Sunday, February 05, 2017
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Maybe it is a coincidence, maybe not.  Over the last few weeks, I have been reading a book that was written in the 1840s by French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville.  While I mentioned him in passing a couple of Sundays ago, the deeper reading of his material has made me realize how pertinent what he wrote in the 1840s is for North American society today.  Alexis de Tocqueville had gone to the United States to observe the prison system and eventually wrote about how democracy was flourishing there.  He also took time to come to Canada, to what was then Upper and Lower Canada, to see how this nation was carrying out democracy.  But it was mainly in the U.S. he studied and one of the observations was profound.
Now, remember this was written in 1840, and much has changed since then in terms of our society, and the religious life of our communities. Nevertheless, he observed that the Christian faith, that Puritanism, which was brought over by their forefathers, made a powerful contribution to the nation.  He also observed that democracy had its flaws as well as its virtues.  Because of this, there was a need for people of faith to make a contribution to a civil society in order that those freedoms were preserved.  De Tocqueville observed that democracy can foster intellectual and moral habits that can be deadly to freedom.  He writes: “The tyranny of the majority, individualism, materialism and democratic despotism, these can become tyrannies.  Christianity acts as a corrective to these perilous democratic tendencies.”

He even goes so far – and it’s a little overly romantic – as to suggest that political institutions can only really be political institutions if Americans maintained their Christian faith and moral values.  De Tocqueville was making a profound case, suggesting that faith makes a difference in the life of a community, and for all our institutions, for all our democratic ideals, if the citizenry do not act in a civil way, then freedom erodes, particularly by the tyranny of the majority.

This coincided with an experience I had last week.  It was Monday morning, right after the events in Quebec City.  I went into the place where I buy my coffee, and the young man who serves it is a Muslim, and it was very obvious that he was profoundly hurt.  We talk nearly every day, sometimes about really important things like cricket, but other times about world events and faith.  This was different.  As we talked about what had happened, he made an interesting observation.  He said, “If only our political leaders would read their Bibles.”  For a Muslim who does not subscribe to the authority of The New Testament he nevertheless was talking about it.  As we spoke, it was obvious that what he was referring to were the teachings of Jesus, and most especially The Beatitudes of Matthew Chapter 5.

It is to those very passages that I want to turn today because I think they are an inspiration for our society and they are a word of correction and hope in the midst of recent events. At the same time, they are as real today as they were to de Tocqueville in 1840.  The passage from the Gospel of Matthew is right after the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus talks about The Beatitudes:  “Blessed are the peacemakers… blessed are they that mourn… blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake… blessed are you when you are persecuted in my name” and so on.  In today’s passage, Jesus is explaining that.  He is describing what discipleship means in following The Beatitudes.  It is a guidance for people of faith and for those who subscribe to being disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.
He uses powerful language, language that is infused with a whole discussion of the law of The Old Testament.  Jesus is asking his followers not to jettison the faith that they found in the law, and in Judaism.  He is saying, “I have not come to replace that law, but I have come to fulfill it.”  Then, he says to them, “I want you to practice a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees and religious leaders.”  I want you to go beyond what even the law prescribes in order that you might be my followers.  Then he gets into two images of precisely what this looks like, images of salt and light.  Both of these are loaded images.  They have deep roots, particularly within The Old Testament.  They speak with a profundity that comes from a deep well of resource and history, but they also speak about what we, as Christians, should be like in a civil society, what we offer to the world to be both salt and light.

Why salt?  Salt is powerful.  This past week as a corrective to the emotions that I was feeling about the tragedy of Quebec City, I received a telephone call from a young man who I hadn’t heard from in thirty-four years.  He had been a student in the village where I ministered in Nova Scotia.  He was a lovely young lad, and would come into, as a lot of the younger people did, the village because they knew I played the guitar, they would sit in the living room of the Manse, and we would play the guitar together.  There were varying skill levels and various qualities of guitars, but it didn’t matter. We were just making music and having fun together.  It was at a time when people were starting to drift away from the church, and it was wonderful that we were actually able to connect.  We played the guitar, had something to drink, closed with a prayer and they went home.  Nothing profound!

Out of the blue, 34 years later, he phones me up and tells me that he is now a lay leader in a prominent church in Vancouver, and that he is writing Christian music. He and his family have given their lives to the Lord, and he just wanted me to know.  He said that he knew he hadn’t touched base and spoken with me for a long time, although he was in touch with some of the other young people that used to play the guitar with me, but he just wanted me to know.  It got me thinking about some of those moments, and remembered one particular thing: the friendship that I had with the local Presbyterian minister.  This all has bearing, because that Presbyterian minister was older and wiser than I was, and I was twenty-one years old and running a three point pastoral charge – and I knew nothing about anything!  I would plagiarize from him.  I would take his prayers, his services; in fact you could find almost no distinction between the Presbyterian and the United churches on any given Sunday, because I was borrowing from him.  I had no resources.  I didn’t even have a Book of Prayers!  He was profoundly helpful and so I decided one day I would host him and his wife for dinner.  They had been so kind to me!  I grilled pork chops, thinking that would be very nice.  Then, as a delicacy, maybe I would cook something Maritime, fiddleheads from New Brunswick.  I consulted the recipe, boiled the fiddleheads, added three tablespoons of salt. When I served the meal, and noticed how quickly the jug of water disappeared. Finally Jill, said to me, “Water, please!” and “More water please – now, now!” It was obvious that the fiddleheads tasted like the bottom of the Dead Sea.  But everything else was great and the fellowship was wonderful!  Three teaspoons and three tablespoons are very different from one another!
Salt is powerful, isn’t it?  It was used when in the Book of Exodus, Chapter 30, Moses and the people of Israel would set up an altar, and rub salt on the beast that was going to be sacrificed, so that when God received this sacrifice it was pure.  The same in the Book of Ezekiel when the great bulls were burnt and the smoke went up into heaven.  Same with Elijah: salt became important.  In Hebrew, it is the word “thein” meaning “divine substance”.  You see, salt isn’t just salt.  Salt is a powerful preserver.  It keeps and restores things, and as Fred Craddock says, “gives flavour to things.” When Jesus says to the disciples, “You are the salt of the earth” he is saying, “You are the purifiers carrying out the will of God.”  Yesterday was the birthday of the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
In his wonderful book, The Cost of Discipleship he talks about being salt: “We are the salt.  Jesus does not say ‘You must be the salt’.  It is not for the disciples to decide whether or not they shall be the salt of the earth, for they are so whether they like it or not.  They have been made salt by the call that they have received.  Again, it is: “You are the salt”, not “You have the salt.”  By identifying the salt with the Apostolic Proclamation, the Reformers robbed the saying of its sting.  The word speaks of the whole existence insofar as it is grounded in the core of Christ.  You are the salt of the earth means your total existence is found in Christ.” Homer once said that salt infused everything, the whole earth.  It may be a bit of an exaggeration, but Homer was right.  Salt, when it goes into something manifests itself deep within, and it is that which preserves and keeps it.  So it is in a sense with salt, the “divine substance” of God’s grace.  When it enters our lives, it becomes not just part of our entire existence, but the whole of it. It affects everything that we are.  If we are the salt of the earth, we are God’s salt.

Alexander Solzhnitsyn, in his wonderful book, The Gulag Archipelago, tells the story of how when he first met his cellmate, who had the bunk above him, he was very quiet and unassuming. But over time, he observed that in a prison, where often inmates were cruel with each other, this man never responded cruelly.  In a place where the guards were often sadistic and evil in their ways, he never responded with violence or a nasty word.  Solzhnitsyn couldn’t figure out what his cellmate had, but every night he used to hear him rustling papers that he would stuff under his mattress.  He would bring these little pieces of paper out, smooth them over, read them, and then roll them up again and put them under his mattress.  One night, one fell from the bunk to the floor below.  Solzhenitsyn reached down, picked it up, uncurled it and realized these were fragments of sayings by Jesus of Nazareth.  Things like the Sermon on the Mount. In Communist Soviet Russia you weren’t allowed to have a Bible, so he kept these words of Jesus rolled up in fragments under his mattress.  Solzhnitsyn realized once he spoke to this man, that these fragments gave him strength every day.  No matter what condition he found himself in, he was able to act upon it by seeking Christ’s strength in his life.  This is what changed him.  Solzhenitsyn himself said that his life was never the same after meeting the man with the fragments of the Gospels.  It makes a difference!  It changes everything!  It is salt!

Jesus also uses the word ‘light’ as in, “You are the light of the world.”  “You are salt and light.”  Light is powerful in the Bible.  Before Jesus arrived, Abraham was the light; Adam was the light; the Temple was the light; the law was the light; Jerusalem was the light; the prophets were the light.  In fact, light was used to describe so many of the important people and events in The Old Testament.  When Jesus says, “You are now not only salt, but you are light” he is saying, “You go out into the world to carry on what the law has done, what Jerusalem offered, what Abraham offered, what the power of the truth and the Word offers.  You have this to take out into the world.” Light might not seem powerful, but when you bring it into a solar condition, you can create power from it.  Maybe the world needs to do more of that with solar power!  It can cause plants to grow.  When formed and concentrated in a powerful form, it creates a laser, which can either destroy or heal and restore.  Light is a powerful thing all on its own.  So when Jesus says to the disciples, “You are the light of the world” he is saying, you are to go into the world with this very powerful thing that has come from me. He is called “The light of the world” himself.  We see that in this incredible, stained glass window here – Jesus, the Light of the World.  We see the power of it, and it changes lives.

We live in a day and an age and culture that is often narcissistic, celebrating ourselves at the expense of others, elevating ourselves above others. In the midst of this, we find people wanting the light to shine on them. They want to be the centre of attention.  So many people crave this, and social media often feeds this narcissism.
I love a story that defines narcissism so beautifully, when a man goes to a psychiatrist and he says, “I think I have a problem, doctor.  My friends tell me that I have a problem.  I thought I see if you can help me.”

The doctor says, “I don’t know you, and I don’t know anything about you, so why don’t you start at the beginning.”

The man says, “All right.  In the beginning, I created heaven and earth.”!

The doctor realized what his problem was!  The moment we think that we are the light and it shines on us rather than the light that is shining on the world through us, we have a problem.  Jesus said, “Salt can lose its saltiness, but light can also shine in the wrong places.”  In the narcissism of our age, people need to be reminded that their lives are lives that are to be lived in shining the light of God on other people, not just upon themselves.  When narcissism takes hold, it can become a very dangerous thing.  When light is shining through us from God to others, it is a very beautiful thing, for it is not our light, it is Christ who is the light.

This is Super Bowl Sunday, so I have to quote Vince Lombardi.  It actually has a bearing on the sermon too, which is an added blessing!  Vince Lombardi once instructed his players that when a play breaks down and everything falls apart, to, “Hand the ball to the Running Back and tell him to run to the light.”  In other words, he is to burst through the play, to where the light is, and to carry it beyond yourself.  The call of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is to do just that.
As I mentioned in my prayers, this has been a bad week for our nation.  It has also been a week where in many ways we have been at our best.  It has exposed flaws and dark places; it has also revealed kindness, camaraderie and affection.  But these on their own are not enough.  For the world going forward, de Tocqueville was right, society must be free indeed!  It must be free to have a citizenry who are, to quote Jesus, “salt and light”.  These are the things that are needed in our world.  These are the things that come from Christ.  These are the things that can live through you.  Go, be salt, be the light in Christ’s name! Amen.