Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Easter with Dietrich

I, with many members of our congregation and thousands of other people around the world, have spent the season of Lent playing the humorous-but-still-serious contest called “Lent Madness”, where 32 saints are put into a bracket a la March Madness, and daily voting determines the “winner” day by day.  It's witty--in the first round, St. Elmo was set up against St. Barnabas, so it was Elmo vs. Barnie.  Barnie won in a landslide.  On Wednesday of this week 8,000 voters cast their ballots in a contest that ended up electing Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the winner of the 2016  “Golden Halo.”

Bonhoeffer was a German born in 1906 who opposed Hitler from the day he was installed as Chancellor. He left the Evangelical Church when it began cooperating with the Nazi government and was one of the founders of the Confessing Church, which opposed Nazi activities and government. He studied here in NYC in the 1920s, went back to Germany, and returned to New York in 1939, invited by Union Seminary to teach at in place that would be safe for him as Germany marched towards certain war. But he wrote:

"I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people... Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security."

Leaving the safety of the United States, he returned to Germany, where he worked officially for the Abwehr, but in reality was working to develop the resistance movement, raising funds to get Jews out of Germany, and facilitating their arrival in safe countries. He was imprisoned in 1940, and when his role in the resistance was exposed, he was transferred to Flossenberg concentration camp, where he was executed on April 9, 1945, two weeks before the camp was liberated.

I do not believe that is a fluke that Bonhoeffer won what is, in a sense, an ecclesiastical popularity contest in our present moment. Terrorism around the globe, our political election cycle, continued damage to our environment, and economic struggles at home make us genuinely fearful about our future. Bonhoeffer’s winning, to me, shows a yearning and recognition that the way in which Dietrich Bonhoeffer followed the risen Christ a way that is particularly critical to emulate today.

Bonhoeffer was a follower of Jesus because of his profound faith that Christ, raised from the dead, was offering us the grace of eternal life. He is confident of that because of the Gospel: Peter who denies Jesus, and Thomas who doubts, the other nine who quarrel over which is the greatest… each of them, in all their frailty, is promised eternal life by Jesus. Each of them, despite their myriad sins and failings, is chosen and redeemed.

And so was he. Chosen and redeemed. Chosen by God, but not just Bonhoeffer, he was one among so many others, to witness to faith in a loving and gracious God, even when it meant he had to speak out against not just his nation but his complicit church institution. We see in him the hope and danger of what it means to risk everything on behalf of the Gospel. And for those around him who did not make that choice, who did not risk on behalf of the Gospel, we see the consequences of that reticence and fear.

This morning Mary craves the physical reassurance of the touch of Jesus—you imagine she must have embraced her Lord upon her exclamation of “Rabbouni!” because his response is to say, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”I want to hold on to Jesus, too. I want to be reassured and comforted and promised that the path I have to walk following Jesus won’t be as hard as the path he walked, or that Bonhoeffer walked; I want to be promised that I and those I love will be safe, not just in eternal life, but in this life. But that is not the promise of Christ today. Bonhoeffer wrote in his meditations on the cross:

“There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes.”

Many of us, at many points in our lives, have periods where we can affirm easily that we believe in Jesus; that we believe he has been raised from the dead; that we believe in a loving God; that we believe in the eternal life God has promised to each of us.

If it is easy to affirm those things—then God wants something more of us today—God needs something more of us today. Our Presiding Bishop is fond of preaching, “God is not finished with us yet!” and that’s true. God is not finished with you—neither in your earthly life nor in your faith journey. If it has been easy or convenient to be a Christian for most of us in our context up to now, it may be that the time for easy affirmation of our faith is over; the easy, “cheap grace” Bonhoeffer described thusly:

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

That time is past for us as Christians. To truly be Christians in our present moment, it is going to be costly. If we really believe that Jesus lived, taught, healed, died, and rose, then that demands action, and that action may be costly—to our friendships, our financial lives, perhaps even our own safety. And if you’re thinking right now, “I’m not sure I have it in me,” take heart: God is not finished with you yet.

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'Ye were bought at a price', and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

I know I am in danger of preaching a Good Friday sermon on Easter Sunday; but this still is Easter joy. This is scary news, but good news. Grace is costly—but incredibly valuable. Mary was not expecting resurrection today; she had no hope, she didn’t see how God was going to redeem all the wrongs that had been done. And then, in an instant, she hears her name and all is well.

Take courage. We follow a Jesus who showed us how to serve, not dominate; to love, not hate. Be a Christian like Jesus; we can lose our faith; and quail; and fear; but we must press on, resisting the easy answer, the quick fix, the cheap grace. God is not finished with us yet. God is not finished with you yet. Alleluia.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Serve. Love. Out loud.

In 1 Corinthians tonight, we have the earliest account of what Jesus did at the Last Supper; he blessed bread and wine, called it his body and blood, and told us to do this in his memory. That matches more or less with what happens in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

In the Gospel of John tonight we have a much later and unique account of the Last Supper where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and gives them a new commandment: to love one another as he has loved them.

And being good Episcopalians, we do not have to choose between them; we do both tonight. It’s kind of like the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke where one has shepherds and the other has Magi; they are never together, but somehow they help give a more complete vision of the Good News.

I want to start with John, the footwashing, which is the less known and reenacted of the two stories. This is an understanding of the identity of Jesus that we need to take into ourselves and proclaim to the world today, because it is so different than the Gospel many Christians today proclaim. We cannot be followers of Jesus if we are not servants first and foremost. Jesus does not call us to be miracle workers; Jesus does not promise us prosperity and riches if we follow him; Jesus does not enact a ritual where he is physically powerful and mighty.

Jesus humbles himself. If we want to be like Jesus, we are to humble ourselves.

That’s radical.

At a moment, and on a night, where it would have been possible for Jesus to tell his disciples that this was the time to arm themselves; this was the moment to start the overthrow of worldly oppression; this was the time for him to truly step into his identity as the inheritor of King David’s crown; or even that this was the time to barricade themselves in that upper room to stay safe; he does not. Even though some version of that is probably what most of the people in that room wanted.

Jesus gets down on his knees and does the work of the lowest servant. He washes their feet. All of them—even Judas. Even the person that he knows will betray him, that he knows will sell his life for 30 pieces of silver, Jesus washes his feet, just like all the others. He does not treat the bad guy differently.

When we are really conscious of following Jesus, that is what Christians do, and how Christians live.

A different aspect of Jesus’ identity is highlighted in the other gospels and in 1 Corinthians tonight. The familiar story of Jesus taking bread, blessing it, breaking it, and saying “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And then with the wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

I hesitate to share the next story, because at one level it sounds like it’s a story that is making fun of someone vulnerable. But I think it has a powerful truth, so I’m going to tell it anyway. A young, male, attractive clergy friend was bringing communion to an elderly female parishioner with dementia. And when he got to actually giving her the blessed bread he held it up and said, “This is my body.” And she, in her confusion, but also perhaps profoundly, responded, “I love your body.”

We will never know exactly what she meant. Was she speaking about the body of the pastor, or the body of Christ? But either way, I think there is something important about this profound message of Jesus at this supper. Bodies are to be loved—Jesus’ body is to be loved both as bread and as man. Our bodies are to be loved and honored. As a Christian I must love not just the idea of you, but the actuality of you. When Jesus says to love one another as he has loved us, he is telling us to love and honor and cherish the integrity and the frailty and sanctity of our bodies. And in some sense, is that not the truth of the Johannine Last Supper image of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples? He is loving their bodies, caring for them, giving them dignity without taking away his own dignity. Being humble is not humiliation.

In both Last Supper stories, Jesus is commissioning his disciples to continue to do his actions: wash each others’ feet. Love one another. Bless, break, and share my body and blood. Again and again.

So be a Christian! Serve. Love. And do so out loud, in public, proclaiming the name of Jesus. Because there are far too many people claiming that to follow Jesus is to dominate, rather than serve; and to hate, rather than love. For the sake of the world that God so loved that he gave his only begotten son, let us show another way.