Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sermon: Wearying God - Finding Hope

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Wearying God – Finding Hope
James Sledge                                                                                       August 7, 2016

In spring of 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian, had been in a Nazi prison for a year because of his ties to the German resistance. Later that year, things grew more dire as the Nazis discovered his role in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and he would be hanged in 1945 at a Nazi concentration camp just two weeks before US soldiers liberated it.
Previously, Bonhoeffer had been a prominent leader in the Confessing Church movement, Christians from both Lutheran and Reformed churches who protested Nazi intrusion into church affairs, and the church’s willing to cooperation. Bonhoeffer was appalled by a requirement to expel any church member with Jewish ancestry.
Bonhoeffer spoke out against the Nazis from the beginning, arguing publically that Christians’ ultimate allegiance was to Christ and not to the Fuhrer. Although he was not involved its actual writing, these ideas became part of the Theological Declaration of Barmen, approved in May of 1934 by the Confessing Church. Barmen is in our denomination’s Book of Confessions, and its banner hangs in the back of our sanctuary, notable for the crossed out swastika on it.
Bonhoeffer could have safely ridden out the war as a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, but in 1939 he returned to Germany, convinced that he had to be there to have any say in some dimly glimpsed, hoped for future.
Even in from prison in that spring of 1944, Bonhoeffer was thinking about the future. From his cell, he penned a letter to a colleague’s infant son who was being baptized. The many-page letter includes these words near its end.
Today you will be baptized a Christian. All those great ancient words of the Christian proclamation will be spoken over you, and the command of Jesus Christ to baptize will be carried out on you, without your knowing anything about it. But we are once again driven back to the beginning of our understanding. Reconciliation and redemption, regeneration and the Holy Spirit, love of our enemies, cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship – all these things are so difficult and remote that we hardly venture any more to speak of them. In the traditional words and acts we suspect that there may be something quite new and revolutionary, though we cannot as yet grasp or express it. Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christian will be limited to these two things: prayer and righteous acts among men. All Christian thinking, speaking and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.[1]
As he wrote his letter, churches all over Germany were still holding regular worship services, but Bonhoeffer clearly did not think such actions meant much. They had become too detached from the gospel, from the words Jesus spoke, and from the hope for that new day Jesus proclaimed –  the kingdom, the reign of God.

In our scripture today the prophet Isaiah speaks for God. I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood Yahweh’s complaint better than most. Most Nazis were members of the German church. Almost all of them had been baptized. Many regularly attended worship. All while slaughtering millions of Jews and others considered undesirable or impure. All while pursuing a war of aggression that killed millions more. All while imprisoning or executing any who dared question or challenge them.
Bonhoeffer knew all about worship abhorrent to God. But where exactly is the line? At what point can God no longer endure worship, solemn assemblies, festivals and prayers? According to Isaiah, it is when people are no longer moved by evil and injustice, when the oppressed and marginalized are ignored, when the powerless and weak are not protected.
When the lives of worshipers and the society they build do not reflect the ways of Yahweh, who has a special concern for the lost, the poor, the broken, the alien, the powerless, the forgotten, then worship ceases to be worship, and merely grates on God’s ears.
And that’s just a little unnerving when I think of all the times I’ve shrugged my shoulders at obvious injustice, or been too busy or worried about my own problems to do something that might actually help those who are vulnerable and powerless. I live a stone’s throw from the nation’s capital yet I’ve never added my voice to a protest or march, never stood with those for whom God has special concern.
Oh, I’ve hoped for them. I’ve voted for people I think might help them. But I’ve rarely done anything that cost me. My love for neighbor isn’t very Christ-like. It’s more of an if-it’s-not-too-much-trouble-to-me kind of love. What must God think of my worship?
But there is good news. With God, there is always good news. With God the future is always open. We are never captive to our failings or our past. You can see it in the words of Isaiah, God’s longing for a new future. Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.” And in Christ Jesus, we see the power of God to transform even the most heinous evil, even the cross, into a glorious new future.
We do not have a baptism in our worship today, but we do celebrate another ancient Christian ritual, the Lord’s Supper. I wonder if we might borrow Bonhoeffer’s words about baptism for it. “In the traditional words and acts we suspect that there may be something quite new and revolutionary, though we cannot as yet grasp or express it.”
In a world where going to church has too often become a substitute for being the body of Christ, perhaps we too need to be renewed through Bonhoeffer’s “prayer and righteous acts...” Perhaps as we come to the table, it can be part of a renewed prayer life that is radically open to God’s presence. Perhaps it can nurture us for renewed focus on “righteous acts,” on loving our neighbor. For surely there is something new and revolutionary waiting to be born, something we cannot yet grasp, but that Jesus calls us to be a part of when he proclaims good news and says, “Come, follow me.”

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Prayers from Prison (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1971), 299-300.

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