And Jesus said: Have salt in yourselves, be at peace with one another.
Several years ago I sat with a committee to evaluate a candidate for the position of chef at my tennis club. The candidate before us is to succeed the former chef departing to pursue the dream of opening his own restaurant. The candidate in front of us is highly recommended. His credentials and references are first rate. The job is his to lose.
The interview takes place over a trophy meal set before our committee. The chef guides us through each course. The meal is excellent, creative and beautifully presented. I am convinced he is our finalist. The chef then offers to take questions. One of our committee, widely known for her aversion to salt, raises her hand. She asks: “Chef, how do you deal with salt in your menus?”
In that moment, my world stands still. Will the chef navigate his way through this one? Without hesitation he responds gracefully: ‘Madam, I will prepare your meal so that it tastes right.’
Salt is essential to human life. But there is the dangerous side. We are warned of salt’s effect on blood pressure, heart disease, stroke. Legend relates that salt poisons agricultural lands for generations. The high content of salt allows no life in the Dead Sea. So, too little salt, too bland. Too much salt, we are in trouble. The life-giving quality of salt is found in applying the right balance. We must balance salt in our daily relationships so that life ‘tastes right.’
Disciples’ Lack of Understanding
This morning we again join the disciples in Capernaum. During our journey through Mark’s gospel we become frustrated as the disciples fail to understand the mystery of Jesus. Day after day Jesus drives out demons, heals the sick. He feeds thousands. He commands the forces of nature.[i] All those he heals, all those he feeds, all he teaches with authority are amazed, spellbound, astounded beyond belief! They rush away shouting out the good news of Jesus. Yet the disciples, the insiders, those who should understand, remain puzzled. Over and over, they fail to grasp the power of God unleashed in their world. They want to understand but are blinded by their mistaken expectation of a victorious messiah and their fear of what that may mean for them.[ii] The model of servanthood that walks before them in the ministry of Jesus escapes them.
Last Sunday, Della+ describes the twelve as they return with Jesus to the house in Capernaum. At the front door Jesus overhears them squabbling amongst themselves. They are arguing about who among them is the greatest. Obsessed with self-worth, they are like school children in the lunchroom duking it out over who is allowed at their table. Gently, Jesus inquires: tell me, ‘what were you just talking about outside?’ They respond with ashamed silence. As one scholar observes, how ironic to bicker about greatness as they accompany Jesus ‘on the way’ to humiliation, self-denial, suffering and apparent defeat in death.[iii] Jesus lovingly concludes their argument: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mk 9:35)
Forged into a sense of special relationship, the disciples are trapped within a sense of exclusivity. Enveloped in a false sense of privilege, they are shielded by a force field that deflects outsiders. They complain to Jesus that someone outside the group, someone without the secret fraternal handshake casts out demons in Jesus’ name. Acting as security guards with a badge of authority, they proudly report: ‘We tried to stop him!…because he was not following us.’
They don’t understand that the power of Jesus flows through this ‘outsider’ as he acts in Jesus’ name.[iv] Like the power of prayer, it works! Acting in Jesus’ name, the man does cast out the evil spirits! Yet on their way to Capernaum the disciples also tried, but failed, to cast out a spirit that prevents a boy from speaking. Overlooking the deep irony of their failure, Jesus lovingly reminds them that this kind of healing comes only through prayer. (Mk 9:18-19) He reminds them to welcome those who speak in Jesus’ name, even as they arrive from unexpected quarters.[v] ‘For those not against us are for us.’
As they traveled to the house in Capernaum, Jesus reminds the twelve of his coming death and resurrection on that stark hilltop of Calvary. The vision of Jesus’ suffering and death is beyond their power of comprehension. The messiah they imagine, the messiah they follow is one who rises to power and glory. Their messiah will put the boot on the neck of Roman oppression. In their imagination they are to become the leaders of this new movement.[vi] Lost in that imagination, they do not grasp Jesus’ forecast of suffering, death and resurrection. Like the graduate student who fails to complete the reading before class, they are afraid to reveal their lack of preparation by asking what he means. (Mk 9:31-32)
Call to Servanthood
You and I realize that the twelve do not comprehend their call to servanthood. They must be shaken out of this sense of exclusiveness. They must embrace a model of leadership that calls them to live as servant to all.
Jesus sharply rebukes them for interfering with the faith of the man who casts out demons in Jesus’ name. Do not place a stumbling block in front of one ‘of the children who believe in me.’ If you who do believe in me, if you interfere with those just coming into their faith…the tentative, the uncertain, the seekers…if you cause them to fall away from their faith, it is better that a great millstone were hung around your neck and you be thrown into the sea.’ No way the disciples will overlook this message. They are well aware of the violence by which Romans were known to execute insurrectionists in Galilee.[vii]
Strong words from a loving Jesus. But when Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you,” he means for us to pay attention. Surely violent death by drowning grabs our attention. Strong words to engrave the seriousness of the matter upon the disciples’ hearts.[viii] Strong words calling them not to shut out those outside their self-created exclusive community.[ix] Strong words calling us to welcome others, deny our exclusivity and enter into the Kingdom of God.
These have been times of hardship for all. I am thankful the threat of COVID has passed by my family. For so many, it has been a time of tragedy. I pray that all touched by COVID find the embrace of God to guide and comfort them.
Rays of Good News
The storm is not yet past. Yet as broken clouds inevitably follow the overcast, rays of good news filter through. The lessons of the past nineteen months are a gift to guide us onward. I am now aware of all those invisible people that enable me to live my life. The long-distance drivers who haul my needs across the country. The retail clerk and the restaurant server who work two or three jobs to make my life comfortable. The nurse and medical assistant who ask me the same pesky questions, every time. They have always been there for me, yet invisible to my unawareness. The community around me who sacrifice to make my life possible is now visible. They have come alive for me. With God’s help, I shall never again have a sharp word for a server or retail clerk.
Hardship draws us back into community with others. I pray that I will not relapse into old ways that have closed my eyes. As we lazily slip into former habits, Jesus cautions: ‘cut off the hand or leg, put out the eye’ that leads us astray. Jesus calls us to: ‘have salt in yourselves.’ Apply salt to bring out the full flavor of life so that our life ‘tastes right.’ Come into the fullness of your flavor, be at peace and community with one another.
This is a sermon delivered to the congregation of Emmanuel Church, Newport, RI on September 26, 2021. I am indebted to the following for their insights into the lectionary: Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm, Preaching the Gospel of Mark, Westminster John Knox (2008); David Rhoads et al, Mark as Story, (3rd Edition), Fortress Press (2012); Warren Carter, Wisdom Commentary – Mark, Liturgical Press (2019); William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, Eerdmans (1974); and Werner H. Kelber, Mark’s Story of Jesus, Fortress Press (1979)
Roger C. Bullard, September 26, 2021
[i] Ottoni Wilhelm, p.17
[ii] Rhoads, Kindle loc 3055
[iii] Carter, p.252
[iv] Lane, p.343
[v] ibid, p.344
[vi] Kelber, Kindle p. 50
[vii] op.cit, Lane p. 346
[viii] Ibid, p 345
[ix] op.cit, Clark p.257