Mark 9:38-50

Jesus is talking with his disciples, and John has an announcement to make: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”  It sounds like John is really proud of himself. He expects to get a gold star from his teacher. Someone was claiming the Jesus brand for their exorcisms, without proper authenticity! Don’t worry, Jesus. We’ve got your back.

Unfortunately for John, Jesus is not pleased. “Do not stop him,” Jesus says. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Instead of checking the credentials of other healers, Jesus says, the disciples should be examining themselves. Are they putting stumbling blocks before others? Is some essential part of them causing them to stumble (a hand, a foot, an eye)?

Jesus concludes, enigmatically: “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.”

I can imagine the disciples finding Jesus’ speech somewhat jarring. This is supposed to be a report about someone else’s mistake. Suddenly Jesus is talking about everything they themselves may have done wrong, and the extreme methods that must be taken to address their mistakes.

Jesus says: If you cause someone else to stumble, it would be better if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. Jesus says, if a part of yourself causes you to stumble, you should perform an amputation rather than be thrown into hell. Jesus says, everyone will be salted with fire. Back up, Jesus! Who said that I did anything wrong?

It’s never fun to examine our own flaws. And listening to this instruction from Jesus — to examine my own faults, rather than pointing out the faults of others — has been especially difficult this week. I have had so many ideas about what other people are doing wrong as I listened to the news. I’m sure that even if we may disagree on this week’s events, we all have this experience of being assured that someone else is terribly wrong in what they are doing and saying.

But Jesus says: focus first on your own flaws.  Not – this is important – not to wallow in them. Not to get lost in them, and fall into despair, and give up.  Jesus wants us to know how we are hurting others, and hurting ourselves, so that we can change.

Change yourself, Jesus tells us. Allow the parts of yourself that harm you to be stripped away. Become salted with fire: refined like a precious metal. We often think of God’s presence as a comfort.  But contact with truth, with justice, with grace, can also feel like a knife; it can feel like fire.  Something hot enough to melt away prejudice and indifference. Something sharp enough to remove impurities of intention and action.

If we allow God to work on us, we will become more essential, more flavorful: saltier; more ourselves.  A salty person has less concern over the faults of others. If we are salty in ourselves, we will not get distracted by other people, whether their faults are petty or grave. Our focus will remain on our calling in the world.

So if you have been angry this week: good. I have been angry. I have been so angry at times that it is hard to breathe. The problem is not in being angry, but in what we do with that anger. Do we avoid or repress our anger, as many of us have been taught to do? Do we waste it on actions that achieve nothing? Do we let it fade away? Or do we allow our anger to change us, to refine and empower us for the greatest possible purposes, the holiest aims our souls can lay claim to?

Audre Lorde, in a presentation called “The Uses of Anger”, reflects on her experience as a Black woman. She says that those who have experienced oppression have “a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change…anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification, for it is in the painful process of this translation that we identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies. Anger is loaded with information and energy.”

When we notice something going wrong in the world around us, what shall we do?  Jesus says: first, tend to yourself. See what information your anger can give you. See what change your anger can make in you, to bring out the best of what you are.

When you are centered in yourself, salty and flavorful, you will focus less on the faults of others. Instead, your attention will turn to the strength for good that is within and around you. Join hands with the person doing similar work: they are an ally. Bear witness to those who speak the truth, especially from a place of oppression, for theirs is a voice that deserves to be amplified.  Any injustice that you witness, let that burn away your indifference, incinerate your attachment to privilege, fuel your determination to make God’s peace and justice real here among us.

God gives us anger as a gift. Let us not waste the fire that flares within us.  Instead, we can allow anger to make us more ourselves, more the person that God is creating us to be. We can allow anger to draw us into larger and larger groups of allies: with grave differences, perhaps, but an even greater common purpose. We can allow anger to carry us all forward together with its truth and energy, towards a new hope and possibility.  May it be so.