Salt, Light, Church

Posted: February 5, 2020 in Uncategorized

Matthew 5: 13-20

Salt, Light, Church

Over the last few years when the focus has been on a declining church in terms of numbers and size there has been much debate and discussion in some circles as to what the role of the church is. Is it the last-ditch stand on behalf of the Gospel? Is it the time for renewal of the old or is it time for renewal in a new world where Christianity no longer hold the majority in terms of membership? What is the church in a universal sense and what is its role? And at another level, what is the ‘church’ in the local expression called a congregation.

It has to be said that our church, the PCANZ always seems to be in the middle of one of those discussions. The obvious is the seemingly perpetual discussions about restructuring. And it has to be said that some people feel all this restructuring talk will enable the PCANZ to be better at reflecting the kingdom/realm/empire of which Jesus spoke about.  What do you think?

One suggestion is that decline has more to do with dwindling resources, an outdated theology, and the rate of change in the world. And it seems to make sense. But if we digress a little, we can say that 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’.

Given that this change has been going on for years and this seems logical what has guided us during this time of continuing change, what has guided us in our understanding of ‘church’? And our theology? But how will this looking back help us? It is always tempting to look back.  Many do, to the so-called ‘good old days’! But as historical beings the truth is that we are not just nourished by our past. We actually live in the present, and it is a new and novel present, Gordon Kaufmann says it is “qualitatively different from any of our human pasts” (Kaufman 2006:106).

And we need to be careful here because the novel, the new is always vulnerable as are all things that are serendipitous and created. We need to be careful because it will also be tempting to do nothing, lest we upset someone or their pet likes or dislikes, or power structures. In fact what we do when we set out to change structures and to develop new strategies for going forward we actually set up a formidable resistance that takes out focus away from the new and eats up resources and energies for change that if any only a few small and seriously altered attempts are left.

I am now going to suggest that all of this sort of focus is bereft of a wholeness and in the most part inappropriate.  Having said that I need to do what I am not keen on doing and that is to make a suggestion as an answer. I can’t claim it as my answer because it has been suggested by many before and I think it has not been taken up because it too has suffered in the face of Western culture and its, concentration on the left hemisphere of the human brain. So, if Kaufmann is right; 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 towards the task.

First of all, we might think about the images of the ‘church’ as light or salt. These images have been eagerly grabbed hold of by many church leaders, and the interesting thing is that they seem to be in sharp contrast to much of our modern mega-church or mission thinking. 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 but is that in contrast to

Being the salt and light, in other words being not noticed as individual or as a faith community or as church?

Some years ago, retired Melbourne theologian and educationalist, Denham Grierson,
published a book called, A People on The Way. It was a study of ‘congregation, mission and in his case Australian culture’. It became a book used by many as a study guide. In 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 that we can say ‘this steak is juicy and tender and full of flavour’. Too much salt and we spit it out and complain. Not enough and after a while it becomes bland and all we have is the texture and the fibre. The key is that 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. “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 mobilized 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. And 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 flavour 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 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. Today we face the challenge of eliminating all sorts of discrimination such as that within sexism and systems of domination, political and economic empire and let’s reflect that these too are woven into the fabric of the Gospels” If everything changes, then change must change too.

I can 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 characterized or shaped by: One: listening to the community first rather than talking about what it needs; Two; letting what we hear and feel and sense genuinely shape our gospel response; and Three; letting our response be original and creative. The 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 continually 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. How to be a continuing persisting presence…is the question, and I want to make another suggestion here. I want to suggest that we might think about becoming skeptical mystics and apply that understanding to the task.

The truth is that we are in uncharted territory in terms of global population growth and ecosystem stress. We are currently living in heightened conflict with almost everything. Our environment, our political and organizational structures and with each other. We do not learn from our past because we have been gathering in communities with social conflict for at least 25000 years and we have even seen throughout cultural and lasting traditions that practices like fostering gratitude, holding detachments and understanding one’s opponent are ways of expanding one’s perspective and foster innovative solutions. As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot resolve a problem with the same thinking we used to create it.

Matthew Fox suggests that we need to act as mystic warriors but I prefer to suggest that when implementing change, we act with mystic intent. In explaining what I mean I think that mystics listen to the greater whole. They empty themselves so that they can be a channel. They are the ultimate skeptic, the endless questioner, the one that seems unafraid of the questions and is somehow wise. They tap into the vastness of the Universe and recognise the endless possibility available through the divine spark within their hearts. They share forth immense love and compassion that arises out of a deep listening. They never rest in any knowing but instead bathe in a sea of uncertainty. As Meister Eckhart once said, ‘I pray to God to rid me of God”.

People who engage in life with mystic intent are people who pay attention to the here and now. Acting with intent, mystics are not passive peace makers. They are strong in their weakness, sure in their compassion and love. As Margaret Wheatley noted; A leader is anyone who wishes to help at this time, and leadership is intentional work. Being mystic with intent is about being both salt and light, in other words being one who knows they are unique in all the universe and the same time as being nothing but dust. Without them the world is but a place of persistent conflict. With them despair is overcome by joy and peace is possible. Change has meaning and purpose. With mystic intent at work the liturgical words of returning to the earth dust to dust become, alive in the cosmos, stardust to stardust and the wise mystic knows which to say from moment to moment knowing both are equally true. Amen.

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.

Matthew Fox. Skylar Wilson, Jennifer Berrit Listug; Order of the Sacred Earth Monkfish Book Publishing Company Rhinebeck, New York.


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