Faith like a Country Ham

For the last fourteen years, I have lived south of the Mason Dixon Line.  More importantly, the last eleven years have been south of the Sweet Tea Line, thanks be to God.  I have come to love grits, especially when they are filled with smoked gouda and jalapeños. I can fry a turkey. I even like pork rinds, though you’ll never get me to try the microwavable kind I saw at a Dollar General in rural deep south Alabama one time.  Of all the southern specialties that I’ve learned to love over the past decade and half, it is smoked meats for which I am most grateful.  My first experience of the dipped pork shoulder at the Smokey Pig is something I will never forget. Driving past the Conecuh Sausage smokehouse on I-65 is truly a gift from God.  I own a smoker, and I very much enjoy what smoke and time can do to a turkey, chicken, beef, venison, pork, and even fish.  Despite all of these wonderful new flavor experiences, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I first experienced the cultural food oddity that is the country ham.

We were hosting the Diocese of Kentucky’s New Beginnings program here at Christ Church.  Clergy in new calls gather together to discuss the particular challenges of transition and to learn new skills.  As is the custom, Canon Jason ordered lunch from Cambridge Market.  There were a few vegetarian sandwiches, and then an even mix of boxes labeled turkey and “CTY” ham.  Being a good host, I took from the ham stack because it seemed to be the less popular option.  I didn’t pay much attention to the CTY prefix written on the box, but as I bit into that sandwich for the first time, I learned a few truths very quickly.  I learned that CTY meant country, not city, and for the first time ever, I began to understand what Jesus was talking about when he used the image of salt to talk about the life of faith.

The most common way to understand Jesus when he talks about salt is as a preserving agent.  As in the case of country hams, salt has been used to keep meat from spoiling for most of human history.  In the days before refrigeration, salt’s anti-microbial properties were used to keep meat fresh for long periods of time.  In Jesus’ time and place, salted fish would have been a common part of the diet, and so when Jesus talks about being salted with fire, his followers would have understood that he was calling on them to be purified, cleansed from sin.  Just as bacteria cannot live in a saline environment, sin cannot have an ongoing hold in the lives of those who claim to be disciples of Jesus.  Being covered by the Holy Spirit in prayer, Biblical study, and the ongoing support and accountability that comes in Christian community means that over time, those sins that have kept us from fully loving God and loving neighbor will be removed from our lives.

I’ve always understood the preserving image, but it wasn’t until that first bite into a Cambridge Market Country Ham sandwich that I really came to understand the second truth about salt and the life of faith – it should be noticeable.  “If salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?”  As Christians who are preserved by the salt of the Spirit, when we go out into the world, we too should be conspicuous.  The world, as the 1960s hymn goes, should know that we are Christians by our love.  Our faith should be as obvious as the saltiness of a slice of country ham.  It should be noticeable in how we treat our neighbors, our friends, and our enemies.  It should be noticeable in how we care for one another through prayer, acts of loving service, and our respect for all of God’s children.  It should be noticeable in how we shop, how we vote, and how we care for the world around us.  Like the saltiness of that country ham sandwich, our faith should be evident to everyone we meet.

That ham sandwich taught me a lot about saltiness and faith – that we are preserved by the Spirit and that our faith should be obvious to the world around us – but I was still left scratching my head about that last sentence, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”  Thankfully, the Lord provides when preaching on short notice, and I ran across a reflection on this passage by a UCC Pastor named Rachel Keefe.  She encouraged me to look in my spice cabinet to notice the wide variety of salts that are available.  There is the ubiquitous blue canister with a girl in a yellow rain coat filled with iodized table salt.  We use that in baking recipes that require careful measurement. There’s finely ground pickling salt that gets mixed into brines for poultry that goes on the smoker.  On the table is a grinder full of beautiful pink Himalayan salt.  Somewhere in my archives, there is even a small vessel of flavored salt that was mined from deep in the ground underneath Salzburg, Austria, a souvenir from a three-week trip with my High School German class.  Meanwhile, on the shelves at the store, there are seasoning salts, smoked salt, pretzel salt, black, pink, and grey sea salts.

Keefe wonders, “What if they all stopped being salty? Or what if all their distinct flavors became indistinct? What if they somehow became discontent with their job of sitting on my shelf [waiting to be called upon for their unique abilities], and they started to fight with each other? …

“Jesus wasn’t referring to my salt collection when he spoke to his disciples. But it’s what I picture when I read this text. I see the [membership of the] church as all the different kinds of salt. …  It doesn’t matter if you are the old blue canister of iodized salt or if you are regular sea salt or smoked salt or salt of a different color. You can’t shove one off the shelf or stop being salty. You are salt. I am salt. We have a job to do. To do it best we have to recognize our own saltiness and the saltiness of those who share the shelf.”[1] Only then, can we live at peace with one another.

In the end, none of us can change our God given flavor.  The gifts bestowed upon us in baptism are ours to use, and as a community, when we share those gifts with the wider world, we are blessed to come alongside God in the good work of preservation, adding our own unique flavor to the world, for the sake of the Gospel

Salt preserves.  Salt is noticeable.  Salt comes in many varieties.  There is much to learn from Jesus’ salty imagery.  I may never eat another country ham sandwich again, but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of this oft-used image for the life of faith.  Have salt in yourselves, my friends, and be at peace with one another.  Amen.

[1] From “Sunday’s Coming” weekly email from The Christian Century, September 24, 2018.

Let’s Talk About Sin – a sermon

Today’s sermon is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

Despite being the only player to win the World Series 10 times in his career, Yogi Berra, who died at age 90 this week, knew what it was like to get into a slump at the plate.  He once went 32 straight at bats without a hit.  When asked about his inability to hit the ball, Berra, as only he could, looked at the reporter and said, “Slump?  I ain’t in no slump… I just ain’t hitting.”  That’s putting as positive a spin on a negative situation as you can probably get, and at this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples could use some positive spin.  Berra’s 32 at-bat hitless streak lasted only 7 games, but the disciples have been in a slump for weeks on end.

It all started back in Caesarea Philippi.  Do you remember that story from a few weeks’ back?  That’s the town where Peter first declared that Jesus was the Messiah.  It seemed like he had made good contact, the ball was flying toward the warning track, but a gust of wind, or more accurately, Peter’s hot air, kept it from being a home run.  As Jesus told the disciples what being the Messiah meant: being handed over to the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees, undergoing great suffering, and ultimately dying, but rising again on the third day, Peter was having none of it.  He took Jesus aside to set things straight, but Jesus turned to him and said, “Get behind me Satan.”  Six days later, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a high mountain where they saw Jesus transfigured right before their very eyes.  Again, what could have been a homerun moment is marred by Peter opening his mouth despite not really knowing what to say.

As the foursome came down the mountain, Jesus was met by a crowd surrounding his disciples who were arguing with some scribes.  With his head probably buried in his hands, Jesus asks, “What’s going on here?”  A man steps forward and says, “I brought my son here to be healed.  He is possessed by a demon that causes him to have violent seizures.  I asked your disciples to help, but they couldn’t heal him.  Can you?”  Jesus, steam coming from hears, looked around and said, “You faithless generation, how much longer do I have to put up with you?!?”  After Jesus healed the boy, his disciples asked him, “Why couldn’t we do that?”  Jesus responds with simple, albeit crushing words, “You’ve got to pray to heal like that.”

They then headed off toward their home base of Capernaum and for a second time, Jesus tells the disciples that he will be betrayed, killed, and three days later, rise again.  Just like the first go ‘round, the disciples swing and miss as they fail to understand what Jesus is telling them.  Instead, they spend their time arguing over which one of them is the greatest.  “The greatest?!?” Jesus responds, “If you want to be the greatest, you have to make yourself last and servant of all.  Greatest?!?  Psshhhhht.”

Hoping to turn the attention away from the disciples’ ongoing slump, John decides to tell Jesus about a success story.  It seems that somewhere along the way, the disciples ran across an exorcist who was casting out demons in the name of Jesus, and the disciples told him to stop.  Whoosh, another swing and miss for the disciples.  Jesus, like a frustrated manager watching his best hitter swing at a ball in the dirt, first picks his jaw up from the floor, and then he says, “Why on earth would you stop him!?!  For the love of all that is holy, don’t stop him.  Anybody who has enough faith to use my name to cast out demons is a friend of ours.  Honest to me, why would you stop him?  He’s not using my name in vain, he’s using may name to take it to the demons and unless you think that leaving demons alone is a good idea, let him continue with is work because ultimately it is my work!”[1]

Having endured what they thought was the full wrath of their rabbi and friend, the disciples stand there, with their hands in the pockets, staring at their toes, just hoping that he’ll go away for a while, but Jesus isn’t finished.  He knows they still don’t get what he’s about.  With all the fury of a frustrated Saban or Malzahn, Jesus goes for broke on his hitless disciples, letting loose a tirade full of images so grotesque that we almost can’t believe they would come from the mouth of Jesus.  “Look, y’all have got to stop.  Stop being a stumbling block for those who are trying to follow me.  In fact, if you want to be a stumbling block, why don’t you take it, tie it around your neck and throw yourself into the sea.  We’d all be better off.  Stop competing with one another.  Stop trying to seize all the glory to yourselves.  Stop building walls to keep others out.  As soon as you draw a line marking who’s in and who’s out, you’ll always find me on the other side.[2]  Get rid of anything that is holding you back from living fully into the Kingdom of grace that I’ve been telling you about since the very beginning.  I mean it.  Get rid of whatever is causing you to stumble: hands, feet, eyeballs.  Chop ‘em off, gouge ‘em out!  Better to be maimed than full of undying worms and unquenchable fire.[3]

These are harsh words from Jesus.  So harsh that plenty of preachers are going to tell their congregations that Jesus couldn’t possibly have actually said them.  You know what?  I’m pretty sure he did because he needed his disciples to understand the consequences of their sinful faithlessness.  This slump that the disciples were going through came at the most inopportune time.  It wasn’t that the season was just getting started, but the playoff push was on.  Jesus was about to enter Jerusalem for the last time.  Things were about to get a whole lot more difficult and Jesus wanted to be sure that his disciples were prepared for what was coming.

Fast forward 2,000 years and these words are still very difficult to hear.  Partly, they are difficult because we don’t like to hear such violent language from Jesus, but mostly because we really don’t like being confronted with our own sinfulness.  We’d much rather blame it on a stumbling block or shrug our shoulders and say, “the devil made me do it.”  The reality is that we, like the disciples, are perfectly capable of leading ourselves to sinful behavior.  The things which cause us to sin lay squarely within ourselves and in the choices we make.  For those who pull us into sin, the penalties are severe, but even then, we made the choice to follow their lead.  The hard truth of Jesus’ teaching on sin is that we are responsible for our own actions – things done and left undone – and are therefore responsible for the consequences of our own sinful behavior.

Jesus uses hyperbole to teach this lesson, but that isn’t to say he doesn’t mean what he says.  The consequences of our sin are harsh, both for we who do the sinning and for those we sin against.  It would be better, that is to say, less traumatic overall to remove the offending body part before the sin occurs than to endure the suffering the follows our sinful deeds.  We’ve all picked up the pieces after a harsh word, a youthful indiscretion, or the wanton disregard for another human being.  If, by the grace of God, we’ve found ourselves to be remorseful when it was all over (for the sin rather than its consequences), then perhaps you’ve said to yourself, “It would have been better to have ripped out my tongue than to have ever said those words.”  Jesus’ words may be harsh and they may be exaggerated, but they are true and worthy of our attention.  In a few moments we will kneel together and bare our souls to God as we confess our sins.  The silence before our confession may feel painfully long or perhaps too short to even think about starting to list them all.  Either way, Jesus invites us to take this opportunity for a clean slate seriously, to lay aside those wrong desires that lie deep within us and which cause us to sin, and to receive his grace and mercy and enter into the kingdom whole, holy, and fully loved.  Amen.

[1] Thanks to Scott Hoeze at the Center for Excellence in Preaching for opening up the image of an upset Jesus – http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-21b/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1528

[3] Again, thanks Scott Hoeze

Well Played, God. Well Played.

Sometimes we forget just how funny the Bible can be, but there really is a lot of humor in the Scriptures.  Sunday’s Track 2 Old Testament Lesson is chief among them.  Throughout the Torah, we hear the story of the people’s unfaithfulness and grumbling against Moses and the Lord.  They sound like the well worn trope of kinds on a long car ride, “I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. I’m hot.  I’m cold.  He’s touching me.  She’s looking at me.”  Only the make it even worse by wishing they were back in Egypt, back living as something less than humans, bonded in slavery, doing back breaking work.

The rabble grumble and complain and complain and grumble until the anger of the Lord (and of Moses) is stoked into red hot fury, when Moses turns to God and says, “You fix this.  These are your people, not mine.  I’m not their father, you are.  Fix their troubles.  Give them meat to eat or go ahead and put me to death.”  By now, to say that God is displeased would be an understatement, but God cares for Moses and God cares for his Chosen People.  So God tells Moses that he will fix things, by taking some of the load off of his shoulders.  God instructs Moses to gather 70 of the elders in the tent of meeting where he will take some of the spirit that is on Moses and share it with them.

The RCL Divining Rod skips over God’s promise that the Hebrews will have so much meat that “it will come out of your nostrils and become loathsome to you,” which is also quite hilarious, but we do get the amazing and humorous story of Eldad and Medad.  Moses gathered the 70, just as God had instructed, and the spirit came upon them with power and might.  But there were two men, Eldad and Medad, who were not in the tent, but prophesied anyway, and now Joshua is the one who is angry.  “Tell them to quit!” he shouts at Moses, but Moses, at least in the way I imagine this scene, looks up to heaven with a wry smile and says, “Well played, God.  Well played.  Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.”

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God is always ready to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.  God is always there to stretch our expectations and to remind us of who is ultimately in charge.  In that moment, Moses realized that God was in control and that it wasn’t that God was leaving Moses to handle things on his own, but that Moses was quite capable because God was with him.  Two old men in the middle of the camp reminded Moses of God’s great power.  What is your reminder?

What Causes you to Sin?

Jesus has some harsh words for that which would cause another to sin.  These words are so difficult, I’ve heard of preachers who are tempted to say, “Well, Jesus never would have said something like this.”  To those who choose that preaching angle, Jesus has the harshest words, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”  I don’t know about you, but I’m not too enthusiastic about getting the mafia treatment just because my own discomfort with a Biblical text caused me to cause another to stumble in their life of faith.

There is an equally powerful temptation for those who will hear these words of Jesus.  Rather than blame another human being, or God forbid, blame ourselves and risk cutting off a hand or a foot or gouging out an eye, we’re quite content to simply say:

Jesus won’t let us get away with that either.  No, the things which cause us to sin lay squarely within ourselves and in the choices we make.  For those who pull us into sin, the penalties are severe, but even then, we made the choice to follow their lead.  Even those sins we call systemic: sins like racism, classism, and oppression; come down to the choices we make.  The hard truth of Jesus’ teaching on sin is that we are responsible for our own actions – things done and left undone – and are therefore responsible for the consequences of our own sinful behavior.

Jesus uses hyperbole to teach this lesson, but that isn’t to say he doesn’t mean what he says.  The consequences of our sin are severe, both for we who do the sinning and for those we sin against.  It would be better, that is to say, less traumatic overall to remove the offending body part before the sin occurs than to endure the suffering the follows our sinful deeds.  Unfortunately, we all know what Jesus means.  We’ve all picked up the pieces after a harsh word, a youthful indiscretion, or the wanton disregard for another human being.  If, by the grace of God, we’ve found ourselves to be remorseful when it was all over (for the sin rather than its consequences), then perhaps you’ve said to yourself, “It would have been better to have ripped out my tongue than to have ever said those words.”  Jesus’ words may be harsh and they may be exaggerated, but they are true and worthy of our attention.

The Rabble Within

Whether reading the Psalm from the Daily Office or Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, the appointed Scriptures invite us to consider the plight of the wandering Hebrews.  Perhaps plight is too strong a word, after all, God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, God had saved them from Pharaoh’s army at the bank of the Red Sea, and God had provided them with water from a rock and manna from heaven.  And yet…

And yet, they complained.  They grumbled.  They gathered as a rabble to grouse about the fact that God had not given them enough, or, barring that, that God had not given them what they wanted.  They subscribed to a theology of scarcity, while God was pouring out abundance in the form of daily bread.

Perhaps I chose the word “plight” because I know the situation in which the Hebrew people found themselves all too well.  While I’m not often the member of a complaining mob, I have, on many an occasion, found myself getting stirred up by the rabble within my own mind.  Scarcity is way too seductive in our modern day and age.  We live in a world that is constantly convincing us to consume.  $20 a month, for the rest of your life, will ensure that you always have the latest and greatest iPhone.  That fancy 60″ HDTV  you bought last year is fine, I guess, but this new 4K TV is way better (even if your eye can’t tell the difference).  Subscribe to our internet service, it’s the fastest!  Buy our razors, they’re the cheapest!  Drink our beer, you’ll be the sexiest!

With a constant barrage of scarcity based advertising, it is no wonder that our minds are a nearly constant rabble in need of satisfaction.  It is not wonder that we work way too much, play way too little, and charge way too much on credit cards.  We’ve lost the ability to be satisfied with our daily bread.  I know because I’m just as guilty.  But what would life look like if we learned to be satisfied with what we have?  How would our lives be different if we chose to be thankful rather than gluttonous?  How might the world be more like the Kingdom of God if we subscribed to a theology of abundance and gave up the scarcity mindset?

Honestly, I’m not sure it is possible in this day and age, but I suspect we should be trying.  Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly, and as long as we refuse to see that abundance, we aren’t fully living into the dream that God has for us and for the kingdom.  I pray that God might pour out the Spirit upon us, might open our eyes to see our overwhelming abundance, and might help us to repent of the scarcity that leads to grumbling rabble within and without.

The Gift of Accountability

I’m a sucker for Hymn #686 in the 1982 Hymnal.  “Come thou fount of every blessing”, written by a Baptist Dissenter named Robert Robinson, speaks to the power of both sin and grace in the lives of the faithful.  The line which most resonates with me this week is “… prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love…”  This is, for most of us, the life of discipleship.  We follow, sometimes very closely, to the will of God, but like the ancient Israelites, like the Apostles, like followers of Jesus throughout the generations, we soon fall victim to our own self-interests.

We forget that every good and perfect gift comes from God.  We begin to rely on our own power and intellect.  Before long, we have wandered far from the kingdom of God and are neck deep in our own sin, pride, envy, and greed.  Each of us is prone to wander, which is why James takes some time to remind those who are in the confines of grace to reach out to those who have gone astray.

“My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” – James 5:19-20

Accountability is one of the key reasons why Christianity can not be done in isolation.  If there is no one but ourselves to call us back from our wandering, then we may never find our way back home.  God works through the Church, through Christian friends and family, to find us when we’ve gone astray.  That is a great gift for all of us who wander, but James reminds us that there is also a gift for those who go seeking after the lost.  In seeking, we find, not just those who are lost, but that which has been lost within ourselves as well.  That’s the two-way gift of accountability.  That’s grace.