There is a story of a man who attended a traditional Protestant worship service. He was so moved by the preacher’s sermon that he began to shout, “Amen!” in response.
An usher hastened down the aisle and said to the man, “We don’t do that in this church.”
“But I’ve got the Spirit!” the man said.
The usher said, “Well, you didn’t get it here!”
Here’s a term you can use to sound smart at your next party: Functional atheism It’s when people affirm their belief in God but carry on their individual and congregational lives as if God has nothing do with them.
What I am getting at is the difficulty we face, as people of faith and as the community of the faithful, when we try to relate our belief in God to what is happening in our day-to-day lives. How do we see ourselves, how do we understand our work, our play, our families, all of this, in terms of God when all the world around may seem to be operating as if God is dead?
How do we live in such a way that we avoid compartmentalizing faith from all the other aspects of life?
I suspect that we all deal with this at one point or another. You know you’re dealing with it when you feel on Sunday morning as if you are becoming a kind of schizophrenic. You might wear the scientist’s hat, medical person’s hat, the housewife’s hat, the student’s hat, the teacher’s hat, the artist’s hat – whatever you do – all week. Then Sunday morning get up and put on the “believer’s” hat for a few hours at church. It’s that slightly hypocritical feeling that nags at you, saying: “How can I behave and say things and operate under one group of assumptions around my co-workers, and then the next day put all that aside to sing a hymn to God?”
You might begin to think that the longer you’ve worn the believer’s hat, or the more church meetings you’ve gone to, or the more time you’ve spent with quiet time at home, the better the ratio between religious hat and secular hat, the better a Christian you are. But you’re still swapping out hats!
Here’s the question I’m getting at: how does church time or your devotional time go beyond personal or churchy concerns? How is faith not just a private affair? “Separate but equal” still seems to ring false. It leaves us stuck on the ground like Kierkegaard’s ducks. Kierkegaard tells the story of…
… a community of ducks who on Sunday morning waddled off to duck church to hear the duck preacher. The duck preacher spoke eloquently of how God had given the ducks wings with which to fly. With these wings there was nowhere the ducks could not go, there was no God-given task the ducks could not accomplish. With those wings they could soar into the presence of God himself. Shouts of “Amen,” were quacked throughout the duck congregation. At the conclusion of the service, the ducks left, commenting on what a wonderful message they had heard – and waddled back home.
What to do?
In Mark’s gospel, John the disciple says to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”
As it turns out, John and the disciples have quite a bit in common with this usher who told the man to quiet down and stop saying, “Amen.” Just before this, the disciples were powerless to cast out a demon themselves, and now we come to find out that not only are they powerless against the demons, but they have even been keeping other people from doing Jesus stuff. And why? Because they hadn’t filled out the right paperwork? Because they weren’t members of the right club?
Take heart, my friends! You and I are not alone in our difficulties! Even Jesus’ own chosen disciples were also caught up in the temptation to separate the life of faith from life outside it. So much that even they who knew Jesus first hand needed this reminder that faith and life are not two separate and opposing lives, but all of a single piece.
Jesus even reminds the disciples that there are some folk out there who may never come to church, who may not even know Jesus’ name, who nonetheless are doing Jesus’ work. Listen, he says, “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” In other words, if what they are doing is moving toward the same goal as we are, we ought to be sharing our community with them.
If their hopes for fairness and human dignity are the same as ours, we ought to be encouraging them. If their dreams of a better place for themselves and their children and a peaceful life for all people are our dreams, then we ought to be involved with them in making those dreams a reality. As the congregation of the faithful, this is where Norwood United’s mission lies.
It is simply what Jesus did. It is simply what Jesus called those first disciples and every community of disciples since to do with him.
As individual people of faith trying to connect this thing we call faith with the rest of the lives we live from day to day, this word is one key toward integrating those two dimensions into one coherent life.
Jesus tells his disciples, “Salt is salt. If it tastes like salt, it’s salt. Doesn’t matter if you’re not familiar with it, if it tastes like salt. If it doesn’t taste like salt, that’s when it’s time to worry about it.”
When I was growing up, there was a running joke about coming to the dinner table and finding things you’d never tried before. Venison, for example. Or rabbit. Or any number of other things that aren’t on the typical middle-class American dinner table, but show up once in a while. The joke was parents would say to the skeptical kids at the table: “Just eat it. It tastes like chicken.”
There was even a panel that appeared in the daily paper back then called The Far Side that had a picture of a bunch of cows standing around a table sampling a hamburger. “Oh, wow!” says one cow. “We taste like chicken!”
It’s funny, but that joke probably started with Jesus and the salt. He’s telling his disciples the “tastes like chicken” joke.
Say you’re a teacher. Putting together your faith and your work is to approach each class and each student as an opportunity to help your students identify and in some way begin to reach toward those dreams of that Jesus is dreaming for and with them. They may not, probably in most cases don’t know, that Jesus is dreaming with them and hoping for them. You may not be in the kind of classroom where you can tell them that in so many words. But you are in the unique place to tell them what Jesus would have told them: that they are somebody when the rest of the world may be telling them to give up, to drop out. You are in the unique place where through you Jesus can inspire a hope in them that they can do more than get a job and make a lot of money. When your job tastes like chicken, when your life tastes like salt, the life of faith and the life of day to day become one life, this is not your job, but your ministry.
Say you’re retired. Don’t lose heart on account of being older. Your life might taste like salt, too. Your experience through many years is invaluable. Your flexibility in choosing more or less what you do and when you do it is a gift that very few people have ever had, in past generations and even now. So long as you have health and energy, you have the creative potential to use it in every encounter, to do another deed of power in Jesus’ name. In may not have a job, but you still have a ministry.
Say you just haven’t got the strength to do much any more. Remember, Jesus said, “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” Never underestimate the importance of graciously receiving. When you’re tired, when you’re unable to go on, when you’re at the end of your rope, or even a little before then, then it’s time to stop and to graciously receive a cup of cold water from someone else – possibly someone you’d never have imagined would have been helpful to you. That may be your finest hour. Jesus says, “Hmm. Tastes like salt.”
We all will suffer from time to time from functional atheism. Jesus said, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” If it seems to us that salt always tastes like salt, then Jesus is still right to ask, “If salt has lost its flavor, how can it be made salty again?” The answer: Start tasting like chicken!
If sodium and the chlorine, the two elements that make up common salt are separated, they are both corrosive and poisonous elements. If we separate our faith from life, they become two deadening burdens. The solution is to integrate the two. “Have salt in yourselves,“ Jesus says, ”and be at peace with one another.”