A sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 27, 2015. The lectionary readings are Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29, Psalm 19:7-14, James 5:13-20, and Mark 9:38-50.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
I guess every profession has its own version of internal discussions and conversations, with various people ranting or raving over this or that. The Church, is of course, no exception. As the world has been able to watch Pope Francis this week leading several different liturgies, Masses, and religious events, you can imagine the conversation—especially among Episcopalians. The liturgists were worried about why the Pope didn’t genuflect when he entered the Mary Chapel at St. Patrick’s. The vestment makers wondered why he was wearing the things he was wearing, and the musicians wondered why, with some of the strongest voices around, they insisted on having a cantor singing too loudly into lectern microphones! Each observation, each question or comment was really, at some basic level, a variation on “They’re not doing it right”— which is really to say, “They’re not doing it my way.”
Perhaps that’s human nature. There’s something inside us that often causes us to resent those whose practices or ways are different—not because they affect us in any way, not because they in any way improve or diminish anything about our situation– but just because they are different. Different, and therefore, not quite right.
In today’s scripture readings, there’s a lot of squabbling, and in places, it has to do with someone noticing that someone else is doing things differently. It can all sound very childish, until we began to notice how familiar some of these sentiments really are.
At the beginning of the Gospel, the disciples are all upset—about other disciples. It seems that there are other disciples—other followers of Jesus— who are casting out demons in the name of Jesus. And yet, they’re doing it differently. They are not a part of the group that includes the disciple John and some of the others we are familiar with. And so, the disciples point this out to Jesus. They want Jesus to join them in criticizing the others, condemning them, and sharing in their outrage.
But Jesus doesn’t go for it. He doesn’t fall for the bait of the disciples to divide the good and bad, the orthodox and unorthodox, those who “cast out demons correctly” and those who might do things a different way. Instead, Jesus is (from the disciples’ point of view) infuriatingly accepting. Jesus says, “Do not stop them. Whoever is not against us is for us.” Even if they do things a little differently, they’re doing no harm. Don’t worry so much about them.
But then, the disciples are probably sorry they’ve brought all of this up, because Jesus begins to preach and he gets personal. “It’s your own life you need to pay attention to,” Jesus says. Don’t look across the street. Look in the mirror. What is it in YOUR life that causes you to sin? Take care of your own business, before trying to solve everybody else’s.
In our first scripture reading, we can see a similar problem with the community around Moses. At this point, Moses is overwhelmed, and so he complains to God about it, and God suggests he ask for help. Moses then appoints 70 elders to serve as leaders among the people. But then things get even more challenging, as squabbles break out. “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp,” a young man reports. Joshua (like John in our New Testament lesson) buys into the anxiety and agrees that this is a problem. “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses says “Are you jealous for my sake? I would love that ALL the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”
This problem of overlooking one’s own problems or issues and starting to worry about others is not confined to the times of Moses or of Jesus. We can see a similar thing going on in the Roman Church today. There are those who have spent their lives following the letter of the law, living in neat categories of black and white, of good and evil. They know who they’re “for,” and who they’re “against,” and they want Pope Francis to agree with them. But in his address to Congress last Thursday, Francis said,
[T]here is [a] temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. (Address to the Join Meeting of the U.S. Congress, September 24, 2015).
In most local churches, there come times when one group begins to feel that another group is getting all the attention, getting all the money, or getting all the volunteers. But more often than not, if the group that is feeling overlooked could simply focus a little more on its own tasks, its visibility would increase. It would get a budget request in on time, and volunteers would be attracted to the group’s energy and fun.
As a Christian, it’s easy for us to look around and notice how others are just not quite making the mark. We can worry about what the Baptists are saying, what the Roman Catholics are doing, what our own sisters and brothers might be doing (or not doing) up at the National Cathedral. My fellow Christians on the far left of the spectrum unnerve me just as much, if not more, than my brethren on the far right. But I have the same amount of control over all of them—NONE. When I’m at my most healthy, remember today’s Gospel or I think about the perspective of Pope Francis and I begin to worry less about what everybody else is doing, and focus more on what I can be doing right here at All Souls. Are we reaching out as we should? Are we including everyone? Are we paying attention to our neighbors? Are we serving the poor? Are we giving our time, our money, our talent to God sacrificially? Am I saying MY prayers? Am I reaching out?
Today’s Gospel ends as Jesus gives a vision of the day of judgment, the kind of scene that the church and artists have often envisioned as one ultimate, grand experience that happens at the end of our earthly life. But I don’t think Jesus means it that way. I think opportunities for judgment happen daily, as we face temptations to avoid being faithful, as we look away from people in need, and as we make little decisions NOT to follow Christ. “Everyone will be salted with fire,” Jesus says, which (I think) means that we come face to face, heart to heart with TRUTH and are asked to respond. Salt is good, Jesus says. And perhaps whatever makes us “salty” has to do with the Holy Spirit, that flame of truth that burns within each of us. “But if salt has lost its saltness,” Jesus says, “how can it be restored?” “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
When I read these words about saltiness and about the connection between our “being salty” and “being at peace” with others, I think about one image that might have had something to do with Jesus’s choice of words.
In Israel, about 65 miles south of Galilee (where Jesus spent much of his life living and teaching), is the Dead Sea, sometimes called the Salt Sea. The water there is about 34 per cent saline. No animals and no plants, but the salt is so strong, it’s kind of like fire. The water is so thick and syrupy with salt that if you go swimming, the water itself supports you and keeps you from sinking. King David liked to visit the Salt Sea. King Herod the Great built a spa there, and many think John the Baptist might have been connected with some of the monastic-like religious who lived in the Dead Sea caves nearby. People continue to go to get more salty, and often, to get healing.
The so-called Dead Sea, gives life to people with its curative powers. People with respiratory illnesses benefit from the air, air made different because of the salt content of the water. Skin conditions like psoriasis are helped by the combination of clouds, sun, and minerals. Osteoarthritis is helped by mud from the area. Dead Sea waters contain minerals like magnesium, bromide and sodium. Mud treatments are thought to draw out toxins and work like nature’s spa to exfoliate, sooth stress, and help the body heal and reduce swelling.
Who knows if Jesus was thinking of the Salt Sea when he suggested that the disciples—and us—be like salt and be at peace. But the image works as an image for us to offer support to one another, buoying one another up so that no one ever sinks, holding on so that no one drifts away, offering a hand that mysteriously and miraculously is used by God for healing.
Whether we take a dip in the Salt Sea, or stay right where we are, may God keep us salty and help us to offer healing to one another and the world. May we learn not to be bothered so much by the seasoning of others, but to “have salt in ourselves” in our own way, to God’s glory, as we follow Jesus Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen