George Hunsinger Sermon

The following is the text of a sermon George Hunsinger preached in 2006. This was forst posted on the Generous Orthodoxy weblog but I have just come across it via Sean the Baptist.

Hunsinger’s Sermon:

Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me (Matt. 25:40).

 

The question that Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked himself, his students, and his readers remains as urgent now as when he first raised it: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? Bonhoeffer by no means intended to challenge the authoritative biblical answer. What he confessed with the prophets and the apostles, he attested at the cost of his life. He affirmed that Jesus Christ is the Risen Lord who had become incarnate for our sakes in order to die for our sins and liberate us from the power of death. That was the answer presupposed in every other possible answer to his question. It was the one answer that contained all others within itself.

But Bonhoeffer knew that other answers were indeed included within that one answer. He knew that in dying for our sins, Jesus Christ had made the sufferings of the world his own. He knew that discipleship to Christ meant participating in Christ’s sufferings in the present time. “The hungry need bread,” he once wrote, “and the homeless need a roof; the oppressed need justice and the lonely need fellowship; the undisciplined need order and the slave needs freedom.” Because Jesus had entered into our world of sorrows, and because he had taken up the cause of those in need, making their cause to be his own, Bonhoeffer could continue: “To allow the hungry to remain hungry would be blasphemy against God and one’s neighbor, for what is nearest to God is precisely the need of one’s neighbor” (Ethics, p. 137).

That was Bonhoeffer’s great insight. “What is nearest to God is precisely the need of one’s neighbor.” On this profound basis he saw that it made no sense to choose between evangelism and social action. He saw that evangelism without social action was empty, and that social action without evangelism was blind. Both were key to the church’s mission, since both were ways of bearing witness in the world to God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ. Social action against crying injustice was an indirect form of evangelism, while evangelism that led unbelievers to know and love Jesus remained an indirect goal of social action. In different ways they both proclaimed that God’s love extends to the whole person at every level of human need. Feeding the hungry, as Bonhoeffer once said, prepared the way for the coming of grace.

“What is nearest to God is precisely the need of one’s neighbor.” This statement provides a real clue to how Bonhoeffer answered his own question. The Risen Lord, he believed, confronts us here and now precisely as the neighbor in need. That is who Jesus Christ is for us today: he comes to us in the form of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the prisoner locked away. The neighbor in need is revealed as an incognito form of Christ’s presence. This epiphany does not mean that Christ and the needy are simply identical, but it does mean that by divine grace they are inseparably one. It is impossible to serve Christ here and now without serving one’s neighbor in need. As you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me (Matt. 25:40).

Since what is nearest to God is the need of one’s neighbor, and since Christ has made himself to be one with those in dire need, Bonhoeffer drew the right conclusion. He recognized that Christians have a special obligation to those in any society who are being persecuted, humiliated and abused. “Only those who cry out for the Jews,” he wrote, “have the right to sing Gregorian chants.” For the church in the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer perceived, the presence of Jesus Christ could not be separated from the plight of persecuted Jews. Whoever would serve Christ had to enter into solidarity with that despised and mistreated group, crying out by word and deed.

But that was then, and this is now. Who is Jesus Christ for us today? Who are those who are being persecuted, humiliated and abused in our particular society? Sadly there are many contenders, and too many to be mentioned here, yet chief among them, I would suggest, are the victims around the world today of U.S. sponsored torture.

April 2006 marks the second anniversary since shocking photos were released from Abu Ghraib. These photos are difficult to look at yet impossible to forget. How can we view them without thinking of Christ? How can we view the wrenching scenes of nude male bodies stacked in postures of sexual humiliation without remembering the saying: I was naked and you clothed me? How can we gaze on the shackled man kneeling in an orange jumpsuit with terror in his eyes as a ferocious German shepherd strains at the leash only inches from his face without recalling: I was in prison and you visited me. Where is the outcry? Why the silence of the churches? Can we learn what Dietrich Bonhoeffer has to teach us? Or will we be “good Germans” all over again? Who is Jesus Christ for us today?

“The thought of Jesus being stripped, beaten and derided until his final agony on the cross,” wrote Pope John Paul II, “should always prompt a Christian to protest against similar treatment of their fellow beings. Of their own accord, disciples of Christ will reject torture, which nothing can justify, which causes humiliation and suffering to the victim and degrades the tormentor.”

The torture-abuse scandal, as first revealed by the photos from Abu Ghraib, has by no means gone away. According to recent human rights reports:

· Detainee deaths at the hands of U.S. soldiers continue around the world.

· Aggressive, painful force-feeding has been instituted at Guantanamo where prisoners are so desperate that many would prefer to commit suicide.

· Secret CIA prisons, rife with torture situations, remain scattered across the globe.

· Thousands of persons have been subjected to what is called “extraordinary rendition,” whereby suspects are essentially kidnapped and sent to countries that use torture as a means of interrogation. Yet who can deny that outsourcing torture to other regimes is the moral equivalent of practicing it ourselves?

· Finally, the department of defense has admitted to the Red Cross that “70-90 percent” of the Abu Ghraib prisoners were entirely innocent. Similar if somewhat lower figures have been estimated for other U.S. detention centers, including Guantanamo.

Not a single major human rights organization in the world believes that these abuses can be explained merely as the actions of a few bad apples at the bottom of the barrel. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, has stated that top officials — up to and including the president — have given a green light to soldiers to abuse detainees. “You don’t have this kind of pervasive attitude out there,” he observed, “unless you’ve condoned it.” Yet no officials at the higher levels have seriously been been brought to account.

The photos from Abu Ghraib make one thing clear. Working against torture as sponsored by our government must begin at the local and congregational level. As dismaying as it may seem, polls show that at least 73 percent of the American people believe that torture may be used at least rarely, and 15 percent say it is “often” permissible. The figures for Christians in particular are, sadly, no exception.

The terrible stain of torture — which is not only morally wrong but has many harmful consequences even from the standpoint of self-interest — will not be removed from our nation until we learn to act from higher motivations than blinding fear, narrow self-regard, and ugly resentment — to say nothing of cultural racism. If torture is not evil, then nothing is evil, for torture is the very essence of evil. Only those who cry out today for the detained Muslims and Arabs have a right to sing Gregorian chants.

Let me close with these words from Holy Scripture.

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured (Heb. 13:3).

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen (I John 4:20).

This verse might be glossed to read: Those who say, “I love God,” and torture their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who torture a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen — and the same holds true for those who turn a blind eye to torture or otherwise condone it.

Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me (Matt. 25:40).

Bonhoeffer’s searching question thereby remains: Who is Jesus Christ for us today?

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One response to “George Hunsinger Sermon

  1. Daniel Butler

    I have just been reading “The Cost of Displeship” for the first time. As a follower of Christ I have been shocked and shaken to my core by the experience and continue to read and re-read it. This is what led me to this website to learn more about this man. I have been a writer and director for decades and my journey is filled with irony that only the Greatest Author could invent. I have atternded a PCA Presbyterian Church for 20 years. God bless them, my brothers and sisters in Christ at my church seem now more like mammonists and republicans than followers of Christ. In 1994 I was the creative director for Senator Frist’s first campaign. I could only remain in that job for five weeks when I realized that I must resign if I truly believed in Christ and even the most basic things that he said and did. I truly believed then that I should serve my boss as I served the Lord except as he caused me to sin. After five weeks, I could no longer pretend that what I was being asked to do by Frist’s campaign manager and the RNC were not sinful. I went to them and explained. they gave me a , “by-any-means-necessary-fight-fire- -with-fire-it’s-a-dirty-business” explanation. and then they offered me $5,000 more per week (which would have been by far the most money that I had ever or would ever make) I rejected their offer and I am still stunned by the incident. As much by my rejection as I am by the offer. I know there is no good in me, save Him and that decision was Him speaking. I remember clearly at the time thinking, “and these are the good guys?” The shocks that seem to be all a part of this thing called sanctification kept coming. I have been doing documentaries for non-profits, missionaries and ministries for the last decade. Next month my wife and son and I will be moving to Belize to work at the prison, a clinic and a high school. (my wife is a physician). Bonhoeffer has been a blessed mentor to me in the last three months to prepare us. This sermon was more confirmation. I had to share with you my first hand experience with this incredible belief that a seemingly morally superior stance allows a nation, a party or a president to do morally repugnant things. In my church, abortion (as a concept only) has trumped everything, including Christ himself and my own eye witness stories are considered blasphemous. I have been ostracized in my own congregation because of what I heard and saw. It would appear that the intertwining of faith with political affiliation has put my brothers in the position of being unable to question or disagree with their political leaders without questioning or potentially losing their faith in God through Christ. This is why I find the writings of Bonhoeffer from Germany in 1933 so horribly accurate and pertinent. I saw the inner workings of the Beast and I wrote its propaganda and now, even though I participated in the great deception (or because I did) no one in the U.S. can hear me or believe me.

    A bondservant of Christ,
    DanielB

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