Sunday, September 30, 2012

In praise of salty saints

The Wisdom of Jesus and James
James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

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Sometimes it’s the strange and difficult texts in scripture, that—
if you are willing to struggle with them for a while—
turn out to be the most fruitful for life and thought.

I read over both these readings from James and Mark,
a number of times,
and looked for clear points of connection,
between the two texts,
between the texts and me,
between the texts and the congregation.
I looked for something that jumped out at me,
just begging me to preach it.
I was looking for something obvious . . . and I wasn’t finding it.

So I finally gave in, and paid attention to the very last phrases in Mark.
“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.”

These words did not draw me in at first, for a couple reasons.
First, they sound a bit like the more famous salt saying of Jesus,
“You are the salt of the earth,
but if the salt has lost its flavor,
how can it be made salty again?”
That’s a message about how our Christian lives
should be like salt to the world,
enhancing the flavor of our gospel message,
to a world that needs to hear it.
Great message, but I’ve covered that territory, often.
And this wasn’t even talking about the world.

The second reason I resisted,
is these salt sayings seem pretty . . . enigmatic,
like so many words flapping in the breeze,
either not saying much, or saying something so vague,
we could take it lots of different ways.
“Everyone will be salted with fire.”
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. “Salted with fire.”
And, “Have salt in yourselves,
and be at peace with one another.”
Okay, “being at peace with one another”
is a concept that’ll preach alright.
But, how is “being at peace”
related to “having salt in ourselves.”

I was tempted to leave those strange sayings alone.
But I kept coming back.
Because I’ve discovered that sometimes
when I explore more deeply the point of my resistance,
I discover a deeper truth I might otherwise have missed.

So I got to thinking about salt.
And I got to exploring what else scriptures say about salt.

It’s important for us modern western folks—
for whom salt is ordinary, cheap, and plentiful,
and adding salt to food is considered optional
and not always the healthy choice—
to step back and think about what salt might have meant to Jesus,
and to all of Jesus’ listeners.

For starters, salt was anything but cheap and ordinary in ancient times.
It was expensive, highly valued, and hard to obtain.
In Europe there are numerous ancient “salt roads,”
including the Via Salaria (literally, the way of salt),
that traverses across Italy.
People harvested salt from the Mediterranean near Rome
and transported it across the country.
Some historians believe that the original settlement of Rome as a city
owes itself to the salt trade.
Sometimes, the wages of Roman soldiers were paid in salt.
From which comes the phrase, being “worth your salt.”
The word “salary” comes from the Latin “salarium,”
probably referring to money given to soldiers to buy salt.

Salt was essential to living good, prosperous lives in the ancient world.
It was necessary for health purposes.
Obviously, they had no freezers and refrigerators.
So food and meat were eaten immediately,
or they were preserved somehow.
Generally, that involved the use of salt,
to prevent spoiling.
And a certainly amount of salt in a daily diet
was necessary for health.
The ancients understood that,
long before modern science.
Salt was essential for life.
Salt had to be obtained one way or another,
and they were willing to pay good money for it.

So when Jesus used a salt metaphor in his teaching,
his listeners were right with him.
Since salt was so valuable to ancient life,
it naturally took on deeper, and symbolic, meanings.
For instance, in the Old Testament,
there is a connection between salt and covenant.

Leviticus 2:13 . . .
“You shall not omit from your grain offerings
the salt of the covenant with your God.”

Numbers 18:19 . . .
“All the holy offerings that the Israelites present to the Lord
[are] a perpetual due;
it is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord.”

And scripture specifically instructs priests
offering covenant sacrifices of meat to the Lord,
to throw salt on the sacrifice,
and then burn them up on the altar.

The fact that salt is associated with covenant and sacrifice,
leads us to conclude that there is an ancient understanding
that salt represents permanence, preservation, stability.

To this day, in Middle Eastern culture,
salt is a symbol of covenantal loyalty, and permanence.
In Arabic usage, salt is a metaphor for peace and treaty between people.
There is an understanding in the Arab world,
that once you share salt with someone,
that is, once they eat at your table,
you are morally bound to be loyal to that person.
Whatever happens, you may not betray them.
You have a salt covenant with them.
And salt is permanent.

So when Jesus used a metaphor of unsalty salt,
it would have been jarring to the common sense of his listeners.
Not to mention, it makes no sense from a scientific point of view.
Salt is a stable chemical compound.
It cannot lose its saltiness,
without being chemically changed
into some other chemical that isn’t salt.
Salt can be diluted—
to the point of being hidden or unrecognized.
Maybe that’s what Jesus meant.

In any case, Jesus then makes another enigmatic, mysterious saying,
“Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

It’s important first of all to note that those are all plural verbs.
The whole sentence could more precisely be translated,
“All of you have salt among yourselves,
and be at peace with one another.”

Salt, here, is characteristic of how we relate to each other in community.
But what was Jesus getting at here?
What did he mean by using this metaphor?
What does a community of salty saints look like?

I don’t think it’s an accident that this saying
comes right after several short stories
of dysfunction in the community of Jesus’ disciples.
Earlier in Mark 9, at the beginning of the chapter,
while Peter, James, and John were having
a mountaintop experience with a transfigured Jesus,
fellowshiping with Moses and Elijah,
Peter tried to preserve the moment, to institutionalize it,
to build permanent shelters to house the glory.
Jesus would have none of it.

Then when the inner circle of three came down the mountain, v. 14,
the rest of the disciples were in a kerfuffle with the crowd,
because someone brought a demon-possessed boy to the disciples
and they were unable to heal him.
After Jesus did the healing, and they were in private again,
the disciples asked why they weren’t successful.
Jesus’ reply? V. 29— “It might help if you would pray.”

And then the story we looked at last Sunday, v. 30 and following,
the disciples got into an argument
about which of them was the greatest,
who was the closest friend of Jesus.
And that, immediately after Jesus talked to them
about having to undergo suffering and death.
So Jesus brought a child into the middle of the circle,
and said, “Be like this.”
Show kindness and honor to the least among you.

And then in today’s reading, beginning in v. 38,
there was another exorcism story,
except this time, someone who was outside their circle,
someone not following Jesus,
was casting out the evil spirit.
The disciples were offended by this,
and tried to stop him.
Jesus replied, “Don’t be afraid of those doing good.
“Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Then he goes into a teaching about
not putting stumbling blocks in the way
of any of the “little ones” who believe in Jesus.
It’s one of the worst of sins, according to Jesus,
to take advantage of anyone who is weak,
and make them stumble,
or lead them astray.

As I look at those stories, in all of chapter 9,
I notice some common threads.
The disciples had a tendency to want to preserve and protect,
at the expense of the main mission of Jesus.
They couldn’t just enjoy the glory of God
made manifest on the mountain,
they wanted to build a shrine to encapsulate, to contain the glory.
They couldn’t just submit themselves to the power and will of God,
they tried to make healing happen,
on their own power, on their own terms.
And for sure, they couldn’t stand someone outside their group,
getting credit for healing.
And what was completely beyond their ability to comprehend,
was that Jesus might purposely walk down a path of suffering,
and might not be interested in having anyone
take a position of power in the organization,
in order to control the outcome of the mission.

Now, isn’t this interesting?
The disciples are trying to establish
a sort of permanence and stability
to the Jesus movement.
You know, permanence and stability, like what salt symbolizes.

But at every turn, Jesus says, “No!”
The movement of God is not something to be contained,
to be managed,
to be controlled and kept within the confines of our comfort zone.
You cannot house the glory of God.
You cannot dictate when and how healing happens.
You cannot shield yourself from suffering.
You cannot vie for positions of power . . . and be my disciple.

Then Jesus opens up new avenues of meaning for the salt metaphor.
“Everyone will be salted with fire.”
That is, the fire of persecution.
Suffering will come.
It is to be expected in a community of salty saints.
The salt will irritate.
The salt will draw out the impurities of your enemies.

“Salt is good,” Jesus reassured them.
But make sure your salt is not un-salty.
Be sure that it doesn’t lose its potency, its power to bring life.

But, “have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

So what kind of saltiness is Jesus proposing
for a community of salty saints?

It seems to me,
that there are good and bad ways of being salty.

There is a kind of saltiness we refer to,
when we talk about language or character.
A salty character, or salty talk,
is being colorful, to the point of being profane, or even offensive,
just saying whatever comes out of your mouth,
without regard to others—
in fact, disregarding the community,
and its sense of what is just and pure.
That kind of saltiness might be coming from
a harmless eccentric individual,
who is just being himself
and who the community happily tolerates.
Or it might be a symptom of something larger, and more insidious:
a callous, devil-may-care individualism,
that undermines and destroys community.

Either way, that’s not the kind of saltiness
Jesus told us to “have among ourselves.”

There is also a saltiness that obsesses on preservation,
to the point of killing whatever is alive in the organism.
The preserving characteristic of salt
is not about killing the life within the food,
it’s about enhancing the life,
making that life last in a form that can still be life-giving,
even ages from now.
There is the kind of preservation fit for museums.
Where you put things under glass.
Where you protect, secure, and immobilize
valuable artifacts,
and keep out anything undesirable,
so we have something permanent to look at and admire.

That’s also not the kind of saltiness
Jesus told us to “have among ourselves.”

Rather, the kind of salt Jesus wants us
to spread around freely in our community,
is salt that leads us toward a zestful, flavorful, way of life,
in eternal, living, vibrant, covenant with one another.

It is salt that welcomes the manifestation of God’s glory,
wherever it appears,
and doesn’t try to build a house to contain it.

It is salt that lets go of our need to control how God works,
not trying to manufacture our version of peace,
but submits our agenda to God’s agenda,
and rejoices over reconciliation wherever it happens,
and whoever initiated it.

It is salt that doesn’t try first to protect the interests of the institution,
but has an instinct to protect the little ones, the vulnerable,
the children who believe.

It is salt that brings life,
brings flavor, and zest, and truth, and color,
and the real presence of God’s Kingdom into the community.
It is salt that permeates our collective life.

And it the salt that forms the kind of community of salty saints,
that makes possible the kind of life James spoke of
in today’s reading.
A community attentive and responsive to the needs of its individuals,
so that when someone is suffering, the community prays,
when someone is cheerful, the community sings,
and when someone is sick, the community gathers
to anoint them, and pray together for healing.
It’s also the kind of community that can do mutual discipline
with great love and effectiveness.
So that, in v. 19, someone wanders from the truth,
they can be drawn back in,
because no one abandons them,
but someone walks with them,
gently guiding, nudging, loving them back.

A community of salty saints
cultivates a vibrant, zestful, risk-taking, and truthful
way of life together . . .
and engages in the kind of practices and habits
that preserve that kind of life,
that make it last over generations,
even if it takes different forms.

I pray that this community at Park View Mennonite
will strive to be that kind of community of salty saints—
who never seek to preserve the faith by putting it under glass,
and freezing it in time,
but who will nurture a faith that is life-giving, and zestful,
and fiercely loyal to the weak and vulnerable,
and always engaged in God’s mission of
healing the wounded,
saving the lost,
restoring the broken,
and reconciling the alienated.

God knows, we all need that.
May it be so, by God’s grace.

—Phil Kniss, September 30, 2012

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