What to Do When the Power Goes Out

 

Rev. Timothy B. Tutt, Senior Minister

Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ

Bethesda, Maryland

 Sunday, February 8, 2014

10:00 AM

 

“What to Do When the Power Goes Out”

 

Mark 1:29-39
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

 

What do you do?

 

What do you do when the world falls apart?

 

What do you do

when a supposedly religious group

releases a video showing of theocratic thugs

burning a man to death?

 

What do you do

when a loud-mouthed, supposedly Christian woman

drives halfway across the country

to barge into a peaceful rally

and grab the microphone to spew religious hatred?

 

What do you do

when a Jewish fraternity in California

finds their fraternity house has been spray-painted

with Nazi graffiti?

 

What do you do

when an African-American family

moves into their new home in Chevy Chase

and someone paints racist garbage on their garage door?

 

What do you do?

 

What do you do

        when life turns sideways?

 

What do you do

when the old ways of the world

no longer hold true?

 

___

 

In reading this brief passage of scripture from the Gospel of Mark,

we see an aside, a tidbit, almost glossed over –

 

Simeon’s mother –in-law was in bed with a fever.

 

What do you do

          when that happens to you?

 

What do you do

     when your mother is ill? 

Or your child? 

Or your lover?

 

What do you do

     when the fever is not a fever

but is lymphoma or heart disease or a tumor?

 

What do you do

     when your mother

or your brother

or your spouse dies?

 

What do you do

     when the life you have known

seems shattered and tattered

and gutted and gone?

 

What do you do

     when it’s not a person who dies,

but rather your worldview? 

Or you belief system? 

Or your faith?

 

 What do you do

     when you read this story and others from the Bible –

      “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up   Then the fever left her…”

 

What do you do

     when you just don’t believe in miracles

and you certainly haven’t seen any in your own life?

 

___

 

It’s been interesting to watch the new prime minister of Greece. 

     He is very young. He doesn’t wear a tie.

But, most interesting to me, is that he is a professed atheist.

 

I read an article the other day about the religious affiliations

     of the various European political leaders.

Depending on how you ask the question

and how you tally the result,

about 15-20% of them are atheist,

or are willing to give that impression.

 

When our Congregationalist ancestors came to this continent

     aboard the Mayflower in 1624, they came for religious freedom. 

But all of the leaders of western Europe at that time were Christian.

Religious liberty was once an intramural sport,

an internicene squabble.

 

How do we live in a culture

     that is increasingly untethered

from religious expectations?

 

Twenty-three percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence

     were Congregationalists – our forebears.  13 out of 56. 

We were the second largest voting block behind the Episcopalians.

 

In the current Congress, there are 4 UCC members. 

     A whopping 0.7%.

 

What do you do

     when your team no longer has enough players to field  a squad?

 

---

 

This week marked the birthday of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 

     Bonhoeffer was German Lutheran pastor.

He was born on February 4, 1906. 

 

A creative, thoughtful pastor, Bonhoeffer ended up in a Nazi prison camp.

     He was arrested and ultimately executed

for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

 

While in prison and nearing the end of his life,

     Bonhoeffer began to think critically about the horror the Second World War.

 

He saw nations flailing in fear. 

     He saw his own land falling prey to militarism and atrocity. 

He saw the Christian church failing to respond.

 

What are we to do, he asked.

 

What are we to do

     when the world falls apart?

 

What are we to do

     when the old categories we have known

are shattered and tattered

and gutted and gone?

 

From his prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a series of letters,

     mainly to his friend and colleague, Eberhard Bethge.

 

In one of his letters, Bonhoeffer wrote:

We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as 'religious' do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by 'religious'...

 And if therefore [people] become radically religionless— …what does that mean for 'Christianity'?

 

I think Bonhoeffer’s words have come true --

 When I see ISIS -- this so-called “Islamic” state -- and their awful acts of violence…

 

When I hear so-called “Christians” spewing horrible hatred…

 

When I see Jews building walls that keep Palestinians

     away from their farms and hospitals and schools…

 

I turn to Bonhoeffer’s words and realize

     that many people

seem to mean something quite different by ‘religious.’

 

And when I see compassionate, kind and just sisters and brothers

     seeking peace, agitating for equality, loving mercy –

but completely non-theistic in their language and vision –

I sense that Bonhoeffer’s words are true.

 

He went on to write in another letter from prison:

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the [religious nature of humankind ] … But if one day it becomes clear that this [religious nature of humankind] does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore [humankind] becomes radically religionless – …what does that mean for ‘Christianity’?

 It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our ‘Christianity’, and that there remain only a few ‘last survivors of the age of chivalry’, or a few intellectually dishonest people, on whom we can descend as ‘religious’.  Are they to be the chosen few? Is it on this dubious group of people that we are to pounce…in order to sell them our goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them?

 If we don’t want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity – and even this garment has looked very different at times – then what is a religionless Christianity?

 

To paraphrase one of the Biblical writers, How then shall we live?

Or to ask more clearly, What are we do to do?

___

 

 

One of the great privileges of being a pastor of this congregation

     is the opportunity to explore with you

the diversity of thoughts and expressions that are found in this community.

 

Some of you

     find deep satisfaction

in the traditions of Christianity

that have been handed on to you

and that give meaning to you.

 

Some of you

     long ago abandoned the usual underpinnings of the tradition

and live happily as theological free agents, untethered by custom.

 

For some of you,

     faith a is great and often daily battle,

and you find yourselves constantly jousting

with the Bible, with tradition, and with other expressions of Christianity.

 

Some of you

     aren’t really sure why you’re here or what you believe.

Maybe the music speaks to you

or the sense of community.

Or maybe it’s just too cold for a bicycle ride.

 

But to some degree or another,

we are all Peter –

seeing our mother-in-law sick in bed with a fever

wondering if the fever will break,

wondering what will happen.

 

To some degree or another,

     we all open the newspaper

and read that a horrible group of outlaws

have burned a man to death

in the name of God –

and we wonder if religion is relevant or real.

 

To some degree or another,

     we hear the atheism of our age

and we place that alongside the hymns we sing

and the scriptures we read

and try to find our way in the world.

 

---

 

From his prison cell,

     Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote one of his letters

to a child about to be baptized,

a nephew he would never see.

 

To that baby he wrote:

 

Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to [humankind] and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things; prayer and righteous action among [people]. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action. By the time you have grown up, the church’s form will have changed greatly. …..

It is not for us to prophesy the day (although the day will come) when [people] will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming – as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with [people] and the coming of [God’s realm].

 

---

 We live in a time of great change.

 The world we know now

     is not the world our ancestors knew when they boarded the Mayflower.

 It is not the world our grandparents knew.

 It is not the even the world we knew ten or twenty years ago.

 The world is changing.

 Where will it end up?

 We do not know.

 How do we live in this world?

 Bonhoeffer said, with prayer and righteous action.

 Our words may have no more meaning.

All we have to offer are prayer and righteous action.

 Elsewhere in his writing,

Bonhoeffer speaks of living unreservedly in the world. 

He says that we must

 

throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously,

not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world –

watching with Christ at gethsemane.

 

I think that is Bonhoeffer’s definition of prayer—

     not asking God to ease our suffering,

but seeking to identify with God’s suffering.

 

 

___

 

What do we do

            when we, like Peter, see those whom we love sick in bed?

 

What do we do

     when we see the world we love falling apart?

 

What do we do

            when we don’t know what to do?

 

We seek to identify with God’s suffering

     and with the world suffering –

prayer and righteous action.

 

The world may no longer need our religion.

 

The world may no longer need

     our “enlightened,” busy, programmatic, status-quo-maintaining

form of Christianity.

 

The world needs our prayer and righteous action.

 

The world – and God – need us to share in their suffering.

 

May it be so with us.

 

Amen.