Sermon Seeds: Have Salt
Sunday, September 26, 2021
18th Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Esther 7:1–6, 9–10, 9:20–22 and Psalm 124
Numbers 11:4–6, 10–16, 24–29 and Psalm 19:7–14
Confront (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl Lindsay
This passage opens with an admission from John that he and the other disciples were rather busy not minding their business. Apparently, someone observed Jesus or heard about him and decided to try ministering in the name of Jesus. I’m struck that John identifies the disciples’ objection to this action that this person was not following “us.” He doesn’t say that the person wasn’t following Jesus; it seems obvious that the person was following Jesus even if their journey was different from the way that John and the other disciples followed him. I can only imagine this same spirit of gatekeeping showing up in our current faith communities. We too have gatekeepers. Attire and other aspects of physical appearance may signal the gatekeeper to object to affirming ministry in the name of Jesus. For others, it might be the language that someone uses that is not acceptable. Some might take issue with political party affiliation or activism.
Perhaps the most alarming part of the confession is that John doesn’t seem to be making one. For him, it’s more of a report. This is how I hear this conversation: Hey Jesus, we just want to keep you in the loop that someone was healed of their torment but we had a problem with the source of their deliverance so we tried to stop it. Imagine objecting to someone becoming free because their breakthrough came without your permission.
Imagine deciding to put a condition of reducing childhood hunger by attaching indiscriminate requirements on parents. Imagine asking for proof of income before distributing a bag of groceries to the food insecure. Imagine limiting leadership positions in your faith community to a small group of people that you determine are acceptable.
As I consider this action, it seems to be a failure of imagination at best and a jealous possessiveness at worst. The person, unidentified by name, is doing what Jesus did. The disciples themselves had previously been sent out to minister in Jesus’ name. It wasn’t as if they did not know that Jesus delegated that authority; they had been recipients of that responsibility. They either lack the imagination to believe that someone, not in need of healing themselves, would come to believe in the transformative power of Jesus and join in that ministry and mission. Imagine holding a deep faith in God and not going to church. On the other hand, their objection could be to not being the only ones singled out. They are used to being special and value the privilege of being part of a limited number of disciples.
It’s also possible that they were being protective of Jesus and the use of his name:
In antiquity names were believed to carry the power or character of their owners (see Mark 3:16, 17; cf. Gen 32:22-32; Exod 3:13-14). The use of divine names to force those deities’ cooperation was a standard procedure in magical incantations (cf. Mark 1:24-25; 3:11-12; 5:7-13). What is to be made of someone who, without authorization, uses Jesus’ name to cast out demons (cf. 6:7, 13; 16:17)? The answer was not obvious to early Christians.C. Clifton Black
This was someone they did not know and apparently were still unable to identify even after observing his action. The disciples might have genuinely feared a malevolent or disingenuous motive from this person who is following the works of Jesus but has not entered into the community of Jesus. Of course, there’s no mention that John and his companions extended an invitation to do that. The only thing we know of the encounter is the insistence on what he wasn’t allowed to do. Leading with the objection likely squashed any opportunity toward relationship-building or community-inclusion. It’s hard to condemn and welcome at the same time.
That approach characterizes so much of evangelism in the modern era. There’s been so much focus on fire-and-brimstone condemnation that the grace and mercy of a loving God who enters into creation as Companion gets forgotten. Yet, so much of that behavior has been justified by evoking the admonition of this passage about being a stumbling block. In order to understand the fullness of that warning, it needs to be placed in proper context with bookended statements: “Whoever is not against us is for us” and “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
“Ascribed to Jesus is a broad-minded attitude toward those outside the disciples’ circle.” (Clifton C. Black) This response addresses the disciples’ concern but goes further as Jesus “stresses gracious reception of anyone whose action, dynamic or modest, genuinely conforms to Jesus’ name and character.” (Clifton C. Black) Jesus gives permission to follow his will and way without invitation or license. Recently, a number of beloved colleagues have moved forward in the ordination process. I’m excited for them, but I recognize it as a recognition and public affirmation of what God has already done by the community in which the ordinand is placed. I also remember after my ordination reflecting that my ministry barely changed. When you minister in the authority of Jesus, validation by other believers is wonderful and celebratory, but it pales in comparison to the blessing of the work itself and the approval of the divine.
I am sure that the person who was casting out demons kept doing the work because the disciples did not have the power to stop them. They never operated out of the disciples power and were not called to follow the disciples. They followed Jesus, not by hanging around and asking questions, but by living in the realm and reign of the kindom of God. Jesus has to expand the disciple’s understanding. I find myself often reminding members of the congregation who lament those who have not returned to in-person gathering that there are plenty of members of our faith community who prefer worshipping online. Just because they chose a different means doesn’t make their experience and path less meaningful or less faithful. And, whomever your choice to align yourself with another disciple does not determine if you are following Jesus. Pastors, chaplains, spiritual directors, and other faith leaders may point us toward Jesus but cannot replace or supersede Jesus.
Our focus passage is situated in a larger discourse about discipleship in which the gospel writer presents a new vision of inclusion in faithful community. Clifton suggests that this framing parallels the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew’s narrative. Racquel Lettsome amplifies the vision of servitude articulated by Jesus:
Discipleship is not for the fainthearted; no one finds it easy (Malbon 1983, 29). Defined primarily in terms of servanthood, discipleship runs counter to a social structure that advances persons with access to wealth, power, authority, and even purity to the highest levels of the social order. Those without access to this social currency remained at the lowest levels. Thus the way of Jesus reverses the honor-shame codes that structure the cultural world in which Mark’s audience lives (St. Clair, 109–64).Racquel S. Lettsome
Certainly, the honor-shame codes were relational in a transactional way. Yet, Jesus declares that there is no risk in adopting inclusivity. I remember seeing a comment on Twitter by a prominent pastor that they would not accept another well-known pastor as a sibling in Christ because of a difference in doctrine. I was stunned at the idea that acceptance in the family of God is a choice that belongs to us. That stance reflects a transactional mentality, acceptance as a reward for agreement, that belies the unconditional love and acceptance of the Incarnational Christ. It also mimics the limiting perspective of John and his co-conspirators who took on the task of gatekeeping.
Gatekeeping does not follow Jesus. Gatekeeping creates stumbling blocks.
Those stumbling blocks hinders the one who places them as well as those who encounter them:
In Mark 9:43, 45, and 47 the refrain of hypothetical stumbling recurs, here with the self as apparent victim. Yet the context (vv. 42, 49c) and content of the aphorisms suggest social responsibility: one may trip up oneself through conduct that harms others.Clifton C. Black
Jesus uses vivid images of bodily harm as a consequence of impeding another. These metaphors are not surprising when we consider that Jesus liked the fullness of the community of faith as the continuation of their embodied presence on earth.
Finally, Jesus turns to the notion of salt. “For everyone will be salted with fire.” What does it mean to be salted? The other day, I made pasta, and I almost forgot to add salt to the water. As a cook, I know what salt does to the food I prepare. It changes the boiling point of water. It has a flavor of its own, but it also enhances the flavor of other foods. Salt, when used in sufficient quantities, will preserve some foods. At the same time, excessive amounts of salt will make some meals inedible. Too much salt may lead to health challenges; too little salt presents other problems. Salt is naturally occurring in different forms, but has these distinct characteristics that make it instantly recognizable.
And Jesus says, everyone will be salted with fire. Everyone. In the same way that virtually all food contains some level of salt within it, human beings are going to go through some things. We are seasoned by the circumstances and situations of our lives. “Salt is good.” Being salted is a good thing that can occur within a trying thing. Queen Esther was salted in confronting her husband the king as she risked her privilege and her safety for the good of her people. That salt was good. Moses was salted in the wilderness as he led a people with a propensity for complaint. God provided additional leaders to share the burden. That salt was good. James recounts Elijah’s persistent prayers for rain that took 42 months to be answered in the affirmative. Nevertheless, he persisted. That salt was good.
Following Jesus does not manifest in expected ways. Most of us have a testimony that has roads that were unfamiliar and paths that were unwanted. Some of us would not have necessarily chosen our pilgrim partners. We may have encountered numerous stumbling blocks, or we may have erected some ourselves. Sometimes, the salt may seem more like a curse than a seasoning. Sometimes, the fire may seem all-consuming rather than refining.
Still, we have salt. We have within us the ability, in the name of Jesus, to change the nature of a situation and be carriers of peace. We can alter the texture of our environment. We have agency to be good stewards of creation, our sibling. We have the capacity to enhance the gifts that others bring. We have salt. That’s good.
For further reflection:
“You are the salt that adds flavor to the earth, and the whole universe is waiting to savor your uniqueness.” ― Michael Bassey Johnson
“Neither sugar nor salt tastes particularly good by itself. Each is at its best when used to season other things.
Love is the same way.
Use it to ‘season’ people.” ― Vera Nazarian
“If life throws you a few bad notes or vibrations, don’t let them interrupt or alter your song.” ― Suzy Kassem
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection:
Consider ways that your gathered body can deconstruct stumbling blocks within your community.
Black, Clifton C. Mark. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011.
Lettsome, Raquel S. “Mark.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Esther 7:1–6, 9–10, 9:20–22 and Psalm 124
Numbers 11:4–6, 10–16, 24–29 and Psalm 19:7–14
Esther 7:1–6, 9–10, 9:20–22
7 1 So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. 2 On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” 3 Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. 4 For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” 5 Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” 6 Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.
9 Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” 10 So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.
20 Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21 enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, 22 as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.
1 If it had not been the LORD who was on our side
—let Israel now say—
2 if it had not been the LORD who was on our side,
when our enemies attacked us,
3 then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
4 then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
5 then over us would have gone
the raging waters.
6 Blessed be the LORD,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth.
7 We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped.
8 Our help is in the name of the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
Numbers 11:4–6, 10–16, 24–29
4 The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6 but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
10 Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the LORD became very angry, and Moses was displeased. 11 So Moses said to the LORD, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12 Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? 13 Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ 14 I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. 15 If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.”
16 So the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you.
24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25 Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.
26 Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”
7 The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the LORD is pure,
the ordinances of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
38 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.” 39 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. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 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.
42 “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. 43 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. 45 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., 47 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, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 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.”