In 'a mayus,' (a mess)? Head Toward Emmaus - sermon by Don Portwood
April 17, 2005
I want to first thank Ko Koyama for mentioning to me last Sunday that yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer was a 39 year old Lutheran pastor in Germany. In the early morning of April 9, 1945 as he was led out to be hung, he whispered to another prisoner, "This is the end. For me, the beginning of life." He was ordered stripped. Naked under the scaffold - he knelt one last time to pray. Five minutes later he was dead; executed for being part of a plot to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime. 21 days later, April 30, 1945, Hitler committed suicide. Seven days later Germany surrendered.
Earlier in the week, as I worked on this sermon, I was focused mostly on his final words. But there are some similarities in his life that I want us to be aware of too. Much of what I say about Bonhoeffer came from an address by Michael Moeller of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, on the 50th anniversary of Bonhoeffer's death in 1995.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on February 4, 1906, in eastern Germany, now part of Poland. His father was a professor at the University of Berlin, while his mother home-schooled the children. Around the age of fourteen, he began to study theology, and at twenty-one, he graduated with honors from Tubingen University. Bonhoeffer preached in several churches in the following years.
In 1933, Adolph Hitler was elected chancellor. Many of Bonhoeffer's contemporaries were theologians and pastors who believed that Hitler and the Nazis would bring about a new era in Germany. Speaking out against the part the churches were playing with the Nazis evoked passionate opposition in a nation caught up in nationalism.
Moeller writes (remember this is 10 years ago he's writing), "Political developments happened very fast in the first five months of Nazi rule in Germany. One could call the Nazi takeover a masterpiece, a textbook example of a revolutionary movement's successful exploitation of an unstable and con fused situation to consolidate its power."
He gives a brief chronology:
January 30, 1933 -- Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany.
February 27, 1933 -- The Reichstag, German Parliament building was set on fire. (by the communists) (you might compare to our Sept 11, 2001)
February 28, 1933 - Hitler had the aging president declare a State of Emergency (abolishing most of the human rights provisions of the Weimar republic)
March 23, 1933 - less than a month later, the Enabling Act, entitled, The Law to Remedy the Misery of the People and the Country, passed, transferring legislative power to the Executive. (might compare it to our patriot act, or the possible attempt coming in the Senate to stop the filibuster rules, or the attack on the judiciary from many following the Terri Schiavo decisions.)
April 7, 1933 -- Law to Harmonize the State Governments and National Authority enacted. Federal structure dissolved, civil servants could be dismissed if they were not Aryan or supportive of the Nazis.
In bringing about these sweeping changes, the Nazi party and the Nazi government enjoyed broad public support. The church was no exception. Everybody expected a radical change after the confusing and chaotic end of the twenties and Germany's terrible economic crisis. People hoped for a resurrection of Germany as a power in Europe and the world. With Nazi rule it seemed that after years of depression national pride was finally possible again. Family values were reasserted against the permissive decadence of the Weimar republic. (You might compare it to sexual minorities or gay marriage being scapegoated as the cause of the failure of marriage, so the constitution must be changed). Law and order were restored after a period of rising crime. Moeller continues, "We know that these programs sell well when people are frightened and uncertain about the future." (Remember, Moeller wrote this in 1995.)
That's the situation Bonhoeffer was in. Originally his struggle was only in the church. But at some point, after the war had begun in 1939 and Germany had overrun France and other countries, through his brother-in-law, he began working with a group of Germans on a plot to overthrow the Nazi regime. For Bonhoeffer to join the resistance was not only a political, but a faith decision and involved an intense inner struggle with his pacifism. The coup included an attempt to assassinate Hitler. The first coup attempt in March of 1943 failed. Two weeks later Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested. From his prison cell he wrote this poem, entitled, "Who Am I?"
Who am I? They often tell me I would step from my cell's confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me I would talk to my warden freely and friendly
and clearly, as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me I would bear the days of misfortune equably, smilingly, proudly, like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of, or am I only what I know of myself, restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, yearning
for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, faint and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine.
Two years after his arrest, April 9, 1945, Flossenburg in Bavaria, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on his way to be hung, whispers to another prisoner "This is the end. For me, the beginning of life." What allowed Dietrich Bonhoeffer to live the faithful life he lived and die the death he did, trusting that his end, was the beginning of life?
# # #
I quote from an article in last Monday's New York Times,
"In the final hours of his life, Pope John Paul II lay in a wide, white-blanketed bed in a sun-filled bedroom, serene, (visitors said), in the expectation that he soon would be in heaven."
"He was not at all holding on to life," said Cardinal
Achille Silvestrini, one of the last people to see the pope on the day of his death. "He was ready to trust himself to God." Interviews with visitors to the pope's bedside and official Vatican reports portray him as tranquil and comfortable in the face of death. What allowed John Paul II to be serene in the face of death, not clinging to life?
# # #
For a possible answer to my questions, we need a little change of pace, take a breath. Look at this morning's scripture. Our reading is the story of two disciples leaving Jerusalem, heading toward Emmaus. What can we tell about their state of mind?
Afraid - leaving Jerusalem,
Sad -- the gospel mentions they looked sad.
Discouraged and probably angry. We had hopes that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel.
Amazed, hopeful - women's story of angels saying Jesus was alive.
Their state of mind is where today's sermon title came from. That mix of feelings, fear, sad, discouraged, angry, amazed, hopeful..I'd say they were a mess, or with a little southern accent, in "a mayus." In "a mayus" on the way to Emmaus. And in this strange story, Jesus journeys with them. They don't recognize him. He opens the scriptures to them. As night approaches they get to a village and ask him to stay. At table, Jesus breaks bread, their eyes are opened, they recognize him, and he disappears.
Saturday I had another 10 minutes of sermon material about what Bishop John Shelby Spong writes about resurrection appearances. It is extremely enlightening and helpful in understanding our faith in Christ grew. If you want a copy, let me know and I'll email or copy it for you.
But whether you see this Emmaus story as happening 3 days after Jesus crucifixion or over the next 3 decades, which many scholars believe...there is a truth in it. That, I believe, is what allowed Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Pope John Paul to live their lives and face their death with courage and serenity.
The Emmaus story is about a journeying Jesus who journeys with two disappointed, frightened disciples. He doesn't say, look it's me, it's all going to be OK, he journeys with them. Finds out where they are at. They gain a new understanding.and when they recognize him, he disappears.
I see this Emmaus Story as Luke trying to articulate a spiritual experience. John Gustav-Wrathall talked in his sermon last week about having had some spiritual experiences, but not of the risen Christ.
I've had just a few of what I would call spiritual experiences, but if I was to put it in a pattern it would fit with this story.
They've come often -- times when I'm in a mess or on my way to Emmaus. When I've been frightened, discouraged, angry. In a difficult time in my relationship with my wife and 4 years ago when I had cancer. In a hard time, a presence came to me of love and grace. That changed my perspective, taught me something. Not a presence I recognized as Jesus, but as God. And such a wonderful feeling, feeling of being warmed inside, loved, heard, it brought me to tears. I wanted to keep feeling that way, but of course, like Jesus in this story, the presence disappears..can't be called forth or held down.
This journeying Christ, risen presence, embodiment of God and God's love is what I believe Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew in his life that allowed him to say on April 9, 1945, "This is the end, for me the Beginning," and live his life of faithfulness, knowing who he belonged to. This journeying Christ, risen presence, embodiment of God and God's love was the rock the pope was clinging to, so he didn't have to cling to life in the face of death.
# # #
I had worked on this sermon earlier in the week and had the sermon title for Vic to do the bulletin on Thursday morning. I enjoyed the play on words, but the last phrase doesn't really capture today where my sermon concludes...because I don't believe there is any formula to "call out" a spiritual experience.
All you can do is keep moving faithfully ahead, breaking bread together with friends and strangers, with an openness to one who may journey with you.
# # #
Tuesday evening the 4th Foundation meets with another developer about putting church and housing on this site..a week later we'll meet again with Salem Lutheran and Simpson Methodist to talk about the possibility of partnering with each other.
I guarantee you that moving into the future, thinking out 15 years, figuring out where the Spirit is moving us, there will be times of discouragement in this church, times of hopelessness and fear, besides amazement and hope. There will be times when it feels like we're in a mess. That's the time we take a collective breath. Continue breaking break as friends and strangers, and trust that we don't journey alone.
And one more thing. For those who can see similarities between this country and Germany where Bonhoeffer lived during his life, see the passion of people caught up in nationalism, militarism, moves to change the way we govern ourselves, moves to change the constitution of our state and nation...we do face times of discouragement...these are frightening times as well as amazing and hopeful times that we are called to live in today.
As we all seek to live faithful lives to God in this nation, may we know the courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer - as well as the presence of the one who journeys with us. Today and forever.