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06 February 2011

Salt and Light in Tahrir Square

When the press tells us that "shoulder-to-shoulder with their Muslim compatriots, Egypt's minority Coptic Christians are flocking to Cairo's central Tahrir Square to join the call for the swift resignation of President Mubarak", it is no surprise to me that Christians are right in the middle of the fray...

...for what they do is in keeping with what Jesus tells his audience in our Gospel text from Matthew Chapter 5:

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot." “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16)

When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world”, he blesses us, he commends us, he affirms us, and he commissions us.

In other words, he tells us who we are.

The Kingdom of God is about this world, and about our life and witness in the world, and so are we. We belong into the middle of this gritty world, for it needs us.

SALT. Salt is important in today's English language: when we mean to say that someone is good, we sometimes say she or he is “worth their salt”, and our word “salary” is derived from the Latin word for salt, since Roman soldiers were paid their wages in salt.

In the ancient world – the world in which Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount – salt had a much wider number of uses (and thus, meanings). Like in our world, salt was used to purify, preserve and flavor things. But for Jesus and his disciples the word “salt” meant so much more: a symbol for God's covenant, a metaphor for wisdom, and (this one was new to me), a binding agent for fuel paddies made of animal manure: when the fuel paddies were lit in the oven, the mixed-in salt would make them burn longer.

Jesus says that we, the People of God, are the people who purify, preserve and flavor the world around us. We represent God's covenant with humanity. We stand for God's wisdom. And we are here to keep the fire of faith alive even when things get tough.

In 1936, when the Nazi Regime tried to bring all churches under their rule, Pastor Martin Niemöller preached on our text and warned against those in the world who are trying to convince us Christians that we should be more subtle and less loud with our message, that we should compromise more and that we should mold our message to what people want to hear. This is what Pastor Niemöller said in his sermon:

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. Only if the salt remains salt, ... He will use it in such a way that it becomes a blessing.

Martin Niemöller

LIGHT. Our Old Testament lesson this morning makes a clear connection between the works of the People of God and their light:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn ... (Isaiah 58:6-8a)

Jesus says we are to shine so that others may see our good deeds and praise God. Niemöller continued: “We are not to worry whether the light is extinguished or not; that is His concern: we are only to see that the light is not hidden away - hidden away perhaps with a noble intent, so that we may bring it out again in calmer times - no: "Let your light shine before men!"”

After the war, Martin Niemöller wrote words that many of us have read or heard:

In Germany they first 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.

We have no business standing by when injustice happens to someone else. Just because the injustice doesn't extend to us at the moment doesn't mean that we haven't been harmed already. When one human being experiences injustice, we all do.

Thus, I am glad to see that Christians are in the middle of the fray in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Matthew 5:13-20; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12

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