Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
I don’t like that this is true, but people are more often drawn to church out of problems than out of successes. People don’t usually wake up the morning after receiving a raise to think, “You know what, I’m gonna swing by the church today.” No, people usually come by when they find out they’re being fired.
Which, to be honest, is probably a good thing. After all, the church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners. It is here at church that we can finally dispense with all of the pretending and can admit the condition of our condition.
And our condition is bad.
Here’s just a sample of some of the headlines this week:
“One In Ten Older Adults Binge Drink Regularly”
“Father Forgets Twins In Hot Car For Eight Hours Resulting In Their Death.”
“Two American Mass Shootings In 24 Hours And The Third In A Week.”
And we need not even look in the newspapers or on our favorite channels at night to see how messed up this world is; how messed up we are. Just take a drive down Route 1 for a little while and take in what you can see. We are stumbling and in our stumbling we are causing others to stumble.
So what should we do about it?
Well, I’ve been thinking, and it’s by no means an easy to handle solution, but I think it will largely take care of our problems. I’ve lined the back of our sanctuary with dozens of metal buckets, and with each bucket you can find a bag of quick dry cement. After the benediction at the end of the service, we’re each going to take a bucket with cement down to the river, and we are going to make sure that none of us cause anyone else to stumble ever again.
Now, before you start throwing your tomatoes, I stole that idea from Jesus. “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”
So who’s ready to head down to the water with me?
Jesus is right. It is inevitable that scandals will come.
I know that sounds different than “occasions for stumbling” because it is different. But in Greek the word is our word for scandal. And the words we use are important.
Throughout the New Testament “scandal” is used when referring to something that occasions sins or temptation. But it is also used in reference to the cross of Christ. As in, to the weakness and foolishness of the method of salvation at work in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
It is absolutely a scandal to cause someone else to sin in their life. But it also absolutely a scandal that God chose to come into the world and die in order that we might live.
Which leaves us with a difficult question – What kind of scandal are we really talking about?
I mean, if you are want to take Jesus literally here, while recognizing that each of us in ways both small and large have caused others to sin, then we can all throw ourselves into the Occoquan, but that doesn’t sound like good news. In fact, it sounds like the worst news.
Let us, then, at least entertain the thought that the scandal mentioned here by Jesus isn’t as we’ve so often heard it. Instead, perhaps the scandal that causes us and other to stumble isn’t our own sin, though it certainly can, but the greatest scandal of all is the scandal of the cross.
Our sins are absolutely inescapable in this life, at least that the way we act regarding our sin. We label people by their faults and failure and those labels follow those people until the end of their days. But, in the same way, the cross of Christ is inescapable as well.
We then could read the verse in question differently: It would be better for someone to meet a violent end than to make someone else believe in a grace that requires them to do something to earn grace.
The cross stands as an uncomfortable and unwavering reminder that you and I don’t need to do a thing for it. And yet so much of what we do as a culture, and heaven forbid as a church, tells people there is always more for them to do in order to get God to do anything.
And that might be the greatest stumbling block of all.
Jesus, of course, doesn’t leave it all right there and begins to teach the disciples about real and unending forgiveness.
The disciples, bless their little hearts, are just like us and when they hear the Lord tell them to practice this kind of forgiveness it cuts against everything they, and we, have ever heard. It is bad advice, according to the world, to continue to forgive people who keep wronging us. But in the kingdom, the truth is that only those willing to lose can ever really win.
If we insist on being right and being perfect and only surrounding ourselves with right and perfect people then, according to the Lord, we will be out of luck regarding salvation. Moreover, our lives will be downright boring if that all we hope and yearn for.
The disciples, in this circumstance, hear the word from their Lord and recognize they haven’t got nearly the right amount of spiritual resources to keep forgiving people so they naturally ask for the thing they need most: Lord, increase our faith.
And the way we often treat their request is to assume that we need to ask for the very same thing. If we only had a little more faith then we could do the kind of forgiving work Jesus was talking about, if we only had a little more faith then we wouldn’t cause other people to stumble. And when Jesus responds to their request with talk of mustard seeds we hear that as an approval to start small.
But, that feels like we’re actually going backwards. Notice – they ask for more faith, and Jesus tell them if they had even less faith than they currently have, a mustard size faith isn’t much faith at all, the preposterous and impossible would seem reasonable and true.
In other words, Jesus looks at his ragtag group of followers, looks at each and every one of us, and declares for the thousandth time, that even when it comes to faith we don’t have to be winners.
And that sounds like much better news than marching down to the water!
It can be downright exhausting to be told over and over again that we just need to have more faith. Lost your job? You need more faith! Can’t get a date? You need more faith! Worried about the bills? You need more faith! Blah blah blah.
Faith is not faith if it needs to be stronger, purer, or greater.
Somewhere along the line we crossed our wires and we haven’t really figured out how to put them back. We have these absurd notions, even in the church, that we’ve got these little faith meters attached to our brains, and that after a lifetime of accumulating more and more faith, that we get to go on to our heavenly reward.
But the truth of the gospel is that we cannot be saved by our faith anymore than by our measurements of mortality or supplements of spirituality. All of our talk of self-improvement amounts to nothing more than salvation by works, which in the New Testament, is rejected over and over and over again.
It is a crying shame that we have fallen into the trap of thinking “more” means salvation.
Which makes the mustard seed actually crazier when we take it in light of Jesus’ words and work. Maybe faith isn’t even essential in terms of salvation at all.
I mean, what does a mustard seed have to do to do anything? Be buried in the ground and die. So, perhaps even if we have no faith, really, even if we say no to Jesus again and again, we still die and out of our death Jesus still raises us.
I know that sounds crazy but Jesus is pretty crazy. Over and over Jesus speaks of the all of salvation, the all of the cross, and its we who put numbers and figures on the all.
Now, of course we won’t be able to enjoy the Supper of the Lamb and we won’t throw ourselves into the music on the dance floor unless we say yes to it. But Jesus’ party is inescapable. Even if we don’t want it, as crazy as that sounds, Jesus’ nagging invitation to the celebration will never ever stop. Not now. Not ever.
Which leads us to the final movement in the scripture, the last part of the parable – the returning servant. Friends, we can and have really messed this part up. We’ve read this as a call for there to be certain kinds of people with certain kinds of rolls in the world. In fact, slaveowners used to use these last lines to keep their slaves in their places, but Jesus is far craftier than that.
Do you thank your slaves for doing the work they were commanded? No, of course not. They are your slaves and they have a job to do.
Coming in the wake of the scandal of the cross, and unending forgiveness, and limited faith, the final movement here sounds like Jesus knocking the disciples over the head with the gospel truth one final time.
Remember the unthanked and the unrewarded slave the next time you expect God to delight in any of your little good deeds. We followers of Jesus have only got one real job to do that’s worth anything at all and that’s to die. Die to ways we think the world works, and in the end die to the life we so desperately cling to. Because in the end, that all God’s needs from us. Everything else that needs doing will be, and have already been, done by God.
I know it stings, but I also know it stings far less than thinking about cementing our feet into buckets. I know we don’t like to hear it, but I also know that if we were honest with ourselves all of us know, deep down, that we could never earn the salvation from God we so desire.
No matter how good any of us are, no matter what kind of list of good deeds we could present at the end of our days, it would never ever compare with what God’s doing and done for us.
The greatest scandal over which we stumble is the cross, because it shines like a beacon for all of us to see that we don’t deserve it, but that God did it all anyway.
My sin, oh, the bless of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part by the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul. Amen.