First Congregational Church
September 27, 2015
18th Sunday after Pentecost
“Have salt among yourselves?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
The first line of this morning’s introductory joke says that “All members of Mensa have I.Q.s of at least 140.” Not belonging to such a prestigious group, I looked up Mensa to discover that it is the Latin word for table - indicating a group of equals sharing ideas, like a roundtable discussion. It’s okay if no one found that funny, but I laughed to myself - not knowing what Mensa stands for, but having the where-withal to at least look it up. Somedays, it doesn’t take much….
So at a particular Mensa convention, several members, at a local cafe, noticed the shaker with an S on top, for salt, contained pepper and their pepper shaker, with a P on top, was full of salt. Challenge on: how could they swap the contents of the bottles without spilling anything and using only the implements at hand? Clearly, here was a marvelous Mensa mystery!
They presented ideas, debated them, and finally came up with what they felt was a brilliant solution involving a napkin, a straw, and an empty saucer. They called the waitress over to dazzle her with their solution.
"Ma'am," they said, "we couldn't help but notice that the pepper shaker contains salt and the salt shaker contains…" "Oh, sorry!" interrupted the waitress. "Here," and she unscrewed the caps of both bottles and switched them.
I wish this morning’s scripture passage was as easy to “resolve.” It takes place immediately after last week’s passage, where Jesus predicted his death a second time and the disciples had been talking about who was the greatest behind Jesus’ back. When confronted with what they said, the disciples were able to dodge the topic when Jesus took a nearby child and gave the world’s most famous children’s sermon, which Jesus references in today’s passage. So the disciples try to continue dodging the truth about their “greatest” conversation by pointing to another event that happened at the same time.
38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.
Causing to Stumble
42 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.  [a] 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.  [b] 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48 where “‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’[c] 49 Everyone will be salted with fire. 50 “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
Thank you, Donna. Many of you know of the Martha Stewart “tricks and shortcuts” that have made her fame.
Martha’s way: Stuff a miniature marshmallow in the bottom of a sugar cone to prevent ice cream drips.
My way: Just suck the ice cream out of the bottom of the cone, for Pete's sake, you are probably lying on the couch with your feet up eating it anyway.
Martha's way: Use a meat baster to "squeeze" your pancake batter onto the hot griddle and you'll get perfectly shape pancakes every time.
My way: Buy the precooked kind you nuke in the microwave for 30 seconds. The hard part is getting them out of the plastic bag.
Martha's way: To prevent egg shells from cracking, add a pinch of salt to the water before hard boiling.
My way: Who cares if they crack, aren't you going to take the shells off anyway?
One of the saddest parts - in my opinion - about our holiest of books is the huge lack of adverbs - especially when Jesus was speaking. When he is told about the one healing in his name, Mark wrote very simply that Jesus said, “Do not stop him.”
Scott Hoezee, from Calvin Seminary, had this to say. “A saccharine-infused piety would lead one to read that line as though Jesus were speaking in the vacant-stare monotone you usually see in all those movies that are made about Jesus. But I rather think that before Jesus spoke that line, first his jaw dropped to the floor before he managed to sputter in exasperation, “Don’t stop him, for pity sake! Anybody who believes in me enough to know my name can deliver a knockout punch to demons is a friend of ours and of mine. He’s not taking my name in vain, he’s using my name to take it to the demons and unless you’re of the opinion that leaving the demons alone is a good idea, let these people carry on with their work, which is at the end of the day also MY work!”
If Jesus did have some emotion of that sort about the scenario, then it would make sense for Mark to include the next shocking section about getting rid of that which causes us to sin or stumble. Maybe Jesus was frustrated with the disciples’ inability to understand his message about his resurrection. Maybe he’d had enough of people interrupting his lesson plans. So he spews out a stream of metaphors that I wonder if he really meant to to be taken literally.
So we get to the end of the passage, and the bit that has perhaps brought about more spiritual backfire than anyone could have ever anticipated, the part about fire, salt and hell. Hell in the Hebrew world was known as Gehenna, an actual place, a real, true dump, actually, just south of Jerusalem. The place where the filth and dead animals of the city were cast out and burned eventually became linked to a symbol of the wicked and of future destruction.
While a great deal has been made of this imagery over the centuries, I wonder if the “fire of Gehenna” visual has overpowered the goodness of fire’s purifying properties. Just as it was then, fire is still a means to destroy contaminated items, to purify raw metals and bringing light to darkness.
I wonder how often we forget that fire represents the very presence of God. From Moses’ burning bush to the glory of the Lord looking like fire, there is a sacredness in this double-edged gift.
Then there is salt. Babies were salted way back in Ezekiel’s day, although no one seems to know why. My guess is that it was so valuable that it was used as a blessing on the infant. The ancient Hebrew word for salt isn’t just about the seasoning, but can mean tempered together, or vanish away. To eat salt with another person is to partake of his or her hospitality, and because that person has given you substance, you now have the responsibility to look after your host. A "covenant of salt" was a covenant of perpetual obligation.
I’m sure I’ve read this passage at least a few times over the centuries, but I surely don’t remember all of the last two verses. Maybe you’ve heard often enough, salt being good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? But do you remember, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” And more pointedly, “Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”?
Last week I brought up the idea of intercalations, when a writer pairs two stories side by side as way of making a point that could not have been achieved without such contrast, and apparently, the writer of Mark is famous for this. I probably skipped that day in seminary to have learned that.
One side of the sandwich is the demon-driving unknown follower and the other side of the sandwich would be real, live, salt and fire. And I have to say, it took a while to discover the middle meaning of the sandwich, which I think is essentially the blessing we are to other people.
Staying home with the crud this week, in between naps, there were opportunities to watch some of the Pope’s activities. I confess that the more I watched, the more I was drawn to this ordinary man who is having an extraordinary impact - at least with the media, but more seriously, in the lives of millions of people. I am wondering how many other churches, including those of our Catholic brothers and sisters, will hear this passage and liken the Pope to one of those whom we would call “the salt of the earth?”
I know there are as many different opinions of the Pope as there are people in this room, so for the moment, if you have issues with him, try to put them aside. Regardless of what he was trying to say politically or religiously or any other way, flitting from one place of opulence to the next, numerous times the Pope stopped his micro-mobile to get out and bless someone, or stopped as he exited or entered a building to look someone in the eye and lay a hand on a person. And for any of you that saw any of those moments, did you see the faces of those who loved the one being blessed? I don’t know how any of those people actually felt, but their faces told story after story of deep joy.
What’s so amazing is that you and I have that same ability to bless someone - with our realness, our interest and our genuine care and concern - even if we can’t do anything to change a single circumstance. We forget how powerful we are in paying attention to someone, even if we’ve heard their story time and again. And yet, it’s not about power or patience, but about humility and being the salt of the earth, to be salt among each other, salting each other with the fire of God’s presence and purity, vanishing away that which weakens us, tempering together that we become stronger as people after God’s heart. So shall we pray.
Great God of us all, thank you for reminding us of your presence in the simple flame. Purify our hearts that we can be the blessings of salt to one another, that perhaps we all could be at peace with each other. Help us to really see those among us that need your touch that can come through us. Help us to overcome the inhibitions that keep us from reaching out when we know you are prodding us to do even the simplest of acts. And thank you for those who have given us the pat on the shoulder or the knee when we so dearly needed one. For the salt you have given each of us in each other, all your people thank you with a great, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.