Some friends were on vacation in New Orleans, walking down a sidewalk to find a good restaurant. All of a sudden one of the men found himself on the ground. He had tripped but didn’t even know how. His friends were surprised at his sudden disappearance from view. The man is 6’2” so his rapid descent was noticeable! He brushed himself off, confirmed that nothing was broken and they continued on their way. But curiosity gnawed at the stumbler. So the next day, as they walked along the same sidewalk, he checked out the scene of the fall. He noticed a slight rise in the sidewalk that was higher than the surrounding cement. It was subtle enough to not be noticed or repaired by the city. But it was enough of a change in landscape that it felled a grown man in a flash!
When we toured in Europe two summers ago I learned about stumbling stones. In Amsterdam and Munich we saw small metallic placards screwed into pavers on old walkways. The names of people who lived on the street more than 70 years ago were engraved with the date of birth and death and the concentration camp to which they were sent. German artist, Gunter Demnig, designed many of the “stolpersteins” in his native Germany and also in Rome. He conceived of these memorials in 1993 and now there are over 60,000 of them across 21 countries in Europe. The intent is for passersby to take note of these shiny markers that sit aside non-descript bricks, begging for our reflection. One definition for stumbling stone is an obstacle to our progress.
As we sit in the thick of a global pandemic, hearing ever-more startling statistics each day, I suspect we feel as if an obstacle has been put in place. It blocks our progress and trips us up from the daily routines we took for granted. Most of us are secure in our housing. We’ve stocked up on food. Perhaps we’ve even hoarded some items that make us believe that we still have some control. The corona virus has served as a stumbling stone across the nations, felling the weak and the strong. It forces us to reflect on what keeps us grounded.
We read of an encounter with Jesus in Luke 12 (13-21). A man approaches Jesus, the traveling Sage, and asks Him to arbitrate inheritance issues between himself and his brother. Jesus is disinterested in serving as judge over matters of material gain which typically bring the worst out of people. But He uses the interaction to teach a lesson. In the parable He presents a rich man who enjoys a bumper crop. He assumes the season of prosperity will keep going. Time to expand! Invest! Build! He has so much of his crop to store that he has to redesign his storage facilities! He tears down the old barns and builds bigger ones. Servants load the new structures full of food as the owner watches from the sidelines, making retirement plans. With his wealth hoarded, his self-talk reveals that he is only looking out for number one. His faith is in his wealth and he is sure that nothing can take that from him.
But the joke is on him! Jesus brings God into the story and God tells this smug businessman that all his wealth will be distributed to others because he will die the very night that he has christened his overflowing barns! The language is strong: “You fool!” That’s not what you want to hear from God! I imagine a moment of terrified awareness when the rich man responds perhaps in Homer Simpson style: “D’oh” and smacks his forehead. “I got it wrong! My stock portfolio isn’t my Savior after all!” It’s important to notice the accusation. God exhorts him that this rapid fall is what happens to someone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.
It’s easy in our society to get caught up in DOING our lives away. We don’t know how to sit still. God puts stumbling blocks in our paths, hoping we will take time to reflect on what matters most. But we walk past them. Our nation is trying to figure out what carries over from the lives we led just two weeks ago and what is no longer possible. I heard this week that sports gamblers are at a loss for how to spend their time (and money!) absent all professional sports. What a crisis! I saw in a groupon ad that I can buy eyelash extensions at a reduced rate. I’ll place my order today so that I can look my best on my zoom meetings! Some crafty sales reps are marketing their wares as if it’s business-as-usual. But an invisible enemy has ground our labor to a halt. Covid 19 has ceased our social interactions, and sent us scurrying to safe places for refuge. For thousands, it has sent them to the hospital in a desperate fight for their lives. It is easy to choose works over faith but a killing virus demands that we examine the foundation on which we have built our lives.
There’s a passage from Romans 9 that names Jesus as the Stumbling Stone sent by God:
“31 but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. 32 Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written,
‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall,
and whoever believes in him[a] will not be put to shame.’”
(Romans 9: 31-33)
Without Jesus, our values are different. We are untethered to anything lasting or holy. The ways of the world very easily become our ways and we wander down paths that promise safety only to be disappointed and lost. With Christ we spend our lives learning to trust God deeply. We look to Jesus to learn how to love our neighbor. All the more in a crisis we need to anchor ourselves in Christ’s Truth so that we can be of help to those who are fearful. Covid 19 brings the Lenten season into sharper focus this year. We are called to love. I have been moved by so many stories about people honoring the significant moments in their neighbor’s life even while quarantined. There was a parade of cars filled with teachers, going through their students’ neighborhoods with honks and waves. Since 4-year old Aiden’s birthday party had to be limited to his home, his parents put a sign up in their front yard, inviting people to honk a birthday greeting to him. He stood at the front window, smiling as people made some noise for him. A young girl returned home after her final chemo treatment to see her street lined with folks who cheered and waved from the safe distance of their driveways. She was overcome with emotion. There are people putting their own health at risk by driving friends to doctor appointments, waiting in their car since only patients are allowed into medical facilities now. People are making medical supplies in their homes. Companies are putting their usual product line on hold and morphing into producers of medical masks, gloves, and ventilators. Breweries are churning out vats of hand sanitizer instead of specialty beer.
Even more powerfully, we witness loving actions between patients fighting for their lives in medical facilities. Don Guiseppe Berardelli, the 72 year old archpriest of Casnigo, Italy contracted the corona virus. He was a beloved figure in his community, known for his broad smile flashed from his red motorcycle. As he headed into the hospital for treatment, his parishioners purchased a ventilator for him. He gave it to a younger patient whose life stretched ahead. He died shortly thereafter. A colleague tweeted, “Don Guiseppe Berardelli, patron saint of those who suffer from coronavirus and all who care for them, pray for us.”
When we build our lives on the stumbling stone that God sent to our troubled world, our values change. We stop our pursuit of worldly goods and reflect on the great gift of having Jesus as our Savior and Friend. When a complete stranger trips and finds herself on the ground, we stop to help her up, even if it means possible harm to us. In the Italian priest’s case, we are even moved to lay down our life for another. Christ’s love knows no limits.
The greeting that Don Guiseppe called out to his townsfolks from his red motorcycle is “Pace e bene.” This means “Peace and all Good.” It’s an Italian greeting that traces back to Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. It’s a blessing that offers hope and acknowledges the sacredness of all those we encounter on our journey.
There’s a way to avoid tripping when we run across a stumbling stone. In times of crisis we anchor ourselves by nourishing our faith. We don’t panic, hoard, or look out for number one! If we are looking at our world through the eyes of Christ, we will be vigilant. We will expect opportunities to arise that urge our compassionate service. We will share from the wealth of our barns. We will pray.
We will pray.
Pace e Bene.