An Open Table where Love knows no borders

The Stumbling Stone Sermon

A sermon on Mark 6:1-13 by Samara Pitt

In the reading from Mark, we get an ‘un-miracle’ story, as one commentary puts it. A story of Jesus as a stumbling stone, the ‘scandalon’, who might trip us up and cause us to fall. And what’s the point of that? To stop us in our tracks, to give us the opportunity to look up from the ground we’ve fallen upon, and re-evaluate the landscape. To arise, like the little girl from last week’s reading, and figure out where we need to be going, and alter our course.

Jesus and his disciples come to his home town. He begins to teach in the synagogue, and everyone is astonished at his wisdom, and amazed at his deeds of power. So far, so good.

And then, they stumble. Because Jesus is a prophet, and prophets demand a response. ‘But, hang on just a minute. This is just Jesus, we’ve known him since he was a kid. We already know who he is, we know his mother, we know his brothers and sisters (and we’re not even mentioning his father, and isn’t there some question about that anyway?).’ And they shelve this new vision of a great teacher, and shove it back behind the familiar image, the less threatening image of Jesus as just the one they’ve always known. And Mark says that it is Jesus’s turn to be astonished because of their unbelief. Astonished perhaps, also painfully bewildered I reckon.

There is a saying: ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. Why is that? Is it because we expect those close to us to be on our side? And therefore not to criticise? It’s us against the world, and so if someone challenges from the inside it weakens our defences, and they are a traitor? Or because it’s harder to get away from that challenge when it’s so close to home. We can’t write it off so easily, and we can’t make excuses. Did the people of Jesus’s home town reject him because they couldn’t change their old image of him and it made them blind and deaf? Or did they harden their hearts and actively push him and his challenging message away?

I think there’s a warning in this story. It made me wonder what I might be blind to, or deaf to, because it has become so familiar to me. The groups we are part of – our families, church, workplace, friendship groups, our nation – we can get used to a particular arrangement, a way of relating, and to me it feels like there is a part of us that resists change. If something comes along that might shift the balance, it takes energy to reconfigure our maps of how everything fits together. Even if I don’t like the current arrangement, I can still get annoyed with people who want to challenge it. Maybe because I am complicit in participating in the current arrangement? Because I feel a call to repent? That’s never a comfortable thing.

But prophets, that’s their job. They see things that the rest of us don’t, or perhaps that the rest of us avoid seeing. They are putting a stumbling stone in our way so that we stop heading down a path that leads to death. That stone might take the form of a message of judgement and repentance and it might be the good news of the resurrection, but either way, the prophetic message demands a response from us.

The story in Mark is an ‘un-miracle’ story. Later in the book of Acts, Galatians and Corinthians we hear that members of Jesus’ family become his followers. But I wonder about those who deftly and determinedly avoid the stumbling stone and carry on undeflected.

I watched the film Oranges and Sunshine recently. Have people seen it? It tells the true story of the forced migration of children from Britain to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Rhodesia over decades to populate the Empire with ‘good, white British stock’. The children came from state care institutions and grew up in Australia not knowing who they were or who their family was, and the parents and other family members had no idea what had happened to their kids. An English social worker started investigating and uncovered a scheme that was known and fostered through governments of Britain and receiving countries as well as churches and charitable institutions. In addition, it became apparent that a number of those children were neglected, overworked or abused brutally by people in the Christian organisations who took on responsibility for their care.

For me, it was another warning. Because surely God was speaking to those involved, and how is it that they did not hear? Or did they hear, but not respond to the terrible injustice that they were participating in? What were they listening to, that made them harden their hearts? Was the arrangement they had so familiar to them, that they couldn’t hear any challenge to it? Some kind of awful ‘group-think’ that allowed those in the group to look around and figure that if everyone else seemed to think things were fine, then they could push away this whispering in their hearts?

In the end it was the social worker, Margaret Humphreys, who became a big enough stone that governments and institutions could no longer find a way around it. The prophetic voice naming a scandal so big it could not be ignored. In the aftermath, some of those involved have looked around to see that the landscape has changed. There have been apologies from the British and Australian governments and the Maltese government and church, and a number of funds set up to help child migrants trace their families. We would have to look closer to find out how those involved have been able to participate in repentance and healing. Have there been some miracle stories?

On a smaller scale, I invite you to apply the question of how we hear the prophetic word to us here at South Yarra. There is a line in our liturgy for a discernment meeting that says ‘Help us to listen well to one another, whoever you may speak to us through.’ A couple of weeks ago, after Merryl sent around her email about Paul finishing up at Oxley College after 18 years, and a career of 44 years, she mentioned that we don’t know each other well, and lots of what we bring into the world in other contexts such as the workplace is unknown to this congregation. But the Gahans find their ways – we often get photos of Fryerstown or some of Paul’s artwork, or stories of the grandkids. Sometimes they arrive in my inbox unexpectedly, changing the course of my day. Inviting me to consider something new. And there are other ways we might bring these challenges or insights to each other. I wonder though, what we would find too hard to hear? What we would react defensively to? What we would struggle to hear from each other?

We participate in a service also that has its patterns, its familiar words and structure. Most of us sit in our usual seats. We hear the bible readings through the Laughingbird paraphrase which may still bring us up short, but if you hang around long enough the lectionary will bring the same readings round again and even an unusual idiom will sound familiar. Now I’m not criticising – God is living, the Word is living, we are living. I’d be interested to know how our older members experience the prophetic challenge of Jesus in their life of faith spanning decades. But I believe that the Spirit can make all things new, and I often hear new things in liturgy or songs or bible readings that I’ve listened to many times before.

However, in the reading from Mark, it seems to suggest that the resistant attitude of the people of his home town affected his ability to heal there, he was only able to heal a few. This passage seems to suggest that our participation is important.

So how do we keep an open heart, and ears that can hear? How can we pick ourselves up when we stumble over the stumbling stone?

There is another line in our liturgy: do you recognise it? ‘We look to you with eager expectation, for you have promised gifts unimaginable, and opened us to the delight and wonder of life.’ When have you experienced this? Are there ways you can look to this, and actively participate in this eager expectation?

Another line we say every week as we gather around the table: ‘Though we are a company of strangers…’ At times we have tended to bemoan this, but perhaps listening to each other as to a stranger could help us. Sometimes, we can hear things from a stranger that we cannot hear from the ones we expect to be right by our side. If we are open to the possibility that God might speak to us through the familiar one who sits across from us every week, we might be able to welcome the stranger and honour the prophet in our midst.

In the second part of the reading from Mark, Jesus sends the disciples out two by two to visit the surrounding villages and take his prophetic message to them. What I find astonishing in this story, is that it’s one where the disciples get it right. They go with Jesus’s authority, they cast out demons, they heal many sick people. If someone doesn’t listen, they make it clear what choice those hearers are making by shaking the dust off their feet as they leave.

They are the true followers, and those who heard them responded with belief and were healed. Coming up in Mark, the disciples will soon be the ones to stumble, but credit to them – each time they fall, they manage to pick themselves up and re-orient themselves to the transformed landscape that Jesus is slowly mapping out for them. God willing, we will take courage to do the same.


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