First Congregational Church
September 26, 2021
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I almost got a job at a bullring but ultimately decided against it. There were too many red flags. Why are race car drivers the best people to go to for dating advice? They're trained to look for red flags. I got fired from my mail route today. They said I wasn't picking up people's mail. I should have seen it coming though, there were red flags everywhere.
That prescribed list of bible passages for Sunday, holidays and even every other day of the year is a three year cycle and we are currently in that of year B - of A, B and C. Since last December, the gospel passages have mostly flip-flopped between the books of Mark and John. We’ve spent the last three weeks in Mark, and today continues from there. The whole first eight chapters of Mark is about Jesus revealing his identity mainly by what he did, while the entire last eight chapters has Jesus pressing the claim that he is the Christ.
Narrowing in, the ninth chapter of Mark has Jesus doing more pointed teaching with the disciples, even to the point of trying to sequester them away from the crowds.
Since that wasn’t working, right before today’s passage, Jesus was working on the idea that the first would be last and the last would be first.
At that point, as was mentioned last week, he took a nearby child into his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” I’m not sure that the disciple John was trying to distract Jesus from this idea of humility or maybe he saw someone who reminded him of an earlier event, but rather than usual Peter, John takes the spotlight.
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, Rosemary. Do you ever get something so in your head that you can’t get it out? There’s a little part of me that would like to return to my waitressing days, just so I could do this when someone asks for just a little bit more coke. Or the brain-stick of the bathroom sink faucets that look like the squirrel from the animated movie Ice Age.
Or this idea of buying a tool box instead of a diaper changing table, so the baby could use it for toys as he or she grows up and then later on for tools or other organizational needs. And yes, the last time I was at Lowe’s I happened to walk by the front where those sorts of tool chests are and yes, I had to restrain myself from checking them out as diaper changing tables, because I was on a time schedule.
It’s been almost impossible to turn off the four year old, tattle-tale version of the first sentence of this morning’s passage - in this mind. “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.” Which might be a red flag for all of us - when something is so engrained into our head, that we maybe we should check ourselves and come at it with someone else’s shoes on.
Maybe John was really concerned about how all the healing stuff was happening. After all, just three chapters earlier, there’s Jesus sending out the twelve disciples to have charge over impure spirits. Maybe there was a better way or a specific way of healing people, and as the youngest disciple, maybe John didn’t have the certainty of life experience that some of the other disciples had.
The more I read it, the more I really like that meditative sentence at the top of the Order of Worship. For those without bulletins, it is from Mandy Hale, author of The Single Woman: Life, Love, and a Dash of Sass: “Red flags are moments of hesitation that determine our destination.”
Isn’t that true? We are in a certain situation, and we wonder about ‘going ahead or staying put,’ buying a new appliance or hope that the repair job will last longer than what it’s worth, do you buy the most expensive Jaguar or the second most expensive.
So, in response to what John asked him, Jesus said, “whoever is not against us is for us.” But in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus said just the opposite. “Whoever is not with me is against me.” Just like the first salesman said from the Music Man, “Ya can talk, ya can talk, ya can bicker, ya can talk,/ Ya can bicker, bicker, bicker, ya can talk, ya can talk,/ Ya can talk, talk, talk, talk, bicker, bicker, bicker,/ Ya can talk all ya want but is different than it was./ And then Charlie says, “No it ain't, no it ain't, but you gotta know the territory.”
In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is speaking of people (religious establishment) who are actively against him to the extent that they accuse him of getting his power from “Beelzebul.” In today’s passage, the stranger is insinuating himself into the movement and using Jesus’ name, joining the movement without giving previous notice. The answer to this red flag is yes, the bible contains great truth. It contains even greater truth when you know what is going on behind the truth.
There’s probably no question about red flags when it comes to millstones, offensive hands, feet and eyes. Just the other day I had a conversation that validated all the thousands of dollars that my master’s degree required, and I was so excited. We sometimes are so far into the woods that we forget to see the trees, when it comes to the Bible.
So we forget that Jesus used humor, and paradoxes and hyperboles. Or at the very least, the writers of the Gospels - in particular - used those figures of speech to catch our imaginations; making a point even greater.
By the way, a paradox is a statement that might at first appear to be contradictory, but that may in fact contain some truth. Mother Teresa gives us an example of one: "I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love."
An hyperbole is an obvious exaggeration that is not meant to be taken literally. In her book ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, the author Harper Lee wrote: “A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer.”
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. There’s also irony in this hyperbole, because stumbling is about feet, but the subject is about hands. “if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.” “if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.” It’s almost like an ironic hyperbole sandwich with irony as the bread. Except that doesn’t work, because hyperbole is in all three examples. So maybe it’s a bread sandwich, which is not hyperbole, but a real stretch of everyone’s patience.
The real quandary, in my most humble opinion, is the last part of the passage. “Everyone will be salted with fire. 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.”
It’s an interesting mental image - salted - like salting french fries or walleye, right out of the lake, with boiled potatoes and coleslaw…. Little tiny bits of seasoning, all over. Even just one little grain of salt has flavor and can contribute to the whole. Or salt, scattered on a sidewalk in the middle of winter, melting ice and killing grass if one is not careful. Salted with fire? Can salt lose it’s saltiness? Maybe not so much red flags as catalysts of mental exploration.
Chelsey Harmon, from Calvin Seminary pointed out that Jesus spoke about two kinds of fire: one that consumes, as in wood and homes and life, and another that purifies or cleanses as in gold or sterilizing metal and stone.
I couldn’t help going down the salt rabbit hole. So, for those who may one day share their Jeapardy winnings with us, the largest salt mine in the world is the Sifto Salt Mines in Ontario, Canada, located 1800 feet below Lake Huron, the result of salt deposited 400 million years ago by an ocean that covered the Great Lakes Basin. The company that was created in 1959 is not so much about table salt as it is about winter snow and ice and industrial and cleaning products salt.
The company employs 400 people who work in the subterranean city, that features roadways with 40-ton dump trucks that are stripped to their frames, lowered into the mine and reassembled, never to come to the surface again. The lunch rooms, storage caverns, workshops and various other buildings below ground - or lake, as it were - used to have a bus system until the 100 miles of roadways got too complicated. So now they use John Deere Gators - like big all terrain vehicles - to shuttle people around.
The real take away from that rabbit hole is that “natural salts without any additives can never go bad.” Refined table salts contain iodine to enhance flavor and health properties and anti-caking agents that protect it from clumping. Those additives degrade over time, which is why table salts have approximately five-years of shelf life. In fact, Koyuncu Salt, of Turkey, pointed out that the question that the Bible asks about saltiness is a metaphor, another figure of speech.
That point makes the point all the better, because everyone being salted, making us purer and warmth for others, will never go bad. Having salt among ourselves and being at peace with one another is so like Jesus’ call to live in community with each other, helping each other and raising all of us up to be better people.
United Methodist pastor, Roger Wolsey once said, “Contrary to popular teaching, the Biblical emphasis is on community. We are in this life together as a living body. As I put it, “I pray to the God who Jesus prayed to - and my prayers are rarely about me and far more for the well-being of the society and world that I live in.” So shall we pray?
Holy and Boundless God, thank you for stretching us and growing us, that we don’t become stale and lifeless. Forgive us when we shine your light too much on ourselves. Remind us to shine your love more on this world. If we pray about ourselves, let it be that we become better examples for those around us, that we aren’t stumbling blocks but pointers to help and life and healing and love. Help all your people to see that you are not a complicated God or one of retribution, but a Creator and Redeemer and a Life-Giver that cares about your creation and creations. Help us to be attune to the red flags that steer us from harm and hurt, that we may wave your flag of true joy. For all the salty flames you bestow on us, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.