Sermon 3rd before Lent, year A, 09.02.20.
Salt and Light
13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
The Law and the Prophets
17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
I set myself the rather daunting task of thinking about the subject of mission for this Sunday and I hope that it may be part of our ongoing conversation about what we are called to be and to do as a church.
Mission is such a large word – and that’s part of the problem. If you start to think holistically about mission, and I think we do need to, it soon encompasses care for creation, the nurture of disciples, and making a difference in the world through social action, as well as a more traditionally ‘evangelical’ notion of ‘evangelism’.
The concepts of mission, church and kingdom are linked, but it’s not always clear how. Added to that, as a national Institution the Church of England, like any institution, appears often to be concerned with its own survival, so that subtly, national strategies like Reform and Renewal (the one we’re currently in) can look and feel like little more than shoring up our own structures. We can scoff, but we’d be disingenuous if we didn’t sometimes think about the long-term health of our own congregation. And at National, Diocesan and Deanery level, the Church is similarly concerned, especially as the number of people coming forward for ordination is simply not able to keep up with the percentage of Baby Boomers currently retiring from ministry. In this Deanery alone, 25% of Incumbent posts are unfilled.
‘Mission’ means to send and we should probably go back even further than Jesus when we think about its origin. God has a mission, or rather, God is mission. ‘The missio dei’ is a phrase that denotes the mission of God; the idea that mission is a part of who God is, rather than an activity of the Church. It’s not so much that God has a mission for his Church; rather, God has a Church for his mission in the world.
Karl Barth was one of the first theologians to articulate mission as a characteristic of God himself. Mission is also implied in Trinitarian theology in that the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit, and finally, the Church is sent: ‘As the Father sends me, so I am sending you’ (John 20:21). I wonder if you asked all church members to articulate what Jesus’ mission was, whether there would be unanimity.
To seek and to save the lost?
To announce the Good News of the kingdom?
To make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit?
A radical inclusive message of love….
These are all slightly different answers you might hear, depending on who you asked.
But back to us. If God is already active in the world, mission becomes a case of discerning where God is and joining in. This is the main theme of the Partnership for Missional Church process that many of the Berkshire churches have been involved in. It involves listening to the Word and the world and sensing where God is active in the community. Where is the energy? Luke 10 is a key text – the sending out of the disciples to all the towns and villages where Jesus himself was planning to go – and the instruction to stay in one place when welcomed and wipe the dust off when not.
In Whitchurch as we went through the process we practised dwelling in the Word together in all our meetings, and we carried out listening exercises with church members and people from the community to see what made us all tick. Only then did we start to make a plan, which was around the phenomenon of social isolation – and we were hoping to link up with others in the community who also cared about social isolation. Because there are ‘people of peace’ out there who also want to make a difference in the world. In that respect ‘mission’ (in its widest sense) is not the sole prerogative of Christians.
So eventually, mission plans may be a good idea. And it might be that having a ‘strap line’ is a good idea too – but the problem with straplines is that they risk ending up being entirely bland, saying little and sounding a lot like all the other church straplines. More on this later.
These are all, I hope, good starter questions to help us engage with what God is calling us to be and to do.
Does God even have a specific calling for each church though? That’s another question. The book of Revelation seems to suggest that he does. The seven churches and their specific messages in the first chapters of Revelation are very much tailored to individual congregations. Jesus has a living message that is vital to their health and John’s revelation records each one, sometimes pointedly: “you are lukewarm”; “buy salve for your eyes”; and then, more positively: “you hate that stuff like I do”; “well done, you’ve been faithful”.
I think God does give specific messages and sometimes pictures as we pray for guidance for our church. But messages and images need to be weighed and discerned, not just unquestioningly accepted, or rejected.
An impression of our church that I gained through praying (and I offer this in humility and openness to further discernment) was of a ship that had been somewhat tossed about from one side to another, and that didn’t need pulling any more in either one direction or another (for now at least) but that just needed steadying. When not being tossed and turned, a ship will find its own equilibrium without too much intervention.
‘Steadying’ may sound rather unimpressive as a mission strategy, but it takes seriously the need for being as well as doing amongst God’s people. We can’t do unless we can first be: be at peace, be joyful, be present; be imaginative. Steadying can happen very naturally through love, acceptance and generally not being uptight. “It’s okay” is a calming message God says more frequently than perhaps we realise, and I often need to hear that message.
Another image that has emerged through prayer is of the Japanese art of ‘kintsugi’. Take a bowl, for instance, that’s been cracked: our inclination is to mend it so you cannot see the cracks, but in kintsugi, the item is mended by glue and resin mixed with precious metals, including gold, which incorporates the damage into the aesthetic of the restored item, making it part of the object’s history. After the restoration the bowl has the capacity to be stronger and more beautiful than the original, and it will be able to hold more than it could before.
Hold more depth in worship, perhaps; hold more pain on behalf of others; hold more diversity…these are just suggestions but that may a helpful image to ponder.
We are not alone in seeking a way forward for our church. The Diocese has been engaged for three years in forming a Common Vision and even before Bishop Stephen’s arrival mission was always on the cards. We had “Living Faith” under Bishop John and something or other under Richard Harries (before my time). For sure, Diocesan vision is shaped a lot by getting a new leader who perhaps needs to be seen to shape the organization as well as listening to what people are saying.
How collaborative are mission strategies, is also a question. My feeling is that all good mission strategies emerge collectively over time and go off in directions that no one was anticipating. Think of the Acts of the Apostles, perhaps better named: the Acts of the Holy Spirit.
There is national pressure on Dioceses to have a common vision. There is an upside and a downside to tying yourself to a vision; we can be hopeful or we can be cynical when we read vision statements.
It’s a well-documented fact that under the incisive leadership of the former Bishop of London, who championed the “London 2020” vision, decline was halted and London Diocese emerged as a ‘can do’ place where churches were growing and spirits were rising.
It’s just that if you begin to collect Diocesan strap lines (and I’m sure no normal human actually being does this) you can start to feel a bit jaded. One blogger I enjoy has in fact done just this and he comments: “As you will be aware one of the major tasks facing the dioceses of the Church of England is to ensure that they have the correct three word strapline or slogan. If we can only get that right then surely the kingdom will arrive”.
He goes on to say: “However some of you may be nervous that you are serving in a Diocese whose strapline is rubbish”.
He then puts the words from the collective strap lines into a Wordle and summarises:
“…If you belong to a Diocese where they say: ‘God transforming communities’, you could not be in a better place. If you are ‘empowering diverse worship’ you need to look for a move” (Justin Lewis Anthony).
So I hope you know that we serve in a Diocese where we are seeking ‘to be a more Christ-like Church for the sake of the world’, a church that is ‘contemplative, compassionate and courageous’.
Which, in a sense, says it all. As this is worked out, priorities around discipleship care for creation, and schools and young people have emerged, among others. So if we’re already seeking to be contemplative, compassionate and courageous, is it appropriate to have a church tag line in addition? It might be. “To know Christ and make him known” appears on some of our literature, though you have to burrow down a bit to find it. It’s a great tag line, but what church doesn’t want to know Christ and make him known? Is it specific enough for us? Or is it too definitive, or is it just plain out of date?
Sometimes you come across something that really speaks about the identity of a place or a product, or a company and it actually appears to work: “Sky: Believe in Better”; “Tesco: Every Little Helps”.
I couldn’t think of any local church straplines that have been memorable for me, except amusing ones, like the sign outside Stonebridge Church of God, Ohio, situated on a busy main road, that reads: “Honk if you love Jesus. Text while driving if you want to meet him”.
Another way to come at it, is to ask what are our values? When asked this question last year, in an imaginative exercise about what might be presented at the 2024 APCM, the priorities that emerged strongest were children and young people; a strong school church relationship; increasing relationships with the other churches and faith centres, and work with teenagers, e.g. them leading services.
Under “what we’d like to be known for”, the top starred words were: Welcoming, Caring and Involved.
As a relative outsider, who read and re-read the parish profile, I also noted certain words which appeared to describe the flavour of the church here: engagement, generosity, creativity, authenticity, diversity. And being Green.
So we already have quite a lot to go on as we talk about our mission. We also have a really great logo – the Spirit hovering above the cross. We could unpack all sorts of important things about that and what it says about us, and our character – who we are – and therefore our mission: what we feel called like to do.
And as we talk together about this we can celebrate what is happening already. And important amongst the things happening already is the daily witness of ordinary Christians being salt and light in their contexts.
One authentic model for mission is Mark Greene’s from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, and it fits our reading well. He points out that the average church-goer who is still in work probably spends up to 95% of their time in a working environment where they are already salt and light. They don’t have time to engage with mission projects the church is putting on and they don’t need to because they are in their ‘mission field’ at work. Not that it is their job to go around converting people – their calling is that they are salt. The job of the church is to celebrate and encourage them in this, not bemoan the fact they’re not joining rotas and teams to ‘do mission’ to the people of the parish.
As more and more people become disconnected from any form of churchgoing, that Christian alongside whom they work in the firm, on the ward, in the boardroom, in the small charity, in the school, or at a neighbour’s sharing child care, may be the only Christian they know. That’s a sacred calling: to be a good human being in touch with the divine on behalf of others. This is likely to be the primary calling of many of us here in church. And retirees also have natural contexts where they are salt and light to neighbours and people they spend time with.
The thing about salt is that it is not the main substance; it is not the meat. It is the seasoning. This suggests that what goes on around us is the main event (i.e. life) and our calling is that we are the salt (not, try and be salt; you are salt). However, salt can use its saltiness, and then it’s frankly a bit useless. Let the listener take note! On the other hand, salt that is doing its job, seasons the whole, and in a time before refrigeration, would be the main agent in preserving the integrity of meat and fish.
So we’ve had a whistle stop tour of mission. Beginning in the very character of God, thinking about Jesus being sent and us being sent. Thinking about our Diocese and our church; those who are salt and light at work, and those who have more capacity to think about our immediate environment of Newtown, where we are the parish church.
I’d like to end with some bullet points which I feel are already important for us, some of the things that are already proving opportunities for us to be salt and light.
- The school as a place where a distinctive Christian ethos is fertile ground for children to grow in wonder, trust and love.
- The café, a space where there’s more than just physical refreshment.
- NEWT magazine – salt and light into every home in our parish.
- Celebrating the causes and charities that so many people here are already involved with, that are making a difference in the world: you know what these are and we give money accordingly as part of our mission commitment.
And finally some bullet points that we might be able to grow further in:
- Sunday worship that is missional – worship that genuinely touches and refreshes and changes us and says to our neighbourhood: God is really in that place.
- A growing prayer ministry of some description: Morning Prayer for interceding together; maybe a gathering before the service to seek God’s face and ask him to touch us afresh through the worship? A chance to have anointing for healing during the Eucharist?
- An new expectation that God is at work and active in Newtown and that there are people out there who we can link up with in local projects to bless the neighbourhood. Residents of the parish – you have a vital role here. “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven”.
So, worship, prayer, being salt in Newtown.
And the last bullet point breaks down even further: three possibilities have come across my radar just in the last week, as I’ve begun to meet people locally: a walk of witness on Palm Sunday with our neighbours at Wycliffe; an art exhibition to celebrate and say goodbye to the gas tower, and Newtown street party training. These are all possibilities; who knows if the Spirit will kindle any of them into life?
And what happens as a result of all these dreams and plans is entirely unknown as yet – and entirely up to God. But be encouraged! You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.