Rev. Katherine Todd
Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
“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. 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, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. 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.”
This teaching from the gospel of Mark is difficult. There seems to be no grace. And if one horrific image weren’t enough, we’re given multiples!
I think this is our cue to take this teaching seriously. Jesus is speaking about those of us who put a stumbling block in front of another who believes. And following the listing of dire scenarios comes this analogy about salt losing its saltiness.
I imagine it is easy for any of us to feel pretty good about ourselves when it comes to this matter. After all, we go through so many motions to love and serve others. It’s hard to imagine any of us putting stumbling blocks in front of other believers.
But the reality is that we have all probably done this at one time or another.
One of our neighbors up the street grew up in this neighborhood and going to this church. Now she doesn’t go to any church. With a grimace on her face, she tells of the days when church members were far more concerned about what one wore than who one was. After her youth she had left and never come back. At that tender age, she knew that judging one another by our outer appearance and airs was wrong. She was disgusted by it, and it became an obstacle to her.
Now I imagine if you’d spoken to those church-goers about whom she spoke, they would have said something about showing respect to God. For a very long time in churches, nice dress was perceived akin to holiness, as though the outside order and refinement reflected an inner order and righteousness. And if not a reflection of holiness, one’s dress was very much perceived to be a reflection of our love and reverence for God.
While we may now dismiss these ideas, we must acknowledge that they were held by some of the most sincere and devout believers. I know, because one of them was my mother. 😊
Over time, many churches have conceded that requiring members to dress to the nines was not essential and that it was even an obstacle to many. And so less and less attention is paid to dress, though the ideas that started it and those habits and admonitions from our childhoods are often still with us. As we can see, this idea that dress matters, is still with us.
Several weeks ago we addressed the question of Christ and culture. For those of us who have lived most of our lives in a dominantly Christian culture, the lines between Christ and culture are dim and blurry at best. Is a Christmas tree Christian or secular? It’s origin was pagan, but it has been adopted and reinterpreted by Christian and secular culture alike. Singing hymns is something most mainline churches do, but the hymns we still sing today were originally borrowed bar tunes, outfitted with Christian lyrics. Many of the Church buildings we have inherited are modeled after Roman courts of law.
The lines between the holy and secular are blurry because Christian and secular culture borrow and build on one another. And we know that God is not contained in any structure or place, but rather we meet God in the world and all around. So imagining that there are lines between the holy and the secular is conjecture at best. God is out and about, all around us, in all created things. But not all things are of equal importance to God. Through-out scripture we are coached in what is good and what is not, what matters and what does not.
And this particular scripture reminds us that we must take care not to elevate to center anything that is not central. The cross is central. Christ is central. God’s love for the world shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is central.
But then there are a host of other matters which are not central. Jesus speaks to this when he says of the Pharisees and Sadducees:
“ They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,[a] and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4)
And like the words of Jesus spoken to the Sadducees and Pharisees from our worship a few weeks ago:
“You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
8 ‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”
In the history of the church, more often than we’d like to admit, we have made peripheral or associated things central. As Jesus said to the religious leaders in his day, “You teach human precepts as doctrine” and “You tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others.”
And because Jesus has very explicitly made us aware of how very important it is to NOT put any stumbling block in front of another believer, we need God’s help to accurately assess and take stock of where we are and what we are doing.
Those ladies who shamed our neighbor and turned her away from this church years ago based on how she was dressed were likely very well intentioned. And each of us has beautiful intentions. But sometimes when we are so immersed in a thing, we can become blind to how we come across to others. We don’t realize the subliminal and explicit messages we are sending. Furthermore, we can get so engrossed in our traditions and rituals that we scarce realize when those memories and habits have taken over center stage, eclipsing our very mission and reason for being.
But this is not a new problem, for it was occurring even in the early church:
“Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.”
This issues we fight over keep changing, but the fact of the matter is the same: we have been putting up obstacles in front of one another, judging and disqualifying others, teaching human ways of thinking, and condemning one another from our earliest days as church.
And it is wrong.
None of us is very good at this work of self-examination, but we know that this is very important. So thanks be to God for giving us the Spirit! We need God to bring to our awareness those things that have taken center stage, center attention. We need to know if we are, intentionally or unintentionally, setting up obstacles between others and God – in our words, in our actions and in-actions, in our habits and traditions… And we need the Spirit to speak all this to our hearts and minds in ways we can hear and understand.
It is our job to ask. It is our job to listen. It is our job to pause from all the hurry and “to do’s” long enough to hear God’s still small voice saying, “This is the way. Walk in it.”
We do not want to lose our saltiness. In other words, we do not want to lose our purpose and reason for being. We are made to be salt and light for the earth, but we cannot be these transformational agents unless we ourselves have been transformed! We cannot bring light, unless we are reflecting the light of Christ. We cannot season the earth with God’s love and justice unless we ourselves are radiating Christ’s love and justice.
And none of this will happen if all our energy and attention is tied up in lessor things.
And in fact it is precisely when we get distracted by these lessor things that we put stumbling blocks in front of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
And so I ask you, in this life we share as church,
What has your time?
What has your worry?
What has your attention?
Children will be the first to tell us what is important to us. They know what steals our precious time and attention. Without a word, they perceive how important they are to us. They feel it in the time we give or do not give them. They feel it in our choices and priorities.
On what do we focus our attentions?
We will only be effective as Christ’s body insofar as we are focused on the call of Christ in our lives.
We need the Spirit of God to impress upon our hearts
the ways we are
and the ways we are not
living into that call.
And more and more,
may we BE the church,
sharing the Good News and making disciples,
and growing with a growth that comes from God
as we HOLD FAST to Christ, our center.