Sunday, January 23, 2011

Snippets from a Sermon

In your mind's eye, place yourself in a cold study, or house office. Papers strewn about. Books from the bookshelf overturned. A lamp lies smashed on the floor. The time is April 1943, and the German Gestapo troops are leading a good looking but bespeckled middle aged man out of his house after roughing him and his house up a bit.

What is left on the man's desk and the floor as he was hurried away is a series of manuscripts that, in the time since, have been published under the single-word title Ethics. It was wartime. The man had become an active participant in the German resistance. The man was a theologian, and of all the things for a theologian to write about, it would be of no surprise to anyone that ethics might have been his primary concern.

The man is taken to headquarters and "processed" and ultimately finds himself in cell where he will spend most of his days in isolation, with occasional interruptions in the form of harassment from uniformed guards. The cell is small and cold. He is permitted a bible to read...but only occasionally.

He continues this work while in prison, scratching out several more essays using blunt pencils that he largely has to keep hidden in a crack in the wall on stolen scraps of paper that he has to have smuggled out of the prison a page at a time.

The last essay he leaves unfinished left, when, in the final, desperate days of the war, Hitler personally signed off on the orders to this man's execution. He finally is taken out of his cell, transferred to another prison, missing the allied liberation army by a mere matter of days. In his new prison, he is short order led to the gallows and hanged like a common criminal because the Nazis at that point couldn't waste precious industrial resources like bullets on criminal executions.

These last words that this man manages to scribble and smuggle out of the prision may have been his most poignant, for he had no illusions about his fate. He had been a committed pacifist for most of this life, but as he had watched his beloved Germany descend in madness since the early 1930's, he understood the rampant evil of the Third Reich as deeply as anyone. He ultimately decided to get involved with the Resistance, and ultimately the plot to blow up Hitler.

He did so with great moral reservations, making absolutely no bones about the fact that he might very well have been giving up his seat in heaven to so. He was tortured by his conscience, he really believed Christians were called to no be involved in any violence, even something like opposing Hitler. But he ultimately came to the understanding that he couldn't just stand around and do nothing. If it meant giving up his seat in heaven for saving people's lives in the here and now, that was something he was willing to do.

The title he gave to his own thoughts at the very end offers no false promises. The heading of the last essay he wrote reads simply: “On the Possibility of the Word of the Church to the World.”

The man began to ponder what, really, in the traumatic mix of defeat and victory, Christian ethics meant, and his reply to that inquiry was direct. Sitting in his prison cell, he wrote this response: “Jesus concerns himself hardly at all with the solution of worldly problems. When he is asked to do so His answer is remarkably evasive… His word is not an answer to human questions and problems… It is not a solution, but a redemption.”

By this point, you might have figured out to whom I am alluding in this opening illustration. I am, of course, referring to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian. If you remember that Tom Cruise movie that can out a few years back, entitled Valkyrie, Bonhoeffer was one of the moral advisors in the resistance cell that thought up Operation Valkyrie, that was intended to blow up Hitler. The bomb went off, but Hitler somehow survived because the bomb got moved at the last minute behind the leg of the table, and that was just enough to redirect the blast away from Hitler.

This is all very gruesome, of course, and its hard to believe that it was largely a group of Christians who thought that up. But in a world that has descended into madness and black and white moral decisions have gone out the window long ago, it is no wonder when the subsequent investigation of the plot ot blow up Hitler implicated Bonhoeffer and the Nazis came to arrest him, what was he working on? A manuscript entitled Ethics. Ethics is largely a study of trying to find the best path in a scenario that doesn't have a clear moral solution, when world reality is one big muddy morass.


Bonhoeffer knew the Bible. He read it closely. He read it, we might say, as if his life depended on it. He wouldn’t have missed, then, the startling nature of Jesus’ own statement in the Gospel lesson we have heard this morning.

"When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
"Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles--
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned."
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

Jesus' directness is crucial. For the world did not, then, immediately change. Poverty did not cease. The brutal Romans didn’t retreat. They didn’t give up torture to offer benevolence instead.

Everything in the world continued exactly as it had been. No remedies for people’s suffering materialized immediately. No solutions for all the world’s problems suddenly became apparent. This was neither the point nor the promise of the Messiah.

Jesus didn’t provide the gathered congregation instructions by which everything could be made better. What he noted was that in him God himself was present: the Kingdom of God has come near! In Jesus the people could see the fullness of God’s compassion and the relentless nature of God’s own love.

In God’s incarnation, the people could see God’s unfailing determination in covenant. They could see the boundless desire of God for our redemption, no matter the degree of our ugliness or the degradation inflicted upon us by others.


As Paul would remind us, "that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?"

What Paul is saying is that in Christ we have been made free to rejoice always, in every state of life, whether we are being abased or whether we are abounding. Christianity has no limits in joy; it isn’t dependent on attaining the right circumstances. And in so far as this seems implausible or objectionable, to that degree we have not yet understood what Jesus said.

Redemption isn’t discussed much these days – unless we’re talking about coupons in sales circulars. It has a pious connotation, especially when the world seems to have such an immediate need for answers.

The shootings in Arizona in the last few weeks point this out very clearly. The crime scene was still pandemonium, we didn't know who was dead and who was alive, and yet the talking heads on the news were already pointing fingers. It was easy access to guns, it was immigration, it was vitriolic political rhetoric, just on and on, etc., etc., etc.,

But Bonhoeffer realized something else in contemplating God’s promise. He realized that in Christ both good and evil are transcended. This vast divide which Paul is speaking about today, which constantly sets us off, one against another, is made irrelevant. For redemption is the healing of the primal breach that began in the instant when good and evil became distinguishable, and when, with moral judgment, we could oppose others and condemn them in whatever self-righteous blanket we care to wrap ourselves up in.

This is why Paul refers to the church, not as a society of the right-minded, but, in profoundly organic terms, as the body of Christ.

Paul makes this almost hilarious verbal aside where he throwing up his hands in exasperation and saying , "I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius...and maybe the household of Stephanus, but that's neither here nor there... so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.

"For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel,"


Imprisoned, spending most of each day in isolation, bearing the weight of constant threat from guards who were blindly following someone else’s urgent hatred, Bonhoeffer began to see that in Jesus we are even given the freedom to step away from matching hatred with hatred and calling that good. This, he wrote, is what Jesus said, and lived, and died, and established in resurrection.

Imagine, then, who we as the church could be, if, people see us differently, if, in us, what they saw was not their wrongness in contrast to our supposed righteousness, but rather our embrace and the face of Jesus Christ.

More than answers, the world needs our joy – more than solutions, such a vision of redemption is the Possibility of the Word of the Church to the World, that for every captivity of every kind a greater freedom can be realized, lived, and shared, "so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. "

This is the Possibility of the Word of the Church to the World.


No comments: