Mark 9:38-50

The Rev. Helen Havlik

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

World Communion Sunday

October 7, 2018

Today is World Communion Sunday. All around the world, at any minute today, someone somewhere is celebrating the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Think about that—it’s awesome to know we’re connected to our sisters and brothers in Christ in every time zone, on every continent, by virtue of our sharing the same table. After 2000 years, it’s just about impossible for us to imagine the time when Christian faith was new and the only disciples were those whom Jesus had called in the flesh. Like us, those disciples were trying hard to understand the radical things Jesus was saying to them. They misunderstood what he was teaching them about his work and witness—Peter scolds him for talking about death instead of political, military and spiritual victory. The disciples spend more time arguing about who’s the greatest than contemplating questions of faith. Yet Jesus is patient as he continues to challenge them—and us, because are we so very different?—on what it means to follow him. This morning I’m reading from Mark, ch. 9, beginning with vs. 38. Listen with me to God’s holy word.

The East Guilford Church, where I served for eight years, is at a crossroads that used to be a small village. All that’s left is the church along with a couple of neighboring houses. It’s a typical white clapboard New England church building in a really pretty setting. The front doors are green—not original but still old—the windows are small and quite high. I couldn’t see out of them even standing on tiptoe. But Margaret could. She had been the unofficial Sunday greeter long before I came there. It didn’t take me long to realize that Margaret wasn’t just greeting—she was literally guarding the door. She was tall enough to see out the windows and watch for who was coming from the parking lot. Usually she opened the door for people but quite often she didn’t. It took me awhile to figure out what she was doing because she didn’t appear to discriminate based on how people were dressed, their age, with kids, without kids, much less color or ethnicity. No, Margaret appeared to open the door only for people she personally knew and liked. Those were the people she hugged and smiled at, those were the people she spoke to with more than a stiff, perfunctory “morning.” The rest she looked up and down and eyeballed as they received a bulletin and found their way to a pew.

“If any of you puts a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me…” Jesus talks about two kinds of stumbling blocks here—the kind we put in our own way and those we put in the way of others. They’re too numerous to list now—but every single stumbling block is rooted in one thing: fear. Fear that you won’t get what you deserve. Fear that you’ll suffer or be in pain. Fear that you’re not beloved. Fear that there’s not enough of anything to go around. Fear that you’ll be overlooked or abandoned. Fear that someone will harm you or take away what’s yours. The disciples knew that kind of fear: Lord, someone’s elbowing into our territory. Shouldn’t we stop them? That’s after they themselves hadn’t been able to exorcise a demon—and then had argued about who was the greatest among them. It’s fear that made them want to guard the doors—it’s fear that makes us guard our own doors.

And so, even though life is tough enough, we lay out our personal and public stumbling blocks. We stop ourselves from getting more involved. We stop ourselves from seeing the truth. We stop ourselves from hearing the anguish of our own hearts, much less the hearts of others. We stop ourselves from doing what we know is right and good and kind and generous. We put up our own stumbling blocks, and maybe even worse, is that we block other people from taking their rightful place in the family of God. Like Margaret, we decide who’s allowed in the door. Who’s allowed at this table. Who gets a share of God’s limitless love. There’s enough for everyone, actually, to have more than enough, but we set up the stumbling blocks anyway.

When I was a little kid, communion at Eastminster was a big deal. They practiced the old Scottish custom of “shrouding the table,” which means that a white tablecloth covered everything on the table until the time of communion. Then two elders had the solemn task of carefully lifting the pristine white cloth to reveal the bread and cup and trays. It was very dramatic and mysterious—and I wanted to share in communion in the worst way! But kids weren’t allowed at the table back then, like they are now. I’ve told you before how one Sunday I couldn’t contain myself and reached for the bread and my mother slapped my hand away. Fast forward to my late 20s. I had been away from church for 10 plus years and had finally found my way back to worship. I must have attended Marple Presbyterian Church for a year before I finally shared in communion. I’d let the trays go by me until the pastor noticed and asked me why I wasn’t joining in. I don’t deserve to, I told him, I’ve been away too long and I still have too many doubts. Do you want to participate? he asked. Yes, I said. Then who’s stopping you? he asked.

The disciples wanted to keep what they had to themselves—even lord it over others. Stop it, Jesus says, as he reminds them that the path he’s on leads to the salt of suffering and beyond for everyone. Get out of your own way—and certainly get out of the way of anyone who wants to follow me. Margaret. Bless her heart. I don’t know if she was a stumbling block to anyone, herself included. That’s the point of what Paul told the Corinthians to do every time they shared in the Lord’s Supper: “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” As we gather at this table, may we, too, examine ourselves. And if we find some stumbling blocks we’ve set up for ourselves and others, may we kick them aside and just come to the table.

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