Sunday, September 26, 2021
Getting Rid of Stumbling Blocks
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
September 26, 2021
Did you feel a little strange responding to this particular gospel with the references to gouging out eyes and chopping off hands with the words, “Praise to you Lord Christ”? There are often pieces of scripture that we would like to avoid. This week and especially next week are some of those hard passages.
The beauty and challenge of our lectionary is that we really cannot avoid the tough passages. We have the best chance to grow not when we sit and bask in those easy passages, but when we dive into the depths of those passages that cause us discomfort. Then I realized that it is interesting to juxtapose the James and the Mark passages for they are two sides of the same coin in some respects. Mark is a caution about constructing stumbling blocks and the James is about removing those stumbling blocks.
Jesus has just about had it with this bunch of thick-headed disciples, so Mark decides to have Jesus use classic Greek rhetorical skills to make this wild statement about cutting off hands and gouging out eyes. This example would not strike Mark’s Greek speaking audience as that outrageous if you consider some Greek dramas. Think in terms of Oedipus who gouges out his eyes rather than view the fruit of his sin. Jesus uses this exaggeration to make his point about what awaits those who block the path of people seeking to know Jesus.
It is hard enough to be a Christian without anyone making it any more difficult. We all have enough stumbling blocks in our life. We don’t need people adding to the collection. The disciples have been doing a good job of adding stumbling blocks to their own path and in doing so show us some of our own stumbling blocks.
One stumbling block we love to put out there is false ecumenical work. By that I mean many like to talk about working across denominational lines, but secretly we are afraid that if we work with others, we may lose people because the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence. Even worse is when we take the attitude, like the disciples that “we” have the answer and nobody else could possibly be right or as close to Jesus as we are. This is like the coaster I have that says, “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite”
Jesus, however tells us clearly as long as it is done in Christ’s name and the fruit that is born is true to the teachings of Jesus, who does it is not that important. God is the source. Doing good works in the name of Christ is not about us it is about God!
This is also why our partnerships are so important. In the area of outreach, a church of our size cannot do that much by ourselves. That is why our partnership with groups like Katy Christian Ministries and the Beacon are so important. By adding to their resources, that your pledges and gifts provide, we can do much more in the community than if we tried to do it ourselves. The food pantry and our newly revived tutoring ministry are both great examples. KCM needed a site in the local community for the tutoring program and that is something that we can provide. They need volunteers as well. I have had some wonderful conversations with volunteers from other churches who come to tutor about our parish, who we are and what we do. The students and their parents have a chance to see our church and the ministries we provide. From this we can look at what other impacts we can have especially with the school across the street. This is a potential partnership that will expand our impact in Katy. All of this is done in the name of Jesus in cooperation with other Christians
We do need to be careful not to put stumbling blocks in the way of people. There is another entirely different type of stumbling block that we need to look at today. One of the wonderful things that we have been seeing the recent months is a large number of visitors and new members.
A big stumbling block is assuming that the visitor understands what I call Episcospeak. The language that we use in our service, on our signs, in our bulletins and in our announcements can prove to be a huge challenge for a visitor. Saying that the Altar Guild will meet in the conference room may not mean a thing to a person who is not familiar with our building or what an altar guild is. A reminder or announcement about DOK does not tell the visitor what DOK is or does.
This is also what is behind the work we have done in the narthex (there you go another Episcospeak word.) The old setup put the visitor information far away from the path most of our visitors use when they walk through the door. The new arrangement puts our visitor information on the way into and out of the nave (oops there’s another one of those words). The new coffee setup gives us a place for not only us to congregate easily, but a place to make a visitor feel welcome with a snack and a cup of coffee. It invites conversation and that is what is happening especially after the 10:30 service. People are visiting and enjoying coffee for at least an additional 15 minutes after the 10:30 service. This week the Welcome roundtable group from the diocese will be visiting us to see what we’ve done and I will be interested to get their input. The roundtable is a group of churches in our diocese who are being intentional about how they welcome visitors. Much of what we have done is based on visits I’ve made to other roundtable meetings at other Episcopal Churches before the pandemic shutdown. Yes, it is change, but it is change with a purpose to help us grow and be even more welcoming than we already are.
I was very aware of how baffling our service can be at our healing service on Wednesday. There was a young woman who is doing on online graduate program in religious studies. She had a homework assignment to go to a church outside of her denomination. While a faithful member of a non-denominational church, she felt like she had stepped into a totally different world. She was totally surprised when I asked what she would like prayers for and she said, “I’m pregnant with my first child.” So I prayed for a healthy pregnancy and a safe delivery. She was not expecting that! We all need to realize how different our service is for anybody who isn’t from a liturgical tradition.
The next time you visit a church on vacation or in your travels look at that church through the eyes not only of a visitor, but of someone who is new to our faith, maybe even new to Christianity. Then come back here and walk in our doors and look around as if you had never been here before. Please tell me what you notice.
Finally we need to remember that the person walking in the door is not looking for a committee or commission to join, they are looking for a relationship with God and Christ even if they do not have the words to articulate what they are seeking. Brian McClaren once wrote “People come looking for God and we give them the church, the institution. We need to approach the potential new member with what we can do for them, rather than what can they do for us. Invite them to come to Sunday School, don’t ask them to teach it right away! Offer to sit with them if they are not familiar with our service. Invite them to coffee hour. Make sure they meet the Vestry on Duty and get a welcome bag. Welcome the stranger. This is how we get rid of stumbling blocks.
An emphasis as we return to whatever our normal will be, is to strive to never put a stumbling block in anyone’s path. Oh it will happen, we are only human and I will make mistakes just as all of you will. What is important is that we continue to focus on being a welcoming community of followers of Christ. That is why we are here and have been here in Katy for 63 years. Loving God and loving our neighbors! May we have many more years of sharing the faith.