Epiphany 5 (09-02-2020)

A Continuing Persistent Presence

Read Matthew 5:13-16

Much debate and discussion has taken place over the years as to what the role of the church is, occasionally at gatherings that are held from time to time whenever the church feels itself sliding away. Typically, there is considerably more talk than action.

Today, even if action is not probable, in my role as one who is priming you for you new minister, whomever that might be, I would like to continue this discussion. Anyway, shouldn’t we always be talking about enabling the church here to more resemble the kingdom of which Jesus spoke, rather than the topics that usually fill the agendas of our meetings, such as property, money and ageing and dwindling congregations in a changing world.

In trying to find a way forward for the church, it is tempting to look backward for solutions,  to the so-called ‘good old days’. Yes, we are nourished by our past, but we actually live in the present, a new present, different in many respects from any of our human pasts.

It is also tempting – and easy – to do nothing, lest we upset someone or their pet likes or dislikes, or the power structures. 

But both of these approaches – looking to the past or doing nothing – are inappropriate. So where are our guides amid calls for change or redefinition or, using that favourite word of the church, renewal? What will shape a new present that is qualitatively different from our past?

Perhaps today’s Bible stories offer a couple of suggestions for 21st century Ocean Grove/Barwon Heads.

The images of the church in the gospel reading this morning as light or salt, in their simplicity, appear to uncover something of the indirect and hidden nature of the church. They suggest that, rather than calling attention to themselves, churches, congregations or individual ‘followers of Jesus’ are most effective when they are not noticed.

Likewise, they also make it clear that ‘church’ cannot exist in separation from the community that surrounds and feeds us as human beings.

Some years ago, retired Melbourne theologian, educationalist and former teacher of mine, Denham Grierson, asked me and a few other former students of his to his house to review the draft of his new book, A People on the Way.

It was, as the subtitle indicates, a study of “congregation, mission and Australian culture.” After reading it, I considered it such an important book that I urged every elder and every parish councillor and every lay preacher and every minister to read it and study it.

Dr. Grierson picked up on the three biblical images of light, salt and yeast and said these elements provide “a theological foundation for a local congregation as it seeks to define its mission”.  I have made references to light in preceding weeks, so I will just focus on salt today, though the pictures won’t be nearly as pretty as the ones on light.

What might Jesus’ listeners have thought when they heard him use this common, everyday substance, salt, in reference to discipleship?

One of the qualities of salt is its persistence.  It never loses its saltiness; it doesn’t have to try to be salty, it just is. Saltiness is a function of its being.  It doesn’t come in a range of qualities or strengths either. Salt is salt, period. All salt came from the sea, so if you have a recipe that specifies “sea salt,” it is being just a little precious as well as redundant. All salt came from the sea at one time or another, and one salt is just as salty as any other. Keep that in mind as we use it as Jesus did with regard to our mission.

Quoting Dr. Grierson, “That mission is best understood as a continuing persisting presence just like salt. Much of the witness of the local congregation (will be) of the kind that is hidden within the fabric of community”.

A continuing persisting presence, hidden, you might say, like salt? Just enough salt and we say ‘this steak is juicy and tasty’. Too much salt and we complain. The salt is not detectable if it is doing its job, but its effects are.

Dr. Grierson dug into his own local history and tells this ‘salt’ story:

During the post war years in the 1940s in Australia, a small but determined Catholic woman heard of the sickness of aged neighbours in the small houses in her street. South Melbourne, the suburb where she lived, had been hard-hit by strikes and unemployment. Many people were sick because of poor nutrition, and unable to act because of advanced age. So Mary Kehoe mobilised some of her friends and they cooked meals for those who were ill. 

The problem arose as to how to carry the meals to those in need?  The solution? It was found in the use of an old pram. The meals were loaded into the pram, and pushed up the street to the houses of the unwell and needy, and also to a canteen two houses from Mary Kehoe’s place. Her efforts to involve the local council had resulted in the provision of two huts to act as a relief centre.

Meals cooked at her house were wheeled to the canteen, where many gathered for emergency help. Thus began ‘Meals on Wheels’, which today it is so much a part of our social service environment that its beginnings are lost and forgotten to most people. It gives hope and support to hundreds of people, who without it, would not survive. A continuing persisting presence, hidden, like salt.

Biblical scholar Barbara Reid puts Matthew’s ‘salt’ story in context when she says: “…the uses of salt in the ancient world included: seasoning, preservation, purification, and judgment…”

She goes on: “In saying to his disciples, ‘You are the salt of the earth’ Jesus could have meant that they perform any and all of these functions: that they draw out the liveliness and savour of God’s love in the world; they are a sign of God’s eternal fidelity; they bring to judgment all that is opposed to God’s reign”.

Then she makes this important comment: “The task of Christians in every age is to discern what it means in (their own) new context to be faithful to the words and deeds of Jesus.  Just as Christians of the (a previous) century determined that abolition of slavery was being most faithful to the gospel, even though Jesus’ teachings presumed the institution of slavery, so today we face the challenge of eliminating sexism and systems of domination, though these (too) are woven into the fabric of the Gospels”.

If we are to be a ‘church’ discussing adapting to change, forms of ministry, restructuring, making better use of resources; and if we are to face our changing situation with integrity and purpose, then how we become ‘church’ in the community will be more important than how we are structured within a set of Regulations or a Constitution or the form our worship takes on Sunday or our theological position on any range of issues..

We, like salt, are to be, in Denham Grierson’s words, “a continuing, persistent presence.”  How we accomplish this is yours to work out, but as you look around you will notice more than a few ‘salty’ individuals, who regularly work in some pretty salty endeavours such as the Dove and ‘Loaves and Fishes.’  We’ve got a start, but there is more salt and light to be had, and a world around us that needs it.

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