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March 15, 2009

Salt, Light, Leaven

Deacon Ordination/Leadership

Matthew 5:13-16; 13:33


            I would like to invite you to turn with me to Matthew 5, a portion of the Sermon on the Mount.  I will begin reading at Verse 13 and continue through Verse 16.  Hear now the Word of God:


“You are the salt of the earth.  But if the salt loses it saltiness, how can it be made salty again?  It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. 

“You are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead they put it on a stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father which is in heaven.”


            Please turn to Matthew 13, Verse 33, which is actually a very brief parable, consisting of just one sentence:  “He told them still another parable.  ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into large amounts of flour until it worked all through the dough.’”


            Traditionally, when we have a deacon ordination meditation, most of the comments are directed toward the person who is going to be ordained.  Bob, in a very real sense, this message is for you; but I would like to say that today’s message is also for the entire church.  It is important for every person who is in any leadership position, especially a leadership position within the church.

            We are going to consider three items that we might ordinarily take for granted, three items that seem to be of little consequence:  salt, light, and leaven. 

I have heard the expression “You are the salt of the earth” all of my life, particularly at the lumberyard.  It was used to convey a sentiment about a very good person, a person who did what was right.  My dad and my granddad would often say, “He is just the salt of the earth.” 

What does it mean for Jesus to tell his disciples that they are to be “the salt of the earth”?  We get such words as salary and saline from the Latin word for salt.  Now, we do not consider salt an important item, but it was a very valuable commodity in the first century.  Roman soldiers at that time were paid in salt.  This practice gives us the expression, “The man is worth his salt,” which means that he is a person of value, a person of great importance.  Jesus is telling his disciples – a group consisting of fishermen, tax collectors and ordinary people – that they are valuable, which was hard for them to hear.  Jesus is saying to these men, “Listen, I have chosen you because you are of great value to me.”

Second, remember that salt was a very important preservative.  If meat was to be preserved, it had to be salted because refrigeration did not exist in the first century.  Salt also had a healing property, an astringent quality, a cleansing quality, a purifying quality.  Because there were no antibacterial drugs in Jesus’ day and time, a person would often put salt in a wound.  Of course, doing so was very painful.  Fourth, salt makes a person thirsty.  Christians considered “the salt of the earth” create a sense of thirst in people for the things of God.  Have you ever had popcorn without salt?  It tastes a lot like Styrofoam.  Salt makes everything better. When Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth,” he may have been saying to them, “You are the flavor.  You really enhance life and make life better for everybody.”  Jesus’ comparisons carry with them all of these implications.

 All of these characteristics apply to people who serve as deacons and to any person who is in a leadership position in the church.  Leaders are valuable.  They are to have a preserving quality.  Certainly they are to have a healing quality.  They are to create a thirst in people, a thirst for the things of God.  A part of a leader’s responsibility is to make everything better.

Last night, our younger children were in our home.  One son asked, “Dad, can I build a fire in the fireplace?”  It was a perfect night for a fire.  Do you know what happened when he built the fire?  Everybody gathered around it.  How many times have I seen that happen?  How many times have I seen a group of Scouts gathering around a campfire?

Jesus makes a second comparison when he said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world.”  You know how important light is.  People are attracted to its warmth.  Light illuminates.  It clarifies.  It is hard to read a book or music if you do not have good light.  It allows us to see more clearly, to avoid confusion.  Think how important that characteristic – providing illumination – is in a Christian leader when studying the Bible.  Light also brightens the gloom and creates a sense of hope.  We must remember that we are not the primary source of light.  Jesus is the light of the world.  The light that is ours is like the light of the moon reflected from the sun.  Certainly a part of what we are to do as Christian leaders is to reflect the light of the Son.

Next, we consider the parable about leaven, yeast.  We do not talk about this parable often because it seems of so little consequence since it consists of just one verse.  This comparison that Jesus makes, though, is just as important as the other two.

So often when we think about adolescence, we think about that pressure.  It is a palpable force.  Some of you know that I worked in an institution for juvenile delinquents for a long time, seven years in fact.  I have seen the damage that negative peer pressure can cause.  I have also served as a youth minister, and I have spent a lot of time with the Boy Scouts of America.  Peer pressure can have a positive effort.  If the indigenous leaders within a group are positive, if they are Christians who are growing, they offer a positive side to peer pressure. 

The same is true in the adult world.  The world needs positive adult leaders.  They are like leaven that enables dough to become the delicious bread that everyone enjoys.  Just a little bit of yeast multiplies its influence over and over until it has an effect on the whole loaf.  Saying that a Christian leader is like leaven, like yeast in dough, means that the leader exerts positive leadership over others.  The Apostle Paul writes about this role to young Timothy:  “Set an example for all the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity” (I Timothy 4:12).  Setting an example is positive peer pressure, the kind of positive pressure that every deacon ought to exert. 

The very word deacon, which comes from the Latin word diaconus, means “servant.”  I notice that typically in the New Testament, the word is sometimes translated one of several ways.  Diaconus is translated as “deacon” when it is used to refer to men and translated “servant” when it refers to women.  It is clear that the word can apply to both male and female.  Servanthood has no gender distinction.

What does it mean to be leaven?  It means to have the heart of a servant.  Some get the idea that being elected a deacon puts that person in a higher position within the church.  Actually, being elected a deacon places that person in a lower position in the church, in the position of servanthood.  That concept is counterintuitive.  It is not the way we ordinarily think.  The first deacons were elected within the early church to serve.  Today, we see our strongest leadership exerted through the life of service.  We lead by putting service to others above self.  We lead others by serving as a good example. 

The sterling model for us is Jesus himself.  That great passage in Philippians 2:6 describes Jesus as one who “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but he humbled himself and took the form of a servant.”  Jesus is our example.  People who have this servant’s heart understand that being a disciple of Jesus means that they have to deny themselves.  They must take up their cross and follow Jesus. 

Some weeks ago, a story came out of the Northwest.  I think it actually occurred in Portland, Oregon, at a coffee drive-through.  People had to wait a long time to get their coffee because of the line of cars. 

One fellow came through the line and paid for his coffee.  He told the clerk, “I would like to pay for guy behind me, too.  He has been waiting in line a long time.”  The man paid not only for his coffee, but he also paid for the coffee of the person in the car behind him. 

When the next person pulled up to the window, the clerk said, “The guy in front of you paid for your coffee.”

He answered, “In that case, I am going to pay the bill of the people in the car behind me.”  He paid for their purchase. 

That same act of kindness continued for twenty-four cars.  Twenty-four people paid for the next person in line.  Why?  The first man set an example of giving to others.  He set an example of service.  That is exactly what a deacon is called to do.

Deacons are called to have a sense of compassion.  This concept of leaven in the dough is expressed no better than in this simple way.  We are to be compassionate people.  Jesus demonstrated such a genuine compassion.  The Scripture says that when he saw the crowd that was like “sheep without a shepherd,” he had compassion on them (Matthew 9:36).  Repeatedly in Jesus’ ministry, we see this acted out in the way he cared for others.  Paul says that we can suffer from burnout, but he counsels those in the early church, “Do not grow weary in well doing” (2 Thessalonians 3:13).  Sometimes it is so hard to keep going, so difficult to muster this kindness.  If we remember Jesus, we will have this sense of caring in the ministry that is ours as Christian leaders.

Leaders are to be people of encouragement.  Do not underestimate the power of encouragement.  I can go into almost any church and tell you something about the heartbeat of that church.  You can put your finger right on the pulse if you come to a deacons’ meeting at Morningside.  You will find a good bit of laughter, as well as a time when we talk about those who need prayer.  You will see that these elected deacons really try to do what is right for the church.  They take seriously this responsibility of caring for the Lord’s work and caring for the people of God.  You will find in our staff meetings a good bit of light-hearted humor, as well as work that takes seriously the responsibility that is ours.  You can find that support in almost every committee meeting within this church.  It is a great encouragement to me to know that we have positive leadership like that in this church.  It sets the tone for the church.

I hope you will permit me one basketball story during this basketball season.  A young man named Jason McElwayne wanted to be a basketball player at his school, but he was just too small and clumsy.  In addition, Jason did not interact with other students very well because he was autistic.  The coach, a man of compassion, told Jason he could serve as the manager.  For three years while in high school, Jason was responsible for picking up the dirty towels, cleaning up the gym, and seeing to it that all the players had what they needed.  At each game, Jason was allowed to sit on the bench, wearing a team uniform.  That was one of the concessions the coach gave him.  Jason took his job as manager of the basketball team very seriously. 

The last game of the season, his high school team was twenty points ahead with four minutes left in the game.  The coach told Jason, “You have always wanted to play basketball, and I am going to put you in the game.”  The first time Jason got the ball, he shot and missed terribly.  The second time, he missed again.  When he got the ball the third time, he was out beyond the three-point line.  Jason shot, and the ball went right through the net.  The whole gym erupted with a standing ovation for Jason.  Now on a roll, Jason hit six three-pointers in a row, accumulating twenty-one points in four minutes.  At the end of the game, all of the players on the team rushed to Jason, hoisting him onto their shoulders. 

In an interview with a newspaper reporter, his mother said, “You know, Jason has never felt like he achieved anything.  But tonight, he felt like he succeeded.”  She added, “Jason has always felt a little weird, but tonight, he felt wonderful.”

I would suggest to you that every single Sunday, some people who come through these doors feel a little weird.  This is the right place for people who feel that way.  I hope that when they come through the doors, somebody takes them by the hand and says, “We are glad you are here.”  I hope that they feel wonderful for having been here. 

What are the characteristics of Christian leadership?  A good Christian leader tries to preserve, heal, create thirst for the things of God, bring flavor to life, illuminate or brighten the gloominess, reflect the light of Christ, have a positive influence, possess a servant’s heart, show compassion and encouragement.  How would you summarize all of these characteristics?  Christian leadership simply means being Christ-like.  The little letter of I John provides a good summary of what it means to be a Christian leader:  “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (I John 2:6).  It is the reason the church has chosen Bob Yaggie to serve as a deacon. 

Bob will not always do everything right, but he is in good company.  Not one single leader in this church always does everything right.  We all make mistakes.  We are a family of faith, living in hope, serving in joy, and bonded in love.  We, as a church family, are going to lift him up in prayer.  We are going to encourage and support Bob as he becomes now one of our leaders. 


Kirk H. Neely

© March 2009


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