Stewardship, Stumbling Blocks and Millstones

 

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 19:7-14
Mark 9:38-50

 

9: 38 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.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 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. 42 “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. 43 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. 44 45 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. , 46 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. 49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (Mark 9:38-50, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly cares, but to love that which is above, and even now, while we live among transient things, to hold fast to those things that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

 

I love this time of year! After the heat of the summer these cool crisp mornings and the warm afternoons are glorious.  I love the return to regularity, after the erratic schedule of the summer with vacations, camps, travel, and irregular church attendance. I love that you are back. There are a lot of wonderful things about fall, like football and well football.

 

What I don’t love is the beauty of the leaves changing color only means one thing, Winter is coming! Another thing I am not so crazy about this time of year is the Gospel readings that the lectionary offers.  The lectionary is the list of scriptures that we follow from Sunday to Sunday.  And it seems that every fall the Lectionary lifts up Gospel readings about the heavy demands of following Jesus. Last week it was “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”[1]   The week before that it was “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”[2] And today it is “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. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell…”[3]

 

This is hard Gospel. And then piling on top of it, this is the kickoff of our Stewardship Season. So we are challenged during September with demand after demand, reminder after reminder, of the impossibly high expectations of discipleship. But today’s Gospel message from Jesus may be the toughest yet.

 

Most biblical scholars agree that this saying of Jesus is not meant to be taken literally.  Jesus is exaggerating. He is making a ludicrous statement to his disciples to emphasize the rigors of following him.  The truth is that following Jesus will mean leaving behind something dear, something precious, something important to you. Following Jesus will involve a sacrifice.

 

Today’s Gospel reading is a perfect example of sacrifice and of hard Gospel. It is not one that is not to be taken literally.  Seriously, if we took it literally and were totally and completely honest in that literalness, the world would be full of one-eyed people on crutches eating with their left hand.  No, this is a text which must be taken seriously, but not literally.

 

So, when Jesus uses hyperbole and exaggeration it is like verbal highlighting; he really wants people to listen and think about what he is saying.

 

Remember Jesus’ encounter with the rich man?[4]  The rich man was somebody who obeyed the commandments, and apparently otherwise lived a good life.  But he chose not to follow Jesus because he could not bring himself to leave behind his wealth and privilege because it was too important to him.   And then there was the man who chose not to follow Jesus until after his father died.[5] Again, something precious he could not leave behind.  Or speaking metaphorically as Jesus does in this passage, he would not cut off that part of him that was causing him to stumble.

 

What fearsome words Jesus uses here.  We all know this, that all of us, all Christians, all church goers stumble.  We all allow our hands, our feet, our eyes, our ears and our mouths to cause us to stumble.  No matter how committed we are we all stumble.  Following Jesus is not a casual thing.  Even if we don’t take Jesus literally.  It is dangerous to be a disciples because of what is expected: we have to make hard choices; we have to leave something behind.

 

In the world in which we live it’s hard to imagine leaving anything behind because we think we can have it all. We parents push ourselves through the eye of a needle, trying to figure out ways in which our children can do everything and won’t have to choose one thing over another.  We want them to be able to play select soccer, take piano, be in the school play, make straight A’s, do community service, be involved at church, eat dinner each evening as a family and get at least eight hours of sleep a night.  Do all that in a 24 hour day, 7 day week, Impossible but we all try to do it! So, as you can imagine trying to arrange church youth group and other events is a nightmare! We try to find days and times that don’t conflict with school activities, sports teams, extracurriculars, not to mention the many different schools we have represented in this church. In the confirmation class alone we have 8 different schools represented. It is unheard of to expect a family to choose among activities. The goal is to make all activities possible. We don’t want to miss out or leave anything behind.[6]

 

Yet, that is preciously what Jesus is getting at.  He wants us single minded. He wants us to know that choices have to be made and sacrifice is involved. And that leads me to sharing with you some stumbling blocks I have found in my 20 months here at the Indian Hill Church as your Presbyterian Pastor.

 

There is the perception and reality of the financial situation of the Indian Hill Church. The perception is that we are a wealthy church awash in money and able to do what we want when we want and how we want. The harsh reality is that is not true. Many of our staff meetings and planning sessions begin and end with how are we going to pay for this?

 

For example, our wonderful Rally Day Picnic, a day in which we had well over 200 people in worship at 10:30 service and over 60 of those were children. We lost money on the event.  We spent close to $2000 on food, a tent, the inflatable games, and other activities for that special day.  Yes, we asked for donations which brought in under $800 so we are in the hole $1200. The day was a huge success and great fun but the reality is we can’t afford to do these sort of events given the tight budget we have. This is a huge stumbling block to the energy and involvement of our children and youth ministries.

 

Our bare bones budget will keep the lights on and the heat and air going and pay the current salaries of the staff but not forever. The staff is gifted and talented but they don’t work for free and they deserve to be generously compensated for their good work and efforts.

 

Which leads to another stewardship concern. As we are search for a new priest, any candidate worth his or her salt will want to “see the books” and they will wonder why the financial situation is so tight. This may be a huge stumbling block to finding a new priest.

 

So, I have a solution and that solution is you. You can join me in helping to change the reality of our current financial situation, you have the power and the ability and the money to bring about the change we need. So, what do you say? Will you join me in removing the stumbling blocks or will we continue with this financial millstone around our necks into the future?

 

Let us pray:

 

[1] Mark 9:35, NRSV

[2] Mark 8:34-35, NRSV

[3] Mark 9:43-44, NRSV

[4] Mark 10:17ff; Matthew 91:16ff; Luke 18:18ff, NRSV

[5] Matthew 9:19ff, Luke 9:57ff,NRSV

[6] Reverend K. C. Ptomey, Jr. A Homily on Mark 9:38-50, The Westminster Presbyterian Church, Nashville, TN, September 28, 2003.

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