bonhoeffer part III...

NOTE:  My worship notes for Bonhoeffer III from February 19, 2017.

Much of what I hear about religion these days turns my stomach – and breaks my heart. On the Right, our conservative sisters and brothers seem hell-bent on a 21st century theocracy obsessed with moral minutiae that penalizes and even demonizes those who question their selective use of God’s word in the Bible. They champion the so-called right to life for the unborn while demanding capital punishment, the obliteration of the Affordable Health Care Act and a reckless foreign policy that makes our nation ever more vulnerable to terrorism. It doesn’t matter that Jesus abrogated the moral limitations of “an eye for an eye” ethic – and that more people of color are incarcerated and injected to death in prison than white folk – those who serve a vengeful God demand a realm of retribution. Sr. Joan Chittister hit a home run for me when she said:

I do not believe that just because you're opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don't? Because you don't want any public money to go there. That's not pro-life. That's pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is. Over and again I hear Jesus saying at the close of the Sermon on the Mount: Remember not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.

And lest I be accused of narrow partisan rather than prophetic preaching, let’s note for the record the withering self-righteous elitism of the liberal side of the Christian family, ok? How many times have our fundamentalist kin been ridiculed, dismissed or shamed by an ill-informed media that does not even try to comprehend their angst? How often is their quest to live more fully under the guidance of God’s word denigrated as dangerous and derided as destructive? How often have liberals “equated any religious expression whatsoever in the public sphere with religion’s most illiberal elements, treating it as ipso facto incompatible with secular values or the Constitution?” As Christopher Moraff wrote in the Daily Beast: the vast majority of Americans (78 percent) still identify as Christian. Add Jews and Muslims to the mix and a monotheistic belief in a sentient higher power is practically universal in the U.S. (And of this majority) more than half accept the validity of evolution, are tolerant if not openly supportive of marriage equality, and back the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act and yet they continue to be portrayed with religion’s most illiberal and offensive elements. To which I hear Jesus saying from that same Sermon on the Mount: “Hypocrite. First remove the beam from out of your own eye so that you can see clearly the speck in your sister or brother’s eye.”

To which Dietrich Bonhoeffer says to us all, conservative and liberal alike: The time has come to realize that God is now teaching people of faith how to live in the world without religion. Without conforming to the “emotional comforts” of being part of the spiritual IN group, without reducing God’s love to inward feelings of forgiveness, without forcing bourgeois morality down the throats of a diverse and creative population, and without the need for our phony, divisive and mean-spirited culture wars.

Writing from a German prison for smuggling Jews out of the Nazi regime Bonhoeffer put it like this in 1944: “How do we now speak in a non-religious way about God? In what way are we religionless Christians? In what way are we those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world… where Christ is no longer the object of other-worldly concerns, but something quite different, truly the Lord of this world” but in ways beyond our traditional way of thinking and living?

For today’s third installment of “Exploring the Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for Our Era” I’m going to share with you three ideas: 1) Why Bonhoeffer concluded that the dispensation of religion was over in Western culture; 2) What he means by practicing a “religionless Christianity”; and 3) How his insights might empower us in advancing Christ’s love, mercy, hope and peace in our world.

To begin, I want you to look at one of Bonhoeffer’s poems, Christians and Unbelievers, for it offers a broad sense of what a religionless Christianity means. In three complex stanzas Bonhoeffer portrays how to move from a religious world view to a nonreligious Christianity. This poem is on the top of today’s bulletin, ok? When it opens, we’re shown what contemporary Christian religion has become: we go to God when we are in pain. We want God’s comfort from beyond the world to ease our sickness, our hunger, our sin and our fears. It is ”deus ex machina, the other-worldly, Powerful God we turn to when we need a fix or a rescue operation.”

Men go to God when they are sore bestead, pray to him for succor, for his peace, for bread, for mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead; all men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Like the late Billy Graham used to say: all drowning people know how to pray for when we are confronted by our powerlessness, we want to be rescued. Superstition, however, gets us into trouble Bonhoeffer believes because it trains us to depend on a silver bullet without taking responsibility for our actions. 

The second stanza deepens this critique of traditional religion by contrasting a powerful God in the opening lines with a crucified God in the next: this is the in-between realm, the theologica crucis or theology of the Cross, which the Protestant Reformation’s Martin Luther wrestled with wherein God is in agony. St. Paul spoke of this inversion as the wisdom of God and the foolishness of the Cross. Seeing God’s pain we want to “rush to the Lord’s side to challenge and defend God from the unbelievers who cause such suffering.” If you know the Lenten hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” then you know what Bonhoeffer was expressing.

Men go to God when he is sore bestead, find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread, whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead; Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

The real challenge to religion as either superstition or sentimentality is described in the third stanza of this poem. Instead of God coming to us from beyond with power to ease our pain, or, believers going to God to challenge unbelievers who have nailed Christ to the Cross; here God moves towards us from within the suffering of the world. God acts to be there for us, sharing the nourishment of love – whether we get it or not – just as Jesus lived. Jesus is the Man for Others in Bonhoeffer’s words , living into the joys and sorrows of reality, freely offering compassion and solidarity to Christian and Unbeliever alike.

God goes to every man when sore bestead, feeds body and spirit with his bread; for Christians, unbelievers alike he hangs dead – and both alike forgiving.

Reality is where we meet God – sharing love with the whole world like Jesus – is where God is present: not in our creation of spiritual clubs saturated in superstition, not in the celebration of sentimental superheroes, and not in arcane tests of doctrine and dogma. Only becoming whole in love – mature – complete as Jesus taught in today’s gospel is where God is to be found. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. But let’s be clear that this is a truly problematic and unfortunate translation of the Greek word telios.

Not only does it contradict the wisdom at the top of the text where we’re instructed to live beyond the ethic of an eye for an eye by choosing love over hatred; it asks us to strive towards the impossibility of human perfection. We know that we were made with a crack in us by God for that is how the light in; so why would Jesus tell us something different? The truth of the matter is he didn’t and Biblical scholars are explicit in translating telios – perfect – as becoming whole or complete in love – and that changes everything, don’t you think?

+ Can you describe what you sense it means for an adult to be whole or complete in love? What does this text say to you?

+ Scripturally it has something to do with balance and perspective: integrity and a sense of proportion help us live in balance, too for not every word or problem is as important as another.

The Old Testament lesson in Leviticus uses the word holy – qadosh in Hebrew – stating you shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy. Our spiritual relatives in ancient Israel were not speaking of perfection when they celebrated holiness. No, they meant honoring the cosmic order that God initiated before the beginning of time. They meant growing up completely in love. One scholar put it like this:

God has created the world with a capacity to be “very good,” and that goodness is maintained by the order built into creation, setting boundaries, for instance, between light and darkness, earth and sky, sea and dry land (Genesis 1). When those boundaries are maintained, life can flourish. When they are crossed, chaos ensues… Living into this understanding of holiness erases any boundaries between what is sacred and secular – because all life and all matter is important – priests and laity are called to practice the same holiness… Jews and foreigners are to be cared for with equal compassion… the fields were to be cherished so that neighbors and strangers alike might all eat and be nourished…
for we are to become mature – complete – by loving our neighbor as ourselves. (Working Preacher)

Bonhoeffer believed that the time had come when only a religionless Christianity could care for all people – Christians and unbelievers, Jews and refugees, neighbors and strangers alike as God intended – because a religionless Christianity was driven only by mature love. It did not insist on rituals, doctrine, sacraments or any public manifestation of faith except… love. Cut back to the third stanza of the poem and today’s Scriptures are clarified and revealed: God goes to every one when sore bestead, feeds body and spirit with his bread; for Christians, unbelievers alike he hangs dead – and both alike forgiving.

Are you still with me? Let’s pause and see if we’re still together on this, ok? Any questions? What are you thinking or reacting to?

In his context of pre-World War II Germany, Bonhoeffer saw conservative Christians giving the Nazis a pass on hatred and fear-mongering by concentrating on petty and personal moral infractions rather than the festering social injustices of bigotry and anti-Semitism. He also called-out the liberals of his day who no longer knew how to speak about public morality and ethics because they too had privatized and psychologized God. Further, most of Europe didn’t even care about God and only thought about the Lord when they had problems they couldn’t solve.

In 2017, the Church is equally bifurcated but not necessarily in the same way: conservatives are agitated about too much secularism – think Bill O’Reilly’s specious “war on Christmas” – so they want the new administration to make us more religious. Conversely, liberals have become so ethically compromised that most Americans don’t even know we exist – and if they do, they don’t care! That is why Bonhoeffer insisted that it is part of God’s plan to have the old religion pushed out of the world. A religious view of God – that is, a human perspective – is a false vision that “props up misconceptions about who God really is in the world today.” Now is the time to grow up he wrote– mature and become complete in love as Jesus and the Old Testament teach – so that we might find our true nature by sharing God’s love with all of creation. To quote from a letter written a year before his execution:

We cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur – as if there were no God – coming of age means that God lets us live in the world without the working hypo-thesis of God who solves all our problems… in truth, God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. There we see God as weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way – the only way – in which God is with us and helps us. Christ makes it quite clear that love comes not by virtue of Christ’s omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.

This still sounds provocative 73 years later – and it should – because Bonhoeffer knows that all we can know of God is what Jesus looks like on the Cross. If you ask, “Where is God?” or “What is God like?” or even “What does God ask of me right now?” Bonhoeffer would say: Look at Jesus on the Cross. Then he goes on to explain HOW Jesus ended up on the Cross and what that means for you and. So after I lay this out we can explore any of your questions, ok? This is really important, but so upside down to our usual thinking about religion that I want to be careful and precise with you – so pray for me – as I give you these five points.

+ First, Bonhoeffer believed that faith means following Jesus: not doctrine, not abstract theology, dogma or even religious tradition. Faith means doing in our day what Jesus did in his: using his life to be fully there with love for his neighbors. 

+ Second, when we are fully present in love for our neighbors, we meet God. When life is not defined only by our fears, needs, selfishness or personal gratification, but rather the well-being of our neighbor, we experience transcendence: we get over ourselves; we move towards maturity, our world is expanded by welcoming in the needs of our neighbors and our hearts are strengthened by sharing and practicing love.

+ Third, more often than not, this finds us sharing compassion with another’s suffering. We can also share the joys of our neighbors, but more often than not the suffering of another is where we find Jesus – out on the Cross – and wherever we find Christ on the Cross, we hear God’s voice in our world. This is what true reconciliation means – recognizing the Cross in our context – and moving in compassion towards those in need. 

+ Fourth, repentance is NOT about confession or personal prayer. Metanoia – changing the direction of our life – has nothing to do with asceticism, denial or saying the right magic formulas. Repentance is bumping up against our own selfishness when called upon to share love and choosing to move towards compassion even when we don’t feel like it. It is participating in the suffering of another in love. Repentance is “not denial in the sense of a religious world, but rather placing one’s self at God’s disposal in all of life.”

+ And fifth, in order to live this religionless Christianity, we must truly love life. All of life – good food and laughter, hugs and kisses and sex, nature, music and the arts as well as cultivating maturity, discipline, silence and prayer. If we don’t love life like Jesus did – and remember he was criticized by many in his day for being a party animal who performed his first miracle by changing water into wine – if we don’t love life in the fullness of our true selves, then we will become grouchy phonies play acting with love – rather than discovering God in the midst of reality.

And I’m here to tell you right now that the world doesn’t need more phonies – especially in the Church. The world doesn’t need more liberals or conservatives either. What the world needs more of right now are women and men willing to put themselves at God’s disposal in all of life. That is the down and dirty work of growing up and maturing in love. That is what Bonhoeffer saw as our calling at this moment in history. That is the way a religionless Christianity lives like Christ in a broken but beautiful world. So do you have any questions or comments?

We have been called into the radical freedom of loving and serving God without a crutch, without superstition or sentimentality, and with the fear of hell haunting us. Bonhoeffer himself wrote just months before his execution:

One must reject the questions “How can I be good?” and “How can I do good?” and instead ask “the utterly and totally different question, ‘What is the will of God?’ ” The God who is incarnate, crucified, and resurrected in Jesus Christ is the ultimate reality… so let us become whole – complete – by being formed in the likeness of Christ Jesus our Lord. The difference between an unbeliever and a Christian is that the former calls upon God to solve their problems while the latter hears God call followers to participate in the problems of human suffering. This is the opposite of everything a religious person expects from God. The human being today is called upon to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world.

This is how we become whole – holy and complete in love – we have to check out of the status quo and place ourselves at God’s disposal. In anticipation of confessing our affirmation of faith, let that sink in as we share with you Eddie Vedder’s religionless call to action in a song he called: “Society.”


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