Sunday 22 January 2017 - Epiphany 3 - Together Service at St Cuthbert's - Markus Duenzkofer
Today is almost the half-way point in middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This year’s material for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was produced by German Christians. And maybe this is why I am here. After all, my last appearance at a joint Together Churches service created a bit of a stooshie, a necessary stooshie maybe, but a stooshie nevertheless. But I am the sole German on the Together Churches’ Ministry Team. And so: “Here I am,” as Martin Luther, another German priest once said in defence of the Reformation he kicked off 500 years ago this November: “Here I am. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen. “
Here I am. Three simple words. Three words that within our faith-tradition have been uttered over and over again. It was not just Luther, who legendarily spoke these or similar words at that famous Diet of Worms, which has nothing to do with rather gross nutritional customs. But at this imperial convention in the German city of Worms, Luther’s words made him join a long line of women and men throughout history, who without reservation proclaimed God’s good news of reconciliation and love, God’s good news of peace and justice.
Often these men and women spoke up in times when the powers of this present age seemed to have gained the upper hand, when hate and strive, when fear and deprivation, when power-games and entitlement seemed to have overpowered the still small voice of God’s love. “Here I am” was a challenge to the rebellion against God’s sovereignty and law. It was almost a battle-cry, and often a courageous, costly, and daring battle-cry to stand against the current, to stand up and be counted for God. Here I am!
I cannot imagine the guts it took for Martin Luther and for the many in the multitude of God’s prophets to point out to rulers and despots as in a mirror their death-embracing ways and to help unearth and reveal anew God’s victory and God’s love. Here I am! There was (and is!) fire and strength and power and even defiance in these words.
And, yet, it would be fatal to think that the prophets in themselves had power to overcome what was wrong, that the prophets in themselves could lead people back home into the embrace of God, and that the prophets in themselves could lift up the lowly and bring down the mighty from their seats – as the Song of Mary in the Gospel of Luke would describe it. No, it was not the achievement of the prophets! “Here I am” is nothing but an answer, it is a response to an initial action that like an ignition sets ablaze a prophet with divine defiance, divine power, divine strength, and divine fire. “Here I am” always follows a call by God, a call that will not leave anyone unchanged and that will equip the prophet with all she needs for what she is about to do. It is God’s call that makes all the difference that, indeed, makes it all possible. And God’s call can come to anybody, whoever they are and wherever they find themselves on the journey. It can come in and at the most likely, most suitable as much as the most unlikely, most unsuitable of places or times.
Just like it came to Peter, Andrew, James and John. The text from Matthew, which we just heard, reveals how in the midst of their daily routine these ordinary fishermen were approached by Jesus. And there was nothing special about them. They did not have special skills or special pieties. They were ordinary people with ordinary lives and ordinary families and friends. I even wonder, if they were regular attendees of their local synagogue. Fishermen have to work according to the timetable of nature, not the timetable of scheduled prayers and services. And it is these four that Jesus approached, not the religious professionals and religious insiders. It was common folk.
And Jesus said: “Follow me.”
And so they did!
The divine call was irresistible and equipped them not so they would be better people, or even holier people. Remember, Simon Peter will later deny Jesus, and James and John become part of a squabble of who will sit at Jesus’ side in his eternal kingdom. No, God’s call does not make you a better person – whatever “better” might mean – but all God’s call does accomplish is to equip you to do extraordinary things in extraordinary times, things that will reveal God’s love and light in times that might be dark and angst-ridden.
We, too live in dark and angst-ridden times. The last few months have revealed deep rifts within society. Many feel excluded and overlooked. Populism around the globe seems to be on the increase and some wonder if civil society and the world-as-we-know-it were killed by shrill and vitriolic voices.
Equally, our churches seem to face death with all its consequences rather rapidly. It seems as if we operate mostly out of scarcity. What will happen to these sacred buildings, which so loudly speak of God? What will happen to the people who come together inside these temples? Where will this decline lead us? Has God exited stage-left? Is there any future?
I think there is.
And I think we, the church, have choices.
We can either ignore the changes and chances and indeed the opportunities around us and pull up the drawbridge and continue doing what we have always done. Then we will eventually fade away. And maybe we then deserve to die, because we are no longer church, no longer listening to God’s call.
Or we can leave the safety of our ordinary lives behind and follow Jesus.
And then two things will happen:
We will on the one hand discover that God has not abandoned the world just because our membership is shrinking. But God is very much alive in the world working his purpose through ordinary people, people, who might not go to church or read the Bible, but who are doing extraordinary things in extraordinary times.
A friend, who would not claim to be a believer, once told me rather unassumingly how his sister-in-law, who had died with Down-Syndrome, had inspired him and his wife to volunteer many hours in social agencies for kids. And even more: He and his wife had refused to test their unborn baby for any genetic abnormality, because their child would be their child no matter what. This family celebrates life, God’s great gift, in ways that outshines the feeble attempts of many believers. We, in church, have much to learn. And we have much to discover how God is alive outside our communities setting ablaze unexpected people with fiery love.
And the second thing that will happen when we follow Jesus is this: We will be equipped to confess our faith more courageously, to pray more faithfully, to believe more joyously, and to love more ardently – even in these dark and angst-ridden times.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer shares with Martin Luther profession, nationality, and the call to be one of God’s prophets. I only can claim the first two… Initially, Bonhoeffer set out to study theology from an academic perspective. Yes, there was a steady, yet calm glow of faith in his heart then. But in the tradition of the enlightenment and liberal German Protestantism, God was often talked about, rather than talked with; God’s word was analysed, rather than utilised to engage and challenge the world; God’s Spirit was seen as an abstract metaphor, rather than a powerful agent binding human hearts to God and to one another.
In 1930, at age 24, Bonhoeffer had the opportunity to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York. While there, he discovered the living church not where he expected. But he discovered the living church among the marginalised and excluded: In the black church. There, the Spirit fanned that initial glow of faith in Bonhoeffer’s heart to become a mighty fire of God’s love. It was a call to a mostly ordinary man to do extraordinary things in extraordinary times, to stand up to the evils of the Third Reich, to be a prophet of God in dark and angst-ridden times. Jesus said: Follow me. And Bonhoeffer said: Here I am.
It was this response to God’s call that equipped Bonhoeffer to face his Nazi executioners with these, his final words "This is the end—for me the beginning of life." And it was his response to God’s call that allowed him before that final moment to write the following words, which are like an instruction manual for our work and life as Christians, particularly in dark and angst-ridden times. And I will leave you with these words, which, I believe, speak for themselves. Bonhoeffer writes:
I believe that God can and will make something good out of everything - even out of evil. For this he needs people, who will bring about good from everything.
I believe that God wants to give us during any distress the amount of resilience we need. But he does not provide it in advance so that we do not rely on ourselves, but on him alone.
I don't believe God is timeless fate, but I believe that he waits for and will answer sincere prayer and responsible acts.