Stumbling Blocks

Date: February 01, 2009
Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
Guest Preacher:

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It happened in New York’s Lincoln Center, during a violin concerto. And it is retold in a book by Jeff Lucas, called, The Prodigal Friendly Church: Itzhak Perlman, arguably the world’s greatest violinist, was ready to take the stage. He is usually the last person in place, because though his fingers are amazing, his legs don’t work nearly as well. He was struck with polio at age 12. And so that night, he stumbled across the stage aided by crutches.

More recently, some of you may remember, the same Perlman played at the inauguration of President Obama, along side YoYo Ma.

After Perlman crossed the stage at Lincoln Center, that night, he sat down, removed the braces from his legs, and placed the violin under his chin. He practices for 9 hours daily. But the guards at his dressing room door will tell you before a concert, “Mr. Perlman has finished practicing, now he is praying, do not disturb.”

Praying and practicing is important in this case. The Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major has been called “unplayable” by accomplished violinists. Perlman was ready to perform this extremely challenging piece that would last over 6 minutes.

But - - a few seconds into the solo, the sound of a string breaking on Perlman’s violin echoed through the hall. The orchestra stopped playing. The crowd gasped. Protocol permits a musician to call for a pause, and hurry off and replace the string. Yesterday, an 18th century violin used by Yuri Bashmet during a concert in Italy broke all 4 strings, and he used a borrowed violin to finish. But not Perlman. With a wave of his hand, Perlman signaled the orchestra to continue. And then the unthinkable happened:

Instantaneously transposing the music for three strings instead of four, Perlman delivered the piece with purity and passion. Six minutes later, exhausted, he lowered his violin, and the crowd sat in stunned silence for 8 seconds, before rising to their feet and cheering.
Then the man with two busted legs and one busted string stumbled to the microphone and spoke:
“All my life, it has been my mission to make music from that which remains”. What might have been a stumbling block for some, was for Itzhak Perlman, a moment of beauty. So for us today, how do we approach the stumbling blocks in our lives, and in our world? How de we make music from that which remains?

Each one of our three Scripture readings for today - - help us to think about a different stumbling block. / Three Scripture readings - three stumbling blocks.
There are probably more stumbling blocks - besides these three - - and there is more in each reading than the stumbling block I will outline - - but that’s my focus today.
What are the stumbling blocks - in building the body of Christ ?
How are WE stumbling blocks sometimes? How do we stumble?
In Deuteronomy - - the issue is stated as one of false prophecy.
How do we distinguish - - true from false prophecy ?
Another way to frame this is as a leadership question. Who will lead this people? Who will their next president be? Who will their next head of staff be? Their next mayor? And how will community leadership - mesh with national leadership?

As the people of Israel formed themselves - - after their time in the wilderness - - now a fledgling nation - - there were temptations - - to listen to all kinds of voices - and go in several directions. Who would guide this people ?

Deuteronomy promised someone like Moses. But how do you tell the difference - between a soothsayer - and the next Moses ? That is the issue for the people of Israel in this text. Distinguishing - - a prophet who is part if the story - - in the line from Moses - - FROM the exciting and captivating - flash in the pan street corner sensation.
[ read Deut. 18:15-20 ]

In Deuteronomy the stumbling block - - is the false voice. The stumbling block is the one who says, “I’m God’s prophet” - - but who really has their own agenda - - or who just didn’t hear God right. But maybe more than that, maybe the stumbling block is in the minds and hearts of the people, even more than the proposed leader. Are the people listening and discerning? Are the people taking responsibility for the common good and engaging their leader?

I think these questions are one reason the COMMUNITY - of the CHURCH - is so important. / When we begin to loose perspective on things - - we have a whole lot of people to ask - - and a tradition - - to trust.

Not a perfect community - - and not a perfect tradition. But better I think - than the story of one loner – no matter how sincere or captivating or convincing.

So the first stumbling block is about leadership and prophecy, and how we determine the direction of a group of diverse people.

Our second Scripture reading, from 1 Corinthians - reminds us that WE can become stumbling blocks for others. / People who are part of a community - can sometimes cause people who are trying to come into that community - - and get a little closer to it - - to stumble.

That was what was happening in Corinth. There were TWO groups in the newly forming church. / There were Jewish Christians - - who came from a strong Jewish background and who knew the Old Testament prophecies and laws. / AND - - there were GENTILE Christians - - who came from a Pagan background - and were accustomed to worshipping the Idols of the Roman Gods. In the city of Corinth - - which contained these two groups - - and a whole lot MORE - - a huge cosmopolitan city - - in this city - - there were MARKETPLACES - - in which MEAT was sold.

The meat - - came from the SACRIFICES made to pagan idols - statues.

In the temples - sacrifices were made - - and animals were butchered.

But - - it turns out - - the idols didn’t eat much. / So there was a lot of meat left over. And that meat had NOW been part of a SACRED ceremony. / Pagan priests didn’t want it to go to waste. So - - it was SOLD in the market.

Jewish followers of the WAY - - didn’t think much of idols. / Never had. / So they had no problem eating the meat. To them the idols were powerless.

But Gentile converts - - who had RECENTLY thought of these idols as Gods - - and had just now REJECTED those Gods - - saw the meat as tainted. / How could you eat the meat - if it had been sacrificed to an idol? Maybe it was the idol that they had just rejected and turned away from? It was all too fast and disorienting for them.

So - - when the Gentiles saw the Jewish followers eating the meat - - they were upset - or confused. / It was a cultural clash.
And Paul responded to that conflict - in his letter. In the reading for today, he said - - “Look - it doesn’t really matter about the meat either way. But - - the IMPORTANT thing - - is how it effects OTHERS.”
We can be - - a help - - or a stumbling block - - to others.
And the important thing is NOT whether eating meat IS or is NOT ABSOLUTELY right or wrong. / The important thing is how we effect others.

It might be like a debate over wearing short pants for us. / In some cultures it is a no-no. / In our culture it is not a big deal. / But if you are crossing the cultural boundary – like on a mission trip - the important thing is NOT what is right or wrong absolutely - - but how you effect others.

Sometimes - - the customs of our culture - - are a stumbling block.

According to Paul - - even knowledge - - can be a STUMBLING BLOCK.
[ read 1 Cor. 8:1-4, 9 ]

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians says, “Knowledge puffs up.” Paul says that sometimes knowledge can be a stumbling block. And yet Paul - - was one of the most LEARNED - - KNOWLEDGABLE - - people of his day.

The point - is about the stumbling block.

Another way to frame this second reading might be to say: “It’s not about what you know - - it’s about being known”. Do we know one another? Do we know one another well enough to know our weak spots? It’s not about what you know - - it’s about being known.
[ re-read 1 Cor. 8:2&3 ]

What is keeping us from claiming the Bible history - - as OUR story? What is causing us to stumble, instead of opening ourselves to knowing and being known by God?

In Mark’s Gospel - - the stumbling block is about AUTHORITY.

In the Gospel reading - - the authority of the demonic forces of the world - come into conflict with Jesus power to heal. / It was amazing to me - that in the middle of a story about a HEALING that Jesus has performed - - people are marveling at his TEACHING!

But as I looked closer at this story, I realized that the word “heal” is never used.

This is a story about Jesus authority and power to make well, but it is about more than healing. And the gospel tells us that many people were amazed by Jesus’ teaching. But the authority of Jesus’ teaching was not just talk – it was demonstrated. And some people didn’t want to recognize this authority even while they were amazed by it. And maybe some of us have issues when it comes to authority too.
[ read Mark 1:21-28 ]

So - maybe a story about a more minor authority problem might help us step back for a minute - and then to think about our own issues with authority. The story is about a problem a tourist site had - keeping visitors from touching an old artifact. / In an old Mansion in Florida - - in an exquisitely furnished master bedroom - - a SIGN sat on the bedspread and curtains: (The sign said): “Wash Hands Immediately after Touching”

After admiring the furnishings - one visitor’s curiosity was aroused.

He asked the guard if the fabric had been treated with a harmful chemical. / “Oh no sir,” the guard said smiling, “There’s NOTHIN’ on em’” / “We just never had much luck with the ‘Do not Touch’ signs”.
The visitors had an authority problem.
Our resistance - - to accepting that WE are not the final authority - - can be a stumbling block.
The Gospel says Jesus AUTHORITY amazed people.
It changed their perspective - if they did not stumble over it.
Power and authority. It can be a stumbling block if we try to find it in ourselves alone - rather than relying on God.

Our own knowledge - can be a stumbling block. Not listening to where people are - - and thinking we know it all - - and being more concerned to prove we do - - it can cause us to stumble.
False words – or questions about leadership - can be stumbling blocks.
And yet - - each Scripture reading offers us a way to get back on our feet:
The Old Testament promises that in the midst of FALSE words - - we will hear the words of a prophet like Moses. If we LISTEN - - THROUGH all the FALSE words surrounding us - - for a word that CONNECTS us to OUR story - - our tradition - - to our sense of the common good - - we will not stumble.
And the New Testament says - that while knowledge “puffs up” - - there is ANOTHER force at work - - - there is LOVE - - which BUILDS up.
And loving each other - - is more important - - that proving we are right.
And in the Gospel reading - - it is Jesus who has the authority. His power to challenge the demons - and the evil - - comes from the Word. Jesus’ healing is a demonstration of - the Word. Jesus - is the Word - acted out - incarnate.

So, with all these things in mind, our is to find a connection - -
- - between the story of OUR lives - - and God’s story.
And maybe we WILL stumble along the way - -
- - but I’d rather stumble trying - - then to not try.

And what I hope is that we will put being known above what we know.

And that the deeper heart knowledge of love will guide us.

And that as we face the stumbling blocks what will most surely be there in our path from time to time, that we could let them be opportunities for beauty, and for grace.