The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
Don’t Trip Up the Children: Sermon by the Rev. D W Hinkle
P19 Proper 21B September 30, 2018
Scripture: Mark 9:38-50
“38 John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’39But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42 ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 ‘For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’”
Sermon: Three years ago this week, the Pope visited the United States. He spoke to Congress and then at the UN. He rode down the street in a white jeep waving and smiling at the crowd. A young child escaped adult supervision and ran into the Pope’s path to greet him. A gentle policeman captured the girl and carried her back to the edge. The Pope stopped and motioned for the little girl to come to him. She said something; he listened, blessed her and released her to return to her family. Tears well up in my eyes as I think of this incident and Jesus saying “Let the little children come to me and do not prevent them.”
When Pope Francis spoke to congress, a strange reverence for life and all of humanity settled over the place. The spirit of listening is contagious and the Pope’s labored English caused everyone to lean forward and listen carefully. Vice President Biden smiled and looked solemn. Speaker of the House, John Boehner, wept, blew his nose and wiped the tears from his eyes.
Soon after the Pope’s visit, John Boehner decided to resign from Congress. Now we understand his tears and where he found the strength to sacrifice his own career. He couldn’t go on. He wanted the fighting in Congress to stop, so he resigned hoping it would help things.
The Pope’s message was simple and very profound. He reminded us of how all of us were once immigrants, and he reminded us of the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He asked us to notice the faces of individuals as they look at us with pleading eyes and to not turn away. He reminded us that they are as human as we are and as equally loved. This is a message all the more relevant three years later today as the numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers that can come to our country have been cut to an all time low.
The most powerful human legislature in the world listened, themselves tired of the constant infighting they were caught up in, and still are. For a moment all of that was transcended and their rivalry forgotten as they felt the call of something bigger than political parties and winning.
When his address to congress was finished, the Pope made his way to the balcony as thousands of people gathered below chanted “Papa,” the Spanish term of affection for him. Speaking in Spanish, he prayed a blessing from the balcony for the children as being the most important.
When we focus on the children and make them the key to what we do and how we do it, we can’t help but get it right. When we see the streams of refugees pouring into Europe or moving toward our borders and see the faces of the children and let our hearts be moved by them, they reveal the face of Christ to us.
Jesus spoke to this in today’s gospel. He speaks for all the children, for all the poor and vulnerable, for all those with fresh hope he does not want us to disappoint. With stern tenderness he says, “As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and be thrown into the lake.” (CEB) The little ones look to us to be tender. They can’t imagine that our hearts would be hard, that we would turn away or deny them what they need or endanger their right to exist. If we do turn away, we trip them up and they fall into the sin of bitterness, hatred, cynicism and the desire for revenge. We become a stumbling block, a scandal. In this way we participate in creating all sorts of social problems. We set the alarm clock that will go off at some point in the future.
This is why Jesus speaks so strongly against tripping up children. He struggles to find language vivid enough to get through to us. As the great American Southern Roman Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor, once said: “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.” I think Jesus could have said that regarding our Gospel lesson for today. We are deaf and dumb and need to be shocked into seeing and hearing.
If what we do to children, or refuse to do for them, (Remember: “things left undone” are just as bad as “things done.”), if what we do or refuse to do in the activity of our hand harms them, cut off your hand! “It’s better for you to enter into life crippled than to go away with two hands into the fire of hell, which can’t be put out.” (CEB) Jesus isn’t talking about a hell of the here-after. He’s talking about the hell we humans create for ourselves in a world grown so hard and brutal we all live in fear, and what we love actually becomes more endangered. Once they get going, the fires of hatred are hard to extinguish! Each side sees the other as evil and it lasts for generations. We know this from war. And if you watched any of the Senate Supreme Court nomination hearings this past Friday, you know exactly what Jesus was talking about. The partisan grandstanding and infighting on both sides and at the expense of two people’s lives was sickening.
“If your foot causes you to fall into sin, chop it off.” Sadly, some have interpreted these grotesque parabolic sayings of Jesus literally and have actually cut off their hands and feet and plucked out their eyes. But I think what he’s doing is using dark humor and the grotesque to get our attention. Pay attention and listen up! If our adult movements take the vulnerable to places that do them harm, we take them toward their own destruction and destroy our own humanity in the process. If that is what you are doing, chop off your foot! “It’s better for you to enter life lame than to be thrown into hell with two feet.” (CEB) Hell is the smoldering garbage dump outside of Jerusalem—an image of the world in which children and their needs are sacrificed. It’s a flame that does not go out since children full of hurt and anger at being ignored grow up into adults who, unless they learn to forgive, make it their goal to repay those they see as thwarting them.
“If your eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out.” The eye is the organ through which we see all of life. If we see the children of the world as rag-a-muffins not worth our time or investment, or simply as collateral damage in our wars for the protection of our supposed security, we shall reap a harvest of brokenness and dysfunction, chaos and violence. How many innocent children is it ok to kill collaterally in order to get a few bad guys? Get rid of that way of seeing! Tear it out! “It’s better for us to enter God’s kingdom with one eye than to be thrown into hell with two.”
Hell, for the writer of Mark, is that place where worms don’t die and the fire never goes out. It’s the canyon outside Jerusalem into which waste was dumped and bred worms and flies and all sorts of vermin, and was left to burn night and day. What an image for a society that does not love and care for children, all children, the world’s children. It’s the canyon the Pope warned us about when he encouraged the care of all families and the protection of the earth “our island home.”
The integrity of who we are as individuals and as nations is being tested. We now get to see how we measure up to the temptation to abandon the little ones and turn our backs on them. We have been experiencing the biggest refugee crisis since WWII, and yet, as was mentioned, we just reduced the number of immigrant and asylum seekers allowed to enter our country to historic lows.
“We are the salt of the earth and salt is good but if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again?” The answer is right in front of us, as close as the tiny hand reaching up to hold ours. If every decision is viewed through the lens of how it impacts children, it will make a difference. When Jesus put that child in the center of the feuding disciples, he suggested that children can save us from our rivalry with each other. If we put the care of children at the center of our policies, we will be savory salt and truly great again.
The Gospel lesson for today ends with these words. “Maintain salt among yourselves and keep peace with each other.” The saltiness of caring for the earth and its children will go far. May.. we.. be.. that.. salt!
Thomas L. Truby and Laura C. Truby