Stumbling in faith
A Benedictine monk was asked, “What do you do all day long in that monestary?” He answered, “We fall down and we get back up.” Trying to be a disciple of Jesus means we often fail and make amends and try again. We all fall, and we all get back up again. We are imperfect, and getting back up after stumbling requires us to rely on God’s grace.
So if being a disciple is not perfect, why do expect other disciples to be so? Why do we expect leaders to get it right all the time? We act surprised at others failures, but even Jesus’ first disciples stumbled. They betrayed him, ran off at his arrest, and denied him in the streets after the trial, and they failed by jockeying for power and influence.
In today’s gospel, Jesus warns to be aware of our tendency to stumble. He also warns us of the consequences of tripping up a sister or a brother, who is trying to do the best they can do. The consequences of putting stumbling blocks in front of others are far worse than having a weight around your neck and being thrown into the sea. The consequences of causing others to stumble are far worse than if we were to cut off our foot or hand. Even though we believe the community should be perfect, the early God fearers and often tried to trip one another up.
In Genesis, the Spirit came upon some of those on the outside of Moses’ leadership team, and Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, heard about it and became a little jealous. His motives were self-centered, misguided, and unloving and so, Joshua went to Moses and said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” Later, some in Jesus’ leadership team demonstrated that same self-serving attitude. John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
Both Joshua and John were insiders who became frightened when their plans for influence were turned upside down, when others threatened their so-called “special places” in the kingdom. Unknowingly, these leaders tried to stop God’s mission as it was bursting through in unexpected ways and through unexpected people. God’s kingdom always emerges through those we least expect; kind of like a poor carpenter’s son born in a stable.
Theologian Kenneth Carder explains how fear of change and loss makes us act in often, unhealthy ways. He wrote, “When threatened with loss, when feeling insecure, we circle the wagons. Gathering the clan and resisting the outsiders is a popular reaction against insecurity and fear.” (1) Like Joshua and John, those early biblical leaders, we church people today can become threatened by change or people we just do not like, and we begin circling the wagons, pointing fingers, and becoming exclusionary.
These are the kinds of stumbling blocks Jesus speaks of in Mark’s gospel today. Carder explains, “Jesus, the very incarnation of God’s power and presence … challenged the practice of confining God’s redemptive and transforming action to one’s own race, one’s own religious institution, one’s own political party.” (1) I would add that Jesus does not deny grace to the people we do not like, or those that do not meet our expectations. Jesus tells us rather, to “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Saltiness – Leadership in God’s mission
By virtue of your baptism, every single one of us in the church is a leader. No you may say, “Eric, I am no leader, I follow the crowd.”. However, we are leaders, and we all must strive to be leaders with “salt in ourselves.” Let me explain this metaphor of saltiness Jesus used. Salt was a preservative placed on fish and meats to draw out moisture and keep it from rotting. Salt enhanced the flavor of food. “Salty leaders” by their actions and influence, both preserve the movement of God’s Spirit, and they enhance the movement of God’s Spirit in the life of the church.
We all are leaders and some of us have titles and formal roles, and others are not formally designated. Some leaders do not even recognize their own leadership identity, but because of their influence, they serve in leadership positions outside the formal organizational structure. Whether your are a formal or informal leader, you have the choice to act as salt in the community, enhancing and preserving God’s mission, or you can put out stumbling blocks for God’s people and God’s mission.
“Salty leaders” are coaches, mentors, and supporters of those struggling to walk the path of Jesus. “Salty Leaders” can make decisions that sometimes cause unanticipated, unexpected, and unintentional injury or stress, because no one is perfect. Hopefully, “Salty Leaders” do not intentionally try to put out stumbling blocks for others. Rather, they help others recognize that spiritual growth depends on flexible, open, willingness to respond to God’s call to transformation, to traverse the fires and trials of discipleship.
Theologian Christine Bartholomew said, and I quote, “God is constantly refining us with fire, whether that fire be conflict, persecution or sacrifice. These events can change us and draw us closer to God. This is a work of sanctification, not salvation.”(2) We often have to walk through the fires of difficult circumstances, in order to be led into the grace God has in store for us.
In my eight years as a priest, good leaders with authority over me have made decisions regarding my ministries that in the moment caused me stress and pain. Their tough love though, often opened a door for God’s call on my life to become clear, and allow me to see the journey God had in store all along. Over the years, I have had to release my Burger King mentality of ministry (have it your way) in order to allow God to direct me; all along trusting that he knew better than I. A ministry of constant change, difficult challenges, joyful moments, and faithful obedience has been the path that led me back to parish ministry again, and for that I give glory to God. Each one of us traverses a discipleship path of fiery circumstances and unexpected challenges, and choosing to be salt or a stumbling block is the dilemma of being a Christian leader.
“Salty Leaders also must leave the safe and secure sidelines of church life, and get into the middle of the arena of ministry. It is easy to disengage from active ministry and just poke the bears when they stumble and fall. It is easy to criticize those who are trying to do their best, being faithful and obedient. It is easy undermine God’s progress, because it does not fit our own idea of church. “Salty leaders” reject the safe seats of inactive criticism and finger pointing, and choose the risky arena of hard work in mission and ministry, while all along remaining open to God’s life-altering and transformative grace.
Dr. Brene Brown in her book, “Daring Greatly” describes the kind of bold, focused, and committed “Salty Leadership” each of us must strive to embrace. She quoted President Theodore Roosevelt who once said; “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
“Salty Leaders” focus on the mission and not the detractors. “Salty Leaders” put away their fears of failure, change, and the desire to maintain the status quo. “Salty Leaders” get out in the arena of mission just like Jesus, who took a risk for us, who let his face get marred by dust and sweat and blood for us. Jesus let his hands and feet be pierced for us. Jesus gave his life for us, and clears away the stumbling blocks all along the path for us. Despite our constant falling and getting back up, despite our failures and imperfections; if Jesus did all that for us, should we as “Salty Leaders” in the Kingdom do the same for one another; we who boldly claim him as Lord?
(1) Carder, Kenneth L.Bp. “Unexclusive Gospel.” The Christian Century, vol. 114, no. 25, Sept. 1997, p. 787.
(2) Bartholomew, Christine R. “‘For Everything Will Be Salted with Fire.’” Touchstone, vol. 28, no. 1, Jan. 2010, pp. 5–7.