Sermon: Down in the Valley with Bishop George Bell

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Edina, Minnesota
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Lent IV, April 3, 2011

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; for you are with me . . . (Psalm 23:4)

Throughout most of the academic year, as many of you know, the time of the week that St. Stephen’s is bursting at the seams isn’t on Sunday mornings but on Wednesday nights. People will come in and out of these doors, receiving spiritual food and drink at one of four services today. In the middle of the week, however, everyone pours into this building within a few hours, and most of them attend the evening’s only meal, which is served downstairs. If you’ve never experienced that, go and see it for yourself. You will be amazed at the joy and the vitality of that community – our community. You will hear the laughter of children, whose faith we promised to nurture at their baptisms. You will find strength as you walk through the room and realize that you’re walking with Jesus.

But how far are you willing to go with him? What about the difficult times when you find yourself not on the mountain but down in the valley? In the midst of those moments when death threatens to overshadow you and darkness surrounds you and loneliness embraces you, is Jesus your shepherd there too, still leading the way? How far are you willing to go? That’s a question that I want to invite us to wrestle with this morning.

It’s an important question that brings to mind those who have gone the extra mile with Jesus and provided the rest of us with heroic examples of Christian faith. I’m thinking of people who are heroic not in their perfection but in their willingness to run ahead and scan the horizon for signs of God’s reign. And when they catch a glimpse of it, they motion for us to join them so that we can see what they have seen with the eyes of faith.

Sixty-six years ago this coming Saturday, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis at the Flossenbürg concentration camp only a month before Germany’s unconditional surrender at the end of Word War II. He was a pastor who became a leader of the Confessing Church, which was comprised of German Christians opposed to the attempt of the Nazi Party to reshape Protestant Christianity in its own racist image. Bonhoeffer was also a member of the failed conspiracy to assassinate the Nazi Führer Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944. Bonhoeffer had struggled not only with the obligation “to bandage the victims under the wheel” of injustice but also with the possible necessity to jam “the wheel itself.”[1] One biography of him described this as “a long and lonely road.”[2]

I’ve often heard quoted a few of his final words to a fellow prisoner, which were: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”[3] But I never knew until recently that those words were meant as a final message to his dear friend George Bell, a bishop in the Church of England, who had received from Bonhoeffer the names of those involved in the plot to overthrow the Nazi regime in order to pass that information to the British government.[4]

George Bell had been the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral before his appointment as the Bishop of Chichester. In that latter role, he became an early supporter of the Confessing Church in Germany and an outspoken critic of the beginnings of anti-semitic policies by the Nazi Party. So he brought to the attention of the world, before it became engulfed in total war, the suffering of German Christians and Jews at the hand of the Nazis. Bishop Bell, in other words, had impeccable credentials when it came to those who opposed the troubling events that were taking place inside Germany in the 1930s. Furthermore, since he wasn’t a pacifist, he had no objection to the use of force in order to end them.

Having said all of that, because he believed in the concept of a just war, he also believed in the just prosecution of those hostilities. This strongly held belief that arose out of his Christian faith culminated in a speech in the House of Lords on February 9, 1944, in which he objected to the carpet bombing of entire German cities. It made Bishop Bell about as unpopular as John the Baptist had been among the religious and political establishment at the time of Jesus. His truly was a voice crying in the wilderness and calling a nation to repentance over the indiscriminate killing of civilians.

Although celebrated today and even the subject of an exhibition in the House of Lords just a few years ago, this speech left Bishop Bell isolated in the press, in the church, and in the public.[5] Had he not given it, he might very well have become the next Archbishop of Canterbury after the death of William Temple that same year. Yet his words are now increasingly regarded as a high point of Christian witness in the 20th century.[6]

Bishop Bell acknowledged and honored the bravery of the RAF pilots and air crews, and he recognized the suffering of British civilians who had been subjected first to a similar tactic of terror from the skies. He believed, however, that to respond with an openly acknowledged policy of obliteration in which each area of an enemy city is carefully plotted out and bombed systematically, one after another, night after night, was to engage in exactly the same kind of barbaric acts that had been denounced in 1940 when done to the British and the French. Turning into human torches those left behind in the residential areas, from the very young to the very old, in the name of expediency could never be justified for him and simply hacked away further at the roots of civilization. So the bishop described this chapter of the war as “an extraordinarily solemn moment.”[7]

Now I don’t know what you think about the obliteration of entire cities in the name of a righteous cause or the possibility that a war can be prosecuted in a so-called just manner. I don’t know what you think about the Bishop of Chichester more than six decades ago advocating less violence to protect civilians in Germany or the President of the United States six days ago advocating more violence to do the same in Libya. I don’t know what you think about non-violence in relation to walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

But I hope that Bishop Bell’s speech gives you an example of someone unafraid to wrestle with the difficult events of his own day and to keep walking with Jesus into the valley of the shadow of death. With Jesus as his shepherd, Bishop Bell had the courage to speak on behalf of the innocent who suffered before and throughout the Second World War, even when it wasn’t popular to do so, even when he felt alone at the end.

Some of this came to life vividly for me at the Martyrs – our men’s group that meets across the street at the Edina Country Club on Wednesday nights. It’s so crowded here that we have to spill out over there. At the most recent gathering, we talked about the Holocaust, which refers to the genocide of approximately six million European Jews by the Nazis. While having this discussion, there were related artifacts, Nazi and otherwise, in the middle of the table. It’s one thing to see those objects in old black and white news reels and quite another to see them in living color as we wrestled with suffering, revenge, justice, doubt, and – yes – faith too. I can’t imagine how much harder it must have been both for Bishop Bell and for those who opposed him as they together wrestled not with relics but with realities. These were imperfect people, including Bishop Bell, making imperfect decisions that they would have to live with for the rest of their lives.

Of course, we have our own realities to deal with. Whatever those may be for you this morning, the promise of the 23rd Psalm is that the Lord is your shepherd, that you’re never alone in the valley, and that in the midst of difficulties there is a table set before you. It’s set before you today at St. Stephen’s, where you can come and be fed in order to receive strength for the journey. And because you have miles to go before you’re done, you can come back again and again and again and again . . . if you want to walk with Jesus. That’s the invitation of this season of Lent, and the good news is that there’s still time to put on your traveling shoes and walk with him all the way to the cross.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010) 154.

BACK TO POST Metaxas 156.

BACK TO POST Metaxas 528.

BACK TO POST “Defender of Peace and Truth: Fiftieth anniversary of the death of Bishop George Bell,” editorial from the Evangelical Church in Germany, October 1, 2008.

BACK TO POST “Bishop Bell Exhibition” in the House of Lords, October 2-24, 2008.

BACK TO POST I am indebted to an old friend, Paul Zahl, whose podcast “Episode 41 – Bishop Bell – The Speech” explored this speech from a theological perspective and served as the inspiration for this sermon.

BACK TO POST George Bell, “Bombing Policy,” Hansard, Lords Sitting of 9 February 1944, series 5, volume 130, column 746.

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