There and Back Again: A Pastor’s Sabbatical Adventure #8

There and Back Again – A Pastor’s Sabbatical Adventure #8

With a week of travel to meet our Luther 500 Youth and Friends and then a week with our Luther 500 Youth and Friends I’m afraid I’ve fallen behind a bit with my posts and am hoping to make it up with a couple of posts in a row. I’m currently in Vernazza – which Rick Steves calls the “jewel” of the Cinque Terre (literally “Five Villages” (I say “literally” but my Italian is quite a bit more limited than my relatively limited German)) – five (originally) fishing villages cut off from the rest of the Italian Riviera by the mountainous coastline that they sit within.  It’s a beautiful spot (which if I eventually figure out how to share my Facebook posts with Good Shepherd’s Facebook page you might even be able to see). Vernazza has no relationship to Martin Luther and the Reformation….but people said they hoped I also took time to just have fun occasionally on my sabbatical – so this is that ?.

 After four weeks in one place I said goodbye to Berlin on Friday, June 9th and began a roundabout week- long journey on the way to meeting our Youth and Friends in Rothenberg ob der Tauber on June 18th. I first went northwest (instead of southwest towards Rothenberg) to Schwerin the capital city of the German “Bundestaat” state of Mecklenberg-Vorpommern to visit a friend who lives in Maryland but grew up in Schwerin (when it was part of the DDR – Deutsches Demokratisches Republique (aka communist East Germany). For many years she has invited me to visit her beautiful home town when she is back to visit her family – which I did and it was! I spent the weekend at a sort of Seafarer’s International (elder) hostel on Lake Schwerin(?), the third(?) largest fresh water lake in Germany. It would have been perfect except that both nights the restaurant that was most of the first floor of the building I was in (but is not part of the “hostel”) was closed in order to host either one or two (Russian?) wedding receptions that went on till two or three (at least that’s when I finally fell asleep) complete with disco music and a bass beat that caused the whole building (including my bed) to vibrate.

Schwerin has a beautiful palace (what medieval German city doesn’t?….but this one is indeed exceptional). I’ve run into mentions of Schwerin a number of times in my travels. With the rest of northern Germany they accepted the Reformation early on; they were the place where Barlach’s “Hovering Angel” (more on that another time) was sent after it was removed from the Gorlitz Cathedral (and eventually melted down to make munitions for the Nazi war machine); and it was an active part of the “Peaceful Revolution” with (tens of?) thousands protesting in the streets that ultimately brought about the peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of East and West Germany.

From Schwerin I went to Hamburg. Third largest city in Germany; a rival to Baltimore in the container shipping industry and the place where Lisa Long’s favorite musical group (the Beatles) rose from obscurity playing in the Star Club along the Reeperbahn. Like Dresden, Hamburg was destroyed by Allied (fire(?)) bombing in the apocalpytically named Operation Gommorah in 1943.  It’s also the birthplace of Johannes Brahms and I enjoyed a wonderful lunch time string quartet in the Brahms concert hall. An “Imperial Free City” it was a significant part of the powerful medieval/renaissance Hanseatic League trading association (which some say was an antecedent of the EU if not the United Nations. Although the Hanseatic league is no more it’s imprint can still be found today in trademarks like “Lufthansa” (notice the Hansa for Hanseatic in there).

After three nights in Hamburg I went on to Wurzburg – birth place of my colleague Pastor Julie Brigham who serves St. Paul and Mt. Moriah on the other side of South Mountain from us. Her parents were there as part of the American military presence in southern Germany after WWII. There, as in the rest of southern Germany, the typical greeting is not “Guten Tag” but  “Gruss Gott” which (I would say) literally means, “Greetings God.” While any Germans reading this can correct me I would like to think it goes back to Hebrews 13:2 which says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” We find and encounter God in the stranger, the other and this greeting acknowledges that.  I have not spent enough time in southern Germany to be used to this greeting. Everyone says it quite matter-of-factly and pretty much completely independent of any religious meaning. But when someone says it to me I’m taken aback and feel like we are suddenly having a conversation about God and faith.

Wurzburg is home to the spectacular “Residenz” – the mini (but not at all small) Versailles built by the Prince Bishop of Wurzburg to live in. He was called a “Prince Bishop” because like others he was not only a religious but also a secular ruler – given the title of prince by Barbarossa – Holy Roman Emperor Frederick 1 – in the 12th century. Spectacular as the “Residenz” is it shows one of the reasons that led to the Reformation. The church had become such a worldly and wealthy entity that it bore little if any resemblance to the life and way of Jesus of Nazareth. It was an oppressive and corrupt part if not leader of the rich and powerful systems that benefit the few and bleed and burden the rest. As such it was ripe for the picking (or reforming) when Luther came along.

One of the books I’m reading about the Reformation by Kenneth Appold makes the perhaps obvious but no less striking and fresh for me point that the rise and fall of the Christian church since the time of Jesus can be traced to the way in which ordinary Christians and church leaders have embodied the way of Jesus or not. The more they have lived Jesus way of serving, self-sacrificing, cross shaped love the more they have been a compelling force that draws people in. The times they have followed the way of wealth and power and Prince Bishops the more they have turned people off and away.

As we  sing, “They will know we are Christians by our love by our love. They will know we are Christians by our love.” Makes me wonder if there is any relationship between this principle and the struggles the Lutheran church in America is having today. It’s not all about numbers certainly, but are we obscuring in some way(s) the love, justice and joy of Jesus that is such a compelling and irresistible message when embodied as Jesus embodied it and as we the “body of Christ” in the world today are called to do as well.

In Wurzburg I also for the first time became acquainted with St. Killian – the patron saint of Wurzburg. Along with two companions he (and they) quite literally lost their heads in the 9th century when trying to convert the pagans of Wurzburg to Christianity. But it worked – that is to say that after cutting off all their heads the Wurzburgers must have felt guilty or obligated in some way to go ahead and join the new religion (because they did). Even though they all lost their heads, Killian for some reason became the patron saint. Now he and his companions (and others) (with heads reattached ) adorn (in statue form) a beautiful bridge across the river Main “die Alte Mainbrucke” – built around the time Luther was born in the late 15th century. Today tourists and locals gather every evening as the sun goes down to drink the local wine and chat under the gaze of Killian and company.

On the other side of the bridge from the town at the top of a long steep sweaty climb is the Marienberg Fortress which among other things contains the biggest collection of wood and stone sculptures by Tillman Riemenschneider including his famous Adam and Eve sculptures.  He was one of my most meaningful “discoveries” on this sabbatical. A great artist with a great life story that overlaps with Martin Luther’s in meaningful ways who spent most of his life and career in Wurzburg. Along with Ernst Barlach (another great “discovery” mentioned above) I hope to dedicate a post to just him.

In the “Remembrance Room” in the town hall I once again ran into the Cross of Nails community which Wurzburg joined as a town in the years following WWII. Wurzburg was pretty much leveled in only 20 minutes of bombing just 6 weeks before the end of WWII. The room contains a history of the rise of the Nazis and Wurzburg’s complicity in that and also are a series of devastating before and after the bombing photos. On the wall is letter written by the “Lord Mayor” George Rosenthal for the dedication of the Remembrance Room. After owning responsibility for the support for the evil of Adolph Hitler that led to the bombing, it also acknowledges there is something that is not right about the targeting and annihilation of civilian populations that was done by all sides in WWII. His letter ends with these words:

 “…. when the war was over the victors understood that they were not free of guilt either.

 What remains is mourning: the dead of the raid of March 16th 1945 will not return to life, the destruction of the city cannot be undone.

 What remains, as well, is the lasting admonition to us to stand firmly against war

against any reign of terror

and against racism.”