Monday, May 15, 2017

Overcoming Fear

On the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon in Berlin just before Adolf Hitler came to power. The sermon can be found in a collection of Bonhoeffer's sermons that I've been re-reading, entitled, The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The editor, Isabel Best, notes that it was a time of incredible tension and widespread fear in Berlin.

And so, of course, Bonhoeffer preaches a sermon about overcoming fear. Reading it more than eighty-fours years later, it still rings true for me. He takes as his text for the vespers service at which he preached this sermon, the story of the disciples in the boat with Jesus when a storm arises on the Sea of Galilee. But Jesus was asleep. They are afraid, but Jesus wakes up and to their amazement he calms the storm. (See Matthew 8:23-27) This is how Bonhoeffer begins:
The overcoming of fear - that is what we are proclaiming here. The Bible, the gospel, Christ, the church, the faith - all are one great battle cry against fear in the lives of human beings. Fear is, somehow or other, the archenemy itself. It crouches in people's hearts. It hollows out their insides, until their resistance and strength are spent...
Nevertheless, in the midst of every situation, he insists, there is reason to hope. Jesus is, after all, "in the boat with us." Christ is in the boat. And in the nave of the church where he is preaching, Bonhoeffer says. Christ is still calling us to find a little faith, to counter our greatest fears. "Learn to recognize and understand the hour of the storm, when you were perishing. This is the time when God is incredibly close to you, not far away," he tells that community of frightened Christians gathered in Berlin in the early 1930s. He reminds them that the cry, "Lord save us," is faith in the midst of fear, because we learn to  recognize "from whence cometh our help..."

He goes on to say that the flip side of the coin is also true and at least as important to remember:
...when Christ is in the boat, a storm always comes up. The world tries with all it's evil powers to get hold of him, to destroy him along with his disciples; it hates him and rises up against him. Christians surely know this... 
I re-read this sermon (and most of the sermons in the collection), on a flight yesterday from Boston to Dallas, the longer leg of my journey to San Antonio for The Festival of Homiletics, an amazing event organized by Luther Seminary. This week I'll have an opportunity to do a lot of thinking about preaching. The theme of this year's conference is "Preaching on the Borders."

I believe that good preaching matters. I'm thinking about a young Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the pulpit that night in Berlin..Clearly his own preaching changed his own heart. Bonhoeffer faced the coming Nazi Regime with courage and actions that embody the cost of discipleship, and for him the price was his life. And that sermon (and others) continue to encourage others decades later. But of course the reason Bonhoeffer's sermons live on is because of the witness of his life. And because Hitler proved that there was good reason to be afraid in 1933.

Bonhoeffer and others, like Karl Barth, committed themselves to the Confessing Church at a time when the German Church literally sold it's soul to the Nazi regime, forgetting that Jesus is Lord. In another sermon in that same collection, preached after Hitler came to power, Bonhoeffer preached on Gideon (see Judges 6-8.) The sermon is entitled, "Gideon: God is My Lord."

I have no way of knowing what the hearers of those two sermons did after hearing them, but I wonder. Did they think Bonhoeffer was getting too political?  Did they join the Nazi party or become part of the resistance movement and the confessing church? Or did they politely thank Dietrich at the door, "good sermon, pastor" and then go back to their lives without another thought about his words, or how his words held within them the potential to change their lives, their nation, the history of the world?

Probably some of all the above. But it is a reminder to me that preaching is about more than good words and surely is not about "entertaining" the congregation. Preaching is about the responsibility to proclaims the gospel in a particular time and place. When the people of God hear that Word, and get up and say "amen" and then go out into the world to love and serve the Lord, no matter the cost of discipleship, then the sermon will have done what it was intended to do.

Jesus will be with us in the boat - which also means the storm is coming. But also that we are with the one who has the power to calm the storm. Lord, save us. We believe; help our unbelief.

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