On Stumbling

Preaching, Theology

What causes you to stumble? On life’s clear path between you and that thing which makes you you what causes you to trip and fall flat on your face? For me, I want to say that it can be a kind of perfectionism, but that’s not quite it. It’s more like a desire for whatever little pieces of the world I happen to be managing to arrange themselves in a pattern perfectly aligned with my own expectations of how they should be. Much to my dismay, most the physical materials of this world seem disinterested in co-operating with my plan, at 5:30pm yesterday afternoon after a long weekend training out of town it happened to be the back row of a rental van which three priests and a deacon could not manage to snap back into place for the life of us before returning it to the airport; we didn’t stumble exactly, but there was certainly a lot of sweat, at least one flushed face, and words unbecoming of a cleric to mutter. One of the other things which I love to meticulously plan is a good meal. That’s because of the things which makes me me is my ability to cook, I feed people well, and so there is something which thrills me about bringing a particular culinary vision to life, from vision to plan to plate to table. After a long week of trading in lofty ideas which may or may not have seen fruition or closure I -at the very least- know how to take the idea of a quiche and turn it into a concrete, material -and impeccably flaky golden- reality. When my meal doesn’t turn out the way I had imagined it, however, I am less thrilled. For example, horror of horrors, I failed to flip an omelette well last weekend. What was, in one moment, a fluffy pillow of eggs and herbs turned quickly in the next into a fallen, half-scorched, half-runny mess. Having the slight penchant for passive-aggressive melodrama that I do, my favorite solution to a problem such as this one is to sullenly toss the ruined foodstuffs into the compost and insist that no one in the house really needs to eat until the next meal time. For me, grace comes in the fact that I happen to be married to a man who brings a certain pragmatic balance into my life, and he suggested that I might simply take what was left in the pan and make a scramble of it instead. Without him, I would surely stumble much more often. The path, for me, the way on to being what makes me me, is simply to feed the people I love, after all. It’s when I insist that the feeding happen exactly to my aesthetic measures of approval that I give myself plenty of occasions to stumble on that path, and fall flat on the face of my own impossible expectations.

This is, in part, what I imagine the disciples are going through in the Gospel we hear this morning. Someone isn’t doing it right. Someone else was casting out demons (a favorite past-time of the disciples of old) but they weren’t doing it the way they were supposed to. The story is a familiar trope from the bible, hearkening back to the camp of Moses, when The Prophet’s secretary complained that other unauthorized not-so-famous prophets were also prophesying. “Let them!” Moses said before heading back into his tent, “I wish more of you would.” “Do not stop them!” Jesus says, “whoever is not against us is for us.” Another favorite trope: the disciples almost stumbled again. On the path to what makes them them, part of which is being able to sift out the most demonic, incapacitating elements of other folks and help them be well enough to stand as their own true selves again, the disciples, themselves, almost tripped, almost threw a petty fit. They almost got hung up on the wrong part of the process, a minor detail which mattered very much to them, a right way to do the thing that they were doing, a right way which turns out to matter very little to God. Jesus reminds them of what actually mattered about what they were doing. Without him, they would surely stumble much more often. The path for them is simply to cast out demons, heal the sick, and preach the good news of God who loves the hurting world enough to hurt along with it. It’s when they insist that the healing and the preaching happen exactly to their standards of belonging that they fall flat on the face of such limiting, human expectations.

Our own stumbling could be very similar to the disciples’. We know best. We have a way of following Jesus, a way of being God’s light in the world, and other people who don’t match up may not actually belong. There are hundreds of potentially suspect groups: evangelicals for the catholics, conservatives for the progressives, those east of 205 for those west, even the person whom you simply have to work with despite your convictions that a hundred other people could do the job more quickly. Where do we stumble on the path to what makes us us? What do we have in common with the folk who may be partners in the same work, with a slightly different twist than our own?

Perhaps more perplexing, what does Jesus tell the disciples to do to avoid stumbling? No stranger to melodrama himself, Jesus speaks of stumbling with a drastic list of commands to the disciples which mostly have to do with sexual impropriety -the offending hand, and foot, and eye each a euphemistic stand-in for other biblical unmentionables- each of which he tells them to cut it off if it doesn’t cooperate with the plan. The confusing thing to me about this suggestion, whether it be applied to the literal part or the euphemistic, is that it would lead to the creation of an army of maimed, stumbling people. Immediately, the image comes to mind of a band of handless, footless, eyeless, or otherwise dismembered disciples clomping around barely able to lay a hand of healing on anyone because it’s been replaced by a bloodied, seeping nub. “Everyone will be salted with fire,” he says, after painting this gruesome scene. And when he says “Everyone” it stands as a contrast to “some will be salted with fire.” “Everyone will be salted with fire” is a shift from the prophetic standard where the wicked will be salted with fire, and the righteous will receive a reward. By saying, “everyone will be salted with fire,” Jesus suggests that you can take your hit here or in the long run. The thing is, we might very well look like a band of injured, stumbling people headed into daily life without the million little expectations and crutches which we’ve established for ourselves this far. The alcoholic, when first learning to live one day without a drink may not be able to glide through a social gathering as confidently as the drink had once allowed. The straight A student, if she tries to make room in her studies for more than what her instructor’s rubrics will allow, may find herself cutting off a piece of her perfect grade point average for the sake of some broader truth. If I give up my frantic pursuit of the perfect vision of me I’ve been trying to wield out of these unruly materials, I might sound a little less put together, a little more ridiculous, and I might also make myself a little more open to the me God is making along the way. You can torture yourself with making the perfect omelette every time, or you can let yourself be refocused on the more important task at hand of getting people fed. Which one do you want to lose? Your pristine image of yourself? Or your ability to actually do the thing that makes you you?

I went ahead and made that scramble out of the allegedly ruined omelette last weekend. What I plated was a hideous, lumpy, mess of eggs. And, it was delicious. And minutes after we had been satisfied by the eating of it I had forgotten that I ever get upset about such trivial things as what the food I eat looks like at all. The disciples probably went about their business that day, too; and the next time they saw someone whom they didn’t know casting out a demon in the wrong way, hopefully they simply thought, “thank God someone else has been made well again.”


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