Year B Proper 21: salted with fire

It was bedtime, so I gave the fire a stir to make sure it really was dying down, and of course, as fires are wont to do when stirred up, it sprang back into life.

So the cat and I sat on the mat in front of the fireplace and watched with fascination as it flamed up and ember-glowed and generally did its fiery thing. And I thought of the candles that we light for prayer, and how this was a really big one, and I sat a little longer on the mat with the cat, and we contemplated the holiness of it all.

And I thought of the phrase from the gospel, “salted with fire,” and what it might mean to be seasoned by this stuff that burns and soothes and gives comfort and causes pain and flares up and crumbles to ashes, all in the course of a single evening.

Salt, like fire, needs to be used sparingly. Salt, like fire, is helpful to add spice to life, to liven up flavours, to excite our palates. It cleanses, as fire purifies. It drowns not only flavours but life itself if overused; like fire, it is best kept in check, used in moderation.

A colleague suggested that the fire with which we are salted is the Holy Spirit, and that made some sense. I am worried by the concept of having “too much” of the Holy Spirit, mind you, but I also sense that she might become overwhelming, more than life can bear, if she is poured on rather than sprinkled.

Perhaps that’s why she seems to make herself occasionally elusive.

On a slightly different tack, at the beginning of this piece of the story, John boasts (or worries?) that the disciples have tried to stop unauthorized agents from acting in Jesus’ name, because they do not follow them, because they are not recognized by the named and legitimized disciples of Christ. And Jesus scolds him (or puzzles it out?); no one who acts in my name will be able soon afterward to speak ill of me. If they are for us, they are at least not against us. Why worry?

Too much of the wrong sort of zeal, the wrong sort of seasoning, the wrong sort of salt can harden our attitudes, just as too much sodium hardens the walls of our arteries (as another wise colleague advised).

Fire that burns itself out is no longer useful as fire; like the rest of us, it returns to the earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Salt that has lost its saltiness is no longer useful as seasoning.

Faith that has hardened and crumbled into rectitude and self-righteousness, or resignation and drudgery, has little flavour, little flame, little life left.

By the time I left it, the fire had soothed itself to sleep (as had the cat). Its heat was spent, its light faded, its fuel depleted.

But not gone. There were pieces of fresh wood still waiting for another day, another chance to light the world, or at least one small room of it, on fire. Not all was ash and dust. Not everything had decayed. Not everything was burnt out of fiery potential; not all of the salt had lost its saltiness.

I suppose this is more poetry than theology (although some, like John Keble, would look askance at one who tried to separate the two), and ant metaphor, pressed too hard, will crumble like rock salt, disintegrate like ash.

But there is something hiding in this enigmatic language, something which belies the violent imagery in between, something about second chances, second wind, and the spark of the Spirit which will find tomorrow’s fire and salt tomorrow’s food.

And even those who don’t quite know what they are doing (they do not follow us), or who do it a different way (like I said …), and even those who prefer their food bland (they shouldn’t do it differently, they should follow in our footsteps, fit the mould) will find ourselves salted with fire, surprised by the seasoning of the Spirit.

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