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  • Rev. Sara Ofner-Seals

Pass the Salt, Please


Mark 9:38-50

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.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. 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.

‘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. 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.

‘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.’

In this morning’s passage from the Gospel of Mark, we pick up exactly where we left off last week, when Jesus pulls a little child before his disciples, telling them that whoever wishes to be great among them, must first become last of all and servant of all.This lesson on humility seems to trigger something in John, one of the disciples, who then says to Jesus,“well okay, but surely we are greater than that guy,”referencing the unknown man who has been traveling from town to town, casting out demons in Jesus’ name.It’s like he missed the point entirely.

The disciples seem to be upset about the fact that someone from outside their exclusive circle could be doing their work without getting any sort of direct call from Jesus.I mean, it was the direct, individual call from Jesus that made the disciples special—that made them a cut above the average would-be follower of Jesus.Yet now there were others out there, doing the same work, and maybe the disciples worried that the more of them there were, the less important and special they would be.Again, it’s like Jesus’ message about humility and greatness went in one ear and out the other.

And so, not surprisingly, not only does Jesus dismiss John’s complaint, he appears to get a little impatient with him, and with the rest of the disciples.If I might paraphrase Jesus’ words here, I understand him to be saying something like this: “Why are you so worried about that guy, who, by the way, is out there healing people and doing good work?Maybe you need to take a closer look at your own lifeand consider the things that are causing you to stumble and fall short.Because, in case you forgot,you need to set an example for this little one hereand you sure as heck aren’t going to be able to do thatif you’re constantly obsessing over the worthiness of others.You’re just weighing yourself down— you’re placing a millstone of envy and resentment around your neck,and ain’t nobody got time for that in the Kingdom of God.

And THEN,after Jesus scares the living daylights out of his disciples with this little speech about a fire that is never quenched,he says what I think may be the key to this whole passage—“Salt is good;” he says,“but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”Now maybe upon first hearing, this last line seems a little out of place.Why is Jesus all of a sudden talking about salt? What does salt have to do with anything?And, while we’re on the subject,what does Jesus even mean when he says we are to have “salt in ourselves?”

I think that for us to understand what Jesus is getting at here, we have to first take a step back, and understand the significance of a product that most of us take for granted.For us, salt is one of the easiest products to obtain.It’s cheap and plentiful, and so it’s easy for us to forget that in the earliest days of human civilization, salt was a precious, highly sought-after commodity. One reason for that, as most of you probably know,was because of salt’s preservation capabilities. Before the days of refrigeration,salt was the primary method of preserving food.The ancient Egyptians used salt to make mummiesbecause the salt preserved the body and protected against decay.Salt also had highly symbolic significance in the ancient near-east. On the evening of the Sabbath, Jews would dip the Sabbath bread into salt,an act which symbolized the preservation of God’s covenant with the people of Israel.I could go on, but I think you probably get the point-- in Jesus’ time, salt was precious, and not too be taken for granted.

With all of this in mind then, we consider the question of why Jesus brings up this precious commodity in this particular conversation with his disciples. Personally,I think there are multiple layers of meaning—having to do with both our individual spiritual livesas well as how we live together in community.

For us as individuals, I suspect Jesus is talking about the importance of preserving the integrity of our spiritual lives.And I think we all know from experience that the more we focus our attention on what other people are doing, especially when we are focused on what other people are doing wrong, the easier it becomes to ignore our own faults and stumbling blocks.Maybe we even start to justify our own weaknesses—“at least I’m not like them,”we might say to ourselves, to make ourselves feel better about our own hypocrisies, or our own failures to fully embrace God’s call for our lives.But if salt, in this metaphor, is what preserves our integrity, if salt is what adds depth and character to the work that we do for the Kingdom of God, than the more we focus on the faults of others rather than our own walk with God, the more bland and flavorless we become—the less effective we become as teachers and leaders for the little ones among us.“Have salt in yourselves,”Jesus says to the disciples.Focus on preserving the light that lives in you rather than putting down the efforts of others—either because they are doing something differently than you,or because you think they don’t belong,or because you feel threatened by their presence.Preserve the sublime, God-given light that lives in you.Preserve it’s unique flavor and character,use it to light the path for others, especially the little ones, especially the last and the least, especially the vulnerable among us.

I think this is such an important lesson,and one that is extremely relevant for the world we live in today.I’ll be the first to admitthat I struggle with this a lot sometimes.I will admit to you all this morningthat the last few days have been particularly difficult for me when it comes to that great temptation to want to point the finger at others,making a big fuss over how they (whoever they happens to be)have gotten it wrong.We certainly saw plenty of that from our political leaderson Thursday and Friday this past week.There was so much finger pointing,so many accusations flying around the room.“It’sthemwho are causing the problem,”said one side.“It’s those people who are wrong,”said the other.Everyone in the room was quick to point out how the other side was wrong.And not just wrong, but even malicious and corrupt.I can’t speak for anyone else, but I will admit that as I watched the hearings,I found myself doing the exact same thing as the people on TV.I fell right into the trap of us vs them.I was cheering and jeering right alongside everyone else.Then I got on Facebook and I joined the chorus of people taking one side or another.And then I woke up Friday morning, and I opened my computer to begin writing this morning’s sermon, and as I read Jesus’ words once more,I thought to myself,“I am so busted.”

I had fallen into that age old trap—pointing out the flaws and sins of everyone else, and paying little to no attention to the anger and resentment that was festering in my own heart. And I’m going to go ahead and make an assumption,which is like, the biggest no-no ever in preaching,but I feel confident in assumingthat at least a few of youmay have been doing the same thing this past week.And while that’s obviously not great for ourselves because of everything I just said about the importance of preserving our own spiritual integrity,the ones who really lose out the most in the midst of the political circus we currently find ourselves inare the little ones—the vulnerable ones—the wounded ones who watched this week’s proceedings with heavy heartsas memories of their own experiences of assault or harassmentflooded back into their minds.A friend of mine on Facebook pointed out this weekthat all of us, whether we realize it or not,knows someone who has been the victim of sexual assault.Personally, I know way too many people who have been through the nightmare of sexual assault or harassment. Some of them have come forward.Others have yet to do so,for a whole host of reasons. And I heard from many of them this week.They felt the pain and terror of their own experiences all over againthis week. Those who have come forward about their experiences felt the memories flooding backof how they too were shamed, or doubted, or called liars. Those who have yet to come forward felt even less encouraged than before, fearing that if they ever did come forward, they would only be exposing themselves to more pain and more shame.Millions of women and men, many of them young, some of them still young enough to be called children, were experiencing severe trauma all over again this week. Meanwhile, the rest of us were arguing about the timing of accusations and who might have leaked what, with each side accusing the other of political grandstanding or corrupt motivations.In all of that, it’s the little ones who got lost in the shuffle.And I think that’s exactly what Jesus is trying to warn us against.

I’m not trying to be controversial by bringing this up. And I’m not trying to take one side or the otherin this particular case.I’m simply pointing out how easy it is for us,just as it was for the original disciples,and pretty much all Christians throughout history,to get distracted by what everyone else is doing—especially when we think they are wrong—to the point that we neglect the light of God’s love within ourselves and others. At the end of the day, it’s that light that we need to preserve.That’s what we need to cultivate and nurture. Because the more we are able to preserve, cultivate, and nurture the light of God’s love inside of ourselves, the better equipped we will be to reach out to those who are hurting, those who are vulnerable and feeling small, those who might be feeling lost or alone.To reach out and share a bit of our unique saltiness in order to help them discover the unique and precious gifts that they too hold within themselves. And here’s the amazing thing about that.The more we do this kind of work,the more we work on preserving the integrity of our own hearts,and walk with others as they try to do the same,the less we will feel the needto focus so much on what we think other people are doing wrong.It’s actually kind of amazing how that works.The more salt we have in ourselves,the less we feel the need to put down, condemn or exclude others.

Which brings me to my second point about how all of this is relevant, not just to our own individual spiritual lives, but also to how we live in community with one another.To make that point,I want to share with you a lovely commentary that I came across this week, written by UCC Pastor Rachel Keefe.“Have you ever noticed how many different kinds of salt exist?”she asks, as she writes about her discovery of the wide world of salt.“ There’s the plain blue box of table salt,”she says, “but there’s also black and pink and gray sea salt. There’s smoked salt and flavored salt. There’s salt that comes in chunks both large and small; there’s finely ground salt and coarsely ground salt. But what if all these different kinds of salt all of a sudden lost their saltiness? What if they all lost what made them so distinct,and thus so delightful to our senses?”“It doesn’t matter,”Keefe writes,“if you are the old blue canister of iodized salt or if you are regular sea salt or smoked salt or salt of a different color. You can’t shove another kind of salt off the shelf, and you can’t claim to be better than the others. You are salt. I am salt. We all have a job to do. To do it best we have to recognize our own saltiness and the saltiness of those who share the shelf. Then we have to live in peace with one another.”

To live in peace with one another. To be reconciled to one another.To be repairers of the breach and to live together again in right relationship with one another. That’s what we are all seeking—is it not?Whether we are Democrat or Republican; Christian, Muslim or Jew; black, white or brown; rich or poor; documented or undocumented—isn’t that what all of us are after? To live in peace with one another? To feel safe and secure?To know that we are loved,and to be able to love others with whole and undivided hearts?I can only speak for myself, but I know that’s what I want more than anything else in the world.And if we are listening to what Jesus has to say about it, then we know that they key to bringing about this kind of life for ourselves and for all the little ones of this world, is to have salt in ourselves.To preserve the integrity of God’s light within us.To cultivate and nurture the unique flavor of our saltiness, and to recognize and embrace the unique flavor that all of God’s little ones bring to the table.May it ever be so, Amen.


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