This from a sermon I gave recently at my church, Fleming Road UCC.
38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone[a] casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me,[b] it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell,[c] to the unquenchable fire.[d] 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.[e][f] 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,[g] 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
As I was thinking about this conversation around our gospel reading today, my friend Bruce Baker came to mind. Bruce, or “Bake” as we called him, was the executive director of student ministry non-profit called YFC Campus Life in Lexington many years ago. It was a ministry that I was involved with in high school, it had a huge impact on my life. The relationships that I formed with other students and with the adult leaders of this group helped to shape me in many ways growing up in Louisville.
When I got to the University of Kentucky in Lexington, I was thrilled to learn that this group was starting up in Lexington and I met Bake. Bake and I began a great friendship and a working partnership that established this group, Campus Life, in Lexington and its still going strong 30+ years later.
I thought of Bake because of the title of today’s sermon: “Salty”. Bake was very salty! He was one of those persons that everyone simply loved to be around, he was the go-to guy in Lexington for faith leaders. At the time, he was in his forties (which seemed ancient back then) and really was an established presence in the Lexington community. He was everyone’s friend, yet also not afraid to mix things up a bit.
He was the one who introduced me to the writings of Thomas Merton, the Abbey of Gethesamani, and the importance of Sabbath retreats and rest, and he was at one time a Presbyterian Elder that greatly influenced me in my decision to become Presbyterian!
Bake was also not afraid. He would joke about his willingness to do anything for a dollar. Which he backed up, repeatedly. There were numerous occasions where some of us would dare Bake to do something incredibly outlandish, and to our astonishment, he’d do it. For instance, the time we dared him to climb the water wheel while in line for the Beast roller coaster at the King’s Island Amusement Park. And, in front of hundreds of folks, he did.
But, there were also many times where Bake would go more than the extra mile to support us and to reach out to kids in the projects of Lexington, as well as the wealthy kids in the suburbs that were so lonely. His example pushed me in so many ways.
Bake would also work with anyone willing to love our community and kids. He modeled what it was like to bring different denominations together and faith communities for the common good. Plus, he was committed to Lexington. He had many of what I’d call the celebrity Christian leaders at the time, both conservative folks and progressive folks try to get him to come and work with them. Oftentimes for higher, guaranteed pay and a higher platform. Bake would have none of that, he may have been tempted, but he valued the relationships he had in Lexington too much. He was committed to community, to neighborhood.
Bake modeled so much of what our gospel lesson is sharing. The disciples were trying to get Jesus to recognize how special they were when they tried to stop others from driving out demons. They wanted to be exclusive, in their own identity as disciples. Yet, Jesus shatters that image by saying that whoever is not against us, is for us, that we can’t be so prideful to think we can do this on our own, that we have to recognize that if someone offers to help us, or to give us a gift to refresh us that could encourage us, we should take it.
Bake got that and didn’t position Campus Life to be a siloed ministry. He worked with everyone. That sometimes didn’t help our “brand identity”, but it did help bring the community together.
Bake had a way of focusing on the main thing: Jesus and Jesus’ love for others. I found this quote from an intentional Celtic community that highlights this way of living that fits well:
“We can do worse than remember a principle which gives us a firm rock and leaves the maximum elasticity for our minds: the principle ‘Hold to Christ and for the rest be totally uncommitted’” – Herbert Butterfield
Another example of this is in Springfield Township where I’ve lived going on 18 years. Many of our local faith communities are starting to work together, it’s been so good to see the conversations that have been started. They have all reached out to me since I’ve been here with offers and desires to partner with us and to encourage Fleming Road UCC. The church that I served for 13 years, Northminster Presbyterian, has been great. Their Connect Day invitation to Fleming Road UCC to partner with them, was a great example.
It’s also interesting to think about Bake and his calling to teenagers in relation to this morning’s text. Jesus tells us to welcome all, especially those on the margins of society, those who are overlooked or looked down upon. Children in the 1st century we’re considered non-persons. Jesus is giving them recognition and in this week’s text and he continues with hard language about welcoming children and not causing them to stumble.
This emphasis on children is actually a cornerstone principle here at Fleming Road UCC. As I have been reviewing what we can find of our policies and articles, looking at confirmation classes, what I’ve experienced in these past few months, and the history of the churches merging and recently…and even in your church profile, children are KEY here.
With a background in in youth ministry, I thought of this passage often…I did not want to cause anyone to stumble! But, this passage also says a lot about taking risks. It’s about being vulnerable and entering into friendships with those considered on the outside. The saying in this passage about cutting off your foot or gouging out an eye comes from a common saying in the first century, however, the original proverb said to cut out both eyes or hands! This is an attempt to say that it’s better to lose a part of you than all of who you are, and if you are not reaching out and loving those on the margins well, then you are missing the mark, you are sinning. And, sin is relational…it’s not only present in what you do or are, but what you do not do and who you are not.
Who you are is a wonderful human made in God’s image called to live and love as Christ did and does…to be the body of Christ. The opposite of that is to deny God’s presence and working in your life, which leads to a sense of loss of identity, or hell.
Hell may be real, but it’s an alternate reality. God never intended for there to be a hell. The true reality that God intended is heaven. Heaven is being in God’s Presence. That Presence is expansive, wide, and we can catch glimpses of it everywhere when are eyes are opened to that reality. CS Lewis talks about heaven in his classic fictional book The Great Divorce as being a place of endless wonder and hell being a small crack in heaven. Yet, we, humanity make that crack so much bigger as we settle for lives filled with dysfunction and lies about our true selves as God sees us. So often we live in a place of darkness or hell. God’s love is amazing, it is so amazing that it is overwhelming and to some that’s wonderful, but to others that can be really scary.
Donald Bloesch in his book The Last Things says this: “…hell is being exposed to the light that redeems even when darkness is much preferred. Hell is the incapacity to love even in the presence of love.” You see, the problem is not does God forgives us or love us, but can we forgive and love ourselves and others? We want to hide from God and his love for us behind our insecurities, our comfort, our wealth, our pride…whatever it is that we are holding on to that somehow gives us some false sense of security. We often do not want to be exposed to the light of God’s love that exposes everything for what it truly is, so we often prefer to live in darkness.
Jesus reminds us that we are the salt of the earth. We, as Jesus followers, should be the folks that bring a spark or good seasoning to friendships, to others and to live in peace with each other as Jesus reminds us this morning. If we don’t, if we settle for bitterness, status quo, divisiveness, and remain in the silos of our own lives or churches, then we lose our worth, our salt.
Jesus says that we will be salted with fire in this morning’s passage. It’s interesting, fire burns and it warms. It can bring life or turn it to ashes. Either way, it consumes us. The fire of Jesus’ love does consume us, but it brings us life. I want to be that person.
My friend Bake, and many others over the years, have been that salt in my life. We can be that way with each other, and with the world around us. May we sprinkle that salt to all we encounter…including ourselves!