The Rev’d N.J.A. Humphrey
10 February 2016
II Corinthians 6:3 & Matthew Ch. 6
Often when preparing for a sermon, I look at more than one translation. When I looked over the lessons for today, I was struck again by a verse from the epistle, one that the New Revised Standard Version translates: “We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry.” Or, as another popular translation renders this verse, “We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited.” (NIV)
What did Paul mean by this enigmatic statement? Does it mean that he tailored his message to each group so that the gospel was in the best position to be heard? Does it mean that he tried to act consistently with his message, so that people could see that he indeed practiced what he preached? That would make sense.
But there’s a slippery slope here that I’d like to explore, for our own King James Version renders this verse, “we give no offense in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed.” The concept of “giving no offense” is appealing to contemporary ears. In an age of inclusion and tolerance, many of us are taught to take care lest we offend anyone. So it is laudable that Paul appears to have done the same in his own day. Unfortunately, this positive desire not to offend has too often led to a political correctness that replaces the meat and potatoes of frank and open dialogue with a thin gruel of euphemisms and circumlocutions. We know, however, that this was not Paul’s style—he certainly never watered down the Gospel! In fact, elsewhere in his epistles he is quite forthright and uncompromising on this score, declaring, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16) and “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks.” (I Corinthians 1:23) There’s that concept of “stumbling block” again!
Just exactly how did Paul manage to stay true to the gospel while not putting obstacles in anybody’s way? This question is an important one for us to consider at the beginning of Lent, because I think it is the challenge each of us faces in our daily living out of the gospel. What might it mean for us to proclaim the gospel without compromising it on the one hand, while on the other hand not being so strident and offensive in our speech and our actions that we cause others to stumble?
That’s quite a tall order, particularly when we remember Jesus’ admonition: “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” As a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, practicing our piety before men is one of the things we do best. We would have to be rather thick-headed not to realize what spiritual danger we are in by the very way we live out our faith in public. For without a doubt, it tends to be rather showy. Sublime, transcendent—yes—but also potentially grandiose, pompous, and—heaven forbid—precious. Which reminds me of a story.
My mother was not an Episcopalian. During her lifetime she was associated mainly with Southern Baptist and nondenominational evangelical churches of both the megachurch and fundamentalist ilk. I myself was brought up in the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, where my father was the pastor. By a twist of fate, however, when I was in college, my mother moved to an apartment across the street from an Episcopal Church, and when I was home visiting her the following summer, having just been confirmed in the Episcopal Church, I went there on Sundays. Thank God, it was a high church with an excellent choir that sang year-round, in many ways like this parish. Nearly every Sunday, Mom would drive across town to the newly-built megachurch, Trinity Evangelical Free, while I would go across the street to my church, Trinity Episcopal, which had been around for nearly a hundred years.
One Sunday, however, I enticed my mother to come to my Trinity Church by informing her that there would be bagpipers. (For some of us, this would be a reason to stay out of church, but Mom liked that sort of thing.) She timidly slipped into the pew with me, and looked like a deer in headlights as we all stood, knelt, stood, crossed ourselves, genuflected, and drank real wine out of a common cup. True to herself, she sat through the mass and decided not to go forward at communion. She clearly enjoyed the music, singing heartily, but when we got home, she asked me a question I will never forget: “Why are you into all of this, this….this…churchianity?”
Churchianity? I had never heard such a pejorative word! And then I realized: what had been for me a foretaste of heaven and an entrance into the kingdom of God had for her been a show of worldly pomp and meaningless ritual. Why wasn’t I content to read my Bible, pray in silence or aloud as the Spirit moved, sing hymns about the power of Jesus’ blood, and come away edified? Why did I need all these trappings? Why did I read my prayers out of a book? Why all this “churchianity”?
We both went to a Trinity Church, but I feared in that moment that the culture gap between my mother’s Trinity and my Trinity was unbreachable. The image of a cornerstone came to me, and I realized that what for me was a stepping stone was for her a stumbling block. And the amazing thing was that both the stepping stone and the stumbling block were the same piece of rock. How we encountered it determined whether we tripped over it, as my mother did, or used it to step up to a higher plane, as was the case for me.
I realized then that it was my task, my challenge, to try to communicate to my mother how these practices were for me a stepping stone, in the hope that she could accept and even appreciate that the way I worshipped God was, in fact, an authentically Christian way of life. But before I could communicate that, I had to understand it for myself. I had to be confident in my own Christian identity and conscious as to why what I did was important. I had to question, in fact, whether what I did was a stepping stone for me.
I realized as well that this dynamic cuts both ways: much of evangelical free church worship could be a stepping stone for me, but too often I let other things (guitars, PowerPoint™ in the sanctuary, and so on) act as my stumbling blocks.
By searching for and identifying both the stepping stones and the stumbling blocks in our spiritual lives, both as individuals and as a community, we may discover that they are ultimately a part of the one and only cornerstone, the “stone which the builders rejected,” Jesus Christ. Or maybe not. The point is to recognize that whether we give something up for Lent or take something on—or both—we must ask ourselves, “To what end am I doing this?” What is important about this discipline, and how exactly is it a stepping stone along my path rather than a stumbling block in my way? And we must take care, lest in our public piety we take our stepping stones and place them as stumbling blocks in others people’s ways, discrediting our ministry and working counter-productively.
And so, this Lent, I would like you to consider the stumbling blocks and stepping stones of your own spiritual journeys. As we make our pilgrim way toward Easter, what stumbling blocks are you likely to encounter? Can you name them? And once you have named them, can you turn them into stepping stones? Perhaps that won’t be possible over the course of only forty days. Perhaps we shall keep tripping on our own stumbling blocks again and again. But if can we become more aware of what they are, we are more likely, I hope, to begin a process of personal transformation that will lead us along the right road, though we may have no idea where it will lead. The process of turning stumbling blocks into stepping stones, for ourselves as well as on others’ behalf, is, after all, a lifelong endeavor.