St. John’s Episcopal Church
207 Albany Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401

Sermons

  • Salt and Grace – The Rev. Michelle Meech

    September 26, 2021

    Our collect today says:
    O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure.

    We believe that God’s power is demonstrated, is seen in God’s mercy and pity or compassion.  This is not the power of the world, something wielded over us to make us submit in humiliation. God’s power is in the opposite.  In expressions of mercy and compassion.

    And we say that, because this is how God operates, we long for God’s Grace, a liberation from the things that bind us in fear and shame. So that we, who are seeking God’s promise of Love, God’s promise of liberation, may receive the heavenly, not the worldly rewards.

    It’s really a beautiful prayer, asking God to save us from the temptations of the world.  So that, in our ministry, in our lives, we don’t confuse the two.  It’s not all that easy to do, actually.

    This reading from Numbers and the reading from Mark’s Gospel today parallel each other, of course.  The Gospel writers knew the stories of Moses and often saw Moses in Jesus.  And this is a bit of a comical story.

    We have Moses in the desert leading the Israelites, so deeply tired of the responsibilities of leadership that include dealing with the complaints everyone brings, that he complains to God.  It’s funny, actually. And God tells him to gather the elders together in a tent so that God can inspire them to help Moses, to become prophets themselves and teach the people.  But that doesn’t work out the way Moses would have hoped.

    Because they had this moment where they got it, according to the text, but then they just stopped prophesying.  Perhaps they got back to their own families and friends and, social pressure got to them, so they continued, instead, with their complaining.

    But it seems that two people, Eldad and Medad, even though they weren’t invited to the tent, were given the spirit to help lead. But they weren’t specifically invited.  They weren’t seen as worthy. And this offended Joshua, Moses’ right-hand man.  You can just picture him: How dare they!… “Moses, stop them!”

    But Moses instead seemed to be more relieved: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all God’s people were prophets and that God would put their spirit upon them!”

    Would that all God’s people were prophets. Moses, it seems, mused about retirement, wanting to be put out of a job.

    And Mark tells this story about the disciples in somewhat the same way. If we remember from last week, Jesus had been confronting his disciples because, as they were traveling, they were arguing about “who was the greatest.” So he sat them down and explained to them that “if any of you want to be first, you must be last of all and servant of all. You must welcome and befriend the ones who have no power in society – the outcasts, the marginalized.”  This was last week’s Gospel.

    And in the very next verse, where today’s reading starts, John interrupts his teaching saying, “But we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

    This, of course, is like Joshua in his petition to Moses: A complaint of privilege about who is in and who is out.
    Who gets to sit where.  Who is seen as special.
    Who has power in a social structure, and who doesn’t.
    Who has rights, and who doesn’t.
    Who has worth, and who doesn’t.
    Who’s life matters and who’s doesn’t.

    And Jesus responds, in a similar way to Moses: Do not be jealous of these people.  They are doing God’s work.  God’s spirit is upon them.

    And then, he goes a little further.  He goes beyond, “don’t be jealous.” He says, “don’t stand in their way.”  He’s reminding them that god’s power is about mercy and compassion.  It’s about sharing God’s Love, not about hoarding it.  It’s about radical hospitality and befriending – everyone.  Especially those who have no power in the world.

    Jesus is saying, if you get in the way of these people, if you think this is about worldly power, if you think that the beloved community we are creating should look like the world social structure, if you believe that they are not deserving of God’s love, then you have sinned… and you might as well cut off your hand (fraud), or cut off your foot (theft), or tear our your eye (sexual misconduct).

    And Jesus says: “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.

    Everyone will be salted with fire.

    According to Biblical scholar Duncan Derrett, salt and fire, in the medical practices of the time, would be used together to close amputation wounds.*  Considering, Jesus was just talking about cutting off limbs as a punishment for sin, Jesus may be saying that some kind of amputation many be inevitable.

    Perhaps he’s talking about an amputation of the spirit, cutting off the part of us that makes us jealous and power-seeking. Another way of saying: Lose your life so that you may gain it.  Something we may have heard Jesus say before.

    But there’s also something symbolic about salt here. Biblical scholar Harry Fledderman says that “one of the clearest texts” on salt being a symbol of covenant is “Leviticus 2:13 “Do not let the salt of the covenant of your God be lacking from your… offering.” And in Numbers chapter 18, we learn that an everlasting covenant is called a “covenant of salt.” Salt, you see, was a significant part of sharing a meal.  Sharing salt was shorthand for the consecration of a fellowship, a covenant.*

    If we use this understanding, which is pretty compelling actually, Jesus is saying: the covenant we have is wonderful because we have come together to challenge the powers and principalities of the world and teach people of God’s boundless love.

    But if this covenant we have has lost its purpose, if we have lost the reason we came together, if this is going to be just another organization in which the world’s tyranny plays out because we are too interested in power dynamics, than of what use is it?

    Or, to put it in more contemporary terms: If we aren’t a church whose purpose is to live into the reality of the beloved community, if we aren’t a group of people who are seeking to live Jesus-shaped lives and spread the message of God’s wildly extravagant love though our actions, then what are we doing? We’re just another club who have a fancy clubhouse, still bound by the world’s understanding of power.

    This is a significant point in the book we are readings together, The Church Cracked Open by Stephanie Spellers.  Spellers leads us through a history lesson of how the Episcopal Church is deeply entrenched in empire and the power of the world, how difficult it is to come to terms with that, and how there have always been shards of light trying to speak truth to power – the uncomfortable truth of the real reason we are a church, the reason that Jesus called us together. The salt of our covenant.

    She says:  “Jesus purposefully gathered insiders and outsiders, scandalous women and illiterate men, hungry children and wealthy benefactors, all of whom had only begun to understand their own brokenness and need.  He told them they were grafted onto one vine.  When they tried to make it all about him,…. He turned their attention to God and one another.  When they obsessed over which of them was the greatest, he knelt and washed their feet.” (p. 31)

    She says that the experience of “[the suffering and persecuted yields] a precious store of wisdom, vulnerability and compassion.  To God and to a God-centered community, the world’s oppressed and humiliated peoples are truly essential. The powerful and the privileged will find this a tough lesson to learn and an even more difficult one to live by.  Maybe that’s why it is so hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven… He did not know how to survive without his possessions, not just because of greed, but because they defined him.”  (p. 32)

    Again and again, Jesus tells us that the ways of the world are not what will save us.  Indeed, it is the ways of the world that will cause us to sin.  It’s in the letting go of this, that we are transformed.

    What I also find interesting about salt is that, when it’s used in cooking, salt isn’t so much a flavor as it is an agent that opens up flavor, it supports what is already there.  It’s not a spice, it’s a seasoning.  We use it in food to enhance the flavor.  We use it as a device to preserve food.  So, salt is an agent of transformation, not the transformation itself.

    Our God is a God of life, who calls us to be transformed, to become who we are called to be.  And this transformation occurs not because of our perceived connection to power. It occurs when we embark on a spiritual practice of quieting our minds, so busy with the story of the world, and allow ourselves to fall into the silence that awaits us beyond the grasping and envy. When we come to a thin place in our prayers, a place where the veil between ourselves and God vanishes in the alchemy of our soul.

    God works beyond our comprehension, showing up for different people in different ways because only God knows what will truly transform any one of us. Only God sees into our hearts and comprehends the tangled knot of pain and fear that binds us in shame, that, in turn, binds us to the need for social power and privilege and the fear of losing them. And so only God can liberate us from that prison.

    This is our hope, this liberation. This is our salvation.

    To be liberated from the worldly transfixion on status and power.  Not to leave the world and sequester ourselves, but to be in the world and not be OF the world.  To bring God’s love to the world and be the reconciling force of liberation for others so that we also may be liberated.

    This liberation is what we call Grace.  God’s Grace.

    O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure.

     

     

     

    *From Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus by Ched Myers