| Isaiah 58:1-12
1 Corinthians 2:1-12
1 Corinthians 2:16-16
|Sun, February 7, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Salt. That is the name of one of a Baptist chaplain on the campus of UBC. 'Salt Jones'. I have never met a person named 'Salt' before. I intended to ask him this week just how his Texan parents came to name their son 'Salt'. So, instead, I am left to guess. These days salt is not something we think of fondly. Mostly we are warned to stay away from it ... to cut back on it because too much salt is killing us. And salt is rather ordinary stuff ... commonplace. You can buy it in case lots at Costco for next to nothing. The salting trucks spread it liberally on the roads in the winter to melt the ice. So, when Jesus starts calling us names ... when he says things like 'you are the salt of the earth' ... well we're not so sure what to make of it. Salt? We are the salt?
But then I recall the people in my life whose names are 'salt'. I remember that first pastoral charge of seven churches. And I remember the problems ... the problems in the staff team ... and the bitterness within the church council ... and the struggles with the presbytery. But, after nearly twenty years, mostly I remember Joan and Bill ... and Ed and Muriel ... and others like them. I still think of them as the salt of the earth. I can never forget the way in which they took a young preacher and his family under their wing ... and loved and respected us. When I think of them I don't think of the salt that comes out of the salt shaker. Instead, I think of the salt licks that you see when you drive up into the Cariboo. There, out in the middle of the fields, is a great block of salt ... rock salt ... and usually there are one or two head of cattle stopping to lick ... to receive the life-giving salt without which they would die. And I think of all of you ... and of all of the ways in which you, too, are the salt of the earth. How many people have come to know that you are ever-present for them ... a life-giving presence, a rock who can be relied upon ... the salt of the earth? There are many ... many people who call you folks the salt of the earth. Trust me. I know. They are your children ... and your parents ... and even your spouses. They are your friends ... and your neighbours ... your co-workers and your colleagues. Do you see what I see? In each chair ... a rock ... salt ... the salt of the earth. Jesus has given you the name: 'Salt'!
Notice that Jesus doesn't say to his little flock: "You must become the salt of the earth". He says "You are the salt of the earth". Saltiness is not something to be acquired ... it is something to be and to be becoming. It is a part of the very nature of what it means to have been caught up in Jesus' band of disciples. It is as if he says: "Guess what ... you can't help it ... if you haven't already noticed ... you are the salt!". This, of course, can come as a great surprise to us. It comes as a surprise for those of us who signed onto the church thinking that being a Christian was the thing to do. Because, you see, when everyone was a Christian then being 'salty' wasn't really in the cards. It is hard to be a distinctive, salty presence in a bowl of salt! Of course, many people still imagine that the nation is a 'Christian' one. A recent poll suggests that eighty-three per cent of Canadians think that it is quite possible to be a good Christian without belonging to a church or christian community of any kind. Which makes one wonder ... what is their definition of 'Christian' anyways? As best as I can figure it, most of us have come to equate being 'Christian' with being 'a nice, caring, thoughtful Canadian'. And, of course, it is possible to be a nice person without going to church. Thank God for that! But be a Christian without being connected in some real way with Jesus' band of disciples ... and with all of their struggling and grumbling and wondering and working? Be a salty and distinctive 'rock' without tasting the 'salt' of life oneself? How quickly the saltiness intended by Christ can become dilute ... how easily it loses its taste ... how sadly that committed lives become bland and insipid. This is not the way it is to be for 'the salt of the earth'.
My hunch is that this is what brings many ... most ... even all of us here. We come back again and again because we find salt here ... life-giving salt. There is something distinctive, something unmistakeably different about this place and this people. There is something that we experience and receive here, together, that we cannot find anywhere else. Maybe we should consider changing the name of the 'Chapel of the Epiphany' and replace it with the one word: 'Salt'. Maybe these rocks are not granite after all ... maybe they are rocks of salt! As my friend Mike in Virginia reminded me this week, the greek version of this verse sounds better when read in the south. There it reads: "All y'all are the salt of the earth". When Jesus says 'you are the salt' we are tempted to think that he is speaking to each and every individual. But, in truth, he speaks first to 'all y'all'. The salt of the earth is the community of disciples who he calls to live a distinctive life together. They will be the life-giving salt ... the distinctive presence of God's kingdom come in the world. I am not the salt of the earth ... each of you is not the salt of the earth ... we together are the salt of the earth.
Which brings us to the central issue facing us ... and facing the whole church. It is the question which we will struggle to answer with our lives for the rest of our lives. Now that our church is no longer the moral center and foundation of Canadian society ... now that citizenship in Canada no longer equals being 'Christian' ... who are we? What is distinctive in the life of the Christian community? Just what does our 'saltiness' look like and taste like? I don't know if you have noticed it yet but this is a recurring theme around here these days. The five letters which I sent your way from Atlanta all wrestle with the question of what it means to be the church - to be salt - in our culture. And at the meetings of our church board this spring we are rediscovering the five ancient 'marks' of the church ... the five 'salty' features of a Christian community. They are: 'koinonia' (the common 'coinage' or 'currency' of Christian life ... loving community); 'kerygma' (proclamation in word and deed of the good news that God redeems and saves); 'didache' (learning about discipleship throughout life); 'liturgia' (worship that praises God and informs life) and 'diakonia' (sacrificial service within and beyond the Christian community). Like the five fingers on a hand these five marks together have, from ancient times, provided a way of describing the fullness of a Christian life ... the life of a 'salty church'. When the pollster asks "Are you a Christian?" we want to know: in your life as a disciple of Jesus is there loving community ... and gospel proclamation ... and lifelong learning ... and transforming worship ... and sacrificial service? If so, then that's 'Christian' ... that's the salt of the earth.
And here's something that is very fascinating to me. Perhaps you have noticed it, too. Last year we went through a long and careful process to develop a statement of our congregation's mission and shared vision. And the process continues now as we review what we developed then ... and consider what these statements mean for us now. But what I find fascinating is the six vision statements which we finally settled on out of all of the ideas and suggestions and passions that people brought with them to the discussion. We didn't look these up in a book ... or have them handed to us by an expert. We sorted and talked and wrestled with our visions for this community and our understandings of what it means to be a Christian community here and now. In the end we said that, for now, there are six key areas ... six shared priorities ... on our agenda as a congregation: shaping and participating in worship that transforms; learning to extend surprisingly gracious hospitality to newcomers and strangers; continuing to grow as a community that cares deeply for one another; becoming significantly involved in ministry to and for the university; encouraging and enabling everyone in our congregation to grow in wisdom and knowledge of the faith; developing meaningful avenues of sacrificial service locally and globally. Did you notice? Did you notice how closely those five ancient 'marks' of the church correspond to these six new visions for our congregation? They are all there - a community of koinonia ... a ministry of proclaiming 'kerygma' ... 'didache', teaching and learning for everyone ... 'liturgia', liturgy that is life giving ... And a 'diaconal' community of sacrifice and service. Can I let you in on something? I do not believe that this is a coincidence. I think that it is no accident that our vision statements reflect the ancient marks of the church. Because, you see, salt is salt. In the end, if we are the church we don't need to be told what the marks of the church are ... we will know them instinctively. And we do.
But there is one thing. Notice that the vision statements all begin with the words 'we hope'. We considered using the words 'we are' or 'we do' but, in the end, chose the words 'we hope'. Why? Because while we feel sure that these are marks of a faithful Christian community we also know that, this side of the kingdom of heaven, we fall short. And if we forget that this is the case then it isn't long before someone reminds us that it is so. Take Paul this morning. Just when you had begun to think that one of the marks of a good church is fine preaching ... alright just when I had begun to think that one of the marks of the church is fine preaching ... Paul comes along to debunk that misplaced idea. Be careful, he argues, lest you come to believe in the gospel because of a silvery tongued preacher who doesn't use notes and seems utterly persuasive. Better that you hear the gospel from a stammering, poorly spoken, unread preacher who is obviously not a very good one ... because then it will be clear that you believe in the God revealed in Jesus Christ on the cross. And if that weren't enough, Isaiah also speaks a word of dissent today. Isaiah answers a people who worship in fine style. They have the best of everything ... the best of music ... the best of architecture ... the best of prayers ... but they do not have the best of God. Why? What is wrong with their fasting ... their liturgies ... their holy acts? 'It is your lives', answers Isaiah. 'God is not much interested in your fasts or your liturgies or your holy acts. God is interested in having you share your bread with the hungry and welcoming the homeless into your house'. Both Paul and Isaiah point to the central marks of God's people ... the marks of shared suffering in the hands of Christ. These are the central marks of a community whose mission is to live in a 'vibrant relationship with God' and which lives as 'servants of Jesus Christ in the world'.
While waiting for the photocopier to finish its work in the VST library these week I scanned the journals, looking for something interesting. There, in a small mennonite journal, I found words from John Howard Yoder that I cannot seem to shake: "the people who bear crosses", says Yoder, "are working with the grain of the universe". Do you know how frustrating it is to work 'against the grain' on a piece of wood? So much of life feels as though it is lived 'against the grain' ... an uphill battle ... one step forward, two steps back. And, most people assume, never more so than when sharing the burdens and sufferings of others. But, says Isaiah, bearing with and for the hungry and homeless and naked and oppressed is what God is up to in the world. Yes, says Paul, it is on the cross that God is bearing the suffering of the world in order to redeem life and make it whole again. See, says Jesus, 'you are the light of the world'. All y'all who bear one another's burdens and who welcome in the outcast and who live your life together as an act of praise to God ... you are the light that the world so desperately needs and wants to see.
"Remember who you are!". William Willimon, dean of the Duke University Chapel, says that when he was a teenager his mother would say those words to him every time he left the house on a date or for an evening out with his friends. "Remember who you are!" It was not, he says, that she was afraid that he would forget his name or misplace his driver's licence. It was her "maternal benediction", her way of reminding him that he belonged to a distinctive family ... with a peculiar way of life. Jesus says to his church: "You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world." Remember who you are.