~ James 5:13-16/Mark 9:38-41, 49-50 ~
The texts we’ve heard this morning come together for me in a most compelling way. Not that they have similar themes or anything. Indeed, these texts from James and Mark hardly have any similarities. No, they come together for me because they bring up memories – memories of sermons preached in earlier times. Indeed, the sermons I preached on each of these texts came at significant times in my life. And I would like to tell you about those occasions and a little bit about how these texts preached. So you might call this sermon a “Preacher’s Replay.”
The first replay is from 1997. It was my very first sermon as a Presbyterian. Linda and I had become members of Montview Blvd. Presbyterian Church in Denver. One of the three co-pastors (and yes, they actually had three co-pastors – the only Presbyterian Church in America that did at the time), was hit with esophageal cancer. While Gil was undergoing treatment and rehab, they needed some preaching help. Well, word had gotten around that I had some experience in that area – but as a Baptist! To complicate matters, about ten years before I had resigned from my Baptist gig vowing never to do that again. But they came to me and asked if I would like to preach. I was extremely surprised. How could they let a former Baptist minister preach in their august Presbyterian pulpit (the church is a 1500-member congregation in a massive gothic-style sanctuary). But they assured me it was OK. I was deeply honored. So I accepted their offer.
I preached on this passage from James. Given what all I had been through I was drawn to these words: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” The fact is I was only able to consider preaching again because I personally had experienced significant healing. And that healing was because of the work of forgiveness in my life since I had resigned from ministry some ten years before. Yes, there were people I needed to forgive, people who had wronged me. But more significantly I needed to learn to forgive myself for feelings of failure and unfulfilled ambitions, for not trusting God to be there in my turmoil, and for not trusting God’s grace-filled people to help.
So, on that Sunday in 1997, I preached on “The Stuff of Healing.” I preached that James had tapped into a significant key to how healing happens. Essentially he said, “come to the community of the church and get the stuff that heals.” What is that stuff? When we look at this text the obvious assumption is that prayer is the stuff of healing. Look at how much he emphasizes prayer. If you are suffering, pray. If you are sick, have the elders pray. Pray for each other. The prayers of a righteous man are effective. And so on. However, as important as prayer is, here in James it is accompanied by something else. In fact, I would suggest that prayer is merely the means to this other end. Tucked into the middle of James’ advice for healing, are the words “confess” and “forgive.” “Is any among you sick, let him call for the elders and if he has committed sins he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed.” The stuff of healing, I preached, is forgiveness. Now I will not pretend to know how forgiveness affects the healing of physical ailments. But forgiveness certainly affects the healing of emotional, mental, and spiritual ailments.
James says confess your sins and accept God’s forgiveness and you will be healed. Our problem is that while we may believe in God’s grace and forgiveness in theory, we find it very hard to really let grace and forgiveness have an effect on our lives. And so I also preached that there is a second element of healing – a supportive community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone.” No one should go it alone. James assumes that the healing of those who are suffering and sick is done in the community of the church. Now the obvious example in this passage is that the sick person is advised to call the elders of the church to pray over him. But the next statement includes us all. “Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed.”
God invites all of us to share our brokenness, our pain and suffering, our wounds, our grief, our confessions with each other. And somehow we then play a part in each other’s healing. I am called to assure you of God’s forgiveness for you just as you are called to assure me of God’s forgiveness for me. So I preached that this is the real stuff of being Christian. We have the unique privilege to be a conduit of God’s grace and forgiveness to each other so that we all may find healing. That, in essence, was the first sermon I ever preached as a Presbyterian.
The second replay sermon is from June 2002. It was at Ocean Ave. Presbyterian Church. The reason I was preaching there was so the Pastor Nominating Committee of Covenant Presbyterian Church could hear me preach. It was my candidating sermon to become their pastor and be ordained as a Presbyterian minister. That sermon focused on the words in our gospel text for today, “whoever gives you a cup of water.” I brought a prop with me that day – a tin cup. I talked about taking this tin cup on backpacking trips in the Colorado wilderness. After an exhausting climb up the mountain I would stop at a spring, water bubbling out of the rocks at 10,500 feet, dip my tin cup into the water, and bring it to my lips. Ahh! The coldest, most delicious taste ever. There is nothing like a cup of water when you are bone-dry thirsty. And so I preached about the significance of a cup of water.
Usually we think of this phrase as an admonition to serve, particularly the poor and needy. We might think that Christian service is giving a cup of water in the name of Jesus.
But in that sermon I preached at Ocean Ave. Presbyterian Church for the PNC of Covenant I suggested that Jesus had a different meaning in mind. Instead of service, “a cup of water” actually symbolized the act of receiving. I suggested it was about hospitality. Specifically, Jesus uses the term to describe how people receive the message of the disciples. To give a cup of water, then, was a response to receiving the gospel of the kingdom.
Right before Jesus uses this metaphor he corrects the disciples’ perception of God’s work in the world. They were mightily concerned that there might be some other folk out there talking about Jesus who weren’t in their group. Jesus says don’t worry about them. “Whosoever is not against us is for us.” Anyone who even in the slightest way moves towards me, Jesus says, honors me. He says that if someone as much as gives you only a cup of cold water, that honors me. Just this simple gesture of an offer of water signifies acceptance of Jesus’ message.
I preached that this is an amazing development. Jesus seems to be saying that any movement towards me, no matter how simple or slight, is good. I believe this is how the grace of God usually works. And so I urged the congregation on that day in 2002 to talk about God’s grace in our lives. In a dry and thirsty world, God’s grace works in subtle and non-coercive ways to nudge people toward faith. As people embrace God’s grace, even in small ways, they are refreshed with the living water of God’s love. As ones who have experienced God’s grace we have the ministry of helping others see and experience grace for themselves. Their response to grace is a cup of water, for us and for God.
The third replay is from a sermon I preached here at Noe Valley Ministry early in my time here. Now, one could ask, what was it about this sermon that makes it stand out amongst all the rest of the sermons I’ve preached here? Because, you see, I’ve actually preached almost 300 sermons as your pastor. But this one stands out because in writing it I discovered insights I’d never considered before. The subject was ‘salt’.
Salt is made of two of the most volatile elements on earth. Drop a lump of sodium in a bucket of water and it will explode with enough force to kill. Chlorine is even more deadly. It was the active ingredient in the poison gases used in World War I. But you put the two elements together and what you get is innocuous sodium chloride – common table salt.
Of all the minerals in the earth, the most vital to our dietary needs is sodium. Our bodies need certain amounts of sodium to stay healthy. And sodium chloride – salt – is how we get that essential ingredient of life. Of course, we all probably get too much salt these days. So low sodium diets, low sodium foods, are a thing. After all, we only need about 200 mg a day, which is only about 6-8 vigorous shakes of the salt shaker. One can of soup is way more than that. Processed foods are loaded with salt. Who knew that an ounce of cornflakes contains more salt than an ounce of salted peanuts?
For some unknown reason our ancient forbearers knew that salt was vital. Archaeologists point out that once people settled down in agricultural communities they began to suffer salt deficiencies – something that their previous meat-only diet didn’t exhibit. It’s not even sure they consciously knew they needed salt – it’s not like the lack of salt creates any particular craving. How our ancient forbearers knew they needed salt is one of the mysteries of human existence.
Thus salt became one of the most precious commodities in the ancient world. Salt is now so plentiful and cheap that we forget how intensely desirable it once was. People have fought wars over salt; been sold into slavery for salt. Much blood has been spilled over this simple compound.
When Jesus invoked this metaphor of salt, his listeners were very aware of how valuable it is. Indeed, that might be the very reason Jesus used it – salt is valuable. That could be all that Jesus intended. When he said, “you are the salt of the earth,” in essence he was saying, “you are valuable, just like salt.” Now, live up to your worthiness.
Scholars have speculated for centuries about how we are supposed to be salt, how we are supposed to act as salt. Being a preservative is good. Being tasty is good. But the fact is, we really don’t know if Jesus meant to suggest how we are to act as salt. We don’t act like salt; we don’t become salt. We are salt.
OK, Jesus does throw in this caveat: “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.” The fact is, though, salt doesn’t lose its saltiness. Salt is salt. Salt tastes like salt. Again, I think his listeners knew that. The absurdity of his statement seems to drive home the point even stronger. Whereas salt can’t stop being salt, it is possible to live and act as if you weren’t. Don’t be those kinds of people. Be salt; be the salt of the earth.
And so, three considerably different metaphors from three different texts from three different sermons from my past all squeezed into one sermon. Such a deal! And yet they do all come together to remind us that we are all in this together. Forgiveness, grace, and service come together in the life of this community. May it be so. And that’s my preacher’s replay for today. Amen.