Salt of the Earth
Matthew 5. 13-20
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
I'm sure that, unless you've been living on a desert island for the last week, the developments in Egypt will not have escaped your notice. Our television screens have been filled with pictures from Tahrir Square in Cairo of the demonstrations against the ongoing rule of President Hosne Mubarak. These started out peacefully, an example of true people power as men, women and children summoned up the courage to criticise the ruling regime in public. We all watched and wondered how long it would be before the authorities would react. What would Mubarak do? Send in the army? Open fire on his own people? These were real possibilities and we shared the people’s fears.
But then, relief. The army declared that they would do nothing. The generals stated that they believed that the people had every right to speak out, that free speech was a right and that it should be protected and we all breathed again. Mubarak went onto television and said that he would not stand for reelection in September. He hoped that his declaration of slow departure would be enough to satisfy the demonstrators and that they would go home. But they didn't. They wanted action now, not in 7 months time so they stayed and so we saw the counter demonstrators arrive, standing up for the president and doing so with force and aggression.
Were they, as some people claim, paid by the regime to ignite the powder keg or were they genuine in their support of a president who, in some people's eyes has been a great stabilising influence for Egypt. Who knows? And who knows how it will end. What we do know is that there are vast numbers of Egyptians who want change and, since they are denied change through the ballot box have resorted to the only alternative they have and that is to take to the streets.
Was this a decision that they took lightly? Hardly, since the risks were high. Remember that at the outset, 100 people were killed in rioting. So what moved them to literally risk life and limb for a belief? It got me reflecting on how we would react in a similar situation and that is very hard to do. We are so used to living in a free society that it is almost impossible for us to imagine risking our lives to bring about political change.
Many of the current UK government's policies are pretty unpopular, whether it's tuition fees for students or reductions in public sector employment. Many people have been moved to take to the streets to demonstrate their opposition but they are hardly risking life and limb. We can't imagine David Cameron banning the right to protest or ordering the police to open fire on protesters. We could not paint a mental picture, even in our wildest dreams, of tanks running people over in Trafalgar Square as they once did in Tiananmen Square.
Maybe you would not feel strongly enough about tuition fees or the privatisation of the national forests to take the risk of being faced down by armed police or military. So what would we stand up for? What rights do we hold to be inviolate, so much so that we would put our lives on the line and risk a bullet in the brain? Any? What about the right that we are practicing right now? The right to public worship. The right to proclaim the rule of God above the rule of man. The right to freedom of association and freedom of worship.
Fortunately for us, the question is hypothetical as these rights are enshrined in law so it could never happen. Or could it? If you were a practicing Christian in Germany in 1930, you would have dismissed this debate just as we would. Something that was so far-fetched as to be laughable.
Germany, the home of the Protestant faith, the country where on the 31st of October 1517, Martin Luther nailed the ninety-five theses of faith to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. There was no chance that these inalienable rights would be denied to good Lutheran Protestants.
But denied they were and within 5 years Pastors and priests were being imprisoned by the Nazi regime for daring to use their pulpits to decry the worst excesses of the state.
Now by this stage you may be wondering what on earth this has to do with today's reading from Matthew's gospel, the less famous section of the Sermon on the Mount that immediately follows on from the Beatitudes. Well, be patient, it's coming, honestly.
First, I want you to imagine yourself as a respected and respectable member of one of those Lutheran congregations back in Germany before the war. It is 1936 and the National Socialist party is in power. You may well have voted for them having lived through the nightmare of the Weimar republic where rampant inflation and economic incompetence had not only made you poor but had made your once proud country into the sick man of Europe. Say what you like about that Mr Hitler, at least he wants to make Germany great again.
But in the last couple of years, you've started to have your doubts. Power seems to be going to the Chancellor's head and new laws keep coming in so fast you can't keep up. At first, you were happy that some tough medicine was needed and, after all, a lot of it was targeted at other people not you. Why worry about laws to curb the power and wealth of the Jews or the trade unionists. They've had it too good for too long anyway and it's good that the National Socialists were looking after Germans.
Now, there seems to be no end to these new laws. Anything that Hitler doesn't like seems to require a new law and now these laws were directly hitting you. This government doesn't seem to like the church. First of all there was all the trouble over the Aryan paragraph.
This was introduced into German society to ensure that only those who were racially pure Germans could hold any sort of public office or be members of any organisation. In 1933, Hitler pushed this onto the German church and the majority of the church hierarchy accepted it despite its blatant abuse of fundamental Christian belief.
But many spoke out against it and led by Dietrich Bonheoffer, Karl Bath and Martin Niemoller, the Confessing church was born. So imagine yourself to be sitting in the congregation of Martin Niemoller's church in 1936. Huge numbers of pastors across the country have been imprisoned over the past 3 years for speaking out in opposition to the state.
It is surely only a matter of time before your own pastor hears that knock on his door in the night but this Sunday he stands before you still preaching and here is what Martin Niemoller says to you as you sit in his church (and I apologise for paraphrasing).....
And so what is happening to-day to our brothers and sisters brings us up against an unequivocal question, and that question is: "Has the Church of Christ, in its members and office-bearers, still the right to-day which the Fuhrer has confirmed with his word - with his word of honor - the right to allow us to defend ourselves against attacks on the Church, or are the people right who forbid us - the Christian community - to defend ourselves against unbelief and make it impossible for us to do so, and cast into prison the people who do defend themselves?"
The second question is this: "Has the Church of Christ still the right to tell the congregation that members of the congregation have fallen away from the faith, or are the people right who forbid us to do that. Brothers and sisters, the question is quite simple: is the congregation to be allowed to learn who has left the church and may it be called upon to offer prayers of intercession for the deserters; or is that not allowed?
And the third question is this "Does the Fuhrer's word still hold good?" Has the Church the right - and this right has been guaranteed it from ancient times - to collect alms in the congregation, or can this right to bring offerings in accordance with the will of Christ be forbidden it by the stroke of a pen on the part of a minister - or even of two ministers?"
Brothers and sisters, if I refer to these external matters I do so because no one knows to-day if or when he may have another opportunity of telling the Christian community whether the Fuhrer's word holds good, or whether the words of others who order the opposite of what has been promised to the Church of Christ hold good. We cannot get away from this question.
And as long as one man is left in prison, as long as one man remains evicted, as long as one man is forbidden to speak because he has replied to attacks against the Church, or because he has quite clearly called desertion of the faith desertion, or has been put in prison for collecting offerings, the question as to whether the Word of the Fuhrer holds good is answered in the negative.
Now this is risky stuff from the pulpit. He's calling Hitler a liar. Hitler had vowed to protect the church and clearly he was not doing that, otherwise we would not have these crazy new laws that stop church's defending their faith from criticism, that stop them praying publicly for those that have left their fold and to collect alms for the church. We would not have over 800 churchmen in prison for violating these new anti-Christian laws. So where do we look for guidance in this situation? Well Niemoller takes as his text in this time of crisis, our gospel reading this morning from Matthew 5:13. He continues....
In this situation these words strike us as rather peculiar: "You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world". But when I read these words to-day, they became really new to me, and I had to go back and reread them; and I had a feeling of inward relief when I found the words which I knew preceded them and which I had also long known theoretically to be in the fifth chapter of Matthew:
"Blessed are you, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you!" And then it goes on: "You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world!" as though there were no gap between the persecution of the community of Jesus Christ and the "You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world," but as though they were directly connected.
I must say that in this sequence of ideas contained in this passage of the Bible - which I have known since I was a boy - I to-day realized for the first time that the Lord Jesus Christ is telling His disciples: "You will be reviled and persecuted, you will be slandered falsely," and immediately He adds: "You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world."
Yet, brothers and sisters, there is something there that does not fit in with our troubles. "You are the salt of the earth." The Lord Jesus Christ does not mean, however, that we are to take care to distribute the salt among the people, but He draws our attention to another responsibility: "But if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?" Our responsibility is not how we shall pass on the salt, but we are to see that the salt really is and continues to be salt, so that the Lord Jesus Christ - who is, as one might say, the cook in charge of this great brew - can utilize the salt for His purposes.
Brothers and sisters' in reply to the question of whether it is possible for the Lord Jesus Christ to render practical service to our people to-day I must say: I see no possible way in which service can be carried out today, among the people, or in which the salt can be used among the people. But, brothers and sisters, that is not our concern, it is the Lord Jesus's. We have only to see that the salt does not lose its savor, that it does not lose its power. What does that mean?
The problem with which we have to deal is how to save the Christian community at this moment from the danger of being thrown into the same pot as the world: that is to say: it must keep itself distinct from the rest of the world by virtue of its "saltiness." How does Christ's community differ from the world?
We have come through a time of peril - and we are not finished with it yet - when we were told: "Everything will be quite different when you as a Church cease to have such an entirely different flavor - when you cease to practice preaching which is the opposite of what the world around you preaches. You really must suit your message to the world; you really must bring your creed into harmony with the present. Then you will again become influential and powerful."
Dear brethren, that means: The salt loses its savor. It is not for us to worry about how the salt is employed, but to see that it does not lose its savor; to apply an old slogan of four years ago: "The Gospel must remain the Gospel; the Church must remain the Church; the Creed must remain the Creed; Evangelical Christians must remain Evangelical Christians." And we must not - for Heaven's sake - make a German Gospel out of the Gospel; we must not - for Heaven's sake - make a German Church out of Christ's Church; we must not - for God's sake - make German Christians out of the Evangelical Christians!
That is our responsibility- "You are the salt of the earth." It is precisely when we bring the salt into accord and harmony with the world that we make it impossible for the Lord Jesus Christ, through His Church, to do anything in our nation. But if the salt remains salt, we may trust Him with it: He will use it in such a way that it becomes a blessing.
Now I was struggling to understand what Jesus meant by this issue of the preservation of saltiness in today’s reading and Niemoller really brought it to life for me. We have to hold to the word of God and protect its unique flavour. If it loses that unique flavour then it is worthless. As Niemoller puts it so well, it will have no impact on the great pot of the world into which it is thrown. Our duty as Christians is to ensure that our church and our lives reflect the life of Christ and not the life of the world.
We may not have the troubles that Niemoller and his congregation had in 1936, where the state was trying to impose its will on the church but we have our own pressures in 2011 that threaten to reduce the saltiness of our beliefs. We live in a secular age where our beliefs are considered odd and out of step with the society around us. It would be all too easy to conform to this pressure, to reduce our saltiness and blandly reflect the world around us.
How convenient if we just stuck to looking after this beautiful building to provide a suitably historical backdrop to the village. How convenient if we just provided a picturesque venue for hatches matches and despatches. And how bland.
So let's take inspiration from people who are willing to stand up for their beliefs. The people on the streets of Egypt. The brave Germans of the Confessing Church and their leaders who were imprisoned and murdered to preserve the saltiness of our faith. Let's do our own, much easier, bit to keep our faith full of salt. The world should taste differently because of this Christian community. If it doesn't then the fault is ours.
Niemoller was arrested soon after giving this sermon and was interred in Sacsenhausen and in Dachau concentration camps from 1937 until 1945. He narrowly escaped execution and somehow survived to become an avowed pacifist until his death in 1984. After the war, he gave one of his most famous speeches on the danger of apathy in the face of tyranny....
First they came for the communists and I didn't speak out because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn't speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.