092621 Pentecost 18 Salty Peace
The sermon begins at minute 17:50 of the video
James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
“Cutting off hands is very necessary for security,” Nooruddin Turabi told the Associated Press. This co-founder of the Taliban became notorious for imposing its harsh rule the last time the militants governed Afghanistan. He now says they plan to bring back executions and amputations… At first reading, today’s Gospel sounds like Jesus could be an apologist for the Taliban. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out. Of course, the Taliban have already done it – and in a stadium full of people, no less. But we cannot even imagine Jesus doing it. Elsewhere, Mark told us that Jesus did not speak to them except in parables; so clearly, he’s not literally advocating self-mutilation. Rather, he is grabbing the disciples by the scruff of the neck and shaking them to their senses about the grim consequences of abusing and excluding people.
We don’t like Jesus’ words. They are too harsh compared to the rest of his teaching. But their truth is something we acknowledge and practice in many areas. We do it all the time in health care. Better to amputate the gangrenous member than to mortally infect the whole body. Better to cut through the abdominal wall and repair the hernia than to risk infection from a strangulated intestine. Better to recall twenty-five million pounds of ground beef than to risk further sickness and possible death from E. coli bacteria. We practice it in other parts of life too: being committed to a spouse means you need to cut off any other sexual relationship; if alcohol is addictive for you, drop it entirely; if the television threatens to vitiate normal family communication, move it out of the living room; if the job compromises your conscience, and the boss will not hear of any changes of policy, maybe you need to quit. Yesterday, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun wrote about aging in terms of letting go: aging has always been about letting go. Sooner or later we realize that we can’t manage all the stuff and activity anymore. We have to let go. The practice of letting go is one way we prepare ourselves for what is to come. One day we all will have to let go of everything—even our own breath.
Last week, I read an editorial in the Washington Post entitled, Our constitutional crisis is already here. I felt like someone was grabbing me by the scruff of the neck and trying to scare me. It pictured the days following a future election and put it in stark terms: Imagine weeks of competing mass protests across multiple states as lawmakers from both parties claim victory and charge the other with unconstitutional efforts to take power. Partisans on both sides are likely to be better armed and more willing to inflict harm than they were in 2020. Would governors call out the National Guard? Would President Biden nationalize the Guard and place it under his control, invoke the Insurrection Act, and send troops into Pennsylvania or Texas or Wisconsin to quell violent protests? Deploying federal power in the states would be decried as tyranny. Biden would find himself where other presidents have been, navigating without rules or precedents, making his own judgments about what constitutional powers he does and doesn’t have. (Robert Kagan 3/23/21) It worked: I felt terrified for our democracy.
The author didn’t write that piece for the heck of it. He wanted to stir people to action to save our democracy. Same with Jesus. He didn’t just talk about cutting off parts of our bodies simply to get the disciples to be morally upright. He wanted to change their worldview. They wanted to cut off those who were doing the same things they were doing, but weren’t part of their team: we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he wasn’t following us. In their view, unless a person is a member of their tribe, she is an outsider; he is not among the saved. In their view there’s something wrong about an outsider’s using God’s power to do miracles.
Jesus’ response was twofold. First, he said, whoever isn’t against us is for us. True, the outsider hasn’t joined us, and doesn’t know what you disciples are learning from me. But she is still one of Christ’s own, and meets the one requisite condition for belonging to Christ: being for Christ. Only then did he say how important this new worldview was: if you want to practice some decisive exclusion, attend to yourselves. Instead of cutting people out of the action, maybe you have some personal cutting to attend to.
Can you imagine how living like this would change our world? Even today, most communities and most countries follow the opposite dictum: whoever is not for us is against us. There are no neutral positions. We demand that people be on our side. There’s no such thing as simply sharing in community unless we buy into the same beliefs others have. This makes diversity impossible. Friends, this draw to tribalism is deep in us.
Of course, it is possible to be against Christ. Jesus said that those who draw children away from God, or make the vulnerable and helpless worse than they otherwise would be, are better off being dropped into the sea with millstones around their necks. In recent sermons, I’ve been calling for a balance between upholding truth and seeking reconciliation. In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls for that balance with the final words of the text: Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another. The balance is to dare to live our uniqueness while being at peace with those who are different. Criticizing little ones and leading them astray with false accusations dilutes our uniqueness – our saltiness; insisting that people join my tribe to be on my side homogenizes uniqueness – just as bad.
In the letter of James, balance is achieved by connecting illness and sin, healing and forgiveness. And that is very relevant for us today. We live in a time when hospitals are literally choosing – randomly, or, worse, by likelihood of dying – which patients will receive care and which ones will be sent away. Some might be tempted to wish that those hospitals would only treat those who have been vaccinated. After all, they’re the problem, aren’t they? We wouldn’t have such a crisis in the hospitals if people were willing to be vaccinated. Right? Maybe. James shifts the ground of our thinking: the prayer of faith will save the sick, and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.
The social effect of illness and sinfulness is the same, or at least it was in James’s community. The sick were shunned, quarantined, set aside. And so it was with those who were found to be sinning. Just set them aside, excommunicate them. That was the practice. Maybe it still is. We don’t want those people around – those sinners, those anti-vaxxers, those unhealthy ones. James is trying to tear down that wall, by saying that even the sick are worth our prayers and our time. They should call the elders of the church; they should call on the community to come and be with them, anoint them, lay hands on them, touch them, include them; sinners too. Don’t let bad decisions, bad choices, wrong values, separate us. If you’re healthy and vaccinated, pray for those who aren’t in a way that is up close and personal. Include them, invite them. If you are unhealthy and unvaccinated, and if you’ve separated yourself because you were afraid of what they saw when they looked at you, allow yourself to be invited to come close. Find a way back, a way to accept the grace that the community wants to pour out on you. Come back and be prayed for, prayed over.
Both sides must awaken to the consequences of failing to achieve reconciliation. We must face the possibility that we may need to cut off some things in our lives that have served us if we’re going to save and reconcile with those on the other side. It’s that important. Yes, we must oppose those who make the lives of the vulnerable and helpless worse than they otherwise would be. But we must examine ourselves before we judge even them too harshly. Jesus said, Whoever isn’t against us is for us. James said, the prayer of faith will save the sick, and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. We could do worse than focus on those two sentences.