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Sermon for Sunday 26 September 2021

First Reading: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

4The rabble that was among {the Israelites} had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! 5We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. 6But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

10Moses heard the people weeping throughout their clans, everyone at the door of his tent. And the anger of the Lord blazed hotly, and Moses was displeased. 11Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers? 13Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ 14I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. 15If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness.” 16Then the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you.”

24So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. And he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tent. 25Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it. 26Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” 29But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”

Psalm 104:28-37

28All of them look to you to give them their food in due season. 29You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things. 30You hide your face, and they are terrified; you take away their breath, and they die and return to their dust. 31You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth. 32May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in all his works. 33He looks at the earth and it trembles; he touches the mountains and they smoke. 34I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being. 35May these words of mine please him; I will rejoice in the Lord. 36Let sinners be consumed out of the earth, and the wicked be no more. 37Bless the Lord, O my soul.  Hallelujah!

Second Reading: James 5:[1-12] 13-20

1Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. 7Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. 12But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. 13Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. 19My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

Gospel: Mark 9:38-50

38John 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.” 39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40For the one who is not against us is for us. 41For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward. 42Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ 49For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Out of the Saltshaker

A few years ago, there was a Mensa convention in San Francisco.  Mensa, for those not aware, is an organization whose members have an IQ of 140 or higher.  Several of the Mensa members were enjoying lunch at a local cafe.  While dining, they discovered that their saltshaker contained pepper, and their pepper shaker was full of salt.  The Mensa members, naturally being inquisitive, began to question how they could swap the contents of the two bottles without spilling any of the substances, using only the implements at hand.  After all, this was clearly a job for the best minds available.

The group debated and presented ideas, and finally came up with a brilliant solution involving a napkin, a straw, and an empty saucer.  They called the waitress to their table—convinced that they would dazzle her with their solution.  “Ma’am,” they said, “We couldn’t help but notice that the pepper shaker contains salt, and the saltshaker contains pepper.  “Oh,” said the waitress when they finally got her attention.  “I’m sorry about that.”  Without further comment, she unscrewed the caps of both bottles, switched the caps, and then said, “Will that be one check or separate checks?”

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, described His followers by saying, “You are the salt of the earth. “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?  It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matt. 5:13).  In Matthew’s Gospel, these words follow the Beatitudes and are often interpreted as referring to Jesus’ expectations of His disciples.  Mark uses the same imagery in today’s Gospel lesson, “Salt is good,” Jesus said, “but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again?” (9:50).  Bible scholar William Barclay interpreted Jesus’ words like this: “When a thing loses its essential quality and fails to perform its essential duty, it is fit for nothing but to be thrown away.”  For those who remember their chemistry, basic salt is comprised of two elements, Sodium and Chloride. 

While both these compounds are needed and useful nutrients for our bodies, Sodium is the most useful and is also the element that gives salt it’s flavor.  Medically speaking, sodium is an extremely important electrolyte and an essential ion present in the extracellular fluid. One of the health benefits of sodium is the pivotal role it plays in enzyme operations and muscle contraction.  It’s also very important for osmoregulation and fluid maintenance within the human body.  

Other health benefits include improved heart performance, nervous system, and glucose absorption.  Sodium is necessary for blood regulation and its absence can cause serious impairment of bodily functions.  All this to say that, if you remove the essential ingredient from salt, it has little value.  For humans, our key element, our essential ingredient, is our connection and relationship with God.  When we try to go it on our own, when we remove God from our lives, when we remove or ignore that connection, we lose that key element and we’re incomplete.  To retain our usefulness, we must remain connected to God.  And when we’re connected, we’re complete, we’re useful and provide a great many benefits to those around us.  When we remain connected to God, we like salt, are important in God’s plan and His kingdom.

As I said, salt is a useful mineral for several reasons, and as such, salt has always been a valued commodity.  Salt not only preserves food, but it also enhanced the flavor.  We’re all familiar with salt’s taste enhancing quality.  On much of the food we eat, salt really brings out the flavor.  In 1853 George Crum, a chef in New York, accidentally invented a food product.  An annoying patron kept sending his French-fried potatoes back to the kitchen because they were soggy.  In an effort to teach the customer a lesson, Crum sliced the fries extra thin, fried them to a crisp and drowned them in salt.  To his surprise, the complaining customer liked the converted fries and thus, potato chips were born.

Think about it, what would potato chips taste like without salt?  Or French fries, for that matter?  Or popcorn?  Obviously, we can overindulge in salt, but few people voluntarily go on a completely salt-free diet.  One of the reasons that Jesus said we’re to be the salt of the earth, is that we’re called to bring flavor to life in much the same way that He brought flavor to life.  Years ago, a woman named Marge wrote columnist Ann Landers with a complaint.

In her letter, she said, “I’m 44, husband same age (swell guy).  We get along O.K.—no drinking, no gambling, no skirt chasing.  He has a good job, and our home is paid for.  Our children are healthy and normal.  They do well in school and the three older ones (teenagers) have never caused us any trouble.  “So, why am I writing?” she asks.  “Because my life is blah.  Something is missing.  It’s like stew without salt.  I feel a certain emptiness.”  If I were to guess, I’d say that what’s missing is the essential ingredient we all need, our connection and relationship with God.

Sadly, many people in our society feel that same emptiness in their lives.  Like this woman, they see their lives, as “blah.”  For them, they sense that something is missing, a key element isn’t there.  As Christians, we’re called to bring out the flavor of other people’s lives; but how do we enhance another’s well-being?  We do this in two ways, the first way is by showing them Christian love and genuine concern.We let them know that somebody cares for them, us and God.

Several years ago, in a small town in Michigan, there was a 5K footrace that anyone could enter.  Boden, a nine-year-old boy in the race, was struggling and showing signs of fatigue.  Behind him Lance Corporal Myles Kerr, a 19-year-old Marine, noticed that Boden was falling behind.  Myles ran beside him to offer him some encouragement.  Boden looked up at Myles and asked, “Sir, will you please run with me?”  As you know, Marines are known for their commitment to not leaving their buddies behind, even if they’re only 9-years-old, and even if the Marine is carrying a full backpack.  It took almost 36 minutes for Boden and Kyle to run that 5K race together.  

Their story was carried on the Facebook page, Seal of Honor, which added these words: “By his unwavering commitment to help those in need through his ability to inspire others by his unequivocal level of motivation, Lance Corporal Myles Kerr reflected great credit upon himself and was keeping in the highest traditions of the United States Marine Corps.”  Wouldn’t it be great if all the followers of Jesus would be as kind and as helpful as Lance Corporal Kerr to anyone who was struggling?  Any time we show genuine concern for someone else, we make this world a better place.  

We, through our care and concern, can add flavor to other people’s lives.  We can be witnesses to the love of Christ not only in what we say, but by exemplifying Jesus’ command to love others as we love yourself.  When we reach out to others in need, we’re fulfilling Jesus’ command to be the “salt of the earth.”  Flavoring, enhancing, improving, this is the first thing that salt does.  A second benefit of salt is, it preserves. 

Traditionally, salt has played an more important role in the lives of human beings.  For many generations it was the only real preservative humanity had for food.  Indeed, before the invention of refrigeration, people were quite limited in the foods they could enjoy because they were limited in preserving food—especially meat.

In his book Salt for Society, W. Phillip Keller recounts many of his experiences as a youngster growing up in East Africa.  His family lived along the equator which is known for its severe tropical conditions.  There was no refrigeration available for the first eighteen years of his life.  As a result, his family only had one way of preserving meat, fish, fruit, or vegetables.  So, like so many generations before them, they used salt to preserve their food.  

Meat, in particular, would rapidly spoil under the hot weather conditions of the equator, and salt was the only ingredient that could slow the process.  Keller recalls how tons and tons of beef, lamb and wild game meat were cut up into slender strips that were then soaked in salt solution.  Those strips would then be hung to dry in the sunlight, becoming what we in North America would call “Jerky.”  Keller never took anything but “Jerky” with him when he went hunting.  It made for a light but nourishing meal for the young hunter.  Salt not only preserved the food in the intense heat, it also offered a good source of nutrition when it was consumed.  The same is true for all humankind throughout the centuries.  

Salt was so valuable in Jesus’ time that soldiers of the Roman Empire received an allowance of salt as part of their pay (the origin of the English word salary).  In various eras, people in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa have used cakes of salt to settle their debts.  Salt, even in current times, is still considered a very valuable commodity even here in the US.  It’s hard to over emphasize how important salt was to earlier societies, and in our world today.  But what does the preserving quality of salt mean to us, as the ones Jesus commanded “to be the salt of the earth”?  How do we as followers of Christ serve as a preservative in our time?  The answer is simple: you and I have been entrusted with the task of preserving for future generations the Good News of Jesus Christ. This is one of the essential tasks of the people of God—to be a witness to His presence in the world.

I’m reminded of a popular television commercial that some of you may remember: Two golfers are playing a round when a voiceover accompanies their play: “Greens fees: $116 . . . Graphite shaft clubs: $877 . . . Lunch at the turn: $13.50 . . . Balls, tees: $36.”  And then comes the clincher . . . as one miraculous shot bounces across the green and into the cup.  “Hole-in-one . . . and a witness: Priceless.  There are some things money can’t buy.  For everything else, there’s MasterCard.”  If I ever hit a hole-in-one that’s certainly what I want—a witness.  Otherwise, nobody would believe it!  What Jesus needs us to be is His witnesses.

Jesus wants people who will share the Good News of the Resurrection: that Christ has died (for our sins), that Christ has risen (defeating death and the devil), that He is alive and at work in the world today, and that Christ will come again.  Jesus calls us to show others the difference His presence has made in our lives.  Jesus calls you and I to share and preserve the teachings of God for later generations.  This means we each need to ask ourselves the tough questions: does our words and deeds convince people that Christ is alive and at work in our world, by the difference He’s made in their lives?  What do others see and hear from us as we go about our daily routine?  Can others readily see that we are a witness for our Lord? 

It had been a trying week at Jeffrey Collin’s office.  Jeffrey worked for a non-profit called, “Love & Action.”  It was five o’clock on a Friday afternoon and Jeffrey was looking forward to having dinner with friends and a quiet weekend.  Then the phone rang.  “Jeff!  It’s Jimmy!” he heard a quivering voice say.  Jimmy, who suffered from a severe immune related illness, was one of their regular clients.  “I’m really sick, Jeff.  I’ve got a fever and I’m sick to my stomach.  Please come and help me.”

Though he tried not to show it, this angered Jeffrey.  After a sixty-hour work week, he didn’t want to hear from Jimmy.  Even people whose lives are devoted to doing good, can sometimes suffer from what has been called “compassion fatigue.”  Reluctantly, Jeffrey promised he’d be right over.  During the drive over, Jeffrey fumed and complained to God about the inconvenience.

Jeffrey said, the moment he walked in the door he could smell the bile.  Jimmy was on the sofa, shivering and in distress.  Jeffrey wiped his forehead, then got a bucket of soapy water to clean up the mess.  He managed to maintain a facade of concern, even though he was raging inside.  Suddenly, Jimmy’s friend, Russ, who also suffered from the same illnesses, came down the stairs.  As Russ got to the bottom of the stairs, the odor from Jimmy throwing up made Russ sick too.

As Jeffery cleaned the floor near Jimmy and at the bottom of the stairs, Jeffrey said he was ready to explode inside.  Here he was now cleaning up after two men, not just one.  As he finished cleaning up, suddenly Russ startled him.  “I understand!” he blurted out.  “I understand!”  “What do you mean you understand Russ?” Jimmy asked weakly.  “I understand who Jesus is,” Russ said through tears.  “He’s like Jeff!”  Suddenly Jeffrey’s anger subsided as he hugged Russ and prayed with the two men.  That night Russ and Jimmy, because of Jeffery’s love, compassion, and witness to God’s love, made the decision to add the missing ingredient into their lives, they yielded their lives to Jesus.

A few years ago, a book by Rebecca Manley Pippert came out titled, Out of the Saltshaker and Into the World.  It was subtitled, Evangelism as a Way of Life.  Ms. Pippert added to Jesus’ statement that “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again?” by saying “Salt is good, but if salt stays in the saltshaker, what good is it?”  How can salt flavor life if it stays in the saltshaker?  How can salt preserve food if it stays in the shaker?  In other words, how can we enhance and preserve our world if we, the salt, never leave the saltshaker?  There’s only one way for us to add flavor and preserve the people around us; we, as disciples of Jesus, are to live as Jesus lived, and we’re to show God’s love and mercy through our words and deeds. 

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.  But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?”  There’s only one way for this to happen: each of us must remain bonded to Jesus so that His love will radiate through us.  For us to add flavor and preserve our world, we must get out of the saltshaker, we must show God’s love and genuine concern through our actions and share the good news of God’s love and mercy with those around us.  When we remain connected to God, we are complete, and we are then useful and provide a great many benefits to those around us.  Amen

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