worship notes: bonhoeffer IV

NOTE: My concluding worship notes for the February Bonhoeffer series.
Thanks for joining us. Next week we start Lent and a conversation on what the United Church of Christ "Statement of Faith" means for the 21st century.

Last week a once young but now middle aged member of my former church in Cleveland, OH died. Neil was just 53 years old. He was a big teddy bear of a man with a smile as wide as the Brooklyn Bridge. I had the privilege of being the celebrant at his wedding, working with his spouse in Trinity Church on Christmas pageants and Christian Education, baptizing both of his children, playing on an intra-church softball team with him and sharing hundreds of hours with his loving parents whom I treasured as the salt of the earth. I loved Neil – and his entire family – and wept when I received word of his passing.

The late Fr. Ed Hays of the Shantivanum Retreat Center in Lawrence, KS once wrote in a prayer book he called Prayers for the Domestic Church that before the days of instant global communications, the news of a loved one’s death used to arrive slowly and in small doses. “Today, families hear the news of death as it comes upon us from all over the world. The daily newspaper or television (and now internet) bring death into our homes on a constant basis… from the collapse of a mine in West Virginia, the crash of an airliner in the mountains of Peru, famine, police shoot-outs and accidents on the highway.” He continues:

Psychologically, all this death renders us numb… as we suffer from overexposure to the message that death has visited our world. As a result, such announcements call forth very little from within us… increasing the danger that we shall respond to the news of all death with a reflex-like word of regret and then move on with the normal business of daily life… Would that we acknowledge the fact that the message of death always comes to us wrapped in fear… and this can be good news if we allow this fear to awaken us to live more fully and lovingly… When the angel of death knocks at our door, touch our lives personally, it is always a sacred time of remembrance.
(Prayers for the Domestic Church, pp. 185-6)

He then offers a few prayer templates to help us practice honoring these deaths and remembering the blessing of love we received from these now deceased saints. When I heard of Neil’s death, I went back to this old prayer book and used these words to take stock of his departure.

Blessed are you, Lord our God, who is the keeper of the Book of Life. Today I have learned of the death of Neil, and as this type of news always does, it comes as a shock. We know, Lord, that we all must die…. But we still share the shock of death… May the news of this death be for me a holy message of how not to waste my todays – how not to be unprepared for the arrival of death in my own life – may I best remember Neil by being grateful for life today and by loving you, my God, with all my heart, strength and mind.

As I prayed these words once again, words I have used for over 40 years, they led me to recall others in my life who have gone home to the Lord – my sisters and parents, nephews and friends, precious members of four very different congregations – and these memories brought blessings to my heart. The angel of death, you see, comes to us as an ally of love and wisdom if we are open to God’s upside-down kingdom of grace. Then, as so often happens for me of late, these reflections morphed into a deeper inquiry into the trajectory of my own ministry – what I’ve learned and experienced over the years, what I believe matters and what I sense was a waste of time – and also how I sense I’ve been called by God to spend whatever time remains.

So, on this fourth and closing day of my series on the wisdom and value of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for our era, it has become clear to me that nearly 73 years after the great German theologian and social activist was martyred by the Nazis during WWII – some 60 years after Bonhoeffer’s ground-breaking and disturbing little book, Letters and Papers from Prison, was published in both German and English – and 50 years after the rise and fall of the “God is Dead” movement: the Western Church in Europe and the United States continues to avoid the critique Bonhoeffer offered to us as a way to reshape and re-form the Body of Christ for contemporary living – and that grieves me.

Like some of you, I have seen Vatican II come and go even as Pope Francis currently strives to ground his institution in modern ways of being faithful to the love of Jesus. The international charismatic movement blew through many congregations in the 70s and 80s with only to leave them no better for the excitement. There was a liturgical reformation in Roman Catholicism and the Reformed tradition, the buzz of the mega-church, the promise of renewal in the praise music phenomenon, and the enthusiasm and disappointment of all the various church growth movements in the USA and they all ignored the challenge of Bonhoeffer.

Like the disciples in this morning’s gospel text who are awed by the mystical prayer encounter they experience with Jesus on the mountain top – a wild spiritual revival linking the man for others with the law and prophets as Jesus is embraced beyond time and space by both Moses and Elijah – the American church aches for a similar enchantment. We yearn for a magic bullet or a quick fix from beyond rather than the sobering and straight-forward admonition of Scripture to simply follow Jesus: This is my Beloved, said the Lord, with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him… and when they looked up they saw no one but Jesus alone. Over the past three weeks I have outlined for you the essence of Bonhoeffer’s thought about the contemporary calling of the church that looks to no one but Jesus and why it matters for us now. Today we need to talk about these ideas so that we discern how they might guide us at this point in our life together. So let me first summarize what I’ve shared with you and then invite us into a dialogue.

First, Bonhoeffer was clear that faith means following Jesus: faith is not about doctrine, nor denomination, religious tradition, ritual, superstition or anything abstract; faith is doing in our day what Jesus did in his. To do this requires a conversion or repentance from the Greek word metanoia to change direction or spiritual formation as children of God. Whatever way you put it, none of it means having a Damascus road experience like St. Paul. Rather it is all about getting over ourselves: over our selfishness, our fears, our habits and our addictions. This is what transformation and transcendence means today: getting over ourselves so that we can be available to others – especially those in need. Faith is following Jesus out into the world not about saving ourselves a parking place in heaven by saying magic words.

Second, God makes the idea of faith flesh in Jesus who lives as the man for others. There is no ambiguity in this confession: to be faithful is to reform our lives into the form of Christ. Like Jesus, “we do not live in a separate, divine, holy, and supernatural sphere. Rather, we do God’s will in the natural, historical, public and political world—in work, marriage, government, and church. As a theologian involved in resistance against tyranny, Bonhoeffer asked: What does it mean to act responsibly for God and country?” And he concluded it is being engaged with the real struggles of suffering people on behalf of compassion and social justice. Being women and men for others is seeing the Cross or the Banquet table in the heart of the village rather than relegating religion to extracurricular or part-time events on the sidelines of life. As we say in the United Church of Christ, it is about accepting the cost and joy of discipleship – being there for others – in real time.

And third, our practice of being the church is often backwards: the church exists for the world – not itself – and never for inner magical experiences. “The church is the Body of Christ only when it exists for others” Bonhoeffer taught, “It must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving.” In a letter of August 21, 1944 he wrote, “If we are to learn what God promises, and what God fulfills, we must persevere in quiet meditation on the life, sayings, deeds, sufferings, and death of Jesus.” The church had two jobs: it sends us outward to serve the community and calls us inward to learn how Scripture and prayer nourish encouragement.

Now that’s my summary: faith as following Jesus, Jesus as the man for others, the church as servant for the suffering of the world and the strengthening of discipleship. What I want to do now in anticipation of Lent – which begins in three days with Ash Wednesday and continues for 50 days – is talk together about these three ideas. You see Lent not only invites us into repentance – metanoia – getting over ourselves, it also asks us to renew our commitment to living as people for others as Christ did before us. That’s the whole point of the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving; Bonhoeffer said the Christian life is NOT built on asceticism which is all about the self, but rather about how living for others transforms the world and leads us to meet God in our neighbors.

So let’s playfully explore these truths in conversation and let’s push ourselves beyond any harmless generalities, too. Our tradition is incarnational, ok? Is that a familiar word? How would u describe it? The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that incarnate is derived from the Old Latin – incarnare – in + carn – within the flesh. But let’s be clear: incarnation is the soul of Christianity. God’s love becomes flesh. St. John’s gospel tells us that before the beginning of time the idea and light of the Lord existed – Logos in Greek literally means the words of life which rested within theon their eternal Creator. At the right time, logos was born into human flesh – real flesh and blood from the Greek sarx - and lived among us – literally eskenosen meaning pitched his tent in our neighborhood – bringing God’s eternal light into the world.

And that clearly informs Bonhoeffer’s theology, study of Scripture and insistence that whatever we do in the name of Jesus, it must incarnate the light, life and love of God in the real world.

So, faith as following Jesus: what does that mean in your life? Not someone else’s life – and not in some harmless generality – but in your life. How do you follow Jesus?

+ How about living as a person for others? How is compassion and justice for your neighbor revealed in your flesh? Your actions? Your checkbook or debit card?

+ And then how does our church exist for others? What does that look like – and why does it matter?

My mentor in a New York City urban ministry internship, the late Ray Swartzback, used to say that his vision of the church would be one where things were popping on Sunday morning and early afternoon but then dark and locked up the rest of the week. And the reason he made this bold statement was, like Bonhoeffer, Swartzy believed that the church must be out in the world – at city council, at local schools, on the picket line, at the hunger and homeless center, running for office and visiting the sick and afraid – not massaging their souls in the safety of the Sanctuary. There was always a time and place for Scripture and study – and even a little bit of time for the so-called business of the church. But more often than not, we got the balance inverted: we used the vast bulk of our time for committees and meetings instead of being out there doing what needs to be done. The church exists for others.

That is why we celebrate Transfiguration Sunday right before we start a holy Lent: it links our baptism with Christ’s, it connects the beginning of Epiphany with its close today, it joins the life of Jesus with both the suffering of Lent and God’s blessings at Easter, and it reminds us one more time that our faith rests upon listening to Jesus for a season rather than running off half-baked into yet more busy work that only clutters our hearts and minds rather than frees us for service. Epiphany comes after Christmas, right?

What story guides the celebration of Epiphany, do you recall? The arrival of the Magi – the Three Kings – and why is that important to us? Because these Wise Men and Women come from Iraq – they were Zoroastrians – or Gentiles to the Jews who both saw and trusted the light and logos of the Lord. Epiphany is the celebration of God’s light being shared with the whole world.

That’s the start of Epiphany and two days later comes… what? The feast of Christ’s baptism! And that’s where we first hear the words: This is my Beloved with whom I am well-pleased! And then we get the same words from God again on Transfiguration Sunday: this is my beloved! Today’s feast is to remind us that by our baptism we, like Jesus, are God’s beloved; and we, like the Christ, are committed to following the Lord all the way to the Cross: this is what faith means.

It is also what the meaning of our Lenten journey as we join Jesus as he heads into Jerusalem to face suffering and the Cross. Remember how explicit Bonhoeffer about learning Go’s will from the Cross? All we can know about the Lord has been revealed to us in Jesus on the Cross. So don’t rush too quickly to get to the good times of Easter. If you want to know what God’s will is for your life, or, where to find the Lord in the world: look for the Cross in the middle reality. Transfiguration Sunday leads us down from the mountain of mystical delight and into the valley of the shadow of death.

And with Jesus is heading towards the Cross we are told to listen to him – because we have something to learn that only Jesus can teach us. How, for example, does Jesus “approach his destiny in Jerusalem?” How does his walk inform our own calling to compassion and justice? Just as this Sunday connects our baptismal blessing with the cost and joy of discipleship, it unites us with Christ’s descent from the mountain into the valley of the Cross. It instructs to listen carefully to the Lord so that we might enter our challenge with his grace. And then, but only then, is there the hint of Easter:

Jesus comes to his disciples touches them with a sign of healing, commands them not just to stand up but literally to "be raised up!" and then commands them not to speak of this event until he himself has been raised for this is the hour of death…. Something greater born of this day is coming that cannot be comprehended until after the resurrection. So for now we must be silent.

We are being summoned by the Lord to learn to follow – to be there for others as he is always there for us – and to trust that the valley of the shadow of death is just as vital to our ministry as both the exhilaration of the mountain top and the bounty of the banquet table. As I look back on a long ministry, I give thanks to God that I am still around to share this extraordinary part of this journey with you. We have some import work and love to share in Christ’s spirit, beloved, so let us look to Jesus and Jesus alone in these times of trial


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