Demons, Prayers, and Salt, O My!

Sermon Delivered on September 30, 2012 
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

For the past few weeks the book of James has been dispensing some practical theology. We’ve been told that all good things come from God, and that we have the opportunity to participate in the actions of God. We’ve been told that we discover our true identity when see others as equally valuable in the eyes of God. We’ve been told that we cannot see others this way and still deny their basic needs. And we’ve been told that we must not spend time judging the performance of others and instead put our energy toward doing the will of God.

Today this wisdom continues. Are you suffering? Pray. Are you happy? Praise! Are you sick, don’t keep it to yourself. Go to the congregation and the church Elders. Get them to anoint you and pray for you!

Whoa. That’s not what we do. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard of individuals and families leaving Church X because they had a health crisis and no one from the church seemed to care – especially Pastor X. That’s not to say that the Church or the Pastor have no responsibility. But it is to say that assessing blame is downright messy.

That’s why James sets up his argument by telling us – in similar fashion to the Charge of the Light Brigade – that “Ours is not to question why. Ours is but to do or die.” And like the soldiers in that fateful poem, what matters most to James is not the joy or pain of the individual. Instead it is the opportunity of community – community with one another, community with God, and community within ourselves – even though our very minds and bodies may seem filled with internal conflict.

Of course all of this was written well before the reality of modern medicine. The same is true for the teachings of Jesus. In today’s reading Jesus and his disciples have returned to Capernaum. Jesus has just settled a dispute between the disciples about which one of them is the best by picking up a child and telling them that the child is their new role model.

John cleverly deflects the criticism: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” I’ll admit it would be easy to judge him for that, but his criticism wasn’t entirely unfounded. Demons were believed to be the cause of illness, and sin was the open door and welcome mat. To sin was to vary from the path, and these guys were clearly not following the rules. Besides, casting out demons willy nilly like that was like putting out a bomb with a hand gun. Who knows where they might go – maybe even to smudge the innocence of a child.

Jesus is nonplused, as we might expect, telling John that, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Oh, but the church could use listening to those words today! How bent are we on schism because those people over there are not doing what we know in our bones to be true? At least we know that even the first disciples were struggling with the same things that we are today.

Perhaps it is because we take Jesus’ words about salvation through self mutilation so very seriously. Don’t believe me? We say things like this:
  • Those people do not understand the difference between justice and getting even. 
  • Those people worship their traditions. 
  • If the church supports XYZ I’m out of here. 
  • Why do they always have to get their way? 
Even so, I believe that things have gotten better in recent years in the Presbytery of South Louisiana (PSL). I have seen congregations becoming more interested in championing mutual causes and celebrating one another’s ministry than they are in tearing each other down. That is not to say that we (in the PSL) are without conflict. It is also not to say that we are without hope. For without hope, all conflicts are resolved through the politics of power – and we are called to another way.

Even so, unresolved conflicts and fundamental disagreements can make us want to follow the wisdom of my sister-in-law – who has been known to say, “I think I would stab myself in the arm to get out of that.” – but that is not God’s word for us today. The challenge of God’s word for us today is not about limiting others (even by stabbing ourselves to get out of things). It is only about limiting ourselves.

Does Jesus literally want you to maim yourself to keep from sin? I sure hope not, because I am not sure how much of me would be left up here to preach to you. The extreme and radical position that Jesus is taking is not one of punishment as much as it is of orientation – just as it has been throughout Mark’s Gospel.

Jesus began with a call to repentance – the call to turn from an orientation around the self and turn toward an orientation around God. Now he is moving to a more impassioned plea that tells us the natural consequence of our resistance to repentance.

It’s as if he is saying, “You found the path. Great. But if you are focusing on your own journey without considering the influence you have on those who are seeking the path of God, then you really aren’t on the path.” Not only that, but Jesus is equating the temptation to leave the path with actually leaving the path.

Though it may seem that Jesus is telling us that we are guilty until proven innocent, he is – instead – telling us to remove the temptation before it becomes a temptation. Anyone who has ever failed a diet can tell you that sometimes this is easier said than done. Yet, that is the practical wisdom of this text.

Or, is it? “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

It seems to me that Jesus knows that we love our bodies too much. Jesus knows that we love our own bodies more than his. Jesus knows that we will have trouble seeing ourselves as his body. Jesus knows that we will cut his hand off before we will cut off our own. Jesus knows that salt preserves, just as it can also corrode. And Jesus knows that we are, and always will be, in need of grace and mercy in order to find peace together.

And so we are told by the book of James to come together, and pray. I need to tell you now how important the Agape Prayer Lunch is to this faith community. As a Pastor I am often the one who is expected to pray. In essence, I am paid to pray. Although I endeavor to do so in great faith, there is nothing less genuine to God than professional spirituality. On Wednesdays at 11:30a.m. I encounter some of the most genuine offerings of faith I have ever experienced. We talk about you – nothing confidential. We just give thanks for you. We ask for God’s grace to be active with you, and we open our own hearts for God to enter in.

It’s supremely intimate – and entirely risky – but we do it anyway. And I’d love for you to take that risk with us. The risk of prayer is in the intimacy and vulnerability it creates. You know, one of my standard premarital questions is, “Do you pray together?” Out of around 2 dozen weddings I can only think of one or two that said “Yes.” Most will tell me that it’s too private. I got news for you, folks. I don’t know where I heard this first, but I believe it to be true – faith is entirely personal, but it is never private.

Not everyone needs to share every little thing. We have Dr.s, Lawyers, and even Ministers for good reason. But even more valuable than all of these is the presence of Christ in our midst. I cannot promise you with the conviction of James that our prayers will heal every pain. But I can promise you that miracles will come of them.

I can promise you that through our beautiful, salty, and messy common union we can experience the peace of Christ that passes all understanding – especially in the midst of unresolved conflicts and unclear expectations. In all things we can expect God to be present. In all things, we can say with confidence the words of Julian of Norwich, a Christian mystic of the 14th century, who wrote:

All shall be well,
        and all shall be well,
              and every manner of thing shall be well.

May it be so with you. May it be so with me. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.
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