As I grow older, I’m more and more aware of my mobility - and the challenges to it.
Here’s one small example: If I don’t get up and walk on a regular basis, there are consequences.
As my mother, who suffered with arthritis, used to say: Keep moving!
Of course, challenges to mobility in later life can be both sudden and gradual. Gradually,
my mom accepted the fact that she could no longer get down on her knees to pray. When her
cancer returned at age 84 - weeks before her death, thirty years after her first bout with that
dreaded disease - suddenly, standing up was no longer an option.
I’m glad we now hear in churches, more and more, words like, “As you are able, please
stand for the Nicene Creed.” I’m glad we install ramps for people who need help with their
access to difficult if not impossible entrance to church buildings. I’m glad that, whenever I get
up out of bed, I now take a moment to make sure I have my balance.
To slip and fall can produce a liability insurance claim, especially in the midst of icy
conditions. (Yes, even after our seemingly endless summer, winter will still happen here!)
However, for many of us, to slip or trip and fall is something folks think about - maybe even
now, while I’m preaching this sermon. Hold your thoughts on that for a bit.
When I started to prepare my sermon this week, I read once again words Jesus utters
after demanding that Satan get behind him. He had just called Peter the rock on which he will
build his church. But when Jesus describes what will happen to him, in no uncertain terms,
Peter can’t handle what Jesus is saying. He “rebukes” Jesus, going so far as to utter, “God forbid
it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22).
To protest in that way, to question the truth and the authority of his Master, his Messiah,
Peter was thinking what people think. He thought he knew how God worked. The God of
Peter’s understanding would never let Jesus the Messiah suffer, let alone die.
Jesus named Peter the rock of the church Jesus will build. But now, Jesus gives Peter
another name. He says, “You are a stumbling block to me” (Matthew 16:230). Now, Jesus is
telling Peter he’s behaving less like a rock and more like a block.
The word “blockhead” comes to mind. One of my favorite Bible professors uses the
phrase “knucklehead club” to describe the behavior of all the disciples. There are times when
those who faithfully follow Jesus…just. plain. screw. things. up. Peter, the leader of that
original, small-but-mighty band of brothers, stumbled as much as anyone.
This week, as I contemplated the phrase “stumbling block,” a song came to mind. It was
an old Mamas and Papas tune. Here are some of the lyrics: You’re going to trip, stumble and
fall / And though I know you’re having a ball…When you land, it’s no fun at all. There’s the
stumbling that happens in romantic relationships, in marriages, even in marriages that last a
long time. There’s our general stumbling in life. And there’s the stumbling in our spiritual lives,
our religious lives, our lives as followers of Jesus.
Peter shows us all how to be a spiritual stumbler. But it’s what he does after he stumbles
that matters. And it matters to us. You see, the real problem is not our stumbling. The real
problem is when we are a stumbling block for others. That’s what Jesus is talking about in
today’s Gospel story. That’s what we heard in words the first disciples really didn’t want to
hear, words we really don’t want to hear. Here they are:
“If any want to be one my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross
and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Notice it is their own cross and not the cross of Jesus the
disciples are to carry. Which begs the question: What is my cross?
Jesus goes on to say, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who
lose their life for my sake will find it” (16:25). Last week I mentioned Mattie Lee Woods, a
public school teacher for decades. I believe she gave up her life, over and over again. She lost
the life she would have lived when she gave herself over to a lifetime of teaching young children.
In losing her life to become a teacher, she found it.
I also believe that teaching became Mattie Lee’s cross. Teaching still is, today. Anyone
involved with education - teachers, staff, coaches, counselors, students - anyone involved in
education today bears the cross of not knowing what might happen to them on any given day, in
places like Columbine. Sandy Hook. Uvalde. Nashville. TCU.
We’re going to trip, stumble and fall. But here’s the question: What do we do - as
Christians, as Jesus followers - what will we do when we become stumbling blocks for others?
Jesus said Peter wasn’t setting his mind on God (16:23). In fact, one version of this verse says
Peter had “no idea how God works” (The Message).
It was not God’s plan for Jesus to be the kind of Messiah people were expecting: a divine
Ruler, a holy King. Instead, Jesus was to be “the suffering Messiah, the rejected Messiah, the
murdered Messiah…(David Peters, The Post-Traumatic Jesus, p. 52). And this is how God really
works in Christians: When we follow Jesus, we will receive some of the same kinds of rejection
and suffering he got. We will even have to lose the life we once had, Jesus tells his disciples, in
order to live the life Jesus has in store for us.
Interpreting that, figuring all that out, and then, actually living the life Jesus calls us to
live, day by day: that’s hard. That’s not how the world works. It’s not what the world wants of
us. If I’m honest, that’s not really what I want, because I’ll stumble along the way. If I’m
honest, I also really don’t want to be a stumbling block for others.
Here’s one example of a stumbling block. In the 1980’s I began to trip, stumble and fall
into active ministry with members of the LGBTQ+ community. At first, I was afraid, because I
thought I had never really known anyone who was gay. But suddenly, gay folks were dying of
what eventually became known as HIV/AIDS. Suddenly, death was a reality for them - and for
me, because, suddenly, I was their priest.
Slowly, I saw my resistance for what it really was: My lack of self-awareness. My
discrimination. My ignorance. My fear. Slowly, as I let my stereotypes die, I saw them for the
beautiful, beloved children of God they were, and they are. A new life began to live in me, the
life I now know God wants me to live. My Christian friends are now both straight and gay, and I
am their friend in Christ. Sometimes, I still stumble and fall into my old, homophobic ways.
When I do, I pray my knuckleheaded-ness is short-lived.
I’m just one person, just one Christian, just one clergyman. When many people, many
Christians, and many clergy become stumbling blocks, our knuckleheaded-ness becomes one.
hot. mess. Churches, even entire Christian groups or denominations can become one, big
stumbling block. Even though I could name names right now, I won’t. I am going to quote
Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop. He’s known for saying: If it’s not about love, it’s not
about God. Easy to say, hard to live. It’s hard work for churches to live into and become the
church Jesus wants us to be. It’s hard, truly wonderful, life-giving, life-changing work, to
become the beloved community God deeply desires for us. It’s work that helps us Christians keep moving!
For now, let’s pray (“For the Church.,” Prayer Book, p, 816)