Sermon for Trinity 17 Sunday 30 September 2012
Sermon preached by Fr. Julian Browning
Mark 9.49. Everyone will be salted with fire
Be gentle with yourselves, very gentle. Tolerance of others begins with tolerance of ourselves. I say this in an intolerant world, where religious intolerance and intolerance of religion bring hate and violence. It’s so easy to get caught up in it all – and it gets closer each all the time – easy to blame and bluster, and to point to the failures of others to “be at peace with one another”, as today’s Gospel says. Then ‘what I think’ suddenly has huge importance, overriding all other views. But this is the vice of our age: self-expression without self-examination. Christians are called to live, not by feelings, but by values. One of the strengths of the Anglican Church used to be an understanding of the value of tolerance; we gave up institutional strengths for the sake of the Gospel value of non-judgmental acceptance. Another word for it is forgiveness. A Christian’s day begins with God’s forgiveness, which is not being summoned to the headmaster’s study for a bollocking and a formal handshake, but which is understanding that God always speaks to me as I am, without secrets, now, whatever I’ve done or failed to do. It is through being forgiven that we are created, made new again. But we need to be very gentle with ourselves, giving ourselves time to consider, yet again, a life lived according to values, rather than feelings.
I say ‘yet again’, because most of us will undergo many conversions of varying depths in our lives, often at times of difficulty. Then the outcome is unclear to us; we no longer know the way. Old certainties, on which we relied, can’t always be carried across into our present life. Our experience of God may no longer accord with what the Church appears to describe. Those ready-made truths are not as life-changing as the ones we are discovering for ourselves. It can get tough. It’s difficult enough adapting to the changes which happen to the physical body. Well, our spiritual lives change too, they age and mature, and it’s good to be ready for such changes. Spiritual progress does not always lead into strengths; often we just become more aware of our weaknesses, our fallibility. We need to take this gently, without reacting too violently against the tradition and the institution which guards it, without abandoning old routines. What feels like a loss of faith at first, might turn out in time to be a gain.
Today’s Gospel is meant to be helpful. St Mark wrote his Gospel to be read out to a congregation like you, in whatever churches looked like then, so that we can learn Gospel values. All I can say is that I hope they understood his Gospel better than we do. We can follow a story, when we get one, but we don’t always get a story. We didn’t get one today. All we have today in the Gospel is a loosely connected series of sayings by Jesus, abstruse odds and ends, put together by St Mark. Not easy going, even for All Saints Margaret Street.
Everyone will be salted with fire. What can it mean? Salt was something you added to your sacrifice in Old Testament times. Don’t ask me how. It just says in Leviticus, With all your offerings you shall offer salt. So adding salt was one of the things you did as part of getting back on God’s wavelength, offering a sacrifice, to show that we want God back in our lives again. We don’t do that sort of sacrifice any more. Lots of religious people still do. Suicide bombers are sacrificial. We like to think we are being sacrificial when we give up something, but actually it’s still all about me, what I’m doing, me in control. Jesus ended that way of living and dying, once and for all. We follow his new way, which is the way of self-surrender, not sacrifice. We surrender ourselves to a fire which is a sort of self-purification, a destruction of the vain fantasising self. Self-surrender is not suppressing my own self and desires. We can’t change who we are. Self-surrender does not mean handing over responsibility for our lives to God; we remain responsible for the consequences of every decision. We escape nothing. Self-surrender, being salted with fire, is removing from our lives anything which prevents us and distracts us from hearing the Gospel and acting on it. In one sense it’s a purification, which is something fire does. Salted with fire means tested with fire, a burning out of all that suppresses our desire for God.
In a community or church, a spirit of self-surrender helps us, as St Mark says, to be at peace with one another. We are to live without resentment. The future depends on it. That means ditching all feelings that we’re hard done by and discriminated against, even if that’s true, because resentment is death-dealing not life-giving. It’s so tempting to make a stand, to close the doors, start being sacrificial again, because we feel safe and righteous then. In today’s Gospel there’s a little known saying of Jesus, Whoever is not against us is for us. We’re used to the words of St Matthew’s Gospel, Whoever is not with me is against me. St Mark records the opposite: Whoever is not against us is for us. Here is Christian tolerance, a willingness to accept others as they are, without judging and without wanting to change them into something else. God knows us as we are now, with all faults, not as someone he want us to be if we would only behave.
I’ve left the scary stuff to the end. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. Don’t try it at home, it’s only a metaphor. A maimed foot, an amputated hand, an eye torn out? What can that mean? A foot, a hand, and an eye. These stark images, in the language of people less squeamish than ourselves, must be about where I go, what I do, what I see – there will be many occasions for stumbling, for resentment, for envy, for upset, for anger. That is the reality of our life, what happens each day. But we are to start with ourselves, our feelings and how they play out, and deal with them, and not project them on to others. Resentments can then fade away, for the one who loses his life will save it, and this is the way to be at peace with one another. It’s how a Church should work. As St Augustine said: In the primary things, unity; in the secondary things, liberality; in all things, charity.