Sunday, February 6, 2011

Salt, Light, and a Little Storefront Church in Arkansas...

What if we acted like the most important thing in our lives was not how well we followed doctrine, or that our theology was more perfect than that other person's? What if we acted like salt and light? What would that mean?

I think it would look a lot like Canvas Community Church's "Warming Center." Watch the video - the young lady in the green shirt is Rachel McAdams (@gubeltrut on Twitter), who clued me in on this amazing effort.

1 Corinthians 2:1-16

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him” —
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.
Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.
“For who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ.

Matthew 5:13-20

“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.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In 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.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For 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. Therefore, 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Isaiah 58:1-12

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and 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.
Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

This is the Word of the Lord.

The exile was over. Cyrus had decreed that the Jews could return to their homeland from Babylon. Little by little, people were returning to Jerusalem, and families were repopulating the lands they – and in many cases, their parents and grandparents – had been taken from almost sixty years before.

The inhabitants of Jerusalem work hard. They rebuild the Temple, though it’s rather tiny and run-down, compared to the one destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. They do their best to repair the city walls, the roads, and the marketplace.

While all of this is going on, the citizens of Jerusalem are very careful to attend Temple regularly, keep up with their sacrifices and tithes and donations, and (though food is scarce and many people are bordering on malnutrition) fasting two days each week.

But it seems that the harder they work, the worse things get. No matter how careful they are to keep the Law, no matter how pious they appear to be, there’s not enough rain for the crops. There are still holes in the walls, their houses are still in ruins, and many of the roads are unusable. The whole thing is very confusing. Could it be that, after bringing them through the Exile and returning them home, God has lost interest? Could it be that God has found another chosen people? Could God simply be no longer listening?

I can imagine how shocking Isaiah’s words were for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the people who were saying, perhaps aloud, but certainly in their hearts, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

You see, in the same way that you and I may flip a wall switch and expect a light to come on, people in that day and age, whatever country they were in, whatever gods they worshipped, expected that if they followed the rules, made the sacrifices, and attended to their rituals properly, that god or those gods would respond as expected. Keeping the rules meant keeping the deities happy, and as long as He or she or it or they were satisfied, then the people would find favor with those deities, and nothing else mattered.

The obvious problem with this logic was that, from the moment God had called Abram from Ur of the Chaldees, the Jewish people had been God’s chosen people, an example to the nations, a race which, by their very existence, had already found favor with God.

What was the point of all this fasting, all this self-abasement? If they were already God’s chosen people, how could they be more chosen? Isaiah’s call is for God’s people to act like what they already are – God’s people!

God’s people don’t need ritual fasts to get God’s attention. What God calls for is not more sackcloth and ashes to demonstrate someone’s piety, but a redefinition of “piety.” In this new definition we read in Isaiah, fasting is a new set of relationships within ongoing life. The fasting acceptable to God is a daily fast from domination, from blaming others, from evil speech, from self-satisfaction, from entitlement, from blindness to one's privilege. The fast that God seeks calls for radical, vigilant attention justice and generosity, day in and day out.

It is the fast of a people not seeking their identity, but confident and active within their identity! Not trying to be somebody, but sure of who they already are! It is a fast which, because of its generosity, compassion, and confidence in the blessings of God, will naturally result in the light, healing, help, protection, satisfying of needs, and, most certainly, the presence and guidance of God among them.

In countless Sunday Schools, Bible studies, youth groups and worship services today, discussions and lessons and sermons will be struggling with our Gospel reading, and I do mean “struggling.” Set aside trying to explain how salt can become unsalty; the whole thing about the Law not being abolished, and the requirement to be more righteous than the Pharisees is a tall mountain to climb for anyone.

It’s too easy to get the discussion wrong – to end up talking about how we, as Christians, might become the salt of the earth, or become the light of the world. Too often, the message will be that if we work harder in this or that, if we are more diligent in the other, then perhaps God will look favorably upon those actions, and mercifully account for our actions as attaining the status of being salt and light.

But Jesus never said “You can become the salt of the earth,” or “You will be the light of the world.” These are not potential states, achievements to be attained, or even future certainties! We don’t have to try to become salt and light.

Jesus said, you are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world! In Jesus Christ, this is a current reality. And when we embrace this reality, when we know who we are, everything changes.

The thing about salt is, whether it’s mined or harvested through desalinization, it can’t be not salt. It seasons, it preserves, in some areas of the country it melts ice on roads, and in the summer that same kind of salt helps freeze ice cream. In ancient times salt was rubbed on newborns, and had other medicinal uses. Some gourmets claim to be able to taste the difference between salt from different places on the planet. But whatever the application, salt has to be salt.

The thing about light is it can’t be anything but light. Light is pervasive and invasive; if you have to develop film in a darkroom, any trace of light seeping in will ruin the process. When it’s so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face, a single match can make all the difference. Whichever extreme, light has to be light.

If we view church as something we go to, rather than something we are; if it’s a once-a-week get-out-of-Hell-free card or if it counts as positive marks on our social acceptability meter, we miss the point, and I would contend that we are in danger of finding out how salt can become unsalty.

And if we, as Christians, are struggling to be accepted by God, to be doctrinally perfect and theologically blameless, we’re missing the point. We are already accepted by God. We are already salt and light. We don’t cease functioning because we’re already there; instead, knowing who we are and whose we are frees us to act in response to this incredible gift of God’s grace! We can’t be anything but salt! We can’t be anything but light!

One of the most striking examples I’ve seen lately of this kind of freedom was when my friend Rachel McAdams told me about volunteer work she’s doing at this tiny storefront church in Little Rock, Arkansas, called Canvas Community Church. In early January, as temperatures in Arkansas were dropping far more than usual, the homeless shelters became filled to over capacity. People were, out of necessity, being turned away. There was no room. Canvas Community church members decided to open their doors so folks could get warm. There was no big pomp and circumstance, no running it through committee to make sure it didn’t violate the charter, no budget, and no plan for how to get it done. I don’t even think they ran it past City Hall. They saw a need and filled the need.

They set up row upon row of donated cots in the common area. They made coffee. They cooked food. They opened the doors. Over a hundred people showed up that first night, and aside from a few nights when the temperature has meant that the center could close, the place has been packed ever since. More than one hundred and fifty volunteers have done the following: Over 2,000 meals have been distributed. Hundreds of people have received haircuts, warm clothes, showers, sleeping bags, and hygiene kits. But the impact is going far beyond these basics. Over a hundred people so far have received medical assistance. Fifty six homeless and marginalized individuals so far have been helped into social services. Twenty-one people have been helped into rehab. Thirteen people have been helped into an education program. And no less than twelve families have been reunited.

What is striking to me, and not in a good way, is this: Canvas Community Church is all too unique, not because of what they did, but that they did it at all. They didn’t sit back and expect the shelters to magically expand their capacity to do the job. They didn’t wait on the government to step in. They were salt. They were light.

Seeing a need and actively, even recklessly, meeting that need? That is being the salt of the earth which brings nourishment, healing, and restoration. That is being the light of the world which brings hope, direction, growth, and life.

When God spoke through Isaiah, he was calling on the returning exiles to act like who they already were: the chosen of God, a beacon of light to the Gentiles, a source of hope for the nations. When Christ calls us to exceed the Pharisees in our righteousness, we can do this only by acting like what we already are – what we cannot not be! Salt and light!

1 comment:

  1. Tragic...
    Give me a shout... Someone who knew Trouble With A T needs a friend... --Hawke