Bit of Bonhoeffer

From Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, “Heritage and Decay” pp. 128-31

 

“Faced with the abyss of nothingness, the question about a historical heritage that we must make our own, use in the present, and pass on to the future is snuffed out. There is no future and no past. There remains only the present moment rescued from nothingness and the desire to grasp the next moment. Already yesterday’s concerns are consigned to forgetfulness, and tomorrow’s are too far away to obligate us today. The burden of yesterday is shaken off by glorifying shadowy times of old; the task of tomorrow is avoided by talking about the coming millennium. Nothing is fixed, and nothing holds us. The film, vanishing from memory as soon as it ends, symbolizes the profound amnesia of our time. Events of world-historical significance, along with the most terrible crimes, leave no trace behind in the forgetful soul, gambles with the future. Lotteries and gambling, which consume an inconceivable amount of money and often the daily bread of the worker, seek the improbable chance of luck in the future. The loss of past and future leaves life vacillating between the most brutish enjoyment of the moment and adventurous risk taking. Every inner development, every process of slow maturing in personal and vocational life, is abruptly broken off. There is no personal destiny and therefore no personal dignity. Serious tensions, inwardly necessary times of waiting, are not endured. This is evident in the domain of work as well as in erotic life. Slow pain is more feared than death. The value of suffering as the forming of life through the threat of death is disregarded, even ridiculed. The alternatives are health or death. What is quiet, lasting, and essential is discarded as worthless. ‘Great convictions’ and the search for one’s own way are replaced by a frivolous sailing with the wind. In the political sphere, taking ruthless advantage of the moment is labeled Machiavellianism, and betting the bank is called heroic, a free action. What is neither Machiavellian nor heroic can be understood only as ‘hypocrisy’ by those who no longer comprehend the slow, hard struggle between knowing what is right and what is necessary at the time, that is, that kind of genuine Western politics, which is full of concessions and of really free responsibility. So strength is disastrously confused with weakness, loyalty [Bindung] to history with decadence. Because there is nothing that lasts, trust, the foundation of historical life, is destroyed in all its forms. Because truth is not trusted, specious propaganda takes over. Because justice is not trusted, whatever is useful is declared to be just. Even unspoken trust in other people that is based on constancy turns into mutually suspicious hour-by-hour observation. To the question, What is left? There is only one answer: fear of nothingness. The most astonishing observation one makes today is that people surrender everything in the face of nothingness: their own judgment, their humanity, their neighbors. Where this fear is exploited without scruple, there are no limits to what can be achieved.”

Shema, O Israel!

Luke 8:19-21 (Homily)

The following is a Homily I delivered this morning to the student body of the private high school where I teach theology and religion.

Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” But he said to them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Luke 8:19-21)

On Saturday, Robert Bowers opened up gunfire on Jews who were attending their Synagogue on the Sabbath, in Pittsburgh, PA. The attack was explicitly fueled by anti-Semitism, substantiated by white supremacy and nationalism, with a not-so-thinly-veiled vein of Christian Zionism. These Jews were gathered there, in their Synagogue, in their sanctuary to worship God, to rest (it was the Sabbath). To hear the Word of YWHW, their Lord, their God. They were there to be brought face to face with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; they were there to hear the story of God’s activity and promises for and to them. They were there to receive life. Rather, that sanctuary, that rest, turned into chaos, fear, panic, and most grievous death.

 

One of the components of the Jewish liturgy said regularly, is something called the “Shema.” It’s considered a prayer of allegiance to God, a centerpiece of Jewish worship and prayer life. It’s the heart of the Law. The Shema, a prayer of the people of Israel, is from the Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 6. If you didn’t know, Deuteronomy is one of the first five books, the fifth in fact, of the beginning of the portion of our Christian bible that we refer to as the Old Testament. But for modern Jews, as it was for those Israelites way back when, this is not the Old Testament, but The Testament. And this prayer functions as the heart of the portion of what is considered the Torah, the Law, which make up the first five books of our Old Testament.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Dt 6:4-9)

“Shema, O Israel!” Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might…And do these things. The word “Shema” is translated as “Hear” in our text of Deuteronomy. But “hear” is not the fullest rendering of what Shema actually and truly means. To translate it rightly, we should say, “Hear and Obey” hear so deeply that you actually do what is commanded of you. Hear and obey. This hearing and doing is the mark of the Israelite. Hearing results in the fear of the Lord, which we know about in terms of faith, and fear or the Lord, faith, is that which is the foundation of our activity, our vibrant activity in the world as God’s image, God’s representatives and reflections in the world, having dominion and caring for the earth and for all who inhabit it. To hear and to do is to be the righteous one that Micah, the minor prophet of the Old Testament, looks for in the streets where he finds none that are righteous. Through Micah, the Lord proclaims to Israel that what is desired by God’s very heart are not sacrifices and burnt offerings, but love and humility and justice.

With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)

To do and be the good Israelite is to hear the word of God and to be so moved to act rightly and to do justice.

 

For Christians, Jesus is the embodiment of the Shema: he is the one who hears and does. He is the righteous Israelite who walks humbly with his God, does justice, loves kindness. He does the Law in full: Jesus loves God and loves his neighbor (the entire world). And in being the embodiment of these commands fulfills them. But we go very astray if we think “fulfillment” now means we are only to “think and pray” for those who suffer horrible atrocities such as this and all the other shootings and bombings and terror attacks in our country. We aren’t off such a hook. There’s a massive systemic problem that is infecting and has infected our country. And its names are legion: anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and nationalism. And worst of all, American Christianity has seemed to tether itself to the last (thus also to the three former) and it’s not okay.

 

Our passage today is the stuff of a word that is hard. Jesus says, “‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’” There’s nothing easy about this text. There’s no way around what Christ says here and what is explicitly said: those who hear and do the will of God are those who are related to Christ, who are his brothers and his mother. Not “think” the will of God, not even “pray” the will of God. But “do” the will of God. And in saying these things, Jesus links those who follow him with those of Israel and binds them to the Shema back in Deuteronomy 6: Hear! Hear, O Israel… hear so well that you do. Christians are not off the hook, we might think we are, but we’re not. Saved by faith for good works. Not merely good doctrine but good practice.

 

Jesus died for our sins and rose for our justification, Paul explains to us in the book of Romans (4:25). But this wasn’t so that our eyes would remain blind to carnage or our ears to remain deaf to cries of the people. But as Jesus did throughout his ministry on earth and continues to do through the power of the Holy Spirit in the world: he opens our ears and restores our sight so we can hear and see clearly, so that we can call a thing what it is, so that we can face evil and address it, fight back without fear of what the future holds for that is held in Christ.

 

As a priest in the Episcopal tradition and a future doctor of the church, I cannot tolerate the violence and horror that is taking people hostage. I can no longer sit idle or turn a blind eye to the suffering of my fellow brothers and sisters at the hands of extremists and white supremacists. And I cannot tolerate a corrupted, debased, and distorted version of the gospel that is used to support and service such hatred, fear, and oppression. I can’t because the very spirit that lives in me is the very spirit of God and God hates those things. The Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead and ascended into heaven is the stuff of the love of God for the world, of liberty for the captives, for the oppressed, for those who are weary and burdened and down trodden; to put it into service to do anything but these things is to lose the gospel altogether and to render Christ’s sacrifice for the world pointless. Thus, I cannot just watch, think comforting thoughts, and pray, I must proclaim. I must ask you to wake up, look around, and hear the cries of those who are suffering and hear the cries of those whose cries have been silenced.

 

A rabbi I follow on Twitter[1] wrote a piece for the Washington Post about the synagogue massacre. She writes,

In Judaism, when someone dies, we often say, “May their memory be for a blessing.” This time, it is all of our obligation to make it so. We must mourn and lament and grieve for the lives stolen from the world. We must rage at the baseless hatred and reckless lack of protections that made these senseless killings possible in the first place. And we must honor the memories of those who were murdered by fighting for a world that values every life — refugee and citizen, of every race and religion — and that creates cultures and policies that reflect those values.[2]

I can still speak out; you can still speak out. So we must.

 

 

 

 

[1] Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (Twitter: @TheRaDR)

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/10/28/victims-tree-life-synagogue-massacre-are-martyrs/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.04a7b3830002

“God is in the Gallows; God is in the Rubble”

Luke 2:8-20 and 9/11 (Homily)

The following is the homily I delivered in remembrance of 9/11 at the school where I’m a teaching chaplain. It was written last minute because that morning I felt powerfully in my mind and heart to ask the person who was slotted to preach that day to let me do it instead. Here is what I felt called to share…

The Shepherds and the Angels

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’

 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:8-20)

 

On September 11th, 2001, I walked from the subway station on 33rd street and headed over to my office, located just a mile from the station in midtown, Manhattan, just outside of Rockefeller plaza, at 53rd and 5th avenue. The air was crisp, early fall was settling in; the sky was a bright blue, not a cloud in the sky; and the sun was bright and warm. The day was perfect. I didn’t expect that moments later while sitting at my desk I’d be told that a massive passenger plane had flown into the North tower of the World Trade Center, just a little over a mile away from where I sat. “Like ‘hit’ one of the towers?” I asked. “No, like into.” Was my colleague’s response. Disbelief. What?! How is that even possible?

We crowded around every TV we could find and watched the billowing smoke of one of our iconic buildings take over the bright blue sky. And as we watched, along with the world, another plane hit the south tower. It was official: our world was under attack. We were dismissed from our jobs and set free into the streets of New York City to find our ways to home? To safety? Somewhere? The city went on lockdown and no one could come in or leave.

It took me a while before I was able to fight my way over to my big brother’s apartment building, where, when I entered, the door man took one look at me and said, before I could say anything, “He’s waiting for you upstairs. Go!”

By a little after noon, Manhattan had quieted completely. It was so quiet. Eerie quiet. Big cities never get quiet. But this very big one was silent. Nothing seemed to move apart from the lone pedestrian or the occasional fire truck, police car, or ambulance that zoomed by, sirens blaring, lights flashing, headed to ground zero. I could and did walk down the center of 5th avenue; it was the first and last time I’ve ever been able to do such a thing.

Manhattan and the immediate surrounding areas would never be the same. You can’t go back to “normal” because we were consistently reminded of the horror and tragedy as we walked by walls, bus-stands, bulletin boards, that were plastered with pictures of loved ones who were never found, never recovered, never buried.

I was a new Christian, like baby new. Not even a year into walking with the Lord and here I was faced with evil, with tragedy, with suffering, and sorrow, grief and mourning. Where was God? Where was this God that I had just given my life to? There were no words being spoken, no waters parting, no rainbows filling the air. God was silent. And for many, and maybe even for me for a bit there, God was dead or at least appeared to be.

All of the events of tragedy and all the sorrow and suffering that happens to us individually and collectively draws up from the depths of our being and our soul and our mind the desperate questions of why? And where were you? And, Where are you God? Divine silence even more than divine judgment causes dis-ease, anxiety, and substantial pain in our very being. Where was God on 9/11?

I’ve spent the majority of my academic life in the pursuit of that question: where is God when we suffer? Where is the comfort in divine silence? And there are times like 9/11/2001 where I come up silent myself. The only I answer I have are the tears I shed because suffering is real and I hate it. And I cry because I can, for there are those who can no longer cry. Where is God in moments of suffering, pain, grief, sorrow? How is God for us when some of us are now widows and orphans, left destitute and grieving?

But there are times when I see so clearly where God is: right there in the suffering. There among those who have breathed their last; there with those who are not even close to shedding their last tear. With the child who will never know their parent; the lover who will never hold their beloved again; the parent who has but a last email from their adult child. God is in the gallows; God is in the rubble.

God is in our suffering, breathing for us when we can’t, holding us upright when our knees shake and quack. And the only reason why I can say this is because Jesus the Christ lay in a manger and the dirty outcast shepherds came and dwelt with God as dirty outcast shepherds. This God, wrapped in swaddling clothes, came to be with us in our suffering as humans. Jesus suffered and died and was raised on the third day to give us hope in solidarity with us. Our God knows suffering; our God is the suffering God, our God dwells amongst suffering. Did you know that this is possibly the most unique thing about the proclamation of the Gospel: our God dwells among the suffering as the Suffering God?

And God does indeed dwell amongst those who are suffering. The dead do not suffer; it’s those who have been left behind who suffer, and God is in their midst. When tragedy hits, when suffering lands, when catastrophe wreaks havoc, there God is in the midst of God’s people as we gather together, come close, push towards each other in our suffering and pain and grief. God was at Ground zero every time a new search and rescue team stepped up to help; God was there in every emergency room as doctors and surgeons and nurses pulled together to mend the broken and resuscitate those they could; God was there in the massive lines formed of people eager to do whatever they could even if it meant waiting hours to offer a pint or two of blood; God was there in that quiet whispered hello from your neighbor and in the brief moment of eye-contact shared in passing; God was there in the meals that were brought, the arms that embraced, and the services performed. And God continued to be present on that Manhattan Island, the surrounding state of New York, New England, the nation, and the world as people pulled together and prayed yes, but, more: when they showed up.

God is only as silent and dead if I stay silent and dead. But that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I, a suffering grieving human being, reach out to you a fellow suffering and grieving human being; that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I use my words and my deeds to be in solidarity with you as you suffer and grieve. God is present in suffering because we are present with each other in suffering.

Praise be to God. Amen.