Rev. Sandy Johnson
September 27, 2015
It is a woman’s prerogative to change her mind. See in your bulletin where it says that the sermon title is “I’ve got your back?” Well, the REAL title is “Stumbling Blocks.” Sometimes God has a different plan than I do and he reveals it to me at the 11th hour. Friday I was sitting in my office trying to write this message and it just wasn’t coming. Instead of forcing it, I have learned over the years to step back and give God room to work. Saturday morning I had a meeting in Kingman for the Walk to Emmaus and on the drive there and back God gave the word I am about to share. I’m so thankful that God is never late, although he’s rarely early.
Prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
In 1987 JJ and I got married in Portland Oregon at the West Portland United Methodist church. It was the day after Christmas and the church was beautifully decorated with a Chrismon tree covered in white ornaments, poinsettias were everywhere and green boughs adorned the sanctuary, bringing the earthy scent of the outdoors in. The wedding was a small family affair. We opted to have immediate family only and there were about 35 people in attendance. The following day JJ and I left in the afternoon for our honeymoon, a week at the Oregon Coast. My aunt and uncle owned a small cabin in Manzanita that was to be our honeymoon destination. Pretty fancy huh?
The drive from Portland took us into the Oregon Coast Range Mountains with an elevation of 1500 feet. It was raining as it does most winter days in Oregon and the sun was just beginning to set as we approached the summit. The rain turned into snow and all of a sudden we were in the midst of a blizzard. Ok, it probably wasn’t a real blizzard, but it was snowing something fierce. I prayed and asked God to keep us safe and bring is safely to our destination. We came down the other side of the peak and the snow turned back to rain and we were thankful that we had made it through without having to stop and chain up and lose precious time, we had a honeymoon to get to!
Then, all of a sudden something came flying over the car in front of us and landed in the road and we ran over it. My husband screamed (like a girl btw!) and we realized that we had hit something. We pulled over and saw that the car in front of us had hit a deer, it had flipped over their car and landed in the road directly in our path. We had no choice but to run over and in the process one of our tires was punctured. Thankful that no one was hurt, well, except the deer; and thankful that it hadn’t happened a mile up the road in the snowy conditions. JJ changed the tire in the rain and we continued on our journey.
Sometimes we run into stumbling blocks, don’t we? The deer was a literal stumbling block that held us up, and kept us from a smooth journey. But there are other kinds of stumbling blocks. In the scripture verses just before our scripture for his morning, Jesus had admonished his disciples that about wanting to take a place of power and position. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he takes a small child and demonstrates what he means. He took the child in his arms and said that “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”
Just following this interchange the disciples question Jesus again. John saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and the disciples become upset. In Jesus’ time everyone believed in demons. They also believed that a bigger “badder” demon could kick the butt of a lessor demon. You just had to call on the name of the more powerful evil demon and the lessor spirit would be powerless to resist. So someone out there had heard about Jesus. They heard about his casting out demons and used his name to do the same.
John tells Jesus, hoping that Jesus will go tell the man to stop. These outsiders were casting out demons in Christ’ name without permission. They were unauthorized disciples. The nerve of them! After all, only Jesus disciples could do God’s work, right? But Jesus admonished the disciples again saying that if these other men were doing a deed in the power of Jesus’ name, then leave them alone. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
The disciples wanted to be a stumbling block but thankfully Jesus stopped them.
A stumbling block means getting in the way of others, causing them to falter in their faith. It could be a resistance to change, a rude or judgmental attitude, addiction or any unchristian behavior that others make judgements about. When we behave in ways that are inconsistent with our Christian faith we risk being a stumbling block to someone else. In all walks of life, as parents, siblings, employees or as servants of God, we are either stumbling blocks or steam rollers. Now when I speak of steam roller I mean someone who smooth’s things over, who makes the path straight and easy to follow. Steam rollers pave the way. Stumbling blocks cause people to fall.
Stumbling blocks are a testimony to our behavior. Are we behaving in such a way that others would know we are Christian, and would they want to be like us? Too often Christians behave badly and others want nothing to do with us. When we are seen lying, cheating, gossiping, or putting ourselves first instead of last; these are the things that are stumbling blocks to others, those who might be curious about Christianity. Mahatma Gandhi once said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
What behavior or attitude separates us from God or worse, separates others from God because of our bad behavior? But it doesn’t have to be that way. What if we were the people making the way smooth for people to connect with Christ? What if we removed stumbling blocks that are hurting others so that more would find their way into our doors and into a renewed relationship with God? As United Methodists our mission statement is to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ, for the transformation of the world.” We can’t transform the world if we are busy setting out blocks for others to trip over.
Jesus tells us that we are to do everything in our power to avoid being a stumbling block, particularly one against a child. He says it would be better for us to put a millstone around our neck and throw ourselves into the ocean. It is better for us to die, than to be a diversion for someone else. He says we should take drastic actions against ourselves to keep ourselves in line. I don’t believe that Jesus literally wanted us to die or cut off our hand or foot, but he makes these statements as a point of fact. It is serious business to hold back someone else in their faith and we must do all in our power to be a steam roller, not a road block.
The “church” can be a stumbling block for some people. In some churches, LGBTQ people are made to feel inferior and unwelcome unless they change into something they aren’t. Some well-meaning Christians harbor the belief that being gay is a choice and say hurtful and hateful things to their gay brothers and sisters. In some churches gay people stay well hidden, because they know that if they come out they will be asked to leave. This past week I attended a conference called “Why Christian?” One of the speakers, Rachael Murr was raised in a conservative Christian church. She believed for many years the teachings of her Christian community, “that homosexuality fell short of God’s plan.” She thought that God wanted her to seek healing from her own same gender orientation. After nine years of “trying not to be gay,” she began to see that the life she was living was unhealthy. As she wrestled with God about what it meant to be gay and be a Christian, she said that “God spoke to her heart, saying, “This is how I made you and you’re beautiful.”
When she came out to her beloved church, conflict was stirred up. The pastors debated for months about whether she could be allowed to stay in her leadership positions. “The conflict that ensued made her wonder if her church was good for her anymore. She wanted to stay, but feared it would only hurt.
“These experiences led her on a search of how others have maintained their faith after coming out as lesbian or bisexual. She met some incredible people. Their stories broke her heart, renewed her faith, and set her on a course to share them with anyone who will listen. Her book Unnatural, was published and just weeks beforehand she met a lovely pastor named Emily Swan. One year later they married and they are today incredibly happy. The church removed her from her leadership position and forbid her from working with children. They apparently believed that being gay also meant she was a pedophile. A mistake some people make. Last weekend Rachael told her story to a packed audience and I could feel her pain as she told her story. The church had been a stumbling block to her and she is now able to be a steam roller for others as she paves the way for other LGBTQ people who are struggling with being both gay and Christian.
JJ and I have been stumbling blocks to each other. Years ago when he was in the midst of alcoholism we were unable to help the other one with a smooth path and instead got divorced because pride had taken ahold. Pride for what I thought was the “right” thing and the inability in reality to humble myself to his needs. That is a theme that has played over and over in my life. I have a fierce sense of right and wrong and God convicted me just yesterday that at times I turn to pharisaical tendencies, screaming for the law to be followed, feeling trapped in the need to act like a Pharisee. But then Jesus invites me to extend grace and abundant grace at that, leaving behind my need for the law to be followed. I don’t resemble Christ when I’m knee deep in righteous indignation.
We must be the model of piety and do everything in our power to build up the body of Christ. Stumbling blocks limit the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
So are you a stumbling block or steam roller? Do you set up obstacles for others or are you there leveling the playing field so that others can have a smooth ride? We all suffer with obstacles, some we put in front of ourselves, and some are placed there by others. It is up to us to be careful not to place obstacles or stumbling blocks in other’s paths and we must decide how we will handle it when others place an obstacle in our path.
Remember the honeymoon trip? When we arrived in Seaside we went to the tire store, got a new tire and headed to the cabin. It was still raining and it was dark. The cabin wasn’t used very much so we were going to have to crawl under the cabin to turn on the water and then flip the electrical switch at the box to turn on the electricity. It would be a while before the cabin would be warm and the water heated.
We had brought a flashlight but it was just a pain to have to do this. When we pulled up to the cabin we were surprised to find that the lights were on! What the heck? We opened the door and felt the warmth of the room; the electricity was on and there was a huge basket of food on the coffee table. There was food in the refrigerator, a bottle of champagne chilling, a fire was laid in the fireplace and the cabin was ready for a perfect honeymoon. There was a card from my dad’s wife, Nina. She and her daughter had gotten up early on Sunday morning and drove down to get our honeymoon cabin ready for us. The day had begun with a stumbling block, the deer and ended with a steam roller, an act of kindness that was unexpected and displayed God’s love in a very personal and loving way. We are all asked to share kindness and to be a blessing to others. “We are not asked to do great things for others, things beyond our power. We are asked to give the simple things that any person can give.” We are called to be the steam roller, not the stumbling block.
Let us pray: Gracious forgiving God, we are so thankful that when we are stumbling blocks we don’t have to remain there. We can turn to you and receive forgiveness for our sin and begin fresh, anew. Lord keep our eyes upon you so that we might avoid being unchristian in our attitudes or behavior and to always follow the ways of Christ. Amen.
 http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/22155-i-like-your-christ-i-do-not-like-your-christians Accessed September 26, 2015
 http://www.rachelmurr.com/bio.html Accessed September 26, 2015