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09.27.09 Living Salty Mark 9, James 5, Psalm 124 Sermon Summary

by on September 28, 2009

It comes as a disappointment and with some dismay when people realize that the church is as an unstable system. Many of us long for something in this chaotic world that is stable and unchanging. But if we look to the church for that, we will be disappointed. First, within the church, Christ is always leading us to new horizons. At the same time, outside the church we’re constantly being challenged to follow a different lord. And the result is that the church is an unstable system.

But instability in the church isn’t new, and today’s lectionary readings give us three strategies for managing the tensions that result from the instability in the church.

There was instability in Mark’s community. The evidence is found in today’s reading. John is upset that someone else doing ministry in Christ’s name isn’t “one of us.” John’s impulse to maintain a distinctive identity is affirmed by Jesus who urges the disciples to remain “salty.” The Christian community, like salt, is to maintain a distinct identity by maintaining a particular function, whether seasoning the culture around it or acting as a healing or preserving agent. However we want to interpret the metaphor, it’s better for the church to be salty than to be bland, according to Jesus.

But at the same time, Jesus makes room for the unknown disciple to minister in his name. And here is where the instability within the church is evident. Jesus is clear by affirming for the disciples that there are indeed some people who are “against us” and others who are “for us.” But he blurs the lines by stating that “those who are not against us, are for us.”

In the words of Alan Kreider’s excellent book, Jesus allows people to behave, and belong, though he doesn’t know precisely what they believe. John didn’t want to. And the church of Christendom didn’t want to either. They wanted to ensure that people believed correctly, then behaved correctly, then they could belong.

This kind of thinking is our attempt to bring stability to an unstable church. It emphasizes the saltiness of the church. But Jesus values instability as well by emphasizing an inclusive ethic. He even cautions us—threatens us, really—against putting “stumbling blocks” before “children” who would otherwise come to him. Our overemphasis on purity of belief or behavior keeps people from belonging. And Jesus places a priority on their belonging.

Practically speaking, in the church today we have a number of such stumbling blocks. Our language is one. “Narthex” might mean something to us, but it is meaningless to newcomers. We have insider rituals, like knowing when to stand and when to respond “Thanks be to God” that exclude visitors. Our medium is another: someone standing at the front and offering a monologue lecture on an historical, philosophical text. All these things, while preserving a dimension of our saltiness, come under the critique of Jesus’ inclusive ethic.

We need to change some of these things. And in making some of the changes, in removing some of the stumbling blocks, it will cause some tension in the church. Things we have held dear, and consider essential to our living salty, may in fact be stumbling blocks we have to remove. How shall we deal with the tension? The readings today give us three strategies.

(1) Psalm 124 is a praise song of a grateful people who recognize that they exist only because God has been gracious to them. After praising and thanking God, it reasserts the people’s dependence on God. With this attitude—of gratefulness and dependence—we’ll be better able to make changes to be more inclusive. After all, God made accommodations to welcome us; we are called to do the same to welcome others.

(2) James concludes his letter by continuing to address the proper use of speech begun back in chapter 3. Here the emphasis is on prayer in all circumstances: trouble, bliss, sickness, and sin. And he ends the letter with an assurance that speech based on such prayer serves to reconcile people. When we experience tension in removing stumbling blocks, we are called to engage the discussion in a spirit of prayer. Then we can be assured of a reconciliation in our church.

(3) Finally, we can follow the magnanimous example of Jesus Christ. We can be clear about our own convictions and beliefs while making allowance for variations in those of others. We can create space for others whose beliefs may differ from our own but whose behavior indicates they desire to follow Christ and belong to his fellowship at our church.

Our task as Christ’s disciples today is the same as it was in Mark’s day. We have to identify the ways we have put stumbling blocks before others. And then we have to remove them. To leave them in place is to place our own fellowship with Christ at risk. For he is about welcoming the other, and unless we follow him in this, we will be left behind.

One Comment
  1. Kit permalink

    Dr. Tom, I really appreciate being able to read your sermon because I could not attend this past week. I know it is difficult to recognize the stumbling blocks that we have placed in others ways, and then to remove them is probably even more difficult.
    Another lesson we need to learn.
    God Bless,

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