A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

Worth Our Salt Sermon on Mark 9: 38-50 September 26, 2021

This sermon was proclaimed at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on Sept. 26, 2021. It can be viewed on our YouTube channel: Our Saviour’ Lutheran Church SLC. The texts were:
Psalm 19
Numbers 11: 4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Mark 9: 38-50

Young Friends message:
Have some salt to show them. Ask them and the adults, how much money do you think is in this little packet of salt? Yes, probably only a few cents worth. If I were to give you some salt for your birthday or Christmas, you probably wouldn’t be impressed. It’s not worth very much in money but it’s worth a whole lot in our lives. What are some things that salt does? Salt does many important things, but we actually need a good balance of salt in our bodies to live. Without it, our bodies don’t work properly. Even though it’s not worth much, you can’t buy anything with it, it’s very valuable to us.  But in Jesus’ time, salt was like money, and was more valuable than gold. People were paid for jobs in salt. In our bible story today, it starts out with the disciple John being very worried that someone else was good at casting out demons, or helping people in Jesus’ name, and he was jealous. Jesus tells him that anyone who is helping people and loving people in God’s name is valuable. Jesus then goes on to say some very scary things about body parts being cut off. Jesus does not mean for us to cut off or harm any part of our body. But Jesus is trying to get our attention that what we may think is valuable or impressive may actually be harmful to someone else, and that our mission in God’s kingdom is to make sure that everyone knows that they are included in God’s love and promises. That no matter what they look like, what they do, where they live, what they do or don’t have, they are more valuable to God than salt and should see each other as valuable too. The saying you might have heard that derives from this is “someone is worth their salt.” You are valuable to God and to us here at OSLC, more valuable than money, gold or salt. I have a reminder for you of this-a baggie with some salt and the saying “you are worth your salt.” We’re going to talk a little more about this.

If you had one hour to pack up your car and leave because of a fire, or some other disaster, what would you take? Outside of important legal documents, for me, I would grab pictures. Not a piece of china or crystal, not a piece of furniture or another object that might have monetary value. I would take items that are probably only valuable to me, because they offer me a connection to someone and something that can’t be replaced by money or other material means. Most of what I own, doesn’t have monetary value, only sentimental value. A saying I’ve heard is “something only has value if someone else wants it.” That’s a hard fact for most of us. We think our children will want some of our things one day, but the truth is that they often don’t. Our material things don’t have any meaning to anyone outside of us. No matter how much we want other people to place value on the same things that we do. This can happen with traditions as well. Such as sending Christmas cards used to have meaning for me, but it honestly no longer does since with social media, I keep up with the folks that I want to throughout the year. It’s a tradition that many have given up as it no longer holds the value that it once did. And it frees up time, worry and money in a season that is already fraught with stress and removed an obstacle from focusing on what really matters.
What’s truly valuable is a hard conversation, whether it’s material objects, or traditions. We like to think that what we find meaningful is meaningful for everyone else, in all times and in all places but sometimes we find that what we think is meaningful, can be a stumbling block for someone else. In the 21st century church, we’re wrestling with this truth. Traditions that seem immutable and monolithic aren’t valuable to different generations, demographics and cultures. As a matter of fact, they are a stumbling block for them to even consider being a part of a Christian community. It can be a stumbling block that worship is Sunday mornings, or that communities aren’t racially diverse, or mainly accessible to able-bodied, neurotypical folks, or when churches are more concerned about who they keep separate from than seeking authentic partnerships. Or more personally, I can be a stumbling block for others to experience the healing of Jesus, when I don’t advocate for my Haitian siblings on the border, or I’m too afraid of tarnishing my reputation or being called radical that I don’t stand firm to support the human rights of bodily autonomy of pregnant people and LBGTQIA+. I can be a stumbling block when I’m more worried about myself, what I might lose, than what my neighbor has already lost. I can be a stumbling block when I succumb to my privilege, being “nice” and quietism instead of living for the good news of Jesus Christ in the world. I have to wonder if part of the decline in participation in mainline Christianity, such as the Lutheran church, is linked to that we refuse to wrestle with and cut off what is no longer valuable for people in our church systems, that we cling to what we like, are comfortable with and are used to, instead of focusing on what is truly valuable to bring in the kingdom of God. Something only has value if someone else wants it.

Many people, particularly younger people, are searching for true value, authentic community, community who accepts them just as they are and doesn’t make them hustle for their worth. Community that exists to transform the world, to care for creation, community that clearly sees the hard realities of our society and faithfully engages. Community that is rooted in something beyond themselves, something more precious than much fine gold or honey as the psalmist writes. A community that is worth its salt: people are looking for life, for peace, as Jesus offers his followers today in this gruesome passage of amputations, and the fires of hell, Gehenna. This talk of hell isn’t about the afterlife, it’s about being in the garbage heap outside of Jerusalem where refuse, objects with no use or value were disposed of by fire. But there is good news here for us in this horror story.

Jesus names the reality that we think we need to compete for our worth, and Jesus counters that because of the word of God, the name of Jesus, the promises of the good news of wholeness, abundant life, connection and love we are already worthy. Or is as valuable as salt, which as I mentioned to our young friends, in the ancient world was used as currency and was more valuable than gold. What and who has value in God’s economy isn’t the same as the world’s economy, Jesus says. You have worth because you are God’s, AND so does everyone else.
But we worry about what we might lose if we cut off the things and traditions that we love and know, as dearly as we love and know our own appendages. Will the church have value if it no longer looks like what we grew up with, or doesn’t have all the programs we’re used to, or doesn’t use a building, or has leadership that looks different than in the past? Or will we then clearly understand what has true value: God’s living word of love for us and our neighbors.  We can see how people around us are also worth their salt to God and understand that in removing stumbling blocks, even if we love the stumbling blocks, we gain so much more than what we gave up. We gain wholeness in ourselves, in our community and in God. We gain peace with each other. We gain life beyond arbitrary traditions and human rules to freely live as God’s people in God’s economy valued and beloved. We live as people worth our salt. Thanks be to God.

 

Too Much of a Good Thing? Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23 Pentecost 14B August 30, 2015 August 31, 2015

Many of you know that I was a teacher before I went to seminary. I loved (still do!) teaching the younger children-mostly preschool up to third grade. One issue with younger children is that they are literal little people. You tell them a rule and they apply it to everything. If you tell them on a field trip that they need to hold hands with their “buddy” they will think that they need to do that every single second of the field trip-including snack time and going to the bathroom. There is no such thing as nuance with young children and it can get in the way of learning. For example, we didn’t let the children play with rocks on the playground for reasons you can deduce. If a little boy picks up a rock, it will get thrown, it’s just how little boys are. So we had a pretty strict no picking up rocks or the ground bark rule.
But one fall day we were going to make a nature collage in art and do some nature science projects. So we took the preschoolers on a nature walk around the church, gave them each a paper lunch sack and told them to pick up objects from nature that they would like to use in their art project or just explore. We got back to the classroom and one little boy had nothing in his sack. We asked him why and he said, “because you always tell us not to pick up rocks or bark and that was the only thing I wanted!” This particular little boy had a penchant for throwing things, so he did hear the words “put the rock down please” a lot. Perhaps that rule for him was too much of a good thing as it impeded in his ability to understand the different context of the nature walk. Rules gone astray.
Rules most definitely have their time and place but often they can also become barriers to common sense. Rules are necessary to shape us, to keep us in check, from hurting other people, and to hold us to some standard of behavior. While rules affect us individually, they are in reality, more about how we live together, how we interact with each other and the well-being of the whole community. But when we adhere to certain rules in an individualistic strict sense , that can also harm others. Whether we like it or not, we tend to never out grow the right/wrong paradigm of rules and don’t quite ever grasp the concept of nuance.
The Pharisees are struggling with context and the nuance of the religious purity rules or laws in Mark 7. Some of Jesus’ disciples were eating without washing their hands. Now that is considered just gross in our culture, but the Pharisees were taking a purity law regarding how the priests in the temple had to wash their hands before handling ritual food and applying it to everyone who considered themselves Jewish. No nuance, only that there is a rule about washing and everyone should therefore do it or be unclean and thus far from God. The Pharisees were completely befuddled as to why Jesus, who claimed to be teaching about God, had followers not adhering to what they considered basic rules for relationship with God.
Jesus calls them out-actually calling them hypocrites. Is it hand washing that’s really all that important when it comes to being close to God and showing God to other people? Does demanding that other people follow some arbitrary rules reveal God’s love to them? Or is it something else?
As human beings who love rules, we often use rules to draw boundaries between ourselves and other people. Some of these rules still perpetuate systems of racism, gender and LBGT bias and denigration of anyone who is not culturally normative. Who falls inside the rules (some of which can be unspoken) and who doesn’t can be a dividing line between who is welcome in our community and who is not. While we like to think that we offer rules for the sake of being healthy community together, I sometimes wonder if our rules are too much of a good thing. Real people get hurt with these kinds of rules or traditions. It’s not just culture that has rules that can be harmful. In the ELCA, we have rules regarding when and who receives holy communion, we have rules regarding membership, we have rules regarding budget, etc. It can seem that we have a rule for everything and for everything a rule. Jesus asks the Pharisees and us, what then becomes our guiding principle? Our rules or God? Do we focus on ourselves and what we think keeps us close to God or do we recognize the diverse needs of our neighbor? What’s in our hearts? Are we more concerned with being safe and comfortable than proclaiming the Gospel?
The list of evil intentions that Jesus offers at the end of the reading, is not exhaustive, unfortunately, but is a lens through which to understand the purpose of rules or the law. The list all are ways that we use creation and other people for our own building up and gratification and not the building up and health of other people and the community. Laws and traditions that don’t build up your neighbor and show them God’s love but exclude them and denigrate them are not part of God’s law. The problem is that we can take a perfectly fine law and turn it into a source of pride or piety for ourselves. I talked with a woman this week who told me as a younger woman how hurtful it was that she was excluded from Holy Communion at a Catholic Church because she wasn’t baptized Catholic, actually she wasn’t baptized at all. The law of only certain people participating in the body and blood of Christ did not reveal God’s love to this woman, but only showed the pride and exclusiveness of the law. To be clear, this could have just as easily been a Lutheran or any mainline church. Jesus is clear that God’s boundaries are wider than we can ever imagine and God’s law is that of pure love and inclusivity.
Many of our rules, laws or traditions go unexamined. They become simply what we do without question or deeper thought into why or what the consequences of our traditions might be-such as communion, confirmation, worship, or even how I preach. A quote I love from theologian Jaroslav Pelikan is “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” Traditions are not bad in and of themselves and Jesus is not suggesting that we live willy-nilly with no compass or grounding principles. Jesus is holding a mirror to why we do what we do and does it reveal and point to the work and love of God in the world for the whole world.
How do we reveal God’s love here at LOTH? How do we examine what we’re doing or what we’ve always done to ensure that we are pointing to God’s work and love in the world and not our own need for rules and boundaries for our own sense of order? Our mission statement is a great lens through which we can examine all of our ministries and traditions. Do you know it? By heart? It is a little long-I’ll grant you but do you know the thrust of it? “Lord of the Hills is a welcoming home rooted in Jesus Christ. We honor the past, meet the present and change for the future. Young and old, we have joined together in mission to: proclaim the Gospel, serve the needs of the community, grow in faith, experience God’s grace through worship, welcome the visitor, and celebrate our diversity.” This is truly a Christ centered mission statement. And one that doesn’t allow us to become stuck in unhelpful or excluding traditions but admits that change might be necessary.
What I also love about this statement is that it’s clear that God is the focus of our lives together. We fully believe, just as we heard in our Deuteronomy text, that we have a God who is always near to us and hears us when we call. This good news of a closer than close God, orients us toward how we do live together, how we do ensure that the gospel-the good news that God with us all always- is proclaimed in our community and in our homes. This statement reminds us that diversity and nuance is needed, too much of a good thing can be life denying, when the gospel is all about offering life and offering it abundantly. This statement focuses our hearts on other people, all of God’s people, and not ourselves and what we want or think we need. It reminds us that God crosses boundaries to come to us in Jesus Christ and so we too cross boundaries to reveal Christ to the world.
Sometimes as humans we can have too much of a good thing in the rules, traditions and laws that we impose and can deny life and freedom to people. But Jesus proclaims that we can never have too much of the good thing of God’s love for us. In God’s good thing of love and grace, there is an overwhelming abundance that flows out from Jesus for the inclusion and reorientation of our hearts to the only rule that matters: God’s love. Thanks be to God.