February 6, 2011

On being salt and light

Passage: Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112, Corinthians 2:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20, Matthew 5:13-16

‘You are the salt of the earth; .... ‘You are the light of the world. ... let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven

At one time Toronto was known as “Toronto the good”.  In those days (roughly from the 1880s until 1950) the buildings that towered over the city were churches; St. James Cathedral, Anglican; St. Michael's Cathedral, Roman Catholic; Metropolitan Church, Methodist.  Huge structures all, they rose up above everything else in the city and dominated it.

What buildings dominate Toronto’s skyline now?  Banks.  They are all banks.  Clearly, it's the pursuit of money and the handling of money and the magnification of money that characterises the city now.  Compared to the bank buildings the cathedral churches look like tinker-toys, the playthings of children.  And compared to the pursuit of money and the handling of money and the magnification of money (what the banks are about), what the churches are about looks like – does anyone know what the churches are about?  Does anyone really care?

In 1960 when, the population of Canada was close to 18 million, the United Church of Canada had just over 1 million members; the Anglican Church was close to 1 million.  When you consider that church membership did not include children somewhere close to 15% of Canada’s adult population belonged to these two church bodies; its influence was more significant when you consider that the United Church had over 2.5 million under pastoral care.  It was not much wonder that Canadian Prime Ministers routinely consulted the Primate of the Anglican Church and the Moderator of the United Church on setting social policies.

In 2008 Canada’s population stood at 33 million; the United Church has a membership of 525,673—just over 1 million under pastoral care—and weekly attendance around 193,000.  The church no longer dominates the skyline; membership is declining; the church, in many respects, has been marginalized to societal sidelines. But is this a reason for self-pity?

1. Last Sunday we considered Jesus’ introduction to his sermon on the mount; it contained nine beatitudes.  The first eight address people in the third person; blessed are “the poor in Spirit”, blessed are “those who mourn”, and so on.  There is a grammatical change to the second person in the ninth beatitude; “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

It was to these reviled, persecuted, dumped upon, and falsely maligned people that Jesus said: “You are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world”.  The link between these two sections of Jesus’ sermon is his second person address of his followers who he know would face trouble for believing in him; even as he knew that the cross was looming for him though he was the light of the world.

Consider the situation in first century Rome.  The city of Rome held one million people.  There were only five house churches in it.  A home, in that era, would have held no more than fifteen people.  Five times fifteen is seventy-five.  Seventy-five Christians in a city of one million. Yet the Christians never looked upon themselves as mere trace elements.  The two New Testament books which have to do with the church in Rome are Mark's gospel and Paul's letter to the Romans.  In neither book is there any suggestion of self-pity.  There is no suggestion that those Christians felt themselves handcuffed or useless.

Jesus, in his sermon, is announcing that because he, Jesus, is here the kingdom of heaven is breaking in upon the world—a new reality is come to pass.  Whether a pinch of salt in a large stew of a single lamp in a dark room, Jesus assures his trod-upon followers they are agents of this new reality nonetheless.  Your life, empowered by the Spirit of God through faith, to live reaching for the habits of heart outlined in the beatitudes—humility, purity of heart, mercy and so on—is the in breaking of the kingdom of heaven Jesus announced.

2. Salt’s reputation has fallen on hard times lately.  According to Jeffrey Steingarten's book, The Man Who Ate Everything, we're probably the first generation of earthlings to be paranoid about salt. Some people do legitimately have a low tolerance for salt, and people who already have high blood pressure need to monitor their sodium intake.

Sodium chloride is the only mineral that we human beings take directly from the earth and eat; otherwise tasty food would be dull and lifeless were it not for salt. Perhaps that's why in history some cultures exchanged salt as money. The earliest roads were built to transport salt, the earliest taxes were levied on it, and whole military campaigns were launched to secure salt. Salt is an essential nutrient. Humans, indeed all animals, possess an inherent appetite for salt. Small wonder, then, that salt is the world’s oldest food additive

The effect of salt is principally twofold.  Salt preserves food from spoiling, and salt brings out its richest flavour.  Christians are to be salt in both senses in our society. What we add is meant to inhibit social decay and to bring out, under God, that human richness which is nothing less than his covenant-purpose for us—the very breaking in of the kingdom of heaven.  But salt does this only as salt gets out of the saltshaker and into the stew.  Paradoxically, once the salt is in the stew it has disappeared as salt, it would seem.  But precisely when the salt has been swallowed up it becomes effective.

To say that we Christians no longer have the influence in Canada we once had is not to say we lack effectiveness.  We do lack the kind of power yesterday's church had.  We may be only a pinch of salt now, and we may feel we've been swallowed up.  Certainly we can't program results or engineer success.  But this is only to say that a profounder effectiveness can begin.

The contributions you make to church life, the help you have been giving someone, help which is starting to look pointless—do not be discouraged because it looks small—go on with it.  The smallest amount of salt has measureless effect.  Don't listen to those who say, “It's only a drop in the bucket, so why bother?”  It's not a drop in the bucket at all.  It's salt in the stew.  There’s a world of difference.  A drop in the bucket is a quantitative change of negligible significance; salt in the stew is a qualitative change of incalculable significance.

When we, as a followers of Christ, endeavour to live life in accord with the heart habits of the kingdom—at work, in community life activities, at home—you are the salt of the earth that preserves, that flavours this world with the kingdom of heaven.

3.   Before we look reflect briefly on being the light of the world I offer you a reflection on Jesus word—“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

One of the charges levelled against Jesus—a charge that the Jewish people, including the scribes and Pharisees, were highly sensitive to—was that his teaching diminished, contradicted, or sidelined the law of God given through Moses.  Jesus predicates what he has to say about matters of the law (coming next in the sermon) with this assertion that he came not to abolish but to fulfil—meaning to bring the purposes of the law to complete expression.

He drives the point home with the shocking word about exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  It was shocking precisely because the Pharisees were the good guys; if anybody took seriously the law as a guide for faithful behaviour to God is was the Pharisees.  Christians have, mistakenly, taken Jesus’ few criticisms of the Pharisees and constructed an entire picture of the Pharisees based upon them; the result is a very prejudiced view of the Pharisees that we ought to reject.  Jesus was not critical that they kept the law—“they neglected weightier matters of the law”, said Jesus of some.

Consider the person you think behaves in the most Christian fashion; whose life you think exemplifies how it ought to be done.  Are these acts of righteousness sufficient to get you over heaven’s threshold?  If you asked the people in Jesus day this question about the Pharisees many would have said yes.  Jesus said that unless your righteousness exceeds this it’s not happening.  Are you shocked now?

The word translated “exceeds” here is a word that means “abundance”; we derive our English word plethora from it.  This word is not designed to encourage calculation or measurement—as if by applying Jesus’ teaching I can ratchet my righteousness up a notch or two above “the scribes and Pharisees” such that I am home and cooled out, so to speak.

If the best that those who have the public reputation of being outstanding law-keepers can do is inadequate—according to Jesus—then simply reaffirming the law will not be enough; Jesus is not recommending that the solution is to double-down you efforts and become better law-keepers.  What he is saying is that something further is needed—as he said the Pharisee Nicodemus—you must be born again.

4.  Placing a light in your home is done strategically; typically so it gives light to maximum benefit for seeing.  Like a city on a hill everyone can see it and see by it.  I think that one of the things that Jesus is indicating to his reviled and slandered followers is that they should not let this drive them into hiding—that our faith be an unknown secretive thing.  Yes, Jesus himself avoided certain dangers until Jerusalem—still he came to Jerusalem.  Coptic Christians in Egypt are intimately acquainted with persecution; so much so that to be a Christian is to be prepared to be a martyr for the faith.  We have not faced such things in our part of the world; still there are times when we need to stand up in the face of being reviled or maligned because of our faith.

If today you know what stand you have to take or what step you have to take, then take it.  When you are doing what you are convinced is right and other people are snickering at your supposed naiveness or your supposed simplemindedness ignore them before you doubt yourself.  We aren't in the business of engineering results.  We are in the business of a resilient, confident faithfulness whose effectiveness we can safely leave in God's hands.

On Christmas Eve at the two latter services we share in a liturgy of lighting candles.  We turn the overhead lights off and people spread out around the sanctuary.  A candle is lit from the Christ Candle—our lights are a reflection of the true light of world—and then from one to another we pass this light till all candles are lit whereupon we sing Silent Night.  It a moving moment to see the light we create together.

The gospel show us that we are to take that light into the world—even to places where we might be the only candle burring. The preacher and writer Eugene Peterson was once asked what he would say if he were writing what he knew would be his very last sermon. "In my last sermon, I guess I'd want to say, 'Go home and be good to your spouse. Treat your children with respect. Do a good job at work."

We need to be salt and light in the real world. “You are the salt of the earth; .... ‘You are the light of the world. ... let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven”.