Sermon preached September 27, 2009
Text: Mark 9:38-50
The internet is an amazing thing. Scouring for sermon illustrations or ideas, especially when one was struggling a bit with some part of the sermon used to involve hours of paging through books. I still do some of that, but I also use this new technology. Like this week, I was struggling to find something to begin this morning’s sermon so I used an internet search engine.
I typed in “salty stories” and was given a number of sites with stories about the sea. I typed in “salty jokes” and was asked, “do you mean nasty jokes?” I thought I better stop there. I typed in ‘salty sayings” and one site I was directed to was full of sayings from Canada. Here are a couple: “the gene pool around here could use a little chlorine;” “What’s the difference between Calgary and yogurt? Yogurt has active culture.” I am guessing the Calgary Chamber of Commerce did not come up with that one.
What we have in Mark 9:38-50 are some salty sayings of Jesus. It might help us understand these verses better if we recall that the gospels are literary works not newspaper reports. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were constructed by authors who used material that had circulated primarily in oral form for many years – stories and sayings of Jesus. Mark is the earliest of the four gospels and it was written about 70 CE, almost forty years after the death of Jesus. Mark wanted to tell the story of Jesus in a way that helped his own Jesus community, his own faith community. The sayings found in the verses we read may not have been spoken together by Jesus, but Mark finds a common thread, and our understanding of these verses will be enhanced as we find a common thread.
By the way, this entire discussion of the gospel and the gospels will be part of our discussion in Soul Kitchen following worship at 10:45. Faith Forum will be discussing our newest forms of communication – the internet, and Soul Kitchen will discuss older forms – how stories told by word of mouth became our gospels and why we expect these old texts to speak to our lives. I hope you will find your way to one or the other.
What Mark has presents us is a series of sayings of Jesus, the first couched in a brief story and the final sayings all about salt. In between water and salt we have some disturbing words about cutting off body parts and unquenchable fire. So what’s the frequency Kenneth, or how might these verses speak to our lives?
I think we might focus on that final image of salt as a good way to hear these words and consider how they might speak to our lives. Salt, at that time, was a precious good, sometimes even used for wages. Salt helped preserve food. Salt flavored food. Salt was a purifying agent. Salt was used often in ritual, sacrifices were salted before being burned. If Jesus was a northern Minnesotan instead of a northern Palestinian in the Roman Empire, I think he would have included the use of salt on slippery roads as a part of his imagery! The bottom line in this thread of verses is the encouragement to followers of Jesus, then and now, to stay salty. Be the kind of people who preserve the good, who add flavor and zest to life, who make life a little purer, who help people draw closer to God, who help keep the road safe for others. Be salt, flavorful and preserving. Be road salt, helping others when the streets of life are dangerous and the way is easily lost.
So what kind of people are salty people? Believe it or not, I think these verses tell us, in their own uniquely wonderful way.
Salty people have a generous spirit. The very first story is fascinating. The disciples are getting bent out of shape because someone who was not a part of their group was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, doing good, bringing healing in Jesus’ name. They tried to stop this person in fact, and Jesus tells them, “whoever is not against us is for us.” Salty people, people of generous spirit, delight when healing happens even when they have not been a part of it. They are pleased when some program succeeds, even if it was someone else’s idea. They pitch in on activities even when their favorite idea was not chosen. They celebrate the good wherever it may be found, even if the Lutherans are doing it. They are able to forgive. Sounds like every church you have ever been a part of, doesn’t it? Maybe we are not as salty, sometimes, as we are invited to be.
Salty people are compassionate people. “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” With those few words, Jesus offers a striking image of the kind of people we are called to be – people who cultivate compassion and care, people who offer small acts of kindness and care – a cup of water, a listening ear, a friendly smile.
Salty people stay connected with others, value the relationships that enhance faith and life. One crucial message of all those difficult words in the middle of these sayings of Jesus is an encouragement to care for others, it is to be road salt along the streets of life for others – helping them keep the faith in the midst of the difficulties and challenges of life. When followers of Jesus are together in community, they ought to be of help to each other.
The other crucial message of these difficult words is an invitation to greater inner awareness. The metaphors are sharp and jarring. If your hand or foot or eye causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better to be missing these parts than to end up in the unquenchable fire. Is Jesus being literal here? I hardly think so, not about cutting off body parts and not about the image of hell. It is all metaphor, disturbing and challenging – and maybe necessary. The inner journey can be difficult. We don’t easily admit that we have those places inside that cause us to lose our saltiness – our flavor, our helpfulness. We sometimes fear what we will find by examining our hearts, minds, souls. In an interview, psychoanalyst Michael Eigen said, “I do think we are more afraid of ourselves than of death” (Conversations, 62). Salty people take the challenge of looking inside, of increasing awareness, and of making changes to keep their saltiness, making changes that keep life from being burned up uselessly.
The invitations to generosity of spirit, to celebrating the good wherever it may be found, to cultivating compassion and caring, to caring for relationships, to inner awareness are challenging invitations. We know that we have refused them sometimes, that we have let the saltiness of our lives lose flavor. But these invitations come to our lives in the context of the grace and love of God. They come from Jesus who is God’s love embodied. The God who invites in us a generous spirit is a God of the generous Spirit – of care, of compassion, of the cold cup of water for our parched lives. We might say that we have a salty God.
That’s the bottom line here – be salt. Let your life add flavor to others and to the world. Let your life be road salt for others, helping them gain traction when they are sliding away.
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) struggled against deep-seated white prejudice and racism to found and establish the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a college for African-Americans. One day walking the streets of Tuskegee, Washington passed the mansion of a wealthy woman to whom he was just another black man. She called out to him, “Come here, boy, I need some wood chopped.” Without a word, Washington took off his jacket, picked up an ax and went to work chopping wood. He not only cut a pile of wood but carried it into the house for the woman. He had scarcely left when a servant told the woman, “That was Professor Washington, Ma’am.” Embarrassed, the woman went to the Institute to apologize. Washington replied, “There’s no need for apology, madam. I’m delighted to do favors for my friends.” The woman became one of Tuskegee’s warmest and most generous supporters. (Covey, Everyday Greatness, 345)
That story speaks to me of being a salty person, of staying salty, of being road salt in the world. Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another. Amen.