When the gospel is read on Sunday, I wonder how many will say it’s all about eyes plucked out, weighted bodies chucked in a lake, bloodied stumps where hands and feet used to be, and worm infested souls roasting forever in blazing fire?
They are powerful images more suitable for chain saw massacre horror movies, but here they are in scripture. I can only imagine Jesus’ audience. I bet he had their attention. It reminds me of the day I preached a few well known lines from Jonathon Edwards without any preamble. The congregation was stone cold, wide eyed silent.
My guess is that Jesus said something like, “OK, now that I have your attention, I want to talk to you about what’s really important.” For me, and perhaps for other preachers, “what’s really important” comes a sentence earlier and it’s about putting stumbling blocks before one of these little ones who believe in me. If I am in the business of leading the flock given into my care from baby food to real meat, from immature to mature faith, then it’s going to look a lot like I’m putting stumbling blocks all along the way.
I don’t think I am. I think those stumbling blocks have been there all along, and it’s my job to help plot a course through them. On the other hand, what if something I say or do does put a stumbling block, a gigantic one, in someone’s way? It’s something I think and pray about quite often. The homosexual issue was a big obstacle for some, and I was accused of putting it there by more than one person. Sometimes little pebbles can appear like obstacles that I have deliberately placed on the road of faith. There was the man who trembled in rage because I distributed Holy Communion in a way he was unaccustomed to, or the couple who said I had removed a major obstacle for them by saying something in the liturgy, and I have no idea what it might have been, or the woman who stomped out because the candles were not lit in the right order.
It’s especially hard when counseling with persons from very different faith traditions within the body of Christ. Not long ago it was a young man from a fundamentalist background for whom anything other than what he believed to be the literal truth as revealed in the bible (by his childhood pastor) was heretical, and therefore a major obstacle. I don’t know that I tiptoed around that one.
Biblical teaching and preaching is where the truly big stumbling blocks lie. A few months ago I took a dozen older adults through the book of Revelation. It’s what they wanted. I like to think that what we did in those five sessions was to sweep away obstacles that are, in some other denominations, the stuff of solid teaching. It gets complicated. Bible Basics for Adults is a study guide I wrote and have used for many years to help adults become comfortable enough to wallow in scripture, letting it wash over them, learning to swim in its waves and cross currents. Some, accustomed to only one way to read and understand the bible, can’t take it. Their faith is not supple enough, and for them it’s an obstacle they cannot overcome. The best I can do is to reassure them that the faith they have in the place where they are is OK with God. They are fine with that, but not at all certain that the faith I have in the place where I am is OK with God. If I think I’ve overcome the obstacle that blocks them, they are fairly sure that I have taken a detour leading far off the right way.
It gets complicated.