The great 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth allegedly said about preaching, ‘We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.’ In other words, the word of God as we find it in the Holy Scriptures cannot and should not be treated like eternal truth in a vacuum – in order for God’s word to be truly relevant, it needs to be seen and interpreted in the context of the world we live in. We may separate church and state, but in the end we cannot separate our spiritual life from our very carnal life in our time and environment. ‘The Word became flesh,’ John says at the beginning of his gospel, the word was incarnated, it became part of the world – it did not exist apart from it.
And, as you know, I am pretty passionate about holding the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. How do we live as those called to proclaim the kingdom of God in word and deed in this world today? And, of course, in this country the news has been quite intense lately under a new administration and some of its very controversial decisions.
But I don’t want to get into that. However, I want to share one observation with you: there has been something that I would call an identity crisis in this country. What is American? What does it mean to be an American? Who can claim to be a true American? What does it mean to be a patriot? There are quite different opinions about that out there in society right now. Some claim that the United States of America is a great nation because of its immense diversity and the willingness to embrace all those who come and seek to be part of this great nation – after all, as President John F. Kennedy said, ‘There is no part of our nation that has not been touched by our immigrant background’. This is a country built on immigration, and all of us have a migrational background – and so many believe that holding a U.S. American passport makes each and every one a citizen with equal rights – and responsibilities, no matter, where they are from. And because this is the land of the free, everyone can express themselves in whichever way they like.
But then there are also folks who have other ideas about what it means to be American, or a true American. In other words, there are those who may be U.S. citizens, but who are not viewed as equal or treated as equal. And often, anything that is not of European background or doesn’t adhere to European values, and that includes traditional religious values, is regarded as a threat to U.S. culture.
There are many who say about the U.S. right now, in this country and in other parts of the world, ‘This is not the America I know.’ And my hunch is that this country cannot aspire to further greatness without somehow resolving the identity crisis it is going through right now. What does make this country great? What are the values that have made this country so special in this world? These questions need to be answered. Not that answering these questions will be easy.
I mean, we all probably had moments in our lives when we had our personal identity crises. We half-jokingly talk about midlife-crises, when folks, and especially men, hit about the halfway point of their life and question if the choices they’ve made so far were the right ones. Sometimes there is the element of ‘Torschluβpanik’, a German word that cannot easily be translated into English; literally, it means the ‘panic before the gate closes’ and describes the fear to miss out on something essential.
But then there are other times in our lives when we ourselves don’t quite know who we are. When we go through adolescence, for example. Many teenagers act weird or even hostile because they don’t know what to make of their changing bodies, and because they just don’t know what their place in this world is. Or when we encounter an immense change in our lives, like the loss of a job, the last child leaving the home, the death of a life partner. We feel lost after we move to a new town, or a new country. Where do I belong? What is my role? What is my worth? Who am I?
Now opinions also differ about what makes a Christian. If we all agreed on that, we wouldn’t have the plethora of different denominations and non-denominations. But, speaking from a Lutheran standpoint, our identity is clear: we are Christians not because of anything we do, but because of God’s grace and acceptance, as manifested in our baptism. In that sense, it’s not so much about who we are, but whose we are – we are God’s. That’s what defines us.
But then Jesus makes some very clear statements about who or what we are beyond that. In today’s gospel, we hear: you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. There’s no question about that. Jesus doesn’t say, you should be the salt of the earth. You better aspire to be the light of the world. I want you to become salt. I suggest you make an effort to be the light of the world. Although we sometimes seem to interpret Jesus’ words in such a manner. No – we are. That’s who and what we are.
Now let that sink in for a moment. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. All of you.
God thinks the world of each and every one of us. God knows our capacities. God knows what we have in us. Even though we might have our doubts about it ourselves. Even though we go through times when we feel weak or defeated or plain tired or disappointed, even though we go through times we think we don’t have much to offer. Even though others degrade us by their comments and judgments. And so it’s good to be reminded what we are. Salt. Light. We are instrumental for bringing about and fostering life – because without salt, we would wither and die, and without light, there would be no life on this planet – that was the experience of the people in Jesus’ days. Our God is a God of life, and, as the body of Christ on this planet today, we take on that identity – to be people of life. We are salt. We are light.
And how we are light and salt depends on our God-given gifts and talents, channeled through love. You are salt when you pray fervently for the world. You are light when you share your possessions with those in need. You give life by visiting those who are lonely, by feeding the hungry, by treating someone with the dignity they deserve as human beings, who are created in the image of God. You let God’s light shine brightly if you care for and preserve God’s creation. You shine when you bring joy to people through art or music. You bring needed spice into the world by speaking up when you encounter injustice. You are salt and light when you live your faith in your family, your workplace, with friends and in society – when your faith is incarnated, made flesh, in all you say and do.
And this is how God transforms the world, with the help of all of us. And, going back to last Sunday’s sermon, we should never underestimate God’s power that manifests itself in the seemingly weak, the seemingly foolish acts of love and faith, a power that manifests itself even in the flawed.
And flawed we are. We know. Jesus knows. And so he can pinpoint to the identity crisis we sometimes have as Christians. We may be salt, but it can lose its taste, its zest. We may be light, but if we hide it under a bushel basket, or whatever the 21st century equivalent of that may be, it’s no good. And up to this day we have this great German proverb, saying about somebody we know has great talents, but for whatever reason doesn’t want to share them, ‘Er stellt sein Licht unter den Scheffel’ – he or she puts their light under a bushel basket.
We all know we sometimes do that. But God may just have a way to use us anyhow.
An example for that would be Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, theologian and contemporary of Karl Barth, whom I mentioned in the beginning, who was imprisoned and executed for his resistance against the Nazi regime, a resistance based on his Christian faith and its principles. And even he, who was and is such a shining light in this world, had his doubts, his ‘Anfechtungen’. He has his identity crises. He writes in his poem ‘Who am I’, written as he awaited his fate in a prison cell:
‘Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!’
You are salt. You are light. You are God’s. Let no one ever question this.
This post is also available in: German