Sheepscott Community Church January 10, 2010
Jeremiah 31: 7-14
Ephesians 1: 3-14
John 1: 1-18
A Two-Pronged Faith
My husband Jon has a facility for reproducing the introductions and advertisements of the radio shows of the 1940s, before there was television or computer. People were more challenged then than now, to use their imaginations to create the scenes that went with the dramatic words they heard on radio. That audial generation is a generation of readers as well, who also could picture what they were reading about without needing the prompts of multiple illustrations, valuable as those are.
Some of you have heard Jon “doing” the introduction to “Sky King” or Sergeant Preston and his mighty dog, Yukon King, doing their best in Canada to serve the Queen of England. “Well, King, it looks like this case is closed.” “Rrff! Rrrff!” But my favorite of Jon’s radio reproductions from memory is “The Romance of Helen Trent.” When the seas of life drive her against the cliffs of despair, she fights back bravely, successfully, proving what every woman longs to prove––that romance in life need not be over at 35 and even be-yond!”
Now her thread of hope, what kept her going, was her belief that romance was possible at 35, and especially beyond. Now, get ready to make a leap with me over an abyss of most tenuous connection: Helen Trent has that faith and hope in romance and it did sustain that fictional figure when she was thrown against the walls of despair, again and again, keeping her looking toward tomorrow. What can we say of ourselves, those who are trying to practice a Christianity, trying to live it out when we too are thrown against real, not fictional cliffs of despair erected only for entertainment’s sake? Despair may be a little strong, although I don’t doubt that there are people who feel it, possibly in this very congregation today, but you’d never guess it. Over a lifetime people become very adept at hiding those feelings beneath a smiling countenance.
No less than Helen Trent with her faith and hope in romance to sustain her, do we need such a faith. But given what we encounter––job loss, angry and unforgiving feelings in households over betrayal by infidelity, bouts of drunkenness, violence exacerbated by drunkenness, descent into drugs, depression, seasonal affective disorder, no regular paycheck with mounting bills resulting, an overwhelm of credit-card debt––is that enough? I think so. These are causes for despair, but I would offer our two-pronged faith in incarnation and resurrection as an antidote for despair. Helen Trent has her fictional romance to sustain her. We have our faith in the Christ to sustain us, and it’s real, not fiction.
At this time of the year, we are particularly concerned with the first prong––incarnation. What are we to make of that? It is worth reviewing that basic tenet of Christianity, as we have just concluded this season of the birth of Christ. The writer of the gospel of John treats the subject of incarnation in this morning’s gospel in a poetic way. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.” Jesus is understood as that preexisting Word. He was with God in the beginning and through him all things were made...In him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shone in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Verse 14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, or otherwise translated, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, who came from the Father full of grace and truth.”
Who can accept this? Well, it’s gospel––literally. But, who can accept that God would become flesh, the living Word? We can be willing to make space in our belief or unbelief for such a tremendous possibility, but we cannot make ourselves believe. That is grace. But it does begin with our desire. Objection! Why should I desire that “opiate of the people,” as Karl Marx called it? I would rather trust in my own intellect and chosen, humane and humanitarian actions, which I can rise and fall by. Okay, try this.
The Lutheran theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer of Germany, author of the classic text The Cost of Discipleship, was part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. A lifelong pacifist, he had come to believe that the crisis of the times in Germany and abroad was so grave as to require that certain Christians willingly compromise their purity of conscience for the sake of others. Bonhoeffer’s simplified description of Jesus as “the man for others” reflects that insight gained over time. It expresses the fundamental difference between the religious God who is all powerful, and the Christian God who suffers and is powerless; between a religious God who keeps mankind in despotic thrall, and a Christian God who exposes and judges men’s craving after power.
Bonhoeffer changed his position on pacifism as he continued to think through his place as one individual in history. He had begun to see pacifism for himself as an illegitimate escape, especially if it tempted him to withdraw from his increasing contacts with the responsible political and military leaders of the resistance to Hitler. He no longer saw any way of escape into some region of piety. His friend Eberhard Bethge, the editor of Letters and Papers from Prison, had never realized, until Bonhoeffer, that so much was involved in trying to be Christlike: One’s outlook on the world, one’s intellect, ethics and trials were all interwoven.
For Bonhoeffer, following Christ was a matter of being engaged in this world, “living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God,” he said, “taking seriously not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world––watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think is faith; that is metanoia,” or complete change. I submit that that is incarnation. That is the Christ realized in the world. For all its fragmentary nature, Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers continues to live in the reading of it because it brings to birth again, in our own generation, the joy of discovering the Christian nature of Christianity. And the Christmas season gives us the opportunity to talk about this incarnation business again.
Arrested in 1943 on the basis of suspicious activities related to the conspiracy to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer was writing to his parents on December 22 of that same year that he could, he hoped “bear all things ‘in faith,’ even my condemnation, and even the other consequences that I fear; but to be anxiously looking ahead wears one down.... I must be able to know for certain that I am in God’s hands, not in men’s. Then everything becomes easy, even the severest privation.” On April 9, 1945, at Flossenberg Camp in Germany, the 39-year-old Bonhoeffer suffered the ultimate punishment of death by hanging for the moral position he had arrived at after much thought and prayer, and the activities that grew out of that position. That is only one challenge to us when we consider the question of incarnation. How much room will we allow the Christ, the incarnate Word of God, to have his way in us, through us for the sake of the world, whatever small piece of that world we may have our hand on, may have our eye on?
God has spoken into time and the world the Living Word, who is Jesus––incarnation. The Word of God taking on flesh. God speaks this way not to be deliberately obscure, but because, unlike a word in the dictionary whose meaning is fixed, the meaning of the incarnate word, Jesus, is the meaning he has and is for the person he is spoken to in the context of a life. That meaning becomes clear, becomes something, someone we can commit to only when we ferret it out for ourselves, which happens by grace, and our fiat, our acquiescence, our yes.
I want to emphasize Bonhoeffer’s willingness, desire and need to throw himself on God’s mercy. His faith in that God who is in the midst of men, of human beings, was his sole source of hope. Not to trivialize but to remind that while the dramatic fictional character Helen Trent believed in romance, and that sustained her from day to day, Bonhoeffer, a real, flesh-and-blood human being, believed in love, in Jesus, the man for others, and that sustained him from day to day through death and into life, whatever that may prove to be on the other side.
That of course is the second prong of our forked faith: resurrection. But I’m not going to deal with that now because it is not the season. The hour is still that of our protracted Christmas. We have looked at Epiphany already, and today, on our first Communion Sunday of the new year, more of Bonhoeffer’s words are worth quoting. The following is taken from a letter to his family written on Christmas Eve, 1943. By that time he had been separated from all the people he loved for nine months and did not know when or where his ordeal would end. He wanted to say something that might help his family through those hard times. Listen carefully for how these words may speak to your own life.
“Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time, it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; He does not fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.”
We are full of the memories of moments in our lives, some good, some not good. By God’s grace we have loved and been loved and survived to be here to share communion today. I suggest that we consciously allow God’s presence in Christ to let us be one with those we love who are not here with us, separated by geography or illness or disagreement or even death, that the Spirit of God, incarnate in Jesus and remembered in this sacramental meal may further make us one in this church today. One in worship, one in purpose, one in Christ. Amen.