Activist, Pastor and Theologian Jim Wallis once observed:
“Several Thousand years ago, the writer of the Proverbs warned, ‘where there is no vision, the people perish.’ That ancient warning also applies to our contemporary situation. Without a vision, we are indeed perishing. From the violent carnage of our inner cities to the empty consumerism of our shopping malls, from our shantytowns to our stock exchanges, from the muffled sounds of children in poverty to our twenty second media sound bites, from our toxic wastes to our the our wasted time watching television, from our religion of entertainment to our entertainments of religions, from all the substances we abuse to the economic and political institutions that abuse us – we are a society and culture that has lost its way.” (The Soul of Politics – pp xv-xvi)
There is an uncomfortable truism in this observation. We are a society mo has lost its ways. We yearn for what once was – the simpler way – while we struggle for a quick fix – something easy and simple that takes 3 or 5 or 10 easy steps to attain. If you doubt this yearning, take a look the next time you are in a bookstore, at the self-help section and scan the titles ... people are desperate for something more. They want to unwind some of the hollowness of our culture and find a deeper more significant meaning for the world, our lives, and our very existence.
Even if they lack the right language, what they are embodying, is a deep spiritual hunger. A spiritual hunger for something more than what they see day in and day out on the flickering screens of computers, tvs, cell phones ... something more than what they experience in the malls and shopping centres ... something that feeds the hunger deep within.
The irony for the Modern Church – for us – is that outside in our communities, people are yearning for the very thing we are offering ... our mission and calling as a people is to be The Church, present and real to the world – to proclaim and share the Gospel through our every action, our every word – to share the Gospel through our lives.
But we too have lost our way ...
The challenge we must face and consider is the simple questions of “who are we? And what do we do?”
When I was a Leader of a Beaver troop back in my younger years – Beavers, being the 4-7 crowd of the Scouting movement – we used to begin our weekly gathering by asking the questions: “Who are You? and What do you do?”
The Beaver colony would shout back as loudly as they could – “beavers, beavers, beavers, . Sharing Sharing Sharing.”
If I asked the SAME questions here today, or any day the answer would be stunned and confused silence ... some one might gather the courage to say – “um, we’re the church, and we’re here to ... um ... worship ...” or something like that.
But by and large, we would stand confused, stunned, and likely bordering on the angry that I dared embarass you with such a question ... if we ask the modern church – who are you? and what do you do? Most would be hard pressed to come up with an answer.
Yet, we instill in our children the missions and the objectives of whatever group or team they are on – from Beavers through to Hockey, Soccer, Baseball – we want them to understand the importance of being together, working for a common cause, and GETTING the reason for being there day after day, week after week.
But somewhere along the line, we adults gathered here as “the Church” have lost our way ...
Then we hear a reading like today’s Gospel reading where we are called to be like salt in our world.
We hear that and almost immediately think of a salt shaker ... the white stuff our doctors tell us to cut back on, but that makes food taste so much better. What does it mean to be like salt in our world?
What does it mean to be light to our world?
What does any of this mean, if we’ve forgotten who we are and what we do?
Step one in grasping this metaphor is to appreciate salt as something more than just a simple condiment that flavours our food, and wreaks havoc on our health ... Salt is a very useful and important substance. In its myriad of forms it has many many roles in our world.
The three broad uses of salt involve purity, preservation and flavouring.
In the ancient world, salt was viewed as something pure and perfect. It was one of the elements nature provided, and was offered back in almost every ancient culture as part of the sacrifices given to the gods. Even ancient Judaism used salt in their sacrifices to God. Salt is pure and acts as an agent of cleansing and purification physically and metaphysically.
Salt is also the most common of preservatives. From salt fish, to pickles to Egyptian mummies, the antiseptic qualities of salt were and continue to be used to preserve anything from food to pharohs.
And thirdly, salt brings out flavour in even the most mundane of foods ... popcorn and french fries just don’t taste right without salt ... and how many bowls of soup have we had where we reach for the salt shaker BEFORE we even taste it? Salt makes food taste fuller and better.
And salt had other roles and purposes in the ancient world too. Salt was a commodity that was traded and bartered much like gold and money is used today. In fact, for a time Roman soldiers were paid in salt – hence the origins of the term salary – and salt was regarded as a valuable and precious commodity.
Salt was also used throughout the middle east to seal a covenant between people or parties. Even today, traditions persist that see warring opponents sitting down and sharing a piece of bread sprinkled with salt, as a sign of their new covenant.
Salt, when Jesus stood and challenged his followers to be like it, had many different purposes and uses ... many positive, some negative, but ALL of them relevant and central to their understandings as people, and as a culture.
So, his statement was heavily loaded with meaning. Saying – “be like salt” was not a simple straightforward commendation, it was a statement heavy with implications and meaning.
And that perhaps is part of the problem in the modern era ... when we hear the words: “be like salt”, we want to keep it confined to the glass shaker on our tables that our doctors want us to put away ... we want to keep our calling limited to being a simple condiment, and stay away from that other stuff that sounds complicated and hard ... we are willing to be salt providing it is easy and simple and won’t rock the proverbial boat.
But, unfortunately, that is not what God is calling us to ...
To return for a moment to Jim Wallis, moving forward from the quotation I shared earlier, Jim also observed:
“the poverty of our middle class life is a sign of our crisis. Our shopping mall culture keeps consumers busy in an age of hitherto unknown materialism fraught with culture emptiness, loneliness, anxiety and a fundamental loss of meaning. A most revealing sign of the crisis is the blank, sad, or angry looks in the eyes of the young who congregate both on the wasting corners of urban streets, and in the wasteful corridors of suburban shopping malls. But a moral focus on consumerism makes both liberals and conservatives uncomfortable, perhaps because both sides are so deeply caught up in it.”
Wallis cites an example from an American city where a young man fleeing two others armed with automatic weapons runs through the doors of a downtown church building believing he will be safe there. His pursuers don’t even pause at the doors, but instead begin spraying the interior of the building with gunfire. Later the leaders of the church are indignant as they express their contempt for the sacrilige that was visited upon them. “How dare they treat a Church this way ...” they cry. Yet other church leaders more familiar with the ways of the streets, shrug their shoulders and say – “if the church won’t come into the streets, the streets WILL come into the Church.”
This example underscores both the necessity of the Church to be salt to the world, and the current status of our Church removed, seperated and in many respects irrelevant to the world around us ... we are called to something more. We are called to be salt and light to the world, and it begins by taking seriously our ministry to our communities, and to the people we meet day in and day out.
We are not simply a social club.
We are not just a gathering of people once a week to sing and pray.
We ARE The Church – the body of Christ incarnate and real in the world.
We are THE Church – called to be salt and light to our world.
The first step is to reclaim the visions and dreams that come with our faith. To move out past our wooden doors and to go into the world with the values that are intrinsic to our faith.
The first step is to dare to dream about what COULD be ... youth activities, a bustling Sunday school programme, a strengthened music ministry, better accessibility for our buildings, new people showing up, the return of familiar faces who have wandered off for a time, new forms of ministry and outreach that move us past just Sunday Morning at 9:30/11:00, doing more online to reach those who want more ... the list of possibilities is limited ONLY by our imaginations, and our imaginations are limited ONLY by our willingness, or unwillingness to dream and hope.
So, as a church – as a people of faith – we are called to be salt, and to be salt we must begin to dream about the possibilities and potentials of what we – you and I – can do together as the people of God.
On one level, it’s a daunting task – what if we try something new and it fails? We ask ... and we think more about it, (whatever ‘it’ is) and begin to inventory the possible NEGATIVE consequences, then decide it’s not worth the bother or the risk because it will never work anyway. What we NEED to do instead is dare to dream, and more importantly, dare to take the chance of trying – and YES, we will have failures – some of them will be epic and embarassing – but that’s the risk we have to take, because not only will we learn from our mistakes, we will, for EVERY mistake, have a success too. BUT, more importantly in the eyes of the community and the world around us, the willingness to take chances, to get messy, and to make mistakes expresses the WILLINGNESS to live out what we believe, to move beyond our comfortable sanctuaries, and to reach out into the world with love and care and FAITH.
We WILL have failures, but for every failure we will have success, and even in our failures and our mistakes, we will learn and grow, and we will be regarded as being successful BECAUSE we dared to take the chance and try.
When you ask a colony of Beavers, “who are you? and what do you do?” and they shout back “Beavers, beavers, beavers, sharing, sharing, sharing.” You then encourage them to go out into the world and take chance – to try new things, to explore and learn and grow ... it’s a lesson for ALL of us to consider as we strive to be salt to our world ...
May it be so, thanks be to God – let us pray ...
(Please note: Much of the material from Jim Wallis is from his book 'The Soul of Politics' which is available through a wide variety of sources on line (like abebooks.com) and is well worth having, reading and using. I invite you to consider tracking down a copy and purchasing it - The Souls of Politics is a valuable addition to ANY library.)