30.9.18 - SERMON FOR 18TH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY - salt: honesty, dignity, generosity.
X We shall all be salted by fire... Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
Our texts today do not make easy reading. The psalm points out that even if we try, we might not be the best judges of our sin. This reminds me of a story which went the rounds of the spiritual direction training groups, of a young person who claimed, “last year I was so conceited - this year I’m not at all!” How well do we know ourselves?
In our next reading, James tells us we will have all our prayers answered - as long as we pray in faith. So that's OK, then. And Jesus tells us we are better off without things even as dear to us as our own limbs or sight, if those things are leading us to sin. With a collection of some of the least comfortable issues raised by scripture, it's not a great day to be preaching, really, maybe I'll just go home.
Except the word comfort doesn't just mean cosiness. Its original use meant being strengthened, through solidarity, the kind of comfort you get when you know someone's got your back. It presupposes that life is tough and complicated, as do the psalms, throughout. Today's psalm initially sets out how wonderful the law is, how great our God. Then it gets real and honest about how hard it is to live up to that ideal. Even when you're trying. And it's those of us who think we're succeeding who may be most misguided. Isn't it great how the psalmist winkles out that last shred of self-satisfaction and hangs it out to dry? “This year I’m not conceited at all!”
The salt of honesty prevents self-satisfied repose but feeds a healthier set of relationships, including with our own self. A recent TV programme looked at how much we lie, or prevaricate, or just tell stories - most of the time, it seems. To a teacher and local government officer this is no surprise, and we know that a little fiction can allow social interaction to run smoothly, even in the best of families. We are a race of story-tellers, and that’s fine, indeed, wonderful, as long as we keep an eye on the truth at the same time. The guy in the programme who really came emotionally unstuck trying to tell the truth for a week did so because his fiction had become a necessary drug, not just social glue.
We could simply give up and say, “I can't do it, God, ask someone else.” But we know he won't let go... we know his idea of a job well done includes disaster and the cross: definitely not cosy, our God. And that job was done on our behalf - the least we can do is try to keep going, since he has our back.
James takes us to the heart of the issue that most troubles staunch believers. Prayer made in faith is always answered, he says. Oh, really. Maybe if you're Elijah, but for us ground troops it doesn't feel like it. I'm happy to accept that the wishes that fit my needs may not fit with the overall design. Clearly in a world where the human body has built-in entropy we are going to experience some pain; where the human emotions include greed and violent anger we are going to experience conflict and fear. But where the increased wellbeing I’m praying for could do no-one else any harm, particularly when it’s not my own wellbeing I’m praying for, what’s the difficulty with answering that prayer, God? And, insult added to injury, to have church figures like James making me feel that maybe my faith just isn’t strong enough, puts salt in the wound - to pick up the image from our Gospel.
Sometimes what looks like the unfairness of God, which is in fact the unfairness of human fate, makes us very angry. My dad, as a doctor and a Jew, tells me he never says that things aren’t fair. They just are. We’re here to live our complex and often difficult lives with dignity, honesty, generosity. Walking humbly with our God is all about accepting that’s the deal. As a Christian, I know that Jesus accepted that deal. His version - of asking God what the problem was with answering his prayer to be spared - ended, as we know, “nevertheless, not my will but yours”. It’s not much, perhaps, but this response is to me more dignified than anger, and so a response I can hold on to, and respect. Everyone will be salted with fire - I know that - but keeping our lives salted with dignity will transform even the worst.
Our readings have thus far taken us to honesty and dignity. What about generosity? When Jesus tells us to cut off our hand or put out our eye rather than be led by them into sin, he’s doing two things. First, this is what the rabbis would come to call “fencing Torah”, that is setting religious expectations further out than the Law actually stated, so that people never came near to transgression. When Jesus talks about what the Law really entails, he often does it in this way - think of his words about adultery. It’s only when he talks about what the Law it means - what it’s for - that he simplifies things radically: love God with all your heart and mind, and your neighbour as yourself. The whole Law boils down to: “What is the most generous, loving response in this situation, to God and to my neighbour?”
The second thing he is doing is telling stories, as usual, salting his message with fiction. These images aren’t a fully formed parable, but they are dramatic and extravagant. We wince with imagined pain at the severed hand, the footless walk, the eye put out. And we don’t forget those images. The salt of fiction here is not about social glue but the necessary shock we all need to face sin with honesty. This is all part of his having our back, providing comfort that isn’t cosiness but is strengthening. The salt of fiction lends new savour to messages we have heard too often and decided to take with a pinch of salt: starting with parking restrictions and finishing with all those ten commandments. In the shock of Jesus’ words we face the Law anew.
Gandhi is supposed to have said that a system which depends on goodwill is not a good system. The Jewish Law, indeed our law, are just such systems. There is no way we can police everyone all the time: we need most citizens to have good will for the law to work. It is this salt of generosity which makes social interaction sustainable. It is generosity which allows us to see and accept our weaknesses for what they are. It is generosity which allows us to let go of our constant straining for control, and say to God, “Not my will but yours.”
This is why Jesus can end his frightening imagery about severed hands with what appears to be a disconnected admonition. He’s reminding his listeners that they have had the law and the prophets to tell them what is right, but the salt has lost its savour. His words have given new savour. But only if we have salt in ourselves - the generosity which gives the law its hold - can we be at peace with one another.
Honesty, dignity, generosity. A big ask, but without them life has no savour. Walking humbly with our God maybe sounds like it’s a bit dull - it’s anything but.