the man for others - bonhoeffer part II...

NOTE:  Today's worship notes for Bonhoeffer - Part II:  Jesus as the Man for
Others.  It was a cold and snowy morning - we're getting about 2" an hour - with more still to come. I was grateful for the 50+ people who showed up.

Did you watch Super Bowl 51 last Sunday? I’m not a huge fan of the sport – and I only tuned in to check out Lady Gaga, truth be told – even as I rejoiced in the Patriots’ incredible upset. But what really spoke to me were the commercials. Yes, too much money was spent on them and you can argue about the mixed up values of a nation that directs our best and brightest artists into advertising and consumerism. But what about those messages? Over and over again, from Budweiser and Coke to AirBnB, the corporations made it clear that the current ban on Muslims – as well as the phobia some Americans have towards immigrants and refugees – is not only unwanted but un-American. It was to me a visceral, high tech portrayal of today’s opening Scripture: I set before you today the ways of life and death, prosperity and adversity… if you obey the way of the Lord you will blossom… and if you rebel you will perish… so with heaven and earth as my witness I plead: choose life saith the Lord. (Deuteronomy 30)

It should be obvious that currently there are competing visions for the soul of our nation that are in mortal combat with one another. On one side there is fear and a serious measure of hatred, resentment and confusion. On the other, an alternative reality built upon sharing, neighborliness and trust. Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, says that the “dominant narrative of our society is about military consumerism as driven by greed, vanity and violence – and that narrative is a lie – because it cannot produce life. Scripture offers an alternative meta-narrative based upon God’s grace and neighborliness. When social power and social resources are administered in a neighborly way, they produce a just and peaceable society that does produce life. These two truths are always in tension – a contest between the ways of death and the gospel that creates and sustains life through neighborly vulnerability.”

Theologians speak of this as testimony and counter-testimony – thesis, antithesis and synthesis – and what I saw on Super Bowl Sunday was the celebration of God’s counter testimony writ large in a non-partisan, life affirming way that literally made me weep tears of sorrow and joy at the same time. And it is my tears that compel me to share with you why I believe the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by Nazi Germany 72 years ago, holds meaning and value for our generation.

Our current quest for clarity looks a lot like what once confronted people of faith during the 1930s and 40s in Nazi Germany. I am not saying they are analogous. I am keenly aware of significant differences. But then as well as now, some profound parallels warrant our consideration. 

+  A huge swath of the working people in both eras experienced themselves as lost, forgotten and ignored patriots who became afraid of the future. In pre-war Germany, the rapid industrialization and migration to the cities after WWI left countless able bodied workers without the skills necessary to compete in the new economy. And globalization and 21st century hi-tech business practices have done much the same thing in America’s heartland. 

+  Public morality and social norms shifted wildly, too. Where women had once remained in their homes to serve their families for generations, by 1920 they were needed in public to be teachers, secretaries, factory aides, nurses and clerks in the German Weimar Republic. A social revolution every bit as mind numbing and perplexing with respect to families, traditional roles and workplace expectations as happened in Germany has also taken place in the United States over the past 20 years.

And, both nations share a vicious history of nativist demagoguery that periodically breaks into the public realm and turns vulgar and racist. The Nazis cultivated anti-Semitism and fear of the stranger for political gain while our white supremacists throw gasoline on the fire of prejudice, ignorance and resentment over Barrack Obama’s election as the first African- American president of the USA. Please note I am not saying the rise of Hitler offers an exact template for predicting the future in our land. I am not a shallow historical determinist. And yet, we would do well to pay attention to the needs of highly agitated but disempowered white folk in both eras who were open to manipulation – and that’s where Bonhoeffer has something to tell us about how to challenge this reality with Christ’s love.

Today I want to concentrate on what Brother B taught us about Jesus. If we’re going to be allies of God’s movement for life rather than pawns in the narratives of death, he said, we MUST figure out what Jesus means in our generation. This was Bonhoeffer’s essential task. In his own day the German Church had become divided between liberals and conservatives, both of whom made themselves irrelevant to healing the soul of the nation.

Liberal Christians treated Jesus as an inward spiritual balm who offered only comfort to our psychological wounds without a strategy as to confronting social injustice; conversely, conservatives turned Jesus into the dean of middle class morality. Liberals trusted science, economics, physics, engineering, education and government to deal with their public lives and only wanted Jesus to guarantee the forgiveness for their sins. In their view, Jesus only mattered in the inner, so-called spiritual realm. Conservatives went public, but were so obsessed with individual moral purity in their quest to serve a harsh and judgmental God that they, too rendered themselves irrelevant to the real social issues. You see, the conservative agenda was not driven by Scripture but bourgeois etiquette reducing Jesus to a tea-totaling, mealy-mouthed prig rather than the revolutionary prophet of God’s justice and peace.

To which Bonhoeffer replied: rubbish! Beyond all rules, habits, piety, sentimentality, rituals, theology and dogma Jesus was the man for others. This was Bonhoeffer simple yet profound short hand description of who Jesus was in Scripture and why this mattered in our generation. Now let’s be clear that to name Jesus as the man for others meant: 1) Jesus is the standard by which we evaluate all our ethics; and 2) the life, death and resurrection of Jesus defines what it means for us to incarnate compassion and justice. Bonhoeffer understood the entirety of Scripture and tradition as the quest for justice and compassion, it was the contest between the testimony of death, greed and vanity and God’s counter testimony of faith, hope and love.

Are you with me on this? How do you react to confessing that the heart and essence of Jesus is NOT as Son of God – the miraculous union of natures both human and divine – but rather as the man for others? What does that say to you? Now, there are three elements to practicing a life that honors Jesus as the man for others that Bonhoeffer spent his life articulating – and let me lay them out carefully and clearly for you so that we might discern how they might help us in 2017. 

+  First, using the Old Testament’s insistence that God’s compassion and justice was NOT about some other life after death, but rather flesh and blood existence right here and now, Bonhoeffer insisted that transcendence is becoming grounded right in the middle of reality and not some other worldly concern. “God’s beyond,” he wrote, “has nothing to do with heaven or other-worldliness. God’s beyond is in the middle of our village… living unreservedly into life’s duties, problems, success and failures.”

+  Second, what makes living in the middle of the village Biblically transcendent in the way of Jesus is not about out-of-body spiritual experiences, but sharing real life beyond selfishness on behalf of our neighbors. “Being there for others” is how he put it: “Our relationship to God is not a religious relationship to the highest, most powerful and best BEING imaginable – that is not Biblical transcendence – rather our relation to God is new life born of being there for others."
This is how Jesus lived, this is how Jesus experienced transcendence - by being there for others“and what was true for Jesus is true for you and me. We meet God in relationships not abstraction.

+  And that speaks to his third insight: Christian faith is NOT about doctrine or dogma – ritual or tradition – even when they are lovely. Christian faith becomes “participation in the being of Jesus who gives his whole life as the man for others.” And that is why the church exists: to train us, equip us, empower, correct and encourage us to live as men and women for others. In 1944, Bonhoeffer put it like this:

God does not repay evil for evil and thus the righteous should not do so either. No judgment, no abuse, but blessing...Blessing means laying one's hand on something and saying: Despite everything, you belong to God. This is what we do with the world that inflicts such suffering on us. We do not abandon it; we do not repudiate, despise or condemn it. Instead we call it back to God, we give it hope, we lay our hand on it and say: may God's blessing come upon you, may God renew you; be blessed, world created by God, you who belong to your Creator and Redeemer. We have received God's blessing in happiness and in suffering. Yet those who have been blessed can do nothing but pass on this blessing; indeed, they must be a blessing wherever they are.

That might be the best summary of what Christianity looks like. It is being a blessing to others wherever you are, in the middle of life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. We lay our hands on others and say "Despite everything, you belong to God; be blessed." And, we suffer with our neighbors making our lives available to them, "not dominating, but helping and serving."

Three bold, brave and beautiful insights about what it really means for Jesus to be the man for others and how it heals a broken world: 1) We find God right in the middle of life’s agony, problems and celebrations not on the fringe of reality. 2) Transcendence is not other worldly, but living beyond our own small world as a generous allies of love for our neighbors. And 3) Faith looks like sharing love in the same way Jesus did – relationships that bring blessing for others – is that clear? God is right here, with us sharing blessing with others, in public.

Today’s gospel text speaks to this with clarity when Jesus says: I need your work for righteousness – dikaiosuné in New Testament Greek that literally means justice - to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. He’s not saying the scribes and Pharisees are bad guys, 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 for that is what 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 – do 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. That’s what it means to choose life over death as the Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy challenged, ol? Fulfill the love of God in public by filling it full of justice – full of love – full of mercy for this is where the human and the holy embrace.

Now sometimes it is painful and costly to bring blessings to our neighbors in public. Many of us continue to be active in what has being called the resistance to the selfish and fearful agenda that has captured so many hearts and minds in contemporary America. Last week, my man Pope Francis was explicit: we cannot claim the name of Jesus and his grace if we turn away the refugee and foment hatred for Muslims. That, said the Pontiff, is hypocrisy – and so it is. Every week, my wife – who is studying to teach English as a second language to refugees and immigrant neighbors – gets trolled by people who call themselves Christians but spew the ugliest and most hateful words to her – praying that she gets raped or knifed or beaten by one she hopes to teach. If we weren’t in church I’d say these are really weird f***d up times for Christianity.

So let me call you attention to verse three of Bonhoeffer’s hymn which we sang before I started this message: he describes the sorrow and pain of being a blessing in public, linking it specifically to Christ’s own sorrow: And when this cup you give is filled to brimming with bitter suffering, hard to understand; we take it thankfully and without trembling, out of so good and beloved a hand. Faith is choosing life over death and moving into the middle of real problems. Sometimes that hurts – but sometimes there are joys and ecstasies too great for human words. That’s what verse four honors: And when again in this same world you give us the joy we had, the brightness of your sun, we shall remember all the days we lived through and our whole life shall be yours alone.

Bonhoeffer turns bourgeois religion on its head – and shows us how living and loving in public can not only change our lives, but heal the world. Brother B celebrated Jesus as the man for others – and teaches that as Jesus did it, so must we. So in our realm, in the world of the global neighborhood, being there for others and bringing blessings to the most vulnerable requires some homework:

+  Tomorrow, at 6 pm at Herberg Middle School, our friends from Jewish Family Services will be holding an informational meeting about bringing 50 Syrian refugee families to relocate in Pittsfield. Before Christmas, about 20 of us spontaneously attended. Since then, fears have been fueled and lies have been told.

+  So let’s see if we can double our past participation with intentionality and faith: let’s send 40 people from First Church to choose life and not death – to honor the wounded and afraid – to let our righteousness exceed that of the Pharisees and Scribes – and become Jesus, the man for others, in the flesh.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that when he marched in Selma with Dr. King, it felt as if his feet were praying. We need to be praying with our feet this week for it is time to stand and deliver. This is how I hear the good news for today – so let those who have ears to hear, hear.


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