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Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124 ; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Stumbling in faith
Jesus said, “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.” Jesus is teaching his disciples using the metaphor of salt to encourage them to remain faithful and perseverant. Wikipedia defines perseverance as ” persisting steadfastly without giving up; continuing in spite of difficulties or setbacks; persevering.” Perseverance is deeply embedded in our tradition in the church.
A Benedictine monk was once asked, “What do you do all day long in that monestary?” He answered, “we fall down and we get back up, again and again.” The monk meant that the life of discipleship requires us to always try, to fail, and we must try again. Trying to be a disciple of Jesus means we often fail one another but if faithful, we make amends, and then try and love again. We all fall down and we all get back up again. We are imperfect beings filled with grace. Grace is key because getting back up after stumbling requires of us to rely not on ourselves to pull us up from our falling, but to rely solely on God’s grace.
So, if being a disciple means we are not perfect, why then do expect other disciples to be, well, so darn perfect? Why do we expect our clergy and lay leaders to get it right all the time? We act surprised when others fail our expectations. Even Jesus’ first disciples stumbled. They betrayed him, ran off when he was arrested, denied him in the streets after the trial, and they failed his mission of love by jockeying for power and influence within the group.
In today’s gospel, Jesus warns us not to trip up a sister or a brother, who is trying to do the best they can do. The consequences of putting stumbling blocks in front of others are far worse, than having a weight around your neck and being thrown into the sea. The consequences of causing others to stumble are far worse, than if we were to cut off our foot or hand. Even though we believe the community should be perfect, the early God fearers failed each other just like us, and they often tried to trip one another up.
We hear this in the Old Testament reading in which, the Spirit came upon some of those on the outside of Moses’ leadership team. Joshua son of Nun, the assistant to Moses, heard about the spirit-filling event, and they became a little jealous because it did not happen to them. Joshua went to Moses and said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” Joshua got tripped up and fell down, because his motives were self-centered, misguided, and unloving.
Back to our Gospel reading, some of Jesus’ leadership team demonstrated that same self-serving attitude. John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Both Joshua and John were insiders who became frightened when their plans for influence were turned upside down, when others threatened their so-called “special places” in the kingdom. Unknowingly, these leaders tried to stop God’s mission, just as it was bursting through in unexpected ways and through unexpected people. God’s kingdom always emerges from those we least expect.
Theologian Kenneth Carder explains how fear of change and loss makes us act in often, unhealthy ways. He wrote, “When threatened with loss, when feeling insecure, we circle the wagons. Gathering the clan and resisting the outsiders is a popular reaction against insecurity and fear.” (1) Like Joshua and John, those early biblical leaders, we church people today often become threatened by change, or by people we just do not like, and we begin circling the wagons, pointing fingers, and becoming exclusionary.
These are the kinds of stumbling blocks Jesus speaks of in Mark’s gospel today. Carder explains, “Jesus, the very incarnation of God’s power and presence … challenged the practice of confining God’s redemptive and transforming action to one’s own race, one’s own religious institution, one’s own political party.” (1) I would add that Jesus does not deny grace to the people we do not like, or those that do not meet our expectations, or to those who are just not like us. Jesus tells us rather, to “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” This is especially true for church leaders, but the fact remains, each one of the members is a LEADER as well as a disciple!
Saltiness – Discipleship in God’s mission
No, you may say, “Canon Eric, I am no leader, I merely follow the crowd.”. By virtue of your baptism, every single one of us in the church is a leader and we all must strive to be leaders with “salt in ourselves.” Let me explain this metaphor of saltiness Jesus used. Salt was a preservative placed on fish and meats to draw out moisture and keep it from rotting. Salt enhanced the flavor of food.
“Salty disciples” are just like salt and by their actions and influence, both preserve the movement of God’s Spirit, and they enhance the movement of God’s Spirit in the life of the church. We all are leaders despite the fact some of us have titles and formal roles, and others are not formally designated. Some leaders do not even recognize their own leadership identity, but because of their influence, they serve in leadership positions outside the formal organizational structure. Whether you’re are a formal or informal leader, you have the choice to act as salt in the community, enhancing and preserving God’s mission, or you can put out stumbling blocks for God’s people and God’s mission.
“Salty disciples” are helpful coaches, mentors, and supporters of those struggling to walk the path of Jesus. Likewise, “Salty disciples” can be unhelpful by making decisions that sometimes cause unanticipated, unexpected, and unintentional injury or stress, because no one is perfect. Hopefully, healthy “Salty disciples” do not intentionally try to put out stumbling blocks for others. Rather, they help others recognize that spiritual growth depends on flexible, open, willingness to respond to God’s call to transformation, to traverse the fires and trials of discipleship.
Theologian Christine Bartholomew said, and I quote, “God is constantly refining us with fire, whether that fire be conflict, persecution or sacrifice. These events can change us and draw us closer to God. This is a work of sanctification, not salvation.”(2) We often have to walk through the fires of difficult circumstances, in order to be led into the grace God has in store for us.
Sometimes we need to release our Burger King mentality about our ministry (have it your way), allowing God to direct us so that we might trust that he has a better plan than us. That plan may not be easy because we all traverse a path of fiery circumstances and unexpected challenges, and that is the time to persevere and remain faithful and engaged.
“Salty disciples” must leave the safe and secure sidelines of church life and get into the middle of the arena of ministry. It is easy to disengage from active ministry and just poke the bears when they stumble and fall. It is easy to criticize those who are trying to do their best, being faithful and obedient. It is easy to undermine God’s progress, because it does not fit our own idea of church. “Salty disciples” must reject the safe seats of inactive criticism or finger pointing, and choose the risky arena of hard work in mission and ministry, while all along remaining open to God’s life-altering and transformative grace.
Dr. Brene Brown in her book, “Daring Greatly” describes the kind of bold, focused, and committed “Salty discipleship” each of us must strive to embrace. She quoted President Theodore Roosevelt who once said; “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
We are called to be salty disciples who focus on the mission and not the detractors, to put away fears of failure, change, and the desire to maintain the status quo, to get out in the arena of mission just like Jesus, who took a risk for us, who let his face get marred by dust and sweat and blood for us, let his hands and feet be pierced for us, gave his life for us, and he cleared away the stumbling blocks, all along the path for us. Despite our constant falling and getting back up, despite our failures and imperfections; if Jesus did all that for us, should we as “Salty disciples” in the Kingdom, do the same for one another; we who boldly claim him as Lord?
(1) Carder, Kenneth L.Bp. “Unexclusive Gospel.” The Christian Century, vol. 114, no. 25, Sept. 1997, p. 787.
(2) Bartholomew, Christine R. “‘For Everything Will Be Salted with Fire.’” Touchstone, vol. 28, no. 1, Jan. 2010, pp. 5–7.