Happy New Year! Wishing everyone much faith, hope and love in 2018. As today is of course a Sunday I am preaching this morning. The following is both a sermon and a reflection on what has past and how we can face the future together. I am in the great debt of my friend Sybille Seemann for sending the Bonhoeffer poem – ‘in case you need inspiration for a New Year’s service’. This was a move of the Spirit!
St Mary’s 8:00 P&P
Christ the Worker 9:30 P&P
Just as I sat down to work on this sermon, my wonderful German friend Sybille sent me the poem ‘Von guten Machten’ – the English translation ‘By loving forces’ by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. She did this in the event that I was looking for inspiration for a New Year’s service. I can only describe this as a move of the Spirit because I was indeed looking for inspiration!
Every year Sybille loves to read this poem – in German of course – as she finds herself blessed by it. On my first reading of it – I felt very blessed by it to. I have a great hope and prayer that you find it a blessing too.
By loving forces silently surrounded,
I feel quite soothed, secure, and filled with grace.
So I would like to live these days together,
and go with you into another year.
Still matters of the past are pressing our hearts
and evil days are weighing down on us.
Oh Lord, to our souls, so scared and sore,
give rescue, as it’s that you made us for.
And when you pass to us the bitter chalice
of suffering, filled to the brim and more,
we take it, full of thanks and trembling not,
from this, your caring and beloved hand.
But if you want to please us, over and again,
with our shining sun and wondrous world,
let us muse on what is past, and then we shall,
with our lives, in all belong to you.
Warm and bright be our candles’ flame today,
since into gloom you brought a gleaming light,
and lead again us, if you will, together!
We know it: you are beaming in the night.
When silence now will snow around us ev’rywhere,
so let us hear the all-embracing sound
of greater things than we can see and wider,
your world, and all your children’s soaring hail.
By loving forces wonderfully sheltered,
we are awaiting fearlessly what comes.
God is with us at dusk and in the morning
and most assuredly on ev’ry day.
Bonhoeffer wrote this poem while he was imprisoned. He sent it to his family for Christmas (the one to be his last) bring hope and reassurance to them. If today, on the last day of 2017, are in need of hope, reassurance and encouragement I hope these words bring some to you.
As the clock runs out on 2017, as Bonhoeffer said ‘let us muse on what is past, and then we shall, with our lives, in all belong to you.’
2017 has been a tough year to downright horrendous for many people that I know – both inside and outside the church. Relationship breakdowns, addiction problems, illness and disease that have seemingly come out of nowhere. Death has visited many this year too.
I know that many people in my parish have had similar experiences. As we came into Christmas these events and experiences didn’t seem to let up either. In fact, they can be compounded during the holidays.
Equally, there are people for whom 2017 has been a good year, a great year! Bless them! We are to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. Doing this helps us to maintain some balance and perspective.
It is years and times like this that can make us more aware of our need for the loving forces of God.
Despite his circumstances, Bonhoeffer ‘felt quite soothed, secure and filled with grace by the loving forces’ he was silently surrounded by. I can appreciate that silence can be hard for some people.
Especially when that silence seems to come from God. When our prayers don’t seem to be answered, our situations don’t change and the darkness of our thoughts and emotions close in.
Bonhoeffer addresses this too – ‘still matters of the past are pressing on our hearts and evil days are weighing down on us’. It is not in avoiding these matters that we find comfort – it is when we acknowledge them – ‘take our souls so scared and sore’ to the Lord. He will rescue us – that is what He does! It is what we were made for – to be rescued from the darkness. The darkness of sin and the darkness of ourselves.
Whatever we are facing today – we do not face it alone however alone we may be feeling. We all from time to time, as Bonhoeffer puts it ‘get passed the bitter chalice of suffering, filled to the brim and more, we take it.’
It can be cold comfort that we all suffer sometimes – in different times and seasons and for different reasons. As a church family we do it together. We can be loving forces to each other.
I think this might be why Bonhoeffer only briefly starts this poem with ‘I’. By the second stanza he talks in ‘us’ and ‘we’. Bonhoeffer strongly emphasized the need of every person to be of a community. He founded a religious community himself. He would also have lived in a community in the concentration camp – a community of great suffering.
Everyone experiences suffering in their life – to different degrees of course. It is important to remember that we will all experience suffering differently – depending on how we cope with life in general. It is both dangerous and unhelpful to compare the sufferings of others with our own. Suffering is not a competitive sport. I believe that paying attention to the suffering of others can help bring perspective to our own suffering; but it won’t lessen our suffering.
Why – you might want to ask, looking around this morning – these ‘we’s’? We need each other – church! We were made to be in relationship with God and with other people.
We see an example of the need for others in the Christmas story with the arrival of the shepherds. I wonder what Mary & Joseph initially thought about that? The shepherds didn’t bring anything, didn’t appear to be in anyway practically helpful. But maybe they weren’t meant to be. Perhaps the arrival of the shepherds was to help Mary and Joseph confirm what – up to now – had been their own secret?
Maybe it was a relief – that all that they had been through – God was faithful to his word. God is faithful to his word. Always. What a relief that is. In this uncertain world and in uncertain times – we can look to the manger and know that God is faithful! Maybe some of us here this morning need to know this again.
Bonhoeffer describes ‘by loving forces wonderfully sheltered, we are awaiting fearlessly what comes’. God will be faithful. We wait fearlessly together for what comes next. We wait by loving forces silently surrounded and wonderfully sheltered.
God is our shelter and our refuge. Psalm 18: ‘The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.’
By loving forces God is with us at dusk and in the morning and most assuredly on every day.
Love and prayers to you as we walk together by loving forces into 2018.