Thursday, 24 September 2015

Sunday sermon: Mark 9.38-50 Squabbles, stumbling blocks and salt.

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.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. 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. “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. 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. 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. 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, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. “For everyone will be salted with fire. 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.”
 What a difficult passage! Squabbles over authority between Jesus’ inner group of followers and others, unknown to them but acting in Jesus’ name, warnings about being stumbling blocks to the faith of others and instructions to be the seasoning the world needs. There are three sermon topics in there alone.
 Here’s a clue to which one I’m going for: The primary school teacher had just finished the lesson. She had taught the portion of the Bible that told of how Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt. She then asked if anyone had any questions or comments.

 Liam raised his hand. “My mum looked back once when she was driving and she turned into a telegraph pole!

 Ah, salt. I’m going with the salt option.

 Good old Sodium Chloride. Even though humans require a certain amount of salt for survival, most of us take in too much, and ingesting excessive amounts has been linked to major health problems. Individuals who eat too much salt are at a risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and even stomach cancer. A friend and I were talking about food over lunch recently and we both acknowledged low salt diets. I don’t know about you but we no longer add salt to cooking, haven’t done since I can’t remember when, and there’s almost a sharp intake of breath in our house if a guest asks for it now. Those of us trying to eat healthily quickly learn the need to limit daily salt intake to an amount equal to one teaspoonful.

Salt is very inexpensive in our culture. In addition to small amounts of salt for the table, we buy it in big bags for use in the dishwasher or on icy pavements and by the lorry load to melt ice on motorways.

Of course, the way in which modern people view salt – abundant everywhere – is very different from those of centuries ago. In Biblical times salt was rare, hard to obtain, and considered a very precious commodity. Perhaps we can better understand why Jesus used the image in today’s gospel story: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves …”

Jesus used an analogy people could easily understand to let them know he expected something extraordinary from them for the sake of God. He placed a high value on his followers and on what he required of them – just as the first-century culture placed a very high value on salt. He taught his followers to act for God in ways as important and varied as salt was in their world. For us today the meaning has lost a lot of its impact because of how easily available salt is to us.

Now I don’t know about you but I’ve heard this passage of scripture numerous times and when I was mulling this morning over I was asking myself what the salt analogy means for us. What is the practical application?

It sort of works like this: salt does such-and-such/has such-and- such qualities therefore we, as latter-day Disciples, should also do such-and-such/have such-and-such a quality.

Right: over to you. Let’s see if your minds are working in tandem with mine. Think about a couple of qualities of salt that Jesus wanted us to emulate.

Flavour: Salt brings flavour to food. “Christian faith can provide spiritual seasoning that gives life joy and meaning. To keep life from being bland and unrewarding, we season it with Christian commitment and understanding of God’s love for his children. Being salt to the world means adding flavour to life wherever and whenever possible. It means adding a zestful spirit to life and love. It means pursuing meaning in all we do and in all we encounter. It means acting in love with all whom we touch.”

That last bit’s not mine. I read it in a commentary and thought, “How unutterably twee!” Right. Let’s try that again. What do I add to the world around me by being “salt”? I make a difference. I make a change because I’m new to the recipe, if you like. There is impact just by virtue of the fact that I am there when I wasn’t before.

I remember going out for a meal with Rachel once and ordering crab chowder. It was inedible because it was so salty. Let’s be clear: the change we bring isn’t necessarily positive and we can be too much in certain circumstances. Too brash, too in-your-face in our religious certainties; too lacking in sensitivity to the needs of those around us; too unaware of where people already are in their searching for spirituality and answers. Too much a stumbling block for others? When I quoted what Jesus had to say about salt earlier, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves ...” I missed off the ending, “… and be at peace with one another.” That restaurant got the recipe wrong and the food was a disaster. Let’s not forget the optimum amount of salt: it seasons. It doesn’t dominate or we shall be a disaster in God’s name in our turn, and that isn’t a recipe for being at peace with one another.

When I was younger I was very much in awe of a group of other young Christians. They seemed to have got it all sown up: they were slick operators and incredibly holy, but theirs, I realised, was not a joyful faith. It was a legalistic piety and they wound people up. I look back on it now and it was a little like I imagine Iran to be today, with its religious police. Those young people were the God squad and I sometimes wonder whether they caused more damage in the name of Jesus than they caused good. Did they, in fact, become stumbling blocks to faith? There’s a lesson there, I think.

On the Yorkshire Ministry Course we were taught about mission. The one thing that really struck me from that module was the idea of Missio Dei – God’s mission. We take the initiative from God: we see where he is already at work and we join in, in whatever way we can. We become the additional flavour in that situation. Mission flows from God: too many people take their own initiative, albeit on God’s behalf, but they overpower the recipe because they’re trying to lead God and not follow and in doing so they may very well get in the way of that mission – and become stumbling blocks.

“In Jesus’ day, salt was often connected with purity. The Romans believed that salt was the purest of all things, because it came from pure things: the sun and the sea. It was used by the Jews to purify their offerings to God. If we modern Christians are to be the salt of the earth, we must accept a pure and high standard in speech, thought, and behaviour – keeping ourselves unspotted by the world’s self-centeredness. Jesus calls us to be a cleansing presence, constantly witnessing to the good that is found in God and the values of God’s realm.”

Again, not mine.

I know what is being got at here but it sounds self-righteous. I think there are people driving backwards and forwards between Dover and Calais right now; people who have stood by roadsides in Hungary offering bottled water to refugees; people who have stood on the beaches of Kos and waded into the water to help the exhausted and terrified: they’ve understood this aspect of salt – it’s purity. They stand up to violence, injustice and intimidation, as do those who protest against countless acts of governments, both overt and covert around the world, against right-wing and fascist groups; against abuses both public and private. To me that’s more about moral purity than swanning around being ever so Christian, like the old God Squad used to do - and in a way like the Pharisees of Jesus time with their legalistic following of rules - and to me that links salt with its cleansing and healing properties. When I was preparing I read a sermon by Pastor Niemoller, delivered just days before his arrest by the Nazis. It was a sermon about standing up for what was right in the Third Reich. Scary stuff. Not at all twee.

That other sermon writer goes on: “Salt was also used to aid healing. As salt in the world we can promote healing through prayer, caring for others, and supporting the least, the lost, and the lonely – holding hands with one another and administering the holy oil of anointing.” And this time I agree but let’s not misunderstand: we aren’t all Florence Nightingale. We aren’t all going to do the high profile stuff that gets us the attention because when some people do that, others see right through them – and that can be a stumbling block. We are going to heal in quiet unobtrusive ways: we’ll be the listeners and mediators, the shoulders to cry on, the friends in need.

God can enable us to do the work Jesus commands us to do – to make a difference in the world: giving hope where there is no hope; forgiving where there is sin; embracing where there is loneliness and despair; showing tolerance where there is prejudice; reconciling where there is conflict; bringing justice where there is wrong; providing food where there is hunger; giving comfort where there is distress or disease.

The power of God supports and sustains us and stands with us if we risk whatever it takes to become salt to the world. And when we fail in this effort, which we will, repeatedly, God will give us other opportunities and renew us and give us strength to persevere, again and again.

Unlike many modern people whose health depends on moderation in eating salt, we are charged to become the salt of the earth. Let us ask for God’s strength and guidance to reach out to our various groups of friends and colleagues, our families and our neighbours in a world in desperate need of what Christian seasoning can provide and let us accept the responsibility to be a congregation more and more aware of our calling to discipleship.


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