Millstones September 30, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Eric C. Smith

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1 SERMON Millstones September 30, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Eric C. Smith

2 Scripture Reading Mark 9: John said to him, Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us. 39 But Jesus said, Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. 42 If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.,47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another. There is a lot going on in this passage from the gospel of Mark, a lot of strange stuff and a lot of dire words about body parts and being thrown into hell and something about a worm, and I hope that maybe on some other Sunday we can talk about all of that. But today I mostly want to talk about just one of the verses from this scripture, just one of the sentences Jesus uttered in this stream of harsh statements. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, Jesus said, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. A millstone, if you are not familiar, is a huge circular rock with a hole in the middle, like the one on the cover of your bulletin, and it was used in the ancient world to grind grain into flour. Millstones weighed at the very least hundreds of pounds, and in many cases they weighed tons, and so it was no moderate punishment that Jesus was suggesting when he talked about a millstone being hung around your neck and you being thrown into the sea. Jesus, yes, Jesus, the prince of peace and all of that, Jesus was describing something very dire. If you put a stumbling block before a child--that is, if you cause pain or trouble to a child, you re better off at the bottom of the ocean with a millstone around your neck. I don t usually go in for all those harsh and cruel punishments described in the bible, I don t usually think that those terrible things actually reflect anything like the will of God, but after the news of the past several.days, weeks, months, years after hearing the news lately I think I am in agreement with Jesus on this one. I think most people agree that the news is awful most of the time these days, no matter what your political affiliations, but recently the news has been especially awful in brand new ways and in some ways old ways. And it s not even really fair to blame the news, because it s not the news s fault. The news is only awful lately because people are awful lately, because we are awful lately, or I guess because people have been awful always, but it s been getting on the news more recently. It seems like the seafloor might be littered with millstones these days, because it turns out that a lot of stumbling blocks have been placed in front of a lot of people. We are in the middle of a reckoning, in our culture, and while I have never harbored many illusions that things were perfect, if I may speak personally for a second, I am left feeling shocked and a little bit ashamed at how little I appreciated about how bad things really have been. Page 1 of 4

3 A few weeks ago a grand jury released a report from an investigation. This grand jury had been investigating most, but not all, of the districts of the Roman Catholic Church in the state of Pennsylvania. To put that differently, this was a report that only dealt with one state, and only dealt with one denomination, and even then it didn t even deal with that denomination in all of that one state. And this investigation found over 1000 child victims of clergy sex abuse, abuse perpetrated by over 300 different abusers, over decades of time. It found a pattern of administrative coverups, theological coverups, and bureaucratic excuse-making that enabled all of this abuse to happen. This report strongly suggested that there were additional victims and additional perpetrators that did not make it into the report for various reasons. I read about the first thirty pages of the report, because I felt as someone who lives and works in the church world that I should read it. But eventually I had to stop. It has been weeks since I read it, and I still cannot get it out of my head. I thought that it would be bad, and it was so much worse than I thought it would be. I think we Protestants sometimes imagine that this is a problem only for Catholic churches, but if we think that we are deluding ourselves. Certainly there is something especially sickening about abuse that happens in such a hierarchical and structured system, where the system itself helps to cover up the crimes. But abuse happens in Protestant churches too. It happens all the time. I remember once, unprompted, a friend of mine sent me an . He knew that I worked in churches, and I think I had told him about the kind of training we do to prevent abuse and exploitation. This friend sent me an to ask me, to plead with me, to take this training seriously, because he said, his wife had been abused as a teenager in her youth group. No one really took it seriously then, he said, no one from her church took her experience seriously, they told her she was exaggerating, and they blamed her and they covered it up, and she carries that around with her as a silent burden well into her adulthood. I have heard so many stories like that. Maybe you have too. Protestants are not immune to this, and Catholics aren t the only ones who hush it up and pretend like nothing happened and abdicate their moral responsibility. And it s not even just churches, speaking of watching the news. Movie executives have been revealed as predators. Actors. Actresses. Bill Cosby, one of the great supposed moral figures of my childhood, just got sentenced for the assault of one woman and is alleged to have committed repeated serial assault and exploitation of many more women, although a statute of limitations that is too short prevents most of those from being pursued. There have been accusations against politicians, including candidates for president, including at least two successful candidates for president. It seems like a hundred years ago now, but it was just about 9 months ago that an Alabama senatorial candidate and former state supreme court justice narrowly lost, narrowly lost, in spite of allegations that when he was in his 30s he dated girls as young as 14, dated in quotes because that is in no way a normal or ok form of dating. This week, I don t have to remind you, has been consumed with accusations against a judicial nominee, allegations of exploitation and assault against high school girls and college women. All of it pointing to a culture of abuse, a society and a system that has been allowing all of this to happen. And all over social media there is a chorus, there is a refrain: me too. It happened to me too. Someone hurt me too. Someone allowed it to happen to me too. And the scope of that me too is breathtaking. It seems like it s coming from almost every woman I know, even though I know many women are protecting themselves by staying silent. It s coming from some men I know. It s coming from celebrities and regular people, from grandparents and children and from strangers and friends. It seems to never stop, the me too, and that s because it turns out that all this time we have been living in a world where this kind of thing happens regularly, all the time, but almost nobody ever talked about it. Until now. Now we are talking about it. Page 2 of 4

4 Some of you might be asking why I m talking about it in this sermon. Even if you re glad that I m talking about it, most of you are probably uncomfortable right now and wish I would stop. And I have to say, I m uncomfortable right now, and I wish I could stop, because this stuff is really hard, and I d rather be talking about almost anything else right now. But it has to be said: this is a religious moment. This is a theological moment. The me too movement is about the most basic facts of being a human being, and that is exactly what church is about. If we show up here every week and we claim that God made us, we claim that God loves us, if we claim that God is with us, that God saves us in whatever way we understand that, if we show up here and claim those things about God s children, then we are in the game when someone hurts God s children. When someone hurts God s children, it is a theological problem, and it matters how we react and respond to that harm. For so many years for centuries, really the church has focused on the soul as the most important thing about people. Christians have poured effort and resources into saving souls, Christians have gone to the ends of the earth to reach people with the good news of salvation. The soul was what was important to Christianity, but the body has too often been left vulnerable. That Pennsylvania grand jury report is full of horrific stories from seminaries, from youth groups, from church camps, from elementary schools and preschools run out of church buildings. In every one of those places, kids and teenagers were there to find a connection between their souls and God, and in every one of those places instead they found predators and they found a church that cared a lot more about what happened to their souls in the next life than what happened to their bodies and spirits in this life. And, worst of all, they found a church that cared a lot more about protecting its own reputation, and the reputations of their abusers, than it cared about protecting children. There s an interesting little quirk in the Greek text of this passage from the gospel of Mark. That word that s translated as stumbling block in English is the word skandalon in Greek. Skandalon is the root word of our modern English word scandal. The first definition of the Greek word skandalon is to cause to be brought to a downfall, to cause to sin, and the second definition is to shock through word or action, to give offense to, to anger. So there s this interesting double meaning for us in the Greek. Jesus is telling us not to hurt children, and not to allow them to be hurt. But we could also say that Jesus is telling us not to say or do things that anger, offend, or shock someone in a way that causes them to turn away from God. There has been lots of ink spilled and lots of hands wrung lately about why young people are leaving the church, about why the next generation is not as religious as the last, but I think a large part of it is obvious. A large part of it is that we have placed a skandalon in front of them, that the church has offended and shocked and shown itself to be morally bankrupt. The church has been more worried about the church than the children. We should not be surprised when young people look at the church and then move on to somewhere else. You can almost understand the thinking of a bishop sitting somewhere in an office. It s the same thinking done by a campaign director, or by a president s lawyer, or by a judiciary committee member. If the story this victim is telling is true, those people probably think, then the damage is already done to them. Whatever happened to Monica Lewinsky or Christine Blasey Ford or Bill Cosby s victims or those kids at church camp in Pennsylvania,these people must be thinking, whatever happened to them has already happened and there s nothing that can be done about it. It cannot be undone. But that should not have to mean, they must think, that our institution has to live with a millstone around its neck. It should not sink this presidency or this diocese or this nomination or this career. Again and again you hear this from people who are accused of abuse and misconduct, and you hear it from their allies: this person s legacy will be tarnished. The good this person could have done in office will be lost. The beautiful contributions this person has made will be ruined. I know this must be what those church Page 3 of 4

5 officials in Pennsylvania were thinking. If we turn this priest in to the police, then it is a scandal. It s a stumbling block. There s a millstone around our necks. Best to keep it quiet. Best to try to keep a lid on it, move him somewhere else where he can t do this again, because there is so much good done by this church that will be ruined if this ever comes out. I have never been in a position to make that kind of decision, thank God, but I can imagine how seductive that thinking would sound. It doesn t sound to us like it should be a hard decision, but it must be a hard decision, because we keep seeing people make the wrong one. We keep seeing power protect institutions over people. This is a theological problem. It s a theological problem because at the end of the day, in those final calculations, it s a problem about some people being less valuable than others, and people s souls being worth more than their bodies. Maybe this is why Jesus put it the way he did in that passage from Mark Jesus talked very directly and almost grotesquely about bodies. If your eye causes you to stumble, if your eye skandalidze in the Greek, if your eye scandalizes, then tear it out. If your hand causes you to stumble, if your hand scandalizes, cut it off. That thing that is causing harm, that thing that is putting a stumbling block or a skandalon in front of children and causing them to be hurt, cut it out and get rid of it. Don t hide it out of fear that you ll have a millstone around your neck, get rid of it because otherwise it would be better to have a millstone around your neck and be thrown into the sea. Cut out that part that causes harm and scandal because if your body is going around causing harm and scandal, your whole person is doomed to destruction. Harsh words, but over the past weeks, months, years, I ve come to appreciate them. I think there s wisdom in these words. We have to face this theological problem that we have; we have to wrestle with the fact that for too long our governments, our society, our culture, and God knows our churches have valued some people more than others. We have called some people child of God and other people expendable, we have worried about souls while bodies were being abused and spirits crushed in our negligence and our defense of institutions over persons. We have to do better than this. As a nation, a society, a people, as a church, we have to do better than this. Because otherwise we would be better off with a millstone around our necks, at the bottom of the sea. Page 4 of 4

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