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Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones

Rev. Kenneth Orth
Jul 19 2015

Isn’t it strange how queens and kings,
And clowns that caper in sawdust rings
And ordinary people like you and me
Are builders of eternity?

Each is given a list of rules,
A shapeless mass, a bag of tools,
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block or a stepping-stone.

Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

In our lectionary passage for today, Mark describes the return of the disciples from their first ministry tour — their inauguration into apostleship. Exhilarated and exhausted, they have stories to tell Jesus — thrilling stories of healings, exorcisms, and effective evangelistic campaigns. Perhaps there are more shadowed stories in the mix as well — stories of failure and rejection. Hard stories they need to process privately with their teacher.

Jesus senses that the disciples need a break. "Let's go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile," he says to his disciples as the crowds throng around them at the edge of the Sea of Galilee.”

He's like us, too, in that sometimes, his best-laid plans go awry. According to Mark, Jesus' retreat-by-boat idea fails. The crowds anticipate his plan, and follow on foot. By the time he and his disciples reach their longed-for destination, the crowds are waiting, and the quiet sanctuary Jesus seeks is nowhere to be found.

Does Jesus run? Does he turn the boat around and sail away? No. As Mark puts it, "Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began to teach them many things."

Is there a lesson here? I'm not sure. Strive for balance? Recognize weariness when you feel it? Don't apologize for being human? Take breaks?

Yes. All of those essential things. But maybe also — and most importantly — this: We live in a world of dire and constant need. Sheep die without their shepherds. There are stakes, and sometimes, what God demands of our hearts is costly.

While balance remains the ideal, it won't always be available in the short-term. Sometimes, we will have to "err." We'll have to bend out of balance.

If that happens, what should we do? In what direction should we bend? If this week's Gospel story is our example, then the answer is clear. Err on the side of compassion. Jesus did. And in the midst of this all, what about us? How shall we live? Hear again R. L. Sharpe’s little poem:

Isn’t it strange how queens and kings,
And clowns that caper in sawdust rings
And ordinary people like you and me
Are builders of eternity?

Each is given a list of rules,
A shapeless mass, a bag of tools,
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block or a stepping stone.

Is my life a stumbling block or a stepping-stone? Will I offer shepherding to those lost sheep or leave them to themselves to find their own way? “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain bitterly retorted to God.

Does the living of my life offer a stepping-stone into the reign of God’s love and justice? What about those lost sheep on the Internet—looking for a shepherd and finding only those who advocate murder, destruction, conflict and ultimately injustice? Am I willing to have a presence of one who is a stepping-stone rather than a stumbling block? Will I follow Jesus and advocate loving one another rather than destroying one another, building up rather than tearing down?

In being shaped as my stepping-stone, I have been given a list of rules. I think of the rich young ruler’s encounter with Jesus about rules. He asks Jesus, “What must I do to enter into the reign of God?” Jesus responds with questions about the Ten Commandments. “Do not murder or commit adultery. Do not steal or lie or defraud others. Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“I have kept these from my youth,” says the young man. And Jesus looked lovingly upon him, with compassion, words familiar to today’s passage of scripture, wanting to teach him about life abundant, about how to be a stepping-stone, “Give up all you have and give it to the poor. Then come and follow me.”

The story tells us he went away sorrowful, for he had many possessions. For he had many privileges. For he had many preferential options. For he had a backpack full of power and privileges and priorities that he felt were just too hard to lay down, to turn over.

Sound familiar? Is our racism, our sexism, our classism, our homophobia, our ageism, our consumerism holding us hostage from opening to compassion for another? Are our privileges just too great to release?

Jesus gives us a new commandment, “That we love one another as he has loved (and continues to love) us!” With great compassion. With great kindness and care. With the desire to show us how much we are loved, so we can share love with others, becoming stepping-stones into a new world of justice, mercy, hope, and peace. As Mother Teresa has said, “The reason we have not peace is that we have forgotten that we belong to one another.” We have forgotten that we belong to one another.

Every stumbling block has within it the possibility of being a stepping-stone. But for that to happen we have to turn it over, turn it around, letting God’s love and guidance lead us.

-The gossip I would love to repeat: Turned over becomes a prayer for that very person or situation.

-The resentment I hold: Turned over becomes compassion and forgiveness.

-The self-justification and egotistical pride I would foster: Turned over becomes humility and groundedness in my life as a gift from God.

-The impatience with others: Turned over becomes perseverance and care and a willingness to listen and to walk a mile in another’s shoes.

When I place my stumbling block in the refiner’s fire, it burns away the stone of my shaming, blaming, criticizing, embarrassing, judging self and turns me over to allow me to listen and offer the healing presence of God which has been offered to me.

And what else is in my bag of tools--my spiritual resources and practices that give me ways to work on my rock that is in my care? What are the tools I can use to help me move forward in this endeavor to be a loving presence as Jesus has asked me to be and teaches me how to be?

Here you see my “Old South Bag” that I have filled with the tools of living the spiritual life.

Prayer is one of the things in my spiritual bag of tools. And as Mary Oliver puts it so well in her poem, “Praying”:

“It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
What else is in my spiritual bag of tools?

-Studying scripture both alone and in a group.

-Keeping my gratitude journal of three things I am grateful for which I write out at the end of each day.

-Making one entry every day in my forgiveness journal: both forgiveness received and forgiveness offered.

-Taking time for meditation on the realities of God’s grace in this very day and in this very moment.

-Practicing humility every day. Humility is groundedness (coming from the word “humus” meaning earth, ground)—not puffed up nor deflated, but just grounded in the reality of my life itself.)

-Music: perhaps singing, or playing an instrument, or just contemplating the words to a hymn or song that offers images and metaphors of life renewed, possibilities and visions placed before us, the promises of God offering us a new narrative to replace my old ones.
Songs like that of Leonard Cohen in which he says:

“Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”

What is in your spiritual bag of tools? What are your favorites? Dare we share them with one another, building a path of stepping-stones together? This spiritual bag of tools allows us to be able to follow the ways Jesus has taught us to be people of faith with love in our hearts and acts of compassion and kindness in our lives.

Henri Amiel reminds us:
“Life is short
And we have never too much time
For gladdening the hearts of those
Who are travelling the dark journey with us.
Oh be swift to love,
Make haste to be kind.”

Yes, isn’t it strange how queens and kings,
And clowns that caper in sawdust rings
And ordinary people like you and me
Are builders of eternity?

Each is given a list of rules,
A shapeless mass, a bag of tools,
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block or a stepping-stone.

May we be fashioning our stepping-stones in the light of God’s promises, relying upon God’s grace to turn us over, to turn us around, that we all as stepping-stones will fashion a path that may lead toward the reign of God, “On earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.