Tag Archives: Worship

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.’

Light!
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.

Salt?
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.’

Micah
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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Adoration: A prayer for worship


Lord God, heavenly being, where are you?
Where do you hide in the darkness of the night?
Where are you when the birds are singing,
When the sunlight glistens on a spider’s web,
Or catches the colours of a butterfly’s wings?

Do you see the trees bending with the wind,
The storm clouds wrestling in the darkening sky?
Do you catch the lightning bolt as it stabs the earth,
Or hear the thunder as it rolls across the hills?

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Worship: A Life’s Work


In our Church family we recently completed seven weeks working through John van de Laar’s book, The Hour That Changes Everything.  In it he calls us to understand and enjoy worship as the heart and centre of our lives.  It is profound, yet it is simply written, and easy to read.  He centres on William Temple’s definition of worship:

“To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.”

The main part of the book comprises seven chapters, five of which expound on the quote: “Becoming Holy”, “Becoming True”, “Becoming Beautiful”, “Becoming Loving” and “Becoming Purposeful”.  There are three appendices.  The first contains fifty daily readings for personal use during the seven weeks (yes, for the mathematicians among you, the last week has eight readings).  The second contains notes for small groups on each of the seven chapters, and the third section contains readings and guidelines for Sunday worship.

Van de Laar continually reminds us that worship is not something we do for an hour on Sunday, but it is the whole of our lives.  The hour we spend together with the rest of God’s family, focussing our minds and sharpening the sword, is indeed the hour that changes everything, or it is nothing at all.

I received the following in an email this week, and it profoundly makes the same point.  It was written by David Barnett, who I am told is a missionary in Cambodia.  The interview he refers to is also the focus of a 2007 Christianity Today article.

Barnett heard about an interview between broadcaster Roy Firestone (ESPN’s Close-Up) and Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, a seven-foot-tall, 255-pound specimen of pure muscle and athleticism.  He was one of the best big men in the history of the National Basketball Association, who led his team to back-to-back championships and was named an All-Star 10 times. 

He was also known as the hardest working big man in the NBA. Roy Firestone asked him, “Why do you work so hard? Your teammates tell me that every time you step onto the hard wood, you give it 110 percent. They tell me you practice spin moves and fade-away jump shots by the hour. They tell me you run wind sprints until you can’t anymore, relentlessly pushing yourself. They tell me that even in a scrimmage, you go for every rebound and every loose ball like you are in the finals of the NBA.  Why? You don’t have anything to prove. You have made it to the top. Why not just take it easy?”

Hakeem said, “Roy, I do not count what I do on the basketball court as work. Every time I step onto that court, I am not playing for me, but for Him. You see, the reason I work so hard is because basketball is not work…it is worship. It is my way of thanking God for His goodness to me.”

Hakeem Olajuwon is a Muslim, not a Christian. Yet God has given him an insight into life-as-worship that challenges us all.

When David Barnett heard about Hakeem’s response, he thought:

“What if I treated my job, not as work, but as worship?  What could I accomplish?
What if I treated my marriage, not as an obligation, but as worship?
What if I treated my parenthood, not as an activity, but as worship?
What if I treated my friendships, not merely as relationships, but as worship?
What if I treated my hobbies, not only as fun things to do, but as worship?
What if I treated community service, not just as a good thing to do to help others, but as worship?
What if I even drove my car, not merely as a way to get from here to there, but as worship?
What if I treated everything I do, everyone I meet, everything I say, as though it is an act of worship?

“How would that transform my life? What could I accomplish in my life? Who would I be able to touch and reach and attract to Christ?”

What about you and me?  What difference would it make if, with David Barnett, we decided to approach the whole of our lives as worship, as a means of giving God thanks and praise?  Even driving my car? 

Have you any experiences of life-as-worship to share with us?

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God’s Creative Extravagance


 

A while back the moon put on a special dance.  It rose in conjunction with two planets, which I in my ignorance thought were two bright stars—a sickle moon opening its face to a couple of bright, colourful planets.  I looked for it again the next night but the clouds decided I had seen enough, and they closed the curtains.

 

Lord, you paint the skies with such large strokes.
The moon, in astronomical terms, a mere stone’s throw away;
the nearest star so remote that the terms we use on earth to measure distance have no meaning.

Except in the dreams of science fiction,
we cannot hope to visit even the closest reaches of our galaxy,
let alone the galaxies beyond our own.
Yet we can enjoy the panorama of the heavens:
A restless, multi-coloured dome in the daylight,
and a magnificent display in the night, ensconced in an inky blackness
that protects us from unfathomable depths, and the horror of nothingness.

On earth, close by yet unseen and beyond reach,
immeasurable wonders we are only now beginning to uncover;
hidden in unexplored crevices that scar the floors of the oceans,
loitering in inhospitable reaches of the desert,
lingering  in impenetrable fissures of mountain ranges.
Countless untouched places; an astonishing variety of unimaginable beauty

Why such extravagance, Lord?
Why such indescribable beauty with no one to see it for almost all of time?
Clearly this isn’t about us, is it, Lord?
It’s about you. It’s about your own extravagance and creative delight,
and your deep, engaging love.
Above all, love.

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Easter celebration, a matter of life and death


Easter

Easter (Photo credit: 427)

We went to the gym last weekend (Easter Saturday morning); I hope everyone is impressed.  Oh alright, to be brutally honest, after swiping our cards and going inside, we sat down at the coffee shop to enjoy a healthy breakfast.  What weights?  What treadmill?

While enjoying the fare we heard the folk at the next table talking about religion, and bits of their conversation drifted over to us.  “You know what they say,” one of them joked.  “Jesus saves, but Moses headed it in on the rebound.”  (I wondered whether it would become more profound, or was that it?)

“Religion’s a good thing I suppose,” said one. “Especially for those who are dying; it helps people get ready.”  (Well, it wasn’t much, but it was better than the joke.)

“Yes, that’s true,” another one added.  “But really, I don’t believe all this Christianity. I mean, Christ wasn’t really born on 25 December. That was just a pagan festival. The people who invented Christianity decided to use it because it would get more people involved.” (That’s what he said: “Invented”.)

“Ja,” another one agreed. “Easter too, with those Easter eggs.  It’s all part of a fertility cult that the Christians have taken over.  It’s not Christian.”

On the same day a man was quoted in a vox pop conducted by The Witness.  “I do not celebrate Easter, neither do I associate myself with anything that has to do with this holiday. I’m a Christian and don’t believe that it has anything to with Christ.” 

Well, however cynical it all sounds, all of them have got it right; but they have also, sadly, got it spectacularly wrong.  Of course we don’t know when Jesus was born; we could use any day of the year.  It’s not the day that matters, or what other people do with it; it’s what we do with it.  Whether it’s on that day or another, we celebrate with the angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and to earth peace and goodwill to all humanity.”  Immanuel, God with us.  That’s something to sing about. That’s something to be excited about.

There are those touched by Christianity who refuse to celebrate Christmas.  For some it’s a theological rejection of the humanity of Jesus, but that’s a topic for a different time.  Others refuse to celebrate Christmas and Easter because they have been commercialised.  But that means they have thrown out the Babe of Bethlehem with the bathwater of commercialisation.  How sad to allow the world to dictate what we will hold on to and what we will discard. If the world misinterprets or misappropriates part of our faith, must we jettison it?  In that case, instead of confidently proclaiming our faith, we are constantly looking over our shoulders, and we end up with a cut-and-paste set of beliefs pretty meaningless to everyone, including ourselves. 

I have absolutely no theological or religious reason for eating hot cross buns.  I eat them because I like the taste, and I love the tradition of eating them after service on Good Friday, and on Easter Sunday morning just after a sunrise service.  On the other hand I don’t eat Easter eggs as a rule.  But again there is no theological reason.  I simply like chocolate too much to spend money on a hollow shell made from poor-quality chocolate.  Of course, if you insist on buying me a Lindt bunny (or reindeer) you will find me most gracious and appreciative.

But do Easter eggs and Easter bunnies, or a white-haired old man in a red coat, define our faith?  Are they even peripheral to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus? Of course not.  Yes, the commercial word has muscled in; that’s what it does.  But that’s got nothing to do with us and our faith, or with how we celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection, or with how we share the Good News with the world.

What happened that first Christmas and that first Holy Week goes way beyond such trifles.  And it is far greater than our celebration of it in any form.  I also have news for my neighbours at the gym: it goes way beyond preparing us for death.  It is not about death, although a death is at the heart of it, but about life.  God has always participated in history not to prepare us for death but to prepare us for life—life in all its fullness.

When we as Christians bicker about Halaal stickers on “our” hot cross buns, or when they should be eaten, or whether people of other faiths should be allowed to have Christmas Day off work, we cheapen our faith, and we give the impression to a cynical world that faith is trivial and has no real meaning for life.

When we spend more time quarrelling about the “right” way to worship than we do reaching out to a broken world, when we spend our time pointing out the faults and shortcomings of others, criticising and condemning instead of encouraging, we engage in activities that lead to death rather than life.

In our worship and celebration, in our ceremonies and traditions, let us never forget that it’s about life not death, and that the focus is on God and not on our limited understanding of him.  Let’s put aside those things that hinder our relationship with God or our relationships with others, or that make it difficult for others to relate to God.  If they are too precious to put aside then let us at least ensure that in the way we live and the way we celebrate we keep the focus on Jesus, and not on the mere elements of our celebration.

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Christmas Morning


Our service on Christmas morning was an exquisite experience.  To be part of such a wonderful family of people gathered in joy and celebration, to worship, to renew friendships, and to share in the awe of Christmas, was a delight.

I was reminded of how Eugene Peterson interprets Psalm 16:3 in The Message:

“And these God-chosen lives all around–what splendid friends they make”

Splendid friends indeed.

Our new minister began her journey with us on Christmas Day.  Ministers in the Methodist Church of Southern African move to new appointments in December each year (our summer), and their first service is Christmas Day; pretty scary I’d think!  But I hope and pray that the vibe we experienced would have given her a real sense of belonging to this new community of ‘splendid friends’.

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