Sermon by Revd Diane Simms focusing on the Six Pastoral Principles
Sunday 26th September 2021: 17th Sunday after Trinity
Today's Gospel reading from Mark is a bit like a cold shower on a winter's morning. Some of the language is a shock to the system: hell, fire, demons and stumbling blocks. But the more I thought about ignoring Jesus's vivid language, the more I realised he meant to use it for important reasons.
Jesus wants his followers to be trustworthy witnesses to God's faithful love and not lead anyone astray through unchristlike behaviour. God is fiercely protective of those whom Jesus calls 'little ones'.
Who might Jesus be thinking of when he speaks of 'little ones'? The first group that comes to mind is children. A few verses back in the same chapter Jesus singled out a child as someone God welcomes with open arms. But I wonder who else might be a 'little one'? They could be seekers of faith - new to church or harmed by a bad experience of church.
Little ones could refer to people with limited power or influence, people who are vulnerable or possibly misunderstood. It might be LGBT+ people, Black and minority ethnic communities, people with a physical or learning disability, someone who lives in fear in their own home, or people living with a range mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety.
Just this past week I have been doing part one of the nationally accredited Mental Health First Aid training course. It would be easy to dismiss the word demons in this passage as a figment of someone's imagination.
But some people really do see and hear distressing things that disturb their peace. Jesus is saying here that anyone trying to relieve their pain, is doing God's work. Today that could be anyone from professional psychiatrists to counsellors, charities or just supportive friends and family.
These reminders by Jesus of who we might treat as an outsider, bring us on to Jesus's teaching on stumbling blocks. By now you may know about the Church of England's Living in Love and Faith course. The idea is to run small groups in parishes where people can hear from each other about the whole range of loving relationships and friendships that sustain their lives. Lives that reflect the diversity of being made in God's image.
Living in Love and Faith is trying to break down barriers between people, so the Church of England has set out key Pastoral Principles for living well with difference. These six Pastoral Principles are aimed at removing the sorts of stumbling blocks Jesus might have been referring to in this reading - negative actions and attitudes in church that discredit the name of Jesus Christ.
Jesus himself constantly broke down barriers by reaching out to people others treated as outcasts - for example lepers, foreigners, prostitutes, people with mental and physical illness and so on. Here is a list of six common adverse reactions to difference.
Fear. Ignorance. Prejudice. Hypocrisy. Silence. Power.
The good news is that we can learn from example of Jesus to remove these stumbling blocks.
Firstly, fear can be cast out by love - even when we disagree on some things. Loving means allowing ourselves to be open and vulnerable as we wrestle in prayer with the costliness of Christian discipleship. Listening is a first step in loving. Jesus listened to the mothers who wanted to bring their children to him for a blessing. We must listen to children too.
Secondly, ignorance can be addressed through learning. We can be open to discovering different viewpoints and hearing about people's lived experience. Remember Jesus allowed himself to be corrected by the Canaanite woman who was prepared to pick up crumbs from under the table.
Thirdly hypocrisy is avoided through honesty. It's tempting to condemn certain behaviours and attitudes while turning a blind eye to others. We're all in need of God's grace. There's a wideness in God's mercy. Remember Jesus words to the men who wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery.
Fourthly, prejudice can be overcome through self-awareness. We need to work hard at becoming aware of our bias against certain groups. Jesus challenged the Pharisees' labelling of tax collectors and prostitutes as sinners. We too must avoid stereotypes and labels.
Fifthly, silence can be broken through speaking up. With courage we can share what's on our hearts and minds to understand each other more fully. Just as Jesus helped the woman at the well to go deeper in conversation.
Sixth, power can give way to humility. We can try to notice ways that we try and control other people. Jesus followed the way of the cross. He humbled himself in compassion and loving service.
Listening, Learning, Honesty about blind spots, Awareness of our biases, Courage to speak up and Humility - these are the salt Jesus wants us to have in ourselves. These are the seasonings that taste of love Salt stings to disinfect and fire burns to refine. Becoming more like Jesus is a costly sometimes painful journey. So let us pray for God's strength.
Loving God give us the courage to follow along the salt path to your kingdom where all are being transformed by your Grace and all are welcome. Amen.