Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 30 September, 2012. Lectionary readings for the Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Year B: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
"Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another." (Mark 9:50)
What does Jesus mean, I wonder, when he tells us to "have salt" in ourselves? My guess, based on today's gospel, is that he is talking about what qualities he wants in his followers, and that he is using salt in the same sense that elsewhere in the gospels he talks about wanting his disciples and followers to be yeast and light for the world. Near as I can figure, Jesus is saying that he wants his disciples to make a difference for good in the world, to be that special agent by which the world sees and is drawn to the kingdom of God.
Well and good, I hear you say, but you still haven't really explained "salt" to me. How exactly am I supposed to be salty? Good question. Perhaps we can start by looking at what comes after the conjunction. Jesus says, "Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another." The quality of saltiness, Jesus seems to be saying, is linked to peacefulness, to the absence of conflict, to mutual harmony, forbearance, or something along those lines. In other words, one of the hallmarks of the authentic Christian life is that it has an ethical character.
If you have spent some time in the life of a church or congregation and be burned by some kind of conflict, this is the approved time in the sermon when you can snort or laugh derisively at the proposition I have just made. Go ahead. Take your time. I understand. Like you, I get that churches are not always peaceful places. Why else do ministry specialists like the Alban Institute publish dozens of books on toxic churches or conflict management in congregations? We aren't very good at the whole being at peace thing.
I think the same was true of the early church. The story we hear in today's gospel of Jesus, the disciples, and the Other Exorcist might be read as a story offered by Mark to help find common ground between different groups and individuals who all profess to follow Jesus.
Why do you think the disciples wanted to stop this Other Exorcist, whoever that person was, from casting out demons? After all, he was using Jesus' name? What was the problem?>
Mark doesn't tell us what it was the disciples objected to exactly. Perhaps, given their concern with status as we saw in last Sunday's gospel, they were threatened. Maybe they felt that their proximity to Jesus gave them an inside track on divine favour. Maybe they felt that he wasn't properly commissioned or ordained to perform this act (anticipating churchland debates today over lay versus ordained ministry). Perhaps he wasn't doing the exorcisms in a way that they approved of (thus anticipating churchland debates today over denominational differences, churchmanship, music, high vs low liturgy, etc). Who knows exactly, but it sounds familiar, doesn't it? I am reminded of a joke in my Canadian denomination, which asks why there are two Anglican seminaries facing each other across Hoskin Avenue in Toronto? Answer, because the Church couldn't afford a third. Ba-DUMP.
Jesus' answer seems to be, essentially, "Meh, let him, as long as it's in my name, the more the merrier" (Mk 9:39-40). Jesus goes on to say something that seems to be unrelated (this pericope feels to me a bit like Mark padding things out with a stitchwork of Jesus sayings) but is, I think, in fact linked. Jesus says "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" (Mk 9:41). What Jesus is saying here, I think, is that those who recognize the name of Jesus will treat others in ways that is Jesus-like, that is, with charity and love symbolized by the image of the cup of water given. That idea of a community of followers marked by a shared ethos of love, service and hospitality is echoed is set up in the last verse of last week's gospel also from Mark, where Jesus said "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." (Mark 9:37).
Today's gospel is helpful in discerning what is appropriate and faithful Christian practice. There's an old Dire Straits song (Industrial Disease, from the Telegraph Road album, if you're wondering) which has they lyric "Two men say they're Jesus / One of them must be wrong". It's a little more complicated when two or more people say they are doing things in Jesus name. Does today's gospel mean that anything goes if it is done in Jesus' name? Does it sanction the pastor who burns Korans in Jesus' name, or the protestors at a military funeral with signs that say God hates fags and defend their actions as free speech done in the name of Jesus, or the polygamist who claims to follow Jesus while preying on young women? If these seem like extreme examples, consider the affluent and mostly segregated suburban church following a gospel of financial prosperity, or the inner city cathedral which ignores the homeless at its doors? Are they really acting in Jesus' name?
Jesus tells his disciples "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". As I understand that passage, Jesus is saying that for an act done in his name to be true or authentic, it will not bring discredit on Him. There's the test, I would say. A gospel of hatred and division and exploitation, as some Christians have preached and followed in past and some still do today, will not bring any credit on our Lord. It will be seen through, mocked, and shunned. A congregation that bickers and quarrels amongst itself will not attract newcomers, and will, one day, wonder why it is closing. A true deed of power is something as simple as the glass of water offered to the thirsty. It is something as humble as we see in the reading from James, of a community of believers, however humble, who visit and pray with the sick, who sing with joy, and encourage one another. It is a congregation that understands why Jesus preaches and teaches hospitality, because to welcome the stranger is, in a profound and real way, to welcome Christ and the Father who sends him into our midst. Those are going to be the churches that don't need to worry abot closing.
That is what it means to be salty. Saltiness is flavour, and the flavour of the kingdom of heaven is peacefulness, the absence of conflict and hatred and fear. May we be salt that brings the good taste of the kingdom of heaven to a world that, too often, knows only the taste of bitterness. Amen.