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From Power to Effectiveness or From Social Ascendancy to Salt


Matthew 5: 13

I:– Toronto used to be known as “Toronto the good”. In those days the buildings which towered over the city were all churches. St. James Cathedral, Anglican; St. Michael’s Cathedral, Roman Catholic; Metropolitan Church, Methodist. Huge structures, 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. Why, back in the days of Toronto the good even a clergyman was president of the University of Toronto.

Tell me: 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 Bank of Montreal, Commerce, Royal, Nova Scotia. Last year, Canada Trust. Clearly, it’s the pursuit of money which characterizes the city. Last year, in the recession, the auto manufacturers had their worst year in ten. But the banks made a profit, and the trust companies cleaned up! Compared to the banks the cathedral churches like tinker-toys, the playthings of children.

There is no doubt about it. The Christian 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? A clergyman couldn’t be the caretaker!

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

But this is no reason for weeping! Think of the situation in first century Rome. The city of Rome held one million people. There were only five house churches in it. 5×15 (approx) = 75. Seventy five Christians in a city of one million. Yet the Christians never looked at 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. They knew that were not socially ascendant. They could only be salt. They would have to 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 plans to visit them only briefly before moving on into Spain where he is really needed.

II: — Let’s be honest. Regardless of how the apostle might feel, we are not keen on being salt. We, the church, would much rather have the kind of power we used to have. After all, we suburbanite types are accustomed to power. We are achievers. We are goal-attainers. We are successful.

We achievers have obviously mastered techniques which 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 have always predicted what it takes to reach a goal. Then we have programmed ourselves to reach the 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. Public officials don’t have to take seriously our advocacy of Christian truth. We’ve become a minority, a minority without clout.

There’s only one thing we can do. We have to become salt! There 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 all know. Salt preserves food from spoiling, and salt brings out its richest flavour. We Christians are to be salt in both senses in our society. What we add is meant to inhibit social decomposition and to bring out, under God, human richness. 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.

Yet 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. But we don’t lack effectiveness. We may be only a little pinch of salt; 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 real effectiveness can now begin.

III:– Once we have decided we can only be salt and therefore we are jolly well 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 some 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 is 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 wrote off my dad as an antiquated jerk and who eventually cavorted with a motorcycle crowd, most of which became guests of honour in one of Her Majesty’s homes. “If anything comes of that fellow it will be a miracle”, was my father’s comment time and time again. A year or two ago I was walking through a hotel lobby in Toronto when I bumped into Gordon Rumford. He told me he preached frequently at Erindale Bible Chapel on Dundas St, Mississauga. 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. What kept me out of jail was thinking to myself, ‘What would Jack Shepherd think if he could see me now?'” 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.

Recently I was exposed to a university professor from the U.S.A. whose professional standing is sound. He has taught well, researched thoroughly, published papers and books, and, of course, has tenure. In other words, he has “it” made. He is also a Christian of Mennonite persuasion. Mennonites, everyone knows, are especially concerned with peace. This fellow has resigned his professorship and has moved himself, with his family, to Managua, Nicaragua. In Managua he will join other Mennonites in deliberate, conscientious efforts at waging peace. Is he a nincompoop in view of what his own government has done for decades in El Salvador and Central America? He knows what bridges he has burnt behind him. He knows that his group of Mennonites can’t program any results or engineer any success. Nonetheless, the pressure of his Lord upon him constrains him to be salt; just a small pinch in a very big stew, yet a pinch whose effectiveness begins only when it seems to have come to nothing.

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 setup stuns me. Lotteries have been outlawed again and again and again throughout the western world. (For three hundred years in France and Great Britain.) Outlawed for one reason: they have produced nothing but misery; social and moral and human wreckage. They have proven themselves, over several centuries, to be humanly ruinous. Lotteries deliberately foster an out-of-control appetite. Historically, lotteries have only degraded people. Nevertheless, when the Ontario government implemented the 6/49 set-up, the government cleared 90 million dollars in the last two weeks alone of the leadup to the first draw. $90 million in two weeks! Obviously the lottery is going to be around for a while. 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. No church group is able to pressure a politician. We can only be salt.

Our salty contribution to the stewpot 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 you doubt this then you should think about the Christian church in Russia and China and totalitarian countries generally. These countries have endeavoured to eradicate the Christian faith by any and all means, however vicious or cruel. The expression of church life changed dramatically. Christians in those countries had no choice but to become salt. What results could a church in Russia 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 you had had to state, 30 years ago or 60 years ago, which side in the struggle was more likely to emerge the winner, you would have picked the non-Christian side, in view of the enforcement it could wield. Yet right now there are more self-confessed Christians in the Soviet Union than there are 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 choice at being successful still have every chance to be faithful. We are never an insignificant drop in the bucket! We are salt in the stew!

IV: — Before I stop this morning I must insist that saltiness matters. It matters so much that Jesus insists that to lose our saltiness is to render ourselves a kingdom-reject. 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 will make no comment on the work of Mr. John Ziegler, currently president of the National Hockey League. For a long time, however, I stood amazed at the decisions of his predecessor, Mr. Clarence Campbell. The NHL team owners seemed to own him as well. He appeared to be their flunky. He did exactly what they wanted. He never seemed to do the right thing, the good thing, what was best for the wider society. (After all, NHL hockey is played in a societal context.) He never seemed to grasp the fact that the NHL player is the most adulated model for countless Canadian youngsters. And he seemed to provide pathetically little support for NHL referees who were abused by players and coaches. 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. And this is what we have!”

It would appear that society as a whole is no different. It would appear that our leaders do exactly what their public tells them to do. Which is to say, they aren’t leaders at all. They are nervous nellies who quake in anticipation of the Gallup poll. Then there is no way of changing anything.

But there is! There really is! You see, as soon as salt, just a little salt, is added to the stewpot the salt begins to penetrate and permeate. To be sure, the stew is changed only slightly, even unnoticeably. Nevertheless, in truth there is a new agent, a new factor at work in this situation. And because there is a new agent at work the slightest change is yet a profound change. Which is to say, the social stew is going to give rise to profoundly new leadership. Barbara Tuchman, a prominent U.S. historian, maintains that the prevailing element in American life today is false dealing. Few would care to differ with her. What would it mean, ultimately, if a few grains of salt resolved to deal differently?

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 here to come forth 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. “Don’t be so presumptuous”, relied 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 cast away.

                                                                       Victor A. Shepherd
June 23, 1991