Salt of the Earth

Preached at Melville United Church on February 5, 2017

A week or so ago, Reverend Marion and I sat in a coffee shop, and she looked me in the eye and asked, “So why aren’t you ordained?”

Now, there is a whole long litany I could tell you about why I thought ordination wasn’t for me, at least not yet, but the story that Toronto Conference would likely give is this:

At the time of my interview with Toronto Conference, I had not been attending any church regularly for quite some time. They gave me six months to work things out, but six months later I was still not attending church on a regular basis. At that point, my file was closed.

What I couldn’t say then, but can say quite clearly now, is that during the over two years that I didn’t attend church, I wasn’t feeling fed by worship or by the community, and I was questioning not only my need for church, but the whole concept of the church as an institution.

Obviously, things changed. I’m back, and I believe I’m here to stay. In fact, with a lot of prodding from both Rev. Marion and Rev. Robin, I’ve taken the first tentative steps to getting back on the path to ordination.

Why would I question the need for church in the first place? I’d been part of the church for as long as I remember. And not just part of it, but one of those members who was always in the thick of things. I started sitting in the choir stalls when I was ten years old. It wasn’t until I returned to church after my extended absence that I actually sat in the pews as an ordinary worshiper for more than one or two Sundays at a time. I had always been in some sort of worship leadership. I’d been on committees and boards since I was in my teens, I’d helped run bazaars and dinners and concerts and retreats and bible studies and all sorts of church functions. I’m the last person you would have thought would have a crisis of faith in the church.

I never stopped believing in God. At my lowest point, I could always say with conviction, “God is.” But everything else was up for debate, and the church was at the top of my list for re-evaluation.

Do we really need the church?

I came away from my extended time out convinced that the Christian church, and especially our mainline denominations like the United Church, are not only useful institutions, but vital ones for the health of society. Over the next three sermons, I’ll touch on some of the vital roles I believe that churches can play in society, roles that no other institution or group of people seems to be fulfilling right now.

Today, we talk about salt, because Jesus has told us that we are to be the “salt of the earth.”

I googled salt, and re-learned that the phrase “salt of the earth” has come to mean a “dependable, unpretentious” person. I can understand that being dependable is good, and most of the time, being unpretentious is probably the right way to go. But is that what Jesus means when he says we are to be the salt of the earth?

Salt is a mineral. Sodium chloride. It’s not a rare mineral—it’s in every single drop of sea water, and there are deposits of it underground. But it’s not naturally found in its pure state—there are impurities that must be removed before it’s fit for human use. In our time, pure salt is plentiful and cheap. In ancient times, pure salt was so difficult to come by that it was used as a form of money. It’s where our words “salary” and “soldier” come from. Someone who is “not worth his salt” is a slave or worker who doesn’t do enough work to justify the salt given to pay for him.

Salt is necessary for human and animal life. The messages that run along nerves from our brains to our muscles and back again are transmitted by electrolytes like the sodium in salt. Without enough salt in our diets, our muscles stop working, our brains swell, and we die.

Salt is so necessary to life that it’s one of only five things we can taste on our tongues. We can taste sweet, bitter, sour, unami (which is that earthy taste you get from mushrooms and meat), and salt.

Think about it this way—if I eat a banana, or drink orange juice, I can’t taste the potassium in them, even if that’s the mineral I’m craving. But if I eat a potato chip, or beef fried rice, or a fried egg, I can immediately tell not only if there’s salt in or on it, but approximately how much. Are these regular potato chips, or reduced salt? We can all tell without looking at the package, because we’ve evolved that ability to taste it.

But we’re all aware that salt, in excessive quantities, can be a poison. Too much salt isn’t good for our blood pressure—it can elevate it, or at least keep it elevated when it’s already high. And the salt we put on our roads causes the grass and plants at the verge to die, until only weeds can grow.

And we need to pay attention to that last, because interestingly enough, when Jesus tells us that we are the “salt of the earth,” he might very well have been referring to that quality—that ability of salt to kill things.

In Jesus’ time, salt was used by invading armies to destroy the fields of the enemies so that crops wouldn’t grow. That practice was called “salting the earth.” The interpretation of “salt of the earth” to mean someone who is dependable and unpretentious came later, after generations of Christian clergy who were part of the establishment and not outlaws had the chance to put their stamp on Biblical interpretation.

But in Jesus time, and afterwards when the gospels and the letters of Paul and the other epistles were written, the church was either on the fringes of the established order, as it is today, or entirely outlawed. And I believe Jesus was telling his soon to be outlawed followers that they had a place, and that place wasn’t to prop up the complacency and egos of the middle and upper classes.

You are to be like salt, he tells them. Stand up against the established order, and make their fields bear no grain. Don’t let them get rich by oppressing the workers, don’t let them gain power by trampling on those less powerful, don’t let law and order be your goals if the laws and the order unjustly oppress whole groups of people who have no say in what the laws are and how they were made.

The church has a place in today’s society. We need to salt the earth, now more than ever.

I got a text the other day from my dear friend Rev. Robin. “I need to talk. The sky is falling. The sky is falling!” and “He (Donald Trump, in case you didn’t guess) is dismantling God stuff and building walls.”

I told her, we need to dismantle walls and build God stuff.

We need to salt the fields of the rich and powerful, and destroy the crops of hatred that they have sown.

We need to salt the earth of the terrorists, and destroy the crops of fear that they have sown.

We need to salt the earth of the powerful corporations, and destroy the crops of environmental abuse and obscene profits and worker exploitation that they have sown.

And we do that by finding our voice.

Isaiah tells us, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion!”

We need to be brave, and speak out, and say, “No! This is not an acceptable way to act!”

And we need to be heard amongst and above all the millions screaming in terror. We need to be a voice of authority, not one of hysteria.

On Saturdays, I teach swimming to Special Olympians, young men and women with developmental disabilities. And yesterday one young man didn’t want to get out of the pool at the end of the lesson. He was hanging on to the railing and refusing to move. A few of our younger coaches were with him, trying in vain to get him to let go of the rail and move out of the pool. After a few minutes of this I came up and said, “Move. Out of the pool, now.”

And he moved. He didn’t quite get out of the pool, at least not right then, but he moved, solely in response to my spoken command.

I’m not Harry Potter—I don’t have a magic wand or any superpowers. I simply have years of experience in calmly but firmly saying, “No. This behaviour isn’t acceptable.”

The church needs that voice, the calm, firm, salty voice.

There are millions of voices screaming all sorts of things at our governments and terrorists and corporations. Pleas and entreaties, idle and not-so-idle threats, whines and woe-is-me tales that rend the heart. We need to cut through all the drama with the salty voice of calm.

We need to say to our government:

Mr. Trudeau, you said during the election campaign that you would seek justice for our native peoples. Do it. Now.

To the newly installed president of our neighbours to the south:

Mr. Trump, you are president of a country that says it is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Live up to that, instead of responding with fear and cowardice to terrorism and to the globalization of commerce. Create policies that give voices and hope to the least of Americans—those out-of-work folks in the rust belt who voted for you, all your black and Hispanic and Muslim citizens who now walk the streets in fear. Use the influence of the mighty American military to promote peace and stability in other countries in the world, not to destroy it in order to contribute to the American economic machine.

We need to say to the terrorists:

Your violence breeds only more violence. You will never, ever get what you want by using guns and bombs. We are brave, and we are many. You cannot kill us all, and you cannot silence our voice. Put down your guns and talk, and we will listen.

We need to say to corporations:

You are not a law unto yourselves. You do not have any right to obscene profits while your workers line up at food banks. You do not have the right to take our water and sell it back to us. You do not have the right to foul the water and the air and the land so that no humans or creatures can survive, because it’s more profitable to pollute than to clean up your mess.

We need to say to the totalitarian governments of the world:

We are watching. It is not okay that you imprison those citizens who disagree with your rule. It is not okay that you use military might to suppress peaceful gatherings. It is not okay that you tell your citizens that they cannot worship God in certain ways. It is not okay that you deny your citizens their democratic voice.

And, perhaps most of all, we need to say to the church, to ourselves and to those others of us who call themselves Christian:

We are not here to preach or listen to a gospel of prosperity. God does not shower earthly riches on us just because we’re Christian, and the poor are not poor because they don’t go to the right church.

We are not here to preach a gospel of hatred and exclusionism. Jesus tells us that judgement belongs to God, and if we say that someone is going to Hell, we are the ones condemned.

We are not here to disseminate Western Culture to all the “heathens” of the world, and to say, “Our way of life is best and leads to the purest form of Christianity.”

We are not here to say, “We are the only true path to God, and everyone else is an idol worshipper.”

We are not here solely to pay for our buildings and have bible studies and programs and worship services on Sunday mornings. Those things are valuable only so long as they contribute to our actions outside this building during the rest of the week.

We are not here to preach a gospel of pop psychology. “God loves you as you are” and “everything will be all right” are fine and true sentiments, but the real, gutsy life that Jesus calls us to is much more than that. Jesus tells us to look and go beyond ourselves, into the big, scary world of people who are not like us. Jesus calls us to touch them and feed them and heal them and love them.

I realized, during my two and a half years in the desert, that I was feeling alienated in part because the church seemed to have lost its way. The church, through many centuries of being the religion of the elite, began to identify with the lifestyle of the elite, which was the very sin against which Jesus seemed to set himself.

Listen to his words:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

Because he has anointed me

To bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind.

Let’s change that a little, because we claim for ourselves the title of “Body of Christ”:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon US,

Because he has anointed US

To bring good news to the poor.

He has sent US to proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind.

In a physical sense, there is too much salt in the world today. We have to read labels and watch what we put in our soup. We’ve cut down on the road salt where we can, but it still kills the grass.

But in the world of the church, we’ve come dangerously close to being thrown out for not being salty enough.

And I feel it would be very, very bad for the world not to have the church in it. Although we are akin to Judaism and Islam, although there are other valid expressions of worship to the God who made the heavens and the earth, I have come to see that the Christian Church is unique, that we have a piece of this “God puzzle” that no-one else has, and that piece is the part where we realize that God does not belong solely to us, and that other ways of worshipping God are valid. After all, the historical, earthly Jesus wasn’t even a Christian—he was Jewish!

And that piece is the one that we must keep in mind when we speak to the governments and the terrorists and the corporations and the protesters and most especially to each other.

God is not just OUR God, and God doesn’t especially favour us over all other people. And when our Christian brothers and sisters, or our governments, or our corporations, or our protesters or our terrorists forget it, we need to be that still, calm voice of reason that says:

God is God of all peoples. God is over all the Muslims, and the Christians, and the Jews and the Hindus and the Buddhists and the Atheists. God is God over all nations: the Palestinians and the Israelis, the Syrians and the Americans, the Canadians and the Mexicans. God is God over all individuals: Ruth Cooke and Pierre Trudeau and Donald Trump and Alexandre Bissonnette and of all his victims.

We are all of us made in the image of God, and when we oppress one another, we oppress God. When we deny one another justice, we deny Jesus. When we hurt one another, we crucify Our Lord. Again.

We need to have the courage to stand up and speak for those who cannot speak. That is our salt.

If we, the church, lose our salt, we have no purpose in society, and society will throw us out and trample us underfoot.

If, however, we find our voice, I believe that even those who disagree with us will begin to respect us again, and we will find our place in the soup of the world.

Amen.

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Zero To One: A New Wineskin

(Preached at Melville United Church, August 28, 2016)

I was born in August of 1960.

The world was changing. The United States elected its first Catholic president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Smoking was linked to heart disease in middle-aged men. Xerox introduced the first commercial document reproduction machine. And despite their astronomical price of $219.95 for a 23-inch black and white television, there were over one hundred million sets in use world wide. The FDA approved “The Pill.”

In other ways, the year 1960 was much like the years and decades before it.

65 out of 100 children lived in a family with their biological, married parents, where mom stayed home and dad worked. Only one child in 350 lived with a single, never-married mother.

80 percent of Americans thought that people who wanted to be single were “sick” or “neurotic” or even “immoral.” Only 28 percent of the adult population was single—divorced, widowed or never-married. Gay men and lesbians were not only sick and neurotic and definitely immoral, but criminals as well, according to the laws of the time.

Almost everyone went to church on Sunday, and stores and entertainment venues were closed.

The FDA may have approved the pill, but it wasn’t legal or available to single women.

The average cost of a new house in 1960 was $12,700. A man in manufacturing in Canada could expect to earn $1.98 per hour. A salaried worker on average earned $116.41 per week. Given a forty-hour work week for that manufacturing worker, the average house cost just over three years’ worth of wages. A worker would earn the equivalent of about ten loaves of bread per hour, and it would take him over one hundred hours to earn the cost of that television set.

Back then, a moderately-priced computer cost about one million dollars and took up several rooms. Those are 1960 dollars, unadjusted for inflation by the way. Only government agencies, universities, and large corporations could afford a computer, and they rented out time on it to smaller entities by the hour, charging thousands of dollars a day.

It’s now 2016, of course, and the world has changed.

The average wage of someone working in manufacturing is now $21.06 per hour, according to Statistics Canada. Interestingly enough, if that worker buys the store brand of bread, he or she is still earning approximately ten loaves of bread per hour. Despite moaning and groaning to the contrary, food and wages seem to have kept pace with one another.

As for technology: that 23” black and white television has become a quite modest Insignia 32” 720 pixel High Definition LED Smart TV, only two hundred and nineteen dollars and ninety-nine cents, on sale this week, only at Best Buy! Instead of over one hundred hours, it now takes the worker a little shy of ten hours to earn wages equivalent to the price of a decent television. And my Moto G cell phone, which I got for free when I signed up with Wind Mobile, has more computing power than that one million dollar gigantosaurus from 1960.

It’s not all good news, though. This week I looked up the average price of a house in Guelph. A modest house is now selling for about four hundred thousand dollars.

In wage terms, that’s about ten times a full-time manufacturing salary. But it’s obvious from the Stats Can data that a lot of workers are not working at full time permanent jobs, even in manufacturing. The average yearly salary is just over 30 thousand dollars, which is about 75% of a full time salary. Which makes a house worth more than thirteen times the yearly salary of a manufacturing worker.

In 2016, only 22 percent of children are living in homes with a mom and a dad where mom stays home and dad works. Another 22 percent live with single moms, and half of those moms have never been married.

Single adults are no longer seen as sick or immoral, and comprise about 44 percent of the adult population. It’s no longer illegal to be homosexual, and transgendered people are slowly making headway with respect to human rights.

Most people don’t go to church on Sunday. Stores and entertainment venues are open not only on Sunday, but sometimes 24/7. Even most banks are now open Saturdays.

Not that anyone uses a teller anymore. A worker is often paid electronically, pays the bills electronically, and pays for purchases electronically. In today’s world, you can be broke and get rich and go broke again, all without ever handling a single piece of cash money!

The world has changed. The reality that my children inhabit is vastly different from the one that I encountered as a young adult, and even more different from the one that many of you encountered when you were their age.

They meet their mates online, even if they’re old high-school friends. They play games online, get their news and weather and sports information online, they shop online and very often work online (and from home).

Most of our young women now attend college or university, and over 50 percent of university graduates are now women. A high school diploma is a necessity if you want to work at Linamar, or even get promoted to a junior management position at McDonald’s.

With student debt skyrocketing, and house prices soaring, fewer young people are able even to dream of owning their own home. Not that it’s always practical anyway—our society is much more mobile that it was, with the average person moving about every five years.

Everything seems to have changed…

Or has it?

Growing up in the 1960s and 70s in the United Church, I remember a little bit about the services. There was an opening call to worship, and some prayers, and three or four hymns, and two or three scripture readings, and a sermon, and the offering, and an anthem, and a prelude and a postlude. Sunday morning, ten-thirty to eleven-thirty, in the same building. Everyone sat in the same pew they sat in the Sunday before. Kids went off to Sunday School.

The hymns have changed, and we’ve changed the words to the prayers, and our theology has evolved. Most churches now don’t have the children go off to Sunday School right at the start of the service, but have them stay for a short while. We’ve added a children’s time.

But we still gather every Sunday morning, often in the same buildings we were meeting in then. We still have prayers, sing hymns, listen to the sermon, put money on the plate. And in most mainline churches, the people in the pews are the ones who were there ten and twenty and thirty and even forty or more years ago. We’re just older.

And we wonder why, with “all these changes,” our children and grandchildren aren’t coming to church. Where are all the young adults? We need them—to fill our pews and help us feel less alone, to bring their kids to our Sunday Schools, to put their money in the offering plate, to learn and perpetuate the values and traditions we hold so dear.

I was introduced a couple of weeks ago to the concept of “zero to one.” It’s a way of talking about innovation. Ordinary innovations are most often of the form “one to n,” which in commercial terms means it’s “new and improved.” We add features, or tweak existing features slightly in order to improve a current product.

Think of your basic kitchen stove. When I was a kid, our stove had four burners on top, and an oven on the bottom with two elements. If we wanted to broil, only the top element came on, and if we wanted to bake, they both came on.

Today’s kitchen stoves are substantially the same, with a few tweaks. They’ve got digital clocks and timers so that dinner will start cooking when you want it to start cooking. You no longer have to guess whether or not the oven is up to temperature—the sensor beeps when it’s finished preheating. Some stoves have flat glass cooktops instead of those spiral electric burners most of us are used to.

That’s the “one to n” concept—adding to and improving a current product.

Zero to one happened for cooking with the advent of the microwave oven. The only thing my microwave has in common with my stove is a clock, a timer, and an electric plug. It uses the electricity to heat the food directly, instead of heating up the whole oven beforehand and cooking indirectly. As a result, it’s much faster.

It’s not a replacement for my stove. There are things my stove does well that my microwave doesn’t (like produce a luscious roast of beef or a wonderful peach pie), but there are things that my microwave does much better than my stove. For example, I can cook oatmeal, NOT the quick kind but the large flake, yummy kind in large batches in ten or more minutes on my stove, or I can put 1/3 of a cup of oats and 2/3 of a cup of water in a bowl and microwave it for three minutes, and it never burns.

In the church, we’ve been concentrating for nearly forty years on changing our services to hopefully bring in more young people. We’ve changed the music, we’ve changed the theology, we’ve experimented with different Sunday School curricula. What we haven’t done is changed the basic structure. We’re trying to appeal to millennials with a wineskin that appeals to their grandparents. And they’re mostly not buying it. The new wine, the spirit that is contained in our young people, is pouring out of and away from our old wineskins.

We need to ask ourselves why, in an era where the average working family is in debt up to their eyeballs and may never be able to afford a house, why are we asking those folks to contribute to the upkeep of buildings that are locked up most of the week? Why are we asking them to commit an hour or two of their precious spare time every single Sunday morning when many of them are working two or more jobs, often with irregular and unpredictable schedules?

Don’t get me wrong. We do need the church as it is. We need it because the fastest growing age group in Canada is the over-80 age group, and those who have tasted old wine prefer it to new, and are better fed by it. We need it because some of our young people have tasted the old wine and find they prefer it.

But I believe we need a new expression of church as well, one that can hold the new wine that is the spirit bubbling through our 20- and 30-year olds.

How will it look, this new wineskin?

I don’t know, but I have some ideas. With real estate currently priced at record high levels, and with it trending steeply upwards rather than down (I just read that in the first six months of 2016, the house prices in Guelph are up ten percent over last year), more church congregations will be landless. Many may not even meet physically more than three or four times a year. An active internet presence, with blogs, Facebook, Twitter and whatever comes next will be a big part of their ministry.

And I believe they will teach that personal spiritual practices, personal scripture reading, and personal reflection are more important than weekly bible studies and participation in church-run programs.

This last was brought home to me when I was reading an article about Willow Creek Church yesterday. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the mega-church to end all mega-churches, with eight different locations. It’s basically a denomination in its own right. The mega-church model is one that requires intense participation—in addition to the “celebration services” every Sunday, each member belongs to one or more small groups that meets weekly.

The leadership team of Willow Creek conducted a qualitative study, which means they were asking not about how many people were participating, but about whether the activities in which they were participating were helping them grow spiritually.

And they found, to their surprise and dismay, that participating in lots of church-run programs did not predict whether someone was progressing spiritually, or whether they were becoming more of a disciple of Christ, or whether they loved God or people more.

Bill Hybels, Willow Creek’s founding pastor, summarized the findings this way:

Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back, it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.

Hybels confesses:

We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.

In other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.

That’s actually really good news. I know a fair number of young people, and one thing that stands out to me about that generation is their passion for self-development, and having seen how computer technology has been used to transform education and gaming and shopping and banking and just about every other aspect of life, I can see how it might be used to help our young people develop as Christians.

When Jesus talked about new wine and new wineskins two thousand years ago, the Jewish culture was transitioning from temple to synagogue. Jesus preached on hillsides and plains, and asked no-one to sacrifice any animals. He did not follow all of the strict Jewish traditions around what one ate and when and where and with whom. He reached out to outcasts who would be turned away from even the most progressive synagogue. He was pouring new wine, one that was for everyone and not just a chosen people, and it needed a new wineskin. And so the Christian church was born.

A few hundred years later, Constantine wanted to unite an empire of disparate peoples, and he did that by embracing a faith that was for everyone, and not just a chosen few. The church transitioned once again, from being on the fringes of society to being the glue that held society together. The Roman Catholic church was born.

When the printing press was invented, and literacy rates in Europe soared, the church changed yet again to accommodate those who could and did read scripture for themselves. The Protestant Reformation was born.

And now, we find ourselves in the digital age, with a world that is beyond the imagination of the dreamers of the past. The church as we know it will transform yet again, but the faith of our ancestors, transmitted to us through the ages, is as alive and vibrant and new as ever. Amen.