bonhoeffer - part one...

NOTE:  My worship notes from Sunday, February 5, 2017 (one day after Bonhoeffer's 111th birthday. The Sanctuary was significantly fuller yesterday. New people eager to connect with others seeking justice and compassion in these odd and chilling times. My written text, of course, is only close to the live message.
And so begins my four week in worship teaching series of the meaning of Bonhoeffer for our generation.
The Bible lessons assigned to us today by the Ecumenical Church working cooperatively as Protestant, Catholic and Anglican all emphasize the responsibilities of discipleship. There can be no authentic faith without action, no dogma that does not strengthen compassion, no abstract commitment to God without living like Jesus in our ordinary lives. In Eugene Peterson’s blunt reworking of St. Matthew’s poetry, we’re told: Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? Should this happen, you’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage… we have been called by Jesus to go public with all of this…be generous with your lives for by opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God who is the source of ALL generosity. (Mt. 5: 13-16)

And I don’t know a wiser, more important or time-tested interpreter of Christ’s call to public theology and the responsibilities of discipleship in the modern world than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For the next four weeks, therefore, I will be sharing aspects of his life and thought with you for I believe they are vital to American people of faith in 2017. Perhaps this one quote will clarify why I sense this is the hour to do so. In his 1937 book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without commitment, Communion without confession, absolution without gratitude. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate… Ultimately, Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power… I feel that Christianity is doing too little in showing these points than doing too much. Christianity has adjusted itself much too easily to the worship of power. It should give much more offence, more shock to the world, than it is doing. Christianity should take a much more definite stand for the weak than to consider the potential moral right of the strong.

Do you grasp what Brother Bonhoeffer believed was at stake here? Can you wrap your head and heart around the notion that while God’s grace and forgiveness are always freely given, if they fail to evoke an attitude of gratitude – a living response that changes our actions in the direction of love – then we’ve missed the point? Cheap grace confuses form with content, the penultimate for eternity and our own comfort and safety with the blessings of the kingdom of God – and costly grace offends the powerful.

These tensions are expressed in the prophet Isaiah’s calling out of the religious elite of ancient Israel even as they experienced bondage in Babylon and Bonhoeffer drew upon the prophets in his understand o cheap rather than costly grace. Peterson’s translation of Isaiah is appropriately unsettling:

Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout! Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives, face my family Jacob with their sins! They’re so busy, busy, busy at worship, and love studying all about me. To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—law-abiding, God-honoring. They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ and love having me on their side. But they also complain: ‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way? Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’ Well, here’s why: “The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit. You drive your employees much too hard. You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight. You fast, but you swing a mean fist. The kind of fasting you do won’t get your prayers off the ground. Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after: a day to show off your humility? To put on a pious long face and parade around solemnly in black? Do you call that fasting, a fast day that I, the Lord your God, would like? NO! This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed and cancel their debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. Do this and the lights will turn on and your lives will turn around at once. (Isaiah 58: 1-9)

Here we have an Old Testament example of what Bonhoeffer called the dialectical faith: a spirituality that humbly wrestles with the fact that we most often think better of ourselves than we deserve and worse of others than their record warrants. His way of being faithful realized that most of the time we want God’s mercy for our sins but the Lord’s judgment for everyone else. And this complicated reality is experienced most clearly when God sent Jesus into the world in human flesh to show us objectively the way to live with this tension. Because we are so easily deceived by our own confusion and selfishness, all obedience must look, smell, taste, feel and sound like Jesus or else we are getting it wildly wrong. In Bonhoeffer’s words, in our battle against injustice, “the will of God, to which the Hebrew Bible gives expression, is that we should defeat our enemies by loving them.”

Jesus, therefore, is the objective standard by which we evaluate our commitment to the ways of the Lord both in our hearts and in our world. That is why I have come to believe that Bonhoeffer’s testimony, theology and witness is so important at this hour of our lives: Jesus becomes the objective judge of everything we do. Human beings of every race, ideology, class and gender, you see, are simply too good at erecting ethical diversions and alternative facts to be counted on when life is harsh. St. Paul was clear in his own confession: Miserable wretch that I am: why do I continue to do what I hate and hate what I do even when I want to love? Bonhoeffer would say that’s what happens when we make ourselves the standard of ethical evaluation rather than Jesus. And what makes his ministry compelling to me is that he kept getting closer to the mark of Christ’s sacrificial love –even in prison – even facing martyrdom. On the day of his execution at a Nazi gallows, after kneeling in prayer with his fellow inmates, he was stripped naked and led into the courtyard where Bonhoeffer said to the prison chaplain, “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.” He then faced his death with serenity and was hanged.

So let me give you a quick overview of his life and then share one theological insight that I sense is crucial for the days before us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born 111 years ago on February 4, 1906 in Breslau, Germany to Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer with a twin sister Sabine. He attended the finest upper middle class schools, was awarded his Ph. D. in theology from the University of Berlin at the tender age of 24, served a German congregation as youth pastor in Barcelona in 1929 and was eventually appointed professor of theology at the University of Berlin in 1930. This cat was no slouch intellectually and ran with the best and the brightest of his generation.

During his first year as a professor, he travelled to my alma mater, Union Theological Seminary in NYC, where he began a lifelong friendship with Reinhold Niebuhr. Most Sundays he worshipped at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and came to love the mixture of liturgy, incense, Pentecostal preaching and gospel singing that took place in that great African-American cathedral. Upon his return to Germany he was ordained in the Lutheran Church in 1931 and became active in the world ecumenical youth movement. You may recall, Adolf Hitler was appointed as German Chancellor on January 30, 1933. This travesty compelled Bonhoeffer to outline his opposition to Aryan supremacy and state enforced anti-Semitism. By April of that same year, Hitler signed an executive order calling for a boycott of all Jewish businesses and the scourge of Nazi hatred was institutionalized. You may not know that in 1933 Dachau was formed. By 1935 Jews were banned from holding public office or positions in the German Church. This split apart the German Protestant Church: some bowed to Nazi ideology and intimidation, becoming the German Evangelical Church – or the Reich Kirche – while those who called out the fascists as heretics became the Confessing Church.

If you know your history, Nazi persecution of Jews, gypsies, trade unionists, intellectuals, homosexuals and society’s most vulnerable citizens increased leading to Kristallnacht in 1939 – the coordinated and sanctioned smashing of Jewish shops and synagogues all over the Third Reich – and the invasion of Poland which ignited an active internal opposition to Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s leadership led to his being banned from teaching anywhere in the Reich. So, being the rebel he was, he started an underground seminary for students in the Confessing Church that ran below the Nazi radar for two years. He continued to write and speak out against Nazi racism and was vigilant in telling the international, ecumenical community what was really taking place in Germany.

After the underground seminary was destroyed, Bonhoeffer was drafted. Using his family’s political connections and privileges, he went into military intelligence and used his mobility as a spy against Hitler. In 1943, he worked with others smuggling Jews out of Germany only to be arrested and imprisoned. It was during his incarceration that Bonhoeffer began to conspire with his brothers and other military officers and political elites to assassinate Hitler. They had concluded that even though murder was a sin, it would be more sinful to let Hitler continue. In July, 1944 their assassination attempt took place; a bomb exploded in Hitler’s war room but the Fuhrer was not mortally wounded. The conspirators were eventually discovered – including Bonhoeffer – who was moved to Buchenwald Concentration Camp. On April 9, 1945, two years after his initial arrest, Prisoner Bonhoeffer was stripped naked and hung to death at age 39 as an enemy of the state.

Now here’s the thing I want you to know about this man and why he continues to be relevant 80 years later. During his incarceration, he wrote a series of letters to his favorite student, Eberhard Bethge, from the under-ground seminary days. Bethge hid these letters and after1945 showed them to a few Western theologians asking: is there anything of value here? By 1953, a small volume entitled Letters and Papers from Prison was published in both London and New York. And this little book, containing an outline for a work Bonhoeffer wanted published after the war, spoke of a new way to do church: “religionless Christianity.” I’ll talk more about that as well as three other expressions – Jesus as the man for others, living in a world come of age and evaluating all faith by the physical presence of God in the flesh of Jesus – in the weeks to come. Just know right now that this tiny book changed the Western Church! His concepts were grossly misunderstood at first - especially by the God is Dead movement – his words have been denigrated by traditional evangelical Christians and thrown away in ignorance, too. But Bonhoeffer became a saint to Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu in South African and energized Christians opposing Eastern European communism as well. And in our own era of political uncertainty and religious intolerance, I have come to believe that Bonhoeffer has something important to teach us. In 1944 he put it like this: 

The all-or-nothing gamble of this hour is called heroism and unfettered action. Whatever is neither Machiavellian nor heroic is labeled “hypocrisy,” because there is no longer any understanding for the slow, laborious conflict between knowledge of right and the necessities of the hour, the conflict which was the genuine political life of the west, with all its voluntary concessions and its authentically free responsibilities. Strength is disastrously confused with weakness, historical continuity with decadence. The absence of anything lasting means the collapse of the foundation of historical life, confidence, in all its forms. Since there is no confidence in truth, the place of truth is usurped by sophistic propaganda. Since there is no confidence in justice, whatever is useful is declared to be just. And even the tacit confidence in one’s fellow-man, which rests on the certainty of permanence and constancy, is now superseded by suspicion and an hour-to-hour watch on one’s neighbor.

I have been persuaded that in a world facing a refugee crisis greater than that of the Second World War, the fear and uncertainty created by the current regime’s carless and often cruel words and executive actions, a culture that so often confuses might with right and the loudest voice with virtue, and the legitimate wounds of so many of our people – of every race, class and gender – that are crying out for redress: Bonhoeffer’s witness can help us be part of a moral resistance to fear, lies and evil.

Jesus admonished us today to be salty – bringing zest, hope and joy into the hardness of life – and not abstractly but physically, politically, economically and socially. Jesus challenged us to live as lights in the darkness – not in private, but out in public – not hidden under fear or political expediency or intimidation. How does our text put it? I need your work for righteousness – dikaiosun√© in New Testament Greek that literally means justice - to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. These scribes and Pharisees are not being highlighted as bad guys here, although Christian anti-Semitism likes to portray them that way. No, the scribes and Pharisees were often the best and most public people living into Torah – the justice, mercy and steadfast love of the Lord – so Jesus is telling us: I need you to do it better! Do it more publically! Do it with a greater vigor and physicality that makes my Father’s kingdom visible and real for all with eyes to see!

Another way to say this would be: fulfill Torah in your life – not treat Torah like it is over – but rather fill it full with all the love you can muster and all the Spirit can inspire. Do you get the difference? Fulfill means fill it full – full of justice – full of love – full of mercy. Do this and people will see the beauty and value of the Lord.

For is not THIS the fast I choose? To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the lonely, set free the imprisoned and stand up for the forgotten? We are those who make the kingdom visible. By the inspiration of the Spirit and our confidence in grace, we are the vessels called to fill life full of God’s love. We won’t always get it all right, but anything less is cheap grace. And that’s what I need to share with you today. If you want to raise questions or concerns with me, I’ll meet with you right here after worship. But for now let those with ears to hear, hear and give thanks to the Lord made flesh in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen


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