Esther Mombo delivered the reflection on the theme on 18 April during morning worship.
Good morning and praise the Lord!
It is a joy and a delight to be here this morning in this Conference. It feels like heaven on Earth because there are many of us from different parts of the world speaking different tongues but gathered together and speaking one tongue - the tongue of our God and Lord Jesus.
I do want to appreciate the invitation that was given to me - I am not even sure what the criteria were for choosing me to speak this morning. I might want to know that criteria but after I have gone and not before!
My name is Esther Mombo, and I come from Bware Yearly Meeting, Kenya. I teach at St Paul's University, an old theological college where many of our Quaker pastors in East Africa have trained, and where I also trained after Friends Theological College or Friends Bible College as it was then called.
I have not attended many FWCC gatherings. But I attended, as a student, the Conference or the gathering that was at Birmingham in England in 1997. So I am delighted this morning to meet old Friends; to see those that have brought me up in faith – mothers and fathers, and lecturers who imparted knowledge to me as I was growing up as a student. This morning I also want to appreciate my mother who has accompanied me to this meeting.
Oh God the Creator, we want to thank you for the gift of life to each one of us. We thank you for the opportunity to gather and hear your Word. We pray that you speak to each one of us. We pray that you challenge us. We pray that you affirm us. We pray that you encourage us to continue to be the Salt and Light that you have called us to be. And it is in Jesus’ name we pray and believe.
When you look at Matthew 5: 1-9, Jesus speaks about the character and blessedness of the citizens of the Kingdom of God. He continues to talk about the attitude the world has towards those who are citizens of this Kingdom of God. Jesus then describes the influence of the Kingdom upon the world using two metaphors - Salt and Light.
In ancient times, salt was the ultimate seasoning that gave taste to food. Without salt food would be tasteless. Reflecting on the Scriptures, it was interesting to realise that actually white sugar is not used in the Scriptures. In Kenya young people write letters to each other using phrases such as ‘you are my honey’, ‘you are my sugar’, ‘you are my peanut’. There is even an advert where they advertise one particular brand of sugar. They sing a song, “you are my sugar you are my honey” so that people will buy that sugar. But it is interesting that for Jesus in ancient times, salt was very, very important, and those who are here of my grandmother’s and my mother’s age, would agree with me that salt was important. Before the economy of money, people exchanged goods, and one of the things they exchanged was salt.
Salt and light are important metaphors and are appropriate symbols to the followers of Jesus, then and now. During his life and ministry, Jesus ministered to a broken world. That broken world was characterised by issues on the political, economic, social and religious fronts.
On the political front, He confronted injustices. He uses the metaphor of salt and light because He knew that the followers would understand these metaphors due to their significance. If you ask any scientist they will tell you that salt promotes healing.
In the social context and in the world all over, people would argue, and I agree, that there is disintegration of families and communities that are challenged by different things but especially disease. There are diseases that cannot be cured, as we know from the East African context, diseases such as HIV and aids, which have impacted heavily on families. Women in particular continue to carry the brunt of these diseases, diseases that have caused stigma, exclusion and marginalisation. In this context we also find human trafficking - what I would call modern slavery of young people, especially women. We know that they don't end up in good situations economically. Instead they are used for many things including commercial sex work.
On the social front again I want to say that our communities are marred by environmental degradation. Words like global warming, deforestation are no longer mere theoretical terms. Unfortunately our record in conserving our environment especially in the last three decades of this century has been rather disappointing. Vast areas of our land, which were once fertile agricultural lands, have now become dustbowls. Failure to manage the land to which we had been entrusted has resulted in unrivalled natural disasters and risks of even greater ones. That is the social context in which we are called to be salt and light.
On the economic front we are talking about a world where there is extreme poverty reflected differently in both the rural and urban contexts, developed and developing worlds, race, caste and religion. Quakers were among the first people to say that women are human beings. In the 21st century, most of the zeal of early Quakers seems to have died. Thus, this conference gathering is appropriate, to call us to renew and re-commit ourselves to the issues that are showing the image of God amongst the people.
We are wavering, we are between yes and no, we are in the middle. Why are Quakers, who are distinctively known to be the people who say the truth, now in the grey area between the truth and the lie? It is because we compromise and have not maintained our principles. It means that we’ve lost the essence of being salt and light.
As light we are called to show the way. Without light we bump into each other and fall into the ditch. But light says, here is the road, take it. Here is danger, avoid it. We are called to shine and we shine better when there is darkness and not when there is light. One dark evening I saw a matatu [public transport van used in Kenya] that had no lights, yet it was written at the top: “I have the light of Christ.” It was dark, it had no beam lights, but it was written, I have the light of Christ. That matatu was not being seen because it couldn’t show its lights.
And sometimes maybe we are in total darkness. People don't see us, people don't hear us, people don't feel us, but we still continue to claim that we are Quakers of the light. Without light and salt the world is in a very bad shape. With the light and salt, the world becomes a safer and better place. It is our duty as Friends to make this world a better place to live. In Sunday school we used to sing a song about having a little heaven down here. It is a bigger heaven down here and if we are going to have a bigger heaven down here, then the challenge is to be light and salt. The challenge as Quakers is to have influence in this country, in Africa, and in other continents.
When Mahatma Gandhi said that the problem with Christianity in India is Christians, he was looking at the fact that people do not practise what they say - not following Jesus who was their leader. How does salt and light work when we are salt and light? When you are given food, you taste it and it is good. You never see the salt in it, but salt was included in the cooking. The salt has influence on the food and the food is good. Salt works and expands itself. You see the results of the salt. Food is delicious without seeing the salt. If we are the salt of the earth, the society will see us, and the society will be influenced by us.
Light works in a different way. Light is visible, it is seen and it works openly, especially when there is darkness. So as light you influence the environment around you. And how do you influence it? You influence it by being. If you have brought up children you discover that children will look at what you are doing and they will practice what they see being done. For mothers, little girls will start carrying babies on their backs because they see you carrying babies on your backs. And mothers in fact make sticks for them to carry on their backs if they can’t afford dolls. They are influenced by seeing. They are influenced by hearing what you are saying. They are influenced by being beside you.
Where are the Christians? It was John Salt who said, “if the world is rotten don't ask why the light is broken. Ask, where are the Christians?” So if our contexts are rotten, we need to ask ourselves, where are the Quakers? Where are the Quaker Christians? People need to see the work of the salt and people need to see the work of light in us. The Christians amongst you are known to be Christians by the way they love one another, not by the way they talk about one another. As salt and light, Christians are called to be involved in the society.
One of the distinctive things about Quakers is that Quakers do not vote in meetings, and that is something that I keep explaining to my colleagues. They ask me, but how do you arrive at the right action? I say, we talk and we go on and on until we have consensus. But may be we campaign more in the background. And there are dark things about campaigning, because you speak badly about the other person. For example you say that they should not be chosen because they are women, or they are widows (these are some of the stigmatising aspects for women), or he or she comes from a different tribe. So we campaign so much before we come to that consensus. The issue here is, let it not be a campaign of excluding or marginalising on the basis of who the person is. We are all created in the image and likeness of God.
It is clear that both salt and light operate by association with the things that they want to change. So we associate with the political, the social, and the economic scene that we want to change. Salt cannot improve the food unless it goes into the food and changes from within. Light cannot show the way unless it encounters the darkness.
Sometimes as Christians we think that the way to go is to keep away from getting involved with society and popular culture because we do not wish to contaminate ourselves. We are so busy going to heaven that we are useless on earth. Even going to heaven, you have to pass somewhere. So involvement is important. The truth is that by shying away from the realities of our society and our world, we might be hiding our light under the bushel, or under the basket. To make a difference we must get up and get involved.
The theme of this Conference is taken from the Gospel of Matthew. It is not only challenging, but also frightening, because Jesus did not say, “you may be salt,” or “you will be salt”. Jesus spoke in the affirmative. “You are the salt. You are the light.” So there is no wavering. It’s not that I can be today and not tomorrow. You are. That is your being. This Conference is a clarion call therefore for us to decide to make a difference. We can decide to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. Rather than sitting there and complaining about how bad things are, it is important to ask ourselves, “What are we doing?” Even the smallest candle that we can light is better than the darkness. In order for the salt to retain its saltiness, it must become contaminated. So we have to be involved. Let’s not just go to heaven. We’re not going to go to heaven alone. Others will be there.
Salt and light are not just a bit different from their environment. Salt and light have to have a powerful influence on their environment. The salt is to be rubbed into the meat in order to stop the meat from rotting. The light is to shine into the darkness, into the brokenness of our society. The light has to be set upon a lamp in order for others to see. And it is to be bright to the environment.
If, as Quakers, we are going to be salt and light of the world, if we are going to be Friends living in the Kingdom on earth, then we need Friends to revisit the teachings of our founders. We will be challenged to return to the basis of the Christian faith, and therefore be the salt and the light of the earth.
ESTHER MOMBO ST. PAUL’S IUNIVERSITY. 18th April 2011