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And if Salt Ceases to Be Salty . . .?

 

Matthew 5:13

I:– At one time Toronto was known as “ Toronto the good”. In those days (roughly from the 1880s until 1950) the buildings that towered over the city were churches. St. James Cathedral, Anglican; St. Michael’s Cathedral, Roman Catholic; Metropolitan Church , Methodist. Huge structures all, they rose up above everything else in the city and dominated it.  Not only did church buildings dominate the city, so did church leaders. No city politician dared defy church leaders. No public servant or board of education official would say or do anything that simply flew in the face of the church’s convictions.  Back in the days of “ Toronto the good” a clergyman (Rev. Maurice Cody) was even president of the University of Toronto, Canada’s most prestigious post-secondary educational institution.

What buildings dominate Toronto ‘s skyline now? What buildings tower over the city now? Banks.  They are all banks. Toronto Dominion was the first superstructure, followed by the Bank of Montreal,  the Commerce, Royal, Nova Scotia , and Canada Trust (now blended with TD).   Clearly, it’s the pursuit of money and the handling of money and the magnification of money that characterises the city now.   Everyone knows that even when the economy declines, the banks continue to make unprecedented profits.ined in the last few years.   Compared to the bank buildings the cathedral churches look like tinker-toys, the playthings of children.  And compared to the pursuit of money and the handling of money and the magnification of money (what the banks are about), what the churches are about looks like – does anyone know what the churches are about? Does the city care?

Unquestionably the church has lost the kind of power it used to have in our society. Can you imagine a clergyman occupying the president’s office at the University of Toronto today? Long before a clergyman was appointed, one hundred and one lobby groups would pressure the university administration arguing that (i) clergymen aren’t intelligent enough to preside over a university, (ii) clergymen aren’t even-handed, fair, prone as they are to prejudice, (iii) clergymen don’t uphold academic excellence (iv) clergymen, Christians by definition, don’t appreciate the pluralism that is said to characterise our society.

The fact is, we aren’t going to bring back the days of Toronto the Good any more than we are going to bring back the British Empire . The church isn’t going to have the kind of power it once had.  Let’s admit this right now.

But this is no reason for self-pity.  Think of the situation in first century Rome . The city of Rome held one million people. There were only five house churches in it.  A home, in that era, would have held no more than fifteen people.  Five times fifteen is seventy-five.  Seventy-five Christians in a city of one million. Yet the Christians never looked upon themselves as mere trace elements.  The two New Testament books which have to do with the church in Rome are Mark’s gospel and Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In neither book is there any suggestion of self-pity.  There is no suggestion that those Christians felt themselves handcuffed or useless. To be sure, they knew they weren’t socially ascendant.  They could only be salt. We are going to have to be salt as well.  What’s wrong with this?   So confident is Paul in the Roman Christians’ saltiness (he regards 75 parts per million as a strong concentration) that he never doubts the 75 parts per million will be effective, noticeably effective.   So very effective will it be that the apostle doesn’t feel he’s really needed in Rome . Therefore he plans to visit the Roman Christians only briefly before moving on to Spain where he is needed, since the gospel hasn’t been declared there yet.

 

II: — Regardless of how the apostle might have felt, we aren’t keen on being salt. We, the church, would much rather have the kind of power we used to have.  After all, we middle-class types are accustomed to power.  We are achievers. We are goal-attainers. We are successful.

We achievers have obviously mastered techniques that ensure results. We have mastered the technique of passing exams, the technique of shaping metal or wood, the technique of rising steadily on the corporate ladder.         We’ve always been able to predict what it takes to reach a goal; then we’ve always been able to program ourselves to reach that goal. We’ve been able to engineer the result. Now, as individual Christians and as a church, we find we have no clout.  Our society doesn’t listen to our Christian convictions.  We’ve become a minority, a minority without clout.

Things are so bad we’ve been reduced to salt.  But surely this is no reason for discouragement. Remember, the Christians in Rome nowhere complained that they lacked clout.  Instead, they had every confidence that Christian salt would penetrate and permeate as salt invariably does.

As we learn what it is to have salt instead of clout we must understand something crucial: salt becomes effective precisely when it seems to have come to nothing. Salt becomes effective precisely when it seems to have disappeared.

The effect of salt is twofold, we know.  Salt preserves food from spoiling, and salt brings out its richest flavour. Christians are to be salt in both senses in our society. What we add is meant to inhibit social decay and to bring out, under God, that human richness which is nothing less than his covenant-purpose for us.  But salt does this only as salt gets out of the saltshaker and into the stew. Paradoxically, once the salt is in the stew it has disappeared as salt, it would seem.  But precisely when the salt has been swallowed up it becomes effective.

To say that we Christians lack power is not to say we lack effectiveness. We do lack the kind of power yesterday’s church had in Canada . We may be only a pinch of salt now, and we may feel we’ve been swallowed up.  Certainly we can’t program results or engineer success.  But this is only to say that a profounder effectiveness can begin.

 

III:– Once we have decided we can only be salt and therefore we are going to be salt, many things fall into place. We are now free: gloriously free from concern with results and success, gloriously free to stand by our Christian conviction.  Free to do the truth (as John says) and keep on doing it.  That capitulation you have been rationalizing for the past six weeks; a capitulation which would sabotage so much of your integrity, even leave you not knowing who you are – resist it.  That sacrifice you were going to make just because it is the right thing to do, but were hesitating over because it might not result in something big and splashy — make it anyway.  The help you have been giving someone, help which is starting to look pointless — go on with it. The smallest amount of salt has measureless effect.  Don’t listen to those who say, “It’s only a drop in the bucket, so why bother?” It’s not a drop in the bucket at all. It’s salt in the stew. There’s a world of difference. A drop in the bucket is a quantitative change of negligible significance; salt in the stew is a qualitative change of incalculable significance.  My father taught Sunday School for dozens of years.  I remember him shaking his head, one day, about Gordon Rumford, a fellow a bit older than I who misbehaved defiantly and regarded my dad as a “fuddy-duddy.” Rumford eventually cavorted with a motorcycle crowd, most of which became guests in one or another of Her Majesty’s homes.  “If anything comes of that fellow it will be a miracle”, my father commented time and again as he shook his head.  A few years ago I was walking through a hotel lobby in Toronto when I bumped into Gordon Rumford. He told me at that time that he preached frequently at Erindale Bible Chapel on Dundas St. , Mississauga . (He now preaches and teaches throughout Ontario and occasionally in Scotland as well.) As soon as we “bumped” he said, “It was your father.  All the time I was running with the crowd that eventually went to prison I kept thinking of your father’s kindness and patience.   He was so kind and patient with me even when I laughed at him.  One day I was only minutes from ‘sticking up’ a corner store with my friends when I began to say to myself, ‘How am I going to face Jack Shepherd?’”   Salt. I asked Gordon to write my widowed mother and let her know about this.  He did. More salt: his letter delighted her for weeks.

If today you know what stand you have to take or what step you have to take, THEN TAKE IT. When you are doing what you are convinced is right and other people are snickering at your supposed naiveness or your supposed simplemindedness IGNORE THEM BEFORE YOU DOUBT YOURSELF.  We aren’t in the business of engineering results.         We’re in the business of a resilient, confident faithfulness whose effectiveness we can safely leave in God’s hands.

The lottery set-up stuns me.  Lotteries have been outlawed again and again and again throughout the western world. (Outlawed on and off for three hundred years in France and Great Britain .) Outlawed for one reason: they have produced misery; social and moral and human wreckage.  They have proven themselves, over several centuries, to be humanly ruinous. Historically, lotteries have only degraded people.  The government of Ontario knew this would be the human outcome (as distinct from the financial outcome for government coffers.)  The first lottery was established in Windsor . Americans would come to Canada and spend. Ontario would import money and export colossal social problems (human distress) back to the USA . The second lottery was set up in Niagara Falls , another city bordering the USA . Plainly the arrangement was to be identical: import money, export social problems.  The third lottery was set up on the Rama First Nation Reserve, Orillia . Once again Ontario would garner the monies; this time, however, social problems were exported to the federal government of Canada , since First Nation Affairs is a portfolio of the federal government.  Knowing all this (indeed, having contrived all this) the Ontario government implemented the 6/49 set-up over a decade ago, and in the last two weeks leading up to the first draw the government cleared 90 million dollars.  Ninety million dollars in two weeks.  Obviously the goose which lays the golden egg isn’t about to be slain. Churches don’t dominate Toronto ‘s skyline anymore, just as churches don’t dominate the public’s mindset. Banks do. The pursuit of money does. We can only be salt.

Our salty contribution to the stewpot takes many forms, one of which is just this: by what we live for and what we can live without you and I will demonstrate that the pursuit of wealth ends in anxiety and unhappiness; we shall demonstrate that the pursuit of sensuality leaves people empty and hollow; that the pursuit of security only intensifies insecurity.

Nobody is going to listen to us.  Nobody is going to notice us, it would seem. Yet precisely at this point an effectiveness will begin in the social stewpot which we may not live to see but which God has guaranteed.

If we doubt this then we should think about the church in the USSR a few years ago and in China today and in totalitarian countries generally.  Thanks to their totalitarian regimes these countries endeavoured to eradicate the Christian faith by any and all means, however brutal.  The expression of church life necessarily changed dramatically.  Christians in those countries had no choice but to become salt.  What results could a church in the USSR engineer when employers and schools and government and secret police were bent on eradicating any suggestion of faith?   A church in this situation couldn’t engineer anything.  And if we had had to state, 30 years ago or 60 years ago, which side in the struggle was more likely to emerge the winner, we would have picked the non-Christian side, in view of the big stick it wielded.  Yet right up to the collapse of the Soviet Union there were more self-confessed Christians in the nation than there had ever been members of the Communist party.  Salt was quietly effective for decades when it appeared to have been swallowed up and to have come to nothing.  People who have no chance at being successful still have every opportunity to be faithful. We are never an insignificant drop in the bucket.  We are salt in the stew.

 

IV: — Saltiness matters. It matters so much that Jesus insists that to lose our saltiness is to render ourselves kingdom-rejects. It is important that we be salt whenever, wherever, however we can.  We must never abandon our own saltiness because we don’t see around us leaders who support us. Instead, we must be salt, for then the appropriate leaders will appear in God’s own time.

We often hear it said that any society gets the kind of leaders it deserves, since the society generates its own leaders.   “If this is the case”, someone says, “then our situation really is hopeless. If leaders, so-called, simply reflect the society which produces them, then we are never going to have leaders who are any better than the society which ‘coughed them up’. What we call ‘leaders’ are really nothing more than camp followers.”  I certainly understand the questioner’s despair.

I shall make no comment on the work of the current president of the National Hockey League. For a long time, however, I stood amazed at the decisions of his predecessor several times removed, Mr. Clarence Campbell.  The NHL team owners seemed to own him as well.  He appeared to be their ‘flunkie’.  He never seemed (to me) to do the right thing, the good thing, what was best for the wider society.  (After all, NHL hockey is a social event; the game is played in a societal context.)  Campbell never seemed to grasp the fact that the NHL player is the most adulated model, the most telling image, amounting to an icon, for countless Canadian youngsters. And he seemed to provide pathetically little support for NHL referees who were abused by players and coaches. I was always frustrated at the seeming  incomprehension and inertia of a man who had had a distinguished legal career as a prosecutor at the War Crimes Trials in Nuremberg . One day the late Stafford Symthe said proudly, “We owners wanted a league president who was intelligent, socially prominent, educated, and who would do exactly what we told him to do. This is what we have.”

It would appear that our political leaders often aren’t leaders at all. They are nervous nellies who quake in anticipation of the Gallup poll. Think of how our elected political representatives have repeatedly refused to honour the task to which they were elected. I speak now of their assigning controversial social issues to the courts instead of passing legislation concerning these issues as they have been elected to do. When something like the human status of the about-to-be-born or manifold matters pertaining to same gender “marriage”, it’s the responsibility of our elected legislators to legislate on the issue.  In nothing less than a cowardly cop-out, however, they abdicate and say, “Let the courts decide.” The courts were never meant to do this. The mandate of the courts is to assess violations of the law. The mandate of the courts is never to enact law. Parliament governs the Canadian people, not the courts. Furthermore, the legislators whom we elect are ultimately accountable to the electorate.  But the judges who preside in the courts haven’t been elected by anyone and aren’t accountable to the people. If legislators refuse to legislate then they should be removed from office and not paid. Right now, however, we are seeing one abdication after another.

Then have I implied that the situation is hopeless? that nothing can be done to change this? I trust I’ve implied no such thing.  I have found over and over in many different contexts that it takes surprisingly little salt to change more than we commonly think.  I have found over and over that many things that we assume are carved in stone are carved in no more than soap.  A surprisingly small injection of salt in the stewpot would give rise to more change than we allow ourselves to think.

Of course we often feel we are a lone voice, a lone witness.  Yet insofar as we are salt the one grain which we are encourages another grain to come forth here and another grain there.  It takes several grains to make a pinch.  But it takes only one pinch to be effective.

Centuries ago the prophet Elijah complained that he was the only salt-grain left in Israel . “I alone have not bowed the knee to Baal”, he lamented. He wasn’t boasting of his faithfulness; he was bemoaning his isolation.         “Don’t be so presumptuous”, replied God, “and stop pitying yourself. There are 7000 in Israel who haven’t bowed the knee to Baal”.  It takes only one person doing what (s)he knows is right to encourage and call forth so many others.         Many grains make one pinch. And one pinch is effective beyond our imaging.

When Jesus tells us, his disciples, that we are the salt of the earth he means exactly what he says.   How effective he knows we can be is measured by his caution that our saltiness, yours and mine, we must ever retain, lest we be cast away.

                                    

Victor Shepherd

                                                                                            September 2006