when the best is bad

Seemed appropriate to post this old sermon today, reflecting on the death of Osama bin Laden.

July 24, 1944

Word of Christian Greeting

It is fiction, read or watched, that calls for the willing suspension of disbelief. It would be somewhat of an odd thing to request in a service of worship—which revolves, after all, not around the suspension of disbelief, but around the sustenance of belief. But today in this service of worship, we do request that willing suspension of disbelief. You may have noted the date on your bulletin—not July 24, 2005, but July 23, 1944. Suspend your disbelief. Let it be another time—a time not recorded—a possibility. And where your imagination meets Scripture and the possibilities of another day, may we encounter the living God who is both beginning and end of all time—the God who has been, is and always will be.

As a worshipping community, we are in the midst of a series on Jacob. Today would have been the fourth and concluding service of worship in the series, but as you all know, circumstance sometimes demands that plans be interrupted. Events sometimes require that schedules be rearranged. Karl Barth, over at the University of Basel in Switzerland, has famously suggested we should always preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. We will return to Jacob next week, but today, the newspaper demands to be heard.

We are gathered in this place—on this day—as we do each Lord’s day—whether the events and circumstances of the week are momentous or mundane—gathered here—to worship. Welcome.

Sermon Interlude I. “the New York Times and an answer to prayer”

Many of you, like I, went out to get the paper Friday, and if you’re like me, you unfold it while you’re standing in the yard to look at the headlines before shuffling back inside to actually read everything with your cup of coffee. And there it was. BRIEFCASE BOMB IN BUNKER—HITLER DEAD (Actual headline read, “Hitler Escapes Bomb, Purges Generals” The New York Times, Friday, July 21, 1944. 1) and I let out some sound of loud exuberance. Clinched my fist. Hissed, “Yes!” What was it we felt Friday? Relief. Release. Triumph. Vindication. Gratitude. Joy. Hope. All of the above and more.

And I don’t know about you, but I didn’t make it inside to my cup of coffee. I unfolded that paper right there in my front yard—dropping every other section to the still damp lawn in the process and, ignoring the story of Roosevelt’s nomination for a fourth term (Turner Catledge, The New York Times, Friday, July 21, 1944. 1), read every word. Read every word about Operation Valkyrie. Read every word about von Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators at their headquarters on Bendlerstrasse in Berlin. Read and rejoiced—with the dew soaking through my houseshoes. Read all the associated articles about the earlier attempts to assassinate Hitler—some as early as 1933—some that came so close to succeeding. Read and found myself crying—crying out there on my front lawn—crying for those who won’t be coming home—crying for those who will be coming home now. Crying because with the prospect of this war finally being over, I felt free to do so for the first time in a long, long time.

Friday, we carried our newspapers around—struck up conversations with anyone—with everyone—huddled around our radios, anxious for the latest details. Friday, the weight of the World War was lifted off our shoulders, and we remembered what it was like to be able to stand up straight. Afflicted in so many ways, but not crushed; struck down, but not destroyed. (2 Cor 4:8-9) Friday, we stood up straight. God had answered our prayers. God had finally answered our prayers. Evil was struck down. Justice prevailed. It felt good. It felt right, didn’t it? For the moment.

Unison Reading of Psalm 58

Sermon Interlude II. “when the best is bad”

A God who judges on earth—rewarding the righteous and punishing the evil. That’s how we felt Friday. So imagine my turmoil, or remember yours, when yesterday and today brought more news—not the expected news. Not the war is over. Not our boys are coming home. No, now there was more about the military background of von Stauffenberg, of Beck and Goerdler, Witzleben, Rommel and Kluge. Friday, we thought we had gotten just what we wanted, and today we seem to be the worse off for it—facing a more dangerous Germany—with seasoned competent military minds in control—with an overextended army pulling back into defensive positions and entrenching. And the assassination we were convinced would end the war, may well now end up prolonging it.

And as unsettling and confusing a political situation as all this is, and perhaps due to the very intensity and extremity of feelings—the unexpected reversal—the triumph for which we thanked God Friday—then immediately back to the dire straits—which makes what of our thanks? All this has raised for me profoundly disturbing spiritual questions: what does it mean that I, as a pastor—we, as Christians—we, as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, rejoiced Friday at the premeditated, carefully calculated murder of another human being? What does it mean that I grieved the fact that someone had not succeeded in killing that person years ago? And if his death had actually resulted in the end of the war, would I even be having these second thoughts? And isn’t that part of the whole deal? That we can never know, can we? All the consequences of our actions. We can never know.

I don’t want to assume that this is a burning issue for everyone, but I do want to presume that it should be. And some of you are chuckling, “You always make that assumption, Preacher!” And you’re probably right. Shouldn’t be preaching if I didn’t, right?

But I, like you, am sick and tired of looking at the paper every day to see the latest from all the various fronts. I, like you, am sick and tired of straining my eyes at that small print—trying to read every last name on the list of casualties. 1025 army casualties and 387 navy casualties reported this morning (The New York Times, Sunday, July 23, 1944. 20). And did you see where there are now 11,350,000 serving in our armed forces?—that 100,000 youth reach the age of 18 each month and that 60,000 of those are fit for military service (United Press, The New York Times, Sunday, July 16, 1944. 9)? Aren’t you, like I am, sick and tired of the numbers games where journalists and politicians and generals compare how many tanks we’ve lost as opposed to how many they’ve lost, or submarines, or aircraft, or people.

And is it not expedient that one man should die for the sake of many (Jn 11:50)? And everything within me screams “Yes!” and “Do not kill,” or “Do not commit murder,” (Ex 20:13; Deut 5:17) and “Love your enemy” (Mt 5:44) are all temporarily suspended. They’re nice in church. They work in normal times. They work when my enemy is—I don’t know—someone who doesn’t like me at work—a gossip—someone who puts me at a risk I can accept. But they don’t work in Normandy and Poland and Italy. They don’t work in London and Paris and Leningrad. They certainly don’t work at Auschwitz and Dachau and Buchenwald. The cold, hard facts are, that when the going gets tough, it is the tough who get going—not the meek, the humble, the poor in spirit, those who mourn and turn the other cheek (Mt 5:3-11, 39). So whatever I say I believe on any given Sunday morning must always be weighed against the conditions in which I say it, yes? And so I must confess the truth of the matter is that I have no beliefs that define me. I have only situations that define both me and my beliefs within their own context. And if I feel safe, then I can be a Christian, but if I’m threatened ….

So I, as a pastor—as a Christian—as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I, clothed above all else with love? (Col 3:14)—pull my tattered cloak around me and say, sometimes the best thing to do is still a bad thing to do. And we look at our options, we weigh them carefully, and we choose the bad option that is still nonetheless the best option, and we then work, and we sacrifice, because it’s a difficult objective to reach. We bleed, and we cry—suffering and struggling and striving to do this bad thing. And we do it. We do it. We must then remember, or empower someone to remind us, when we are joyfully celebrating the accomplishment of this long-awaited goal, that it is still a bad thing. And I try not to think of the utter sarcasm with which Paul asked about doing evil so good may come (Rom 3:8).

None of this sounds like Jesus, does it? But where is Jesus in times like this? Where is that radical, life-changing foolishness that is wisdom? Anywhere to be found? Unable to deal with the real world? Or, when I decided that God was only Lord of my life when that life felt good and safe, did I do my part to limit the transformative power of God?

Gospel Reading, Luke 6:27-35b

Sermon Interlude III. “hitherto hath the Lord helped us”

We mentioned Karl Barth earlier in the service—mentioned that he was at the University of Basel. You know why he’s at Basel? Because he was dismissed from his previous position at the University of Bonn for opposing Hitler back in ’35. He was fired.

Have you ever heard of Martin Niemoeller? A Lutheran pastor in Berlin, who said to Hitler’s face, “You are the Führer of this land. You are not the Führer of the church” (Niemoeller in conversation with Isam Ballenger. Niemoeller residence, Wiesbaden, BRD, 1966). He was sent to Dachau.

Have any of you heard of Paul Schneider? He’s dead. Died at Buchenwald the 18th of July 1939. He was arrested because he spoke up about the Church being a voice in the society and not being a voice of the government. In August of that year, a friend wrote this to his wife: “All of us make compromise after compromise and there was one among us who sought only to be true—true to his Lord, true to his faith” (Vogel, Heinrich D., Der Prediger von Buchenwald (Berlin, Evangelische Velagsanstalt, 1963) 190). Otto Dibelius, Bishop of the Lutheran church in Berlin/Brandenburg, wrote in July of that same year, “But we are certain of this, that a witness to Jesus Christ was given, up until his last breath, and then beyond death—with the result that through his death, he became a guide for many” (Vogel, 191). And the German word for guide is, of course, Führer.

And there’s Elizabeth Heims, a German Quaker from Münich, already in a concentration camp, who compelled by her understanding of the gospel—by her sense of compassion, tried to protect the Jewish orphans she was hiding. She did. And she died. And that’s all the information I could find on Elizabeth (Vogelman, Eva, Conscience and Courage, Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1994) 19).

I hear their voices putting mine to shame: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” (2 Cor 4:8-10) I quoted that verse earlier, remember? Thinking the war was over. I presumed to quote that Scripture having been struck down by circumstance—awful, terrible circumstance, to be sure, but just circumstance—not having been struck down as a consequence to my faith affirmations—my living out of the faith.

Where is Jesus? Where is that radical, life-changing foolishness? Incarnate in those who stood up to Hitler without plans to kill him—stood up to him to thereby disempower him—stood up to him and were imprisoned or executed. Incarnate in those who carry in their bodies the death of Jesus, so the life of Jesus may be visible. And they are remembered, and remembered primarily, not as political footnotes or war heroes, but as Christian—as pastors—as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ—as children of God. You see, it’s never about determining what good it would do for someone else to die. There are always those who will justify the death of someone else. Nor is it about being willing to die. There are too many on all sides willing to die. No, it’s about being willing to be put to death—being willing to be put to death for what you believe. It’s about trusting the word of God enough to make the word of God flesh.

Karl Barth saw very clearly the problem of human life on the one hand and the content of Scripture on the other. Because Scripture doesn’t always feel right—doesn’t always seem the right thing to do—the wise thing to do. It’s certainly not always what we would choose to do. The consequences would seem to be dangerous—making of Scripture a very foolish precept. And so it is often the very content of Scripture that poses a human problem in the midst of human problems. And Niemoeller, when asked if it weren’t true that if we didn’t confront evil in one place, we’d simply have to confront it somewhere else, responded, “Is it not our responsibility to do what is just and right and leave the consequences to God?” (Niemoeller in conversation with Isam Ballenger. Niemoeller was actually responding to a question about communism and Viet Nam. Niemoeller residence, Wiesbaden, BRD, 1966) Is it not our responsibility to trust the word of God—to live according to the word of God and to leave the consequences to God?

And it’s not a matter of figuring out beforehand what benefits accrue—how this will all work out for the best in the end. I am firmly convinced that Jesus did not know how things were going to work out when in the pain of Gethsemane, he committed to the cross. He went to the cross with faith, hope and love—not guarantees. What credit is it to you to commit with guarantees? To love, to believe, to hope—with guarantees? Even the sinners would do that! No guarantees. Faith. Hope. Love. And the promise that those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them (1 Jn 4:16b-c).

Dr. George Bell, an English bishop of Chichester, in a letter to the London Times had this to say about Paul Schneider: “Although he has gone from us no might can destroy the witness of his life or put out the flame which his faith has kindled” (Vogel, 192). The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it (Jn 1:5).

Where is Jesus? Maybe the question should not be “Have you seen him?” But “Have you made him incarnate for others to see?”

Epistle Reading, Romans 8:18-26


Do you remember our Psalmist? The one whose psalm we read earlier in unison? He didn’t sound like Jesus either, did he? Praying that God would break the teeth of his enemies—that he might bathe in their blood. Or was he able to entrust his deepest desires and fears to God—indulge his desire for vengeance in prayer—give expression to the violent response that felt so good—that felt so right—in prayer, and then let it go? Believing, hoping, loving the God who redeems, and trusting that God completely? The Psalmist, Paul, Jesus, Niemoeller, Barth, Schneider, Heims—children of God modeling for us how to live—how to believe—how to pray. For we do not know how to pray. But hear now good news, for even though we do not know how to pray as we ought, the very Spirit of God intercedes with sighs too deep for words (Rom 8:26)—with anger and hope—too deep for words—with fear and faith—too deep for words.

And creation awaits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God (8:19)—children of the Most High. The children of Europe wait—the children of America—the children of China—of Africa—the children of the Middle East—of Iraq, Palestine, Israel—wait with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God who will care for the children of the world as they do for themselves—who will be known not as the children of one country or another—certainly not as the children of one country at the expense of any other—who will be known as the children of God—who trust God—who embody God’s word—doing what is just—doing what is right and leaving the consequences to God. May it be so.


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