Our theme for 2017 is “Following Jesus.” Sounds like something we Christians—literally, “little Christs”–should be doing, right? You bet! Just show us where to start!
Where do we start? Today’s story from John suggests following Jesus begins with a call.
John was called to preach in the wilderness and prepare a way for the Messiah. When Jesus (aka, Messiah) comes on the scene, he calls on John to baptize him. The next day, when Jesus passes by, John exclaims to a couple of his (John’s) disciples: “Look, here is the lamb of God!”…at which point, the disciples feel called to drop everything and follow Jesus.
Sensing his stalkers, Jesus turns and asks, “What are you looking for?” They ask where he’s staying. Jesus says, “Come and see.” They follow Jesus to the house where he’s staying and hang with him a while. Late in the afternoon one of the disciples–Andrew—feels called to go get his brother Simon and bring him to Jesus.
Calling. John felt called preach and baptize. Andrew and John’s other disciple felt called to drop everything and follow Jesus. After spending time with Jesus, Andrew felt called to go share the good news with his brother, Simon.
Calling. What is it, exactly, and what does it have to do with us? I’ve heard many of you use the word “calling” to describe your life’s work–teaching, law enforcement, nursing, parenting, working with the differently-abled. But what does it mean to feel called? Based on what I’ve heard from you, it’s a feeling of fully inhabiting your own skin, a profound sense of “fit” between who you are and what you do. Last week, we heard about what many indigenous cultures refer to as our “original medicine,” the individual gifts and talents that make us uniquely us. When we use our original medicine to help heal the world, that’s a sign that we have found our true calling.
I suspect that’s what was going on with John the Baptist and Andrew—so seized were they by the certainty that they should follow Jesus, so taken were they with his teaching, his personality, his authenticity, they could choose no other path. So, they followed.
Two millennia later, another person found himself so seized by a yearning to follow Jesus that he, too, could choose no other path. In the 1930s when the Nazi regime began taking over the country and its churches, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke out. He kept speaking out until his execution in 1944, in part, for his role in a plot to kill Adolph Hitler.
The best known of Bonhoeffer’s books is The Cost of Discipleship. Even 80 years later, it’s still the quintessential work dealing with what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. It also gives some insight into why Bonhoeffer took the stands he took and did the things he did during the war. For that reason, Bonhoeffer will be one of our conversation partners this year as we focus on discipleship. If anyone ever wrestled with what it means to follow Jesus, it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Before delving into his writings, though, it will be helpful to hear about Bonhoeffer’s 9-month stay in this country, especially as we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Bored with his classes at Union Seminary in New York and disappointed with the preaching at the white churches he’d attended in Manhattan, Bonhoeffer’s true education in our country began when fellow Union student, Frank Fisher—an African American from Alabama—invited Dietrich to attend a worship service at his church in Harlem, Abyssinian Baptist Church. The experience transformed Dietrich.
In Abyssinian’s pastor, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Dietrich found a preacher who “combined the fire of a revivalist preacher with great intellect and social vision.” (2222) The faith Bonhoeffer observed and experienced at Abyssinian was passionate and tied directly to the social context of worshipers. Dietrich remained at Abyssinian for the rest of his time in New York. He worshiped there every Sunday, taught a Sunday school class of boys, participated in groups within the church, and spent time in members’ homes.
An accomplished musician, Bonhoeffer was especially moved by the music at Abyssinian. So taken was he with African American spirituals, he scoured the record stores in Harlem for recordings. He took the recordings back to Germany and shared them with his theology students. “They remained some of his most treasured possessions.”
Thanksgiving break 1930 Bonhoeffer traveled to Washington, D.C., with Frank. The trip gave Dietrich a glimpse of the racial situation in America that few whites had seen. In a letter home, Bonhoeffer wrote (Note: his language reflects the language of the times.): “In Washington I lived completely among the Negroes and through the students [became] acquainted with all the leading figures of the negro movement. I was in their homes, and had extraordinarily interesting discussions with them….The conditions are really rather unbelievable. Not just separate railway cars, tramways, and buses south of Washington, but also for example, when I wanted to eat in a small restaurant with a Negro, I was refused service.” (2248)
In a letter to his older brother, Karl-Friedrich, Bonhoeffer wrote: “I was to have a look at church conditions in the South…and get to know the situation of the Negroes in a bit more detail. I don’t quite know whether I have spent too much time on this question here, especially since we don’t really have an analogous situation in Germany…(Remember, this was 1930) It does seem to me that there is a real movement forming, and I do believe that the negroes will still give the whites here considerably more than merely their folk-songs.” (2248)
Karl-Friedrich, who earlier had spent some time in the U.S., wrote back: “I had the impression when I was over there that [racism] is really THE problem.” In fact, he told Dietrich, he had declined an offer to teach at Harvard out of fear that “living permanently in America could somehow taint him and his future children as part of ‘that legacy.’ Like his younger brother, Karl-Friedrich didn’t see an analogous situation in Germany at that time. He even suggested that “our Jewish question is a joke by comparison; there won’t be many people who claim they are oppressed here [in Germany].’” (2258)
From our perspective, the brothers’ lack of foresight seems laughably naïve. Bonhoeffer’s biographer, Eric Metaxes, reminds us, though, that they had grown up “in a neighborhood of academic and cultural elites, a third of whom were Jewish. They had never seen or heard of anything comparable to what they discovered in America, where blacks were treated like second-class citizens and had an existence wholly separated from their white contemporaries.
“What Bonhoeffer soon saw in the South was more grievous still. The comparison was more difficult because in Germany, Jews had economic parity, while in America, blacks certainly did not. In terms of influence, German Jews held top positions in every sphere of society, something far from the situation among blacks in America. And in 1930 and 31, no one could imagine how the German situation would deteriorate within a few years.” (2267)
In another letter to Karl-Friedrich, Dietrich wrote: “The separation of whites from blacks in the southern states really does make a rather shameful impression… The way the southerners talk about the negroes is simply repugnant, and in this regard the pastors are no better than the others. I still believe that the spiritual songs of the southern negroes represent some of the greatest artistic achievements in America. It is a bit unnerving that in a country with so inordinately many slogans about brotherhood, peace, and so on, such things still continue completely uncorrected.” (2328)
I decided last year to draw on The Cost of Discipleship for this year’s theme. Matthew, discipleship, following Jesus… As the primary book about Christian discipleship, it made perfect sense to spend time with it and with Bonhoeffer this year.
Introducing the theme of following Jesus today–Martin Luther King, Jr’s, birthday—led me to the material I’ve just shared. I found it remarkable. Sometimes outsiders can see circumstances so much more clearly than the folks who are immersed in them…which is demonstrated by the fact that the Bonhoeffers could clearly see what was happening with racism in America but could not see it in their own country, at least not yet.
It’s been over 85 years since Bonhoeffer’s first visit to our country. A lot has changed in our country, thankfully, for the better. But, as the president said in his farewell address this week, ours is not yet a “post-racial” society. There still is work to do.
And not just with racism…there’s still work to do with economic disparity, with continuing gender inequity, with care of God’s creation. There are so many ways in which God’s hopes for the world have not been realized, so many places still littered with the shards of broken dreams. There is much work still to be done… much light still to be shed and shared.
So. What will we do? How will we do it? How will we decide the best ways for us as a community and for each of us individually to act the world into wellbeing? How will we figure out how to use the balm of our original medicine to help heal the world? We’ll do it by responding to the call to follow Jesus…wherever that might lead.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
[Music for Reflection: “The Summons”]
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2017