Weekly Seeds: Have Salt

Sunday, September 26, 2021
After Pentecost Year B

Focus Theme:
Have Salt

Focus Prayer:
O God, our guide and help in alien and contentious places: as Esther prayed faithfully and worked courageously for the deliverance of your people, strengthen us to confront the oppressor and free the oppressed, so that all people may know the justice and unity of your realm. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Mark 9:38–50
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.”

All readings for this Sunday:
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
James 5:13–20
Mark 9:38–50

Focus Questions:

  1. How do stumbling blocks function?
  2. How can you avoid stumbling blocks?
  3. How do manifest our as our own impediment?
  4. What is the function of salt?
  5. How can we create true peace among one another?

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).

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

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.