Salt is dangerous stuff, they tell us. Salt hardens your arteries, apparently; and we need to be careful how much we consume, though it’s hard to know how much salt you’re eating in food that’s been processed in a factory somewhere. The thing about salt is that it does make the food we eat very tasty. It used to be commonplace to sprinkle fish and chips with liberal quantities of salt. We don’t eat so much fish and chips now: that old saying about there being plenty more fish in the sea has a rather hollow ring to it, and as they say other sorts of fast food are also available. But Mac Donalds got into trouble years ago for putting too much salt on their chips. Sorry, fries.
Back in Jesus’ day, salt isn’t just about the taste. Refrigerators are yet to be invented, and ice pits are impossible, so there is no other way to preserve meat. We have to smoke or salt our meat and fish, if we are to eat through the winter months – apologies to the vegetarians and the vegans here this morning. And wood is scarce, so that preservation with salt is the only practical option. To make salt, all we have to do is evaporate salt-water; and down on the shore of the Dead Sea. 1000′ below the level of the Mediterranean Sea, in the heat of the Rift Valley, evaporating concentrated salt-water in a saltpan is not difficult. And unlike Mahatma Ghandi, we don’t have to trek a thousand miles to get to the coast in order to make salt. But salt-panning is hot, backbreaking work; and there might just be the temptation to cheat a little, and cut the salt with some substance that is easier to procure. Then, on the journey to market, it might get wet, or an unscrupulous trader might also contaminate our salt with cheaper impurities. So the idea of salt losing its saltiness is not so strange.
Jesus calls his followers to be salt at a time when salt is absolutely necessary to stave off winter starvation. Our problem is that, not only are people learning to avoid salt in their diet now, they increasingly avoid the church, as though we too were dangerous to their health! Admitedly, there are times when the public disagreements within the church, or the illegal behaviour of its leaders, or its more pastorally inept pronouncements are enough to harden anyone’s arteries!
Yet, for instance, the school children at Whitfield a couple of weeks ago wanted to come to the special Candlemas service. They’d made special candles, and practised a song. But there were two birthday parties that day, and their parents just didn’t consider a church service to be a family priority on a Sunday afternoon. We had four children out of a roll of twenty-eight.
We all come faithfully to church week by week, which is great. But we here today are like the grains in a saltcellar. However salty we may be, we won’t be much use unless we are sprinkled around.
The pantomime this weekend in Allendale has been hugely successful, as always, and the villain has been banished to Nenthead once again. But here in Church, we don’t do anything to celebrate all the talents that have entertained, all the work that goes on in order to stage a production, all the fun that’s been had. Perhaps we could sprinkle some salt by inviting the drama club to collaborate in staging an act of worship, to celebrate the success of the pantomime? I doubt whether what they would propose would be anything like a traditional Church-of-England service, though. Let your imagination loose for a moment: what sort of an act of worship might follow on from a pantomime! ‘The Lord is here – oh no he isn’t – oh yes he is!!’ Would God mind that so very much? Perhaps the problem is that we in the church would struggle with it more than God would.
Instead of a guest preacher, I once invited a clown to take part in a Christmas service. I soon learned that people weren’t very happy: clowning was not ‘seemly’ in church. The gentleman in question was ordained; but he exercised his prophetic ministry through clowning. I think the deeper problem may have been that what he invited us to think about was actually very challenging and difficult.
Twelve years ago, when I was installed as rector, I promised to use in public worship only those forms of service authorised or allowed by canon law. The trouble is, fewer and fewer people appreciate the forms of worship authorised or allowed by canon , or feel any closer to God through using them. What are we to do?
We could continue hiding our light under a bushel in the way Jesus speaks of. Has anyone ever seen a bushel, by the way? It’s a measure for corn or grain, I gather. I’ve never seen one, but going back to what Jesus says, I’m guessing that it’s shaped like a Church building. Because the light we shine in here each week is hidden from outside view. It is the light of Christ that you all shine outside the walls of this place that is important, amongst the people you meet and the many groups to which you belong. What are their concerns? What worries them about the future, what grieves them about the past? What do they want to celebrate? What are they contributing to the life of our community? What are they good at? Can we see God at work in their lives and activities?
The ‘know your church, know your neighbourhood’ initiative last year asked such questions as these. As a result, this coming spring we plan to hold a fair called ‘Living Dales’. The hope is to invite all the voluntary organisations, clubs, societies and sports teams in the Allen Valleys to have a stall in Allendale Village Hall, in order to show and celebrate what they do, and make contact with anyone who is interested in joining and becoming more involved.
As I said, many of you are already involved in all that goes on in village life. To this extent, you are already salt and light in exactly the way Jesus speaks of. Yet if we are truly to fulfil what Jesus calls us to be, we must get beyond hardening people’s arteries. We need to explore new ways of reaching out to our friends and neighbours to help them recognise God’s presence, his love for them, and the good that he’s doing in their lives.
© Jon Russell 2020