Salt & Stumbling: A Sermon

Salt and Stumbling
Larchmont Avenue Church
September 30, 2012
Rev. Julie Emery
Text: Psalm 124, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

Mark 9:38-50

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

But Jesus said, “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. Whoever is not against us is for us. 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.”

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, were the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

+++

It is just about time to take down our summer garden, and so recently in our family every free moment has been spent in the kitchen, furiously putting up cans for winter. Perhaps it is something that midwesterners and southerners do naturally, although I’ve had more than a few conversations recently with a fair amount of New York Italians who fondly (or not so fondly) remember mothers and grandmothers hunkering down in a sauna-steamed kitchen boiling tomatoes into the family sauce. But for a gardener, one of the best benefits, in my opinion, is the ability to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor for months to come, even in the dead of winter.

My most recent obsession, due at least in part to the over-abundance of cucumbers that grew in our garden this summer, is pickling. For what better thing to do with a pile of cucumbers than to make pickles. Remarkably easy, making pickles is merely a matter of preserving vegetables and letting them ferment – most often in sugar or vinegar or… (can you guess where I’m going with this?) Salt.

As my pickle bible “The Joy of Pickling,” reminds, “While salt is not an essential in pickles, a pickle is hardly a pickle without salt…Salt strengthens texture, concentrates favors and helps control the fermentation process. The salt I use in my pickles is at least in part what helps them to be preserved for weeks, even months of enjoyment. Through salt, and a little bit of vinegar, they are made sustainable, lasting, and flavorful.

Scholars think that this is in part what Jesus was talking about when he shared the words from our Gospel lesson for this morning, “Salt is good.” Jesus said, “If salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” Probably not pickles, persay, but certainly the act of preserving, flavoring, sustaining. The metaphor is strange, and yet it has been a concern of Christians throughout the ages: how do we preserve our faith? How do we keep it strong? How do we pass it on from generation to generation?

One way we Presbyterians have chosen to preserve our faith tradition was shared just a little while ago in worship – as we handed down our precious scriptures to those “little ones,” of our church community. For these young readers, we hope and pray to see them soon reading and studying the Word we so treasure – learning stories of Moses and David, of Esther and Mary, of Paul and Silas. We share these texts and these stories because they have brought our lives meaning and sustenance, flavor even.

The passing down of stories and theology will continue for these children, through years of Sunday school and then confirmation, and then, hopefully, through their own life of faith, will be lived out in community here in the church and in the world, as they seek to follow, in the ways of Christ.

The trouble is, as studies are increasingly showing, that this type of preserving isn’t doing the job we hope it is. It seems the way that younger generations come to faith is very different than the way we’ve always done it.

Diana Butler Bass describes our traditional way of passing down faith as a three-part linear path; One that begins with belief, and then moves to behavior and then to belonging.

That is to say, the way we’ve understood the path of discipleship is that it begins with our choosing a set of beliefs. We learn and maybe memorize the creeds, a Psalm or other scripture. We agree: yes, I believe this statement that the church has taught me.

Out of that belief we choose to behave a certain way – we treat others with kindness, we volunteer in the soup kitchen, we come together in worship. Inevitably, those choices set us apart, along with a community of others who believe and behave the way we do, giving us a sense of belonging: and here we are, the church.

But younger generations don’t seem to work that way. In fact, their experience of faith is often the direct opposite of our traditional path. Instead they begin with a sense of belonging. They shop around until they find a community that feels… welcoming, safe.

They begin spending time with those people, making friends, building relationships. And in the midst of these relationships they begin to try on behaviors that fit into that community. They try worship, they try mission trips or service projects, they try prayer. They may or may not believe in what they are doing, they may be riddled with doubts.

But if the community fits, then the practices begin to take root, and then, maybe even years later… belief becomes solid, strengthened, sustaining.

“For everyone,” Jesus said, “will be salted with fire.”

As always, context is key in understanding what’s going on with Jesus in these few short verses. His comment about saltiness falls on the heels of a brief story about the disciples complaining about some unknown exorcist casting out demons in Jesus name.

The disciples want to stop him. “He’s not with us,” they say. He doesn’t look like us. He doesn’t follow us. They could have just have easily been saying: “He’s not from this country. Did you see the way he dresses? Did you see who he loves? Did you hear who he’s going to vote for?”

And then Jesus responds: “Do not stop him…whoever is not against us is for us….” and then: “If any of you put a stumbling block before these little ones who believe in me, it would be better if you would hang a millstone around your neck and be thrown into the sea.”

It’s a tough admonishment. And yet these harsh words from Jesus are pointed at the way we tend toward our affiliations and camps, the way we call each other names before we seek to understand, the way we battle rather than discuss, the way we demonize rather than recognize.

The stumbling block that Jesus seems to point out in this passage is our own inability to fully welcome those different than us, our unwillingness to open our eyes to the ways we are all more similar than we are separate. This, he says, this is one of those big things that will get in the way of both our own faith and the faith of those we hope to bring along.

Jesus challenges them, and all of us, with drastically severe statements about causing “little ones” to stumble, and urges us to amputate those parts of our bodies or pieces of our lives which prevent us from living fully into God’s kingdom world.

He questions the way we separate ourselves from those who might be different, the way we elevate our own theologies or ideologies above another’s experience of God or way of living faith. He presses us to consider what it might look like if we welcomed those we might otherwise turn away from, what it might feel like if we gave our blessing rather than withheld our approval.

For those generations that come after us, those little ones seeking to belong first and believe later, our actions of welcome might be the salt that preserves the faith for us and for them. Those generations are ones that certainly resonate with James’s practical words on prayer read earlier by Clark, but also these words: “Be not only hearers of the Word, but doers also…”

These are young people who not only see our hypocrisy and turn away from religion; but they also see how little we talk about what Christ means to us, and wonder what difference our faith makes in our lives. They think: I can live a good life without the church and without faith, I am nice, I am kind.

Where we fail them is when we live as though Jesus’ words in our texts call us simply to be nice, and kind. Instead Christ calls us to a radical life of love and welcome, one that pushes us beyond the boundaries of our own comfort to accept the way God’s spirit can move however it will – even if that means God’s spirit is with “them,” “those others…”

What if we told those members of our families and friends with whom we vehemently disagree that we love them, and we want to keep talking not to change each other’s minds but to understand them and love them even more?

What if we made a habit of spending time with those who are different, rather than with those who have the same interests and opinions.

What would it look like if we chose to welcome and invite and love not in spite of our differences but because of them: if we truly behaved in a way that showed compassion to all.

Radical, salty life is not only allowing for differences of opinion but also building a community where one can voice disagreements and then be embraced.

Radical welcome is not only reaching out to the poor and the immigrant, but working tirelessly to change the systems that continue to keep these in a place of least importance.

Salty faith is one where we might imagine the possibilities of God’s spirit of hope and peace and love…

Where we might cultivate a place of belonging for all, and then….

Imagine a world of hope and love far beyond what we ever dreamed.

How flavorful, how delicious.

May we have salt within us, and be at peace. Amen.

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