- The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
Stumbling Stones The Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 7, 2023)
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his death. That’s why he
tells them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1). In his last time to be with them, he
answers questions and concerns they have about what will happen when he leaves. But his
absence will be brief. Jesus never truly leaves them. I believe Jesus never truly leaves us, either.
This afternoon, after worship and some fellowship, we’re going to have a conversation
about All Saints’ ministry and mission. After my first year with you, it’s time to talk about how
it’s been going, what needs room for improvement, and what the future might hold. We’ll have
that conversation using some of the words of Jesus from our Gospel lesson. But first…a story.
Several years ago, before COVID arrived, I gave a talk to middle and high school students
at St. George’s Independent School. Hundreds of people, both students and faculty, were there.
I was pleased to have been asked to be their guest speaker.
At the time, I had been the vicar at Holy Trinity, over on Kimball Avenue, for about three
months. I was just beginning to recognize faces and remember names. I was also just getting
started in my official capacity as the chief liaison between the church and the school. You may
know that the school bought Holy Trinity’s buildings and campus more than twenty years ago.
St. George’s School typically has a monthly student theme. That month, it was trust. I
found a verse from the Psalms to use for the basis of my talk: “Whenever I am afraid, I will put
my trust in God” (56:3). Then, I told them a story - a story that soon got me into trouble.
One day, when I was a teenager, I was driving the family car at night. While stopped at a
red light, I saw three other teenaged boys, standing at the street corner. Without even thinking,
I locked my car door. This was the Sixties, when car doors didn’t lock automatically. Those boys
scared me, I told the folks at St. George’s. Then I added these words: “They were Black.”
Throughout my life, I went on to say, every once in awhile, I would remember that night.
And when I would think about that scary, teenaged moment, I would often ask myself, “Of all
my memories, why do I keep coming back to that one? Why, after all these years?”
It was this part of my talk that got me into trouble. What I was told later that day was this:
When some of the African American students heard the words, “Those boys scared me. They
were Black,” they got scared. I’m guessing some students didn’t hear anything else I said.
A few days later I sent St. George’s a letter of apology. I admitted I’d failed in my talk to
say: I may have been afraid of Black boys, way back when I was a teenager, but I wasn’t afraid of
the Black boys and girls who heard me speak that day. I apologized for offending or scaring any
of them. I said I knew some hearts had been broken, mine included, because of my talk.
Finally, I said that we’re all students in the school of life, no matter how old we get to be.
I said I still have things to learn about what to say and what not to say about things, including
race. I ended with a prayer for their healing, and I asked for their prayers.
I was reminded of that talk when I looked at our other lessons today. The Psalm has a
familiar image for God. “Be my strong rock,” the Psalmist prays. In the lesson from the Acts of
the Apostles, we see that image in a different way. Stephen is stoned. Stephen, the first deacon
of the church, is also regarded as the first Christian martyr, the first person to be executed for
believing in Jesus after the resurrection. A man named Saul stands by, consenting to Stephen’s
stoning. Saul, you may know, had a conversion experience later on. He became St. Paul.
But it’s the reading we heard after the Psalm, the Epistle from First Peter, that reminded
me of my talk at St. George’s. Did you know that, in every list of Jesus’ disciples, Peter’s name is
first? St. Peter’s influence and power was enormous over all who followed Jesus in those days.
Peter’s image is also of a stone, not as a weapon, but as a way of life. He begins in this
lesson by referring to Jesus as a living stone, “chosen and precious in God’s sight.” For us, the
God we know in Jesus is not just the rock of ages, but a living stone. Peter also says that we who
follow Jesus should be like him, “living stones…built into a spiritual house” (I Peter 2:4-5).
Then, Peter says this: For those who believe, Jesus is precious, but “for those who do not
believe” - and here he quotes Isaiah - Jesus is “the stone that the builders rejected.” Now, Jesus
is the cornerstone, but he can also be the kind of stone that makes (people) stumble (vv. 7-8).
So…Jesus is a rock, a living stone for those who believe, but Jesus is also a stumbling
stone, for those who don’t. That sounds clear and simple enough, right? Well, for me, here’s
how complicated it gets: Sometimes, even those of us who do believe in Jesus will also stumble.
There’s a Greek word for the phrase in our Gospel that’s translated “makes (people)
stumble.” The word is skandalize, from which we get “scandal.” I suggest to you today that the
scandal of the Gospel of Jesus is that he is the chief cornerstone, but he may also be a stone who
can cause us, borrowing a song title from the 60s, to trip, stumble, and fall. Sometimes, Jesus
may feel like our stumbling stone. And today, Peter, like Jesus, reminds us in his epistle not to
be a stumbling stone for others. Like I was for students at St. George’s when I gave that talk.
In her article “Germany faced its horrible past. Can we do the same?” African American
journalist Michele Norris speaks of a different kind of stumbling stone: “In many German cities,
markers note the locations of Jewish synagogues, schools and neighborhoods that were raided
and razed by Hitler and his legions. About 75,000 small brass “stumbling stones,” known as
stolpersteine, are embedded in streets and plazas of hundreds of towns and cities throughout
Germany and elsewhere. Each stone begins with the phrase “Here lived…” and is followed by
the facts of someone’s life — their name and birth date. And then that etching is followed by the
grim facts of their fate: exile, internment, murder” (Washington Post, 6/3/21).
Let’s imagine for a moment. We’re traveling on a summer vacation, stopping here and
there, and coming upon small, embedded memorials that list key facts about the lives of…let’s
say, people in this country who were enslaved. We see their names. Their fates. Their birth
dates. The number of times they were sold. The ways they were separated from their families.
Imagine how that might shape the way we see the institution of slavery, its legacy, its trauma.
Michele Norris adds this: “Imagine there were similar memorials for Indigenous peoples
who were forced from their land, relegated to reservations far from home. Imagine stopping to
fill up your tank at a roadside gas station and noticing the reflection from a brass marker that
bears the names of the American Indian tribal elders who once lived where you’re standing”
(ibid.) Imagine that, one day, we are no longer a stumbling stone, to ourselves or to anyone else.
Another white pastor sums it all up for me: “My experience is that, once we begin (life’s)
journey, it will be a long, stumbling journey, because of our captivity to race and to many other
powers (that are not of God)” (Nibs Stroupe, Passionate for Justice, p. 103). Sisters and
brothers in Christ Jesus, our lifelong journey toward healing will have many steps. And on our
journey, we will stumble. Sometimes, we will fall.
My prayer is that you and I will not cause anyone else to stumble. When we stumble, as we inevitably will, I pray it’s because scandalous Jesus, our rock and chief cornerstone, is at work in us and on us, doing for us, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, what we could not do for ourselves. May it be so. Amen.
~ The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg