September 30, 2018: The Rev. Tom Momberg

A Sermon on Mark 9:38-50

When I turned eighteen, I thought I was a real man. An oldest son and high school graduate with honors, I enrolled in a prestigious university, on full scholarship.  Now . . . I’d been invited to join a fraternity! I also joined another well-known, unofficial fraternity called Tappa Kega Beer. On my eighteenth birthday, I chugged some brewskis, dropped a quarter into a pay phone, and called home.  My folks were not ready for that conversation.

I was raised in a household where alcohol was seldom seen. My dad rarely bought a six-pack, and mom would reluctantly join him for a small glass of champagne to celebrate their anniversaries. By some miracle, I had no real exposure to alcohol elsewhere, other than Communion wine, until college. Once there, I made up for lost time.  I nearly flunked out, and I lost my scholarship.  Here’s another miracle: after five years, I graduated.

My first wife, a college classmate, was, just like her mother, father,  brother, and aunt, a big-time drinker.  Through that marriage, I joined a fully alcoholic family.  The next eight years were spent drinking, all the time.  Finally, I was sick and tired of my miserable life, so, after meeting another woman over cocktails, I filed for a divorce.  But I kept drinking for more than another decade.  I drank until five years after I became a priest.

While rector of a church for the first time, a man my age befriended me. One day, John invited me to play golf.  Somewhere on the eighth hole, he asked casually, “Do you have a drinking problem?”  John had noticed I always filled the chalice far too full of wine at the weekday Eucharist he attended.  After Communion, I’d finish it off.  I had noticed John never drank from the cup, but I had never asked him why.  Suddenly, I knew why.

John invited me to my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. At my second meeting, I became a member. That was September 1, 1991.  By the grace of God, with help from the the fellowship of A.A. and other recovering alcoholics and addicts, as well as the principles of Twelve-Step spirituality, I’m grateful for twenty-seven years of continuous, one-day-at-a-time sobriety.

I’m telling you this today because of what happened here last Sunday evening. We celebrated the life of a woman who died.  By all accounts from her family members and friends, she’d been under the influence of alcohol for far too long.  Through the mercies of God, Julia now rests in peace.

I’m also telling you part of my story of recovery because, for me, it connects with part of today’s Gospel text.  Today, in this passage from St. Mark we’d probably prefer not to hear if we could help it, Jesus talks about hell and other unseemly things.

One theologian says that “hell is the terrible weariness and incredible boredom of a life focused entirely on itself” (Daniel Migliore). Today we see how faithful followers of Jesus were preoccupied with their own power and position as disciples.  Jesus flattens their hierarchical desires by responding with these well-known words: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (9:40). He is echoing the words of Moses from our first lesson: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29)

Jesus also warns his disciples to be careful of “the little ones who believe in (him)” (9:42).  Last Sunday, “little ones” were children Jesus welcomed.  Today, a “little one” is anyone who . . . well, stumbles.

There are two words Jesus uses in today’s Gospel to describe those who are on their way to hell, unless they change their behavior – unless they “cut it out.” (Did your parents use that expression?  “Just cut it out!”) One of Jesus’ words, in the original Greek, is skandalon, from which we get our English word scandalSkandalon is rendered in our translation, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, as “stumbling block.”  The other word – skandalizo – is translated as “causes you to stumble.” Skandalizo is is also rendered as “to trip up” or “to put a snare in the way.”

People can’t always see how cunning, baffling, and powerful alcohol can be for teenagers— or anyone of any age.  Many people don’t realize how easy it is to be tripped up by alcohol and other addictive substances, to be ensnared by them, to stumble into being a scandalous stumbling block, for themselves and for others.

Last week, many of us watched, heard, and lived what we could call a national scandal.  It’s hard not to get caught up in the drama of the judge and the psychologist, unfolding hour by hour.  Both sides believe they are 100% right.  Personally, I believe her.  I also believe he may have been drinking to such excess, as I often did until I was forty-two, that he may have blacked out.  If so, he cannot now remember what he did or didn’t do.

As for us, what are the stumbling blocks and scandals that can cause us to be so separated from God, we feel like we’re in a living hell?  Spiritual teacher Richard Rohr suggests we often stumble over the illusion that we’re in control of our world and do not really need any help.  In his book about spirituality and the Twelve Steps called Breathing Under Water, he writes:

“It is the imperial ego that has to go, and only powerlessness can do the job correctly . . . The experience of ‘powerlessness’ is where we all must begin . . . We are all spiritually powerless . . . . Alcoholics just have their powerlessness visible for all to see . . . . We really are our own worst enemies, and (the) salvation (we need) is primarily from ourselves.”  The Big Book of A.A. puts it this way: “Without help, it is too much for us.  But there is One who has all power— that One is God.  May you find Him now!”

Speaking of God, skandalon is a word St. Paul uses, but in a different way— to describe Jesus.  “We proclaim Christ crucified,” he writes to the church in Corinth.  He calls Jesus “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are perishing,” those who are dying to their old self, Christ is “the power and the wisdom of God” (1:23).  In Romans Paul says “they have stumbled over the stumbling stone . . . a stone that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (9:32-33).

What if stumbling, over and over again, is what life is all about?  What if, each time we stumble— and the older we get, the more likely it is that we will stumble – what if we figure out what tends to make us stumble and just cut it out?  What if stumbling upon Jesus, over and over again, is what the Christian life is all about? What if, each time we stumble over Jesus, we find the power and the wisdom of God – and we are no longer ashamed?

Richard Rohr again: “We cannot stop the drowning waters of our addictive culture from rising, but we must at least see our reality for what it is, seek to properly detach from it, and…learn to breathe underwater.  The New Testament called (this) salvation . . . (in the 18th century, people called it) enlightenment.  The Twelve Step program(s) call it recovery.”

Jesus speaks of a scandal.  For us, it can be particular kind of scandal called recovery.  Regina, a friend in longtime recovery, says everybody is recovering or needs to recover from something.  Everybody is here today, because we’re recovering or longing to recover from something.  Good News: God is here with us.  Today, we just might do something scandalous.  Today, while we’re here, or when we leave, we just might find God, the God of our many understandings.  Today, we might just stumble upon Jesus.

The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
The Episcopal Church of the Ascension
Montgomery, Alabama
September 30, 2018

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