Sunday, November 1, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Bendlerblock"

Romans 8:12-17

So then, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation, but it isn’t an obligation to ourselves to live our lives on the basis of selfishness. 13 If you live on the basis of selfishness, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the actions of the body, you will live. 14 All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. 15 You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. 17 But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him. (Common English Bible)

“With Sighs Too Deep For Words: Verse-by-Verse Through Romans 8,” Week Two

Like Oprah’s couch, or Katie Holmes’s film career, this was almost ruined by eventually being associated with Tom Cruise (sorry, Scientology, you were a poisoned chalice long before Maverick flew into your exploitative life).  In Berlin, where the Bendlerblock office buildings stand on what was once Bendlerstrasse but has been renamed to Stauffenburgstrasse after Colonel Claus Schenck Graf von Stauffenburg, portrayed by Cruise in Bryan Singer’s 2008 film Valkyrie.

Valkyrie depicted the failed July 20, 1944 plot by a group of Wehrmacht officers and powerful politicians to try to assassinate Hitler by means of plastic-W left to explode in a briefcase set next to Hitler in a planning meeting.  The officers could read the writing on the wall and knew the Normandy invasion from D-Day six weeks prior could absolutely devastate Germany and Europe and so desired to rid themselves of Hitler and then surrender to the Allies to spare the continent this destruction.  At the last second, the briefcase was moved further away from Hitler unknowingly by another officer who knew nothing of the plot, and the Fuhrer escaped with only minor injuries. 

That very same night, Stauffenburg, along with fellow conspiracists General Friedrich Olbricht, Colonel Merz von Quirinheim, and Lieutenant Werner von Haeften were executed at Bendlerblock.  And in 1980, over 35 years after their executions for resisting Hitler, Bendlerblock was justly converted into a memorial to the courage of these men, and the site where they lost their lives to the fury and unrequited evil of national socialism now bears a plaque with the following inscription:

You did not bear the shame
You resisted
You bestowed an eternally vigilant symbol for change
By sacrificing your lives for freedom, justice and honor

Their actions, as Paul would say at the end of today’s passage, absolutely led to their suffering and their deaths, but it also led to their just and rightful glorification as representatives of a better way.

This is a new sermon series that will take us all the way to Advent—otherwise known as the Christmas season (holy cow).  Of course, we’ll be talking about the Christmas story then rather than now, which is still firmly rooted in the Halloween-and-Thanksgiving season.  In that spirit of not only looking at what we have to be thankful for but also what cause we have to be loving and to experience such great love, we’ll be taking on a verse-by-verse treatment of the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Why this particular chapter?  Well, for one thing, it simply has been a while since we’ve had a series on Paul or his letters, and much like the USDA’s ubiquitous (when I was a kid, anyways) food pyramid, I strive to provide a balanced preaching diet for y’all; I’m like a spiritual lunch lady, doling out the religious Sloppy Joes. 

However, Paul is also a very dense, sometimes esoteric, theologian, especially in Romans, but when it comes to actually talking about the nature of God’s love, Paul’s prose genuinely begins to soar, and we’ll be spending this plus the next four Sundays trying to unlock exactly what the Holy Spirit has placed within Paul for this extraordinary chapter, beginning last week with its first eleven verses on the nature of selfishness versus the spirit, and this week we’ll delve into the next five verses.

These five verses represent the natural conclusion to the previous eleven—Paul has compared and contrasted selfishness and spirit, and this is what is ultimately meant to be the result: an obligation to live.  And how do we live?  By avoiding selfishness at all costs.  Like Christ’s own teachings about radical generosity and compassion, Paul’s teachings on radical selflessness are completely counter-intuitive to the way we are programmed, and completely countercultural to the world we live in.

And that’s not nothing.  Paul, if you’ll recall, was raised up through the ranks of Pharisaic Judaism and became so radical that he at a minimum approved, but in all actuality probably supervised, the murder of Stephen the martyr in Acts of the Apostles.  And Paul as a Pharisee was closely aligned not to the interests of Israel and the Israelite people, but to the ruling Roman Empire with whom the Pharisees closely collaborated in order to maintain their own hold on the remaining levers of power over an oppressed populace.

I’ve used this comparison before in trying to explain the power dynamics of the Israel Jesus was born into, and it is why I felt the story of Bendlerblock was so appropriate a one to share when talking about dying to selfishness while dying because of selflessness: when you think of the Roman Empire, think of Nazi Germany, and when you think of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other temple authorities, think of the collaborationist governments in Vichy France, Norway under Quisling, and the like who enabled the bloodthirstiness of the German government in Berlin.

The Pharisees—of whom Paul was one—enabled the oppression of the Israelite people by the emperor in Rome.  It is why it was so very wrong of the Christian church for centuries to hang Christ’s crucifixion on the Jewish people rather than on the very small subset of Jewish leaders with any power.  And it is why such radical selflessness still matters very, very much on a grand scale: we have to have leaders and systems that are for the many, not for the very elite few.

Paul ultimately turns this on its head when he becomes, in his own words, a slave to Christ--it is a radical statement of self-denial in the face of his previous selfishness.  I carry that reminder of self-denial in the form of the stole I wear before you every Sunday.  It isn't just for decorative effect--the stole is meant to resemble the sweat cloth that slaves who worked outdoors would wear in Biblical times.  The stole is meant to mark me as a slave to Christ, like Paul, willing (even though sometimes I'm truthfully not so willing--I'm still just a man, and a very weak man at that) to deny myself to instead follow Christ.

So I’m also concerned for the survival of this sort of selflessness on a micro-level as well.  Are we realistically and genuinely capable of such radical selflessness that it might mean the loss of our own selves but at the gain of our glorification, as Paul says, alongside Christ?  Because I think we tend to water down selflessness in order to only make it worthwhile when it is extended to someone we deem—by our own arbitrary set of criteria—to be worthy or deserving of our aid.  And that was, quite simply, never meant to be the way that the Gospel was ever supposed to work.

Jesus did not administer drug tests before feeding the 5,000.

Peter did not ask the crippled beggar at the Solomon Portico why he did not have a job.

And Paul does not condition God’s own goodness and grace on our own attempts, feeble they often are, to underscore our own merit, because God is no longer concerned with merit.  Grace is extended to all, and we choose whether to accept it or to reject it.

So if God is no longer so concerned with merit, why on earth are we?  Why are we so concerned over whether the single mother in front of us in the checkout line is using cash or WIC to pay for her formula?  Why do we care so much if the EBT card a person is using to pay for gas is the first month of benefits they’ve received or the twenty-fifth?

More to the point, whatever happened to the sort of selflessness that drove these four German men—and many more after them—to lay down their lives for the sake of a newer and better world?

True selflessness is, and has to be, entirely unconditional, it can be no other way.  That is the lesson of Bendlerblock.  The men who executed this plot did so knowing they could lose everything.  We have to be willing to lose everything to follow Christ—He himself makes that much clear when erstwhile people come to follow Him but only after putting their own affairs in order.

But we don’t want to do any of that, do we?  We like our comfort.  We like our lifestyles.  We like not having to strive more.  But we must.  We absolutely must.

One of those many who were executed in the weeks after the failed July 20 plot was Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben.  Just a few weeks later, he was given a show trial in the kangaroo People’s Court, and upon being sentenced to death by hanging by presiding judge Roland Freisler, he responded, “You may hand us over to the executioner, but in three months’ time our disgusted and harried people will bring you to book, and drag you alive through the dirt in the streets.”

Such is the fate of those who go the furthest in their hateful and hurtful efforts to avoid selflessness at all costs—they too are brought to book.  Paul says as much later in Romans, when he exhorts us not to avenge ourselves but to remember that vengeance is God’s, not ours.

Have faith that those who may hurt you and wish you harm will indeed be brought to book, and do not let your fear of them inhibit your own great capacity for selflessness.

For in so doing, you too will not bear the shame of evil, no matter how great and no matter how small, but rather may you one day bear that glorification that Paul speaks of, and longs for, and ultimately, one day found.

They in their sacrifice chose ultimately to be glorified.

Choose to be glorified, my brothers and sisters.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington

November 1, 2015

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