Epiphany 5A, 2011
Matthew 5: 13-20
A Liturgy is also available
SALT, LIGHT... STUFF OF THE CHURCH
Much debate and discussion has taken place over the years as to what is the role of the church.
The ‘church’ in a universal sense.
The ‘church’ in the local expression called a congregation.
And The Uniting Church always seems to be in the middle
of one of those discussions.
Discussions about restructuring... Always!
I think ideally some feel all this restructuring talk will
enable the Uniting Church to more resemble
the kingdom/realm/empire of which Jesus spoke about.
I reckon the causes have more to do with dwindling resources,
an outdated theology, and the rate of change in the world.
Let me digress…
If everything changes, then change too must change.
For instance, each generation finds itself further removed from its predecessor.
The gap between children and their parents
is always a little wider than it had been
for parents and their parents (Friedman 2009:10).
The same can be said for ‘church’.
During this time of continuing change,
what will guide us in our understanding of 'church’?
And our theology?
It will be tempting to look back. Many do, to the so-called ‘good old days’!
But as historical beings we are not just nourished by our past.
We actually live in the present, a new present,
“qualitatively different from any of our human pasts” (Kaufman 2006:106).
It will also be tempting to do nothing, lest we
upset someone or their pet likes or dislikes, or power structures.
Both of these are inappropriate, really.
So where are our guides amid these calls for change or redefinition?
What will shape our new present which is
qualitatively different from our past?
Perhaps today’s stories, which hint at common
everyday life in first century Palestine, and as told by
the storyteller we call Matthew, can be a guide,
or at least offer a couple of suggestions or signposts.
The images of the ‘church’ as light or salt,
as eagerly grabbed hold of by many church leaders, seem to be
in sharp contrast to much of our modern mega-church or mission thinking.
For these sayings appear to uncover something of the
indirect and hidden nature of the church.
That is, they reveal a way in which the life of a faith community
should seek to express itself. Rather than calling attention to itself,
a church or congregation or a ‘follower of Jesus’,
is most effective when it/they are not noticed (Reid 2001:61).
Likewise, they also make it clear ‘church’ cannot exist alongside of,
or in separation from, the community that
surrounds and feeds us as human beings.
So let’s play with this for a while.
Some years ago, probably longer than both he or I would wish to recall,
retired Melbourne theologian and educationalist, Denham Grierson,
published an important book called, A People on The Way.
It was a study of ‘congregation, mission and Australian culture’.
And I can remember at the time, I urged every elder
and every parish councillor
and every lay preacher
and every minister, to read it and study it.
Grierson picked up the three biblical images of light,
salt and yeast and said they provide
“a theological foundation for a local congregation as it seeks to define its mission”.
He then went on:
“That mission is best understood as a continuing persisting presence... Much of the witness of the local congregation (will be) of the kind that is hidden within the fabric of community”.
A continuing persisting presence… Hidden, you might say, like salt?
Just enough salt and we say ‘this steak is juicy and tender’.
Too much salt and we spit it out and complain.
And reaching for the Dymo machine
to get the labeling correct on those kitchen canisters!
The salt is not detectable if it is doing its job.
Its effects are.
Grierson, also being a storyteller, digs into his local history
and tells a ‘salt’ story… Let me tell that story...
During the post war years in the 1940s in Australia
a small but determined Catholic woman heard of the
sickness of aged neighbours in small houses in her street.
South Melbourne, the suburb where she lived, was
hard hit by strikes and unemployment.
Many people were sick because of poor nutrition,
and unable to act because of advanced age.
So Mary Kehoe mobilised some of her friends and
they cooked meals for those who were ill.
The problem arose as to how to carry the meals to those in need?
A solution was found in the use of an old pram.
The meals were loaded into the pram,
and pushed up the street to the houses of the unwell and needy,
and to a canteen two houses from Mary Kehoe’s place.
Her efforts to involve the local council had resulted in the provision
of two huts to act as a relief centre.
Meals cooked at her house were wheeled to the canteen
where many gathered for emergency help.
Thus began 'Meals on Wheels’, which today it is so much a part
of our social service environment that its beginnings
are lost and forgotten.
It gives hope and support to hundreds of people, who
without it, would not survive.
A continuing persisting presence, hidden, like salt.
Biblical scholar Barbara Reid puts Matthew’s ‘salt’ story in some sort of context:
“…the uses of salt in the ancient world included: seasoning, preservation, purification, and judgment…”
She goes on:
“In saying to his disciples, ‘You are the salt of the earth’ Jesus could have meant that they perform any and all of these functions: that they draw out the liveliness and savor of God’s love in the world; they are a sign of God’s eternal fidelity; they bring to judgment all that is opposed to God’s basiliea” (Reid 2001:48).
Then this important (I reckon) comment:
"The task of Christians in every age is to discern what it means in a new context to be faithful to the words and deeds of Jesus. Just as Christians of the last century determined that abolition of slavery was being most faithful to the gospel, even though Jesus' teachings presumed the institution of slavery, so today we face the challenge of eliminating sexism and systems of domination, though these are woven into the fabric of the Gospels" (Reid 2001:59).
Mmm. Challenging indeed!
If everything changes, then change must change too.
I remember helping a congregation to shape both
a Vision Statement and a Statement on Evangelism.
As to the latter we agreed our response would be characterised or shaped by:
(i) listening to the community first rather than talk;
(ii) letting what we hear and feel and sense genuinely shape our gospel response;
(iii) letting our response be original and creative.
Our model of evangelism was to be a
continuing persisting presence, hidden if you like, like salt.
And amid change that too is changing.
If we are to face a ‘church’ which is discussing change and restructuring…
And if we are to face this changing situation with integrity and purpose,
then how we become ‘church’ in the community,
will be more important than how we are structured
within a set of Regulations or a Constitution.
To be a continuing persisting presence…
I invite you to ponder this some more.
Friedman, E. H. What are you Going to Do with your Life? Unpublished Writing and Diaries. New York. Seabury Books, 2009.
Grierson, D. A People on The Way. Congregation, Mission and Australian Culture. Melbourne. JBCE, 1991.
Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minniapolis. Fortress Press, 2006.
Reid, B. E. Parables for Preachers. Year A. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 2001.