Our church book group has read some really interesting books in the last couple years. Books about human trafficking, a Swedish novel, memoirs of Scandinavian settlers in the upper Midwest, a riveting commentary on end-of-life issues called “Being Mortal” – and one of my favorites was the book, “Salt, Sugar, Fat” by Michael Moss. It’s a big book full of the tireless research of a man wanting to know more about the processed food industry. Food companies have known for decades that salt, sugar and fat are not good for us in the quantities Americans consume them. But every year, people are swayed to ingest about twice the recommended amount of salt and fat — and an estimated 70 pounds of sugar.
I read an interview with the author who was talking about some of his findings about salt – he talked about how dependent the food companies are on salt, because it’s a miracle ingredient for them. It lets them avoid using costly ingredients like spices and herbs, and of course has this thing they called “flavor bursts,” which just gets you so excited about eating snack foods, especially.
But the other thing is, salt masks off-notes or bad flavors that are inherent to some processed foods. In meat, it’s called “warmed-over flavor,” which happens when the fat in meat oxidizes when it reheats, and salt is one of those things that can cover up that taste.
It’s a fascinating book and I was thinking about it when I came across our Gospel for today in which Jesus said we are to be the salt of the earth. “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”
Salt affects whatever you put it on, salt does something. Salt loses its purpose if you keep it in the salt shaker.
His next illustration is similar – that of light. What good does a candle do if you light it and then put it under a basket? No, a light is meant to shine and create a glow to help people see in the dark.
Jesus says, be salt, be light. Do something. We weren’t made to just exist, to be absorbed by all the other tastes and atmospheres around us, but to affect them. To exist for a purpose. To season our community with the words and actions of Christ, to let his light shine through our days and deeds.
But how? Perhaps one of the finest examples of being salt and light for Christ in this world was shown to us in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor during the time of Adolf Hitler’s rule in Germany. Many other clergy supported Hitler – Pastor Hermann Grunner said, “The time is fulfilled for the German people of Hitler. Hitler is the way of the Spirit and the will of God for the German people to enter the Church of Christ.” Another Lutheran pastor put it more succinctly: “Christ has come to us through Adolph Hitler.”
We know what history has told us: The German people had gone through the defeat of World War 1 and the economic depression afterward – and this charismatic Hitler appeared to be the nation’s answer to prayer—at least to most Germans. But not to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he was determined resist Hitler. While many, many other Lutheran churches and pastors followed in line behind Hitler, even putting the Nazi swastika on their altar cloths, Bonhoeffer and others resisted – pointing out how Hitler’s prejudice and discrimination against the Jewish people was distinctly contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wasn’t raised in a radical or particularly religious environment – he was born into an aristocratic family. His mother was the daughter of a preacher and his father was a distinguished neurologist and professor. When Dietrich announced at age 14 he was going to become a minister and theologian, his family was not encouraging.
Bonhoeffer graduated from the University of Berlin in 1927 and then spent the next years working as an assistant professor, writing his dissertation, and doing some lecturing in New York at Union Seminary.
During these same years, Hitler rose in power, becoming chancellor of Germany in January 1933, and president a year and a half later. Hitler’s speech and actions against the Jews, and other marginalized groups intensified. Bonhoeffer became part of a movement that opposed him – they were known as the Confessing Church – which announced its allegiance first and foremost to Jesus Christ and not to earthly leaders.
In the meantime, Bonhoeffer wrote one of his most famous books, “The Cost of Discipleship” – a call to more faithful and radical obedience to Christ and a condemnation of comfortable Christianity. He had a fire within him to help Christians reject what he called “cheap grace.” Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance. Cheap grace is baptism without church discipline. Cheap grace is communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, without the cross, without Jesus Christ living and acting in our lives. He said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
The government in Germany banned him from teaching so he helped teach in an underground seminary. Finally that seminary was discovered and closed. While others in the Confessing church became more reluctant and afraid to speak out against Hitler, Bonhoeffer just changed strategies. He signed up with the German secret service to serve as a double agent. He traveled to church conferences all over Europe and was supposed to be collecting information about the places he visited but instead he was helping Jews escape the Nazis.
In time, he was caught and put into prison where he remained for two years. There is a book full of the letters and papers he wrote during that time. One month before Germany surrendered, he was hanged along with six other resisters. He was 39 years old.
A camp doctor who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s hanging described the scene: “The prisoners … were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts, I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued in a few seconds. In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
Jesus said, “be salt in the world, be light in the world.” He didn’t say it would be easy. After all, he himself was killed for sharing the truth of God’s message of love for all, why should we expect following the way of Christ should be easy? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero, the fourth archbishop of El Salvador – who spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture and in 1980 was assassinated while offering mass. Countless others throughout time who have spoken up for the way of Christ have suffered and died. Maybe we think that is only required for a chosen few, and yet, perhaps the greatest challenge facing the church is if we think being part of the Christian faith only requires things like attendance at church potlucks, putting in a bit of offering now and then, being nice people. But this Christian life is just that – a life – and what we hear in this place and read in the word of God, the Bible, is meant to filter into every bit of our lives: our speech, our choices, the way we spend our money, the way we take care of our earth, the way we take care of ourselves – everything. It reminds me of a quote I have shared before by C.S. Lewis – but it is so appropriate – He wrote,
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
Sisters and brothers, you are called to be salt and to be light. You were given your voice and your smarts and your compassion and your vision and your faith in order to bless and inspire and urge and love the world as best you can in the name of Jesus as long as you have breath. Each day, working with whatever you’ve got to help mold your little piece of the world as much as you can into something that shows the likeness of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer used his brains and his voice, his passion, his bravery, and ultimately his life to stand up for those being persecuted. He was salt and light in this world.
How might you and I be salt and light? With what we have? Where we are?