Tag Archives: service

Salt and light: what makes worship taste good?

A sermon for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, 9 February 2014
Lectionary Readings: Isaiah 58:1–12; 1 Corinthians 2:1–12; Matthew 5:13–20

Salt and light
Jesus said ‘You are like salt for the whole human race…. You are like light for the whole world.’

I like the idea of being a light; you get put in some important place like a hilltop or on a lamp stand, and your light shines for all the world to see (or at least the neighbourhood or the family). You play a useful role; everyone looks up to you; they need you; they respect you. They might be looking at the path, but the light shines the way. Light is important. Light is noticed.

But salt? I’m not so sure. You see, light remains aloof, it retains its identity, but salt gets more intimately involved with people; it loses itself for the people it serves; salt is consumed. Light gets put on a pedestal, but salt, used properly, isn’t even noticed. It’s brings out the flavour of everything else, and you say, ‘Wow, that’s a great piece of beef,’ or, ‘That’s a fantastic soup.’ And the salt goes, ‘Hey! It’s me! You should try this stuff without me.’ But no one hears, and no one notices, and down it goes.

Salt and light
I’d rather be light than salt. But Jesus says we are both. We aren’t given a choice. There will be times when we will be called on to be a light and at other times, salt. Some of us will be more salt than light or more light than salt. We are not called to choose or to debate, but to be faithful; to be reliable; to be available for whatever role we are given.

Covenant Prayer
Remember the words of the Covenant prayer we prayed last week:

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you….

Jesus said salt that has lost its flavour is of no use at all. He also said, in effect, ‘A light that’s in the wrong place is equally useless.’

I’m sure you know the story of the man searching in the street for a gold coin he had lost.
A stranger comes up and asks, ‘Where did you lose it? Were you here?’
‘No,’ the man says. ‘I was down there, around the corner.’
‘Well, why are you looking here?’
‘Cos this is where the light is. It was pitch black down there — couldn’t see a thing.’

We expect to be noticed
Isaiah writes to a people who seem to have made up their own minds about service and who decided they wanted to be light not salt:

‘We’ll do it this way, thank you. We’ll fast and pray, we’ll even use sackcloth and ashes; we’ll compete with each other in bowing down low — but we do expect to be noticed. I mean, why should we fast if the Lord never notices us…if he doesn’t pay attention?’ (Isaiah 58:5 & 3)

Had Jesus been speaking to this group about salt and light, they would have said, ‘Yes, Lord, of course we’ll be a light for you. Bring the pedestal. We’re ready to be noticed!’

But what if God says, ‘I don’t need light; it’s daytime. I need salt.’

When our worship loses its flavour
Roland McGregor, an American United Methodist Minister, comments on this Isaiah passage and the ‘salt and light’ reading in Matthew: ‘Isaiah shares a message about God’s taste buds: when our worship loses its flavor and what restores its taste’ (See McGregorPage for Epiphany 5.)

What makes worship taste good? God told the people of Israel through Isaiah:

‘The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives.’

Today’s reading is, of course, Isaiah’s version of the Micah 6 passage:

And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.Micah 6:8

For worship to be full of flavour it has to affect people’s lives where it matters.

I don’t want salt with my apple. And keep your salt well away from my chocolate. But give me a bowl of oats without salt in it? No! And biltong without salt will make you very sick.

We don’t need a light in the middle of the day. But in the dark? When we are lost? When we need it to find a lost coin, or a lost child? Where is the light then?

It’s in the church
‘Oh, no! It’s locked up in the church. That’s where we use it. It’s very beautiful there. We can’t bring it out here and run the risk of it breaking. No; please come on Sunday, 9 a.m., and you can enjoy it as much as we do.’

‘And you want our salt? For soup? For the soup kitchen? No, sorry. You don’t understand. Our salt is very special. It has a unique saltiness to it and a mix of minerals and herbs. It’s far too special to put on food (and certainly not soup for the soup kitchen). We keep it in a special saltcellar, and we bring it out on Sundays and put it on display during our worship.

‘It’s very important, you see. Jesus told us to be salt and light, so we have this beautiful lamp and this wonderful salt as part of our worship.’

Passing the peace out there
For worship to be full of flavour it has to affect people’s lives where it matters. For example, we pass the peace among ourselves, and there are many times we need to be reminded of that peace. But there is a world of turmoil out there and people who have never known peace. Dare we take the peace we have received and share it out there?

To be salt and light means going to the dark and unsavoury places where people live and work and struggle and weep.

Put an end to oppression
After telling the Israelites to ‘remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice,’ Isaiah said,

If you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word; if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon.  (Isaiah 58:9-10)

Your worship will bring flavour and light to the world if you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word.

‘Biting barbed words’
Do we oppress people? Well probably not in chains in our garden sheds. And probably not on the scale that was experienced under apartheid. But a friend of mine published a poem the other day. It ponders on a lifetime of pain and anguish — a soul’s agony. Reflecting on the source of the pain, she wrote:

Maybe, it’s secrets
Done to her—or kept from her.
Maybe the silence,
Or yelling—biting barbed words
That shred a small child’s insides.
(Mirada Mudo, ‘Caught in the Un-Wished Well)

‘… biting barbed words that shred a small child’s insides.’
‘… put an end to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word.’

Sarcasm and criticism
How often do we default to sarcasm? How often do we become overly critical of our children or our spouse? Have you listened to yourself recently? I know how easy it is to default to sarcasm and criticism. On a bad day I’ll get into critical mode, and everything my wife does needs to be criticised. The only way to break the habit is to declare a no-criticism day. I know there is grave danger that the sky might fall in if you don’t criticise and correct — especially the important stuff, like how to squeeze the toothpaste tube and hang up the washing — but it’s worth the risk. If you can just hold off until tomorrow you’ll find, as I do, that the mood has changed, the need has gone, and peace has a chance.

I wonder, also, how our Christian way of speaking might oppress people around us, especially fellow Christians. For example, I passed a motivational message board the other day. The message read:

‘Worry ends where faith begins’

Now if you are not a chronic worrier, you will drive past that sign and say to yourself, ‘Amen to that!’ And you won’t understand what I am about to say.

But if you are a chronic worrier, that sort of sign just adds to your worries. You say to yourself, ‘But I do have faith; I just can’t stop worrying. So, obviously, my faith isn’t any good. I must be a lousy Christian … or perhaps not a Christian at all.’

All you need is faith
And much of what we say in church, or at least much of what people hear us say, confirms that understanding. We say:

‘All you need is faith.’
‘Just pray your worries away.’
‘If you just have faith God will heal you.’
‘If you just have faith God will protect you.’
‘If you just have faith God will change everything.’

Of course, all of that’s true. But the way we say it, or the way it is heard, people are left thinking that if my healing, protection, transformation doesn’t happen the same way as yours, or quickly enough, it must mean my faith is less than yours, my faith is not good enough.

We are not all the same
But God’s healing, protection, transformation touches different people in different ways and at different times. We have to understand that; we have to remember that when we share our faith and our good news. We are not all the same, and God doesn’t treat us all the same.

The beginning of faith is only the beginning
The sign we spoke about, ‘Worry ends where faith begins’, is a lie. The beginning of faith is not the end of worry. It might be the beginning of the end of worry; it might be the beginning of learning to live with worry and of learning to deal with worry. But the beginning of faith is not the end of worry.

I may as well say, ‘the beginning of faith is the end of alcoholism.’
Most alcoholics would know I’m talking nonsense; they know that the beginning of faith is just the beginning of a journey towards managing their alcoholism.

The beginning of faith is only the beginning of a journey where faith will grow and affect different parts of our lives at different speeds. It’s the beginning of a journey that will be different for each of us, but a journey towards joy and love and delight, of salty flavour and light in dark places.

Faith is a relationship
Faith is a relationship with God. And like any relationship it is something we grow into. We get to know, we learn to trust. We struggle a bit and the relationship suffers; we discover a bit more about the other and we grow closer.

Being salt and light, putting an end to oppression, means we allow others the same space we need. So the challenge for us this week is to find ways that we can give people around us the gift of light and salt that is making a difference in our lives; look for ways that we can share the grace that God gives us in abundance.

‘… put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word…, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon…. You will be like a garden that has plenty of water, like a spring of water that never goes dry.’

What do you think make worship taste good? Add your comments below.
And be sure to come back tomorrow for the prayer that followed the sermon.


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Nelson Mandela: 67 minutes for 67 years

Nelson Mandela.

Image via Wikipedia

Sixty seven minutes to celebrate 67 years of service.

Nelson Mandela, 93 years old, we salute you.  A life lived to the full in serving a cause, but not so enslaved to it that he could not challenge and adapt and find new ways.  He emerged from the mud and the blood of an armed rebellion, a stifling prison cell, a lifetime in politics, a position of power, and from the grasp of those who would tame him.  He emerged stronger and more humble, a greater man than almost any other public figure you care to name, especially those who have come under the lure of politics and power.

Nelson Mandela has his detractors of course.  There are those on the “right” who dig for dirt because they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge, let alone embrace, greatness in someone who thinks differently, believes differently, or acts differently from them.  How tragic that Christians are found swelling these ranks.

There are those on the “left” who hate the idea of reconciliation; who will not share, who cannot forgive.  They demand retribution; some to satisfy their bloodlust, others because their share of the pie was smaller than expected; others because they demand someone to blame.  They cannot find freedom within themselves so someone else must be enslaved that their own slavery might seem like freedom. How tragic that Christians swell these ranks too.

Nelson Mandela’s greatness lies as much in what he has overcome and managed to achieve as in what he has enabled others to do. 

His legacy can be seen in this great land of ours, South Africa.  A nation birthed and nurtured under his loving care, his determination that the healing of wounds and the nurture of freedom are far more important for the building of a future, than triumph or revenge or power.

Nelson Mandela’s legacy has survived the racism that marked Thabo Mbeki’s reign and the ‘every man for himself, feeding at the communal trough’ legacy of Jacob Zuma.  Will it survive the lust for instant gratification of Julius Malema?  I don’t know.  I think that depends on how many 67 minutes are spent by ordinary citizens serving others, reminding each other of another way, calling one another to greatness rather than power.

Long before Nelson Mandela chose his way, Jesus said the first shall be last and the last first.  He said the one who wants to be first should be the servant of all and the way to save our lives is to lose them.  So the front is to be found at the back, the top can only be reached from the bottom, and real power is exercised through service.  How do we teach these truths to a nation?  Not by force; there are no quick fixes.  The only certain way is to live it out; at the risk of ridicule, rejection, and even death; to choose the way of service that goes beyond 67 minutes and becomes a way of life.

May I humbly offer this challenge as my 67 minutes of service, in gratitude and in admiration of a man at whose strength and grace one can only marvel?  Madiba, we love you.

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Pear Salad and Selfless Service

Jen's Pear SaladOne of the many blessings I am privileged to enjoy is that while I slave away in front of a hot computer all evening and over weekends, reading what other bloggers are writing and pretending to write myself, my gorgeous wife loves to express her creativity in the kitchen.  She presents the results of her creativity onto two plates every day (and twice a day on weekends) and I am invited to escape from the salt mine, put my creativity on hold, and share the delights that have emerged from hers.  And, wow, is it good!

Unfortunately there is no Freshly Pressed award for Jen’s work, and (fortunately) we don’t have a thousand visitors, or even a dozen, sampling her creativity every day—just me.  And that’s the difference between us.  I get excited about the possibility of people out there reading what I write, or hearing me tell a story or preach a sermon.  It is that potential audience that is my incentive and that encourages me first of all to write, and second to write as well as I can.  I am amazed (and blessed) that Jen’s delight is to create for its own sake and to produce something beautiful just for the two of us to enjoy.  If not freshly pressed, something freshly squeezed emerges from the kitchen every night. 

The picture shows a pear and blue cheese salad that Jen threw together for lunch today.  If it looks to you anything less than exquisite, blame my poor photographic skills failing to capture its magnificence.  Of course, I don’t want to rave about it too much in case it results in a steady stream of visitors at our door each night.  (Forgive the Christmas tablecloth!)

I think of the line in John Milton’s poem, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”  But this is more than waiting.  This is service.  And there are so many people in service around us who receive no reward, no accolades, hardly any notice, and very little thanks. 

There are door stewards at our church and those who pour the tea; there are those who faithfully visit the elderly and shop for those stuck at home.  There are mothers who quietly put their own lives on hold in order to raise their children; they willingly encourage their husbands in their careers seemingly oblivious to their own loss and without anyone noticing their sacrifice.  The list is endless; the people, hidden.

Pride wants always to question my endeavours, “Will anyone notice me?  Will someone remark on my hard work or my skilfulness?  Will my efforts be recognised?”

Lord, give me a heart that is willing, not wanting;
A focus on giving service, not reaping reward;
A work distinguished by what others receive, not recognition of my efforts
Lord, give me a delight in hiddenness and quietness,
A love of the backstage, not centre stage;
And, when thrust to the fore, let it be in service, not to seek acclaim.



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