Monday, September 21, 2015

Prayer as Salt – 27 September 2015 – Lectionary 26/ Proper 21

A curious mention of saltiness comes in the Gospel story at the end, almost as an afterthought, seemingly unconnected to the rest of the passage and apart from imagery in the story of Moses who is overwhelmed by too many complaints in the wilderness.

Try on the idea that this salt, however, is the pivotal image of the Spirit’s presence in the world. That presence does things, changes us, causes unlikely persons to explode with healing powers, prophetic utterances, and goodness that surprises those around them. Like the Holy Spirit, salt is not an element we can alter. The Holy Spirit, like salt, is complete in itself, gives to what comes to it, alters what it touches.

Mark 9:38-50

Following the account of the transfiguration at the beginning of chapter 9, the disciples display a consistent ineptness. They are unable to cast out a demon. They fail to understand Jesus' prediction of suffering and death. They argue among themselves about who is the greatest. It is as if Mark presents them as negative role models.

True to form, in today's gospel reading John reports attempting to prevent a man “not following us” from casting out demons in Jesus' name. John appears to want to limit God's saving work to authorized channels, as if grace were a commodity to be distributed exclusively through franchise outlets. . . . Jesus rejects placing such limits, suggesting that God will recognize and reward every act of compassion that advances the reign of God, regardless of who performs it. The people of God should not be surprised when they see God's purposes being accomplished outside of the church.

The reading then takes a dark and unsettling turn. Jesus gives a stark warning to any who would cause “one of these little ones” to stumble. The reference to the “little ones” recalls the child in 9:36–37 and looks ahead to the children blessed by Jesus in 10:16, but also suggests all of the weak and insignificant ones whom Jesus loves. . .  

The disturbing images of self-mutilation should be regarded as hyperbole, since Jesus elsewhere identifies the source of sin as within the human heart, the center of volition (7:21). The extravagance and severity of Jesus' language should not cause us to dismiss the teaching as a whole. Jesus calls his followers to take with great seriousness anything that would lead toward sin. Sin separates one from life with God. . . Separation from God is described as being thrown into hell (literally, Gehenna, or the valley of [the son of] Hinnom). Condemned by the prophet Jeremiah as a site used for child sacrifice (Jer. 7:31), the valley of Hinnom came in religious imagination to be identified as the location of the final judgment. . . .

The passage concludes with three apparently independent sayings that seem to have been gathered simply because of their shared reference to salt. The significance of the image of salt appears to vary and the meaning of each saying is somewhat uncertain. – Aaron Couch

Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29

Like John attempting to stop the exorcist [who is] “not following us,” Joshua also wants to place limits on the work of God. Joshua reports to Moses that Eldad and Medad are prophesying without being part of the seventy elders gathered at the tent of meeting. . . . Anticipating the prophet Joel's declaration that God will pour out the Spirit on all flesh (Joel 2:28), Moses expresses the wish that all of God's people were prophets.

Moses also identifies the real problem as jealousy. . . an implicit rejection of any hierarchy that claims to know the limits of God's work and identifies those limits with its own activity. – Aaron Couch

James 5:13-20

The writer of James calls upon the church to pray at all times. This is prayer that comes as the Spirit groans within us. This is not prayer that is in our control, even as it is possible for us to turn to prayer and listen to the Spirit.

The preacher might draw links between prayer and having salt: prayer as essential to tasting the fullness of life’s offerings, prayer as giving a lift, prayer as life-giving. If you forget to put salt in the oatmeal, it is unspeakably bland.

Salt and the Holy Spirit have boundaries that are not like those we construct. They offer what is beyond our corrals. And God’s command through the centuries has been to look past our own desires to what God has created as continual surprises.

Aaron Couch is a co-pastor of First Immanuel Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon.

Homily Service 39, no. 11 (2006): 3-14.

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