By Katerina Friesen, February 5th, 2017, Fellowship of Hope Mennonite Church
In recent sermons and reflections here at Fellowship of Hope, we’ve pondered how Jesus’ wisdom teachings and the way of the cross are foolishness to the world. Foolishness, to love our enemies. Foolishness, to be persecuted and blessed. Foolishness, that those who hunger and thirst are the highly favored ones. Yet this foolishness is the wisdom of God that we are given to chew on, the bread of life. Today, we draw our attention to a crucial ingredient in bread baking, the seasoning of our dough: salt.
Matthew 5:13 says, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” In the Jewish wisdom teachings of Jesus’ day, salt was often seen as a metaphor for wisdom. Like salt that preserves meat and brings out flavor in food, wisdom preserves life and shows its true meaning. In saying, “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus invites his disciples to embody wisdom in the world and not to lose it. But can salt lose its saltiness? Can wisdom lose its wisdom-ness? This phrase always perplexed me when I heard it. Apparently, impure salt from deposits in the Dead Sea could actually lose flavor over time as sodium chloride that gives salt its saltiness evaporated. So certain kinds of salt in the area where Jesus taught and walked could in fact lose their saltiness!
Interestingly, the phrase “loses its saltiness” in verse 13 comes from the Greek verb μωραίνω (mórainó), which means to be(come) foolish, to be insipid. Like salt that loses its saltiness is the disciple who loses his or her wisdom. If we translate the Greek back into Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, the word for salt is tabel, and the Aramaic word for foolish or foolishness is tapel. Jesus, the ever-playful wisdom teacher, does some witty wordplay here: If the tabel becomes tapel, how can it be made tabel again? He must have been having fun with this one!
What I want to focus on today is how Jesus’ salt, Jesus’ tabel wisdom, is actually tapel –– foolishness — to the world. Like I said, the world often sees wisdom as that which preserves life, which safeguards knowledge and human well-being. Yet Jesus’ wisdom, Jesus’ salt that is sprinkled all throughout the Sermon on the Mount, comes to us in a paradox that could be summed up in his words to his disciples in Matthew 16:25: “whoever wants to preserve (or save) their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” In other words, seek self-preservation and be lost. Seek the way of self-offering that flows from God’s abundant love, and be preserved (or saved).
You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world. As I reflected on these two central images of our passage this week, a week that felt particularly lacking in wisdom and light (at least in the U.S.), I yearned for life-giving examples of the church being salt and light. We need stories to anchor and guide us in these times, stories from our communal memory as the church to offer us hope and courage.
I turned to our Anabaptist tradition, which has its own particular flavor of salt. I’ll start by saying that we have many stories when our communities unfortunately did not live out Jesus’ wisdom, but instead lost our saltiness by clutching onto self-preservation and control. The understandable temptations we face as Anabaptists face are 1) to shelter ourselves under the force and violence of other powers, 2) stay quiet or assimilate to stay alive, or 3) isolate ourselves out of fear. For example, during WWII, many Anabaptists supported German national socialism and went along with Nazi ideologies, assimilating into a nationalist and racial supremacist identity. At other times, Anabaptists have upheld silence and secrecy in response to sexual violence perpetrated by prominent church leaders in a bid to keep order in the name of peace. And many have embraced an isolationist stance toward the world, retreating to “persecution-free” zones in Mexico, Paraguay, Canada, and elsewhere where we could safeguard our light under the bushel of what essentially became little Anabaptist fiefdoms.
Yet at crucial moments in our history as a people of faith, there are stories of salt and light — not without their own troubling questions — but stories to return to and to nourish our faith in times of fear and violence.
The first one I turn to is that of Anna Jansz, one of several prominent women who supported the evangelistic organizing work of Dutch Anabaptist David Joris. Anabaptism was an illegal movement in the 1500s, with members practicing baptism of adults upon confession of belief and secret meetings taking place in secret in barns, caves and forests. People were discovering the radical words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere in Scripture as they read the Bible together for the first time. Anna Jansz was overheard singing revolutionary Anabaptist songs with a companion in Rotterdam, and reported to the church/ state authorities. She was sentenced to death by drowning after several days in prison. On her way to her death, she carried her 15-month old son Isaiah and called out to the crowd along the streets for someone to take him as their own. The local baker stepped forward and as the story goes, his business flourished in the coming years. What tugs my heartstrings about Anna Jansz’ testimony is her letter to Isaiah that remains in song form in the Ausbund hymnal, still used by the Amish today. Her final words to her son speak of a broader movement that formed its followers according to Jesus’ teachings, to the extent that they were willing to release even their own lives for the sake of the Gospel. In this excerpt, listen for the echoes of words penned by Isaiah’s namesake in our lectionary text for today from Isaiah 58, as well as wisdom from the Sermon on the Mount:
Honor the Lord in the works of your hands, and let the light of the Gospel shine through you. Love your neighbor. Deal with an open, warm heart your bread to the hungry, clothe the naked, and do not tolerate having two of anything, because there are always those who are in need. All that the Lord grants you from the sweat of your brow, beyond that which you need, share with those who love God. O my son, let your life be conformed to the gospel, and the God of peace sanctify your soul and body, to his praise. Amen.
My next story fast-forwards about 430 years to the country of Ethiopia in the 1980s. When I first became a Mennonite in college, a significant experience in my faith journey was hearing an Ethiopian Mennonite pastor, Hailu Cheneret, speak about the persecution of the Ethiopian Mennonite church, or the Meserete Kristos Church. In the 1970s, a Marxist group called the Derg came to power in Ethiopia and began rounding up Christians and throwing them in prison. Hailu was one of the leaders who was put in jail along with other pastors. They spent anywhere from one to four years crowded together in a dark room less than thirteen feet square with thirty-five other prisoners. They slept on the floor, head to feet and could only turn from one side to the other if they got permission from the whole row to turn at the same time.
Yet when Hailu spoke about his time behind bars, he spoke with a smile on his face. He told us that being in jail greatly deepened his faith and he almost misses the intensity of the experience: singing hymns and praying together with those in his cell, keeping each other’s courage up, feeling God’s nearness and joy in God’s presence. Hailu said that during the time of the Derg, the Meserete Kristos Church had to go underground and foreign missionaries left. Ethiopians gathered secretly in homes in groups of five to seven each week to study the Bible under the leadership of mostly women. Baptisms took place under the cover of night. As one account says,
The Ethiopians sang songs they had created, listened to passionate messages, joyfully celebrated the Lord’s supper, and engaged in faith healing, casting out of demons, and speaking in tongues. They shared their material goods freely, as early Christians did. They taught and lived that love was all important, regardless of someone’s tribe or religion or political persuasion.
Before the Derg came into power, the Meserete Kristos church was about 5,000 people as a result of Mennonite Mission influence. But after the Derg fell from power in 1991, the house fellowships came together for worship at a stadium, and people were amazed because 50,000 people came! That’s ten-fold growth during an anti-Christian regime! And they kept growing! They are now the largest Anabaptist conference in the world, at about 500,000.
Of course, persecution does not necessarily mean growth of the church, and growth of the church does not necessarily mean God is more active there. Yet there is something to the fact that our Anabaptist sisters and brothers in Ethiopia (and the missionaries there) had to release control when Christianity was not favored by the government. They were willing to risk their lives to continue worshipping together and witnessing to God’s kingdom. And they had to trust in the power of God rather than their government or church leaders and structures to save them. Thus, Meserete Kristos became a very salty church.
When I first heard this story, I remember Hailu Cheneret looking out over our crowd of mostly suburban white Mennonites who came to hear him share. He told us that it doesn’t matter whether the government subscribes to a capitalist democracy or Marxist communism. The result of Christian witness will be the same: “If you truly follow Jesus,” he said, “this land of democracy will persecute you.” His words still ring in my ears.
My final example of salt and light is a story that extends to our own political moment. I recently saw a Youtube video posted by the UN Commission on Refugees about an Anabaptist community in Canada, who are Hutterites, who have opened their arms to welcome Syrian refugees. When they were considering whether or not to host a Muslim family, from a culture and land so different than their own, the Hutterite minister recalled his own people’s experience as refugees at one time, and decided to extend an invitation.
Najwa Hussein Al Mohammad, her husband Reyad Alhamoud, and their children were some of 31,000 refugees resettled in Canada over the past year. They were in exile over 3 years after their home was hit by a bomb strike. Their resettlement to the cold, blustery prairies of Manitoba under the sponsorship of the Hutterites was another big challenge for their family. Yet the close-knit Hutterite community invited them out often for bonfires, meals, and bike rides, and they shared Turkish coffee and traditional recipes with each other. The women speak of each other as sisters now, the most unlikely of families. In hearing their story, the phrase in their safety you will find your safety came into my mind.
In their safety, you will find your safety… here in our own city, we have the opportunity to seek the foolishness of God and open the doors of our congregations to immigrants and refugees fleeing the violence of the state. My friend Julia Schmidt, an AMBS student, has helped organize a group of pastors and church leaders to join the broader New Sanctuary movement, offering an ecumenical church network of support to immigrants and asylum seekers at risk of deportation. Just this last Tuesday, we met at AMBS to share resources and commit to talking about this movement with our congregations. John, Malinda, Jeremiah and I were there and can share more later. I suspect there may a place for us in this movement… When I look out at us, I see a salty church, a church with the Christ lamp burning, a church willing to seek our safety, our preservation, through what the early Anabaptists called Gelassenheit, yieldedness to God’s action in and through us.
You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world. The reassuring thing about light is that we not ultimately the light — Christ is. We simply have to be who we are as Christ-followers and allow Christ’s presence to shine through us as we accept and witness to the kingdom of God among us. Our political moment offers us that opportunity; in some ways, it clarifies our true identity and calling as well as the risks and consequences of following Jesus. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross once said, “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.” May the light of Christ within us burn with beauty, and may the salt of Christ preserve us in all wisdom as we offer our lives open-handedly, with freedom and joy.