There and Back Again: A Pastor’s Sabbatical Adventure #6

“Du siehst mich.” You  see me – that was the theme of Kirchentag (literally Churches Day) 2017. The theme comes from Hagar’s name for God in Genesis 16:13 (or 1 Moses as the German bible calls the first book of the bible). It’s the first time God is named in the First (Old) Testament. It’s a long complicated story, but just to give some sense of it – Hagar is the pregnant (by Abraham) slave of Sarah (Abraham’s wife). In anger and jealousy over Hagar’s pregnancy (which happens because Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham because in spite of God’s promise that Abraham will be the father of many nations Sarah herself cannot get pregnant (which also means of course that Hagar’s pregnancy is a result of something more like rape than consensual sex)), Sarah has been mistreating Hagar. In desperation and despair Hagar runs away. In “die Wusste” – the wilderness, where Hagar has lain down to die – the angel of God finds her and says, “Hagar, where have you come from and where are you going?”  And then helps and gives her hope. Hagar feels “seen” by God, and so in her prayer she calls God “El Roi” – the God who sees me.

            Another interesting piece of this that is lost in English is that “Du” as opposed to “Sie” is the familiar way you address a friend or intimate.  In English this familiar address was the “thee, thy and thou” language we no longer use. So Hagar is speaking to God (as Jesus taught us to as well) not as divine and majestic Lord of Lords, but as her closest friend.

           I had never heard of Kirchentag before but as I was preparing for my sabbatical and planning to be in Berlin over this period of time I stumbled across it  – and of course maybe God was involved in some way as well ?

          Kirchentag is an every other year gathering of the “Evangelische” chuches in Germany – which on the one hand is not just Lutheran (the Reformed (in the US this means Presbyterian, UCC and other churches that have Reformed in their name) are the main other group involved and on the other hand does not include the “Freikirche” – Free Churches – such as the Methodists, Baptists, Mennonites etc. (I’m not sure where the Anglican/Episcopalians fit in to this).

           As many probably know in Germany if you  belong to an Evangelische or Katholische (Roman Catholic) church you have about 3% of your income collected by the government as part of your taxes (the Kirchensteuer or church tax it’s called) and given to either the Evangelische or Katholische Church. This also means that membership in the church is not measured by attendance, communing or putting something in the offering plate (as it is for us) but only by whether you have registered with the government and pay the Kirchensteuer. It also means “the offering” is quite an anticlimactic event in worship. If it’s done (which it’s not always) it’s for some special cause (often/usually a social ministry effort) and consists mostly of people’s “kleingeld” coins (of course some of those are worth 1 or 2 Euros).

           This was the 36th Kirchentag (which means – if my math is correct – they must have had a few special ones because the first one was in 1949. This one was bigger than usual in celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.  According to Deutsche Welle there were 2500 events, 30,000 presenters and 140,000 participants (including me). While I at first thought the closest analogy would be a Synod Assembly it’s actually more like a Youth Gathering (except with more older people (but there were also lots of youth).

         Even though my German is still not all that great it was a tremendously meaningful, moving  and interesting event for me (and of course since English is something of the universal language they were many events that were partly if not mostly in English (including the sermon at the culminating worship service for 70,000 in Wittenberg) or had English translation. The energy, quality, liveliness and sheer numbers left me feeling that what we often hear about the death of European Christianity is greatly exaggerated (to paraphrase Mark Twain).

          It started for me at the opening worship service that was held at three different locations – I went to the one at the Brandenburg Gate (because it was billed as being in “simple German”) – and included about 100,000 people. Probably about 20,000 of those were “polizei” since as you might imagine security concerns were huge. I arrived at the Brandenburg Tor metro stop on time for the service but then spent 45 minutes walking to an acceptable entrance and getting through security. I made the same mistake the next day when I went to the same place to see a conversation about faith and the future between former President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Still it was inspiring and meaningful for me to see a church event that was so significant that Obama and Merkel participated and so worthwhile that so many people were willing to walk long distances and stand in long lines to get in.

           In addition to the opening worship on Wednesday evening I spent all day Thursday (which was a national holiday (for Himmelfahrt – which (don’t laugh) is the German word for the Ascension (Himmel = Heaven and fahrt is a form of the verb “fahren”  which means to go by means of something). Interestingly in secular Germany the holidays are literally “holy days” even though for most it is celebrated not in church but with men drinking all day in the parks)) and Saturday participating in Kirchentag events and all day Sunday in Wittenberg for the climactic worship service.

         It was something like going to an All-Star Game event for me (in a churchy way) – meaning there were more famous theologians, pastors and politicians in one place than I think I have ever experienced before. From Barak Obama and Angela Merkel to Heidi Neumark (amazing pastor from Manhattan who I’ve heard about and read for many years and who turns out to not only be eloquent about God’s love and call for justice but the granddaughter of Jewish victims of the Holocaust) to Nadia Boltz Weber (tattooed from head to foot founder and pastor of the Church of All Sinners and Saints in Denver who I heard speak at the ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans in 2012 – and who so perfectly embodies and expresses God’s grace for us in Jesus as the heart of what it’s all about) to Bishop Munib Younan (former Lutheran Bishop of the Holy Land and president of the Lutheran World Federation, who spoke and called so personally and passionately for peace in Palestine – “I do not ask you to leave here pro Palestinian or pro Israeli but pro peace and pro justice”).

          Before everyone falls asleep reading this…..a few final impressions. At the climatic Gottesdienst – literally God’s service – the German word for worship – not only was the sermon delivered by the African Anglican Archbishop of South Africa in English – but on the banks of the Elbe across from Wittenberg we did NOT sing A Mighty Fortress. At one point in the service there was a beautiful brief flute solo joined by other instruments to the tune of A Mighty Fortress while the view of the Castle Church across the river showed on the video screen. It was very moving for me. But that was all we heard of A Mighty Fortress – a song we American Lutherans sing any and every time we want to remember/celebrate/lift up Luther and the Reformation. It made me wonder if A Mighty Fortress was another victim of the grief and repentance of Germans and the German Lutheran church for World War II and the Holocaust….something we are more or less immune to in America. Not something one could sing in good conscience after the horrifying ways Luther’s anti-semitic writings were used by Hitler to support his evil. Nor something one could sing without choking on the words after the total devastation of two disastrous world wars. God may well be “A Mighty Fortress” but certainly not for Germany in WWI or WWII. However while we did not sing A Mighty Fortress, we did sing the Jewish folk song Hevenu Shalom Alejchem at the heart of the communion liturgy. I only vaguely know it but all the Germans sang it like they knew it by heart… they had sung this many many times as part of their Holy Communion services. This song that in Nazi days would have been not just unknown but despised because it was Jewish – and now they have placed it at the heart of their worship.

Finally, the song that I could not sing without getting choked  up was a song written by a young woman named Miriam Buthmann (who popped up from time to time to sing it) for this event. It was called “Hagar’s Song, “Du bist ein Gott du mich anshaut”- You are a God who sees me. I first heard and sang it at a wonderful ecumenical Ascension Day worship service on Gendarmenmarkt – a beautiful square framed by the German Cathedral, the French Cathedral (built by the French Hugenots (Protestants sheltered by the Frederick the Great in the 18th century after they were persecuted and expelled by the Catholics in France and the Opera House – that was held Thursday evening. It was sung in German which in spite and also perhaps because of my somewhat limited German translation skills it was very moving for me. “Fleeing, in desperate need and alone, your Word crossed over to my wilderness time.” “God heard and so began my hope. The worry stayed but no longer threatened so.” “All seeing God do you see me? Listening God, how do I listen to you? Through all my questioning you come after me, you hold and look after me and so my yearning awakes.” (Or something like that ?  )