Preached at St Barnabas Episcopal Church in Chelsea, MI on September 27, 2015, Proper 21. The Gospel was Mark 9: 38-50. Listen below (it’s really only 13 minutes long – I have yet to figure out why the audio posts at double the length).
There’s a joke – perhaps you’ve heard it before.
A person of powerful faith is stranded on a desert island. Could be a man or a woman… that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they have placed a lot of authority in how they believe, this person has a very definite understanding of how God works. And so they are utterly convinced that God will save them from death.
A low-flying plane spots them and lands on the beach, the pilot offers to fly them out of there. But our powerfully faithful person says, “No. God will save me.” So the plane leaves.
A few days later, a ship passes by and someone trying to view the wildlife on the small island w binoculars spots them and they send a lifeboat out to the island to carry the person to safety. But our powerfully faithful friend says, “No. God will save me.”
A few days later, our friend is getting really desperate when a helicopter flies by. And as the helicopter hovers, someone climbs down a ladder to help our friend into the helicopter. And the answer comes back, “No. God will save me.”
Not long after that, our powerfully faithful friend dies and in coming face to face with God, they ask, “Why didn’t you save me?” And God replies, “Well, I sent a plane, a ship, and a helicopter! What more did you need?”
It’s a joke and yet, an incredibly poignant lesson in our own temptation to create God in a particular image out of our own need. Because when we have a particular perception of how God works in the world, what we are really worshipping is a god of our own making, rather than the God of life. The God of all life.
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 and so only God can liberate us from that prison.
But when we develop a particular, restricted perception of how God works – when we create a notion of God that is based on our own troubled, confused perspective – we are actually refusing the God of life, the God of transformation, denying the true power, the true authority, and creating a false god.
This part of Mark’s Gospel we read today is devoted to unraveling the disciples’ perception of power. Chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel focuses on the concern over who has the power and who doesn’t, who has authority and who doesn’t, who is a citizen, who is worthy, who has a right to be… and who doesn’t. Whose lives matter, and whose don’t.
The disciples believe themselves to hold the truth, to be the in-crowd. They believe themselves to hold the power, because they are the ones walking with Jesus, following Jesus. John even goes so far as to say, “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
This is what happens when we have one of those mountaintop experiences – like they had when Jesus was transfigured earlier in the chapter. James and John and Peter all went to the top of the mountain with Jesus, where he transfigured, appearing with Elijah and Moses. They probably felt pretty special after having such a powerful experience.
James, John, and Peter weren’t the only ones to have an encounter with God, many people have had direct encounters of God and many more have had indirect encounters. And when we have one of these mountaintop experiences, or when we gain new insight that helps us make sense of the world and our relationship to God, we’re excited about it and we desperately want others to see what we see.
But what we’re really asking for is to have our experience reified or reinforced. We’re really saying, “I need you to agree with me so that I can feel ok about what I believe.” We don’t often stop to consider that others might not find that insight as powerful as you did. That others might need to hear something different to liberate them and transform them.
And suddenly, religion isn’t about God, it’s about us. We hang out with people who agree with us, who reinforce our way of thinking. We become arrogant and deny God’s transformative work in others when it doesn’t match up with our experience and we just become more narrow in our own perspective, more convinced that the way we see God is the right way. And suddenly, we’re using religion to breed disconnection instead of spreading love and extending God’s peace.
This kind of religious conviction is dangerous. Far from demonstrating power, this behavior demonstrates immaturity. It leaves us stranded on a desert island. It’s an expression of an undeveloped faith, not a powerful one.
In today’s reading, Jesus is chastising his disciples for demonstrating such immaturity, such arrogance. Basically, he’s saying, “Stop getting in people’s way!”
When John (one of the people who had the fabulous, transfiguring mountaintop experience) says, “we tried to stop him, because he wasn’t following us.”
And Jesus replies:
“Do not stop him. He’s finally coming to God. He’s finally owning the power and the authority that God has given him and this will only serve to reinforce his belief.”
And Jesus goes on to say, “Stop putting stumbling blocks in front of people. Stop putting stumbling blocks in front of yourselves. Get rid of the overly cherished parts of you that need to have a narrow understanding of how God works.”
Our God is a God of life, who calls us to be transformed, not to seek comfort in our own perspective, and not to seek power over others by telling them what to believe. For “everyone will be salted with fire,” as Jesus says. Everyone will receive what he or she needs to be transformed. It’s not for us to determine exactly what that look like for other people – even for ourselves many times.
Salt isn’t so much a flavor as 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 an agent to preserve food. Salt is an agent of transformation, not the transformation itself.
Jesus says, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?”
If the salt has lost its ability to transform you, then it’s lost its agency in your life.
If your beliefs have lost their ability to continue to open you up in new and surprising ways…
If your beliefs have become nothing more than a way to reinforce your false sense of power, your own false sense of self-righteousness so that you put stumbling blocks in front of others and in front of yourself…
If your beliefs keep you stranded on a desert island because you cannot possibly fathom that other people play a part in your own salvation…
then, it’s time to seek out some new salt.
And I’m not talking about abandoning your beliefs completely, but we are in community for a reason. We are called to learn from one another and listen to one another. We are called to be in relationship with one another in a way that we are willing to be changed by that relationship.
Someone else may have a helicopter or a shaker of salt that will open up something new inside of you – a new insight, a new perspective, a new part of yourself that you’ve kept hidden because you’ve been hanging on to your beliefs for too long.
Sometimes it’s scary to question our own beliefs. But we are Easter people, called every year into a new creation. Called to transformation because we worship a God of life, not a god of our own making.
And life is nothing but constant transformation – something that happens inside of us, for us, and ultimately for the larger community. Because the community becomes transformed anytime and every time we, as individuals say yes to transformation.
If the community is open to this, it becomes richer. A community who walks together in real relationship, relationships in which people are willing to learn from and be changed by one another is worshipping the God of life. If the community is closed to this, it begins to die because it’s choosing to remain stranded on the desert island, trying to suck on the same salt over and over and over again.
Frankly, this is why I worship in the Episcopal Church. I believe us to be a community that is open to transformation. I believe us to be a community in which we honor and respect the beliefs of one another.
And more than that, I believe this to be a community in which we are willing to be in real relationship with one another – to listen to one another in a way that we might be transformed by each other, by opening our hearts and minds to different beliefs long enough to actually taste the salt they offer and see if it’s something that might be for me too.
And even if someone else’s salt is not for me, my task is to respect my friends and honor the true power of God who is working in their lives to transform them. And honor the transformation that is happening in myself. This is how we support one another. This is how we encourage one another.
“Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”