Sunday 26 February - Sunday before Lent - Evensong - Markus Duenzkofer
I am currently re-reading Dietrich Bonheoffer’s “Cost of Discipleship.” The last time I read it was during my theological training. This time, I am reading it for my soul – one chapter at a time. And it is a completely different experience! At times it feels like I have never read it before! But it is just what I need right now in this dark wintertime, when the outside reality seemed to have crept into my own soul poisoning it with doubt and fear and anguish…
In chapter 7 of the book, Bonhoeffer, reflects on a quote from Matthew’s Gospel: “You are the salt of the earth” Jesus tells those who follow him. You are the salt of the earth: You are that essential ingredient for life without which our existence would not only be fairly bland, but without which our bodies could also not live.
And it is not: “you will be the salt of the earth maybe in some future existence.” No, you are the salt of the earth now, in this very moment! Jesus also did not say: “You have the salt of the earth.” No, the salt is not a gift given to those who follow Jesus. It is not like a special present from God that you can just put into your pocket and carry around. But the disciples are the salt, are this indispensable ingredient. Without them the world would not only be without taste, without colour, without beauty. It would die. Yes, the followers of Jesus secure life itself.
“But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” Jesus is quick to warn in the next verse in Matthew’s Gospel. Salt stops being essential when it loses its very essence, when it gives up being the last that was created to be.
In Bonhoeffer’s time, the followers of Jesus around him were indeed losing the essence of being the salt of the earth. Bonhoeffer does not mention it himself, but the book was written in 1937, in a time when Jews, Communists, and others had already started to suffer harshly in Germany. The church, however, had failed to speak out against it. The church, in fact, had been seduced by the Führer, who claimed to be the head of a quasi-deified nation.
The problem for the church, though, wasn’t just her ensnarement with the Nazis apparatus. It was what allowed for that ensnarement to have happened in the first place: entitlement, the haggling for position, intellectual elitism, national pride and exclusivism, disdain for the other, hyper-criticism and arrogance, self-centredness, economic envy, and the fallacy that the members of the church could be self-reliant, that those who follow Jesus, do not really need Jesus as the one to follow.
No more saltiness! The church had become useless!
Bonhoeffer recognised that the church is more than a religious interest group that gathers on a Sunday to listen reverently to sermons and partake sombrely of the sacraments.
But the church, in addition to Word and Sacrament, is about community.
And it is about community not for its own sake, not for the preservation of its own privileges, securities, and accomplishments. But it is a community that follows Jesus, and follows him, wherever he may go – even as he claims his identity as the Suffering Servant, and identity we hear described in this evenings reading from Isaiah.
The followers of Jesus are not passive bystanders. Followers of Jesus don’t just critique from a safe distance or employ reason to analytically dissect what is going on. They cannot just watch from the side-lines, particularly as Jesus bears the heavy burden of pain and death. Remember Jesus said, “you are” – not, “you will be” or, “you have” – but Jesus said, “you are the salt of the earth.” Now. Today. With all its consequences.
And this creates a double challenge:
On the one hand, this means that the followers of Jesus are not defined necessarily in doctrinal ways, but are defined by their willingness to claim for themselves his identity as Suffering Servant. And, yes, this includes obvious followers of Jesus, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who eventually was martyred by the Nazis, or Demond Tutu, whose commitment to the Word and Sacrament empowers him to serve God, to serve the world, and to serve even those, at whose hands he had suffered during the Apartheid terror.
But there are other, less obvious followers. There are people like Gordon Aikman, who succumbed too young, too prematurely, too cruelly to MND earlier this month. I have no idea, if Gordon Aikman was a person of faith. There was no reference I could identify. But I do believe that his life was an example of one, who followed the Suffering Servant, who became a suffering servant himself. And let me be clear: I am not trying to exploit or misappropriate Gordon Aikman for the church. Far from it! But, I believe that we who claim to be followers of Jesus must acknowledge this: if God’s people fail to embrace the relevance of today’s reading for their own lives, then God will look elsewhere and will use people like Gordon Aikman to become salt of the earth, to become essential for life itself. Joe Pike, Gordon Aikman’s husband, put it like this at his funeral: “Gordon has […] made me a better person, a kinder person, because even when he was dying, Gordon taught us all so much about how to live.”
And this brings me to the second challenge.
Isaiah is not just an ancient text that speaks to an already dead community. It is also not just a text that can be claimed by Jesus to reveal the profound salvific essence of his death.
It is that.
But Isaiah also challenges us to let the text claim us, you and me, and claim us hook and sinker. Isaiah challenges us to follow Jesus, and not just in an analytical way. But following Jesus must also mean following him into his identity as the Suffering Servant not just with or minds, but also with our hearts and hands, so that he can use our hands and hearts and minds to serve creation and teach the world how to live – even if the world rejects us, even if creation will degrade us to irrelevance. It is a radical claim on all that we are and all that we have, a claim that will move us from reasonable analysis into holistic submission to the will of God.
And, yes, our comfort and entitlements will do everything to hold us back. But for the sake of ourselves, for the sake of the world we are called to serve, and for the sake of Jesus, whom we follow, we cannot jeopardise losing our saltiness, not during the 1930s, not in these dangerous times, not ever.