Friday, August 12, 2011

Those Pesky Stumbling Blocks

Matthew 18:6-7 (NRSV) says this:
"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 fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.  Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks!  Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!"
Prior to this Jesus had used children as the example of how one approaches the Kingdom of Heaven.  By parable and example before and after this section Jesus talks about religious leaders being more concerned with outward appearances than inward well being.  Or, about the slave who was forgiven his debt who in turn did not forgive the debt that was owed to him by another slave.  Stumbling blocks, child like faith, leadership, what is the common thread here?

Children today are treated very differently than they were even 200 years ago, let alone 2,000 years ago!  As soon as they could help out with chores that was exactly what they were expected to do!  Or as the notes in the Wesley Study Bible point out, they were treated like servants.  They were not in positions of authority, they were workers.  But I do think that there were some similarities to the children of today.  For small children everything is cool!  Bugs are cool.  Mud puddles are cool.  The weirder it is, the cooler it must be!  They approach everything with a sense of wonder and excitement.  They also have not figured out a sense of right and wrong, which means that they are teachable.  They don't approach others with any preconceived notions of who they are or where they are in the pecking order.  A child doesn't ask why someone is in a wheelchair because they are being cruel.  They ask because they really want to know why is that person in a wheelchair?  Judgements develop with age and life experience cruelty doesn't come in to play until they get a little bit older and base their reactions on the examples that they have seen from others around them. 

There are certain boundaries that we have to set for our children in order to keep them safe, like sticking your hand on a hot stove is bad because you might get burned or look both ways before you cross the street because getting hit by a car would be bad!  These are not stumbling blocks but rather appropriate boundaries that parents traditionally teach.  Jesus went head to head with the Pharisees not because he thought that boundaries or traditions were inappropriate.  He went head to head with the Pharisees because they were putting so many unnecessary rules on people that had nothing to do with God's Word.  They were going out of their way to set up stumbling blocks! 

Pharisees and Scribes were the leaders of the Jewish community.  Their job, their task was to teach and to lead by example.  Their job was to serve the people of the Jewish community.  As time went on they became less concerned with the servant role and more concerned with the status role and that is what they taught to others.  You're wealthy?  Here's where you fall in the pecking order.  You're blind?  You're low down on the list!  It's tradition, that's just the way it is and that's how it has always been done!  It's no wonder that Jesus could not perform many miracles in his hometown because they could not accept who he had become since they knew where he came from!  They were offended because he was stepping out beyond the established hierarchy pecking order.  He was not being what they thought he should be, he was not acting the way they thought he should act.  Nazareth?  Nothing good comes out of that place!  It's the wrong side of the tracks!  Tradition in this sense, became a stumbling block.

It makes me wonder what we have set up as stumbling blocks today in our modern society.  How do we hold others back because of the views we have been taught to hold?  Do we judge older adults as being less worthy to hire because we think they do not have the ability to contribute with the skills they have or have the ability to learn new skills?  Do we judge younger people as being less than trustworthy because they have tattoos and piercings so they must be "from the wrong side of the tracks?"  Do we choose not to hire someone with a past criminal record because we are convinced that they there is no way they could possibly change?  Do we close churches because their numbers don't fit our dashboard?  Do we end up accomplishing nothing because we are so entrenched in my way or the highway?  How many potential leaders and innovators have fallen through the cracks because they don't behave the way we believe they should?  How many have fallen by the wayside because of the stumbling blocks we have placed in front of them?

I don't think tradition is the problem.  I think it is how we use those traditions that lead to problems.  I'll give you a modern day example.  We tell our children that they can do anything they want to do.  That in itself is not a bad statement!  What we changed became the problem.  We started grading on "curves", we told them "everybody wins" and we made sure that competitions reflected that philosophy.  We taught them that success could be easy and failure was impossible.  Everyone and everything would work in their favor.  So when our children went out in to the real world and fell flat on their face they were completely unprepared for dealing with failure!  They couldn't understand that work was hard and sometimes tedious and that persistence was important!  We didn't do our children any favors by sugar coating the truth.  If anything, we prolonged the learning curve of life in the real world because they had to totally change their thinking!  In our quest to better "nurture" we created a whole new set of stumbling blocks!

We've done a similar thing in our churches.  Come as you are is good, but we've chosen to leave off the part about Discipleship and confronting things that we need to change in our lives in order to follow this path.  There are key components of a faith journey that we have chosen to either gloss over or just not mention because it might make someone uncomfortable.  Do we offer a method for daily Bible study?  Do we teach about prayer?  Do we teach about church tradition and why the church believes certain things?  Do we teach about humility and serving others being critical elements to an individual's faith walk?  And accountability?  It's not personal, it's numerical.  And we wonder why we flounder about without any clear purpose or sense  of direction!  We've created our own stumbling blocks.

No wonder Jesus warned us strongly about stumbling blocks!  He understood that we could take something meant for our good and twist it so badly that it becomes a stumbling block!  Jesus never said that following in his footsteps would be easy!  He didn't say that there would not be challenges or that the work would be easy.  He did provide us with a starting point-a child.  Approach the Kingdom with a child like heart of wonder and excitement.  Approach the Kingdom as a servant willing to do the work.  Approach the Kingdom without the customary baggage of judgement, pessimism or superiority.  Approach the kingdom as a child like servant and become the leader that God intended you to be! 

That's a fantastic message of hope!  That message is still alive and well today!  We simply have to choose to grab hold of it! Those pesky stumbling blocks will still be there but that doesn't mean that you have to let them stop you!  Hope remains!  Thank you Jesus for reminding us once again that hope remains! 

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