Lectionary: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Let us pray: Lord, please bless our hearing of Your holy Word. Speak to each of us the word we need to hear today. Amen.
So… our gospel passage today is quite a smorgasbord. We jump from exorcisms and who’s in Jesus’ in-groups, to hell and sin and cutting off body parts, to salt. Like, Jesus, could You please pick a topic and stay there for awhile?? Or at least smoothly transition between one topic and another so that we can see the connection??
Let’s focus on just one part, or we’ll be here all day. Let’s talk about salt. “Salt is good,” Jesus declares, and even that is hard for us to grasp today, when salt is associated more with heart disease and disease in general than anything else. We cut salt from our diets, we find food too salty, and we worry about it killing us.
In Jesus’ time, salt was precious, so precious that sometimes people were paid in salt. It was used to preserve food, in a time long before refrigeration; it was used to season food. It was also sometimes used in religious ceremonies, even given as a sacrifice to God as part of one’s harvest or wealth.
Salt is good.
And then there’s that strange continuation: “but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” Strange, because that’s basically an impossibility–salt cannot remain as salt and not taste like salt. There is nothing you can do to remove the flavor of salt from salt itself.
The only way to make salt not salty is to break it down at a molecular level, break apart the sodium and chlorine so that they’re something else entirely.
That feels really familiar.
The only way to change something that is good is to break it into pieces–to change not necessarily its surface qualities, for salt comes in all sorts of colors and purities and types and even tastes, but to change its core characteristics, is to break it into pieces. To destroy it.
That feels familiar because it’s something that happens to people, too. Sometimes others do that: by forcing people into terrible circumstances, where there are only terrible choices in front of them. Sometimes life does that: sorrow or illness or a thousand other things can wear us down and break us apart. But always, we do that. We break ourselves apart, tear ourselves apart, take pieces of ourselves and destroy them.
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote a book called Bewilderments about the book of Numbers, and I was so struck by her discussion of adultery, which is a running theme through the book. Adultery is a sin that is committed in private: those who commit it are obsessed with secrecy, with being unseen and unnoticed. They meet in back alleys and go to anonymous hotels and avoid anywhere they might be recognized. They even, she argues, try to create a space where they can be together where God is not present: because God will see their sin and judge them for it. Who can sin comfortably remembering that God is looking over their shoulder? So they carve out a space where God isn’t present; they wall off parts of themselves where they try to drive God off.
And that’s a terrible wound to inflict upon yourself, to shut part of yourself off, away from God. Away from your creator and sustainer. That eats away at you. That act of self-destruction can continue to destroy you.
We don’t only do this with adultery. We do it with all the sins we’re ashamed of, the ones that feel too terrible for the light of day or the publicity of confession. We do it with the sins we commit where we should know better, where we do know better, but still we forge ahead, because it’s easier or cheaper or just because sin seems to gather a momentum of its own that is hard to stop.
This fragmenting of ourselves, this futile attempt to keep God out of our worst messes, to hide our sin, to tear ourselves apart trying to be something we’re not–that feels so familiar.
That’s why God’s promise of healing feels so soothing–because sin tears at us and rips at us, hides the truth from us and keeps us stuck in how we’ve always done things or how good this feels now or the belief that change is impossible.
That’s why God’s healing feels so, incredibly painful: because healing is painful. Physical therapy is painful. The process of knitting together what was broken, of re-wiring muscles and habits, is painful. It hurts. Putting together a broken vase, it’s almost impossible to not cut yourself on some shard–how much more so putting together your soul?
Salt can be broken apart, split into chlorine and sodium, but it can also be put back together. It won’t ever be quite the same; it won’t be the same molecule of chlorine paired with the same molecule of sodium. But salt can be made from its parts. It can be put back together.
We, too, can be healed. Not through our own efforts, but through God’s healing, our creator putting us back together, piece by piece.
Alleluia, and Amen.