PROPER 21, B
Numbers: 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29, Psalm 19:7-14, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50
Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.
Salt. Sodium chloride. Each of its ingredients is essential to our very life processes. As a compound it preserves and purifies. It adds depth to flavors and flavor to bland lifelessness.
Brother Moses. Now there’s a man with salt. Not much peace, poor fellow, but if ever a man had salt in himself!
The perpetually unhappy exiles are weeping again. They were slaves, Moses freed them (at God’s behest). They were starving, and they got manna from heaven. Now they’re tired of the taste of that heavenly food. Apparently even manna gets boring after a decade or two. Where’s the meat?! So they fuss and whine and complain endlessly to Moses, who once again works to solve their problems.
What I love about Moses, what makes me say has salt in himself, is the way that he talks to God. The popular book Eat, Pray, Love says “There’s no trouble in this world so serious that it can’t be cured with a hot bath, a glass of whiskey, and the Book of Common Prayer.” Brother Moses had serious troubles, but no hot bath, no whiskey, and no access to the Book of Common Prayer. Those beautiful, insightful, diverse prayers were not his to take comfort in or to share.
Just as well maybe. You never heard prayers like this in our cherished prayer book. Abused by his followers, over-burdened by God, his was a cry of desperation – I paraphrase, “Really?!? Really, God? What are you doing to me? Did I create these people? Did I create this mess? No? Well fine then. I can’t do it anymore. If you love me, kill me or fix it. ‘cause I just can’t do this anymore.”
How often do we with our hot baths, our whiskey and our very proper Book of Common prayer cry out in this way? I knew a woman who struggled with chronic illnesses, which included chronic pain. She coped well most of the time, but lamented to me one day about opportunities lost. “It’s almost like I could be mad at God,” she said. “But I keep praying….” “Have you told God?”, I asked her. “What?” “Have you told God…that you’re mad?” “I can’t do that, that would be disrespectful.” Disrespectful? Or honest and open and vulnerable and real?
The mystic Rumi penned,
Give your weakness
to one who helps.
Crying out loud and weeping are great resources.
A nursing mother, all she does
is wait to hear her child.
Just a little beginning-whimper,
and she’s there.
God created the child, that is, your wanting,
so that it might cry out, so that milk might come.
Cry out! Don’t be stolid and silent
with your pain. Lament! And let the milk
of loving flow into you.
Are you suffering? Pray. Cheerful? Sing songs of praise. The epistle lesson works its way through all the official types of prayer: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication; it refers to corporate prayer and private prayer, prayer for self and for others, prayer of words and of actions. James’ advice in the epistle we read today is, in a word, “pray”.
Prayer is one of the primary means by which we are voluntarily in relationship with God. Relationship with God seems to be precisely what God throughout time seems to be asking for. As we say each week, “Again and again, you called us to return….” “God created the child that is your wanting. Cry out…and let the milk of loving flow into you” By God’s love, by that relationship, we are transformed. By our transformation, the world is transformed. As Oswald McCall said, “Whenever a man [woman] prays, or so much as wishes he [she] could wish to pray but cannot, there is the Spirit.”
Oddly enough, that brings me to the topic of Hell. I know, it sounds like I’m starting a whole new sermon in the middle of the first one, but I promise I’m not. Jesus has quite a lot to say about hell (or at least about how to avoid it) in today’s Gospel lesson. I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never been one to pay a lot of attention to hellfire and brimstone sorts of passages. Whether that is avoidance or denial, or just the fact that the classic rendering of the hell makes NO sense to me in a loving, merciful God, I can’t say. Probably all of the above. Others may judge me on that score.
Whatever his own view of hell, there’s little question that Jesus is not speaking literally in this passage. He is not promoting self mutilation. He is emphasizing with the time honored tool of exaggeration the horror of stumbling; stumbling away from God, or somehow causing another to stumble away from God. He’s describing, metaphorically, the lengths to which one should go to stay in that relationship.
Passages like these have been used to develop the punitive picture we have of Hell. In the face of Christ’s own assertion that God loves the whole world and desires that all should be saved, that picture of deliberate eternal torture doesn’t entirely make sense. Consider instead the possibility of the equally horrific, but less punitive concept that Hell is a self imposed separation from God. As theologian Daniel Migliore expresses it, “hell is …simply wanting to be oneself apart from God’s grace and in isolation from others. . . . Hell is self-destructive resistance to the eternal love of God.”(emphasis added)
“Whenever a man [woman] prays, or so much as wishes he [she] could wish to pray but cannot, there is the Spirit.” Hell is where the spirit is not.
I don’t mean to suggest prayer as some sort of magic formula against damnation – “A prayer a day keeps the devil away” sort of thing. I mean to suggest consciously opening ourselves to meaningful relationship with God, even if it means cutting out the things in our lives which separate you from that relationship, exorcising our own demons, as it were, in the name of Christ. I think the desire for relationship rests in each of us. It is in the sense of need, of longing, of searching that we share. Prayer, in all its forms, is one crucial way to realize that relationship.
C.S. Lewis said a smart thing. (He said lots of smart things, really. I often wish I could think his thoughts. Since I can’t think his thoughts, I’ll quote them) He said, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me.” Prayer is, in all its varied, vital forms, a transformative act. That open, honest, vulnerable communication with our creator transforms us. By our transformation, the world is transformed.
Holy God, may we be transformed through our relationship with you. May we offer to you the depth and breadth of our lives, and thus learn to experience the depth and breadth of your love. May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.