.”
Fantastic. Nothing inspires generosity more than a little hellfire and brimstone. But wait…Blessedly, the Episcopal Church is not among those that pulls a single verse off the page and reads it in a vacuum. We always consider Holy Scripture in its context, and so we must investigate, rather than guess or assume, what Jesus is talking about here when he mentions “stumbling blocks.”
But before we define what stumbling blocks might be, we need to back up a little more, and ask a further contextual question: “Why is Jesus giving this warning in the first place? What race, so to speak, is he preparing the twelve disciples for, in which they might stumble and fall?”
Let’s address this latter question first. You may recall that two weeks ago we entered into my favorite portion of the Gospels, the central section of Mark. It’s here that the whiz-bang, miracle working Jesus—the exorcist of demons and stiller of storms—turns contemplative and begins preparing the disciples for their ultimate trip to Jerusalem, where Jesus knows confrontation will occur, and where Jesus knows that the Roman price for insurrection is the cross. Jesus explains three times that they—he and the disciples—are to be about the work of salvation. The disciples are to be witnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection, when he tears the temple curtain in two from top to bottom and inaugurates the kingdom of God for all people. And then, the disciples are to proclaim that Good News to a despairing world.
This is the work. This is the race. This is where, if the disciples misunderstand the goal and the stakes, they might stumble and fall. And so, we return to the first question: Exactly what is the stumbling block so concerning to Jesus that he warns the disciples against it by invoking the very fires of hell (which is, we should note, something Jesus very rarely does)? We don’t have to guess. The verses about the stumbling block follow immediately upon these verses. Hear them again:
“John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.’”
This is the stumbling block so worrisome to Jesus, the thing that can cause his followers to lose their balance and their way, to trip up so violently that they fall headlong into the dirt, if not into hellfire.
Whoever is not against us is for us. Could there be a phrase more counterintuitive or countercultural? Whoever is not against us is for us. In Jesus’ world people were increasingly defined by their interest groups. Narrower and narrower became the things that defined who was with you and who was against you. Like William Barrett Travis’ line in the sand at the Alamo, everybody had to stand on one side or the other. The Herodians sneered at the Saducees. The Saducees would not truck with the Pharisees (except to conspire against Jesus, that is). The Romans disregarded everyone.
None of these separations were casual. They were vicious. People wouldn’t even break bread with one another. They spit venom and used dehumanizing rhetoric. There was no generous allowance for difference. If you disagreed, it meant you didn’t love God, you didn’t love country, you didn’t love your fellow man. Each group believed—deeply—that if you weren’t for them, you were against them. In other words, in this respect their world was a whole lot like ours.
As the followers of Jesus coalesce into a defined group all their own, the disciples fall into this same way of thinking. So when they hear of someone else going around invoking the name of Jesus—someone whose beliefs and social positions they have not vetted—they confront him and try to shut him up. I imagine the encounter was ugly and mean. They then return to Jesus with puffed up chests, expecting their teacher to applaud their purity and attempt to control the Gospel message, but Jesus surprises them. “Don’t stop him,” the Lord says, “Whoever is not against us is for us. For I tell you, whoever gives a cup of water to drink in my name will by no means lose the reward.”
Once again, as has happened so many times before and will happen again, the disciples receive a perspective-shifting, earth-shattering word that expands the bounds of grace. The defining characteristics of a follower of Jesus, Jesus says, are not exclusive. The lines that denote who is inside and who is outside the group are not narrow. Value is not placed on things that divide, rather, value is imputed to anyone who seeks to meet the yearning needs of the world in the name of Jesus. Anyone who is not against us is for us. Jesus’ definition is generous. It is steeped in the abundance of grace, not its pretended scarcity. If the disciples misunderstand this—if they think the Gospel is about narrow truth and purity, and exclusive, brokered membership—they will stumble and cause others to stumble.
Meeting the yearning needs of the world in the abundance of grace. Ah! There’s a stewardship sermon in here after all. We do, in fact, kick off the 2016 Every Member Canvass this day. Tonight at the EMC dinner here at the Cathedral, we’ll enjoy good food, good music, and good cheer, and the room will be filled with people who have a wide variety of theological opinions, liturgical preferences, and social and political views. From the outside looking in, the world would claim we are an odd duck. We don’t fit the mold. We don’t fall into easily divided categories formed by deep lines in the sand. Even among Christians, we refuse to circumscribe what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus, because grace is not scarce, it is abundant, and the world is in desperate need. Indeed, the sub-theme for this year’s EMC speaks to this. Hear these words from 2nd Corinthians: “God blesses you abundantly, so that in all things at all times…you can share in every good work.”
God is calling us not to be like the twelve disciples in today’s reading, preoccupied with questions of who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong, who is pure and who is tainted. God is calling us to be like that outlier, that fellow who doesn’t have time for such questions because he’s busy healing and feeding and sowing seeds of grace abundantly in the name of Jesus. How do we ensure, as Christ Church Cathedral, that we are like that guy, that disciple? How do we be people of abundance who share the grace of Jesus abundantly? As we move into this all-important EMC campaign, it’s worth remembering what the beloved author Parker Palmer says about abundance:
“Abundance does not happen automatically. It is created when we have the sense to choose community, to come together to celebrate and share our common store. Whether the scarce resource is money or love or power or words, the true law of life is that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around. Authentic abundance does not lie in secured stockpiles of food or cash or influence or affection but in belonging to a community where we can give those goods to others who need them—and receive them from others when we are in need.”
This is what we are about at Christ Church Cathedral. We are disciples of Jesus, participants in grace, people of abundance. And now is the season when we are asked—called—to share that abundance for the work of the Gospel in this place. Your vestry has joined in the race, and they have not stumbled. On this first day of the EMC, they have already each pledged to the campaign. I, too, have pledged. I have tithed, committing ten percent of my income to the instruments of the Church for 2016. EMC packets have arrived at your door, and there are pledge cards in the pews even today.
Let’s not stumble. Let’s not draw lines that the Lord Jesus does not draw. We, as Christian witnesses in a despairing world, as the cathedral church of this great diocese, are called to define ourselves and our community not against the other, but with generosity. Any who do not stand against grace, in fact, stand for it, and we—a people of abundance—are given the privilege of being disciples.