Faith Growing Pains

James 5: 13-20             Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Mark 9: 38-50  September 30, 2018

“If any of you put a stumbling block...”

Prayer:  Holy One, may your word enlighten us with your wisdom and clarity for our faith journeys.  Amen.

Sometimes life throws moments at us when we have to choose between two difficult choices.  This past week all of America was subject to the difficult choice the US Senate Judiciary committee has to make, namely whether Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court should go to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote or not.  It’s difficult because on the one hand, he’s had a stellar judicial career which some say make him fit to be a justice on the Supreme Court.  But on the other hand, serious accusations of sexual misconduct from thirty years ago from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford have surfaced without corroboration that not only question the judge’s fitness as a Supreme Court Justice, but if they are true and he’s lying about them, the lying by itself many say, makes him unfit to serve on our highest court in the land.

Now, an FBI probe supposedly is started, and we might get to the bottom of it, but honestly, I think we, the American public will never know what really happened way back then.  So, the choice is to have a good judge on the Supreme Court with his reputation ruined and his credibility in question, or to have a bad judge on the Court who looks good on the surface, but has lied his way to the top.  Or, go back to the drawing board.  Some choices, huh?  Either way, it feels like a choice between having chronic lung disease or chronic heart disease, and we, as Americans, are poorer for it.

Our scripture from Mark has Jesus teaching about making difficult choices regarding certain stumbling blocks to our faith growth or to the faith growth in others.   Sometimes we have affinities, interests, even good things in our lives that can cause us to stumble or could cause others to stumble.  Jesus says, “Cut those things off.”  Our hands, feet, eyes… all good things.  But, Jesus says, if they lead you or another person to a shortage of faith, or life without God, cut them off!  If they lead you to spiritual unhealthiness, cut it out.  Some choice, huh?  Cutting off good things, which can bevery painful, or a hellish life without God.

Of course, Jesus does not mean we should be into self-mutilation. It’s metaphorical! He is talking about the hard, painful emotional and intellectual work of detaching ourselves from anything we’ve grown so accustomed to but can be stumbling blocks to faith growth.  These might need emotional and intellectual surgery.  Work done in the head and heart.

 He gives some examples which have applicability for us.  Like when Jesus’ disciples were being exclusive.  They tried to stop someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name because this exorcist was not part of their exclusive little group.  Jesus rebukes them saying “Don’t stop the healer!  Whoever is not against us is for us.”  The disciple’s exclusivism was an obstacle. It got in the way of the healer and those being healed from finding and having God in their lives.  Jesus essentially said, “Cut off your exclusivism.  It’s starving the power of my name in them.” That is one powerful reason why I am so encouraging of us becoming an all-inclusive church.

If someone from another ethnicity, another sexual orientation, or level of intelligence, or level of privilege, or another country, or another race comes here starving for God, is filled with anxiety and fear of not being accepted, has a faith that is barely hanging on, if someone like that comes through our doors and gets the feeling that our church is exclusively for the majority of participants here and not for them, Jesus says basically that it is better for us if we didn’t exist at all.  Exclusivity in a church can be a serious stumbling block for someone else’s faith growth.

 Change is not easy, especially if you’ve been loyal to the exclusive ways all your life.  If you’ve been allegiant to purity and orthodoxy in practice, changing can be struggle.  Old habits die hard.  Even when you want to change, and you try to change, and old way crops back up, it’s painful.

I praise God that we are working hard to emotionally and intellectually cut off whatever exclusive attitudes and perceptions, whatever narrowmindedness and limited understanding we grew accustomed to over the generations, and grow more deeply in our inclusivity in every way possible.  In our attitudes, our words, our perceptions.

Maybe that’s what Jesus means by the statement “If your eye causes you to stumble…”   If the way you see life, if your perception takes you to an unhealthy place, maybe your eye-perspective needs to be cut out.  If you see yourself as a victim all the time, for example.  Or, if we get caught up in societal form of justice as punitive only, so much so that forgiveness doesn’t stand a chance.  Or, if your perspective on life takes you to deep cynicism, or deep hatred, maybe all those should be torn out.  Because if we’re swept up in this thing called the gospel of Jesus Christ, might our perspectives have to change accordingly? Might open an emotional and intellectual surgery in us?

 Last summer a man by the name of Ken Parker participated in that infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.  A former grand dragon of the KKK, he had joined a Nazi group after concluding that the KKK wasn’t hateful enough.  Can you imagine?  But, over the past year, his perspectives got torn out and started to change as he got to know his African American neighbor, Rev. William McKinnon III, pastor at All Saints Holiness Church in Jacksonville, Florida.  And guess what?  In early August, one year later,  Pastor McKinnon baptized Ken Parker in All Saints Holiness Church (Century Marks, The Christian Century, September 12, 2018, p. 8). Ken Parker’s old perspective was torn out.  A new life spirit was growing in its place.  Thank God.

 Of course, we can examine other things in our personal lives that actually starve the life of God’s spirit in us.  Addictions to alcohol, drugs, power, sex, money, illicit relationships, even co-dependency (which is an addiction to helping others) can cause sinful behavior by those things influencing our behaviors so much that we secretly make them god with a little “g.”  And, they actually tear apart our relationship with the real God and starve the life of God in us as well as in others around us.  Jesus says, “Cut them off.  It is painful to cut off that which you love, but it’s better to have the life of God nourished and thriving in you without those things than to have those things and be dead on the inside.

“The process isn’t usually a pleasant one.  It hurts to have things torn from us, to have the bottle taken out of our hands, to have bad relationships come  to an end, to have the way we see ourselves and the our church and world change.  God’s spirit brings to our consciousness the places where we need to cut, not to exercise power over us or to punish us with the pain, …but to free us.”


When we go through the sometimes painful faith growth, the good news of the gospel is that God’s grace comes every time we “cut off’ that which takes us away from God, or that which harms healthy relationships with each other.  Some alcoholics have said that they feared cutting off the alcohol thinking they would surely die without it, when in fact,  cutting it our and going without is exactly what freed them. That’s what gave them new life!  That’s God’s grace.

Facing the person who has wronged you, or if you’ve wronged someone, seeking reconciliation, restoration, and forgiveness may be painful, it may have far-reaching consequences out of your control, but that’s the beginning of freedom, of healing and grace, of restoration.  You start to feel free from the pain, or free from the guilt, or from the burden on your shoulders.

Which takes me back to the Senate Judiciary hearings.  I can’t help but wonder… if the events of thirty years ago are true, what would happened if Judge Kavanaugh upon hearing  the accusations, privately, and publicly, went immediately to Dr. Ford and said, “I need to tell you, I’m very sorry for the way I treated you back in college.  My actions were disrespectful and intolerable.  Please forgive me.  I take full responsibility for my actions.  And if I am not voted in on the Supreme Court because of it, so be it.”  And what if, upon hearing that apology Dr. Ford said, “I forgive you and am thankful for your apology.”  What would happen if that kind of conversation would have taken place? I’m not so naive to think that would ever happen in our society.

I don’t know about you, but I would rather have a person on the Supreme Court that is not perfect, but has developed integrity through the painful, difficult work of confession, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.

Or, if the events are not true, and the whole incident 30 years ago is either a hoax or case of mistaken identity, what would it be like if Dr. Ford fessed up and said, “I’m sorry, I have my facts mixed up.  I take full responsibility for my error.”  And what if Judge Kavanaugh accepted such an apology?  That too, would be a place for new life, new grace, reconciliation and restoration to take place. Again I’m not so naïve to think that would ever happen in our day and age.

Here’s what makes sense to me.  Faith growth sometimes is painful.  But God’s grace is always present.  Being a Christian doesn’t mean being squeaky clean.  It does mean that some things we hang on to actually do us and others harm.  But, with wisdom, power and love, God will speak through the spirit in our spirit, in our conscience, with our moral compass to help us know what things need to be cut out.  And, God will work into us the grace that heals and restores and frees us.  And, we may have scars, but we’re healed.  We do not live with the illusion of perfection, but  we live with real life, with God’s life living in us. And, we will be much better for it.


 I am  indebted to Nadia Bolz-Weber whose work aided me in the ideas and construction of this sermon (, retrieved September 29, 2018).