In 1977 Frederick Buechner wrote his little book, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. There are many excerpts I could share, but what connects with me most is his description of the preaching event. It’s honest. It’s accurate. It’s as if Buechner peaked inside the window of my heart and captured in a few words the complex emotions I’ve felt for several months now.
If you are a preacher living under the expectations of people coming to the worship gathering to be fed, inspired, or encouraged, or if you find yourself feeling more like a bartender or distributer of goods and services than a pastor or truth-teller, I hope these words bring you a measure of comfort, or maybe even confidence.
Don’t forget it was written in the style, prose and language of 1977. Here’s Buechner:
“When the preacher climbs up into the pulpit. . . . He has been to a seminary and studied all that one studies in seminary. He has a degree to show for it, beyond the degree he has his ordination. . . . All of this deepens the silence with which they [the congregation] sit there waiting for him to work a miracle, and the miracle they are waiting for is that he will not just say that God is present, because they have heard it said before and it has made no great and lasting different to them, will not just speak the word of joy, hope, comedy, because they have heard it spoken before too and have spoken it among themselves, but that he will somehow make it real to them. They wait for him to make God real to them through the sacrament of bread and wine, and there is no place where the preacher is more aware of his own nakedness and helplessness than here in the pulpit as he listens to the silence of their waiting. . . . What can he say? What word can he speak with power enough to empower them, waiting there?
But let him take heart. He is called not to be an actor, a magician, in the pulpit. He is called to be himself. He is called to tell the truth as he has experienced it. He is called to be human, to be human, and that is calling enough for any man. If he does not make real to them the human experience of what it is to cry in the storm and receive no answer, to be sick at heart and find no healing, then he becomes the only one there who seems not to have had that experience because most surely under their bonnets and shawls and jackets, under their afros and ponytails, all the others there have had it whether they talk of it or not. As much as anything else, it is their experience of the absence of God that has brought them there in search of his presence, and if the preacher does not speak of that and to that, then he becomes like the captain of a ship who is the only one aboard who either does not know that the waves are twenty feet high and the decks awash or will not face up to it so that anything else he tries to say by way of hope and comfort and empowering becomes suspect on the basis of that one crucial ignorance or disingenuousness or cowardice or reluctance to speak in love any truths but the ones that people love to hear.” (pp. 39-41)
In his biography of Martin Niemoller, Matthew Hockenos offers substantial evidence of WWI German Emperor Wilhelm II’s relentless commitment to the German monarchy’s faith in “providential glory.” He believed they were chosen by God to be the hope of the world. He tied his understanding of the Christian faith with German patriotism, forming a nationalistic brand of Christianity that possessed a hold that was strong and misleading. Niemoller was held by it (and realized it later). Bonhoeffer was held by it (and realized it later). This belief laid the foundation in creating the antisemitism Germans formed and that in turn, formed them.
For instance, while dedicating a new Lutheran Church in Jerusalem in 1898, Emperor Wilhelm II said this in his dedication speech:
“From Jerusalem came the light in splendor from which the German nation became great and glorious; and what the Germanic peoples have become, they became under the banner of the cross, the emblem of self-sacrificing charity.”(19)
Social and political institutions, national policies, and moral values were all formed with this ideology working in the background. Some sort of ideology is always working in the background. It’s how civic life works.
The Emperor’s speech was met with thunderous applause by the 200 or so German Christians and pastors accompanying the Emperor’s voyage to the Holy Land. Of course if asked if the German Protestant pastorate was tied to party politics they would have responded with a resounding, “Nein!” (no in German).
In attendance at the speech in Jerusalem was Martin’s father. He was enamored with Wilhelm II, so much so he named a son after him. He was a pastor faithful to God and King.
Again, take that in. It’s subtle. Quiet. Formative. Seems innocent. Seems Christian. But in the end, it’s destructive.
Martin’s father raised him to embrace the same nationalistic brand of Christianity. No wonder Martin supported Hitler’s rise in power and antisemitic policies. Until he didn’t.
Last week I began this book by Matthew Hockenos. I have read a little about Martin Niemoller, but nothing of depth. A former German Navy officer turned Christian pastor, Niemoller was a complicated man before and after WWII. For many years he was untroubled by Hitler’s nationalism and persecution of minorities. He agreed with thousands of other pastors that minorities and dissenters were anti-Christian and disloyal to Germany. Looking back he realized that in his younger years he was subtly formed by a cultural system that did not consciously despise Jews, but did so subconsciously. He says, “I had no hatred against Jews but this whole atmosphere of noncooperation with the Jews was just that in which everybody grew up.” (12) Take that in. It’s how cultural systems work. It’s how family systems work. It’s how ideology works. Subtle. Implicit. Quiet. Formative. As Hitler’s empire grew and much genocide was dealt, Niemoller awakened to Christ in a deeper way and saw through Hitler’s rhetoric. He recognized his own nationalistic antisemitism and took a stand against Hitler’s nationalistic empire, influencing a Christian movement of protest. He was imprisoned. Following the war he felt great regret for his naive racist, anti Semitic, nationalistic disposition. Hockenos writes:
“Dachau has opened in March 1933, when the Nazis began incarcerating their enemies, just one month after Hitler came to power. Niemoller has been a free man at that time, a prominent pastor of an influential parish, and he remained at liberty until his arrest in 1937. Imprisoned in a Berlin jail and a concentration camp from 1937 to 1941, Niemoller and other famous camp inmates were tranferred by the Nazis to Dachau in 1941. ‘My alibi accounted for the years 1937-45,’ he told a German audience a few months after he and his wife visited Davhau. ‘But God was not asking me where I had been from 1937 to 1945 but from 1933 to 1945. . . and for those [earlier] years I did not have an answer.'” (2)
Niemoller later wrote his confession:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
In the words of my friend Charvalla, “May the past provoke us to examine our present and inspire us to more intentionally contribute to our future.”
Luke tells one of my favorite stories. It’s about woman he identifies as a sinner (some believe her to be a prostitute). She courageously crashes a religious leader’s dinner party to see Jesus. When she does she falls to his feet weeping. In an act of customary hospitality reserved for a house slave she washes his feet, except with her tears. She dries his feet, except her hair. She kisses his feet and anoints them with her expensive perfume. Luke closes the story this way:
Those who were at the table with Him began to say among themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” And He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” (Luke 7:49-50)
Jesus says to her, “Go in peace.”
But where is she to go?
The price of her coming to Jesus is that she can no longer go back to the way of life that sustains her. The one place she is welcomed, among people like her, is no longer a wise place for her to go.
Where is she to go? And what will she need if she is to get there?
I’m not sure where, but I have an idea of what she will need if she’s to find it.
She will need to be loved by a beloved community. She will need a forgiving community of forgiven sinners. She will need a place of belonging where she can reorient herself toward a life-giving story. She will need a community that refuses to ignore her struggle and is willing to tell the truth in the faces of injustice that glaringly stare her down. She will need a community that will weep when she weeps and rejoices when rejoices. She will need her burdens shared, some help with rent, and a few bags of groceries.
She will need more than good music and messages once a week. She will need more than spiritual pep-rallies. She will need more than programs that fulfill her needs through transactional engagement strategies and volunteerism. She will need more than thoughts and prayers.
What she needs is a community awakened to God’s hospitality that welcomes her as they have been welcomed by Christ. She needs a community of royal priests and hospitable homemakers who have made their home with the God who reigns in Christ.
From around 740 to 520 BCE we find the ministry of the Hebrew prophets (with the possible exception of Malachi). It was a time of significant social crisis, cultural decay, and political instability. The small farmers were the backbone of the Israelite society but were consistently losing their farms to large landowners. Heavy taxes and debtor laws allowed the wealthy elites to exercise foreclosures and take the lands from small farm owners, forcing them to become indentured servants. Instead of protecting them the Kings justified the practice. He profited from the creation of growing estates. What was once a fairly equitable society committed to the Law of Moses had become a society dominated by a small class of large landowners and business people whose power outstretched the reach of the small farmers and common folk.
In come the prophets as statesmen, patriots, poets, and moralists filled with passion for Yahweh’s creation and justice. Each one set out to lovingly confront society and the systems of power. Animated by their engagement with divine love, they found the courage to condemn oppression, call out unjust systems, and invite society into a different way of imagining life in the hope they would envision an alternative future with Yahweh as King. If they could imagine it and see it, a more just and equitable society could be cultivated in light of Yahweh’s covenant. They could live in to their divine vocation to become a light unto all the nations.
Society didn’t listen. The commitment to their economic systems, interpretations of freedom, and blindness to nationalism was too strong, despite their claim as worshippers of Yahweh. The prophets were persecuted. The Israelite way of life was utterly destroyed.
*Artwork, “The Prophet Jeremiah” by Michelangelo Buonarroti (c. 1542–1545); Oil.
To crown Jesus King
is to participate in the peace he brings.
To crown Jesus Lord
is to long for war no more.
He may fit “inside” our hearts,
But he will not fit inside our preferences.
He may stoop down to us in love,
But he will not comply with our politics.
He will be King, not concierge.
He will be Savior, not subordinate.
He will be Redeemer, not Republican.
He will be Day-Star, not Democrat.
He will be Liberator, not Libertarian.
He will be our mediator of a New Covenant,
Not mediator of a nationalistic commitment.
He will be our Advocate and Victor,
Not our advocate of violence.
He will be our Prince of Peace,
Not our prince of war.
Jesus is the Lamb of God that was slain,
The First-Born from the dead
Given authority over all things.
He is the head of the Church
Whose reign will never fail,
Whose love is never fickle,
And power never frail.
The Church can not betray her confession
With the witness that she brings
To a world suffering in violence.
She must crown Him Lord and King.
Crown him Lord and King.
We must crown him Lord and King.
~ a free verse poem published in this form on January 9, 2020