Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Palm Sunday Meditation

Palm Sunday 2017 – Matthew 21:1-17, 26:6-13 – Pastor Goede

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a professor of theology in Germany during the years of the Nazis and the Third Reich. In 1930, at the end of his seminary study, he went to New York City to study at Union Seminary. While he was there, he made several visits to churches in Harlem, where he heard gospel music for the first time. He brought back a stack of sheet music to Germany, so he could share what he heard.

During the 1930s, as Nazism began to take shape, Bonhoeffer began to work more closely with like-minded church leaders who were unhappy to see the German Evangelical Church steadily cave to the Nazis. Calling themselves the Confessing Church, they resisted the Arian nationalist message of the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was a key player in letting the rest of the world know what was happening in the German Church, and he was the engine behind training new, young pastors to serve in the Confessing Church.

As war drew closer, Bonhoeffer began to consider his future in Germany. He was in despair that the Confessing Church was so small, so conflicted and so paralyzed by fear. In June of 1939, he accepted a position at Union Seminary in New York, arranged by friends in the ecumenical movement who were concerned for his safety. But by the time his ship arrived in New York, Bonhoeffer had decided that he had to turn around and go back to Germany. He wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr that “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. . . I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people.”

Bonhoeffer’s story could have easily had another ending. He wasn’t trapped in Germany, at least not before Germany invaded Poland and World War II started. Tens of thousands of Jews tried to leave Europe in the late 1930s as the war loomed, but they didn’t come from well-to-do families like Bonhoeffer, or have lots of connections with important people in the United States. They were trapped in Germany, but Bonhoeffer could have changed his mind, stayed in New York and lived a life as a celebrated academic. Bonhoeffer had been lionized in the United States, England, Switzerland, he had lots of friends who wanted to shelter him in safety abroad. But Bonhoeffer turned towards Germany, and once he had made his decision, he was all in. Eventually, he was trapped.

Like Bonhoeffer, Jesus could have made a different decision. His story could have had another ending. That would have involved Jesus turning around before he reached Jerusalem and heading back to Galilee, where he could have lived a quiet life, still healing and teaching, but under the radar of the religious authorities. He might still have turned around and gone home after he entered the city with cloaks and branches spread in his path. Jesus might have been able to stay in the city if he had just done what every other Jew was doing, observing Passover. He could have just stayed indoors, kept his head down, eaten the Passover supper with his disciples, told people in need of healing to come see him at the end of the week.

But as soon as Jesus enters the gates of the city, he goes into the market area and starts overturning the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of the vendors selling doves. People who were watching were probably surprised, then puzzled, why he would do such a thing. Many Jews travelled for days, weeks to get to Jerusalem, and when they arrived, they needed to change money from other countries so that they could buy doves for offerings and lambs for the Passover meal. Most people watching probably couldn’t understand what was wrong with this necessary commerce.

Not many who were watching could imagine what life would be like without the Temple and the sacrifices of animals and farm products that ordered religious life there. They couldn’t imagine that God would ever keep the ancient promises from Passover and Exodus to save them because they were a holy people. The Passover and the Exodus had happened more than a thousand years before, and Israel hadn’t seen a true prophet for centuries.

But Jesus could imagine what praise and prayer could be like without sacrifice. He could imagine a different relationship between God and us, and he was drawn to willingly go all in so that God could fulfill those promises to save the people of God. In fact, Jesus had been offering that promised mercy and grace for quite a while to sinners and foreigners as well as Jews, which most Jews couldn’t understand or accept. In a lot of ways, Jesus had been walking a long time into territory where most of his disciples wouldn’t follow. But once he was all in, Jesus could see what was ahead and he kept going. When the woman at Bethany anoints Jesus with costly perfume, he understands that she’s anointing him in preparation for death.  She walks with Jesus further than his other disciples are willing to go, she can see what’s ahead. She can see that Jesus is heading into territory where no one else can follow.

Bonhoeffer looked to Jesus’ life when he made his decision to return to Germany and stay beyond the point of no return. The way he put it was, if he stayed safely in New York throughout the war and then returned to Germany, he wouldn’t have anything to offer to his companions in the Confessing Church who had suffered through the war. Anything he tried to offer them, as he put it, would be “cheap grace.” It would be hollow comfort from someone who had abandoned them in their time of greatest need. Bonhoeffer looked at how Jesus went all in to save his friends, and he decided that he wanted to be able to offer that kind of “costly grace.”

As his friends feared. Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 and imprisoned for his activities. At first, he was held at Tegel Prison very near to his home on the outskirts of Berlin, and he was still able to visit and correspond with his friends and read and write. But as the Allies advanced at the beginning of 1945, he was moved to Buchenwald, a concentration camp outside of Weimar, and soon after further south and east to Flossenburg. He was hanged on April 9, 1945, just a few weeks before the Soviets overran Berlin and the Third Reich collapsed. So today is his day. Martyrs are commemorated on the day of their death each year.

We remember Bonhoeffer because he walked the walk, as they say. He looked at how Jesus had lived and died, and he decided that he needed to follow where Jesus led, to the cross. He decided that he had to live a life that offered costly grace to his friends, to those who needed his presence with them during a terrible time. He could have made a different decision, but he decided to follow Jesus. Like Jesus, he laid down his life for his friends, but we remember Bonhoeffer as a martyr, not a savior. Jesus is the only one who goes to the cross as a savior. In the Holy Week, we’ll follow him as far as we can go, and we’ll wait and watch as he crosses from death into new life.