Sunday, March 30, 2008















The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.




I.
It is our responsibility as humans sailing on this sea called life to dream worthy dreams that lead us to make the world a better place in which to live and that allow the next generations coming along on the ships behind us also to dream dreams and not have nightmares. Dreams and hope go hand in hand.
Part of any true leader’s responsibility is to establish and maintain a way of operating so that those people whom she or he leads can have some kind of hope about their lives being enhanced for having been a part of their organization or their nation and that the world, or at least their little corner of it, will be better because of what they contributed. Our world today is bereft of great leaders or even minimally functional leaders; they give us and those who follow us more cause for nightmares than reasons to dream.
Great leaders don’t help their people dream by giving them false hopes. It may be true that the greatest of leaders emerge during the most trying of times and help those whom they lead navigate their way out of the threat, the danger, the despair. Sadly, a good number of these great leaders, despite their visions of a better way, move their people in the right direction, but don’t live to see their dreams fully realized; indeed, all too often the evil takes the life of the great leader.
Are images of any great leaders of the past coming into your consciousness? Think for just a few seconds. A few are coming to me. Aren’t you glad since I’m the one who is preaching the sermon today!?!
The first great leader about whom I think is Moses although if he really had a hand in running the Palestinians out of their homeland we might have to wonder about him. The indisputably excellent part of Moses as leader, however, was Moses as liberator; he led his people, the ancient Hebrews, out of Egyptian slavery. There are so many memorable moments in the life of Moses as the stories have been passed down to us; let me just highlight a few for our purposes today.

Baby in a Basket
Moses, as a baby, was saved by his cunning mother and sister from a death order from the Pharaoh that, because, of an abundance of Hebrews in the land, midwives should kill all Hebrew babies at birth. Well, the midwives didn’t do what they were told, and that situation left the Egyptians having to come and find the babies and do away with the infants themselves.
If you came up in Sunday School, you undoubtedly know the story of how baby Moses was put in a little boat-basket on the Nile and strategically placed so that the Pharaoh’s own daughter would find him there when she came for one of her baths. Of course, the mother, trying to hide her baby boy from the Egyptians in search of babies that were to have been killed at birth, was taking a huge risk that the discovery would lead to favorable results, and they did. The Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby and kept him--had him raised in the palace but hiring Moses’ own mother as his nanny without realizing the Hebrew woman she assigned nanny-service was, in fact, Moses’ mother.

Moses Stumbled onto a Burning Bush
The leadership piece of Moses’ life begins at the burning bush where God speaks to him from a bush that is on fire but not being consumed. God tells Moses that even out there in the middle of the desert he’s on holy ground and has to take off his sandals in order to communicate with God.
In the process of this conversation, God tells Moses to lead the Hebrews out of Egyptian slavery. Moses asks God to give God’s name so he could let the Hebrews know on whose command they were supposed to take on Pharaoh and the kingdom that had enslaved them. This is one of the first instances we have in Judeo-Christian scripture that God doesn’t give out God’s name--never has and never will. The biblical words and the words we use for “God” are descriptions of the Deity that we mortals have devised. God doesn’t have a name in the way humans have a name. Therefore, when Moses asked the voice coming out of the burning bush to come up with a name, God, instead, said, “Tell them `I am’ sent you and calls them out of slavery.” The word God gave Moses at the burning bush, YHWH, can be translated as “I am” or “I am who I am” or “I will be who I have been.” It’s a description, not a name. So Moses set out to follow the call of the God whom he could only describe to his people as “the one who is.”
One of my parishioners in Baltimore who became one of my great friends and remains so, Nancy Sweeley, gave me a book as a Christmas gift in 1999. The book’s title is Moses on Management, and its author is Rabbi David Baron. The book is often on my desk within easy reach; the Rabbi’s views I consider exceptionally insightful and, not infrequently, inspirational. He has a chapter on the burning bush episode. This is part of what he wrote:

If Moses had not noticed something that was off the beaten path and turned aside to see what it was, he might have missed his shot at revelation. A bush that burned and was not consumed was certainly an unlikely sight, but Moses could have walked right past it. He didn’t....One lesson the burning bush incident teaches is that we need to be willing to look around and explore opportunities that other people overlook....It’s very easy to plow from one task to another, thinking that we know what our job is and where we’re going. In fact, our real opportunity might be just outside our standard field of vision....Our path to greatness might not lie at the end of our current path at all, but off a side road, at our burning bush.

How many problems for us individually and as a church and as a nation and as a world never go away because we keep trying to solve them in the same old ways, in the ways the people before us tried to solve them?

Moses Confronted the Mighty Enslaving Power
Moses dared to make himself available to serve God and his people as a taker of outlandish risks culminating in a series of face to face challenge to the mighty Pharaoh himself. By the time the challenges took place, Moses--though raised to look and sound Egyptian--owned his Hebrew ethnicity thereby associating himself with the enslaved people in Egypt. The very well-done Disney animated version of this timeless tale, “The Prince of Egypt,” portrays the Pharaoh whom Moses confronts as the son of the Pharaoh in whose palace her grew up; thus, Moses was confronting someone very much like a brother.
In any case, Moses’ confrontations alone didn’t effect the change--which was liberty for his sister- and brother-Hebrews; however, they were requisite aspects of what eventually persuaded the Pharaoh to do as Moses demanded, and, “Let my people go.” (By the way, in a few weeks the sermon to which I’m responding will be by Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn, my dear friend in New Orleans. The title of Ed’s superior sermon is, “Let My People Grow!”) A great leader has to have grit and gumption, and Moses certainly displayed those when he confronted the Pharaoh and when he dared to lead a number of people who didn’t want to be led.
I like another take Rabbi Baron has on this man, Moses, who became one of the greatest of leaders among the ancient Hebrews and whose ways clearly inspired many leaders after him, not the least of whom was Jesus from Nazareth. Rabbi Baron says that the Bible

never implies that Moses was inclined to lead anything more than his father-in-law’s sheep prior to his encounter with God [at the burning bush]. There is no biblical evidence that points to his being charismatic either, although he was undoubtedly passionate about his beliefs. And rather than controlling and manipulating people, Moses realized from the beginning that he would have to win the Israelites’ trust and cooperation before they would trust in God. Pharaoh controlled and manipulated; Moses inspired and empowered.


II.
If you were to go to a website called www.americanrhetoric.com you’d find a list of the 100 most important American speeches of the twentieth century. Some 137 scholars of American public address made the selections under the leadership of two of today’s most respected professors of public speaking: Stephen Lucas of the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Martin Medhurst of Baylor University. To have been included in the list a speech had to have had some political content but did not have to be exclusively political.
In the number one slot is the speech to which I’m responding today. I call it a sermon; sometimes there is little difference between the two, and a sermon can be a type of speech. I suppose to me, a sermon is delivered to a spiritually-oriented audience for the express purpose of saying something about God and/or about how God’s people should live. The fact that Dr. King was always in his self-understanding a Baptist preacher first and foremost is another clue to the genre of this oration. Call it what you will, it’s number one. “I Have a Dream.” You’ve heard excerpts of the sermon numerous times across the years; some of you have actually heard or read it in its entirety. As powerful as the excerpts are, they are much more gripping in context. I have, therefore, provided a link on our website to the text of the sermon in full.
King was born in 1929, a PK--preacher’s kid. He was given the name at birth, Michael Luther King Jr., but later he changed his name to Martin Luther King Jr. Not only was his father a preacher, but also his grandfather had been a preacher. He attended the segregated public schools in Georgia, and by the time he was 15 years old he had finished high school. He went on to study at Morehouse College in Atlanta, following in the footsteps of his father and his grandfather. King received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Morehouse in 1948. He enrolled almost immediately at Crozer Theological Seminary, which--at the time, was just up the road from us in Chester. He completed his Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951; at the time, that was the basic post-college degree offered by seminaries in this country. Essentially the same degree is now called a “Master of Divinity” degree. From Chester, King went to Boston University School of Theology where he continued to ponder at greater length the teachings of Gandhi about nonviolent resistance. It was there that King completed his doctoral degree.
A pastoral career followed. Increasingly identified with the Civil Rights Movement, eventually he was the face and the voice of this freedom restoration effort.
Dr. King delivered this sermon in the sweltering August of 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was part of a larger event, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Some estimates say that over 200,000 people heard the sermon; some say 250,000. One of the reasons for King’s decision to deliver the sermon at that 1963 event was that 1963 was the one-hundredth anniversary of the second and final installment of President Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation,” which began the process of eliminating slavery in this country.
One of those who heard the “I Have a Dream” sermon was Congressperson John Lewis, whose name recently hit the national news again because as a senior political leader he’s a Democratic superdelegate. He was a 23-year old at the time and president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Lewis also spoke on that historic occasion, which many historians say was the turning point of the Civil Rights Movement. Of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” sermon, Lewis said,

Dr. King had the power, the ability and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a modern day pulpit. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations.

Some of those close to Dr. King had heard him rehearse the speech, and they say that toward the end he departed from his prepared speech to respond to the challenge of his massive congregation to say more. The great singer, Mahalia Jackson, had sung that day and was seated on the platform as Martin preached. Insiders say it was her words, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”, that pushed him to say more than he had prepared, to play a little with the “I have a dream” theme.
Later in 1963, Time magazine named Martin Luther King Jr. its man of the year, and in keeping with tradition his picture appeared on the cover of the first-published issue of the periodical in 1964. Also in 1964, King became the youngest person ever to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; he was only 35 years old.
King was a great leader despite the posthumous derogatory comments made about him by some of his supposed followers and friends. He gave people hope--not just the African Americans whose plight his dreams would most readily remedy, but also the whites who wanted full rights for their sisters and brothers of color.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

What I want you to latch onto is his stirring image: “to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
The mountain was huge; the despair felt by those who looked to King for leadership was suffocating, overwhelming, and seemingly insurmountable. A great leader can give hope, as I said earlier, without denying the reality of the challenge or the threat. King did not for a second minimize the strength of segregation to dehumanize. So the mountain of despair was massive.
A stone is tiny, especially in comparison to a mountain, but a stone of hope was all anyone needed to rid the world of the particular evil that King fought. A stone of hope can destroy a mountain of despair. Did you notice that the stone of solution was hewn out of the mountain of despair itself?
As you know, King’s voice was powerful. He articulated each carefully chosen word. His heart was in his message. It was hard not to listen to Dr. King. He was a commanding speaker in every way. He used imagery beautifully. Many of his images were captivating--to “hew out of a mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
We forget how bad it really was. Ms. Mary Barton, a high school teacher from Wichita, Kansas, summarized the era for her students in this way:

The reality of life for the great majority of African Americans meant that they lived with gross inequities in housing, employment, education, medical services, and public accommodations....Segregation was a way of life. Most urban blacks, particularly in the South, lived in isolated tenements because white landlords refused them rent. Blacks had little access to “good” jobs, finding work mainly in positions of service to white employers. Black children attended separate, inferior schools. The result of being denied both employment and educational opportunities was that the great majority of African American families lived in poverty, with nearly 75% earning less than $3,000 a year in 1950.

My undergraduate students, white students as well as black students, barely believe me when I tell them African Americans were widely required to sit in the backs of busses; that wasn’t just a happenstance occurrence to Ms. Rosa Parks. They can’t get into their minds that there really were signs hanging up all across southern cities and towns designating restrooms and water fountains as for white people only.
I did not help along the cause of race relations when I as a little boy, five or so years old as I recall from family stories, was traveling with my family on a summer trip in an un-air-conditioned car. The windows were rolled down because of the heat, and we stopped for a red light in a small town through which we were passing in pre-interstate days in the South. I saw a woman of color with her head wrapped in what I later heard called a “do rag” standing at the intersection. She looked exactly like Aunt Jemima to me from the cover of my favorite syrup bottles. I was a friendly southern lad so I yelled out, “Hey, Aunt Jemima!” My Dad was driving, and he peeled out running the red light and getting that little town behind as quickly as he could. I was being scolded by both Mom and Dad, but not understanding at all. That was the closest I’d ever come to a person of color, literally, and she looked like one of the few African Americans I’d ever seen--even if Aunt Jemima were just a character. That story is funny to me not because I yelled out something racist, something that was probably offensive to that woman, but because of my parents’ reaction even as they told the story to others later.


III.
I attended segregated schools, but never knew persons of color were intentionally excluded. I attended a segregated church, but never knew it as there were no persons of color who lived anywhere near Halls Elementary School or the Beaver Dam Baptist Church.
I never saw a Klansman in garb though I probably knew several men who were Klansmen. The first time I ever even heard the name of Martin Luther King came when my parents were playing Rook with some of their card buddies one evening, and one of the men with whom they were playing said, “You know, people, when that [n word] King gets to hell, they’ll have to dig a deeper hole for him.”
King, in his sermon, did not mince words in talking about a nation who claimed to provide for freedom for all its citizens but who kept a sizable portion of its citizens in what amounted to a second class status. He didn’t lead the African Americans to believe that their sufferings could or would be alleviated instantaneously. Even so, it was clear that he wasn’t giving up hope, and he was calling others to join him in keeping the faith that would keep hope alive until they had reached the finish line.
I say again, we are desperately lacking great leaders in the world today, leaders like Martin King. One response is to elect those whom we think are great leaders or who have the potential to be. Another response is to be in our respective spheres the kinds of leaders we would want for the whole world.
We can elect great leaders to public office in this particular culture, and we can be the kinds of great leaders we want to see more of in our world. Of course, in our political system, we have to get some great leaders to run precisely so that we can elect them. You may or may not feel hopeful about the quality of leader that will be available to us for possible election when we enter the voting booths later this year to elect the successor to George W. Bush.
Even so, regardless of who is on the ballot, we can and should be and must be leaders who bring hope in our little corner of the world. Regardless of who is in the oval office and whether we are inspired at the moment by the incumbent, whomever she or he may be, we can be the kinds of small-scale leaders who give people who know us and observe us reason to hope for a better day and a better world.
One therapist put it this way:

A lot of maintaining a sense of optimism is about taking one piece at a time, in a sense, managing things in small bits, and trusting yourself. It starts with faith, and it’s faith in a lot of different ways, not necessarily spiritual. But it certainly can anchor people to have faith in something a little larger than the self, whatever it might be. Being able to make an impact, even in a small way, so you don't lose sight of the possibility of being able to impact your life and your community, keeps people hopeful. The larger picture does seem enormous when thinking about the state of the world right now. But if you keep it small, and keep one foot in front of the other, there are lots of ways the world is hopeful and lots of ways you make ripples in a small pond.

Great role models inspire not just those who have heavy leadership responsibilities, but also those of us who have less visible responsibilities to complete for the cause of good. Many of us here today would readily and proudly admit to having been given hope by Jesus, a man who lived in a time and place where there was little reason for a Jew and later a Christian to be hopeful. If he, Jesus, gave hope, then so must we. Can we inspire people to look past the gloom and new despair and believe in both a better way as well as a better world?
Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.
Not only can we, but also we must. It is our calling; it is our destiny. We do so in part by allowing ourselves to dream and then by sharing our dream--something within reach before we go grandiose, though if we dream the great dreams we mustn’t keep those to ourselves. Not every effort to share our dreams will be well received by those who hear about them, but that is no reason to keep quiet.
I don’t know anyone in this congregation who is against world peace and peace in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular. Yes, indeed, we differ on how we think we need to get to peace, but peace in principle we’ll agree to. At this point we’re dreaming, but we believe the dream of peace for the world grows out of sane minds.
On the twentieth of this month, which was the fifth anniversary of the first bomb dropped on Iraq, the Deacons of our church sponsored a peace gathering where people--on their lunch hours or during their midday breaks, we thought--could slip into our sanctuary and meditate about or pray for peace. Only a handful of people showed up--mostly our own Deacons, but a few others as well including a visitor or two. The local news media, which reports quilting bees and bingo games going on at other local churches, didn’t even give us a wink much less a word. As far as I know, we were the only church in town to have done something like that, but we still weren’t newsworthy to them.
Our dream is unaltered, however. I don’t think there is a legitimate picture of the present or the future world anyone can show us unless peace is at the core of the picture. How can I, therefore, get enough people to believe in the potential realization of that dream enough to dream it with me and stir others to do the same?
King dreamed of white people and black people as equals. He also dreamed of a world at peace with no Vietnam War. Both of those dreams came true--not that all racism is gone from this country and not that the ending of the Vietnam War brought permanent peace to the world. Though King didn’t get to live to see the realization of his dreams, they did come true.
I guess that means if we’re going to be leaders like Moses and like Martin we have to be willing to dream dreams that may not be fully realized in our lifetimes. Moses got the Hebrews to the edge of the Promised Land for which they’d searched for forty years, but wasn’t allowed to enter by God’s decree. Martin was assassinated as you well know. The dreams of both great leaders, though, changed the world. By the way, their dreams still are changing the world.
Amen.

Sunday, March 23, 2008






Pastor Martin Niemöller





BEFORE WE CAN SPEAK, GOD HAS ALREADY SPOKEN




I.
Easter is a responsorial event. It is a declaration, an affirmation to be responded to, not an ancient piece of questionably-remembered and eventually, FINALLY written-down- by-someone collection of stories that we would evaluate according to the kind of precision we’d expect from a modern western historian.
Easter proclamations in the Bible are predominantly theological affirmations, not carefully written chapters from history; some, of course, doubt that Easter stories were ever taken to be, much less recorded as, history. We have no eyewitness or first-person accounts of anything about Jesus from his crucifixion to his ascension. The closest we come, initially, to a resurrection witness is a he said/she said passing along of what some women said who saw an empty tomb and said they chatted with some angels or messengers when they stopped by to complete the embalming process.
The ascension is the story of Jesus being taken up into heaven after some six weeks of making appearances to various persons and groups in his “transitional,” post-resurrection and pre-ascension, body. It is astounding to me that with all of those people who were said by third-person narrators to have seen the risen Jesus, no first-person accounts of any of the post-resurrection appearances came down to us and maybe were never told or recorded at all.
One wonders especially why Peter who was so close to Jesus and who became the key male leader in the Jesus movement after Jesus’ death, with Mary Magdalene in the same leadership role among the women who followed Jesus and (eventually becoming a preferred leader of many males and females as the movement grew) didn’t say, “I myself saw the risen Lord.”
If we compare the accounts we do have of resurrection material, there isn’t enough consistency among them to convince someone looking objectively at them that they reflect an honest-to-goodness historical event. From a historical point of view, we are on very thin ice.
Even so, let me be quick to say, lack of more solid historical confirmation is no proof that something close to what the Gospel writers reported is beyond the realm of possibility. If you’re convinced that Jesus’ bodily resurrection and the third-person reports of that bodily resurrection are factual then you should hang onto those beliefs; no one in this world can prove that you’re wrong.
As for me, I believe in resurrection, but not bodily resurrection. I believe in the truth of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, but I do not take them to be historically accurate. I think they teach truths about spiritual resurrection in ways the people of that day could grasp.
I’m teaching a section of introduction to folklore at the moment at Wilmington University, and one of the first lessons our textbook author, Jan Harold Brunvand, teaches us is that truth is not bound to either historical actuality or verifiability. Symbols are very powerful vehicles for conveying truth.
Easter to me, first and foremost, is a wonderful life-changing, world-changing theological affirmation. Secondarily, I think it points to a reality about life in God’s order of things--namely, that life is not limited to biology or physicality. Thus, death is not the end of life in its totality, only in its physicality, and death was not the end of Jesus or anyone else who has passed out of this realm and into the next.
I can’t prove to you or to myself any of what I believe about these related subjects! Some people would say, “That’s where faith comes in.” I believed that for years about faith, but by now this is not what faith is at all in my understanding. Faith is my confidence in God, my leaning into God’s love as the fundamental life-force based on a confidence that God is. My faith is connected to God alone and has nothing to do with Jesus except that, for me, Jesus has taught me, shown me, convinced me that God is. What I believe about the Bible, any part of it--including what I believe about the details of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, has nothing to do with faith. My faith is in God, not in Jesus.
The various portrayals about Jesus including resurrection narratives that scripture has preserved are examples of “holy grappling,” if you will. They give us models for trying to think through theological issues and challenges. But the grappling that we do may not lead us to exactly the same conclusions the Gospel writers, for example, came to. We don’t laugh them off, and we certainly don’t arrogantly cast aside the conclusions to which their grappling led them. We may, however, respectfully disagree. Believing all the details of the Bible, including resurrection declarations, isn’t required for having a connection to God in this world or in the world to come.
One of the most important resurrection realities that, by the way, scripture affirms, but which is overlooked by the majority of Christians who claim to believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection is that, whatever resurrection was, it affected Jesus but occurred only through the power of God. What I mean is, Jesus didn’t raise himself from the dead. Jesus didn’t “ascend” himself into the next realm of being. The power behind all of these was God.
An intriguing way that what I’m saying is confirmed throughout the New Testament, though maybe not at every instance where the issue comes up, is grammatically. Some of the grammarians of Koine Greek, the language in which the New Testament was ultimately written, talk about the construction I have in mind as “the divine passive.” What they mean is that when someone is reading a portion of Christian scripture and comes across a place where Jesus’ resurrection is referred to, the usual way of referring to that grammatically is correctly read as “was raised,” the passive voice in Greek.
God isn’t mentioned, but God’s power is assumed in the construction. I understand that this way of bringing God into the picture was borrowed from Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.
“I raised” would be active voice; “I WAS raised,” would be passive voice. There’s a HUGE difference between the two. Jesus did not raise himself, and there are so many reasons for this. Rather, he WAS raised from death to life by God Godself. Resurrection is an affirmation about God’s power.
Here is a segment of the resurrection narrative in the Gospel of Matthew:

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay” (Matt 28:1-6 NRSV).

Did you catch that? The angel or messenger said that Jesus “has been raised.” God, in other words, raised Jesus.
Professor Jack Dean Kingsbury who, before his retirement, taught New Testament at the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, had this to say about the passage I’ve just read in one of his commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew: “Central to Matthew’s resurrection narrative in the angel’s declaration to the women that he `has been raised.’ The passive voice here is the divine passive so that what the angel affirms is that God has raised Jesus from the dead.”
Jesus was an utterly remarkable person; one of the most remarkable persons ever to have lived, but he was human and subject to the same limitations of physicality and temporality that any of the rest of us humans are bound by. Whatever resurrection was, it was God’s doing. The proper response, therefore, would be to stand in awe before God, not Jesus.
Jesus died. He really died. His physical body died. What allowed that not to be the last word about Jesus was unrelated to anything Jesus did or could have done. That life and not death was the last word about Jesus was God’s doing; it happened in the power of God, not in the power of Jesus. God’s power in this sense benefitted Jesus, of course, just as the same power benefits those of us who must also pass through the valley of the shadow of death. If we allow it, that same power causes us to claim life in a spiritual realm beyond this realm. That is the miracle of resurrection.

II.
Like Paul Tillich about whom we talked last week, Martin Niemöller was a German and the son of a Lutheran pastor--for that matter, so were Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Schweitzer. Niemöller was born in Lippstadt, Germany, on January 14, 1892.
When he was 18 years old, he became an officer, a cadet, in the German navy. By the time World War I had begun, Niemöller had served on a training vessel and a battleship; he was promoted to an Assistant Lieutenant and assigned to a mine-planting submarine. Various new assignments and new subs came along until he was made commanding officer of one of the mine-laying submarines, also called “u-boats.” He served in this role with such distinction that he was awarded the Iron Cross for first class military service.
At the end of the first world war, Niemöller became active in politics; however, additional unrest and threats to an already weakened Germany drew him back into military assignments from time to time.
After a defeated Germany’s constitution was rewritten and new leadership put in place at the beginning of the so called “Weimar Republic,” the year being 1919, Martin Niemöller went into a new field--theology, from submarine to sacristy as it were. Now a student of theology, he remained interested in politics and took a special liking to rising power, Adolf Hitler. Niemöller proudly voted for the Nazi party in the 1924 elections.
By 1929, Niemöller had completed his theological studies and had been ordained. He was assigned to his first parish, the Church of Jesus Christ in Dahlem. By then, he was both a pastor AND an ardent supporter of Hitler.
In 1931, he gave several speeches seeking support for the selection of a Fϋhrer for Germany. A review of Niemöller’s sermons from this era show that he was right with Hitler on the subjects of race and nationalism. Someone has traced back a reference in one of his sermons at Dahlem to Naziism as a “renewal movement” based on a “Christian moral foundation.”
Niemöller was quite the rising young star on the German stage. In 1934, he published his memoirs under the title From U-boat to Pulpit; the book was enormously popular for this its kind of literature and sold 90,000 copies in the first few weeks after its release.
Timing is everything, they say. Between the time that Pastor Niemöller had completed his memoirs and their publication, which we all know takes month and months, Hitler disappointed him, maybe even made him angry because of Hitler’s appointment of Ludwig Mueller as head of the German state church, the Reich Bishop of the German Protestant Church.
Mueller was everything Niemöller was, except more. He loved Hitler more. He propagated the notion of “Christ the Aryan.” He futhered the notion that contemporary Christianity had to be purified of “Jewish corruption.”
Niemöller and many of his colleagues thought that Mueller went too far, to the point of being un-Christian in his attitudes. Evidently, a little racism and a little anti-Semitism were alright, but not too much; and Jewish denigration was acceptable, but the horrors some were already envisioning for the Jews crossed the line for Niemöller and some others. Mueller, by the way, never changed his attitudes; as the Nazis were ultimately being defeated, he committed suicide.
Niemöller protested Hitler’s appointment of Mueller. Two things were happening in the midst of his protest. One, he began to see the error of his ways and where what he was endorsing could ultimately lead. Two, he angered Hitler, naturally, and the rift began to grow.
In the same year that Niemöller’s autobiography was published, he joined with several rebel pastors to establish what was called the “Confessing Church.” The Confessing Church was primarily a Christian resistance movement to Hitler’s super race and super power initiatives. It was also, and this is extra sad in this sea of sadness, an effort to provide new church leadership for Christian churches that opposed Hitler since most of their clergy had been taken from them and imprisoned. The Confessing Church had to become an underground movement; even so, almost nothing got by Hitler’s SS.
Niemöller was one of several Confessing Church leaders responsible for this 1938 statement:

Our people are trying to break the bond set by God. That is human conceit rising against God. In this connection we must warn the Führer, that the adoration frequently bestowed on him is only due to God. Some years ago the Führer objected to having his picture placed on Protestant altars. Today his thoughts are used as a basis not only for political decisions but also for morality and law. He himself is surrounded with the dignity of a priest and even of an intermediary between God and man... We ask that liberty be given to our people to go their way in the future under the sign of the Cross of Christ, in order that our grandsons may not curse their elders on the ground that their elders left them a state on earth that closed to them the Kingdom of God.

Eventually, Niemöller would be imprisoned and sent to two different concentration camps with the Jews whom he had suddenly begun to protect and endorse. Like the “converted” Apostle Paul, however, many doubted his sincerity. Many said, “Too little too late.” Many said, “He couldn’t undo the damage he has already done.” Many said, “Once a Hitler lover, always a Hitler lover. Once a Jew hater, always a Jew hater.”
You probably already know that Hitler imprisoned and exterminated not only thousands and thousands of Jews, but also Gypsies, the mentally retarded, and “suspected” homosexuals among others including those Germans who opposed him. There were special barracks set up at some of the concentration camps just for clergy who opposed him. Niemöller was in two of those.
Martin Niemöller was called Hitler’s “personal prisoner.” He was given private cells and quarters in the concentration camps at both Sachsenhausen and Dachau, but Hitler was ready to have him put to death nonetheless and was only deterred from ordering the execution by an advisor who convinced him that Niemöller had too many supporters who would turn against Hitler’s movement. Even so, in mid-1945, Niemöller and some other “big name” ideological opponents of Hitler were transferred to Tirol in Austria--presumably to be executed outside of Germany. He was rescued by the Allies just before WWII ended.
Niemöller never attempted to justify his wrong choices and the vast hurt he had had a part in perpetrating on the Jews. He never said his “new” pro-Jew position eradicated what he had done. He never said that his imprisonment in the concentration camps was as bad as the imprisonment was for the Jews. Even, so he came out with an unrelenting pro-Jewish position. He became a tireless participant in the World Peace Movement. He opposed nuclear weapons. He was a critic of the “Cold War.” Once, on a visit to New York, he made a speech in which he insisted,

I am... against the often-heard statement that a war against bolshevism is necessary to save the Christian churches and Christianity. But it is unchristian to conduct a war for the saving of the Christian church, for the Christian church does not need to be saved. The church is not afraid of bolshevism. It was not afraid of Nazism. The church has to serve the communists as well as all human beings. While the church rejects communism as a creed, just as it rejects all other creeds, communism must and can only be fought and defeated with spiritual weapons. All other powers will fail.

Pastor Niemöller became president of the World Council of Churches in 1961 and served in that capacity for seven years. In 1964, he published a book on his political views that were, as is more than evident to you, radically different from when he wrote his autobiography, which praised Hitler’s ways. The second book was called One World or No World.
Niemöller died in 1984. He had done much to undo the damage he had had a hand in, but he may well be most remembered for this 1946 saying that he formulated evidently in response to the question of a student, “How could it happen?” This saying can be found in various forms, but its essential sentiments are the same:

In Germany, they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
And then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
And then they came for the Jews. And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.

III.
Easter is responsorial. It is a proclamation to respond to; it is greater than the message that conveys it, stronger than the medium through which its story is told. Even the tellers of the first Easter events weren’t sure what it was they were supposed to tell others, and, as such, there were a variety of responses.

The women, the first witnesses to the empty tomb and the first hearers of the angels’/messengers’ proclamation that Jesus had been raised from the dead by God, they ran away in fear and said nothing to anyone.
Peter didn’t believe Mary, and he ran out to the tomb to see for himself that it was empty. Mary had to tell him how to get there, as you know, because she had stayed with and stood with Jesus to the end while Peter had denied he knew Jesus and ran off in hiding while the Romans hurried him through the courts and out to Golgotha.
Thomas wasn’t around for the fireworks, and he didn’t believe a word anyone said about Jesus’ resurrection. Until the risen Jesus appeared to him, as someone other than Thomas told the story, he wasn’t buying any of it.

Whatever Easter was, Jesus was certainly a part of the pageant, but Easter is and always was about God. God acted. God said, “No!”, to death and injustice. They would not have the last words about Jesus. In this sense, the dying Jesus was a conqueror, not a washed up has-been.
I borrowed today’s sermon title from yet another German theologian, Jϋrgen Moltmann: “Before we can speak, God has already spoken.” As this pertains to Easter, before we have time to think about it and evaluate it, whatever was done is done. The impact that Jesus’ life and death had on his closest followers brought to mind the reality of what God had already done. God had acted in a decisive way to cause good to prevail in the end. That didn’t bring Jesus back into this temporal realm the way those who loved him most would have wanted it, but despite all of that confusion, fear, and grief, Jesus’ closest followers knew within themselves that neither the cross nor the tomb meant the end of Jesus. Here’s the thing: even if the tomb had not been found empty, and the body of Jesus had still been there to embalm, the same truth would apply. Neither the cross nor the tomb meant the end of Jesus. God had already turned the tables on the ridiculous Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, before the tomb ever came into play. It’s not that we can’t speak, and it’s not that our opinions are unimportant; but the fact remains that God has already acted before we have or could have spoken.
Easter, I think, tries to answer this question among others, “Where is God in the very worst of times?” In this case, the very worst of times for Jesus would be that he lost his life, and to make matters worse, Pilate ordered him executed by means of the most cruel and painful way known; crucifixion was a long, lingering, painful, suffocating death as hecklers taunted and spat at the victims for added agony. From Jesus’ point of view, this was horrendous, and, incidentally, he wasn’t sure his movement would outlive him though he was giving his all for it.
Have you ever noticed that there is a rather sizable group of people who interpret deaths in terms of how those deaths impact them, not the persons who have died? Having conducted way too many funerals and having tried to be a reminder of God’s love in the worst of times to way too many bereaved families, I may not have heard it all; but I’ve surely heard most of it. Sometimes, I think that on the front end of grief many of us tend to respond the way we’ve seen others around us respond to loss--rarely good ways or healthy ways, and I hear people--usually not immediate family members, but persons close to them--talking about the death as something that was of greater consequence to those left behind than to the one who lost her or his life.
The perfect example is when people with nothing better to do become like the associates of Job, and I wouldn’t call those jerks friends, who made it their business to interpret his horrific losses to him from a theological point of view. “God took your kids Job, because of some sin in your life. You may not know what it is, but it’s there; otherwise, your kids would still be here with you.”
With my own ears, I’ve never heard anyone say exactly that, but I’ve heard very nearly that. I’ve heard someone say to a bereaved spouse, “Sometimes God takes our loved ones to teach us a lesson; sometimes God just wants to teach us to rely on God more fully.” Well, hey, if that’s what God wants, let God beat up on me, or better still let God invite me to a seminar where I can learn the lessons I need to learn about how to please God so God won’t kill off my loved ones because of my confusion or imperfection.
In the worst of times, Easter would say, “Your loved one who has died did not die alone, but rather she or he took God’s hand and walked through the valley of the shadow of death and has already, before you finished drying the first round of tears, embraced her or him with the divine love that can only be known fully on the other side.”
In Niemöller’s moving sermon to which I’m responding today, “Human Weakness and Divine Strength,” preached in February of 1963 at Duke University Chapel, he tells about his last year in Dachau. The camp authorities brought the gallows out of hiding and re-erected it in the middle of the prison so that prisoners could see their fellow prisoners being put to death. One understands why in a police state executions are public events to serve as preventatives; it’s still cruel, but at least there’s some rationale to it.
As to making executions public in the concentration camps, there wasn’t anything anyone there could do to improve her or his behavior. The Jews were there just because they were Jews, something they couldn’t have changed if they’d wanted to. Non-Jews like Niemöller had already done whatever they did to tick off Hitler; they couldn’t change or improve while being in jail. Therefore, it was only arranged this way for greater cruelty. He remembered that the upper part of the gallows looked right into his little solitary confinement window, and he also remembered how often watching one of his comrades hanged there he was driven repeatedly to prayer for that dying person.
I believe, by the way, that hanging was for non-Jews, especially Germans who were enemies to Hitler’s cause. Certainly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another pastor, was hanged by the Nazis probably about the time Niemöller was being liberated.
Human suffering is not a sign of loss in God’s eyes; it is far from a sign that God has forsaken someone or, worse, is trying to punish the person by willing illness or tragedy on her or him. Niemöller:

This whole kind of Christian religion, which is based on a collection of principles, wants strength and power and might, wants something with which to live, with which to work, with which to succeed. And those who adhere to this type of Christianity cannot and will not take the risk of “infirmities.” What they have in mind is rather how to avoid all sorts of weakness and all possibilities of defeat; they believe in progress, at least they want to, and they long for accomplishing their justification on their own account. Everything else would violate and hurt their pride, their claim to mastery and sovereign independence. Here it becomes clear and evident that this Christianity is absolutely indifferent to God and also to Jesus....

Very, very movingly, this man preaches, this man who had been ushered into the very presence of death itself by the diabolical Hitler, about Jesus’ death.

...the power of His opponents proves to be stronger than all He can do; and so He finishes His commission in suffering and death, in total defeat. And yet, all inimical power of human pride and self-concern, of hatred and vindictiveness cannot overcome Him, cannot make Him use the same means of power and violence, not even in self-defense, cannot seduce him to the spirit and attitude of retaliation. And so He becomes and remains more than a conqueror....

Explain it however you want to. Explain it however you can. In the power of God, death wasn’t the end of Jesus.
Amen.

Sunday, March 16, 2008






Dr. Paul J. Tillich, bust in New Harmony, Indiana




The Message of Christianity Is NOT Christianity




I.
When it comes to the big holidays that many Christians and other followers of Jesus celebrate every year--Christmas, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, and of course the Super Bowl--congregants can generally expect to have some part of the familiar story retold. Maybe it will be retold in the same old way year after year, which is comforting and reassuring for some of the hearers. Maybe it will be told in a slightly different way now and then, which may catch someone’s ear who hasn’t paid all that much attention in recent years. Maybe it will be told in a completely new way so that congregants think the preacher has really done her or his homework during summer study leave OR that she or he is dangerously close to becoming a heretic. Of course, there are those congregations--few and far between--who celebrate various types of heresy. I thank you for the opportunity of serving one!
In those settings where the old, old story is told almost identically year after year, my experience has been that the rest of the Bible works in about the same way. What matters in those contexts is how true the sermons ring week after week to the doctrinal standard by which a particular congregation operates--whether it is one the church itself independently has agreed to adhere to or whether it is superimposed on the congregation by a denominational hierarchy. If money is tight then a congregation or a denominational hierarchy is usually willing to let doctrine slide as long as financial contributions are kept up. In those communities where orthodoxy means conformity, what comes to matter the most, and ultimately what becomes a test of faith, is precisely what is BELIEVED about this or that aspect of faith or religion or spiritual expression. What finally matters, then, and what determines whether a person is regarded as in good with God or not, is whether she or he BELIEVES the “right” things--things usually are doctrinal affirmations although they can easily be cultural affirmations as well.
The Christian churches in Germany during Hitler’s era, for example, those that weren’t closed down or forced underground at least, had to keep on affirming I suppose the truly doctrinal positions required or expected in their respective traditions; but they also had to affirm Hitler’s insane anti-Semitism. As we are learning in our study of the book of Revelation on Wednesday evenings, the Christians living under Roman rule at the end of the first century could believe whatever they wanted to believe about Jesus and God as long as they were willing to worship the Roman Emperor, Domitian, in the mix. Domitian insisted that every subject of his throughout the expanding Empire make a place in her or his religious belief system to affirm the divinity of the Emperor. Yet, there were these scrupulous persons of faith who said, “We can’t do that. We can’t believe that, and we can’t fall down and worship idols of the Emperor because Christianity to us must be about more than what we say we believe. It must be about who we are and how we live out our lives given how we’ve been grasped by the great God of love.”
There are people who can believe all the right things within their particular Christian faith tradition and still not be Christian or still not be connected in any way to God. This was at the core of Jesus’ issue with the scribes and the Pharisees. They believed all the right things and could prove that they were keeping all the religious laws to a tee. They loved showing off their lists of how closely they had adhered to their religious laws at the end of every day. Jesus said to them, as you’ve heard me summarize it before, “You can get all the rules right and still miss out on God altogether.”
I consider religious knowledge very valuable. Indeed, I spent the time and the money to earn three degrees focused in various aspects of religious studies, but, you know, I never felt spiritually elite because of that. I never felt as if I had locked in my place on God’s approval list or my place in God’s abode in the next realm of existence because I might have learned a few things more than the average person knew about some of facts about some of the world’s religions. I well remember some late night dormitory discussions on the campus of Carson-Newman College where some young religion majors sat and wondered aloud in each other’s company if we were all that happy with the loss of innocence that had accompanied religious learning in a responsible academic context. It was easier, wasn’t it, when we knew less than we had come to know in the world of academic religion? And David Bluford and Jamie Broome and Dana Collett and David Farmer--normally great debate partners--agreed to that without adjustment or condition. We did not have coed dorms so we had to wait until we were out of the dorm to have our sisters in the study of “Baby Greek” agree with us, and they did: Charlotte Bowman and Marcie Lay and Diane Tarwater.
I had come up in a tradition at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church where behavior was important--yes, indeed, behavior was important. No drinking, no dancing, no sex before marriage, no chewing gum in church and drowning out the voice God or being tempted to stick the used pieces on the bottom of the pew, no smoking. Oops. Strike that one. We had to make smoking OK because most of the adult males over the age of 25, which was the requirement for serving as a deacon at our church, would have been disqualified from service because they smoked. So we with all those tabocco-growing Baptists in North Carolina had to make smoking OK--even before and after church right on the church grounds. We should never have criticized the Catholics for burning incense in their services because we burned way more tobacco on any given Sunday than they burned incense at their masses!
The thing was, though, the overriding impression one would get from hearing most of our pastors--Brother Whitson and Brother Hayner excluded--was that what got you into heaven or not was what you believed. Believing the right things, and precisely the right things, was necessary for anyone to have a relationship with God. Actually, Southern Baptists had a nifty safety net. You only had to have believed all the right things at the time of your initial salvation experience. If you slipped up or backslid somewhere after that, we had the “once saved always saved” provision. In that regard we were sooooo much better off than the Methodists who believed that one could fall from grace, and if the end of earthly life came when one was at one of those unfortunate, inconvenient non-sanctified times, she or he would have to pay the price of an eternity in hell.
In defense of good modern Methodism, I commend to you our own Reverend Ron Bergman. I’m talking about Halls Crossroads a couple of years ago. Well, from the time I was 8 or so until I was 13 or 14--so make that 40 to 45 years ago!
Honestly, the “once saved always saved” thing was just a backup to help a few backsliders and our beloved Methodist friends who lived in constant fear of dying “out of God’s grace.” The clear emphasis at our church was believing the right things.
I carried that with me to college, and I’m not even sure I know how far into my young adulthood. You already know that I hate even to think about how many people I drew into my angst about needing to believe the right things in order to be in good with God and in order to be certain of life eternal. I started preaching when I was 14 years old so I got an early start passing along what I now believe to be HIGH HERESY, and in this case I use the word “heresy” in a negative sense.
By the way, I was 14 years old when I went forward in church to tell my congregation that God was calling me to preach. The date was April 14, 1968. This means that when this April 14 rolls around, I will be celebrating 40 years in the preaching ministry--even though I didn’t officially preach my first sermon until later that year.
What I wish I’d learned much sooner than I did was that believing a checklist of doctrinal items no matter how zealously I believed them, no matter how much I was inclined to stake my life on them never got me into either God’s good graces or God’s presence. All it did was define what I thought faith was about; it never meant that I had any faith or, for that matter, any connection with God whatsoever.





II.
There are many names that rise to the top of the list when theologians today dare to single out the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. It’s not an easy task. By the way, please don’t turn up your nose to that kind of question because the theologians, my dear friends, influence your pastors for generations and generations!
There were some heavy duty theologians last century. Karl Barth is often designated as the most influential of all the Protestant theologians of the 1900’s; Karl Rahner, perhaps, was the most influential among the Roman Catholic theologians. The present pope, when he was still called Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, was certainly the most powerful of the Roman Catholic theologians, serving as he did as Pope John Paul II’s watchdog for and enforcer of Roman Catholic doctrinal purity.
On the Protestant side, again, one might be on solid ground to suggest that Rudolph Bultmann was the most influential of last century’s biblical theologians while Paul Tillich was the most influential of all the philosophical theologians. If you think all the names I’ve tossed out sound German and that Karen Purdy, not I, should be pronouncing them, you’d be right on both counts!
Tillich was born in 1886 in Starzeddel, eastern Germany. His Prussian father was a rather strict and traditional Luther pastor while his mother was more relaxed and more liberal about life in general. They sent their son to a boarding school for his gymnasium studies—roughly equivalent to high school in the United States. He remembers how lonely he felt, away from those who loved him and whom he loved. His religious background had taught him to seek refuge in God so, as a kid, when he felt this loneliness—which was rather often, especially at first—he read the Bible.
I don’t know if the Bible did any good with helping Tillich feel less lonely, but those readings certainly made him increasingly familiar with the teachings of the Bible. Simultaneously, he was exposed to views of life and thought in the boarding school that he’d never heard of before. Humanism was one of those. It was unsettling to say the least, but that way of viewing the world also caught Tillich’s attention.
If you are not familiar with humanism, and there is no particular reason you should be unless you just happen to have taken an interest in it, let me tell you briefly what it is. Humanism, foundationally, affirms the value and worth of all human beings. Beyond that, it has philosophical and ethical perspectives based in an attempt to ascertain universal human qualities and, therefore, universal human ethics, standards, and norms.
Renaissance humanism in particular elevated views of the worth and potential of human beings in a European context flirting with the notion of letting go of the medieval church’s doom and gloom perspective on humanity. This expanding set of perspectives, moving from Florence, Italy, out in all directions also dared to say that this world was a wonderful place in which to live and that it was wrong, therefore, to have people thinking that their earthly lives were simply to be endured as they made preparations for eternity--hopefully in heaven.
You can imagine that hearing such things was startling for a kid who had been brought up, at least through his father’s influence, to think of having all of life’s questions answered by the Bible. He didn’t, though, reject them out of hand and turn away from them.
When his father was transferred to a new parish in 1901, Paul moved back in with his family and went to school in Berlin. Tragically, in 1903 when he was 17 years old, his mother died of cancer. Obviously, you know this was a blow, and some of you know first hand just what a blow it was.
He threw himself into his studies, and in a period of seven years, in 1911, he had completed his Doctor of Philosophy degree. The next year he received his Licentiate in Theology confirmation, and he, like his father, was ordained as a Lutheran pastor. After two years of pastoral work, Tillich joined the German army and became a chaplain. He served in this capacity between 1914 and 1919.
Once the war was over, Paul Tillich began his theological career. He began teaching at the University of Berlin in 1919 and kept this post until 1924. He then taught for a year in Marburg and followed that with a four-year stint teaching at both Dresden and Leipzig. Then came a four-year term at Frankfort.
During his tenure at Frankfort, what Tillich was preaching and teaching brought him into conflict with Hitler and the Nazi movement. When Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, he had Tillich dismissed from his professorship in Frankfort.
Reinhold Niebuhr was on the faculty of the Union Theological Seminary in New York City at the time. He happened to be in Germany vacationing that summer. Already an admirer of Tillich’s, he reached Tillich and told him he needed to get out of Germany and teach at Union. Tillich thought that was a great idea so all the formalities were tended to, and here he came. He loved our country, and in 1940 he became an American citizen.
Tillich taught philosophy of religion and philosophical theology for the next 22 years right up the road from us here, and when he was 69 years old he was appointed “University Professor” at Harvard. University professors in the Harvard system out rank everyone else. There were only five of them in the whole University while Tillich was there.
In 1962, the University of Chicago brought Tillich to teach, and he remained there for the rest of his life. He died in 1965.
Listen to this quote from Tillich’s book, The Shaking of the Foundations.

The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of our being is God. That depth is what the word “God” means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about Him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not.

Tillich uses the word “unbeliever” in this striking paragraph, but his use of the word has absolutely nothing to do with failing or refusing to believe any set of doctrinal affirmations or coercions. An atheist or an unbeliever, and I think he takes these terms to be synonymous, can only exist if there is a person who honestly, seriously confirms that life has no depth and that the “being” part of one’s existence is utterly shallow. One gets the impression that Tillich doubted there were any or many true atheists or unbelievers in the world.
Believers, conversely, were not those who believed all the “right things,” the “traditional” components of any faith system. Believers were those who had encountered, even for a moment, life in its depths.





III.
I’m thinking that Tillich’s most famous sermon may have been one entitled, “You Are Accepted.” It is from the same book from which I took the quote I just presented to you. My major professor, James Cox, edited two very important volumes of twentieth century sermons. This sermon, “You Are Accepted,” by Tillich appears in volume two. Tillich, this brilliant theologian, is attempting to describe God’s grace, and I think he hits a home run!
He preaches:

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted.”

This is the God whom Jesus knew and represented and shared. Without any doubt, part of the reason Jesus was able to endure rejection and hold his head high even as he was being tried unjustly and forced, step by step, ever closer to an excruciating execution, was because he knew he was accepted by the God who was reaching out to demonstrate the same unconditional acceptance to all people, all people.
Speaking of that movement toward the executioner’s cross, I have something to tell you. This will be new to most of you.
Just when you’d about forgotten the truth regarding the impossibility of wise ones at the manger of Jesus--until I remind you again this coming Christmas to move the wise ones two years away from your lovely creches--now comes another startling revelation, but not AS startling because you don’t get models made of Jesus riding the donkey into Jerusalem. What the church commemorates on Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday--both of these being acceptable names for the Sunday before Easter--is Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem to celebrate, so we have always heard and so we conclude based on the biblical texts, Passover and, in the midst of Passover, being arrested and put to death.
Professor Bruce Chilton, of Annandale, New York’s Bard College, says what makes no historical sense is that Jesus rode that donkey into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Chilton convinces me in his article in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review that Jesus rode into Jerusalem, but not any where near Passover. He says that Gospel writers adjusted the chronology to have Jesus enter Jerusalem so close to his execution to make things smoother for the liturgical needs of the developing church and also for the dramatic effect of having Jesus die at the same time the Passover animals were being put to death to atone for the sins of those who offered them up on the altar. The festival that took Jesus to Jerusalem wasn’t Passover. It was Sukkoth.
The Feast of Sukkoth is also known as the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. It is a “pilgrimage festival,” and it hits on our present calendar in the fall of the year. Sukkoth was one of three annual festivals—with Passover and Shavuot or Pentecost--that had Jews who were able to do so making the journey to the great Temple in Jerusalem.
During the celebration of the Feast, the ancient Hebrews built “booths” or “tabernacles” to live in for seven days as a way of commemorating the temporary shelters their ancestors were said to have stayed in during the 40-year sojourn in the Palestinian desert as they found their way to what they came to call THEIR “promised land.” The Palestinians never took it to be the promised land to the Jews, which has a lot to do with why the fighting today between Jews and Palestinians continues.
Professor Chilton makes a very strong case, I think, for this being the impetus for Jesus’ donkey ride into Jerusalem. The prospects absolutely fascinate me.
Each day of the Sukkoth celebration, the faithful Jews are to follow very specific instructions from the Torah making use of four types of plants to be grasped and shaken in the prescribed manner. These are a date palm frond, a bough from a myrtle tree, a branch from a willow tree, and a piece of fruit called an “etrog” or a citron. The three tree segments—the date palm, the myrtle, and the willow—are tied together, and as a unit they are referred to as the “lulav.”
For some reason, the church has largely focused exclusively on palms, which wouldn’t have made any sense even if Jesus were riding into Jerusalem at Passover time. The biblical passages make no specific mention of palms; they refer to “branches”; yet, the demand for palms around the world on Palm Sunday has led to environmental damage and the need for “Fair Trade Palms”! (I’m not kidding.) Whether the people who lauded Jesus into Jerusalem really waved actual palms isn’t the most startling among the newer insights into this pivotal chapter from the life of Jesus. Let me get back to Sukkoth.
On each day of the Feast of Sukkoth, the faithful Hebrews were to wave the lulav--the branches of the date palm, the willow tree, and the myrtle tree--while holding it in their right hands as the citron is held in the left hand, touching the lulav. The method of and the pattern for waving are very detailed; I won’t explain them here, but I will tell you that the people wave the lulav east, then south, then west, and finally north. They give thanks to God for caring for them and providing for them and getting them through to that moment in time.
What becomes readily evident, I believe, as Dr. Chilton points out, is that people on their way to Jerusalem who just happened to have branches in their hands were almost certainly on their way to celebrate Sukkoth rather than Passover. This is very exciting scholarship!
So, I’m fascinated with the study of the New Testament, and I get excited about the precise meanings of Greek words and the details of how Jesus found himself in Jerusalem at a time that made the Romans especially nervous and inclined to kill unruly Jews. I love it all. Even if I—with the help of Borg and Crossan and Spong and Chilton—were to get it all figured and were to come to understand everything that Jesus and Paul after him said; even if I could understand it all, that would make me a scholar of some sort, perhaps, but it would NOT make me a follower of Jesus.
One of the very powerful points that Tillich makes in the sermon to which I’m responding today, “The New Being,” is that “…the message about Christianity is not Christianity….” That is so simple, but so, so overlooked in much of the modern Christian movement. Tillich preached this sermon on the eve of his retirement from Union Seminary before going to Harvard, and this self-evident declaration still eludes the majority of Christians in the world. The message about Christianity is NOT Christianity. Once we get all the details right, such as exactly the festival Jesus was on his way to attend in Jerusalem and why people traveling alongside him on the way up to Jerusalem just happened to have branches on hand to throw in his path in case he happened to be the real messiah in the pool of would-be messiahs, then what?
A follower of Jesus is concerned about seeking God and communing with God as Jesus did and serving the marginalized as Jesus did. This is Christianity--not the way it is narrowly defined by most institutional expressions of Christianity today. It’s not about finding all the right answers—though there’s nothing at all wrong with seeking truth at every turn. The bottom line is: a follower of Jesus is in the process, a lifelong process, of opening herself or himself to rest in, experience, savor the presence of God within and, in response to that, touching others in loving ways because of the divine love that lures us toward meaning and wholeness and truth.
Being a follower of Jesus is in some kind of way a relational reality, but it isn’t a relationship with something or someone way out there somewhere. The facet of God’s being to which we can relate; the part of God that we can hope to touch and be accepted by is within us. God, the Ground of Being, is something you can experience because you experience being. Another way of saying this is, if you have ever experienced being fully human, you have experienced God.
Amen.

Sunday, March 09, 2008






Dr. Georgia Elma Harkness





I.
“Passive praying paves paths of pitiful prospects for progress.” This is my sermonic equivalent to “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” Listen again: “Passive praying paves paths of pitiful prospects for progress.”
What this means is somewhat equivalent to: “Put wings to your prayers!” There is something illogical about asking God to do for us what we have minds and strength to do for ourselves. I’m not suggesting that we leave God out of our process of becoming, whatever that entails, but it is the lazy, careless, unimaginative, and unmotivated person of some kind of faith who sits back in a passive state and expects or even commands God to clean things up and make life “right.”
Consider the conflict in the following scenarios. Think about whether or not you’ve ever prayed any of these kids of prayers.
People who pollute the environment pray asking God
to heal our Planet we are making sick with our unending barrages of every imaginable kind of pollution.


It is now much less expensive to buy items for personal care and cleaning and functionality that damage the environment than it is to purchase and use items that don’t damage the environment when we use and discard them. The vast majority of our paper products come from trees that have been cut down just so we can have paper plates and napkins.

The trees used are not replaced, and to make it worse we have this thing about white/white paper so we buy the whitest and brightest bleached by chemicals that the paper mills flush out into a waterway eventually ending up in someone’s drinking water downstream.

Let’s not even talk today about styrofoam that will be filling up the waste sites and our amazing oceans as long as the Planet endures.

I fret a great deal about finding the right vehicle to drive--one in which I feel safe doing highway driving and one in which I’d feel safe venturing to a hospital in the middle of the night in bad weather if one of you needed me, and I could get there at all. I would like to drive the most gasoline efficient “green” car on the market if I fit in it and not worry about being blown off the road by speeding 18-wheelers.

People who do everything in the world they can do not to be healthy pray that God would make them healthy in spite of themselves.

You can see in your mind’s eye someone about to chow down on a highly marbleized chunk of red meat praying at the blessing that would cure her or him of a pesky cholesterol problem.

There are innumerable ways we don’t take care of ourselves in regard to what we eat or drink or in terms of getting the right kinds and the right amounts of exercise. I was wondering the other day if the Genesis God taking a walk in the Garden of Eden in the “cool of the day” could become a biblical mandate for walking. OK, so you don’t like it, but I’ll bet I could sell the idea to some of the fundamentalist publishers and write a little book that would make me rich!

I don’t know what you make of the stories about Jesus healing folks in the Christian Bible. I personally think that Jesus really did heal people, but I don’t think it was through magic or through his own powers. I think he helped some people who were able to do it to get themselves in touch with possibilities for wholeness supported by God’s “love energies.” I learned that term, “love energies,” from my mentor and friend, Professor E. Glenn Hinson. God’s love doesn’t just sit around somewhere to contemplate. It has power, and one of the wondrous benefits of finding God within us and opening ourselves up to God is the enhancement of our lives by the love that is core to God’s presence.
Anyway, I think many of the miracle stories have kernels of historical truth to them, and one of the ones that has always stood out to me was the man who had been going to a healing pool every day for years and years, but never managed to get to the water in time for healing to occur. Jesus sees him at the pool and knows his story. Jesus tells the man that he’s willing to try to restore his health, but he tells him he has a question he must first ask. The man tells Jesus to ask away, and the question from Jesus was, “Do you really want to be well?” Not everyone who is sick wants to be well, and not everyone who asks in prayer to be well is doing her or his part to be whole. These aren’t the only contexts for being ill so don’t hear me suggesting that everyone who is ill either chooses not to be well or isn’t doing her or his part to be well; sometimes there are those who both want to be well and who have done all they can to be well, and they remain ill.

People who take no action to create peace or make for peace pray that God would bring peace to the world.

They invest in companies that manufacture weapons. They help to elect war-mongering leaders, and then they pray for peace. Isn’t there something unbearably dissonant about that?

The song sounds too sweet and simplistic to many ears, but there’s a profound truth nonetheless in the words of a prayer-song, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

If I really want peace, let me do something about it other than just talk, and while I’m wanting peace in those countries far away from me, let me also take some steps to create peace in my own community. There are war zones in most every major urban area in the United States, and schools by and large aren’t exactly safe places to be either, these days.

Also, if I really want peace, can I live in a state of emotional war with those in my own home, my own church, my own community? I kind of doubt it. The Hebrew word, shalom, that we translate as “peace” means overall well-being, calm, and the absence of strife.

One of the theological insights that has come to me across the years is that what we do to make something good or important happen is much more a prayer than all the formulaic and flowery words in the world. In other words, if I am a peacemaker and am taking active steps to try to achieve peace--how ever insignificant my measly effort may feel to me--then that is a much greater prayer than a well articulated oration or a crying and begging prayer.
I’ll tell you where Jesus hit this point hard, really hard. It was on the matter of forgiveness. And Jesus’ disciple, Peter, the patron saint for all of those who put our feet in our mouths occasionally or often, had approached Jesus about this issue.
As we read the story in the Gospels, we sense that Peter was very proud of himself and generous-feeling for the way he formulated his question. “Teacher,” he asked, “how often are we required by our religious guidelines to forgive someone who offends us. Seven times seven is max isn’t it?”
Jesus laughed lovingly at Peter, at least that’s how I read the story, and he said to Peter, “Try SEVENTY times SEVEN.” Peter wanted a number to keep count of so he could console himself and assure others that he’d gone above and beyond what religion required of him. There is no limit to fresh starts for those who really want them. No need to use your energy keeping count of someone else’s faults. Use your energy practicing forgiveness.
To match up with this practical teaching, Jesus told a parable about someone who was forgiven a great debt turning right around and refusing to forgive another person’s small debt to him. The moral of the parable was: don’t pray to God to forgive you when you aren’t practicing forgiveness.


II.
Georgia Elma Harkness was probably the first woman to gain wide recognition as a theologian and certainly the first woman ever to hold a full professorship at a theological seminary as well as the first woman member of the American Theological Society. Don’t hear that glibly or lightly: the FIRST woman to break through the ranks of male chauvinism and religious conservatism--a virtually unbreakable barrier.
Harkness was born into a decidedly Methodist family. She grew up on a farm near a village that was named after her Grandfather Harkness: Harkness, New York. Stirred and influenced by evangelists in annual revival meetings, Georgia formally joined the local Methodist church when she was 14. She never moved her membership from that church and was still officially a member at the time of her death.
She won a scholarship to Cornell. Having been accustomed to small town life and never having traveled very far from home, she was very lonely and homesick during her early years as a college student. During college, she became convinced that God was calling her to be a missionary—though family considerations never allowed her to follow this pathway.
She completed her studies at Cornell in 1912 with a major in history and political science. Wanting to be near her parents, she spent the next six years teaching high school French and Latin.
During this time span, Georgia Harkness heard of a new religious vocation that was open to women; churches had begun hiring women as directors of Christian education. In 1918, she entered the Boston University School of Religious Education and completed her MRE there in 1920. By the end of that degree, however, she had become more interested in the formal study of theology—through a few required courses in that field—than in Christian education per se. Though there was some concern on the part of the faculty about having a woman enrolled in the school’s doctoral program in theology, Miss Harkness was admitted to begin with the fall 1920 class, and she completed a Ph.D. with an emphasis in the philosophy of religion in 1923.
During her final year of doctoral studies, she taught religious education courses at Elmira College in Elmira, New York. Upon the completion of her doctorate, she was appointed as a philosophy professor at Elmira and taught in this capacity from 1923-1937.
In 1924, she toured Europe and was overwhelmed by the effects of the war. From that point on, she considered herself a pacifist and wrote widely on the topics of peace and justice.
During a study leave at Union Seminary in New York, Dr. Harkness decided to shift her academic focus from philosophy to theology. With her new academic emphasis came a new teaching appointment. Harkness became professor of religion at Mount Holyoke College in 1937.
In 1940, she began teaching at Garrett Bible Institute (which would become Garrett Evangelical Seminary). Her field was “applied theology” (ethics).
Professor Harkness always remained an active part of a worshiping community and the broader life of her church and Christendom in general. She once commented that apart from worship, faith lacks resonance and power.
In 1926, she was ordained a local deacon and in 1938 a local elder, but she was never ordained to the pastoral ministry.
The years 1939 to 1945 were very difficult for Professor Harkness. She was physically ill. She suffered from insomnia. She was clinically depressed. She sought psychiatric help, and by 1945 there began to be rays of hope for her again. She wrote her book on the religious meaning of suffering in that year, The Dark Night of the Soul.
In February of 1949, she gave the Earl Lectures at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. They would later be published as The Gospel and Our World. The next year, 1950, she was appointed as Professor of Applied Theology (Ethics) there at the Pacific School of Religion.
In 1954, her book, Toward Understanding the Bible, was released. In the Preface she wrote,

The purpose of this book is to try to help the ordinary person get a better understanding of the Bible. That there is still a live interest in the Bible is evidenced by the fact that over two and one half million copies of the Revised Standard Version have been sold. That many people find spiritual refreshment from reading selected parts of it is certain. But that people in general, either within or outside of the churches, find the Bible as a whole to be meaningful is open to serious question. The greatest of all books is a closed book to many who do not understand its historical backgrounds, its diversity of literary form, or the unity in diversity of its spiritual message….The Bible was written in an historical setting and culture very different from our own. It was written by men who had something from God to say to their times but who had no idea that they were writing Scripture to be read two or three thousand years later. Yet they were men of deep spiritual insight, and through their words God still speaks to us with a timeless message. If this message is to be most fruitfully grasped, whether for cultural enrichment or the deepening of personal faith, we need to understand the Bible’s structure and content.

On September 30, 1958, theologian Georgia Harkness conveyed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. her “sympathy and admiration in the recent crisis which has come to you, as previously in your valiant fight for justice.” She was speaking of his time in a Birmingham jail. After reading his Stride Toward Freedom, she told King that her “enthusiasm” was “unbounded” and called the book “a great story of a great event in Christian social history.”

Dear Dr. Harkness:

While convalescing from a recent operation, your letter of September 30, was called to my attention. It certainly came to me as a great spiritual lift. I am deeply grateful to you for the kind words you said concerning my book. This book represented my humble attempt to shed some light on the difficult problem of racial injustice which pervades our nation. I am happy to know that it proved to be helpful to you…When I went to Boston University for my doctoral studies, I naturally heard your name many times, for Boston University, as you know, is very proud of you and never forgets to mention that you are one of its graduates. I have long admired your Christian witness and your sound theology. I hope it will be possible for us to meet personally in the not-too-distant future. May God continue to bless you in your most important work.

Very sincerely yours,

Martin L. King, Jr.

Retiring to Claremont, California (1961), she continued to publish a book a year until her death in 1974. I think 30 was the grand total. She was proofing the final pages of her book, Understanding the Kingdom of God, on the day before she died.
Dr. Harkness wrote the words to a hymn that is still widely sung:

Hope of the world, Thou Christ of great compassion,
Speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent
Save us, Thy people, from consuming passion
Who by our own false hopes and aims are spent.

Hope of the world, God’s gift from highest heaven,
Bringing to hungry souls the bread of life
Still let Thy Spirit unto us be given
To heal earth’s wounds and end our bitter strife.

Hope of the world, a foot on dusty highways,
Showing to wandering souls the path of light
Walk Thou beside us lest the tempting byways
Lure us away from Thee to endless night.

Hope of the world who by Thy cross didst save us
From death and deep despair from sin and guilt
We render back the love Thy mercy gave us
Take Thou our lives and use them as Thou wilt.

Hope of the world, O Christ, o’er death victorious,
Who by this sign didst conquer grief and pain.
We would be faithful to Thy gospel glorious
Thou art our Lord! Thou dost forever rein
1982, The Hymn Society of America


III.
On March 4, 1949, which was a World Day of Prayer, Professor Harkness preached a sermon on the radio entitled “An Imperishable Jewel.” She was a confirmed pacifist as I said earlier, and in this sermon heard across the country she asks her listeners, “What then might happen from this Day of Prayer together if we entered into it with enough seriousness?” She offered several possible results.

Clearly our prejudices would melt away, and with a gentle and quiet spirit we could be led to see those of races and groups other than our own...all of us children of God and brothers of ourselves. Instead of talking against any of these groups we should be praying for them, and when we pray for anybody it is hard to keep hating and fearing them.

If this should happen to enough people--even to a determined and earnest minority--the peace of the world would be enormously advanced. War is not inevitable, and if hysteria and suspicion can be kept down and good will and understanding built up it can be averted.

Listen carefully to the next part of what she preached:

Praying Christians, whether men or women, have had placed in their hands by God enormous resources for reconciliation, which are more powerful than atomic bombs (Georgia Elma Harkness, “An Imperishable Jewel,” in And Blessed Is She, eds. David Albert Farmer and Edwina Hunter [San Francisco/Valley Forge: Harper & Row/Judson, 1990/1994], p. 82).

It’s not all up to God, you see. In fact, one wonders if God can do a single thing more than God has already done to establish peace in the world. Peace is God’s will. Peace is God’s preference. Peace is God’s plan for humanity. The problem is that peace has rarely been the human family’s cup of tea, and so we keep waging wars and appealing God to stop the wars we start. For the most part, when people have said they wanted peace, they meant they wanted God to whip up on their enemies and give them the victories. As long as we win one more time, we are willing to live at peace...for a little while.
I do want you to notice that Dr. Harkness made it abundantly clear to her hearers that God had already placed enormous resources for promoting peace in the hands of anyone who was willing to take note of God’s gifts. I certainly realize that when we’re dealing with true aggression and honest threats to the well-being of our loved ones and ourselves the picture changes for most of us. This is one of the several reasons that peace must be sought out and taught and stressed even in times when the wars are far away from us.
Peace wasn’t her only concern. Dr. Harkness believed that prayer should be a pervasive part of the way we conduct our lives. As she neared the end of her sermon, she had this to say, “...we must do what we can to help God answer our prayers.” Precisely. We must do what we can to help God answer our prayers.
I’m not a Deist like the founding fathers of this nation, for the most part, were. Recently, I discussed in a sermon what a Deist was. A Deist believed that a creative God set the world in motion and created everything in the world and then left us fallible humans to run it. I don’t think like that, but I do affirm the responsibility Deists placed on themselves and others like us to put away passive praying and do all we ourselves can do to effect the kinds of changes others are trying to leave entirely in God’s lap.
If we want a stronger church, we don’t have to pray to God to gift us with more strength. We simply need to tap into the collective brilliance that resides within the membership of Silverside Church and act on the logical ways to strengthen any human community or institution. God is not opposed to stronger churches as long as we draw our strength from healthful sources.
Instead of praying that the hungry might be fed in the world today, we could join with Marie Neal and head down to Emmanuel Dining Room on the 13th of every month to serve one of Marie’s meals to people who are, at least on that day, hungry and in need of nourishment. One wonders how many people in the world have starved to death while passive pray-ers have been gathered at their prayer meetings praying that hunger in the world would be alleviated and then going out to eat together for extended fellowship.
I also think about how many prayers have been answered by God over and over again, and the people who sought the answer never took the time to notice that the prayers had been answered. They get in the habit of asking all the time and simply assume that God is holding out on them for whatever reason.
When we get serious about prayer, and there are so many ways to conceive of prayer, what will happen to us, among other things, is that we will realize some so-called prayers are pointless--either because they’re actually selfish or because they are superfluous. Prayers centered on communing with God will become much more important to us than “wish list” prayers or prayers of demand.
I’m one of those people who believes that there’s something to prayer as long as the reasons for our prayers are reasonable and not overwhelmingly selfish. I also feel very strongly that we must not allow ourselves ever to think of prayer as a way of twisting God’s arm, as it were; trying to nag God into doing what we want. If we only nag enough, God will finally give in, however reluctantly, and make our dreams come true.
There are substantial segments of the Christian movement today that teach adherents to pray consistently for prosperity. They make praying for fancy cars and better jobs and bigger bank accounts a part of their weekly worship. It’s interesting that the clergypersons who lead such groups somehow convince their followers that they, the clergy, must drive the finest cars of all and that God is working through them to furnish their pastor with a Mercedes or whatever model is hottest for the particular culture in which the congregation operates.
Prayers focused on praying to be rich and famous aren’t prayers at all. They are simply attempts to baptize greed and self-importance. Never at a single point in Jesus’ ministry did God’s will for him look like wealth and prestige. The number of people who gather weekly to pray for material advantage alarms me.
I think the prayer that has often been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi is a marvelous model prayer even though, as I’ve suggested before, there’s little chance it actually goes back to St. Francis. The first knowledge of the prayer can’t be traced back in earlier than the early twentieth century, 1915 to be exact, when the prayer was found written on the back of a St. Francis card in Normandy; thus, the nickname of the prayer.
The St. Francis prayer to me is at the very heart of helping God answer our prayers as Georgia Harkness said it:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
when there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand,
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying [to ourselves] that we are born to eternal life.

Amen.