Stephen Cook: Be What You Are

How many of us have worked someplace where, at some point, we were given a stack of business cards? Business cards with your name and your title on there. Do you remember getting your first business card? Or do you remember the first time you saw your name in print with some sort of title affixed to it?

The day after my 20th birthday, I began my first church ministry job. It was supposed to last three months; a summer youth ministry internship. This was never designed to be a long-term commitment. But I still remember - I still have somewhere - the church bulletin where, on the back of the order of worship, the names of the ministers were printed.

There, under the big, all caps, bold heading that said "MINISTERS," at the very bottom of the list, there was my name. Words fail me when it comes to capturing what that felt like but seeing my name and being called "minister" after years of knowing this was my calling: words fail to capture fully what I felt. But there was something significant and profound at play there. I already knew that this is who I am, but now, this is what I'm called.

I suspect we all know something about the power of naming; how we have this way of becoming what we are named. Psychologists have shown that, in children, for every negative message they receive about themselves, it takes ten positive messages to get their self-esteem back to where it was.

Another way of saying that - by ones who know much more about this than me - is that if you call a child bad long enough, eventually that child will internalize that and externally act out what she believes about herself. And that goes for more than children, too. Call someone worthless. Call someone unlovable. Call someone not good enough or embarrassing or shameful. Call a person that long enough, frequently enough, and odds are that, eventually, that person will live into the name.

Of course, the same holds true for positive things, too. Call someone valuable, effective, worthwhile, notable, important, significant. [See Lose, David. "Salt and Light." (January 30, 2011).] Call someone a minister, for instance, and eventually that person just might live into the name.

Remember where Jesus is when he says, "You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world"? He's on a mountainside. A mountainside where his newly-called disciples and a whole crowd of other folks have followed him up; up to a place where he's calling them names. Calling them blessed. Calling out to people who are poor in spirit and meek and beaten up and beaten down. He's calling them something probably next to no one has ever called them.

He says, "You are salt. You are light." And, as just about every biblical commentary you will ever find points out, Jesus speaks in the present tense. He doesn't say, "You were salt. Once upon a time you used to really be something important that adds some real flavor. Now, not so much, but boy, there was a time when you were salty."

And neither is Jesus saying, "Someday you are going to be light for this world. Not now, of course. You're not there yet. You're still too young, too unknown, or too whatever." Jesus never says to anyone, "You're just not that bright yet but maybe someday."

No! Jesus says, "You are salt. You are light." He doesn't say this is what you were, but not anymore. He doesn't say this is what you might be or ought to be. He says, "This is what you are. Know this. Own this. Be this."

A number of years ago our congregation came to realize what a lot of churches in our world are recognizing: our average age is rising; our average attendance is declining. Fewer and fewer people are participating in the regular rhythms of worship and spiritual formation week after week.

Something else that dawned on us, though, is that we have more happening in the life of our church than what goes on during the designated hours of Sunday school and worship on Sunday mornings. In fact, we have more people from our community who come to church during the week than we have coming for church on the weekends. So, we set about discerning ways we could more intentionally practice hospitality, looking to extend the impact of our ministries beyond the typical times you would expect.

To grow some of our understanding about the kind of kingdom work to which we believe we are called, our ministry staff and some of our lay leaders set out to learn from some people who practice kingdom hospitality really, really well. And when I say kingdom hospitality, I'm talking about Magic Kingdom hospitality. We took a field trip down to Disney World. We went to learn with others from other churches, from Disney people because, let's face it, Disney people know a thing or two about taking care of others.

One of the hallmarks of Disney culture is there aren't any employees. Everyone is a cast member. And everyone on the cast knows that she or he is part of a big story; a story so much bigger than any individual. Everyone is in the show and everyone is playing a part to help put on the production. Whether you're the guy gathering the garbage bins or the woman working on the design for the next movie. Everyone is part of the cast.

Our gathering of congregational leaders spent a lot of time talking about how we translate that into the life of our churches. We talked about the members of our congregations. Are the people who populate our church rolls the guests coming to be entertained? Or are the church members part of the cast; ones who have parts to play in telling a story that is so much bigger and better than anything even Disney can engineer?

Of course, you can pretty well predict where we came down on that question. All of us have been cast to play our parts and add our gifts and be part of this great, big beloved community that Jesus calls together to say, "You are blessed. You are blessed and you are included. You are salt and you are light."

And I don't know about you, but I think that matters. I think it matters that Jesus says what he says, the way he says it, to the ones he says it. "You are salt! You are light!" He says it in the here and now, the present tense reality of this day, this time, this place. And he says it to everyone going in the way of the kingdom. "You are salt! You are light!"

And that's a good word to hear right about now. A good word to hear when we have such a collective sense of unease; so many feelings of uncertainty about who we are as a nation now. Who we are as congregations now. Who we are and how we fit amid the messiness of the milieu of it all.

You are salt. You are light.

After the fireworks show one evening at Epcot, the park was closing, and it was time for everyone to clear out. Disney's cast members - the staff - their job is to get everyone out in a safe and orderly fashion. They need their guests to move along fairly quickly but this has to be done with courtesy and safety as top priorities. They want everyone to leave with a positive feeling. So, as you might expect - or might have experienced if you've been there - they have people with flashlights: those big, red, charge-you-$35-if-you-want-to-buy-one-in-the-gift-shop-yourself kind of flashlights.

Now, if you are the guy with the light you can stand at your post and direct people to keep right and go have a good night. You can wave them along and very efficiently get the guests out of your area and on to their next destination.

Or you can be like the young man from the cast with his light. He was doing his job, but he was doing more. His light wasn't just a light. His was a microphone. Not a real one, mind you. His flashlight had a yellow plastic base and red cone on the end just like everyone else's. But that didn't matter. This young man was singing karaoke to the soundtrack of the Disney songs you know he's heard a thousand times before.

This is someone who could have been told, "You are a front-line, second-shift, hourly worker whose job is to wave your flashlight and help people get out of the park." And he could become precisely that.

But instead, someone somewhere told him and keeps telling him, "You are part of the cast of the most magical place on earth. Our mission here is to create happiness, and we need you to help us do that."

So, that's what he does. He's not waiting until he's climbed the ladder a little, gotten a better job title. He doesn't say, "Well, I used to do fun, silly sorts of things back before I had these bills to pay and this job to do." No! I'm guessing that somewhere along the way it started to sink in with him, "I am part of this cast. Right here. Right now." So, he sings. He interacts with the guests. He adds flavor. He shines his light - quite literally!

You might say it's sort of like a man on a mountainside saying to a bunch of farmers and fisher folk; ordinary people who probably spend a pretty good many of their days feeling pretty small. He goes up. He sits down. He says the blessing, telling them, "You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world." Not you were. Not you will be. You are.

Do you hear that? Do you believe that? Do you know that?

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. So, what - what on God's green earth - is going to keep us from being what we already are?

Will you pray with me?

Loving God, you know us and you call to us we are: your beloved who are entrusted to be bearers of your gifts of grace and goodness here and now. Help us to live with eyes open to the opportunities we have before us this very day to be bearers of your compassion, beneficiaries of your love, and instruments of your peace. Amen.