When I was growing up I was taught at home that the most important thing, perhaps the only important thing, was education and knowledge. That is certainly a good thing, and one that formed the basis for the ethical and charitable acts which we, who were poor and struggling, gave freely. I rarely was in one school more than a year or two, as I was sent to a succession of private and boarding schools. I only now wonder how they could afford it. And probably that moving around was my grandmother’s annual search for a new scholarship for my schooling. They are all gone now, so I will never know. What I lacked was a stable community, the ordinary things like childhood friends or the memories of a rite of passage such as a prom. What I think motivated this hunger for knowledge was a way for upward mobility. Social elitism was out of our realm. We had neither status nor money. But with knowledge there might be a chance for me to rise from poverty and want. Not that my people weren’t educated. They were. We had our share of doctors and musicians and writers, but we had fallen on hard times. I am thankful for the good I got from their struggle for me. And if I hadn’t had it, I would have lost much of what makes me, me. But I have discovered that in the Gospel, and in faith, there is only one thing that is of worth above all others. I was drawn to a life of prayer, a call to obedience, to gratitude, and love of God and faith in Jesus. He tried to teach that gaggle of sometimes very human, very flawed companions around him about that one thing. It supersedes competition and the need to win. Who shall be first and who shall be last was a question which Jesus’ closest disciples wrestled with. It is nice to be first, favorite, recognized as special. But all those needs are stumbling blocks to the way to Life and Light, the Way of being his servant.
Today’s Daily Office Gospel (Mk 9: 42-50) gives me the shudders. Self mutilation? Yes, I know what the point is. Yes, I know that the first century, and even in some places today, juridical mutilation and blinding are real. Even the image of drowning, weighted down with a millstone, is horrible. Often when Jesus uses hyperbole it is funny, even hilarious. A camel being spaghettified through the eye of a needle (Mk 10:25)! That is a knee slapper. You won’t forget the cost of being rich after that image is burned into your brain. And all the word games Jesus throws at the very smart, elite, and over educated scribes and Pharisees? They are confusing to make them think a new way. Sometimes he is the good teacher, firm, blunt, but it also shows how deeply he cares for the souls he has been given. “Get behind me Satan,” for example, could also read, “Peter, wake up.” But cutting of your limbs? He is being serious, even angry. If you were around him that day and you were not getting the message, here it is. Pay attention. This is important. Be maimed and a beggar, useless to a society that isn’t well set up to care for the infirm, rather than miss the point that Jesus is teaching. But what is it about, this stumbling block? In Jesus name, we must protect the little ones, the children, both in age and in status. The vulnerable. The poor. The powerless. He was talking to his disciples as they wrestled to break free from that mindset that is still familiar, who is first, who is entitled? Fail to bring a child a cup of water and you fail to show that child Jesus’ love and mercy. Or that you belong to him.
My upbringing did give me the moral courage to support the little ones. But it was prideful, even arrogant. We knew something you didn’t, but we can sweep in and fix you. What Jesus had to teach me is that he came to be one of the vulnerable, the poor, the powerless. He, who was God, put himself right in the muck with his little ones. He came to save us all, and in the fullness of God’s mind, we all are little ones. Yes, the rich and mighty can grant political favor, even life and freedom. That is at the core of today’s struggle about balancing entitlement to include those of color and gender. But let us not forget that Jesus is not asking us to shift our entitlement from one elite group to another. It is not a matter of excluding rich, educated, white males and favoring the poor, people of color, women, and LGTQ+. It is about including all of us, because we are all little ones. And we all deserve that cup of water when we thirst. This is a lesson about the salvation of our souls. And it was a lesson especially important to his closest disciples. As it is for us. Because we are his current generation of disciples. We carry his Gospel. And we must never forget that our words and actions have repercussions. We can be the worst of the stumbling blocks. And if you doubt that, I give you the so call Christian Nationalist movement. Or the harshness of biblical literalist. But even in a less extreme case, in our everyday ministry with our own parish family, we can be petty, judgmental, cruel, forgetting that God is in charge, and preaching humility isn’t just a way to have power over the weak. We are all flawed, and deep down a little afraid, struggling, hungry for God’s love.
What does it mean for salt to lose its saltiness (Mk 9: 49-50)? Mark’s church certainly was salted with fire, like dried-out salted smoked fish. Perhaps it is a reference to the sacrifice which Mark’s people had to endure for the Gospel. Another way of saying, pick up your cross and follow? Salting a wound is painful, but sterilizing. Drying and salting food was a common way to preserve the perishable. Remember those few fish in the loaves and fishes? It is unlikely that those fish were fresh caught and dragged around in some young man’s backpack, but as fish jerky they were food. Christ’s food for his people. Blocks of salt are still quarried and carried by camel to market, a necessary commodity. But that is pure salt, and very expensive. The salts which lie on the shore of the Dead Sea are not pure NaCl, table salt, but a mixture of mineral salts of other elements, tasteless, even dangerous. But they are free for the poor. Are we pure salt? Or adulterated salts? This is an appeal for righteousness, to be oneself, but a self that is pure in that it is turned in obedience to God and faith in the word of Jesus. Have salt in yourself and be at peace with one another. Be faithful, loving to all, bound to each other in the salt of the Spirit. If we know our saltiness, that we are the salt of the earth, serving God in peace with each other, we are the living Gospel, the Body of Christ. If we are salt, we aren’t that stumbling block. We proclaim the living water of Christ. We are carrying the one thing, the Truth and Life of the Gospel.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.