How do we root out the things which put stumbling blocks in the way of those who would come to know Jesus? What will it take to ensure that all who are vulnerable and powerless, or who are ‘other’ in their illness or distress will find this sanctuary a place of truthful welcome?
Theological colleges are funny places. Like most other institutions you get various camps of thoughts and ideas. So you’d have a group of people who peppered their conversation with comments like ‘the Bible clearly says’ and then you’d have another group that spends a lot of time calling each other ‘Father’. Since I am quite obviously unable to be described as ‘Father ‘and I’m fairly unsure the Bible says anything particularly clearly other than God loves us I was ever so slightly a misfit.
That’s probably a bit of a caricature of theological college but We all know don’t we, human nature being what it is, we like to be part of a clan a group? Psychologically speaking there is safety in being part of a group and I guess from primitive times this has been our human experience. Striking out on your own wasn’t a good thing to do in the ancient world. So we strive to stay in the clan to be the same and think the same as others around us. Anything or anyone, different is scary, potentially dangerous so we keep them at arm’s length.
In my role as a mental health chaplain I hear many stories: some full of joy and hope, in which people find peace even in the face of great adversity; but I often hear stories of sadness and heartbreak too – and these stories are generally the ones where someone has faced stigma have been left isolated and alone because of the mental health challenges that they face. The ones that really break my hearts are the ones where people have been excluded or rejected by a church community. People like Clive who was asked to leave his church because he had Tourette’s syndrome. People like Wendy who I met just this week. Her son has Bipolar but she was told by her church community that this was due to her lack of faith and parenting skills. I hear stories like this so often but still they leave me speechless.
In today’s Gospel Mark 9:38-50 reading the disciples are banding together for security wanting to protect themselves by creating at them and us situation.We hear that someone was doing the work of Christ; but because they were not part of the same ‘gang’ the disciples wanted to stop them. Jesus’s response is decisive: ‘whoever is not against us is for us’.
Jesus’s ministry is a tune that resonates with all who reach out in love and compassion to those around them. Any positive loving service will be rewarded even a cup of water.
The kingdom (of God) – controversially – is maybe not just for the in-crowd that we belong to but also for all those who love others who protect the vulnerable and who fight injustice even if they are different to us in their thinking their dress, their physicality or their sexuality.
Having dealt with the disciples desire to bring judgment on an outsider Jesus then takes this to a level deeper by asking the disciples to look at their own behaviour towards the vulnerable and the powerless. He says ‘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 thrown around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.
Compassion for the vulnerable and the powerless is always top of Jesus’s priority list. In fact he wants this so passionately that his language becomes intense and his images violent. Hyperbole in order to wake us up get our attention and launch us into action Cutting off hands and feet; Tearing out eyes. This is so significant we must take it seriously we must think what it means for us.
So what stumbling blocks do we put in the way of the powerless and the vulnerable? When we exclude people and judge them because of the way they are different to us? – particularly when this means that they then feel uncomfortable at church or rejected by God. This is a stumbling block. This is exactly what Jesus is talking about. Clive and Wendy both had stumbling blocks put in their way. There are countless other stories I could tell you about people who have not been shown the unconditional love and compassion of Christ but instead have been judged rejected or made to feel small or worthless.
People like Lizzie Lowe; and you may have heard the story of Lizzie. Just over three years ago Lizzie at the age of 14 took her own life because she believed her church family would reject her because of her sexuality.
Since then her Church in Manchester have been on a painful journey of facing up to what this means for them and how they might respond to such tragedy Lizzie’s vicar Nick Bundock comments that he looks back with horror at “what a spineless and passively homophobic priest I have been” Lizzie’s Church eventually decided that one way to respond was by signing up to the national movement “Inclusive Church” their PCC adopted the “Inclusive Church” statement of belief. That statement reads:
‘we believe in “Inclusive Church”: Church which does not discriminate on any level on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality. We believe in church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ which is scripturally faithful which seeks to proclaim the gospel of fresh for each generation and which in the power of the Holy Spirit allows … people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ’.
Powerful words. and there’s more information on the Inclusive Church movement at the back of church if you’re interested after the service.
The point is that Lizzie’s Church wanted to make very sure that anyone else like Lizzie, fearing rejection for whatever reason, would know that their church at least was a place of sanctuary, it was safe, it was a place of welcome and hospitality.
My challenge to us this morning is: how do we here in this place make sure that we are removing all stumbling blocks? putting the love and compassion of Christ at the very top of our priority list. How do we answer the challenge Christ gives us today in that Gospel reading? to ensure that all who are vulnerable and powerless, those who are different because of the way they look, dress who they might love, how much money they have, the colour of their skin, or their mental distress, how will they know this benefice is a place of welcome of sanctuary and of love?
So be salt in the world and be at peace with one another.
This is a talk that might have stirred up difficult memories or experiences. We understand that if you have had a rough time with a church before you might not want to reach out to us. If you are struggling to cope, you can call Samaritans free on 116 123 (UK and Ireland). mind.org.uk have good resources too. They have a special tool devoted to helping you if you are in distress.
- Some names and details have been altered to protect privacy.
- 6 January 2021: A video of this sermon was removed following a request under GDPR.