What I love about longer road trips, be it to Little Rock or even farther to Sewanee, is the ability to ponder for greater lengths of time in relative silence. For these trips it’s often the Scripture that provides fuel for thought. First thoughts for this Sunday hovered around a question inspired by our Collect. “Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure.” “Running to obtain your promises.” Well, what “promises” are we running toward? I don’t argue that most of us are “running.” We’re always running somewhere, and more often than I like, I’m often running late. But am I running toward God’s promises?
Am I running toward eternal life and salvation in Christ? Are you? What does that even look like?
I spent time Wednesday and Thursday in the seminary setting for the annual DuBose lectures and alumni gathering. In Sewanee, the skies were characteristically gray, accompanied by rain that went from drizzle to downpour to flash flood warnings (alerting us to those who hadn’t silenced their phones). Dr. Charles Marsh’s lectures began a three-year focus on racial reconciliation for the lecture series. I confess that I marveled that I hadn’t heard of him before, though the work that he does hits all the marks of someone striving for social justice, particularly in the field of race relations and theology. After the final lecture Thursday, I didn’t really know what to ask or say to him, but I felt compelled at least to say hello and to introduce myself. I told him we have a Continuing the Conversation group that meets once a month to talk about racism and white supremacy. He wants to know more and gave me his email address so we can be in touch. I realized I wanted him to know that there are those of us outside academic settings who are doing the field work he enjoys and deems necessary as we heal and build relationships across divides.
While he spoke about Nazi Germany in the time of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or White Southern Christians in the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., I had the story from Esther in the back of my mind. The query of the king, Esther’s petition, Harbona’s advocacy, and the hanging of Haman on the gallows intended for Mordecai, all unfold around a story of a people oppressed and justice sought and served. Mordecai spreads the news, the need for remembrance and celebration. The psalm reiterates the gratitude of a chosen people helped by their God, “maker of heaven and earth.”
The story and the psalm support an us-them dichotomy. The us-them mentality fuels prejudice, oppression, racism. We’re the good ones, the chosen ones, the right ones, and THEY are outsiders. They are wrong, different, bad, unknown, and outside our understanding. Whichever side we’re coming from, we want God on our side. Surely God’s anger is abated like the king’s when the guilty party hangs on the gallows, right? Surely, justice is served. Or is it?
In our gospel lesson today, John righteously tells Jesus that he was standing up for him when there’s this “other” exorcist casting out demons in the name of Jesus. “We told him to stop,” for this “other” person isn’t one of us, a part of the disciple crowd we’re familiar with. Jesus’ response isn’t a question of “why did you do that?” Jesus simply tells him and the others not to do that, not to stop someone who is actually healing in his name. Doing good in the name of Jesus Christ bears its own reward, and that goodness can’t be reversed or gone against. Let it be.
Then our gospel lesson continues with Jesus going on to talk about when things are bad. This is one of those times when I kind of wish I had skipped reading the footnotes so I wouldn’t be reminded of what the meaning is thought to be. I want to skip it because talking about sexual morality tends to make people uncomfortable, but our study Bible calls this section “temptations to sin.” Jesus admonishes sexual misconduct against children specifically and sexual transgressions generally. There were Jewish laws familiar to his contemporaries. Jesus warns them, lest they continue in sin and go to hell, “where your worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”
Dr. Marsh also spoke about sin, of course, in his talk about race relations. He shared one description of sin that was something like “inappropriate relationship with another for personal gain, self-fulfillment, and/or self-satisfaction.” Putting oneself first and foremost, violating the first commandment, is basically the root of sin from this perspective, which aligns with how I usually define sin (along with the way MLK, Jr., and many others do): our separation from God. If our sin is harmful to others and separates us from God and God’s will, then the description of hell being a place where your worm never dies and where the fire is never quenched, makes perfect sense. A “worm” is something that eats away at you, destroying your life, and “fire” . . . well . . .
Like Dr. Marsh, I grew up hearing sermons of fire and brimstone describing hell. An eternally burning fire as an image of hell is likely seared into the minds of many of us. BUT, “everyone is salted with fire,” Jesus says, and “salt is good.” What do you mean, Jesus?
Salt is good. Salt preserves food and adds flavor. We actually need salt to live. But fire? Fire cooks food and can add flavor. Does fire preserve life? Actually, it does. We need the fire of the sun, the energy it provides. We need heat in the cold and heat to clarify impurities. I dare say that we need the burns from our sins to remind us of our need for God, too. Maybe that’s the salt we get from the fire. Our wounds remind us of where our failings are, what our weaknesses are, but we’re given saltiness to keep us aware of the presence of God in our lives and of our dependence upon God’s mercy to obtain any reward that is life-giving, let alone our salvation.
And when we lose our saltiness? Maybe that’s when we’ve become numb to the burn. Maybe we’ve relied on ourselves for so long that we lose our sense of taste for what is truly good. We let our selfish desires eat away at us unceasingly, and our selfish yearnings burn unquenchably because we’ve turned away from the one relationship that actually gives us life and fulfillment. Is there no hope if this is where we find ourselves? Of course not.
“Have salt in yourself,” Jesus says. Recognize our own sins and shortcoming. We’ve all got them, some of us more than others, perhaps. In the reconciliation work being done to try to build up the kingdom of God, we have to be self-aware and do our own healing before we can build relationships or reconcile relationships with others. Only when we’ve been healed by the mercy and grace of God can we then have peace with one another because then we’ll realize that there is no “other.” We can have peace. Period.
Like James reads, if you’re suffering, pray; if you’re happy, sing; if you’re sick, call for healing and prayer; and if you’ve sinned, confess.
How many times are our wrongdoings swept under the rug to fester in the subconscious or in the shadows of our mind? Consider the harm that does to us who do wrong, carrying the weight of the carnage left by the worm that eats away at our authenticity, our Christ-light and life. Consider the victims of those to whom a wrong or injustice has been done. It’s something outside the victim’s realm of control. Most of the time it’s also nearly inconceivable or so “inappropriate” that they don’t want to risk shame, accusation, disbelief, or social ostracization. The victim, too, might suppress the trauma–be it physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. The victim might be left to wonder why this happened, and if left all alone might fall into despair, forgetting that God is there–the right relationships waiting to be restored. Dr. Marsh described this as the question of the spectator, asking where God is in times of trial, and the request of the believer, the desire for God to show the way forward.
Maybe that’s what we’re running toward: the life of grace and mercy. We may be running toward life in eternity, but we have our relationships here on this side of the Kingdom tagging along. Lord knows we need grace and mercy, and God can pity us. We’ve created a mess for ourselves. We don’t trust one another to have our best interest at heart because we know we put ourselves first, too. If we truly put God first, we would already be living out the reality of the beloved community, the kingdom of heaven. We don’t need the news to tell us how far from the kingdom we are, but I look forward to a time when the news reflects a people united actually running toward God’s promises, when the news reflects us upholding and protecting those who have been victimized and traumatized, when the news reflects a people who value integrity, when the news–no matter what channel you’re on–shares a vision of a common goal we all share. Call it “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” call it “beloved community;” call it “God’s dream for us” or the “kingdom of heaven”; but call it and name it as one goal for us all to unite in so we can run this race together and practice outdoing one another in goodness, giving everything we have to restore one another and all of creation into wholeness to God through Christ.
We don’t have to go anywhere to figure out what it looks like to run toward God’s promises. We recognize our own sins, realize our need for God, and turn to our neighbor in peace. The kingdom of heaven can be here and now, but we’ve still got a long way to go.