Monday, 10 February 2014

Being Salt and Light

Last week we talked about the beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:1-12). The beatitudes point to those the world doesn’t see as especially ‘blessed’. They are not valued by the world- The poor in spirit, those in mourning, the meek. The beatitudes also mention those who are in the midst of struggle- those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (but who therefore don’t have it), the merciful (who endure the sin of others), the pure in heart (who endure the tension of temptation), the peacemakers (who live in the midst of violence), and those who are mistreated and persecuted (even though they are doing what is right and good). Jesus says even all these are welcome to be a part of the kingdom of God. They can live the kingdom of God, not just after they die, but they can live in the kingdom of God even in the midst of their spiritual poverty and even in the midst of their struggle to make peace. This tension does not mean the kingdom is not present, in fact, Jesus tells us that we are invited to be a part of the kingdom even in the midst of that tension.  Even in the midst of the messy world we are called to be citizens of the Kingdom of God, not just when we die. Jesus is telling us that no matter what our circumstances are we can live as the citizens of the kingdom of God right now.  

Everyone is welcome to become citizens of the kingdom of God. It doesn’t matter what your circumstances are. Everyone is welcome, but there is a particular identity of those who become citizens of the kingdom of God. Jesus says to you who are citizens of this kingdom, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world”. 
In the ancient world salt was primarily used, not to flavor food, but to preserve food and keep it from going bad. So to keep meat from rotting, since they didn’t have refrigerators, the meat would be salted and would then last a lot longer. As citizens of the Kingdom of God you are the salt of the earth. You have a preservative function. When something would normally decay you prevent that decay.

Jesus also called you the “light of the world”.  Imagine getting up in the middle of the night and banging your toe on the dresser. Imagine driving on the highway at night and one of your headlights go out. Imagine being in the woods at night and finding out that your flashlight doesn’t work, and you need firewood. Light helps us see our way and it shows us reality. With the light we can see where to place our foot. With the light we can see that what our imagination thought was a snake is actually a stick. As citizens of the Kingdom of God you illuminate. When a path is dark you help people to see reality.       
Both these images- ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘light of the world’ imply that we have a mission and a function in this world. If we are salt that means we fight decay and rot. If we are light it means we battle against darkness. As citizens of the Kingdom of God we have a mission that our King has called us to.  A former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, said this “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members”.  Our king is concerned about those effected by the darkness and the decay that is a part of our world.

Being a citizen means that you take on something of the nature of your King. Something of His virtue and love become a part of who you are as a citizen. As a citizen you also become a representative of your King. Your life- the ways you live, the way you speak, the way you treat people- tells people about your King. Our life tells people something about God. Something about God’s life flows through us and can encounter other people.  If they see something inaccurate about God then we become like salt that has lost its saltiness or like light hidden under a bowl. (Of course Sin is always a factor here, but that is not a reason to give up on the project)   

Brian Stewart[1] has been a senior reporter with the CBC and has spent a lot of his life reporting on world affairs. He spoke to Knox theological college in Toronto and he said this.
“I’ve found there is NO movement, or force, closer to the raw truth of war, famines, crises, and the vast human predicament, than organized Christianity in Action. And there is no alliance more determined and dogged in action than church workers, ordained and lay members, when mobilized for a common good. It is these Christians who are right "On the Front Lines" of committed humanity today and when I want to find that Front, I follow their trail.”
 “It is a vast Front stretching from the most impoverished reaches of the Developing world to the hectic struggle to preserve caring values in our own towns and cities. I have never been able to reach these Front lines without finding Christian volunteers already in the thick of it, mobilizing congregations that care, and being a faithful witness to truth, the primary light in the darkness and so often, the only light.”
 “… I've never reached a war zone, or famine group or crisis anywhere where some Church organization was not there long before me...sturdy, remarkable souls usually too kind to ask ‘what took you so long?’ … so often in desperate areas it is Christian groups there first, that labor heroically during the crisis and continue on long after all the media, and the visiting celebrities have left.” “Now I came to this admiring view slowly and reluctantly. At the start of my career I'd largely abandoned religion for I too regarded the church as a rather tiresome irrelevance. What ultimately persuaded me otherwise, and I took a lot of persuading, was the reality of Christianity's mission, physically and in spirit, before my very eyes. . . .”

            Stewart went on to speak of his experiences in Poland under communist control, and South African Apartheid, and the segregated American south, and children living in garbage dumps in Mozambique, the slums of Brazil, runaways and addicts in cities, famine camps all over the world, the war in El Salvador, and in the midst of it all he was struck by the courage he saw as Christians faced oppressive forces.

Stewart who was not yet a Committed Christian says, “In my mind I was struck by some words tolling again and again, like a bell: --"Even Here", .... however remote or wretched or dangerous..."Even Here" we will be by your side, even to the end. …” Once, when his plane had to make an emergency refuelling stop in the middle of the jungles of Africa they got out of the plane in middle of nowhere and was greeted by a Christian missionary who offered them tea. Stewart says, “My veteran cameraman Mike Sweeny later sighed in exasperation "Do you think you could ever get us to a story, somewhere, anywhere where those Christians aren't there first!!!" I was never able to..”

“I'm often asked if I lost belief in God covering events like Ethiopia, then called "the worst Hell on Earth". Actually, like others before me, it was precisely in such hells that I rediscovered religion. I saw so many countless acts of human love and charity, total respect for the most forsaken, for ALL life. I was confronted by the miracle of our Humanity. And I felt again the "Good Infection" of Christian volunteers....and heard again those words tolling "Even Here.....Even Here." ”  

The theologian and historian David Bentley Hart’s brilliant book Atheist Delusions corrects the sloppy history of some of the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. But, Hart is under no illusions. He knows that the Christian message does not overnight magically transform entire societies, or turn every cruel person gentle. It’s not that people who are a part of the Jesus revolution haven’t dropped the ball, or done horrible things. We might say that it is possible for those who call themselves Christians to lose their saltiness. However, the world would be a drastically different place without the followers of the Christian God.
Hart argues that the world would not be a better place. The Jesus revolution transformed the ancient western world- Hart argues that Christianity gave freedom from fatalism and fear of the occult, gave dignity to human beings who might not have otherwise had any, it subverted some of the the cruelty of Pagan society, it gave rise to numerous moral communities of people, and elevated charity above the virtues (xi). The Jesus Revolution has through history cared for widows and orphans, gave rise to almshouses, hospitals, foundling homes, and homes for the dying (under the direction of people like Mother Theresa), schools, shelters, relief organizations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies, the abolitionist movement that worked and works to end slavery, The civil rights movement (under Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and the list doesn’t stop there.
Hart states, “the quality of charitable aid in the world today supplied and sustained by Christian churches continues to be almost unimaginably vast. A world from which the gospel had been banished would surely be one in which millions more of our fellows would go unfed, unnursed, unsheltered, and uneducated” (15).   
Hart says, “If the teachings of Christianity were genuinely to take root in human hearts- if indeed we all believed that God is love and that we ought to love our neighbors as ourselves- we should have no desire for war, should hate injustice worse than death, and should find indifference to the sufferings of others impossible” (17).
This is the legacy of the kingdom we belong to. We all have a corner that needs light. We all see some decay that needs salt. We are called as citizens of God’s kingdom to be that salt and light in the midst of our lives. This is what it means to be the people of God. In the midst of whatever messiness life brings you, be salt and light there.

[1] Brian Stewart is one of Canada’s most experienced journalists. He is
host of the foreign affairs show, CBC News: World View, as well as
Senior Correspondent of the CBC flagship news hour, The National.
Stewart has received the Gemini Award as Best Overall Broadcast
Journalist as well as numerous other awards. As a foreign correspondent
he has covered many of the world’s conflicts, reporting from nine war
zones from El Salvador to Beirut. 2004 Knox College

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