Singing with Mary: A Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2019

Familiar carols, a beautifully-decorated church, our excitement and joy at the celebration of Christmas. It’s almost enough to take us away from the troubles in our lives and the troubles in our world—climate catastrophe, impeachment, refugees, endless wars and other conflicts.

Almost, but not quite enough. I was reminded of how very different the Bethlehem of 2019 is from that portrayed in the familiar carol by the nativity scene the artist provocateur Banksy produced this year. He calls it the “Scar of Bethlehem.” It shows Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus huddled in the shadow of the concrete wall that separates the Palestinian from the Israeli sides of the town; the light above the manger provided not by a star but by a hole in the wall made by a mortar shell. Today Bethlehem is hardly a town of peace; it suffers from the violence and terror of occupation and intractable conflict.

Our world, today, a creation groaning from the pains of evil inflicted on it by human greed, carelessness, and neglect; a world suffering from endless conflict; Our nation is deeply divided politically; with the gap between the few haves and the many have-nots widening daily; , the crushing burdens of medical and student debt affecting individuals across the generations; racism, America’s orginal sin continuing; The Church, the Body of Christ is torn apart by political and theological conflict.

In this world, in this place, we gather to celebrate again the coming of God to us, in human form, weak, tiny, vulnerable.

We have heard the familiar story, sung familiar carols and with them are brought out of the present day to our memories of Christmases past, but also, all the way back to that first Christmas. We sing in imitation and echo of the angels’ “Gloria in excelsis!” We come, kneel, and worship as the shepherds did, and if we pause for a moment, empty our minds of everything else that worries us or occupies our thoughts, we may, like Mary ponder all these things and treasure them in our hearts.

But if we ponder too long, we may be reminded of the deep wounds in our lives, in our nation, and in our world. We may grow weary, our hearts may grow cold; our despair deepen. If we ponder too long, we may want to avert our eyes, walk away, overcome by the weight of the world. Our pondering may have us contemplating the abyss, the fear, the helplessness, the hopelessness.

There are other ways to ponder. Luke says that when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary and greeted with the words, “Hail, favored one!” Mary was perplexed and pondered. After she learned that she would give birth to the Savior of the world; after she said her “yes” to God, as she reflected on the meaning of these events for her life and for the world, she eventually gave voice to her thoughts in the Magnificat, that great song of praise:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. 

This powerful, prophetic hymn declares to us the work that God is doing here, tonight, in this place, in our world. It is work that God has been doing for a very long time and will continue to do until the final consummation of all things.

We Christians have domesticated and caricatured this great event. We have turned it first into an occasion of saccharine piety and sweetness that comforts and consoles us but never challenges or unsettles us. And our culture has cooperated with us to create and sustain a consumeristic spree of holiday spending and celebration that has nothing to do with the story we heard, the gospel that was proclaimed, the Word that has become flesh and lives among us.

We see a mother and baby, a loving family caring for its own. Onto that image we project our own images of loving families and see modeled ideals that we may or may not be able to achieve, or even want to achieve. The holy family is surrounded by all manner of figures, lost in wonder and worship. We hear the story, recreate and reimagine them but when we do they lose their power. We think of sweet, docile Mary, accepting her role, modeling her faithful and quiet devotion, ignoring the fierceness of her hymn:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. 

As I reflected this week, as I read Mary’s hymn against the backdrop of the news, and the great events that occurring in our world, I was drawn to a sermon preached by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that great German theologian and martyr. In Advent of 1933, as it was becoming clear the direction that Germany would take under Hitler, Bonhoeffer had this to say about the Magnificat, Mary’s hymn:

For those who are great and powerful in this world, there are two places where their courage fails them, which terrify them to the very depths of their souls, and which they dearly avoid. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No one who holds power dares to come near the manger; King Herod also did not dare. For here thrones begin to sway; the powerful fall down, and those who are high are brought low, because God is here with the lowly. …

The manger, like the cross, is the place where we see Christ at his weakest, most vulnerable, most human. The manger is the place where we see Christ profoundly, wholly like us.

Yet the manger is where we also see God working out God’s marvelous purposes. We see God, in human flesh, coming to us, meeting us in our weakness and vulnerability. We see God, in human flesh, coming to encounter the poor, powerless, oppressed. We see God meeting refugees and strangers, prisoners, the homeless and hungry. In the manger, at the manger, we see God turning the world upside down, casting down the mighty from their thrones, turning away the rich, scattering the proud. In the manger, we see God bringing about a new world, a new order.

Into our world full of despair, fear, hatred, and evil, God has come. God has come among us as one of us, as the weakest, least powerful. It is mystery and paradox, that the Creator of the world, the Word, through whom all things came to be is now among us, with us, a wordless infant. His presence fills us with hope, and gives us words to speak.

Into our world, into our lives, God comes. Mary sang of God’s coming and of God’s mighty acts; casting down the powerful, sending away the rich, scattering the proud. Her faith proclaimed and sang those mighty acts, although there was little to show for them. Herod ruled, Rome ruled; the poor and the oppressed suffered.

So too, today. Let us proclaim and sing God’s mighty acts, let us declare to the world that Christ’s coming into it means a new world, a new creation. Let us rejoice and sing to the world that Christ’s coming brings hope to the hopeless, freedom to the prisoner, justice to the oppressed. May our hope burn brightly as our voices carry the tune: ”Gloria in Excelsis Deo” Thanks be to God!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Magnificat

The throne of God in the world is set not on the thrones of humankind but in humanity’s deepest abyss, in the manger. There are no flattering courtiers standing around his throne, just some rather dark, unknown, dubious-looking figures, who cannot get enough of looking at this miracle and are quite prepared to live entirely on the mercy of God.

For those who are great and powerful in this world, there are two places where their courage fails them, which terrify them to the very depths of their souls, and which they dearly avoid. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No one who holds power dares to come near the manger; King Herod also did not dare. For here thrones begin to sway; the powerful fall down, and those who are high are brought low, because God is here with the lowly. Here the rich come to naught, because God is here with the poor and those who hunger. God gives there the hungry plenty to eat, but sends the rich and well-satisfied away empty. Before the maidservant Mary, before Christ’s manger, before God among the lowly, the strong find themselves falling; here they have no rights, no hope, but instead find judgment.

From a sermon preached in London, the Third Sunday of Advent, December 17, 1933

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, April 9, 1945

Today is the seventieth anniversary of the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While in prison, he wrote a series of letters to his close friend Eberhart Bethge in which he began speculate about “religionless Christianity.” While this notion has received considerable attention over the decades beginning in the 1960s, his words remain as challenging and questioning in the twenty-first century as they did when he wrote them while imprisoned for his participation in an assassination plot against Hitler, and as World War II was coming to an end:

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the “religious a priori” of mankind. “Christianity” has always been a form–perhaps the true form–of “religion.” But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless–and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any “religious” reaction?)–what does that mean for “Christianity”? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our “Christianity,” and that there remain only a few “last survivors of the age of chivalry,” or a few intellectually dishonest people that we are to pounce in fervor, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don’t want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the Western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity–and even this garment has looked very different at different times–then what is a religionless Christianity?

I’ve previously written about Bonhoeffer here and here.

A Strange Glory

I just finished Charles Marsh’s new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It’s entitled A Strange Glory: The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In short, it’s brilliant, spellbinding, and full of new information. Marsh gives us a portrait of Bonhoeffer in all of his complexity. He comes across as almost hedonistic at times and irresponsible. Marsh depicts his desire for companionship and his desire for community, but points out the irony that while he wrote a dissertation on the importance of Christian community, he rarely attended services while a theology student.

Marsh is especially strong on the importance of Bonhoeffer’s time in America in raising his consciousness about injustice (racism) and as the location where he first fully engages in Christian community (at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem). In Marsh’s perspective, the quest for community would drive Bonhoeffer for the rest of his life.

It’s been thirty years since I’ve read Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer so I don’t recall details, but Marsh is working with new archival finds and he has scholarly distance from his subject that Bethge could not have. What impressed me most about Marsh’s reading of Bonhoeffer was the central role of Bonhoeffer’s deepening spirituality, the spiritual disciplines that became central in his life, his desire for Christian community, and his shaping of the underground seminary at Finkenwalde by the monastic communities he encountered in England and elsewhere.

He’s also very strong on Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge. We learn that two lived for a number of years as a couple, sharing a bank account, giving Christmas gifts with both names, traveling together (and Bonhoeffer’s annoyance when Bethge brought friends with them on their journeys). Marsh also makes clear that whatever the relationship was, it was not consummated sexually but that Bethge was the one who had to establish clear boundaries. Incidentally, within two weeks of Bethge becoming engaged to Bonhoeffer’s niece, Dietrich himself became engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer.

Bonhoeffer is widely regarded as a hero of the faith, a martyr and his legacy has been contested. Marsh stresses Bonhoeffer’s early opposition to Hitler and does a very good job of showing his theological and ethical development, especially on the issue of Bonhoeffer’s participation in the plot against Hitler.

I own well-worn copies of the Letters and Papers from Prison in both English and German and have always been fascinated by the rigorous and revolutionary theological insights he articulates there as well as by the deep Lutheran, even pietistic spirituality that he expresses.

As I was reading Marsh’s biography, I was intrigued by the continuing relevance of those theological insights in our very different cultural context and wonder what a theological voice steeped in Bonhoeffer might have to say in the post-Christian, neoliberal culture of the twenty-first century.

Christian Wiman’s review in the Wall Street Journal

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: April 9, 1945

“To be conformed to the image of Christ is not an ideal to be striven after. It is not as though we had to imitate him as ell as we could. We cannot transform ourselves into his image; it is rather the form of Christ which seeks to be formed in us (Gal 4:19), and to be manifested in us. Christ’s work in us is not finished until he has perfected his own form in us. We must be assimilated to the form of Christ in its entirety, the form of Christ incarnate, crucified and glorified. Christ took upon himself this human form of ours. He became Man even as we are men. In his humanity and his lowliness we recognize our own form. He has become like a man, so that men should be like him. And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God.” Cost of Discipleship

Whenever You Pray–Sermon on the Mount Bible Study

This evening, we’ll be looking at Matthew 6, especially vss 1-14. I’m always struck when I encounter texts in different contexts and the liturgical uses of these verses are powerful and foundational for the Christian life. The Lord’s Prayer is also our prayer, recited in the Daily Office and at every Eucharistic celebration. Its familiarity is both blessing and problematic. When said consciously and meditated upon regularly, it offers the possibility of helping us shape our discipleship and faith. It helps to create a relationship with God that stresses our dependence on God for the necessities of life as well as our purpose and end (“Your kingdom come, Your will be done). But it’s also easy to allow the words to roll off our tongue unthinkingly. Sometimes that’s OK; for example when we need to pray but can’t find words of our own. Sometimes it may be an example of the sort of external piety that Jesus criticizes in the first verses of the chapter.

Those verses are always the gospel reading on Ash Wednesday. In that context they are problematic and challenging, especially of the piety we display on Ash Wednesday. It’s hard not to think about how our actions look to others, whether we’re walking around on Ash Wednesday with ashes on our forehead or attending church on Sunday morning when our friends and neighbors are drinking coffee and reading the paper or out on a bike ride or run. But hiding our piety for the wrong reasons is also a problem. Jesus criticizes “hypocrites” for wanting others to know about their donations and fasting. He isn’t addressing those of us who hide our actions or faith because we are slightly embarrassed of our quaint habits.

Perhaps most important is something implied rather than directly stated here: that our prayers and other practices should be sincere and come from the heart. Prayer is not about others or about ourselves; it is about God. Bonhoeffer has this to say:

Prayer is the supreme instance of the hidden character of the Christian life. It is the antithesis of self-display. When men pray, they have ceased to know themselves and know only God whom they call upon. Prayer does not aim at any direct effect on the world; it is addressed to God alone, and is therefore the perfect example of undemonstrative action

 

Blessed are you… The Beatitudes and Discipleship

I’m reading Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship as I prepare for our Lenten Bible Study on the Sermon on the Mount. I’m not sure when I last spent any time with this Christian classic (25 years, 35 years?). Coming back to it after all those years, it’s striking both in the way it reflects its historical context and the ways in which it transcends its time and still speaks to us decades later.

For example, after going through the beatitudes, explaining them and showing how they speak immediately to the situation of Jesus’ followers in the first century, Bonhoeffer asks whether the community described in the Beatitudes exists anywhere on earth. His answer:

Clearly, there is one place, and only one, and that is where the poorest, meekest, and most sorely tried of all men is to be found–on the Cross at Golgotha. The fellowship of the Beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified. With him it has lost all, and with him it is found all. From the cross there comes the call “blessed, blessed.”

The fellowship of the Beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified!

Earlier, he points out that Jesus called his disciples blessed in the crowd’s hearing and that “the crowd is called upon as a startled witness.” From this he posits the essential unity of disciples and people. In his discussion of the Beatitudes, Bonhoeffer tends to emphasize the tension between Jesus’ followers and the world but here he stresses the commonality. It’s easy to read him (and to some degree the Beatitudes themselves) and place ourselves on that same grid. We hear a lot these days about the persecution of Christians in American, for example. But I wonder whether the perception might change if the emphasis were on the ways in which the people of God are meant to be a blessing to the communities and world in which they live.

In this week’s lectionary reading from Genesis 12, God calls Abram and Sarai out from Haran into the Promised Land, telling them, “I will bless you … so that you will be a blessing” and “in you all the families of the world will be blessed.” It’s easy to recoil, raise our defenses, withdraw or try to fight back when we encounter opposition. The world sees plenty of that from Christians. What might it be like to offer oneself and one’s community of faith as a blessing to its neighborhood and the world?