What causes you to stumble?

This is the text of a sermon for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it references is Mark 9:38-50.

If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off…

It’s an extreme image, even for Jesus, who didn’t shy away from speaking bluntly. At our lectionary group on Tuesday, one of the ministers who comes told us that it is within the memory of his congregation that they had a person there who did indeed cut off his foot, in the belief that this would help him to be closer to God.

To most of us, it seems immediately obvious both that Jesus meant this saying more metaphorically, and that in fact it’s not our feet, our hands or our eyes which cause us to stumble in the sense that he meant it. The danger for us, though, is that having got that far in thinking about this saying of Jesus we might go no further with it.

To stumble, in this sense, is to sin; and in the Scriptures it’s a term used of three different kinds of fault; doing the wrong thing, the immoral thing; accepting wrong teaching; or refusing to believe. We are used to thinking of sin as “doing the wrong thing,” – even if traditionally Christians have obsessed far more over some types of wrong doing than others – but I think particularly in our secular, pluralistic, multicultural society it is hard for us to get our heads around the idea that accepting wrong teaching or refusing to believe in God are sinful, and perhaps even have dire consequences.

So that sends us back to first principles. How do we define sin? I often suspect that although we come here, week by week, and confess our sin, we are comfortable to be a little bit vague about the specifics; to move very quickly from the idea that we have sinned to the idea that we are forgiven, and to focus on what makes us feel good about our relationship with God. But I’m going to take this morning’s reading as an invitation to cut through some of that vagueness.

While the Scriptures have a very great deal to say about sin, to my knowledge there is only one place – in 1 John – that attempts a clear definition of sin. John tells us that “sin is lawlessness.” And when we remember that Jesus told us that the law could be summed up in two commandments, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, we could expand the idea that “sin is lawlessness” to say “sin is the failure to love God with your whole self, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

I think that’s a useful definition because it helps us to understand why accepting wrong religious teaching can be a sin; if you believe something about God which is not true, that’s not accepting God on God’s terms; it’s not loving God for who God is. It’s a bit like if someone tells me a lie about someone else, and I believe it without putting in the effort to investigate it or to find out the truth; that’s not loving of me towards the person who’s been lied about. Taking the time to find out the truth about God is part and parcel of loving God; otherwise you might just be having warm fuzzy feelings about an illusion, your own fantasy of God, rather than the reality.

Anyway. So. Sin is the failure to love God with your whole self, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

But – getting back to what Jesus said about cutting off and tearing out what causes us to sin – I wonder how often we actually ask ourselves what those causes are?

There’s a famous – and fascinating – study which was done at Princeton University in 1970. In it, seminary students were told to prepare a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then sent to the other side of the campus to give the talk. One group of students was told to hurry, and the other group was told that they had more than enough time. On the way, they each encountered an actor slumped in an alley apparently in need of help.

What was interesting about this study was that the students who were told to hurry did not stop to help the apparent victim; the students who were told they had plenty of time, did stop and help. All of them were seminary students, devout, committed Christians; but being in a hurry to be somewhere else crowded out their ability to love their neighbor.

And I can relate to that. If I’m honest with you about what causes me to fail to love God with my whole self, the answer is that frankly I’m too busy. I get a particularly seductive version of that, too, because if I’m busy with my work, well, it’s God’s work, right, and that’s a good thing, so it can’t be sinful for me to be doing more of that, can it?

But the truth I need to own up to is that it doesn’t matter how many sermons I write, how many pastoral conversations I have, how many activities I plan or emails I answer; if I haven’t made time to be with God, to connect with God and build genuine relationship… well, I’m not really loving God with my whole self, and I’m not giving God the time and space to be at work in me.

That’s my sin. And I can make excuses; mum of a young child, priest, too many responsibilities and not enough sleep, but perhaps what this reading is asking me to do is figure out what in my life might need to go, in order to make the time I say I don’t have.  I might even need to let go of my own pride and ego and be more willing to ask for help; even though some days that makes cutting off a foot sound appealing!

I’m sure I’m not alone in this. The specifics may vary from person to person but the underlying problem is the same. It is easy to get caught up in our own wants, our own fears, our own priorities, and forget that all of those things are ultimately temporary. Love of God and love of neighbor have more enduring implications, as Jesus so starkly reminded his hearers with his description of hell.

I don’t want to get all “fire and brimstone” on you. I don’t think it’s very encouraging or helpful, generally, nor do I want to try to guilt trip or frighten you into doing what I think you should. That’s not what this is about.

So I’m going to leave you with questions to take away and ponder on your own; what is it that gets in the way, for you, of loving God with your whole self? What is it that gets in the way of loving your neighbor? What is one thing – just one thing – that you can do to shift one of those things that get in the way? You don’t have to fix everything all at once, but even one thing will make a difference; and then when you can see the difference, that’s encouraging and it’s easier to build a sense of momentum and progress.

And after all, even small things matter; Jesus said that whoever gave so much as a cup of water would by no means lose the reward.



A woman of valour

This is the text of a sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it references is Proverbs 31:10-31.

Well, tempting as it is – after this week in politics – to reflect on the disciples’ argument about “Who is the greatest?” this morning I want to explore the reading that we had from Proverbs.

Rachel Held Evans – an American Christian author whom I would describe as a moderate, thinking evangelical, and whose blog is well worth checking out – took on this passage as part of her project to live as a “Biblical woman” for a year, and write about it.* It wasn’t an entirely happy experiment; the woman described in Proverbs rises while it is still night, and is a woman of work and prayer. Rachel describes her “Proverbs 31 morning routine” as being more like this: wake up, make coffee, choose a centreing word for meditation, fall back asleep, wake up again, feel guilty, drink coffee, practice knitting, give up. (It’s a routine that eerily reflects my own attempts to master the virtue of being a morning person).

The reality is that most of us can’t take this text on board as if it were a to-do list of womanly virtue. Even in the time it was written, it would have been inaccessible for most women; this woman is very much an upper class person, wealthy and with a staff of servants; perhaps the wife of a king, rather than an ordinary run-of-the-mill Israelite woman.

So what do we do with this reading, then?

It is, the experts tell me, in its style and structure an example of heroic poetry. It takes the sort of song that the ancient Israelites used to sing about victorious soldiers returning from battle, and puts words to it about a capable wife (better translated as a “woman of valour”).

But why all the language of strength and dignity? Why does this woman reach out her hands in a verb – the nuance is lost in translation – usually only used of warriors taking spoil after winning a battle? Why does she literally “laugh in victory” at the days to come? Why does the end of the song call on all of us to join in praising her, as if she were parading in triumph through the streets?

Perhaps there’s a clue for us in how this passage is used in the worship of Orthodox Jews even today. Husbands commit this poem to memory, so that they can recite it to their wives at the Sabbath meal, literally breaking into song in the presence of their children and guests. One Orthodox wife wrote about this custom, saying, “It’s special to me because I know that no matter what I do or don’t do, he praises me for blessing the family with my energy and my creativity. All women can do that in their own way.” Jewish women use this term – eshet chayil, a woman of valour – as well, to encourage one another, bless one another and celebrate one another’s achievements. Whether it’s business success, making a difference in public life, or raising happy, healthy children, all can be and are celebrated as the acts of a woman of valour.

This is in strong contrast to the kinds of songs and poems that Israel’s neighbours tended to write about women. There are plenty of examples of contemporary Persian and Babylonian songs praising women, with which we can compare this one. But they’re not at all similar. They are songs from the harem. They praise women in terms of beauty, and in terms of docility, and in terms of male gratification.

Looked at against that backdrop, the statements in this song, that charm is deceitful and beauty vain, can start to sound less like a puritanical killjoy lecturing women for worrying about how we look, and more like a flourish of cultural difference. Let the pagan cultures around us treat women as pleasure-objects; we – guided by the fear of the God of Israel – value them for far more than this.

This song makes absolutely clear the value of a woman of action; a woman who takes initiative and acts in her own right. It depicts her as business savvy, and engaged in skilled work. It shows her as someone able to have a range of successful relationships with others, her husband, her children, those whom she leads and with whom she works, and her wider community. It shows her as a person of so much strength and dignity that she is able to be generous and kind to others, and it even lets her into the halls of wisdom; normally the province of privileged old men. A life more distant from that of the pampered pet of the Persian harem is hard to imagine.

But this isn’t just about women, important though it is for us to hear these words as being relevant to women; because although this particular song is in praise of a valiant woman, I don’t think there’s anything deeply gender specific about the kinds of virtues it holds up as a heroic ideal. I don’t know a man who would be diminished by being actively engaged with the world, skilled in his work, and successful in relationships. I would hope that men could hear this passage and be encouraged to find the strength to be gentle and generous to all around them, and the wisdom to speak well with others and do good.

But I want to finish by thinking about what this text might say to us, not as individuals, but as a community. Many Christian thinkers, including Sts. Augustine and Gregory the Great, have considered this passage as referring to the church as a whole. And when you think about it, it makes a kind of sense. The church is described elsewhere as the bride of Christ; why shouldn’t she also be a woman of valour? A church engaged with the community around it; which chooses its focus and makes a point of doing what it does well; caring for and giving to those in need, and speaking the truth to the world when it needs to hear – well, that sounds like a church that I would very much like to be part of. That sounds like a church worth our time, energy, and commitment.

It might be an interesting challenge for you to think about the part that you play in the life of the church, and how what you do contributes to building this community into a body that can see itself reflected in this song; a valiant community, one which, like the woman in this song, is more precious than jewels.



*Rachel Held Evans’ book to which I refer here is A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, And Calling Her Husband “Master.”  I thoroughly recommend it for its spiritual depth, delivered with lightness of touch and good humour.


Drills and scales

Last week I was at a conference where a couple of the sessions were on “spiritual formation.”  As part of that time, the presenter provided us with a copy of this blog post from Reformed Worship, which I found thought provoking.  The idea of having “drills” or exercises which I did, not for immediate result, but because they built the skills and patterns of thought which would be helpful for my work in leading worship, was challenging and encouraging, and I hope I can integrate some such practises into my own working life (currently in much upheaval as I prepare to leave one parish and begin working in another).

Of course such exercises – or disciplines – are not new to the Christian way of life.  Patterns of fasting, patterns of structure to the day, the week, and the year, time set aside for work and intentional recreation… these are ancient Christian habits, steeped in two millennia of tradition.  But it is also true that many of them are very much currently out of fashion; perhaps because of the rise of individualism, perhaps because consumer culture has made us lazy, perhaps for other reasons I hadn’t thought of.  But discipline remains important to the Christian life, if taken seriously.

And it occurs to me, too, that most Christian disciplines have focussed on the development of virtue, and the ethical life.   The folks at Reformed Worship provided ideas about disciplines for those who lead worship, but what about those who participate?  What would “drills” for worship look like, for the average person in the pew?

What if we made a point of practising silence?  The silence of self before God, and the silence which respects the other before God?  The silence which allows us to enter a building full of people gathering for worship, in a holy hush as each prepares for the encounter to come?  When was the last time you practised silence?

What if we practised singing?  How often does a congregation mumble their way through a hymn, confident neither of the tune nor the ability of their voices to do it justice?  What if we were able to come ready to lift our heads, open our throats and – in Wesley’s words – “sing lustily and with good courage” in a way which does justice to the God we worship?  When was the last time you practised singing?

What if we practised praying?  Those churches with a “prayer book” tradition are often criticised on the basis that it is easy for the set prayers to become rote, a matter of habit; something which we say without much thought or passion behind them.  What if we took the time to read over those prayers, to reflect on their connections to the rest of our life, to collect our thoughts in journalling or poetry or some other creative expression, only to return to the text on the page with its significance deepened and enriched?  What was the last time you practised these prayers?

I could go on.  But really, each church has its own traditions and habits of worship, and rather than me imagining exercises which would be relevant to my context, perhaps it’s simply better for me to leave it there and suggest that each worshipper give this kind of careful attention to his or her own context, and see what difference it makes.

Because at the end of the day, worship doesn’t just “happen,” as if it required nothing of us.  Worship which is truly worship draws on all that we are, the very fullness of our experience, of our hearts, and of our skills.  For worship to be truly worship it must be entered into intentionally and prepared for reverently.  It’s not enough for the person up the front to give of his or her best, while everyone else acts like a passenger on the bus; we’re all in this together, and for the communal experience of worship to be all it can be, we each have a part to play.