A Different Kind of Church

In college there was a woman that I wanted to ask out on a date.  I was very nervous about it.  I was in my dorm room with a couple of friends and I was going back and forth on making the phone call.  Finally, I said “Well, what’s the worst that can happen?  She’ll say no, right?”  “Yeah!” said my friend, Jim, “…that’s the worst that can happen…she’d say no!”  And so I picked up the phone and dialed her number.

Jim went on…”or, she could say no…and then she could laugh at you.”

Huh?  What?  “And then I suppose she could tell her friends, and they’d laugh at you too.  That would be worse.”

Pause.  Panic.  And then I heard her voice: “Hello.” Click.

There have been times in my life when my own uncertainty in my abilities, my hesitancy to take risks, my frustrations with how hard something might be have completely shut down my willingness to do what needed to be done… And I’ve let moments pass me by.  Anybody else?  Anyone?

(Oh well, in this case, it all worked out for the best.)

Our Gospel lesson for today speaks into our hesitancy and our lack of confidence in our own sense of identity.

In the early 1900’s in England, King George VI, was unexpectedly thrust into the monarchy when his brother abdicated the throne.  The new King felt wholly unprepared for his role.  King George suffered from a significant stutter, which made it almost impossible for him to speak publicly…which is, of course, an important task for a King.  This story was made famous in the movie, “The King’s Speech.”  (One of my favorite movies)

At one point in the film, when meeting with his speech coach, Lionel Logue, the King is intensely frustrated when he shouts out “I just can’t do it.  I can’t change.  I just can’t become something I’m not.”  Lionel, equally frustrated, replies: “You don’t have to do anything.  You are the King.  You just need to talk like one.”

Lionel Logue correctly reframes the King’s struggle.  It’s not a crisis in ability that he experiences.  It’s a crisis in identity, and confidence.

How often could I, could any of us, benefit from hearing advice like this?

In our Gospel for today, Jesus tell us that: “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.  A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

It’s important to note here that Jesus isn’t ordering: “go be salt,” or “go be light.”  No.  Jesus is saying “You are the salt of the earth.  And you are the light of the world.”  This is a huge distinction.  It is the difference between a command, and a promise.  Jesus is saying that his disciples…you…are already the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  It is a present tense statement, not future tense.

In the world in which we live, we tend to blow by the significance of these statements.  But in the middle east in the days of Jesus, these were significant images.   There was no refrigeration.  Salt was used not only to flavor foods that could be pretty bland, but also would preserve food, especially meat until it could be eaten.  And in a world that relied on fires, torches and oil lamps after dark, for Jesus to say that his disciples were to be light in the darkness carried huge meaning to those who heard him.

Jesus is saying in our Gospel that this is our identity as children of God.  Salt that gives flavor and preserves.  Light that defeats darkness.

The problem isn’t that we’re not equipped to be salt or light…the problem is that we lack the confidence to step boldly into our role and to speak out; to be the hands and feet of God…the salt and the light to a world that desperately needs it.  We are not in a crisis of ability; we are in a crisis of confidence; Confidence in our identity, and in the promises of God.

We all struggle with this.  Indeed, the whole of the Christian church throughout the world, struggles with this.  It is a difficult time to be the church.  It just is.  We have, I think, a confidence problem…a boldness problem.  This is showing up in several different ways:

  • Universally, worship attendance is down and financial support of the church is down.
  • I saw a statistic that said that in 1990, in our own denomination, the ELCA, there were over one million children enrolled in Sunday School.  Just twenty years later, in 2010, that number was right around 480,000.
  • The church is aging.  The average age of people who are a part of faith communities is going up.
  • According to the Pew Research Center, the fastest growing religious group in the country are the “nones.”  The “nones” are those individuals who on US census forms, select “none” for religious affiliation.  In 2015, “nones” made up 23% of the US population.  Interestingly, the Gallup Organization’s most recent polls indicate that 89% of Americans believe in God. So these “nones”…it’s not that they don’t have faith in God, it’s that they don’t have faith in the church.

And I can’t say that I completely blame them.  When the Christian church has made it into the news in recent years, it has often been for all the wrong reasons. We fight amongst ourselves.  Our leaders put their foot in their mouths, and scandal and sometimes cover-ups have created problems that are hard to recover from.

The reality is, the world has changed, but much of the church is still operating like it did in the 1950’s and 1960’s when Christianity held a place of privilege in society.

  • “Of course no one would schedule anything on a Wednesday, that was a church night.”
  • And Sunday mornings, they were sacrosanct!
  • The church sat in the center of American culture, and the world of the church benefitted, and we built these beautiful sanctuaries, and we watched people just walk in our doors.

But the world isn’t that way anymore.  Now the church struggles.  And do you know what?  I think that’s ok.  As a matter of fact, I think that might even be good.  Good for us.  Good for the world.  Good for God’s mission.

I believe it might be good because I think it will return the church to a missional state of mind.  We no longer can just stand around and count people as they come in the door. We need to go out, to show and live the love of God, to invite, to welcome. We need to remember, and to be confident, that we are salt and light for the world.

In the 1st century after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the church was lean. It was small groups, meeting in people’s homes. They faced persecution. They had no money, no sanctuaries, nothing like that. But they had passion, and a mission. And in my experience, people who have passion, and who have a mission, mixed in with a healthy dose of the Holy spirit simply cannot be stopped.

I believe God is calling the Christian church today to return to its 1st century roots. God is calling us to reach out and serve those in need, to invite the neighbor, to care for the poor, the widow, the refugee, the sick and the infirm. God is calling us to be salt and light to a world in need.

And make no mistake: the world is deeply in need.

In this passage, Jesus is making promises and giving out gifts. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. This is sheer blessing. And it is about identity, about our very being, which in turn leads to doing.

Here’s your homework for today:  Look deeply into your lives over the last couple of weeks and think of the variety of ways God has used you to be salt and light:

  • Your words of encouragement to others.
  • Your faithful work at your school, or your place of employment.
  • The volunteering you’ve done.
  • The prayers you’ve offered or the promises you’ve made and kept.

Yes, any of these things may seem, in and of themselves, small. But please don’t forget: small is what God most often uses to change the world.

Today Jesus tells you that you are salt and light.  Don’t stress about being who you’re not.  Just be who you are:  Salt and light.  Salt that brings flavor to the world and preserves.  Light that drives away darkness.  And you’ve got, right now, all the tools you need to be those things.  Trust in this.

And the church has, right now, all the tools we need to be those things.  Trust in this.

Once you begin to believe that you are salt and light; that together we are salt and light, confident in who God has called you to be; your light shines, it shines so that people will see your good works and give thanksgiving and glory to God in heaven.

And God’s mission is fulfilled.  And the world changes into what God created it to be.  Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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