Sunday, February 26, 2012

Karl Barth Preaches!

“Today we may all celebrate a triumph!”
by Charlie Leck

“See what I have done and accomplished, while you were busy with figures and studies, arguing and getting angry, crying and sighing.”
                                                [Karl Barth, in a 1917 sermon: Colossians 2:15]

Karl Barth was a super-star in the theological field. He was a conservative – nearly, but not quite, a Christian fundamentalist; yet, he was admired and seriously read by liberals (left-wingers) as well as conservatives.

After reading the Dietrich Bonhoeffer biography by Eric Metaxas, in which Barth played a significant part, I asked myself, “Why not, go back and read some of his earliest sermons?” So, I did.

[The Early Preaching of Karl Barth*]
The sermons I read were all preached by a young Pastor Barth in his first church assignment in Safenwil, Switzerland (population 1,625), between 1917 and 1921. The Great War raged for a couple of those years, but the land in which he dwelled at that time remained staunchly neutral and uninvolved. However, Barth had just come from a university and theological seminary in the heart of Germany; and most of the professors there, much to Barth’s great disappointment, had signed documents supporting the war effort by Germany.

As William Willimon says in the introduction to the book, “…by the time Barth began his pastorate, what had seemed like a prosperous, secure time of cultural self-confidence was a sham.” And I was able to see, in some of these early sermons, Barth’s struggle to proclaim the good news of the gospel while such a struggle went on all across the continent.

Barth was a thinker of great depth and he was struggling with his beliefs because of the magnitude and cruelty of the war. He had begun a search for God and faith all over again and I got to see and feel that struggle in these sermons by a very young – even very immature – pastor. The power of both his struggle and his thinking must have been an incredible – and perhaps confusing – experience for his unsophisticated, rural congregation. None of them, of course, could have imagined that they were listening to a man who would one day be regarded as one of the mightiest Christian thinkers in history.

The following is a simple, autobriographical aside that you could easily jump right over (and, perhaps, should jump right over…)
It was amusing for me – particularly for me – to read this comment in Willimon’s introduction: “More than once Barth’s church council complained that he did not visit enough.”
 Is that not the great complaint of nearly every Protestant layman in every Protestant congregation the world has ever known? If you are a Presbyterian, or a Methodist, or a Lutheran, Baptist or Moravian, you understand this business. Members of these Protestant congregations want their pastor to coming visiting.
 It is one of the complaints that riled me and drove me quickly from the ranks of the clergy. How I remember the scenes, as a young, inexperienced pastor, of my visits to the homes of members of my congregation. I would first telephone and make an appointment for a given time for my visit. That seemed only fair. Time was needed to freshen up the house, you know, and I would never want to walk in on a couple that had just had a fight or who had just risen from a morning of love-making. The people I warned of my visit never seemed that enthused that I was coming and, once there, they never seem that enthused that I had arrived. Conversation was almost always strained (and that could well have been my own fault) and very serious in tone and manner (and that also could well have been my own fault). I tried to make these pastoral visits in the beginning of my short career as a minister, but they eventually ranked very low on scale of things I always seemed inclined to do – mainly because those I visited didn’t really seem that comfortable to have me in their homes. My visits got to be so infrequent that the deacons of my church asked me to keep a log of my daily work so that I could produce evidence that I just didn’t have time to make these home calls. My favorite work in my parish was out on the streets. I loved walking the urban neighborhood so I could get to know people – and especially the people who wouldn’t dream of coming to our church – and the people who ran the little corner stores and the bars and the dry-cleaning establishment. And then, my second favorite activity was the preparation of my weekly sermons – hours and hours of time spent trying to sculpt a message and a proclamation about the heart and soul of Christianity – the wonderful news that we were loved and the awesome responsibility that such news put upon us. The deacons didn’t much like the results of my log and the time I spent not visiting in the homes of my parishioners. They didn’t think it was important that I visit with street people and people who weren’t members. They thought I spent far too much time preparing my sermons. “Visit us in our homes more,” the board would plead with me. I argued that I was always available if parishioners called me to visit – invited me to visit – or if they were in need of a conversation with me.
 I have never written out before just why my career in the ministry was so short (three years and three months); but there it is in its stark nakedness. There was only one thing I missed about leaving the work and that was the time I spent in preparation to preach and then the actual delivery of the sermons themselves. (This does not a great pastor make! It doesn’t even make one into a very good preacher, I don’t suppose.)

Barth’s time as a pastor did not go very smoothly. One of his members left the congregation after the pastor scolded him for letting a confirmation party get out of hand at his house (the kids got into the liquor cabinet). He hated ecclesiastical meetings and conferences of the organized, regional church. He participated in a protest parade with organized workers and he was rebuked for doing it. Barth simply withdrew from most of the pastoral responsibilities and concentrated on an in-depth study of Paul’s letter to the Romans. This concentration resulted in two significant volumes of exegesis on that epistle that remain highly favored by theological students. They were considered scholarly triumphs.

It’s not surprising that Barth jumped at the invitation from the theological school at Göttigen to join its faculty in 1921.

But, let me say this about his sermons: My, oh my, they are wonderful. Incredible! I cannot believe what Barth says about the boredom and disinterest with which his congregation received them. When I read them I can almost hear the young, challenging pastor shouting the words out for his congregation to hear in celebration and joy. How fortunate they were to sit there in that little church as he preached.

Colossians 2:15
“He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.”

The above is the biblical text for one of these early sermons that Barth preached on Easter morning in the Spring of 1917, while war raged over the continent. I read the sermon in amazement and sometimes slapped myself in the head in celebration. “And I thought I was so damned good!”

This, I thought, is the way biblical preaching is supposed to be. The preacher lets the scripture speak and provides simple background music for it.

I’ve timed the sermon. It must have taken Barth a half hour to present it. That’s more time than a preacher these days is allowed. One could get away with that kind of time if one was terribly, terribly good. As a gift, I’d like to present the entire sermon here for you – for you to read and enjoy as much as I did; however, copyright law forbids that. In lieu, I’ll just give you a teeny taste of this delicacy by including here just a few quotations and some comment.

“See what I have done and accomplished, while you, living your lives in utter seriousness, put knowing expression on your faces, spoke smart judgments, and threw up your hands to give them emphasis. Now look what has happened in the meantime and rejoice: Christ is risen!”

I imagine myself in the congregation. Wouldn’t I need to sit up as he spoke these words? Wouldn’t my eyes widen? Wouldn’t I squint and wonder?

“In the Bible it is called a triumph. Do you know what a triumph is? In olden times when a general conquered an enemy that threatened a whole city, at his return a triumph was prepared for him. An honorary arch was built, as for example the one that can be seen today in Rome that was built for the emperor Titus, when he conquered Jerusalem. Through the streets and under the blare of trumpets the victor marched in glorious procession. And after him were led out – to use the words of Paul in our text – the enemy’s rulers and those with power, disrobed of all their royal magnificence, stripped of weapons, now only humble witnesses to the victor’s glory. Once so high, mighty and dangerous, now they are the docile subjects of the one who mastered them! Perhaps beside them were also led out wild animals from the conquered lands, bears, lions, or wolves, or a proud elephant with its long tusks, all chained and controlled, unable to harm anyone. And those were followed by the general’s exhilarated soldiers. …Then all who could crowded the streets, and a great jubilation surged around the victor and rose to heaven, honoring the one who had prevented and overcome the danger that threatened.”

Oh, my! Can’t you imagine sitting there and listening to the ringing words of triumph and visualizing the great celebration?

Oh, my! You do know what is coming!

“That is Easter! God has done all that in Christ, by awakening him from the dead. The resurrection was the issue of the great battle to which Christ had gone up to Jerusalem [Mark 10:33].”

Goodness! A great climactic conclusion is approaching. I can hear the sound of blaring trumpets and the singing of vast choirs (as if of angels).

“That is the triumph in which we today may join. We are invited to be spectators, to view this triumph. An old world has collapsed, and in Christ a new world has opened. The old person (without God) has been carried to the grave; the new person in God has entered existence in Christ. How simple, how innocuous all that frightened us has become – if we see it from that viewpoint! How all that frightened us is led out publicly; subjected kings, tamed beasts!

“…Indeed, why should we not let ourselves be drawn into the victory that we celebrate today?”

It is important to remember, that as Barth preached these words, there was a great booming of guns off in the distance. The congregation could not hear them; yet they knew what was happening and their souls were troubled. The contrast that Barth drew in symbols was not missed by the congregation either. Neither, I hope, was the message that promised, in spite of the agonies of war, some great triumph that could be found in Christ.

This is my Sunday morning gift to you! In a world of such violence and hateful war there is victory and triumph.

*Barth, Karl: The Early Preaching of Karl Barth (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009)

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1 comment:

  1. A morning of love-making on Sunday, Santorum would have a field day if he knew that went on. Thanks for the sermon.