February 5, 2017

On Tastiness and Visibility

Passage: Isaiah 58:1-9a, Psalm 112:1-9 1, Corinthians 2:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20
Service Type:

When someone taps you on the shoulder and asks you to consider serving on a church committee or council do you feel like running to find some where to hide? Someone once defined a committee as a gathering of important people who singly can do nothing, but together can decide that nothing can be done. Another lover of committees said that a committee is a gathering of the unable, appointed by the unwilling to do the unnecessary. This is not very encouraging word to hear from our minister on the Sunday we covenant with our council and committees to support them in their work, is it?

We wonder sometimes about the effectiveness of what we do in church life. We see that our congregation has diminished in size from what it was a few years ago. Year by year the finance committee manages the growing challenge of making ends meet. The average age of our congregation keeps going up and frailties of age sidelines us from taking up tasks we once did with energy. Yes, we are grateful for all that is being done and the manifold blessings God is enabling among us still. But we wonder if our efforts will one day bear the fruit of growth and a Sunday school overflowing with children.

Think of 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.

Our Lord’s sermon on the mount begins with the great hope for people held out in the kingdom of God. Blessing was promised to the weak and impoverished. The first eight beatitudes declare blessings using the third person—i.e, blessed are those who mourn. The ninth beatitude changes to using the second person pronoun; Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

This ninth beatitude has a beleaguered group in mind. And yet it is with these people in mind that our Lord’s sermon continues. “You are the salt of the earth. … You are the light of the world.” It is our identity in Christ that makes all the difference. The circumstances do not determine our role in kingdom work. Once we have decided that we can only be salt and light many things fall into place. It is our Lord who guarantees the effectiveness of our witness for his purposes of salvation. We are freed from the concern with results and success, gloriously free to stand by our Christian conviction. Ridicule and persecution do not diminish the role our Lord has in mind for us as salt and light.

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. The Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, is a remarkable exhibit. You walk into a room that appears to have thousands of burning candles surround you; using mirrors that whole room is lit with just two burning candles. A small light will pierce great darkness.

The great Anglican preacher John Stott, in a sermon on this text of salt and light, wrote, “We must repent of Christian pessimism and reaffirm our confidence in the power of God.” The “you” in the text, “You are the salt of the earth; .... ‘You are the light of the world,” is plural. It has both individual and collective application. The church is to be this salt and light. When you add your voice to sing in the choir, or give your work to take care of the church property, or bring food for coffee hour, or greet the door, or serve the worship committee, you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Your singing lifts praise to God, your care of the property witnesses that worship is important, bringing refreshments supports the fellowship that promotes faith, greeting at the door is a witness that God welcomes people, a committee that organizes these efforts for what feels like a seamless worship service witness to our conviction that God wants to speak to people. “You are the salt of the earth. … You are the light of the world.”

It is good for us to be reminded of a theological appreciation of the communal reading aloud of Scripture. Public speaking of, and harkening to, the words of Scripture express the church's faith that God continually speaks his word of salvation, through his chosen historical voices, to his people gathered in prayer. Liturgical recitation of Scripture draws attention to the leading role of the acoustic, or oral-aural dimension, of God's intercourse with his human creatures throughout its recorded history: revealing his purposes, judgments, and intentions to them; summoning, inviting, commanding, convicting, and assuring them; giving them a common social and political identity within the created world.

2. Our identity as salt and light informs how we perceive what we do as believers; it offers that profound sense of motivation that inspires. It also informs our doing. We gather and in our worship and study and prayer we are shaped by the gospel. We are to live this in the world. We are salt and light as we go. That sacrifice you were going to make just because it is the right thing to do, but were hesitating over because it might not result in something big and splashy—make it anyway. The help you have been giving someone, help which is starting to look pointless—go on with it. That capitulation you have been rationalizing for the past six weeks; a capitulation which would sabotage so much of your integrity, even leave you not knowing who you are—resist it. The smallest amount of salt has measureless effect. A small light strategically placed can give light to everyone in the room.

Arthur Simon, founder of the international organization Bread for the World, believes that all aspects of our lives need to be touched by Christ. His father, who grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, taught him: "Even the cows should know you are a Christian by the way you treat them." This illustrates the significance of Jesus’ comment about the tastiness of salt—if we lose our savour then we will not have the preserving effect of salt that our Lord intends.

This identity that we have in Christ as salt and light has corporate implications as well as individual. It is an identity that we are to live out together. This role as salt and light was the one God intended for his people Israel. Our Lord gathers up his people in the church into this role as well. The late Archbishop William Temple noted that the church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.

There is a public role that is particularly underlined in our Lord’s intention for us to be light. The light isn’t to be hidden but to be visible so it can do its work. The church building with its spire pointing upward beyond us to God, witnesses; a church that is seen to have people coming for worship, witnesses. Announcing services, inviting people, maintaining a weekly worship service all witness that light has come to our world in Jesus Christ.

Robertson Davies, a novelist and playwright who never pretended to be a theologian, insisted that there is nothing more pitiable, nothing more pathetic, and nothing more irrelevant, than a church that tries to be relevant. A church that tries to be relevant, said Davies, holds up its finger to the wind, and then hoists its own sail to be blown in the same direction as everyone else. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, a congregation certain of their superior spiritual knowledge, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

The Apostle Paul’s heart and mind thrilled with the gospel of our Lord’s life given for us; he knew it glories were beyond human comprehension alone. “What not eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” We cannot ever exhaust the wonder of our Lord’s love in a lifetime of Sunday worship.

3. It this last segment of today’s message I leave you with a story that illustrates the way our witness—even what we might consider a meager witness at that—can bear fruit in ways we cannot imagine. The way salt can permeate or a light still shine even when much appears to diminish its effectiveness.

In 2004 an article in The New York Times Magazine by writer Dana Tierney talked about the faith of her then four-year-old-son named Luke under the title Coveting Luke's Faith. In the article Tierney described how both she and her husband John had rejected their childhood faith. They had their son Luke baptized to placate their families, but that was it. When Dana's husband went to Iraq as an imbedded reporter, she was understandably fearful. But she was surprised at how calm four-year-old Luke was. She assumed that it was just youthful naiveté, until one day when they were watching a TV interview with a U.S. soldier who was sharing his fears about returning to Iraq. For just an instant, Dana saw Luke form his hands to pray. When she asked him about it, Luke at first denied it, but after he did it a second time, he confessed that he had been praying.

Dana was stunned, partly by Luke's faith, and partly by how his faith allowed him to be calm and her lack of faith caused her to be fearful. She was also embarrassed that her four-year son instinctively knew that praying for his dad was socially inappropriate.

When Dana asked Luke when he first began to believe in God, he said, "I don't know. I've always known he exists." Throughout the article Dana never patronizes believers. At one point she described how many of her non-religious friends feel freed from religion as if they've been liberated from superstition. Not Dana. She feels like she is missing out. As Dana explained, "My friends and relatives who rely on God—the real believers, not just the churchgoers—have an expansiveness of spirit. When they walk along a stream, they don't just see water falling over rocks; the sight fills them with ecstasy. They see a realm of hope beyond this world. I just see a babbling brook. I don't get the message.

Tierney concluded her article with this:

“After I saw Luke praying for his father in Iraq, I asked him when he first began to believe in God. ''I don't know,'' he said. ''I've always known he exists.'' My husband did return from Iraq safely, but if something had happened to his father, Luke would have known Dad was in heaven, waiting for us. He doesn't suffer from a void like the anguished father in Mark 9:23-24: ''Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth./And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.'' For Luke, all things are possible. At the end of his life, he will be reunited in heaven with his heroes and loved ones, Mom and Dad and George Washington, his grandparents and Buzz Lightyear. Luke's prayers can stretch to infinity and beyond, but I am limited to one: Help thou mine unbelief.”

Last December I presided at the funeral of a friend; we had become friends in our common work as board members of a local non-for-profit organization. One day he told me of how, in hindsight, he could see that God had been calling him to faith through people and events throughout the course of his life. He even thought that our friendship—he with me—forged in this common work around a boardroom table, was one such instance of God calling him home to faith. I am convinced there are many who experience something very similar.

Never underestimate the wonder and glory of being salt and light in the service of our Saviour. The results we leave with the One who called us to himself and made us his own. “You are the salt of the earth; .... ‘You are the light of the world.”