Sunday, September 3, 2017
Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:9-21)

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From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’  (Matthew 16: 21-28)

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A clergy colleague and I were recently sharing ‘what I did on my summer vacation’ stories, and in the course of our conversation she mentioned that she had just returned from her first-ever visit to Prince Edward Island. Aside from taking in the pastoral scenery and enjoying the multitude of seafood dining options, she had done the requisite trip to the Anne of Green Gables homestead, the house associated with Lucy Maud Montgomery’s quintessentially Canadian story of Anne the orphan who survives life’s hard knocks and finds her way thanks largely to her wildly active imagination.  The 1985 made-for-TV movie that starred Megan Followes played up that aspect of Anne’s character admirably. One of the most delightful scenes in the movie, in fact, is one where Anne and her friend Diana Barry are standing arm in arm, looking out over the ocean at sunset – I think they’ve just graduated from high school – and Anne says something like, “you know, Diana, we are richer than we could ever dream of being – for we have 16 years to our credit, and we have wonderful imaginations.”  So we understand her imagination as a gift that helps her not only to survive the stumbling blocks of life, but to consider all of life’s possibilities, to dream, and to dream big.  And therein lies the quality that I think breathes through all of today’s readings.

 

Had we read the Old Testament lesson appointed for today, we would have heard about a mountaintop conversation between God and Moses, the one where God convinces Moses that he is the one to go and have a wee chat with Pharaoh, and then lead the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and into the Promised Land.  Well of course Moses would object to this plan.   We can almost hear him say, “Excuse me, but you must have me confused with someone else.”  But what happens is that God brushes aside his doubts.  Moses’ lack of imagination about his future really doesn’t change God’s mind – and all God really does is to reassure Moses, saying “I will be with you” … and so, armed with the revelation of God’s name, off to Egypt he goes – assured that God has equipped him with everything he will need to fulfill his commission.  The sure and certain knowledge of God’s presence is all it will take.

We could also look at Peter in the gospel reading and see him as another confused soul whose imagination has temporarily deserted him, although given the circumstances, we can scarcely be surprised.  The no-holds-barred rebuke delivered to him by Jesus follows so closely on the heels of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah (which we read last week) that it’s almost stunning in its severity.  On one hand Peter understands that Jesus exists in a unique relationship with God and with all of humankind – but what trips him up is that his imagination won’t flex around his own preconceived notions of how a Messiah should behave.  Peter – like many of his time – assumes that the Messiah should be able to achieve power and glory without personal struggle or self-sacrifice, and so he falls victim to that all-too-human desire to find an easier way than the one Jesus is mapping out.  Taking up a cross doesn’t sound that appealing, after all.

But Jesus is really pretty clear about it.  To follow the easy way is to go nowhere; but to think of giving one’s self for others is to think like God.  And God promises that new life will emerge from life that is given away, if we allow our imaginations to respond to this amazing paradox that we know by faith to be true: to give of our life, our energy and our being – is ultimately to gain it.

 

Our experience of life tells us that all too often humanity looks for easy answers to complex questions – ‘quick fixes’ to issues that have been years if not generations in the making.  In fact, I love the quote from HL Mencken that says “there is always a well-known solution for every human problem that is neat, plausible, and wrong”.  But that’s what makes dropping bombs to solve political differences so very appealing to some people….. it’s a quick fix which may appear to solve an immediate problem, but which unfortunately only creates more in the long run.

And perhaps it resides in human nature to avoid situations for which we feel unsuited or unprepared, and granted, that approach is safe, but it’s not visionary or imaginative.  Peter, fearful, perhaps a bit self-centred, his mind set on human things and not divine things, is called a stumbling block by Jesus.  It’s a powerful image that not co-incidentally is woven into a provocative hymn by John Bell of the Iona Community – and while I rarely quote from hymns, this one fits rather uniquely into our life and times – and I’m only sharing the last verse, which goes like this:

Ah God, you with the Maker’s eye, can tell if all that’s feared is real, And see if life is more than what we suffer, dread, despise and feel. If some by faith no longer stand nor hear the truth your voice intones, Stretch out your hand to help your folk from stumbling block to stepping stones. [1]

The demand of faith isn’t necessarily that we try to implement God’s purposes by a singular act of self-sacrifice; the demand of faith, rather, is to be aware of all that holds us back from being the people that God calls us to be, and arranging our attitudes and actions more along the line of Paul’s advice to the Romans – to be genuine, joyful, generous, prayerful, patient, and forgiving.  Thinking beyond ourselves is exactly what we’re called to do, equipped as we are with both the will, and the imagination to do it.  May God turn all our stumbling blocks to stepping stones, as together we say Amen.

The Venerable Nancy Adams

[1] Words: John Bell and Graham Maule.  © WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow G2 3DH, Scotland.