It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way!

 

It doesn’t have to be this way!

 

Our reading from James’s Letter this morning is all about prayer: James tells us that prayer has the power to heal, to transform, to guide. Now, my guess is that some folks, as you listened to this passage, you were nodding your heads. I know some folks here who have had experiences of the power of prayer. And my guess is that some other folks here had the exact opposite reaction: as you heard this passage on prayer, you were shaking your heads. For you, this passage was nonsense. My guess is that, at St. Mark’s, we’re not of one mind about the power of prayer.

And that’s OK, because we are rarely of one mind about anything. I think that’s part of our charm, our particular charism: we disagree with each other often, sometimes quite strongly, and yet we still seek to build community together. That said, as an Episcopal church, we do share at least one common attitude towards prayer: we Episcopalians love long, literary prayers. Poetic prayers, with lots of semicolons and nested, dependent clauses. When we pray, we like to speak in a verbose and sophisticated way. But you know, the more I’ve thought about prayer over the last few years, the more I’ve come to believe that prayer really isn’t about what we say at all–it’s not about long, sophisticated statements; or short, emotional pleas; it’s not even about reciting the classical, traditional prayers that have been handed down to us. I don’t think prayer is about talking at all.

Prayer is about listening. It’s about quieting our minds and our hearts enough to hear that “still, small voice” speaking to us, that voice of sheer silence that is God speaking in our midst. Some Buddhists, when asked to describe meditation, use an analogy. They say the the mind is like a pond: if it is full of waves and ripples, its surface is confused. But if it is still, that surface becomes calm and it can reflect something beautiful and true. I think the Christian practice of prayer is similar. We have to still our hearts and minds enough to hear that quiet voice.

Now, I say this–and I think it’s true!–yet I have to admit that I find this hard to do. I rarely manage to really quiet myself enough to listen to God’s still, small voice. But–when I do manage to quiet myself, this is what I think I can hear God saying:

 

It doesn’t have to be this way!

 

In the very opening of Scripture, the first chapter of Genesis, we hear something really important: the creation story. Now, we get easily confused when we talk about this text, because some people want to treat it like an ancient science textbook. But this is a distraction. What matters about this opening chapter is that  God says that our world is “good”. Seven times, God says this: that the creation is good, good, good, good, good, good, good. This is the very foundation of our Scripture, the context for everything else that will come: existence is good.

Yet we know today–just as people living at Jesus’s time, and a thousand years before that did–we know that existence is often not that good. We know that our world is full of suffering, hatred, ignorance, and despair. So Scripture is telling us one thing, and our experience is telling us another. I think, then, that our faith is built on the tension between these two different accounts of our world: on the one hand, we have the hope, the expectation, of the world really being fully and totally good, as God intended. And on the other, we have the world as it actually is now: much less than fully good.

So we navigate between these two poles, trying to live in the world while hoping and striving for a better version of it. And I think, most of the time, we simply accept the world as it is, and focus on getting by in it. And that makes sense. We have to figure out how to survive in this world, how to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. We have to be practical and realistic. We have to seek every advantage we can, to succeed in life.

So we acclimate ourselves to this not-so-good world, and we accept it. We teach our children to live in this world, as it is, because we know that they have to have the skills and and knowledge to survive in this place. We teach them how to achieve every advantage they can. That’s understandable. That’s practical. That makes sense. But–

 

It doesn’t have to be this way!

 

Now, what’s interesting about Jesus’s teachings is that he seems to offer no advantage to us as we live in this world. He teaches us to give and not take. That’s not how you get by in this world; that’s not how you succeed. So what does Jesus offer? If he can’t give us any advantage, why should we listen to anything he has to say? What is he calling us to?

In our Gospel reading this morning, there’s a lot going on. There are three different moments in Jesus’s teaching, and each one of them could spawn a thousand different sermons. But what struck me and stuck with me this week as I read this passage over and over was this last little bit about being “salted by fire”. It’s such an evocative phrase. When I read that, I can picture it: someone throwing down salt to the ground, and then flames leaping up as it lands. It grabbed my attention, it evoked something in me–I just couldn’t figure out what it was evoking.

So I decided to do a bit of research. It turns out that salt was used as a very important symbol in the Hebrew Bible. It stood for potency; it stood for purity. It stood for value–today, you can buy a pound of salt for less than a dollar, but two-thousand years ago, salt was very expensive, very valuable. But it was also essential to human life, so it symbolized well-being and vitality too. Now, all of these rich meanings eventually led the priests at the great temple in Jerusalem to use salt in their ceremonies. Before they offered a burnt sacrifice on the altar, they would cast salt down on the sacrifice, to symbolize its value, its importance. So over time, salt became closely associated with holiness–the holiness of the sacrifices, the holiness of the temple, the holiness of God.

But “holiness” is one of those words that’s often just religious noise, I think. It goes in one ear and out the other. It feels vague and abstract. But originally, “holy” had a very straightforward meaning: it simply meant to be “set apart”. To be holy was to take some part of something and set it apart for some specific task, job, or mission.

Now, we always have to remember that Jesus knew his Bible forwards and backwards, and so his teachings are steeped in the images and stories from Hebrew Scripture. As he told his disciples to be “salted by fire”, they absolutely would have immediately grasped the reference to the temple and the sacrifices, and to the holiness of them both. Jesus was telling them–and is telling us–to be set apart. But, set apart how?

I think we are being told to be set apart from the ways of the world–always seeking advantage, competing for wealth and prestige, exploiting each other, just getting by in this not-so-good world. We are called to be set apart from the ways of the world not to escape it, though, but to transform it. In other words, in telling us to be salted by fire, I think I hear Jesus saying,

 

It doesn’t have to be this way!

 

Jesus is offering us no advantage, no success or gain, but rather a life oriented to truth, beauty, love, and justice. Now, we have to make sure we don’t get it twisted: although Jesus at first only gives this message to his disciples, he then spreads it far and wide: first to other Jewish people, but then even to Gentiles–the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Roman centurion, the Gerasene demoniac. Eventually, this call to be set apart would reach out beyond the eastern Mediterranean, into Africa and Europe. Indeed, listen to exactly what Jesus says in our Gospel passage: “everyone will be salted by fire”! This mission, to be set apart, is not some special mission for some holy elite. It is a call for all of humanity to be holy, to be set apart, to strive to transform this world from its not-so-good current state to the goodness God intended it for–

 

It doesn’t have to be this way!

 

But we have to understand that in calling us to be set apart, to be salted by fire, Jesus is making it clear if indeed it doesn’t have to be this way, we are the ones who have to make it otherwise! He is not telling us to wait around for God to change things. Instead, we must hear that God is calling us to be the ones who transform this world.

Now, it seems to me that any week I preached this sermon, I could reach into the news and find a story that showcased the less-than-goodness of this world. But I have to say that this week, the story that has likely been dominating all of our attention really does bring this sad fact into sharp relief. As we have watched, and listened, and read about the Senate hearings about the selection of the next Supreme Court justice, I think we have a clear story of the brokenness of this world. Now, many of you have spent years working in the federal government, and understand the ins-and-outs of Senate hearings and executive appointments far better than I do, so I won’t pretend to offer any insights into that process. But I will tell you what I have heard.

I’ve heard a story of privilege, of violence, of abuse, of deception. And as the hearings about that story have unfolded, I’ve seen another narrative proceed: a story about people–it’s not just one person–who are willing to sacrifice anyone or anything to gain advantage, to hold onto power: a story about people who don’t care who’s hurt as they secure their success.

My hope and prayer for us as we face our anger, our confusion, and our despair, is that we will find at least a few moments to quiet our minds and our hearts enough to hear that still small voice which still speaks in our midst:

 

It doesn’t have to be this way!