Sermon preached September 27, 2015
Texts: Mark 9:38-50
Jesus said, “Salt is good…. Have salt in yourselves.” This is a little puzzling. The American Heart Association: In some people, sodium increases blood pressure because it holds excess fluid in the body, placing an added burden on the heart. If your blood pressure is 120/80 mm Hg or above, your doctor may recommend a low-salt diet or advise you to avoid salt altogether. Apparently having salt in ourselves is not an unambiguous good.
But before we can even think about salt, we may need to address other parts of this troublesome passage. We need to remember that the Gospels are creative works. Stories about Jesus and the sayings of Jesus circulated orally for many years before being written down. The Gospel writers made use of these traditions in putting together their Gospels. This is not a contradiction to the idea that God’s Spirit was part of this process. It is both/and. The biblical writers were creative and God’s Spirit was part of that creativity, and God’s Spirit continues to use these words to speak to our lives.
This passage from Mark is a collection of sayings of Jesus which may not have been spoken together by Jesus. This is a compilation of sayings of Jesus which seem to have something to do with how followers of Jesus ought to live together. We need to be open to the idea that God’s work happens in all kinds of ways, and celebrate when demons are exorcised –when healing and wholeness happen, no matter the source. We need to care for all, watch how it is we may be putting stumbling blocks in the way of others.
In this section, though, Jesus uses some pretty dramatic language – cutting off hands, cutting off feet, tearing out your eye. Better that than hell. So here’s one way to makes sense of this troubling, but metaphoric language. “Hell” translates the Greek word “Gehenna,” which refers to the Valley of Hinonom. The Valley of Hinonom was south of Jerusalem. It had once been the site of pagan sacrifices, but later became the city garbage dump where fires burned and maggots lived and where there was overpowering stench. When we are not living in ways that are loving and caring, we are perhaps, in our lives, creating garbage and that garbage needs to be thrown away. Better to be rid of the garbage now than to have a life that seems to accumulate it over time.
With this warning in mind, Mark moves to a different image for the Jesus-inspired life, salt. Salt had many positive connotations in the time of Jesus. Numbers refers to the covenant of God with God’s people as a “covenant of salt” (16:19). That phrase is repeated in II Chronicles 13:5, here referring to God’s covenant with David. In Leviticus (2:13) sacrifices are to be seasoned with salt. Here is a verse from one of the books that was written in the time between the testaments, a book that finds its way into the Deutero-cannonical/Apocrypha books that are in many Bibles, Sirach. The basic necessities of human life are water and fire and iron and salt and wheat flour and milk and honey, the blood of the grape and oil and clothing (39:26). So what might it mean to have salt in ourselves, to be salty?
Well, if we are to be salty as followers of Jesus we need to know how to measure. As noted, salt in the time of Jesus was often viewed very positively. In his book Salt: A World History Mark Kurlansky writes, From the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in world history (6). Salt was an enormously valuable commodity in the Roman Empire in which Jesus lived. Many of the cities of the empire were built near saltworks (Kurlansky, 63-64). Yet salt was not an unambiguous good. Too much salt resulted in a Dead Sea. Salt could poison crop lands, and was used as an instrument of war. Judges 9:45, after Abimelech won a battle “he razed the city and sowed it with salt.”
If we are to be salty people, we need to know how to measure, that is, we are to be wise and discerning. In the passage we read just last week from James we encountered these words: Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. (3:13) Wisdom is more than knowing things, though seeking accurate knowledge matters. In our day when false information and half-truths can go viral on the internet, it is good to ask questions about information. But wisdom is about paying attention to what is most important. It is learning and growing and forming a life that is filled with goodness and gentleness. Worship slows our lives to let more wisdom form. Prayer slows our lives, to give wisdom more opportunities to grow. Conversations together, what John Wesley called “holy conferencing,” help us develop wisdom as we listen well to others. To be salty is to know how to measure, to be wise and discerning.
To be salty is to be about the work of preserving. Until modern times the advent of refrigeration, salt was the principle way to preserve food (Kurlansky, 6). I think here of the words of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order” (Process and Reality, 515). Whitehead argues that God’s very nature was, in part, “a tender care that nothing be lost… a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved” (Process and Reality, 525). We are to see the good and beautiful in the world and do our best to create more and to build upon what is there. That is true in our lives – see the good and beautiful in you, build on that and create more. See the good and beautiful in others, build on that and help them create more – avoid putting stumbling blocks in their way. It is true for our church – let’s see the good and beautiful in our midst, some of which we have inherited from those who have gone before us (and having been here for over ten years, I can look out and remember so many who have gone before who are no longer here), see the good and beautiful, build on it and work together to create more. For our church, we always leave room for others to be part of the enterprise here of working with God to create more goodness and beauty in the world. And this idea applies to the world, too. We are good at seeing the hurt and horror, the brutality and the bruising in our world. It blares at us from our radios, our televisions, from the internet. We are also to see the good and beautiful in the world, to build on it, and to create more – together – “be at peace with one another.”
To be salty is also about adding flavor to the world. Christians have often had the reputation of being bland people. At least this is often true in popular culture, either bland or mean hypocrites. Jesus invites us to be salty, to add some flavor to the world. As we grow in wisdom, we can share new ideas with others. Christians should be among the most thoughtful people around, though we are often seen as narrow-minded. We see the world in all its wonder and beauty and mystery, and in all its agony, horror and brutality, trusting that God continues to work in the world. One last Whitehead quote. “The task of reason is to fathom the deeper depths of the many-sidedness of things” (Process and Reality, 519). That’s wisdom, to fathom the deeper depths of the many-sidedness of things, and then to discern how best to live, to love, to create beauty and goodness, and to let God’s grace flow. When we do that we add flavor to the world – a joyful wisdom that exudes gentleness and strength.
Salt is good, valuable. Throughout history it has been one of the most treasured and valued commodities. You are valuable. You are part of God’s on-going work in the world. Stay salty. Let’s stay salty together.
Jesus said, “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lost the reward.” Small act. Mother Teresa is purported to have said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” She probably did not say this, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Salt is pretty small. Small acts of kindness, thoughtfulness, goodness and beauty are part of staying salty. I think of the time that our lay pastors take to visit members of our congregation. Small things done with great love that make a difference – staying salty. I think of all the small acts that go into worship every week - small things done with great love that make a difference – staying salty. I think of all the small acts that make things like Ruby’s Pantry work, and of all the small tasks that make up our Roast Beef dinner - - - small things done with great love that makes a difference – staying salty. I think of Linda Wiig this week going to Omaha to help her sister because there is no one else – a small thing done with great love that is making a difference – staying salty. I think of the time we take to greet and welcome each other. We never know what has been going on in each other’s lives, or the lives of someone who is here for the first time. We never know what a small kindness might mean to someone – small things done with great love that make a difference – staying salty. I think of all the small ways we can break down barriers in our society, touching those who are different, eroding years of hate and fear and prejudice – small things done with great love that make a difference – staying salty.
Salt is good, valuable. You are valuable. You are part of God’s on-going work in the world. Be wise. Preserve. Add flavor. Pay attention to the small acts. Stay salty. Let’s stay salty together, be at peace with one another. In Jesus. Amen.