Sunday, September 27, 2015

Proper 21 B - Sep 27, 2015

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. José Folgueira, OHC
Proper 21 B – Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mark 9:38-50

“Have salt in yourselves”

The look of home-made apple pie...
We struggle to be the way we think we should be. I think of a scene in a movie, about an overworked young mother, in a high-powered job. She realizes late one evening she is committed to bring a pie to her child’s class the next day. She just doesn’t have the time to whip one up, so she runs out and picks one up at the store. But it looks too... well, store-bought, too perfect. So she squishes it a bit around the edges, so it looks a little more home-made. Because heaven forbid any of the other moms would think that this woman didn’t make the pie with her own hands for her precious child’s school. We care about how we appear to others. We want to belong. We want to be approved of by those around us. And sometimes we allow the silliest things, like a pie for a school bake sale, to make us a little crazy in our desire to be seen as fine, normal, upstanding member of our community.

And in that desire, we do things that get in the way of being authentic, honest, ourselves. We squish the edges of the pie. We worry that we are not good enough, so we do odd things that we think will make us look better. In a commencement speech, the author David McCullough names this very pointedly:

In our unspoken but not subtle Darwinian competition with one another, which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality, we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point, and we are happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that is the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.

McCullough may have named the twenty-first century phenomenon, but Jesus’s disciples were just as likely to fall into this trap as you and I are. Remember last week? In the midst of Jesus telling them the most important part of his story, that he was going to be killed by the authorities but would rise again from the dead, what were they doing? Arguing. About what? About who is more important. Completely missing the point, of course. Thinking about the wrong thing, about who appears to have most power and favor.

And Jesus loses his patience with them, as he is continuing to lose patience with them in today’s passage. I can just hear Jesus now: come on guys, how many times do I have to explain things to you before it sinks in. Ok guys let’s try this again.

They have come to him, complaining about somebody who is trying to do what they are supposed to do, to cast demons out. In other words, we thought we were the special ones who get to do this. Nobody else should get to cast out demons but us, because we are special and he is not. And the subtext is, if this guy who is not one of the special disciples does this, then maybe we are not special anymore.

And that is the sort of thing we worry about, isn’t it? What makes us special. What makes us appreciated by others. What sets us apart and makes us appear to be something more than everybody else.

Jesus is telling them, you are not special, you are not the only ones who can do these things. It’s not about the disciples anymore. It’s about everyone. Only loving me and doing the work matters, and anyone who wants to do the work in my name is invited. You need to let go of your need for ego gratification and your worry about what others think of you, and just do the work, and welcome others into the work as well. And it doesn’t make any difference, male or female, Jew or gentile, rich or poor whoever is not against us is for us. 

And then we come to cutting of body parts; what a gospel passage! This passage from Mark is just one of many reasons, I’m not a fundamentalist. As John Crossan put it so nicely, 
Just because Jesus is the Lamb of God doesn’t mean that Mary had a little lamb.
Amputations, gouging out eyes, all that sounds pretty serious. Did Jesus really meant that? Probably not. I think he was trying to drive a point home to the disciples. Sometimes we need to exaggerate to get people’s attention. The point of the lesson is that if there is anything that is causing you to stumble, to distance yourself from God, then do something about it. You need to be willing to go any length, to use any means to do something about it.  

Can you think of anything in your life that you need to get rid of? You are going to find things about yourself that get in the way of loving God. You need to do an attitude adjustment to divest yourself of those things, not because it will make you look better, but because it will make you BE better. And in being better, you will find it easier to share the burden of the work laid before you. It will not be all about you.

The thing that we need to work on are not how we appear to the world, which one of us is richer or more important or prettier, but what we do in the world, how we invite others to join us in the work of making the world a better place, a place that is what Jesus envisions for all of us. We cannot do it alone. We shouldn’t pick and chose who does it with us. And I expect that when we are done, we, like the world, will look a whole lot better, to us and to Jesus.

The Gospel reading, today, ends with some wonderful talk about salt. Let’s take those last verses apart, a bit. “For everyone will be salted with fire.” Wow! First, what does that mean, to be “salted with fire?” As I read it this time, I think it means we will be seasoned with difficulties and pain, that through difficulties and pain we will preserved and perfected, our flaws and selfishness and childishness will be burned away, and we will be transformed. Second note: EVERYONE. No exclusions, none left out. We will all have our turn, one way or another.

In confronting misfortune and injury and illness we confront ourselves, not as we wish we were or imagine we used to be, but as we are. These are the experiences that increase the acreage of our souls. To know that maybe we won’t get completely better, that we need to face some limitations, is to share what Paul called the “thorn in the flesh,” to truly know that God’s power is made more perfect in weakness. Is this not the seasoning? 

And while we would wish to avoid some of the more painful aspects - I know I would - the experience of growing and deepening would not be the same. Life isn’t hypothetical, a mental experiment. Life is lived, in all its messiness and complexity and pain. And while I would never wish misfortune on anyone, I also wouldn’t want to keep this experience of growth and depth from others who will profit from it.

And the Gospel reading goes on: “Salt is good. But if it has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” I’ve often puzzled over these sentences, but in the context of this difficult fall, I felt a new kinship with them. Perhaps what Jesus is saying is that the very bitterness of salt, the very bitterness of experience is what makes it effective as a teacher, if experience loses its sting, how can it teach us, how can it broaden and deepen us? And how to return bitterness to experience, if that is the goal? And so Jesus says, have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another. Now, perhaps what Jesus is saying is simply that, in the Near East, sharing salt was part of a treaty relationship.

But now, I’m wondering. It could also be that by sharing the bitterness of experience we come to a new peace with one another, a peace that understands the deep ways in which we are all the same.

You see, we are all the same in our fears, in our pain. Ironically, we are all the same, too, in our isolation, in our alone-ness. We are all the same in thinking that there is no one like us. Isn’t it interesting? Our injuries may be different but we are all the same in thinking our injuries are unique. The thing that is common to all of us is the feeling that we are unique.

So, where do we go with that insight? Does it mean that we are all wrong, that we really are all the same? Well, not exactly, although we aren’t, probably, as different from one another as we think. No, we don’t all have the same injuries, but we all have injuries. 

There is quote attributed to Plato and by others to Philo: "Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting great battle" nonetheless, and that is what we share. We are all fighting a great battle. It may be a battle against being alone, or against relationship. It may be a battle against being a victim or against someone who acts like a victim. We are all fighting a great battle.

We all have been or will be seasoned by the fire at some time in our lives which is another way of saying that we are stewards of the experiences God gives us in our lives. Learning from our experiences, good or bad, happy or sad, is practicing good stewardship with God’s gift of life to us.

Lord Jesus Christ,

who affirmed all who do good deeds in your name,

Even in the sharing of a cup of water,

Grant to us,

the wisdom to see the way forward for your people 

and this planet.

The courage to choose the right path,

and the will to share this way with others.


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