February 6, 2011

Isaiah 58:1-12
Matthew 5:13-10

Last May our church had the opportunity to send a team of four people to a conference in Niagara Falls called “Stewards by Design.” Patti Polowick, Blair Lukan, Dorothy de Bruijn, and I took part in this three day conference, organized by the Presbyterian Church in Canada, to assist congregations in growing their ministries as good stewards of the many gifts that God has blessed us with.

The keynote speaker for “Stewards by Design” was Kennon Callahan – a minister, author, and conference leader for many years. We learned about Callahan’s concept of the “Twelve Keys to an Effective Church,” and we began to work together to analyze St. Andrew’s ministry – thinking about our strengths, our resources, and our limitations as a congregation of Christ’s Church in Saskatoon.

The core idea of Callahan’s books and conferences is that healthy and effective congregations develop strengths in at least 8 or 9 of the twelve key areas. And we do it by first identifying our current strengths and working to strengthen those areas even more. The four of us who attended the conference could probably tell you what WE think are St. Andrew’s greatest strengths… But the process of congregational development works best if we can identify our strengths together, and decide together what areas we should work on.

One of the great things about Callahan’s model is that we don’t have to be great at everything, and we don’t have to do everything. We can choose what sounds fun, exciting, and engaging to strengthen the strengths of our congregation. We can have fun while learning to do what we do best even better.

Maybe we will focus on creating stirring, helpful worship. Or maybe we will build significant relational groups among our members. Maybe we will emphasize and enhance the visibility of our church, or we could grow the gift of generous giving within our community.

What the Stewards by Design team would like to do is to have a Celebration Planning Retreat in early April. We’ll invite everyone to get together on the first Saturday in April to celebrate our strengths as a congregation and to make plans together for how to focus our energy over the next couple of years. What we decide at the planning retreat can be incorporated into the plans and goals that our Session and committees will be making for next year.

But first, we thought it would be helpful for us to learn about the Twelve Keys to an Effective Church. And so, over the next two months, we will share the twelve keys in worship – sometimes with puppets, as we did today, but sometimes in other ways as well.

The first key to an effective church is Mission and Outreach. It’s not that we HAVE to develop our mission and outreach program before we do anything else, but we have to know that mission and outreach is primary. Even if we could master all the other eleven keys, if we left out mission and outreach, we would have missed the point of what it means to be a church.

Speaking about the mission that we are called to as Christian churches, Kennon Callahan writes this: “So long as the Church seeks to BE the center of people’s lives it is no different from the other entities of our culture that clamor to gain the central place in people’s lives. [But] when the Church decides to be IN the center of people’s lives, the Church transcends the entities of the culture. It gives up its own self-seeking, survival-oriented tendencies and becomes an entity focused on compassion, on serving, sharing, and caring. Whenever the Church does this, the Church is truly the Church.”

Callahan suggests that we need to stop trying to get people to make the church the centre of their lives, and we need to think about how we can be IN the centre of THEIR lives – how we can love and serve and support the people in our community in the midst of their daily lives and needs and concerns.

The lectionary chose for us today just the perfect scripture readings for the topic of mission and outreach. And though the Gospel text was first written for Christian disciples of the late first century, it is no less relevant for disciples and churches today as we consider our mission. Matthew’s Jesus explains our mission by using three metaphors: We are the light of the world. We are the salt of the earth. We are a city on a hill.

What I want you to notice first is that Jesus doesn’t say, “You’ve GOT to be light” or “You’ve got to TRY HARDER to be salty.” He says “You ARE light. You ARE salt. It’s what God made you to be. It’s who you are.” Just like the conference title – “Stewards BY DESIGN” – It’s what God made us to be.

The second thing I’d like you to notice is that the identity and purpose of a disciple or a church is to be FOR the world. The community of Christians that Jesus describes does not exist for its own sake, but it exists for the sake of the world – even for the sake of the world that rejects or maligns, ignores or even persecutes the church.

A light does not exist for its own sake. Its sole purpose is to let other things be seen. Salt does not exist for its own sake. No, salt exists for seasoning, for preserving, for melting, for healing. If we are light and salt, then we exist for the world – for its illumination, for its healing, for its life. That is our mission and our identity as followers of Jesus.

Although it is our nature to be light and salt for the world – to preach the Gospel, to love our neighbours, and to work for justice and peace and goodness in all our relationships – the reality is that we often don’t live out our calling as God’s people. Very much like the Pharisees, we sometimes get wrapped up in the trappings of our religiosity. We practice our faith insofar as we find it personally helpful to do so. We worship, we pray, we read scripture, and we think about God because doing these things makes us feel good. It makes us feel righteous, and holy, and good. We get a lot out of our faith. We have good friends at church. We enjoy coming to worship.

It’s not that any of those things are wrong. It’s just that they are all missing the most important part of who we are as Christians. Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites because their religion had become all about them and how pious they could be. They had missed the point that as God’s people we are made to be salt and light – we are made to be FOR the world.

There’s a strange bit in the Gospel passage in which Jesus talks about salt that has lost is saltiness. Salt that has lost its saltiness is useless, he explains, and unsalty salt will get thrown out. Unsalty salt? How can salt lose its saltiness? It can’t really… at least, not by some impossible chemical miracle… But salt can lose its saltiness by becoming so impure, so mixed with other elements that it loses its function.

So the metaphor is a warning… Yes, you are salt. But salt can lose its saltiness, and then it gets thrown away. Remember the Pharisees who lost the point of their faith. YOU must remember that you are salt… and salt has a purpose… salt has a mission. Salt is for healing and melting and seasoning and preserving. Salt isn’t just for the sake of being salt.

The salt and light sayings picture mission as inherent to discipleship, as saltiness is essential to salt and shining is essential to light. It doesn’t make sense if you have a light to cover it up and put it out by placing a bushel basket on top of it… But that is so often what religious people do.

In the time of the prophet Isaiah, God’s people were struggling with the purpose of their religion too. With all the troubles they were experiencing in life, the people of Israel were really getting into their religion. They were fasting and praying and trying to get God’s attention and help. But they were missing the point, the prophet explained. They were doing religion, but they were doing it for themselves. They were doing it to try to get something from God, and God wouldn’t put up with that sort of thing.

God explains, “Day after day [the people] seek me and delight to know my ways… [they worship me] as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.” These are religious people, but they’re not LIVING according to God’s commandments. Through the prophet, God complains “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and [you] oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.”

Hypocrites! That’s what Isaiah is calling them because they have missed the point. God doesn’t want our empty rituals. God wants our faith to form us and equip us to be God’s people FOR the world!

As I was reading for today, I came across a quote from Clarence Jordan’s book called “Sermon on the Mount.” In it, he defines true fasting as “working so hard or being so committed to something that we forget to eat.” In this view, FASTING is a verb form of the adverb FAST, and it means to move so quickly and so intently towards a goal that all else is forgotten.

I believe THAT is the kind of religious practice that God calls us to… to be so intently salting and shining for the world that we practically forget our own needs and concerns. THAT is the fast that God would choose for us: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.” God would choose that we “share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into our house; when we see the naked, to cover them, and to help and support our own kin.”

With the metaphors of salt, light, and a city on a hill, Jesus strikes the death blow to all religion that is purely personal and private. The community of disciples is not meant to be an introverted secret society shielding itself from the world, but it is a city set high on a hill whose authentic life cannot be concealed.

Like the first disciples, we are called to the active mission of “letting our light shine” to “all.” But we do not generate the light any more than salt generates its own saltiness. The metaphors picture the church as “having-been-lit,” recipients of a light from which God is the source. We have not been lit for our own sakes, but for the sake of the world. And just as Jesus is light for a dark world, we are to be that light and shine that light as well.

Over the next couple of months, you’ll hear lots more about the Twelve Keys to an Effective Church. And I invite you to listen, to read, and to consider how God is calling us to be the most effective church we can be. May God help us to strengthen our strengths and to reach out in mission… letting our light shine in this community and throughout the world… for the sake of the world and the glory of God. Amen.