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Fire and Water, Life and Death: The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

February 16, 2020:
Sirach 15:15-20
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

In 1940 German forces bombed Coventry Cathedral, just about flattening it. The roofless walls of the ruins still stand. But also there on the site is the sculpture on the front of today’s bulletin by Josefina de Vasconcellos, originally called “Reunion,” and then “Reconciliation.”

She has said of it: “The sculpture was originally conceived in the aftermath of the War. Europe was in shock, people were stunned. I read in a newspaper about a woman who crossed Europe on foot to find her husband, and I was so moved that I made the sculpture. Then I thought that it wasn’t only about the reunion of two people but hopefully a reunion of nations which had been fighting.”

It leads us to see and describe our situation in two different ways: war or peace; separation or reunion; opposition or reconciliation. And we hear that in the first reading.

“If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. God has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death…” We hear that from a late writing in the Old Testament, from the apocrypha. It echoes a message found in a more familiar reading, from Deuteronomy. The people set free from the hold of the Egyptians are given a message from God: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity… Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God.”

And then there’s St. Paul, who wants the Corinthians to choose rightly. It’s a choice between the all-too-human fleshly way of life, marked by quarrelling; or the spiritual life. And we’re not simply talking about physical life versus mental or magical life (remember, “The Word was made flesh…”), but about flesh as a sort of turning in on ourselves — our most selfish instincts, rather than spiritual living where we are changed by God’s Spirit acting in us, and opened up to others through that.

And then to the stern words of Jesus, speaking from the mount, saying something along the lines of: ‘You thought you knew the rules… Well, you’ve been breaking ones that you didn’t even know were there.” (“If you choose, you can keep the commandments,” yes; but it will involve policing our innermost inclinations and motivations.)

I recall speaking to a group several years ago in a different city, and their thinking about the present and the future of the Church brought them to speak in such good-bad/faithful-faithless terms. “When I was young Sundays were set aside for church. But you drive home from church these days, and there’s a lineup at the Beer Store, and the casino parking lot is full.” (‘Things used to be good; now they’re bad. We’re good; they’re bad. We make good choices; they make bad ones; If we were more urgent in our judgement of them, then maybe they’d show up here.’ Or sometimes we hear a variation: ‘if our production was as slick and attractive as the casino’s, then they’d pick us.’)

A few weeks ago Canon Fletcher spoke about the pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had been trying to preserve a church of integrity during the Third Reich. And fairly early on in his writing career he pens a modern classic that’s usually referred to as The Cost of Discipleship. Like the writer of Sirach his message there is: “To act faithfully is a matter of choice… Before each person are life and death…” Like a good pastor of the Reformation tradition he says yes, we’re saved by grace, but… like the first disciples, Jesus calls us. Jesus calls us, and we have the choice of responding — of being faithful to our calling… or not.”

But as time goes on in Bonhoeffer’s life, and as the people of Coventry experienced, the world, especially at that time, chooses fire. And Bonhoeffer had a lot of time to consider the state of the world from his prison cell. And he writes to his best friend: “I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.”*

And he starts thinking about how do we have faith; how do we live out our faith in a faithless situation. In a hopeless situation. When the world is burning. He describes the mid-20th century as a “world come of age.” The world’s grown up; it’s gone to school. How do we have faith, live out our faith, and talk faith in this world come of age? Where people can now get answers from science, or the casino, or the beer store. Previously the church existed on the edge of our understanding. And when we reach the edge, either intellectually or emotionally, we’d find the Church. But he says now, in most cases we don’t need the Church for that purpose. More reasonable answers and resources have filled in the gaps. So the Church gets pushed farther and farther out. And he identifies two responses: the liberal one is accept the world’s terms. To take the little bit we can get, and try and be happy, and not bug anyone too much. And the conservative response is to deny the adulthood of the world. To be afraid, or bitter. And that we’ve always chosen rightly, and everyone else is wrong.

But instead of choosing between one or the other polarity, Bonhoeffer goes another way. He focusses on Jesus. He says God came to us, in Jesus. And Jesus lived fully in the world. He went out to the wilderness like the baptism movement, but he didn’t get stuck there. He went to the Temple, like the Sadducees, but he didn’t get stuck there. No, he threw himself into life, come what may. “He shared our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to… the God and Father of all,” [as the prayer goes]. “In all things he fulfilled your gracious will.” So Bonhoeffer concludes that it’s not all about ‘how can I be or do good?’ It’s not all about making the world good, or forcing the world to be good. Yes, we are called to be the salt of the earth, but we are so at risk of burning out or getting full of ourselves, and then losing our saltiness [think about how much of the damage done by the Church in history was done with ‘good intentions.’] So Bonhoeffer says that instead of fixating on ourselves and our own goodness, we should instead trust that “the reality of God [can be found] everywhere,” and the reality of God present (maybe hidden) in the complexity of the world come of age is the ultimate reality.**

So don’t get tripped up agonizing over the commandments. Don’t get lost in the perceived choice between following Paul or Apollos. And don’t get lost in guilt or intimidation by the demands of the Sermon on the Mount. Instead, look to the person who is preaching the words, and living them. Be where Jesus is. Be with those with whom Jesus would be.

Yes, it’s true that in most parts of the world the Church has been pushed to the fringes. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus is any less present. Bonhoeffer reminds us: where suffering is, there God is. Where did the world push Jesus? It pushed him up on the Cross. And so in our day we always have the opportunity to live out the radical Christian life when we participate in the sufferings of God in the world. When we live fully in the world that the Word came into, with its “duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities,” we are living out our calling.*** Because Jesus is already there. When we do so, Bonhoeffer says, “we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God” dependent on God’s mercy.

And when the crowds and the authorities pushed Jesus away, up onto the Cross, we might ask: then where did he go? We ask this, in our quest to find him in our own day. With time on his hands (or, more accurately, not constricted by time), the first place Jesus goes is to hell. To where he is needed most. To where the message of mercy is needed most. Interestingly, God placed before him fire, and he chose it.

The good news we hear today is not just that God puts before us a chance to choose life rather than its alternatives, but that God in Christ chose death. In accepting the Cross and descending to the dead, God shows us that even in a world that has shaken out of the religious garments of older times, there is no place we can go where we will not find Jesus as the ultimate reality. “If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also,” and everywhere in between.

And as we come closer to the season of Lent, we can ask ourselves what changes we might make in our lives — what we might lessen, or what we might increase; what we might do in our personal lives, or what we might do here together — to help us have our eyes open to the reality of God in our world. Because that is what the approach season of Lent is for: a time for reflecting more deeply on the sufferings of Christ. And finding God present in our sufferings, and present in the sufferings of the world.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison: New Greatly Enlarged Edition. Eberhard Bethge, ed. (New York: Touchstone, 1971), 369.

**John de Gruchy, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 233.

*** Bonhoeffer, 370.