A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Creation 2 ~ Mark 9:38-50
I said last week that the scripture texts during this Season of Creation don’t really have much to do with creation. That said, I think last week we made some good tie-ins to creation spirituality. Today I’m not even going to try – other than when we get to the end you could certainly apply this teaching to creation care, or environmentalism, or our relationship with the natural world. The message will fit with the season ok, but it isn’t directly about it. What’s it about?
Well, it starts with a bunch of church insiders complaining because an outsider is doing some ministry that insiders aren’t doing, but they don’t like that an outsider is doing it in Jesus’ name, even though it isn’t really affecting the insiders at all. I guess they don’t like someone infringing on their brand? Anyway, so Jesus scolds them – the insiders, not the outsiders (who are actually acting like insiders, but I guess aren’t.) Jesus says, “Look, if they’re not hurting us, then they’re actually helping us. So chill out.” (Well, that’s how it reads in the original Greek – kinda!)
Then Jesus hurls a nasty warning at anyone who might trip up a new believer, saying that if you do that it you’d be better off sleeping with the fishes. Yikes! And then Jesus starts telling people to hack off body parts if those parts are leading you into trouble! Thank God we’re not literalists! (am-i-rite?!) Finally, he finishes off this section with an incredibly cryptic and mysteriously intriguing suggestion.
Allow me to summarize this whole pericope in two sentences:
Don’t be a jerk.
And go salt yourself!
And that’s the whole sermon! Same time next week?
It’s weird how groups and organizations get bent out of shape worrying about who’s team someone is on. Now, that’s not to say things like training, and credentials, and proper procedures aren’t important. They very much are. Here’s where it gets a bit murky. If someone is out doing something in the name of Jesus, that’s one thing. If they’re doing something in the name of the United Church of Canada, we might want to ensure that what they’re doing is in keeping with the values of the denomination. And if someone was out doing something in the name of Faith United – well, you can be darn sure that we would absolutely be concerned with how it reflected on our church.
So I get the source of the disciples’ angst. But at this point People of The Way are not a denomination. They’re just a rag-tag movement – a charismatic movement of the Holy Spirit with Jesus at the centre of it. Interestingly, Jesus isn’t worried about it. He approves of this ministry in his name. If the person is doing good let them do good. Disciples of Jesus do not have a lock on doing good deeds!
Said differently, you don’t have to be a Christian to be a good person.
Then Jesus says something I don’t think I agree with. He says, Mark 9:40, Whoever is not against us is for us. If a person isn’t actively working against the movement then they’re for the movement? Hmm, I don’t think it works that way. Regardless, Jesus says that to stop someone from showing loving-kindness, even in the name of Jesus, is a jerky thing to do. And it’s even worse if your insider fussing causes someone new to the movement to turn away. Who wants to be joining a sniping bunch of complainers? So don’t do that. Don’t be a jerk!
And then it gets really colourful! Mark 9:43-48
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,
where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
Let’s tackle a couple of things in translation. The word ‘hell’ here doesn’t mean hell like we probably think. Our picture of hell comes from literature, not the bible. The actual Greek word used is Gehenna. Gehenna was a real, physical place just outside of Jerusalem. It was literally a stinking, steaming, garbage dump that was always on fire. In their culture and time, it came to represent nastiness and evil – so ‘hell’ isn’t wrong, it’s just our version is more abstract and less visceral than Jesus intended. Jesus wasn’t making allusions to an abstract concept of hell – he was pointing at that stinking, fiery dump and saying, “Hop in!”
If your hand – the things you are doing – is tripping you up and taking your focus off of God, then cut it off. Stop doing that thing.
If your foot – the places you take yourself to, the company you keep – if that’s leading you off the path, then cut if off. Stop going to those places.
If your eye – the things you’re admiring, coveting, lusting after, being tempted by – if those things are distracting you and making you be unloving, then gouge it out. Stop looking at those things.
Someone in our Porch bible discussion wondered why Jesus didn’t include the tongue! Indeed! Our tongues probably cause more trouble than all the other ones put together!
It’s better to lose a hand, a foot, an eye, a tongue – better to cut yourself off from those troublesome things you do and say – even if that requires a dramatic action (not a literal action though! Please, no maiming allowed!) – better to suffer the pain of losing those activities or distractions than to give into them, lose your way, lose The Way, and find yourself neck deep in Gehenna!
In other words, just stop doing those things.
Stop being a jerk!
Take some time this week and think about what Jesus is saying.
In your own life, for you, what causes you to stumble?
What are your hands doing – where are your feet taking you – what is your eye gazing at – what is your tongue flapping about – that’s impeding your spiritual deepening?
What are you being a jerk about?
And what would it mean for you to stop doing those things?
“Don’t be a jerk” is a pretty powerful message. However, it’s not the whole message.
So far this has all really been about behaviour management. We all know that Jesus is about much deeper stuff than just having us be good little boys and girls and people.
And so we turn to the second big message of the day: go salt yourself!
Mark 9:49-50 “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.”
What do you think it means to be salted with fire? Is it good or bad?
Well, it’s good, but it isn’t necessarily light and breezy. Salt has a very complex and deep set of meanings in biblical times. Salt is used as a seasoning, a preservative, a cleanser or purifier, and also as a physical representation of some covenants. Salt was so important in their lives and culture that agreements or covenants would sometimes be sealed by the exchange of salt between the parties.
So salt is rich in meaning in Jesus’ time; but what does he mean about salt here? Good question! I wish I had a clear answer. It really is rather mysterious and cryptic. Here are some thoughts.
I read that it was a practice to salt a fire to make it burn hotter, and therefore to bake or cook better, but also to purify better. So if we are to be salted with fire I think it may mean that this process of stopping our distractions from The Way of Jesus, through discipline, prayer, mutual support, confession, repenting (which means to turn away from it, to change direction) – those are all part of the purifying process. Fire burns away the dreck and leaves the refined gold or silver.
Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?
This one is confusing, because salt can’t really lose its saltiness. It doesn’t go stale on the shelf. Saltiness is its essence. Aha! Maybe that’s it! Lovingness is our essence – at least that’s our hope as God’s beloved. If our lovingness has lost its capacity to love – because we’re so distracted by our hands, and feet, and eyes, and tongues – then how can we get our lovingness back? Like salt, we can’t ever lose our essence really – but it can become hidden, or marred, or encrusted with crud – that needs to be purified and refined and burned away. (All metaphorically speaking, of course.)
And then Jesus gives his big finish: Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.
Have salt in yourself.
Have spirit in yourself.
Have lovingkindness in yourself.
Have discipleship in yourself – be intentional, be focused, look a little deeper, do that hard self analysis, do that deep reflection, pray, pray, pray!
Go salt yourself!
You can’t buy it online and have it delivered to your door.
We need to do the groundwork – our personal work – ourselves.
But not alone! We can do that salty work together!
As a church, as Faith United, have salt in yourselves!
I’m thrilled to say that we do this very well! There’s a lot of salt in our congregation! And we are continuing to be salty even through pandemic, even though we can’t be together in the ways we wish we could, we are still together! And because we collectively work hard at our discipleship – loving one another, supporting one another, caring for one another – because we do these things, staying salty, we are at peace with one another.
So there it is.
Some teaching from Jesus that pulls no punches, gets right to the heart of the matter, and challenges us to really embody this Way of his in our lives.
There’s no wiggle room. There’s no ‘kinda’.
And it’s crystal clear that Jesus is deadly serious.
Discipleship is costly. It requires hard things from us.
Jesus’ Way is a challenging way – but it’s a sacred way, a blessed way, a just way, a loving way.
And after all the flowery speeches and fancy theological mumbo-jumbo it’s really pretty straightforward stuff.
If you want to follow Jesus, and friends, that’s why we’re here! – then here’s what it takes:
Don’t be a jerk!
And go salt yourself!