September 30, 2018 Sermon preached by The Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund
Year B; Proper 21; 9.30.2018
Last week a friend of mine posted a beautiful Baroque painting by Artemisia Gentileschi entitled “Susanna and the Elders.” The caption under the painting was from the book, “Susanna” located among the books in the Bible called the “Apocrypha.” The Apocrypha is a collection of ancient books that are not included in all bibles. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans and Anglicans generally include readings from the Apocrypha in our lectionary. So most of our bibles contain these books.
The caption under this Baroque painting of Susanna reads, “Then Susanna cried out with a loud voice and the two elders shouted against her. And one of them ran and opened the garden doors. When the household servants heard the shouting in the garden they rushed in at the side door to see what had happened to her. And when the elders told their tale…the assembly believed them, because they were elders of the people and judges…”
The Book of Susanna was written at the time of the Babylonian captivity of Jewish people. Susanna is described as the beautiful, righteous, God-loving wife of Joakim. And she was nearly raped by the elders in the garden. They had given her a choice: surrender to us or we will accuse you of infidelity with a young man. She fought them off, only to be falsely charged with infidelity. She was nearly sentenced to death for this false claim when the young man in question came forward and boldly refuted the accusation. Susanna was set free and the elders were punished.
It’s really no surprise that this bible story and the painting were circulated last week in parallel to the very public, opposing testimonies given last week by a woman who claims sexual assault by a man who is set to be seated on the Supreme Court. He denied her claims and many in this country, indeed around the world were watching riveted, angered, traumatized and even confused by the news reports.
It’s been difficult to ignore the news reports. Many people have expressed their anger and wounded-ness. With all this public discussion that has used the phrase “sexual assault,” surely our children are picking up on it. I wonder what our children feeling and thinking. How are they processing all this news? What is going on in households as mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers watch the news and make comment? My neighbor said she was delayed in her response to an email I sent her because she said she was watching the news for the last 24 hours. She has two children under the age of 10. How much of what she was watching did her children hear?
As a community of people who follow Jesus, and who are called “children of God,” how are we to help our “little ones” absorb this information and not be “stumbling blocks” to them? And not only children, but adults who are struggling to live faithful lives following Jesus. How do we as a community understand the goodness, love and mercy of Jesus when we are surrounded by so much scandal, angry tears of denial and scared public confessions of sexual assault and even accusations of alcoholic black out?
“Mom, what does all this mean? Dad, should I be afraid that the grownups don’t have things under control? Grandmother, am I safe?”
In last week’s Gospel passage from Mark, Jesus disarmed the disciples’ argument about who is the greatest by gathering up a child in his arms. He said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” He reminded his disciples of his teaching to treat the person of the lowest status as if she were of the highest status. That is how God’s realm is ordered. That “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
And in today’s reading, Jesus goes on to teach that his followers are not to “cause someone to stumble.” Likewise, he teaches that if there is a stumbling block even to one of “these little ones,” they must remove it. And he uses strong, even gory imagery to bring that point home.
The word “stumble” is the most accurate translation from the Greek in this passage. So in our reading the phrase, “cause them to stumble” or “cause you to stumble,” it is truly the strongest translation. But other translations bring the point home more clearly to modern ears by using the word “sin.”
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hand to go to Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire…If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, poke it out…”
Now, before we dismiss this awful, foreign-sounding scripture passage, let’s consider why Jesus was using such extreme language. Consider the sense of importance and urgency that comes with such language. After all, it was only going to be a matter of a short time when Jesus would enter Jerusalem for his final week on earth. He knew it, even if his disciples could not face this truth. Jesus taught in images of hyperbole to get his point across swiftly and with impact.
And that is our calling today – to get Jesus’ point across swiftly and with impact to our children and others who have been traumatized by last week’s testimonies. No, we won’t use the gory language Jesus used. But we will have the opportunity to be agents of peace, hope and love by for who have been traumatized by fear, children and adults who find themselves triggered by language of sexual assault, by so much division and contradictory witness. By angry words and ugly photos.
My prayer is that we not be the ones to cause “one of these little ones to stumble.” May we be agents of love, demonstrating compassion for victims of sexual assault and rape.
The Christian mother of a 16-year-old daughter who was a rape victim counsels us all in the Way of Jesus and in the urgency of not causing anyone of us to stumble in these trying days in our country. She writes these words in a recent article found in “Grow Christians,” an Episcopal blog for parents:
“Please, talk with the children you love. Promise them a brave space to share their hurt or express their anger. Tell them about Jesus who loves all of us when we’re strong and when we’re broken, when we have been wounded beyond imagining and when we are the ones who have inflicted the wounds. Tell them that their words and actions matter – and then show them that it is so with your own words and actions.”
Our faith teaches us how to live godly lives with our words and actions. We make vows to God to be the people God wants us to be, though we do “stumble” from time to time. Our Baptismal vows teach us how to live as God wants us to live. We promise to “…persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, (or “stumble”) repent and return to the Lord.” We promise “…to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourself.” We promise “…to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
“The little ones” are watching our words and our actions. May we provide a brave space, a safe space. May we live with Jesus so close to our hearts that even when we do stumble, we desire to return to him again and again to receive his forgiveness.