Sunday, July 8, 2007

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martyr

Sermon given at Trinity Church, July 1, 2007, Proper 8

We have here some very somber readings. We have a reading from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – martyr. We have a reading from the Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer – martyr. We have a reading from Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah – martyr. The story about Jesus as it is told, has him on the road to Jerusalem – that final trip to Jerusalem, where in the words of the gospeller Luke, Jesus is about to be ‘taken up’, which can be read: gruesomely executed by the Roman Empire. Bonhoeffer is in a prison in Nazi Germany – he’s going to be hanged. And King has yet to make his final speech on April 4th in Memphis, where he will be shot and killed.

Everyone knows who the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. is, though not everyone has really gotten the chance to think about the fact that he did and said quite a lot more than just those four little words – “I have a dream.”

Most of us are acquainted with Jesus, so I’ll save him for the end.

Not everyone knows who the Reverend Doctor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, so please allow me to give you a brief history lesson. The time is 1931, the scene is Nazi Germany just before the outbreak of World War II. At 25 years of age, Bonhoeffer was a priest and professor, and having traveled widely, returned to Germany. With other theologians of note, Bonhoeffer founded a new Church, and eventually a seminary to train preachers, and though small, this was one of the few Churches – and by Church, I mean, capital “c” a national organization of parishes that have something in common, and not an individual congregation alone. This was one of the few Churches that provided strong and consistent resistance to the actions of the Nazis against the Jews during the war. Indeed, Bonhoeffer always objected – loudly and annoyingly, with a similar eloquence as Dr. King – to the stances and actions of the Nazi party. The Gestapo closed his seminary, so it had to go underground. The Gestapo banned him from preaching. Then teaching. Then any kind of public speaking at all. Eventually he was arrested when it was discovered that he was aiding Jews to escape to Switzerland. But that’s not even the big part.

The big part was that Bonhoeffer was nonviolent. He preached with stirring eloquence the same nonviolence that Dr. King would later preach. Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed in nonviolence with every fiber of his being… But Bonhoeffer was also faced with the reality of …Hitler. Hitler, needlessly killing millions upon millions of innocent people, all based on mindless and stupid assumptions about race, class, culture, religion, and sexuality. I imagine it’s hard to remain a proponent of nonviolence when faced with such inhumane madness.

Bonhoeffer was in a Nazi prison for a whole year before it was found out that he was in a plot to assassinate Hitler – a plot that didn’t succeed, of course – but a plot that included Bonhoeffer, a significant portion of his own family, and a number of high ranking Nazi military officers. When this was found out, he was transferred to a death camp at Flossenburg, and was hanged in 1945, three weeks before Flossenburg was liberated by Allied forces.

Like Dr. King, our church understands Bonhoeffer to be not only a theologian and preacher of note, but a martyr as well. And that is a little bit of history about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Now, Dr. King, in the reading we just heard speaks quite eloquently about nonviolence, and I would hazard to say that his words can stand alone. Though, I will say that his reflections about the strength and power it takes to be nonviolent stand as a very striking counterpoint to the actions of the disciples in the gospel story we just heard. Jesus and his followers are snubbed by the Samaritans, because Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem – obviously to pray at the temple, what other business could a wandering rabbi have in the city – and the very thought of praying in the temple was abhorrent to any self-respecting Samaritan. So they snubbed him, refused to offer him hospitality, refused to hear him at all, and sent his followers packing. And his followers – and we can’t even think of several anonymous faces this time, we’re specifically told that it was James and John – two of Jesus’ closest friends, the ones who after he was gone would be at the helm of this new movement we now call Christianity, who along with Peter, where making the sorts of decisions that usually are prefaced with the words, “Jesus would have wanted it this way,” we have James and John absolutely chomping at the bit to rain down a little hellfire and brimstone on the hapless village of Samaritans. Literally. They wanted to curse the village and literally call down vengeance upon in that would manifest in widespread physical destruction.

Jesus’ response is illuminating: he rebuked them. I imagine it went something like this: “Are you insane? NO!”

Ah, nonviolence. Given what we know of Jesus, it’s actually not too hard to understand his reaction. In fact, this is one of those moments where, if we see it coming down the pike, we can sit back in our chairs and smile ruefully, shaking our heads at those silly disciples who have got it wrong again, like some comic foil who is always tripping over his own shoes. We can sit back, smug, yes, but if we do so we are then pulled up short, because the next part of the story make significantly less sense to us, and our modern minds.

It makes less sense to me, too, though I suspect, like all good confusing bits of wisdom, there are actually several layers of meaning, each one helpful in its own way, each one speaking to a truth of the universe, each one completely different from the next.

And so we see three encounters in rapid succession – Jesus and potential disciples. Two of them announce their intention to join him, and in a rather roundabout fashion, he tells them no. One of them is invited by Jesus to join him, but when it turns out that he can’t leave right away it doesn’t go well for him.

So on the one hand we have Nonviolent Jesus. And on the other hand we have Rude Jesus.

It’s moments like this when I wonder if Jesus had an inkling that the trip to Jerusalem wasn’t going to be all milk and honey. I don’t think he planned to get so angry in the temple market place as to start a riot. I don’t think he planned to have only three years of teaching before he was arrested, tried, and executed, but it’s moments like this, when he was slightly less than patient, slightly less than all things good and kind that make me remember that he was human. He was only human. He was just human. He was human. And it makes me wonder if he had an inkling about what he was getting himself into.

It’s moments like this when I wonder if Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought that he might not live to see 40, as he helped get Jews to Switzerland, and preached sermons that made the Gestapo see red.

But of course, we know Bonhoeffer was only human, and we have this wonderful excerpt from one of his letters from prison, where he’s contemplating just that. Who he is, versus how he seems. He seems to other people, even in prison, all things cool and confidant, calm and wise. They say he walks out of his cell, when he’s allowed to walk out of his cell, like a country squire, or if you will, like a suburban CEO, subtly surrounded by an easy confidence. And yet on the inside he’s ripping apart, trembling, weary, empty, and faint.

I wonder if Jesus ever felt like that.

Bonhoeffer wonders who he is – the person he feels to be on the inside, or the person he seems to be on the outside. Or maybe both? Or neither? A hypocrite, or a weakling?

I wonder if Jesus ever felt like that.

But then, just at the end, he does the most amazing thing, Bonhoeffer does. He admits that he has no idea who he is, which really is something that he was making abundantly clear before, but it’s nice for him to admit to it, and he flips his all of his musings on its head. He changes the rules and suddenly he remembers the bigger picture. He stops trying to define himself in terms of a small fleeting action, and starts defining himself in terms of a larger state of being. He starts defining himself in terms of God.

I would wonder if Jesus ever felt like that, but I don’t have to, because we’re told that he did. Jesus did – he did define himself in terms of his relationship with God, and he did it all the time.

Maybe the bigger question, is, do we?

No comments: