(for contextual notes about this passage in the arc of Mark’s Gospel, see the end of this sermon)
Picture this: Jesus and his disciples are traveling on a hot and dusty road from Galilee – the territory in the north where he was raised and where he has been teaching and healing – to Jerusalem, the holy city in the south that is the center of Jewish faith and practice. He has deliberately set out to go there, “setting his face towards Jerusalem,” knowing full well its dangers, and the opposition he is certain to face there.
Along the way, he has revealed to his disciples that he must suffer and be put to death by his enemies, but that God will raise him to life again. These words confuse and frighten them and they repeatedly demonstrate their failure to understand not only the meaning of this prediction, but also who he is and what he has been teaching them. They seem not to have grasped at all the concept of the “kingdom” of which he has been speaking – an “upside-down kingdom” in which the first are last and the last are first, in which to lose one’s life is to gain it, and in which the greatest is the servant of all.
Just now they have been arguing amongst themselves over who will be the greatest in the kingdom which they are sure he will establish once he arrives in Jerusalem and defeats his foes. Jesus corrects them and tells them plainly that in God’s kingdom “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then, we are told, “he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’” (Mk 9:35-37). For Jesus, children are a sacrament of God’s presence and of his presence and are therefore to be protected and loved.
Although it doesn’t seem possible, this is already the fifth year of our Monastic Internship Program, in which we invite young people to live alongside us to share our rhythm of life: prayer, worship, work, service, life in community. We have the largest group ever this year: a total of eight, four here and four at Emery House. They come from Australia, Colorado, Texas, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, New York, Maryland and right here in Massachusetts. The program is for me a source of great joy and satisfaction. One of the deeply gratifying things about it is the sense that in participating in the spiritual formation of young people we are participating in the future: the future of the Church, the future of the world.
The internship program is also a source of continual amazement: this year’s group is nothing like any other year’s. Each group of interns has brought to our life a unique combination of qualities and gifts, its own particular vitality, its own particular flavor, its own savor, its own particular “salt”. Jesus is talking about salt today: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” [Mark 9: 49-50]
This may be one of the more obscure sayings of Jesus. Sometimes I think he must have taken pleasure in leaving people scratching their heads. Be salted with fire? Have salt in yourselves? “You are the salt of the earth…” [Mat. 5:13] Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another?