Harrowing Of Hell
September 30, 2018

The Disciple’s Work of Removing Stumbling Blocks

Preacher:  The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Good morning Christians, seekers and friends!

I have recently been thinking a lot of about the stories that we forget and, perhaps more poignantly, the stories that we want to forget, and the utter importance of both. In the past few weeks, we have been hearing stories; stories from long ago about people whose names we didn’t know—and about whom, if we had heard their names before, we would probably, as we so often do, have talked about them in terms of what they do for a living rather than about where they went to school or what they did as youth. We would know them because of their “accomplishments” — the accolades, degrees, and the typical societal measures of “success.” Those are the stories we like to share. Those are the stories that we might call verifiable history and that we like to repeat.

But the stories that we forget – the stories that we want to forget: Those stories are equally important. And sometimes they actually speak a deeper truth and tell us a lot about who we are as human beings; how our lives intersect and how what we do, while we might not see it, affects others. So, a story about someone whose experience is very different than ours or a story that does not fit into our mode of verifiable actions or a person whose story might call into question our larger narrative might be something that we dismiss and rapidly forget. And a story about ourselves that shines a light on our shortcomings may be something that we want to forget – and so we deny it or justify it or downplay it or….But those stories remain – even if unspoken—and they inform our lives and harden our hearts.

In today’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples who have been struggling to understand exactly what it is that their “teacher” is talking about, are wondering what it means to be a follower of Jesus. To put it in another way, they are trying to determine who is “in” and who is “out” of the Jesus Movement, if you will.  So John tells Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus says to him, “Don’t stop them.” Sitting there will a little child on his lap – a child that he has just told his disciples they should aspire to be like – Jesus goes on to say, “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.” The Greek noun and verb that used here for stumbling block or something that causes one to stumble are: skandalon which refers to the thing itself – a stumbling block and skandalizo the action of putting a stumbling block in one’s path. When you hear those words what modern word does it sound like? Yes, the modern English words “scandal” and “scandalize” can be traced back to these words.  Now while it is translated in a myriad of ways in the Bible, skandalizo is not usually translated as scandal in the Bible because of its modern meaning which denotes an offense that outrages the public conscience. But stumbling blocks take many forms and an affront to the public conscience is most definitely one of them. So too, are the beliefs, ideas, and mindsets that we ourselves may hold. And we, as Christians, are increasingly being asked to step up and step in. Because as Jesus reminds his disciples, it is our responsibility to protect and care for those who are most vulnerable, for those who this earthly world does not value or recognize. That is clearly what Jesus is saying—he is saying that if someone is trying to build up God’s Kingdom, he says if someone is working for justice and peace, if someone is daring to hope then we need not only to give them nourishment and care – but we need to actively work to remove whatever it is that might cause folks to stumble.

In today’s gospel it is easy to get caught up in all the hell and hyberbole. After telling his disciples that if they put a stumbling block in front of another, it would be better for them to be drowned –to be thrown into the sea—Jesus goes on to say that whatever it is that causes us to stumble or causes us to put a stumbling block in front of another, we should get rid of it—we should cut off our arm, our leg (which of course Jesus is not advising) as it is better than going to hell (a word we don’t like as Episcopalians). So we can be tempted into spending our time reiterating that Jesus obviously doesn’t actually want us to do these things and we can downplay the ol’ Hell reference, we can also lose sight of what Jesus actually does want us to do– the active self-reflective role that Jesus sees for his disciples – namely that we should ever be aware of the ideas and the blinders that keep us from seeing how we stop ourselves and others from really living into the beloved role that God has given them.

And we need to actively pursue this—because the “way things have always been” and the assumptions we hold will not change themselves. Even though they are damaging our hearts, our bodies, and our souls, these assumption are so familiar to us that we sometimes we cannot believe that it can be any other way. And that is the Hell to which Jesus is referring—that frightening, lonely place where we feel separated from God. I have been thinking a lot about Langston Hughes poem, “ I Too.” He writes:

I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.

I have been thinking about the haunting hope that this poem holds – the vision of what our world could be like if we took seriously Jesus’ admonition to do whatever it takes to do the Good News work of removing stumbling blocks and laying the trail to make a way where no way can be seen.

Hughes holds out the hope that after laughing and eating well and growing strong, African Americans would gain a place at the table. After growing into his best self, after growing into the beloved role that God had for him no one would even dare ask him to move back into the kitchen.  And then he writes this line—“Besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed.” They’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed….

But in this world, we know, he knew, that it doesn’t work like that. In our secular society in order to avoid feeling responsible we avoid people and situations. In our secular society in order to avoid feeling ashamed we shame.  And that is not the what living in God’s Kingdom is about. In God’s Kingdom we don’t begrudgingly allow someone to stay seated at that table. We invite them to sit down and we provide them with real hospitality – with good food that strengthens and shared stories that bring closer together – maybe even bring us laughter. In God’s Kingdom we do indeed, see the beauty in the other and we do hear them and their stories – we respect them, we listen, and we repent of our part—our complicity in the stumbling blocks that have kept others from being whole. As Jesus reminds us, what we do for one another in kindness and love, we do for God—and friends, as Christians we are being called to step up and step in to a world that is struggling to find its conscience. We are being called to listen to one another. To build one another up. To go beyond verifiable facts and see how beautiful we can be.