My friend Erik told me this week about a Lutheran pastor named Martin Niemöller. Now, I knew of him (and maybe you will, too) but I didn’t know his name. Niemöller was active largely in the mid-20c. He had been a U-boat captain in the First World War and then went to seminary and became a pastor. He was not perfect. He was often slow to catch on and he often learned to do the right thing only after doing the wrong thing first. Erik and I can relate. But he was never shy to confess his wrongs and vigorously work for what was right. He is probably best remembered for something that illustrates that perfectly. He said after the 2nd World War and with perfect hindsight,
- “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
- Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
- Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
- Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
- Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
You’ve probably heard that, but you might not have known that today’s Gospel text was the text that formed his last sermon before being arrested and sent, first to prison and then to a concentration camp for the remainder of the war.
The problem he was facing was that the Nazi government was looking for all of the churches to fall in line with one state-supporting Reichskirche. Niemöller, though, understood that the Church needed to remain distinct from the world with it’s unique “saltiness.”
We in the Church have a distinct and counter-cultural message… a distinct “saltiness”… a certain flavor which is often different from the flavors of the world.
- Our saltiness says that the poor and the meek and the reviled have God’s blessing, as Jesus told us last week. That’s often not popular in our world, where wealth and power and success are more fashionable flavors.
- Our saltiness says every human being has worth and dignity; the world seduces us into imagining there are winners and losers.
- Our saltiness, Isaiah reminds us this week, is to loose the bonds of injustice and bring the homeless poor into our homes.
So even as some of this generation’s most skilled merchants of fear, cook up conspiracies and brew lies that exclude, demonize and persecute, and the world around us simmers and boils in a perpetual stew of fear, we in the Church are called to something of a distinctly different, more Spirit-filled, more salty flavor.
We are called to stay salty so that when we see someone preparing a dish in our neighborhood that
- gives bread to the hungry,
- welcomes the stranger
- or houses the lowly,
we can throw in our saltiness there and enhance that dish. That’s what salt does. It enhances flavors, and you and I are called to be salt. We’re called to lift up, bring out and enhance the bits of the world that bring people together, that supports, and enlivens and enriches.
We can do that because, as Paul explains to the Corinthians, God’s Spirit is real and flowing through us. This wondrous mystery is for Paul a humbling thing – not something to brag about. Paul never said “I have the light and you are in darkness; I have the salt, and your savor is null.” No, the Spirit for him was something wondrous, mysterious, beyond his knowing and yet palpably real; it humbled and left him in holy awe and trembling. And he describes in this passage so beautifully the work of the Spirit. The Spirit is:
- that part of the divine movement and energy that appears when words fail
- that soothes when answers are hidden
- that accomplishes when our best laid plans, gang aft a-gley (go awry).
- The Spirit is sometimes our last resort, but it is often God’s first choice of presence in our lives.
Filled with the Spirit, Paul says, we discover we are acting and thinking and living like people who sense that God’s Kingdom is at hand.
- With the Spirit of God shining through us, we shine like light for others – not in a self-conscious or self-aggrandizing way – but in a way that comes from God.
- And we become salty as well – not in a way that overpowers or offends but in a way that is distinctive and delights.
*** *** *** *** *** *** ***
The world around us is brewing this horrible stew of cowardice and hate, exclusion and scarcity that has no touchpoint in reality. We are being invited to join that stew, to abandon our salty selves for the cayenne heat of fear:
- imagining a world of scarcity
- turning our backs on the stranger
- dismissing the cries of those in desperate need
- building barriers to protect ourselves from the sorrow, sufferings, loneliness, and deprivations of others
But attending to God’s Holy Spirit is a continuous process of scaling the empathy wall. When we follow Jesus, when we attend to the presence of the Spirit in our lives, we grow in compassion – a compassion that will take us up and over that wall.
And as our compassion grows, our fear fades.
It turns out that the opposite of fear isn’t bravery, but love. It’s love that casts out fear, that shines a light in the darkness, and that gives our salty selves their savor.
HT to Erik Karas for the front end of this sermon.