Over the years I’ve approached the pulpit with fear and trembling. It is sacred space from which worshipers expect to hear a different kind of word – as ancient as the Hebrew prophets and as current as the latest headlines yet as real as the flawed person who dares to enter the pulpit. The requirements of preaching result in a daily discipline: a fresh cup of strong coffee with the Scriptures in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
Not long ago American Christians seemed to take for granted that Christianity and our country were flip sides of the same coin – the coin of religious and national exceptionalism that dates back to the landing of the European settlers at Plymouth Rock. It is a curious blending of the Judeo-Christian idea of an “elect” people and the national misappropriation of Jesus’ “city set upon a hill” as “a light to the nations”. That idea of American and religious exceptionalism is dead, but, like the news of the “mad” town crier in Frederich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, the news is only now reaching our ears:
Have you heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I seek God! I seek God!” As many of those who do not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter…Whither is God,” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are murderers…. God is dead. god remains dead. And we have killed him….
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882), Section 126.
The death of this god, this idol, “clears the decks for the God of the Bible,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter from a prison cell July 18, 1944 before his execution by the Third Reich:
Christians range themselves with God in his suffering; that is what distinguishes them…. As Jesus asked in Gethsemane, “Could ye not watch with me one hour?” That is the exact opposite of what the religious man expects from God. Man is challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world.
He must therefore plunge himself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or try to transfigure it. He must live a ‘Worldly” life and so participate in the suffering of God. He may live a worldly life as one emancipated from all false religions and obligations. To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism (as a sinner, a penitent or a saint), but to he a man. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
I’m no Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But his words and life frame the way I look at the world. The sermons published on Views from the Edge reflect my shortcomings and offenses. In those moments when something deeper, bolder, and more gracious has spoken through my human frailty, it is because of encouraging teachers and mentors by whom the Spirit of the Living God grasped me for life.
As you listen or read, I pray the prayer that precedes the sermon every Sunday, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.”
Click THE LEPER for YouTube of sermon preached Feb. 12, 2012 following the death of Whitney Houston Feb. 12, 2012. Here’s the text:
Just another leper,
the better left unseen.
“Surely it is their own fault
for not keeping clean.”
Just another AIDS case
now hidden well away,
“They must have brought it on themselves
promiscuous or gay.”
Just another boat person
sponging on me and you,
“They’ve only got themselves to blame
by trying to jump the queue.”
Just another drug addict
shooting up behind the shed,
“Don’t waste your pity on such trash
they’re better off dead.”
Just one determined Jesus
coming through our lands,
welcoming all the unclean mob
with warm, saving hands.
– Copyright B D Prewer 2002, “Lepers, Jesus and Us”
Who is the leper? Could he be me? Could he be you?
I’ve spent a lot of time with the leper. I live inside his body. The sense of nausea with my own sorry self, and I’ve met him a thousand times in the same sense of leprosy I’ve experienced in the lives of others.
This disease is part of the human condition itself. The sense that there’s something wrong with us, something that doesn’t belong, isn’t worthy, needs to stay hidden, closed off from the rest of the world, a leper kept at arm’s length from full participation in the fullness of life.
Sometimes the disease is so clear it slaps you in the face. We see it clearly in others.
Whitney Houston, that beautiful soul – the god-daughter of Aretha Franklin and cousin of Dione Warwick – is found dead somewhere in Beverly Hills. ”Cause of death unknown.” But what we do know is that she struggled for years with the horrors of addiction, this sense of isolation and self-accusation that was the lot of the leper who came to Jesus that day.
Some of the lepers are people of fame and apparent success, like Whitney.
Others are people of infamy. Like the psychotic mother who took the life of her nine-year-old son when the voices told her to kill him. As we did at The Legal Rights Center, we took her case not because she was innocent, but because she was a human being – the most obvious of lepers, a decrepit sinner who had stabbed her son more than a hundred times. She had gone off her medication, and the “voices of the Devil” had taken over. After the State had committed her to the Minnesota Department of Corrections’ Hospital for the Criminally Insane, a sorry place, if ever there was one, I visited her. I listened to her sobs. I watched the tears streaming down her face, looking through the glass of the prison visitation room tha t stood between us. The walls of her inner prison were thicker and higher than the walls of the hospital that housed her. Back on the medication that put her back in her right mind, she was inconsolable, a leper who could never undo what the voices had told her to do.
But it’s not just the likes of Whitney,whose sense of leprosy was hidden by success, or the likes of Mary, the pitiful victim of criminally insanity, who is the leper.
We all are.
Listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the great heroes of the Christian faith, in words of Voices in the Night, preserved from his prison cell where he was imprisoned for his participation in a failed conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He is alone in the middle of the night, restless, ill at ease, in dis-ease, you might say, with the dis-ease of spiritual leprosy, lying there, listening in the night for the sounds inside and beyond the prison.
Night and silence.
Only footsteps and shouts of the guards.
Do you not hear it in this silenced house,
Shaking, breaking and collapsing,
As hundreds kindle the glowing ember of their hearts?
Their songs they hide,
My ears are open wide.
“We who are old, and we who are young,
We children of every tongue,
We who are strong, and we who find it hard,
We who sleep, and we who guard,
We who are poor, and we who have all,
Together into failure fall, (italics mine)
We who are good and we who are unclean,
Whatever we have been,
We…with scars we cannot hide,
We witnesses of those who died,
We who are defiant and we who are bemused,
By long isolation, sorely abused.
Brother, we seek and call for thee!
Brother, do you hear me?”
Who was the man who broke the rules to force his way through the clean crowd, shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” while he covered his face until he got to Jesus?
Could he be me? Could he be you?
“If you will it,” he says to Jesus, “you can make me clean!”
And stretching out his hand with great compassion, he touches the untouchable, and says, “I will! Be clean!”
“Just one determined Jesus coming through our lands, welcoming all the unclean mob with warm, saving hands.” And the cleansed man ran and told everyone what Jesus had done for him.
How about you?
Texts: Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:24-32
At the end of the sermon this morning, songwriter Tim Frantzich will lead us in a song about Paul and Silas praying in their jail cell, the earth-shaking, all the prison doors swinging open and all the chains falling off every prisoner.
In that story from the Book of Acts it was not just the prisoners who had chains on them. it was not just the lawbreakers who were imprisoned. The jailer, who held the cell block keys, also had been in his own kind of prison and was set free.
Whatever happened that day, they were all set free. It started with Paul and Silas, two of the inmates. It started with the freedom of two prisoners whose freedom came from a different sort of freedom that springs from a different kind of captivity.
The singing that echoed down the hallway of the cells in the jail house came from a freedom that is different from the “freedom from” that is popularly regarded as the nature of freedom. It came instead from a “freedom for” that comes when one exchanges the myth of absolute individual freedom for the freedom for the neighbor that comes with freedom in Christ.
James Carroll describes a similar scene in the Preface to the late William Sloan Coffin’s book, Credo.
The jail house singing took place this time following the arrest of a number of national religious leaders for engaging in a mild, nonviolent anti-war protest in 1972.
“The night was passing with anguished slowness. Murmurs occasionally broke the silence, and doors clanged on a distant corridor. The barked orders of guards jolted the air now and then. Otherwise, an eerie silence filled the dark.”
James Carroll was a young man who had never been arrested before. Like most of us, he had been raised to respect authority and to obey it. He was completely disoriented to find himself a law-breaker. He was depressed and afraid with a sinking feeling in his stomach, “he himself falling like a stone in the well of his own chest.”
At some point in the middle of the night the man in the next cell began to sing. He sang softly at first. Slowly the music filled the air with a resonant baritone voice singing Handel’s “Messiah”: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” It was the voice of William Sloan Coffin, the primary speaker arrested in the capitol rotunda who, along with the others, would not leave the rotunda until Congress voted to end the war.
From a cell next to Coffin’s in that Washington, D.C. jail, a young, scared James Carroll could hear Bill Coffin the way Silas must have heard Paul, singing alone at first, as if he were the only person on Earth, “and the old words rose through the dark as if Isaiah himself had returned – to speak for God to you. Soon others on the cell block joined their voices with Coffin’s – ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’ – but Coffin’s voice, in effect, carried the others. He knew the words, and he knew the music.”
How does a man or woman manage to sing from a jail cell?
People sing because they know who they are. They sing because they know that to be free from restraint is not the full measure of true freedom. They sing because, like the Apostle Paul who realized his blindness on the road to Damascus, they have heard a gentle invitation that has re-framed the discussion of freedom. They can sing because they have been released from the idolatry of freedom that makes the individual the center of the universe. They sing because they have come to understand that we always hitch our freedom to some kind of yoke that plows someone else’s field.
“Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and you shall rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The language is so familiar to many of us that we don’t realize its paradox.
There is no absolute freedom. That’s a hoax. Jesus uses a metaphor. Like oxen whose job is to plow the landowner’s field, we are always plowing some field or other, and we are always yoked to something or someone. To the extent that we labor under yokes that do not fit – ideas, ideologies, political loyalties and parties, wealth, social position and economic powers that chafe and burn our necks and bruise our shoulders; yokes that keep us awake and worried in the night – we live with a heavy burden, though we may tell ourselves that we are laboring under the banner of individual freedom.
But the wisdom of Bill Coffin singing Handel’s “Messiah” and of Paul and Silas praying and singing at midnight is that, whether we know it or not, we are always yoked to something, and that exchanging the myth of freedom for the yoke of Christ sets us free not only from the hurtful yokes but frees us for one another and for the wider world whose yokes have yet to be broken. The new yoking to the One who is meek and lowly of heart places us in the service of the One who alone owns the land and whose disciples’ calling is to plow the field of the Kingdom of God.
When our freedom is re-harnessed to Jesus’ yoke that is “easy” and the burden of which is light, our voices break forth in the great Hallelujah Chorus: “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! The kingdom of this world has become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; forever and ever, King of kings and Lord of lords; King of kings and Lord of lords!…And he shall reign forever and ever. And he shall reign forever and ever. Forever and ever, forever and ever! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! hallelujah!”
“And suddenly” writes James Carroll, ” you do believe that your Redeemer has stood upon the Earth with you, bringing you to the most unlikely place. You see, indeed, that you belong here and that you are strong enough for whatever lies ahead.”
Your prison door swings open, and all your chains fall off.
BARABBAS: a look at the two Jesus figures who stood before Pilate and the crowd.