sour, salty or plain Church?

On one cold winter evening in 2014 I was in a hurry to get to the bus that would take me home to Tantallon. I was then serving the good people of St. Andrew’s United Church in Halifax and thus I was running down Coburg Road, across South Park Street, to Spring Garden Road. As I passed the Lord Nelson hotel I saw a group of 7-10 young men, likely of Middle-Eastern background, handing out roses to persons along the sidewalk. This sight stopped me in my tracks and I had to find out what was going on. As I came to a halt one man looked me in the eye, smiled, handed me a rose and said, “please give this to your wife.” I was stunned, how did this man know I was married? But then I noticed he was starring at my wedding ring. I thanked him for the rose.

I walked on with a few rapid strides and then stopped again. I was curious. What was the rose for? Why were these men passing out roses? There must be a reason. My mind examined all the possible scenarios. I decided in my best Sherlock Holmes power of deduction that these recent immigrants must be working for a local florist, that these were samples meant to entice me to purchase flowers for my loved ones. But I had to make sure. So I turned around and met another man with a rose. He saw that I had a rose in one of my hands, he looked curious himself and then asked me, “Perhaps you would like another rose for your mother?” “Why are you passing out roses?” my tone warm and curious. I discovered that these Muslim men were handing out roses because it was the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.

I looked it up on my computer when I got home. Here is how Muslims explain this practice:

“Together, we can represent the true character of Isalm through peace and love, building bridges in our community. The rose is the international symbol of love, compassion and peace. As Muslims we celebrate Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) every day and we constantly seek to adorn our ways with the remembrance of his perfected example. At first people thought we were trying to sell them the roses, but when we explained what it was about and why we were doing it, people thought it was a good idea.”

My mind instantly went back to a conversation I had with a United Church Minister who served a suburban congregation outside Ottawa. I asked him to account for the huge growth of his church. He told me that the church had an outreach committee that was devoted to coming up with a free gift that could be offered to the community and then on the last Saturday of the month the church would stand in a visible place and share their gift. He told me on Saturday they had stood on the busiest street cover and handed out free coffee to drivers and pedestrians. I asked him if they said any thing or passed out any literature. “No”, he said, “we just said HAVE A BLESSED DAY and smiled when we said it.” The Minister told me that the community were impressed the gesture came without strings attached, that instead of scolding people for their sins, their use of bottled water or their materialism, the church was offering the community an example of kindness that was likely to inspire others to do likewise.

F.W Beare in his commentary The Gospel According to Matthew tells us that the early church saw good works as key to winning hearts and minds to the cause of their movement. “Jesus’ charge to his followers was to let their light shine – to live a life of such manifest goodness that others may see their good works and glorify their Creator.”

My sermon title this morning is “how do you like your church; sour, salty or just plain?” You might say that the world has grown accustomed to two kinds of churches, ones that are sour, constantly criticizing and judging others for their shortcomings and plain, ones that try especially hard not to offend anyone and conform to a pious niceness that leaves listeners wondering what the church really has to offer. The Gospel writer we heard this morning calls the church to be salty, to offer the world around us a sign of tasty, spicy, goodness, that flavours our communities and our world in a powerful and lasting way.

In another commentary on this text, House of Disciples: Church, Economics and Justice in Matthew Michael Crosby reminds us that in the early church followers of Jesus were in the minority, suspects in a Roman Empire that believed Caesar was Lord, not Jesus. Religious people who put their faith in someone other than Caesar were to be harrassed, persecuted, in some cases tortured, and in other cases like Jesus, crucified. These Jesus people had no recourse to the state to make people do their bidding, they had no advertizing budget to win converts. Instead these early Christians would use their good works to “win over the persecutors. Putting into practice the Beatitudes would be the best apologetic.”

One curiousity that often arises in this particular text is the seeming contradiction between Jesus telling his followers that he has “not come to abolish the law and the prophets” while at the same time consistently doing and saying things that made many of the Temple’s strongest defenders accuse him of breaking the law (like the Sabbath). Crosby’s answer to this tension is to lift up Jesus words that he has come to “fulfill the law”. “Households that fulfill the spirit of justice fulfill the Torah”, says Crosby. In other words when the church household shines the light of justice through their interactions inside and outside the walls of the house they are fulfilling the very law that God had intended for our well being and purpose.

This church that is remembering the words and life of Jesus are lifting up the way this Saviour taught by going beyond reciprocity. Crosby explains, “the historian Josephus notes that Roman representatives had the right to requisition civilians into service. One kind of service involved carrying the gear of Roman soldiers for one mile, no easy task considering a Roman soldier's backpack could weigh upwards of 100 pounds (45.4 kg). It has been suggested that going the second mile would perhaps spare another from such compulsion.” This is likely what prompted Matthew 5:41 "Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.”

The evangelist Tim Keller has written, “If you and your church were to disappear off the face of the earth tomorrow would anyone in the community around you notice you were gone?” It’s a powerful question. I’d say people would remember and notice if a sour church or person disappeared but I am not sure it would be a positive memory. The plain option seems most likely to be easily forgotten. But the salty person and church is remembered, not for anything large or big or dramatic but rather because it left a taste in the mouth, a lasting memory of something good and tasty.

Let your goodness shine! Let your good works be spiced with kindness. As you walk that extra mile, not because it is required or expected, may you demonstrate a love that others may seek to discern and live, that all may have life and life in abundance! Amen.