In both the Gospel reading from Mark and the epistle reading from James, we’re coming to the end of a series of teachings about living life together in community. This ninth chapter in the Gospel according to Mark ends with Jesus’ bidding to “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” The part about being at peace with one another is pretty clear – do what it takes to leave peaceably together, to get along together – not always the easiest thing to do! – but the meaning is clear. But the part about having salt in yourselves? That may take a bit of unpacking. What does it mean to have salt in yourselves?
Consider two qualities of salt, two uses of salt: to preserve and to season. Maybe what Jesus is asking of us here – as it applies to getting along with each other is: First, to do whatever it takes to preserve your life together; and also to do whatever it takes to season your life together, to enliven your life together, to enhance your life together. Do you get the general idea of what Jesus may be asking here when he says “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another”? Again, this is not always the easiest thing to do – to live together as a community, in our case as a parish family – in vibrancy and in peace.
The Letter of James also deals with how to live together, and James’ words of wisdom tend to be pretty concrete and practical and direct. Unlike the gospel teaching about “being salt” or “having salt in ourselves” which carries a hidden meaning, James’ letter reads more like a how-to-manual. Practical advice for specific problems.
Over the past couple of weeks we’ve touched on bits and pieces of James’ wisdom. One week the focus was on how we hurt each other with our words – and the damage that gossip can do within community relationships. The message? Avoid judgmental gossip.
And last week the subject was ambition, specifically selfish ambition – allowing our own ego-driven desires to come first in our lives. Selfish ambition destroys our relationships with God and with community. The message here? We need to check the intention behind our actions. This means an honest self-examination of conscience.
This week the focus in James’ letter is on trouble that’s brewing in his own community because of sin and sickness. Sickness in this case is not necessarily the physical kind of illness. It could also be spiritual sickness – the kind of sickness that leaves us disconnected from God, leaves us in a place where we don’t seem to be able to prayer, leaves us restless, leaves us feeling alone, isolated, disconnected from both God and community. This is when things fall apart; divisions and distrust brew up in community relationships. What can we do for community and for each other at this point? And especially: what do we do about people in the family that we just don’t like – those that we’ve had a bad history with – the people who “push our buttons” . . .
James is clear and direct in his spiritual advice. He spells out five practical actions that will set us on the route to forgiveness and reconciliation. He tells us: to pray – to sing – to call on the elders of the Church . . . He tells to confess to each other – and he urges us to go out and bring outsiders back to community, back to the Church.
A brief comment about a couple of these: first a comment about confession. The confession James is recommending here is not just private confession, although that’s where it starts, of course; and it’s not just confession to God, although that’s where it ends up. Forgiveness comes to us as God’s grace. But often the track to getting to God lies through each other. Sometimes that means that we must directly ask forgiveness of another person whom we have hurt. Or sometimes it may mean confidentially sharing our guilt – with a trusted friend or with a priest in the sacrament of confession. Whatever the route . . . forgiveness involves the repairing of relationship – actually the repairing of three relationships: our relationship with self, our relationships with others, and our relationship with God.
First of all, reconciliation with self means naming what’s wrong – and then once we begin to see it, we must come to accept our role in it – claim our responsibility in what went wrong. After we’ve come to this self understanding, we can then turn to reconciling our relationship with others, asking forgiveness of another if appropriate – or making amends. This is the confession that involves coming out in the open with some one else. And by this point we’re well on the way to knowing God’s forgiveness. Complete reconciliation involves all three: relationship with self, relationship with fellow human beings and relationship with God.
A second action James recommends: When we’re sick we are to call the elders of the community for prayers and anointing – and to that I would suggest that you add the request that the elders bring communion. This is a practical and direct reminder. If you are ill, if you must go into the hospital, please call us. You can call me directly (if you don’t have one of my cards yet, feel free to pick one up in the Narthex.) Or call Deacon Margaret. Or call the church office to get a message to us. We want to reach out to you, to visit you – when you need our help . . .
And last, I offer a few comments about prayer. James urges us go to God in prayer when we are in pain – suffering either physically or spiritually. Ask for His healing, knowing that healing can come on different fronts, physically or spiritually or both. And pray for God’s strength to carry you through whatever pain you are facing, knowing that God has promised that we will never be alone.
Pray also when you are cheerful – the prayer of gratitude. James tells us that thankfulness is the antidote to the blackness and the heaviness of many maladies – envy, jealousy, mistrust – all the things that so easily and immediately divide our community.
A couple of weeks ago I introduced a prayer for our St. Nathaniel’s community. Again today I ask you to support St. Nathaniel’s in your prayers. Use the prayer cards if you like – they’re in the pew racks and in the Narthex. Prayer is one way to give back to your parish community – a family that loves and supports you. At St. Nathaniel’s prayers are going up for you already. In a few minutes we will pray for all who have requested our prayers in the Prayers of the People. The Daughters of the Kingdom pray daily for those who are sick – and all of you are being held up in prayer personally by the clergy and lay leaders of St. Nathaniel’s.
In closing I want to turn our attention back to James – and his five practical actions for building community relationships through reconciliation with self, with others and with God: Prayers to God in our suffering – praise to God in gratitude – calling on the elders of the Church when we need their help – confession to one another – and reaching out to outsiders who are separated from Jesus Christ and His Church . . .
Now, I leave you with these questions: Can you hear God calling you somehow in all this? If so, how will you respond?