Sermon: Have Salt in Yourselves and Be at Peace
Texts: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-17, 24-29; Mark 9:38-50
Date: October 7, 2018
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
There was a funny little image in my Facebook feed a couple of days ago with the caption, “I have started coloring to manage my stress this week.” There was a picture of one of those fancy adult coloring book mandalas; but it had angry red crayon marks scribbled over it willy-nilly, looking like something a 2 year old in the middle of a temper tantrum would have done with an adult coloring page. It resonated with me, how about you?
Celebrating World Communion Sunday during such a divisive season is kind of hilarious. Our minds, I daresay, are not exactly fixed on unity and harmony. I do want to address our worship theme—“Healing Division”—putting it in the context of this reminder that in the subset of humanity called Christian we are one, we are united, whether we like it or not, whether we feel like celebrating it or not. There is a strong theme of Christianity that speaks of Christ as reconciler, the one who creates peace between divided people. I was at a meeting with some colleagues Monday and one of my friends said he had been revisiting the book of Ephesians, which has some pointed words about enmity and hostility between groups of people. Christ puts hostility to death, it says. “He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through Christ both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.” [Ephesians 2:17-18]
Peace may be the furthest thing from our minds at the moment, especially if we hold evangelical Christians responsible in some fashion for elevating certain men to power. We may feel like we have just had ENOUGH of people on the other side, however you define “them.” Sounds like Moses was on the verge of burnout when the strange little episode in our text from Numbers occurs. He just had had ENOUGH of the people complaining about missing the food they used to have while they were in Egypt, before they set off on their journey into the wilderness. The rather petulant tone he uses when asking God to just give him a break cracks me up: “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?… I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me… 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.” [Numbers 11:12, 14-15] Just kill me now, Lord. I can’t take it any more.
God takes pity on Moses, realizing that one man just can’t carry the burden of leadership of these people all alone. So the spirit of prophecy gets spread around a bit, among the elders. This solves one problem and creates others. It relieves Moses of a singular burden, and Moses is relieved indeed! But you notice that right away there is a loss of control over the message, and some controversy over who is authorized to speak for God bubbles up. Joshua, Moses’ right hand man, wants Moses to stop a couple of fellows who are trying out their new gift of prophesying. Moses doesn’t seem too worried; he expresses a wish that ALL God’s people would be prophets. Yet we can sympathize with Joshua, can’t we? If there is more than one person claiming to speak for God, and they don’t all say the same thing or say it exactly the same way, which one will we know to trust and follow? It’s quite a can of worms Moses and God seemed to be opening by opening up a variety of channels for God’s Spirit.
Worms still squirming in the gospel lesson. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Jesus seems unconcerned at this seemingly unauthorized franchise of spiritual power. “Do not stop him,” he says, “for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” It’s not quite the same as Moses wishing every one of God’s people were prophets, but it’s not far off. I can imagine a disciple fuming in the background, thinking, “But what if he’s not doing the exorcism right? Won’t shoddy demon-casting eventually reflect back on us? Where’s the quality control here?”
One of the commentaries I was reading suggested that there may have been a behind-the-scenes skirmish between two different expressions of Christianity reflected in the way this episode was recorded in Mark’s gospel. Mark’s Galilean community of disciples were doing participatory work for the Kingdom of God in the way they saw fit, a style of discipleship that fit their community. They may well have been receiving criticism from the Jerusalem-centered Christian community for not doing it the way they were living out their faith in that urban setting. The Jerusalem community probably thought of themselves as the original recipe Christians, looking askance at variations in Christian practice.
I used to be persuaded by the brief portrait of a united Christian community we see in the book of Acts, in which the believers were together and had all things in common, a hazy golden portrait of common life so beautiful that everyone sold their possessions and distributed to the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. I just thought that was the way it was, and our divided church represented a kind of more recent Fall from grace and expulsion from Eden. But more recently church historians have persuaded me otherwise. From the beginning, historian David Chidester says, “the development of Christian religious discourse was marked by conflict.” There were disagreements from the get-go about who was doing it right. Chidester writes, “Christian religious discourse was marked not only by conflicts with Jews and pagans, but also by intense intellectual battles that were waged among Christians…[by Christian thinkers who] seemed to live in different intellectual worlds.”
This is, I think, comforting and discomforting in equal measures. Our situation in which we often find ourselves receiving disdain from Christians in other traditions because of our wild and wooly ways, and our own giving the stink eye to other Christians who are not following us—you know, who are not doing it right—is not a new state of affairs. We’ve been operating under these conditions of division forever and a day, even though we are ostensibly all under the Christian umbrella, and are theoretically united in Christ. One would think we could get better at living with diversity because we’ve had literally thousands of years of practice. And perhaps we are getting a bit more gracious, here and there.
At the same time we are living in a period in U.S. history characterized by unprecedented and bitter division among people that throws gasoline on the fire of every pre-existing condition of schism, including among the variety of Christians. Journalist Thomas Friedman wrote a column this week saying he feels we are practically on the verge of civil war in our society, in part because in the governmental realm mere partisanship has given way to tribalism. When mere partisanship was the order of the day, compromise was an acceptable goal or outcome after a case had been made for each party’s theory of governance. But when partisanship devolves into tribalism, compromise is seen as weakness and the only goal left is defeating the adversary. “In a tribal world it’s rule or die, compromise is a sin, enemies must be crushed and power must be held at all costs.” The government is setting the pace on this tribalistic style but it washes down to the people who, polls now tell us, look upon members of other groups not just as competitors but as enemies. Friedman writes, “Across the land, before dinner parties or block parties, the refrain “I hope none of them will be there” is uttered with increasing frequency, referring no longer to people of another race or religion — bad enough — but to people from a different political party.” And since our politics and our religions are so enmeshed in this country, the corrosive acid of tribalism can overtake even those who are supposedly devoted to the God who is Love, the one that calls us to peace and unity with one another. I can utter just one word that acts as an instant flamethrower among us: abortion. Right? On this issue, as in many others, there is precious little civil discourse. Christians on both sides of a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion go instantly livid and try to stop one another from positioning their expression of ethics as the one that will influence the law.
What is the remedy for such bitter division among our people? Can we even hope for healing from division—the worship theme we are considering today? I don’t have any easy answers. But there is wisdom for us in the scriptures we heard today. First, we should not imagine for a moment that we are immune from the corrosive effects of society’s tribalism. In ways large and small we are receiving social rewards and affirmation for being ever more entrenched in our corners. I ran across this poem by Carol Lynn Pearson (titled “Wrong, Right?”) that was published in 1992 but sounds like it could have been penned yesterday; it gives voice to some of what ails us:
You are clearly wrong
And I am clearly right.
But I will support
Your being wrong
Which is clearly the right
Thing for me to do.
Because after all
Being wrong may be
Right for you
And it would be
Wrong of me
To make you right.
So be wrong as long
As you want to.
It’s quite all right.
It’s the underlying tone of superiority that oozes out of the poem that made me want to share it with you. The mental division of right-thinkers and wrong-thinkers in this age of corrosive division plagues all of us. Humility is one of the virtues most needed and least desired these days. Perhaps it is for such a time as this that one of the key insights of Christianity—that ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (what Francis Spufford calls the Human Propensity to F Things Up)—is needed as a bracing antidote to our pride and hubris.
Secondly, I think we can see in our texts today that no one leader or institution can bear the responsibility for looking after all God’s people. Leadership has to be a shared task, a shared responsibility. When the wisdom of leadership is spread out, there will be a certain amount of confusion and disagreement; it’s inevitable. But perhaps this is part of the divine design. I learned from Muslim colleagues that they see this as true; the Qu’ran says “Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.” Jamal Rahman understands this to mean that God created a diversity of religious expressions so we would vie with one another over who can do the most good. On the local level let us rejoice, friends, that we are not the only religious community in town. Our neighbors are vying with us over who can do the most good. Kudos this week go to our neighbors at the LDS church, some of whom took time out on a recent Saturday to re-paint the walls of the Stephens House, which we own. I don’t “get” Mormon theology, but I “get” the generosity that showed itself in blue paint on our walls.
We can take a page out of Moses’ and Jesus’ playbook this week in giving religious communities the gracious benefit of the doubt before we leap to judgment about “them.” Still there will be occasions when we need to stand up for our convictions in the face of disagreements among Christians and the broader community about what is right. I see in Jesus’ stern words about of warning about putting a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe a reminder that we are always called to protect the vulnerable. For instance, we love our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, but we don’t, in the name of unity, give a pass to priests who molest little kids because they can. We need to be salty in our principles about encouraging reform in every denomination that will protect the vulnerable. It’s not just their business—it’s our business in the worldwide communion of Christians.
The gospel uses salt as a metaphor at the end of our reading in several ways, and I want to pick up on one of the lines: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” I hear in this an encouragement to be rooted in our ethics, especially regarding justice for the vulnerable. We’re not supposed to become bland and blah in our practice of faith, even in the name of getting along with each other. Be salty, be clear. But being flavored by a desire for justice is not the same as wanting all who differ from us to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched, to borrow Mark’s colorful language. It’s being salty that is called for, not deploying pepper spray on our perceived enemies. We must not sink to the level of hating our adversaries. We can have “salt” within ourselves and still seek the peace with one another to which we are called. It’s a delicate balancing act. But since Christ is on our side, we may still hope for the hostility between “us and them” to be ended, that we may enter a new era of harmony with one another, in the worldwide church and in our nation. Let’s do our part by having salt within ourselves AND seeking peace with our neighbors. May it be so.