(watch here: https://youtu.be/N07OcPs9ozc)
1At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ 2He called a child, whom he put among them, 3and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
6‘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 fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!
8‘If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.’
I like the one about a teacher who was helping one of her kindergarten students put his boots on. He asked for help and she could see why. With her pulling and him pushing, the boots still didn’t want to go on. When the second boot was finally on, she had worked up a sweat. She almost whimpered when the little boy said, “Teacher, they’re on the wrong feet.” She looked, and sure enough, they were. It wasn’t any easier pulling the boots off than it was putting them on. She managed to keep her cool as together they worked to get the boots back on — this time on the right feet. He then announced, “These aren’t my boots.” She bit her tongue rather than get right in his face and scream, “Why didn’t you say so?” like she wanted to. Once again, she struggled to help him pull the ill-fitting boots off. He then said, “They’re my brother’s boots. My Mom made me wear them.” The teacher didn’t know if she should laugh or cry. She mustered up the grace to wrestle the boots on his feet again. She said, “Now, where are your mittens?” He said, “I stuffed them in the toes of my boots.”
Of course he stuffed them in the toes of his boots! Why else would they fit so poorly?! Oh, the long-suffering of kindergarten teachers! How they do it year after year is a mystery to me. I suppose it helps if you reeeaallly love children. Kind of like Jesus as we heard in our reading for this evening. All throughout his ministry he was constantly using children as illustrations. Whether it was the faith of children or the innocence of children or the dependence of children or the humility of children Jesus loved pointing to the children among us as guideposts for how we are to participate in God’s kingdom. Quite a radical teaching in his time when children were considered either useful or disposable. Though times have changed in the last 2,000 years, his teaching is no less radical. Few of us would consider children the greatest among us let alone in God’s kingdom. But we must reconsider if we are to honor Jesus’ teaching. Perhaps they are the greatest and we need to treat them accordingly…
Not that that is the heart of Jesus’ teaching for this evening. There is something far more important in what Jesus taught that I’d like to focus in on during our time together. As we are all aware, we have gathered this evening to celebrate Ash Wednesday and the start of this year’s season of Lent. I pray you all got your glutinous appetites satisfied yesterday on “Fat Tuesday” for we are heading into a season of deprivation and reflection. The church has dedicated the next several weeks for us to prepare for the death of our Lord on Good Friday. It is a time when we reflect on our own mortality as symbolized in this evening’s spreading of the ashes in each other’s foreheads. I will once again remind you, from ashes you were born and to ashes you will return. And through this season we are asked to give up something as a way for us to experience suffering. Yes, many of us give up things we probably don’t need anyway, things like chocolate or alcohol or coffee or cigarettes. But still, it is a small degree of suffering that helps us empathize with the suffering that awaits Jesus. And some of us will grow to appreciate the suffering and how it helps us better our lives in the end. Some of us will gladly welcome back whatever it is they gave up. Regardless, the suffering will cause a stumbling block and we’ll need to help each other overcome it.
In our reading, Jesus talks about the stumbling blocks of life. Some of them are self-imposed but most of them are thrown in front of us by the world around us. We live in a world that is eager to cause each of us to stumble. Life is hard! Whether it’s through health or relationships or finances or work, this world always finds a way to throw up stumbling blocks. And the suffering they cause can be paralyzing. Stumbling blocks are the tools of Satan who wants nothing more than for us to suffer and lose faith in our loving God. He’ll do whatever he can to get us to stop trusting in God and give in to temptation. None of us are impervious to the work of Satan. Jesus uses some pretty powerful of cutting off our feet and hands and eyes if they are acting as stumbling blocks in our lives. I wonder if we are to heed his advice exactly or rather figuratively. Regardless, I think what he’s implying is the importance not being a stumbling block and helping each other overcome our stumbling blocks. Jesus wants us to know just how much we need each other. Remember, WE are the body of Christ, you and me. If one of us stumbles, we ALL stumble. We need each other if we’re going to know the love of Christ and share that love with others. How can we be the BODY if we cause each other to stumble or fail to help each other in their stumbles? We can’t! We need each other in all our varied gifts and talents.
The apostle Paul understood Jesus’ teaching quite well and constantly reminded his congregations of the importance of being a united, supportive, encouraging body of Christ. In his letter to the Philippians, he wrote, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (2:4) When we are fixated on meeting our own, private interests, we often become stumbling blocks to others. In his letter to the Romans, he wrote, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” (15:1) We must support and encourage each other in weakness and help each other overcome such weakness. In his letter to the Galatians, he wrote, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” (6:2) This isn’t simply wisdom passed down from the ages, it is commanded by Christ himself not to be a stumbling block and to help each other overcome stumbling blocks! The power of Satan is no match to the united body of Christ.
So we are to be like that long-suffering Kindergarten teacher painstakingly helping each other. Lent helps us reflect on our own suffering so that we might help others in theirs. Jesus chose to suffer so that he might better understand and help us in our suffering. Let us use this season to reflect on suffering and how not to add to it for others. Let us walk together through the season appreciative that Christ walks alongside us, intimately aware of our suffering. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.