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Demanding Light

You can watch the sermon here:  https://youtu.be/IZv8zOn7tbI

Matthew 5:13-20

Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller was a Lutheran pastor and theologian in Germany. Historically, he is a complicated figure. He was a national conservative, like most protestant ministers in Germany at the time, and as such was an early supporter of Adolph Hitler. He said that he “hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made [him] pin [his] hopes on Hitler for a while.”[1] As a representative of the Protestant Church, he had met with Hitler shortly before Hitler became Chancellor, in 1932.

Niemöller said: “Hitler promised me on his word of honor, to protect the Church, and not to issue any anti-Church laws. He also agreed not to allow pogroms against the Jews, assuring me as follows: ‘There will be restrictions against the Jews, but there will be no ghettos, no pogroms, in Germany.’ I really believed, given the widespread anti-Semitism in Germany, at that time—that Jews should avoid aspiring to Government positions or seats in the Reichstag. There were many Jews, especially among the Zionists, who took a similar stand. Hitler’s assurance satisfied me at the time.”[2]

But then Hitler started showing his true colors, and Martin Niemöller began to resist. He started getting in trouble for some of his sermons, though he still wasn’t taking the stands we would hope. He still said that the reason Jews were being hunted down by Hitler was clear: they killed Jesus, which of course we now know wasn’t true, and it wouldn’t matter if it was. For quite some time, his defense of Jews was only for those who converted. He believed they should be spared because they were Christian, and the Aryan race guidelines went by ethnicity, not faith.

Over time Niemöller kept changing, evolving. As he confronted more of the evil around him, he began to see. And then he preached a sermon on this text: you are the salt of the earth, and you are the light of the world. In this sermon Rev. Niemöller  spoke of the freedoms of the church that were being threatened, in spite of Hitler’s assurances to the opposite. He named these as: 1) the right of the church to defend itself against attacks, 2) the right to name those who had left the church, and 3) and the right to collect offerings for the poor.

From what I can surmise, Hitler agreed that the church had the right to do these things . . . in theory and not when they pertained to him. And they seem like basic rules, so what was the problem? Let’s look at those three things again: First, the right of the church to defend itself against attacks: Niemöller  considered Hitler’s actions as an attack against the church because they were an attack against the tenets of the faith,  and he felt the church had the responsibility to say so. Second, the right to name those who had left the church: Niemöller  believed Hitler had left the church because his actions were so inconsistent with the Bible’s truths, and he named that. And three, the right to collect offerings for the poor: he thought the church should keep their offerings because he didn’t want to fund Hitler’s regime.

So here we have Niemöller , who had already gotten into trouble with the Nazis, preaching a sermon that was about to get him in more trouble with the Nazis. He knew what came immediately before this passage about salt and light: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”

You are the salt of the earth. Neimoller said that if we are to be the salt of the earth, and that salt is not to lose its flavor, then it must be distinctive, it must be different from the rest of the world.

He said: “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.’”[3]

Obviously, Niemöller had no intention whatsoever of following that advice. He believed it was the church’s responsibility to be different from the world, and to stand firm in its teachings even if the government did not agree. Not long after preaching that sermon, Rev. Niemöller was arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately sent to a concentration camp.

Looking back at such incidents in the past, we cannot help but be moved and inspired by the courageous acts of those who stood up against evil. We have it easy by comparison, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t forces at work against us.

People have been claiming for decades now that the church is dying. Attendance numbers are shrinking and budgets are being constricted. Small churches are closing and large churches are depleting endowments. Church is no longer the center of social life and Sunday mornings are no longer protected times.  “The church is dying!” the doomsday prophets all declare, as each year, more and more people claim no religious affiliation. But the death of the church will not come because of Sunday morning soccer games. The death of the church will come when we are silent in the face of injustice, when we give up our prophetic voice, when we stop being salt and light.

Niemöller  proclaimed that the church was under attack because its teachings were under attack. If we apply that same standard, then we are under attack, too—not, as some would claim, because Christianity is not the national religion, but because everything we stand for is constantly being challenged. The church teaches that serving one another is one of our highest callings. The world around us says that only those at the top of the ladder really count. The church teaches that giving is better than receiving. The world around us says that acquisition is the goal and giving is only for tax benefit. The church teaches that we must care for the widow and the orphan and all around us the safety nets are being removed. The church teaches that we must welcome the immigrant, “for you also were aliens in Egypt,” and in the world around us, immigrants are paying the price for our sins.

When faced with a world around us that teaches values vastly different from our own, what are we to do? Suit our message to fit the world? Cease to preach the prophetic call? Hold our tongues lest we offend? Content ourselves with pious practices and religious rituals? The book of Isaiah says: “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!”

This is what it means to be the light of the world—to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and welcome the homeless into our homes.

In this passage Jesus also is quoted as saying, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” That means following Jesus doesn’t set us free from the demands of the Old Testament. We can’t say “Oh, we live under the grace of Jesus so we no longer have to care for the orphans and immigrants!” In this life of faith, there is a balance between grace and demand.

Grace always precedes demand—meaning that grace always comes first. God doesn’t demand anything from us in order for God to love us, for example. But once we experience God’s grace, then we are “to reflect that grace in the way we relate to others.”[4] As followers of Christ, there are demands on our lives—demands to act with charity, demands to work for justice, demands to speak truth to power, or in the words of Isaiah, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!”

Martin Niemöller didn’t start out a hero. His conversion was slow, but after years in the concentration camps, his conversion was complete. He repented of his early anti-Semitism, acknowledged that he did not stand up soon enough. In 1946 he said at a gathering of ministers:

“We preferred to keep silent. We are certainly not without guilt or fault and I ask myself again and again, what would have happened, if in the year 1933 or 1934, 14,000 Protestant pastors and all Protestant communities in Germany had defended the truth until their deaths? If we had said back then, ‘It is not right when Hermann Göring simply puts 100,000 communists in concentration camps in order to let them die.’ I can imagine that perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 Protestant Christians would have had their heads cut off, but I can also imagine we would have rescued 30 to 40 million people, because that is what it [cost us.]”[5]

Niemöller is a vivid example of someone who wasn’t perfect—who, in fact, initially failed miserably to live up to the Gospel of Jesus Christ—but who was transformed and in so doing became the personification of Christ’s teaching. Many years after the war “he built a small chapel at Dachau, [one of the concentrations camps in which he was held] which was turned into a museum by the German government. Niemöller would greet visitors and discuss his time in the camp as well as hand out copies of his poem,”[6] a poem he said in different ways on different occasions but goes something like this:

First they came for the Communists,

And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;

Then they came for the trade unionists,

And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;

And then they came for the Jews,

And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;

And then . . . they came for me . . .

And there was no one left to speak for me.

Grace and demand. Both are obvious. You are the salt of the earth, Jesus said. You are the light of the world. May it be. May we be. Amen.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Niem%C3%B6ller

[2] Ibid.

[3]Niemoller, Martin. “Christians Must Be a Light in the World.” As quoted at www.abcog.org.

[4] The Waking Dreamer. “Light for the World.” February 12, 2014.

[5] As quoted in “Martin Niemoller and the Lessons for this Moment” on www.revcom.us

[6] Wikipedia

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