Sermon September 26, 2021

Stepping-stones or Stumbling Blocks

Mark 9:38-52


There is an old joke about the three ministers who were out in a boat on a lake. The first one says, “Hey I forgot our sandwiches,” and so the second one says don’t worry I’ll go get them and he steps out of the boat, walks across the water, and brings back the sandwiches. No sooner does he return then he says, “You know what I should have gotten us something to drink.” Well, the first minister says have a seat I’ll go this time and so he sets out of the boat walks across the water and comes back with the drinks. The third minister, he just can’t believe his eyes. A little while later they run low on bait and the third minister figures that anything his friends can do, he can do and so he says, “Wait right here, I’ll get us some more bait.” He steps over the side of the boat and immediately finds himself underwater swimming for his life. The first minister turns to the second and says, “Maybe we should have told him where the stepping-stones are.”


How important it is to have a place to land. Say you are out in the woods, hiking. You come to a stream, and you want to get across, the easiest thing to do is to look for stepping-stones. Look for some rocks that are big enough, high enough, and strong enough to support your weight, so that you might be able to step across the waters to the other side. A stepping-stone is a help for reaching the place you want and need to be.


To put today’s thoughts into simple words, Jesus wants you to be a stepping-stone for others. I recently heard someone speaking on the radio and he was saying that his aim in life was not too be a goalie. A goalie is the guy who blocks a person’s shot and prevents them from scoring. That’s not what life is about. He concluded that if someone is trying to reach some goal in life you count on him to either assist of get out of the way. Yes, it is better to be a steppingstone and encourage people in their faith then to be a stumbling block and make people fall.


Today’s scripture takes us in this direction: The disciple one-day came back and reported to Jesus that they had encountered a man using his name to cast out demons. They reported that he wasn’t in their group and so they tried to stop him. They wanted to guard against Jesus’ name being used in an unworthy manner. Some commentators suggest that the story reflects this man was practicing some sort of word magic. It was often believed that names and words had power. To speak the name of God was the same as evoking the presence and power of God. Regardless of the error in this thinking, this man discovered that using the name of Jesus had a profound effect upon those possessed by demons. God was working through him even though he may not have completely understood what he was doing.


Perhaps we can understand the disciple’s judgment on this, but Jesus responds, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.


What we learn is that the Gospel message and indeed the Spirit of God was not the property of just one small group of people. Jesus indicated that God was going to be operating in an inclusive manner. This text is even sharpened by the contrast to the verses earlier in chapter 9. Here the disciples were unable to drive of an unclean spirit, and it took Jesus to accomplish this feat. Now someone who wasn’t even following Jesus was casting out demons and doing what the disciples had trouble with. Jesus follows this up by saying even if a person does nothing more than offer a glass of water to someone who bears Christ name, they would not lose their reward.


One of Martin Luther’s thoughts was the priesthood of all believers. This is the idea that you don’t have to be ordained to know and serve God. Everyone can pray, find salvation, and share God‘s forgiveness and peace. We all can share in the gifts of God with one another. We may pray for others, we may share in confession with one another, we may intercede on another’s behalf for healing and eternal life. We all can help one another along the road of spiritual growth and strength. More than just being able, we should, we must. We are to be stepping-stones to empower the presence and Spirit of God in one anther toward greater accomplishments.


Hebrews 10:23-25 (NRSV)
23  Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24  And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25  not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.


We are to be an encouragement to others in the faith because God has called everyone and is at work in every life. God was working through the man on the corner casting out demons even though he did not really know what he is doing. The woman who offers a glass of water. The child who just trying to figure out what live is about. The visitor who enters our church. The oldest member who has always been here.


Are we being stepping-stones, or are we being stumbling blocks? God desires for us to encourage, teach, and guide, and not to discourage, litigate, and control. God’s grace is big enough to include everyone and God’s power is strong enough to save even the most errant soul. God is active enough to transform each life to his glory. God does not need our protection. What God needs is our hearts beating with love for one another, and our willingness to show the person next to us the meaning of God’s love. Someone once said: “To the world you might be one person, but to one person you might be the world.”


What a difference you may be able to make in someone else’s life. Jesus picked up a child and warned his disciples that it would be better for a person to have a millstone tied around their neck and cast into the sea rather than cause one of these little ones to stumble. When we hear some of this language, we may think it to be rather sever, and it is, but mostly I think Jesus wanted to impress upon his disciples the concern that God has for all people. Jesus warns that stumbling blocks will get something worse than a millstone tied around their neck and be cast into the sea. There is a play on words.


Jesus doesn’t really preach on accepting excuses either. If you say my hand, or eye, foot caused me to sin, then Jesus says well then just cut it off or pluck it out. For its better to go into heaven limping or blind then to be cast into hell. I think that the true meaning of this threefold statement is that people might come to realize that the problem is not just a hand, or a foot, or an eye. Bad excuses for shortcomings really don’t work. One could lop off every appendage and still be a sinner. Jesus words should lead us to realize that the problem it is with the whole of our lives. Then we must avail ourselves to the grace that saves.


So don’t live in a direction that fails. Be a stepping-stone rather than a stumbling block. Help the people you meet get closer to God and not farther away. Engage yourself in learning and discovering ways to make our church grow. God has placed the answers to the church’s needs in you. Don’t be content to remain as you are if the way we are is not getting the work of God’s kingdom done. Recreate the church for tomorrow.


Sometimes people describe their church as being a close-knit group. I have heard that more than once. This is not a bad description, but you know every close-knit group must take caution that they are not simply a closed group. How does the stranger find welcome in our church? How do we involve people who are new? We must be a steppingstone to others.


Christian singer Ray Boltz once sang a song about how even the littlest gestures, done in Jesus’ name, will be rewarded in Heaven. In his song, “Thank You,” a young person dreams that he has gone to Heaven. There, he sees all the people whose lives he has touched by his Christian witness. The child he taught in Sunday School class. The person who was saved through the missionary work he supported. In one verse, he sings:


“One by one they came, far as the eye could see, each life somehow touched by your generosity. The little things that you had done, sacrifices made, unnoticed on the earth, in Heaven now proclaimed. Now I know up in Heaven, you’re not supposed to cry, but I was almost sure there were tears in your eyes. As Jesus took your hand, and you stood before the Lord, He said, ‘My child, look around you, for great is your reward.'”


“Thank you for giving to the Lord. I am a life that was changed. Thank you for giving to the Lord. I am so glad you gave.”


God is able to do so much more than what we are able to ask. So let us keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open and be a stepping-stone that others might come to know God through us. Amen.

Published by Rev. Russell

Pastor at the Lake City United Methodist Church in Lake City, Michigan.

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