A sermon offered on Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21B, Track 1, RCL), September 27, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are Esther 7:1-6,9-10;9:20-22, Psalm 124, James 5:13-20, and Mark 9:38-50. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)
If you’re like me, you usually ignore television commercials; like my wife, you may even mute the sound on your TV when they come on. But every once in a while there will be one that is just so good you have to give it credit, you watch it when it comes on because it’s just a really good piece of little film making.
One such little story that I think is brilliant is a commercial for Esurance entitled Beatrice in which an older lady, standing in front of her living room wall which is plastered with photographs of her vacation, she says, “Instead of mailing everyone copies of my vacation photos, I’m saving a ton of time by posting them to my wall.” She goes on to extol her quick on-line insurance and when her friend, who has a very puzzled and concerned look on her face, responds that she’s saved more, Beatrice says to her, “I ‘unfriend’ you.” And the friend replies, “That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.”
That, I suggest to you, is Jesus’ message to his misguided disciples when they “saw someone casting out demons in your name, and . . . tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” It’s like they are saying, “Hey, Jesus! We saw this guy doing this . . . so we ‘unfriended’ him!”
The disciples are quite pleased with themselves. Like later generations of church members, their aim is to preserve the purity and orthodoxy of the Jesus’ movement by silencing the ministry of someone they consider an outsider, by delegitimizing someone who is not like them, by cutting off the other. They are surprised when Jesus rebukes them for their narrow-mindedness and limited understanding of Jesus’ mission
“That’s not how it works,” says Jesus, “That’s not how any of this works. Whoever is not against us is for us.” That is a radical statement of hospitality and inclusion.
Jesus then launches into these hyperbolic instructions to remove body parts. I used to believe that Jesus in this, as in other passages, was making use of a rabbinic teaching technique which scholars have named “Semitic hyperbole.” After all, Jesus was a native speaker of Aramaic (although his words have been transmitted to us in the koiné Greek of the New Testament) so we can assume that Jesus said this originally in Aramaic in which hyperbole was an accepted way of making a point. Speakers of Semitic languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic) use hyperbole so often and in such grossly exaggerated forms that to an English speaker it almost seems to border on lying.
By exaggerating something beyond the bounds of rationality, speakers of these languages catch our attention, stating truths in a “bigger than life” way and waking us up to the reality of life, to the reality of our own lives. G. K. Chesterton noted that Jesus was a master of the hyperbole: “Christ had even a literary style of his own . . . The diction used by Christ is quite curiously gigantesque; it is full of camels leaping through needles and mountains hurled into the sea.” (Orthodoxy, John Lane: New York, 1908, pp 271-72)
However, hyperbolic though this language is, I don’t think Jesus is actually using hyperbole as a teaching tool in this case. I think he’s just being sarcastic. I think he’s saying, “Go ahead! Cut off your nose to spite your face! Go ahead! You’ll see how pointlessly self-defeating your behavior is. You will only hurt yourself in the effort to correct or punish someone else.”
Because . . . that’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works!
It is not by cutting off hands or feet, or by plucking out eyes that an individual is healed or saved; similarly, it is not by cutting off another or by stopping another’s ministry that the community of faith is grown. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Healing and salvation happen through relationship, through radical hospitality and radical inclusion.
James, in our epistle lesson today, writes: “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 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.” Salvation is not accomplished by hacking away; salvation is accomplished by grafting on, by relationship, by hospitality, and by inclusion.
“The prayer of faith will save the sick,” writes James, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” The quality of our prayer lives influences others; it creates relationships and opens pathways for divine energy. We achieve well-being for ourselves and for others by reaching out and grafting on, not by cutting away. No one who does a deed of power in Jesus’ name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of him or of his church, and anyone who promotes abundant life is on God’s side, whether it be by liturgical laying on of hands such as we will offer here today, or by reiki massage, or social action, or Zen meditation, or chemotherapy, or Tai Chi, or yoga, or whatever . . . even by something as simple as offering a cup of cool water to thirsty child. God is present and moving in all things, in all healthful, health-giving, hospitable, and inclusive relationships.
There is, I believe, a reason that our lectionary links James’ message of healing in relationship with today’s gospel story of radical inclusion, and that reason lies in the often overlooked relationship between the words “hospital” and “hospitality.” The linguistic connection between these words is no accident. As early as the 4th Century, it was common for Christian congregations to have “houses of lodging for strangers.” Later, medieval monasteries and convents carried on this tradition, and it was common for a member of the community to serve as “hospitaler,” the one who extended hospitality to strangers. Sometimes this meant caring for the travelers’ injuries and ailments. Thus, these “houses for the lodging of strangers,” these “hospitals,” became the first infirmaries where the other was welcomed and healed in Jesus’ name.
This mission of hospitality is not simply a sideline of the Christian mission, an add-on or plug-in, if you will, but rather the heart of it. As David Atkinson and his co-authors write in the New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology:
[C]are for the stranger goes hand in hand with preaching the gospel. ~ The Bible’s insistence that the Lord’s people should be hospitable highlights several vital, lasting theological and ethical principles. One is stewardship: showing hospitality is simply good caretaking, distributing the Master’s resources where they are most needed. Another is the imitation of God: being hospitable is being like God, who treated his people so generously when they were strangers in Egypt. And a third is grace: as God lavishes his love on those who deserve none of it, so Christians must provide hospitality for those who cannot earn or repay their generosity. (Atkinson, David, J., et al., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1995, p 517)
“Hey, Jesus! We saw a guy healing in your name, but he wasn’t one of us and he wasn’t doing it our way, so we ‘unfriended’ him!”
“That’s not how it works! That’s not how any of this works! Whoever is not against us is for us!”
Jesus ends the conversation, and Mark ends the entire episode, with an obscure and confusing metaphor about salt. “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.”
The Bible is full of metaphors which can be lost on modern American Christians, and this is one of them. We buy our salt (sodium chloride) in neat blue boxes from the supermarket; it’s purified, though it may be mixed with a small amount of an additive to make it run smoothly and flow freely. It may have a bit of granulated sugar added to it because pure salt is too salty for modern tastes! And it may have iodine added to it as a protection against goiter and other iodine deficiency issues; sea salt naturally contained iodine, but highly processed and refined salt does not.
This modern “pure” salt is incredibly stable and does not lose its saltiness. But salt which is mined from deposits such as one might have found in First Century Palestine is not pure. It is an amalgam of sodium chloride with other salts and minerals. If this mixture becomes wet, the sodium chloride can dissolve and leech away. The remaining substance looks the same but the salty flavor is lost and it cannot be brought back.
Followers of Jesus are called to be salty and, like that First Century salt, people are amalgams; we are not pure in any way. And we certainly can lose our “saltiness” as the “dampness” of life dilutes and leeches it away, or if (as Jesus has sarcastically suggested) we start cutting away bits and pieces of our lives.
What is the “saltiness” that we are meant to retain? What is the human “saltiness” that Jesus is concerned cannot be restored? Jesus words are often taken to be spiritual and lofty and, since salt was a required part of the grain and incense offerings in the Temple, this “salt” metaphor is often understood in that way.
However, another definition of “salty” is “down-to-earth,” and a third is “coarse” in the sense of colorful, spicy, racy, risqué, naughty, vulgar, or even rude. I don’t really know if “salt” had those connotations in Jesus’ time, but I do know that salt was considered symbolic of friendship, loyalty, and hospitality, all of which Jesus valued.
Time and time again the Gospels remind us that Jesus was a down-to-earth and hospitable sort of guy. He want to dinner parties and wedding receptions, and had a good time. He told jokes, most of which we don’t get because we’ve lost the cultural references (like the impure salt metaphor). He was condemned by the religious people for associating with sinners and was publicly criticized as a “winebibber,” the quaint King James English term for “drunkard.”
This all suggests to me that the “saltiness” that Jesus here speaks of is not some lofty, holy preservative of morality; it’s that down-to-earth hospitable conviviality that builds community and makes life fun. It might be what the French call “joie de vivre.”
There’s a series of advertisements for Dos Equis beer in which the corporate spokesman, described in the ads as “the Most Interesting Man in the World.” He’s not quite as entertaining as Beatrice and her “wall,” but he does memorably advise consumers, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”
I think Jesus is more entertaining than Beatrice and more interesting that the beer man and, in this gospel story, I see him looking into the camera, perhaps thinking of the parties and weddings he has attended and of the sinners he has befriended, of the hospitality and inclusiveness he is trying to teach his disciples, and saying, “Stay salty, my friends.”
Because that’s how it works! That’s how all of it works! Be hospitable, stay in relationship, reach out, include the stranger, do not cut off things or people. “Whoever is not against us is for us! . . . Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Amen.
Note: This sermon includes a somewhat edited version of a previously published Daily Office meditation.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.