A Low Salt Diet?

The service didn’t get recorded this week. sorry. But here’s a little special bonus message:[audio http://www.opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/fail/08.mp3]

There’s a difference between playing church and being church…

A few months ago, there was a video making its way around the internet, with the curious title, “Baby Preacher with Subtitles”. The video takes place in a Pentecostal church, and the preacher in question is about 18 months old. He holds a microphone in one hand, and gestures with the other, while his voice builds to a dramatic crescendo. It’s impossible to understand what the child is actually saying, thus the subtitles, though I’m pretty sure someone has taken some liberties with the translation: “Hot dang! Extra! Extra! I fixed it! I’m sensitive! And it’s good! That’s that! I rule! I’m serious! Ostrich!”

The congregation responds with clapping and encouragement. The child takes a break to walk around the pulpit and then starts up again: “I’m seething! I’ll try! I’m strong! I forgot our song! I’m done! Hold your own!” It goes on this way for about two minutes before he finally hands the microphone back to a grown up, gives them a hug, and heads back to the pews.

Now, you may call me a doubting Thomas, but I’m pretty sure that this video doesn’t represent any kind of early anointing or call to ministry. Instead, it looks to me like a child who is doing what children do: mimicking the behavior they see in adults. He has learned to “play” church.

For you parents out there, you’ve had your own moment of recognizing this kind of copycat behavior in your own children. It’s how they learn, by playing grown up. You know what I’m talking about, when those words come out of their mouth. There are those, too, but I was thinking of something more innocuous, like, “Oh, man!” or “Bye, ya’ll.” Suddenly, you realize that they’re paying more attention than you had hoped…

Children learn what it means to grow up by watching, and then imitating, the adults that are around them. Whether it’s language, or TV habits, or food patterns, or faith practice, or church activities, they are watching us closely – perhaps more closely than we’d like.

For young children, there is very little distinction between play and reality. When you watch an infant learning to crawl and grab, they’re working hard; and they’re playing; and they’re learning. It all gets rolled together. There is something, at that young age, about “playing” church that is crucial to faith development. We stand, we sit, we sing, we pray, we read, we listen, we question, we answer, we shake hands, we hug. It’s all rhythm; it’s all ritual; it’s all practice; it’s all play. And it’s all worship.

Eventually, though, it’s time to stop playing church and start being church.

That’s the very problem that Isaiah is facing when he preaches to the ancient Israelites. They do very well at playing the people of God: they do great at the trappings of faith: they follow the sacrificial ordinances, they fast appropriately, they make a great show of humbling themselves. But when it comes to being the people of God, apparently they don’t do so well. And Isaiah let’s them know that they have completely missed the point. The ritual serves its purpose, yes; but if it doesn’t change lives, then it’s useless. “You fast,” he says, “but you oppress. You humble yourself, but you fight and quarrel and attack.”

“True fasting, true faith,” he says, is “loosing the bonds of injustice. It’s letting the oppressed go free. It’s giving bread, shelter, clothing to those who have none. That is where your light will shine – not in the fires of burnt offerings, not in the making of ashes to cover yourself in showy grief – but in the divine light of goodness. That’s when you stop playing a role and start changing the world.”

How do we make that transition? How do we move from playing church to being church? What are the things that we do out of habit, and what are the things we do because they make a difference?

Isaiah does a great job of putting a mirror to Israelite hypocrisy. What would that mirror look like today? What does it mean when we dress up for church, but then gossip about those whom we see at church? What do we say about ourselves when we read these words about injustice, oppression, hunger, homelessness, but then spent the other six days – or even the rest of this day – focused on ourselves? Does Isaiah make us cringe, because these words sound too politically loaded, or do we take this as a cringe-worthy opportunity for self – and community – examination?

I am grateful to be in a community like OPC. Churches are notorious for tearing themselves apart over unimportant issues – the trappings, rather than the practices, of church. In the past few years, we have named the vision that has always been a part of who we are: “the community is our congregation.” And we constantly live out that vision into a reality.

And yet, are there things that we do, are there sacred cows we protect, that end up being the habits of church rather than the habits of faith? Is organ music the only music that can give glory to God? Do we have to have the notes in front of us to sing praise, or hold a piece of paper in our hands to celebrate the life we share?

Why are Presbyterians the only ones who say “debts” during the Lord’s Prayer? Is it only a real worship service if we read the Apostles’ Creed or sing the Gloria Patri or the Doxology? Do those that lead worship have to dress differently from the rest of us, and sit separately from us? Should a sermon be a lecture, or a two-way conversation? Does Sunday School have to happen on Sunday morning?

Everything we do as a church happened at a particular time for a particular reason. How do we recognize when that reason has faded away, that the times have changed, and that we need to do something differently? And in doing so, how do we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Perhaps the answer lies in Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount. We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. But if we hoard that salt and light, if we keep it hidden away, we have missed the point. And if we think that salt and light are things that we have to share, then we have also missed the point.

Jesus doesn’t say, “You have the salt of the earth.” Or, “You own the light of the world.” He says, “We are” those things. We are a seasoned, enlightened, people. We are the spice of life! We are the ones who light the way! And when we live into that, we give glory not to ourselves, but to the whole world!

The things we do to play church can be the very things that entrap us, that prevent us from living our lives as people of faith. It is when they give us the energy, the focus, the flavor, the vision, that is when we have moved from playing church to being church.

Or, let’s ask the question this way: what happens when baby preacher grow up? Will this two minute video remain a parlor trick, a memento to bring out to embarrass him when he’s a teenager?

Will it be a viral video memory, something to kill a few minutes at work, to share on Facebook, to forward to friends and co-workers? Or will this child grow up to know what it means to love God, to serve God, to be salt and light, to be Christ’s hands and feet? Will what he does change lives, bring salt to the bland, light in the darkness?

Those questions, really, can only be answered by his church and by his parents. But we, too, have the same questions facing us, just not on YouTube. How do we become the kind of community that changes lives, that teaches children how to play church, yes, but more importantly how to be church?

I’d like to invite you to take a moment. Think back on your own life. Who are the people, the moments, the experiences that moved church from the realm of play into the realm of being? Was it a family member? A Sunday School teacher? A neighbor? Was it a particular worship service? A moment of crisis or celebration? An interaction at a homeless shelter? Halfway across the world? What was it that gave faith its flesh and bones for you?

And perhaps more importantly, how can we be those people for others? How can we shape those moments, those experiences for others so that they, too, can know what it means to take faith from the kingdom of ideas into the fact of reality?

May it be so.