I’m partial when it comes to veterans. I’m particularly grateful for the men and women who shipped out to Europe to fight the Nazis. They fought and died not just for their country, but for mine too, and for a future where all people live in freedom. When white supremacist groups announced their rally in Shelbyville, one of many reasons I had to go there to protest was to honor the sacrifice of the men and women who gave their lives to end Hitler’s reign of terror.
Many synagogues burned throughout the night in full view of the public and of local firefighters, who had received orders to intervene only to prevent flames from spreading to nearby buildings.
To me, it’s a blessed coincidence that every year Veterans Day follows the anniversary of Kristallnacht, that night of terror and destruction on November 9 and 10, 1938, when rioters in the streets of Germany and Austria destroyed synagogues, shattered the windows of thousands of Jewish-owned businesses, and looted their wares. Many synagogues burned throughout the night in full view of the public and of local firefighters, who had received orders to intervene only to prevent flames from spreading to nearby buildings. The pogrom claimed the lives of 91 Jews, and as it spread, units of the SS and Gestapo arrested up to 30,000 Jewish males and transferred most of them from local prisons to concentration camps in Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and other towns. On the following Sunday—the liturgical calendar called for observance of the annual Day of Repentance—Helmut Gollwitzer stood in the pulpit of a church in Berlin-Dahlem and said,
Who then on this of all days still has a right to preach? Who then should be preaching repentance on such a day? Have not our mouths been muzzled on this very day? Can we do anything but fall silent? What good has all the preaching and the hearing of sermons done us and our people and our church? How, following all the years and centuries of preaching, have we come to this place where we find ourselves today and as we find ourselves today? What good has it done that God has allowed our people to have so much success? What good has the great gift of peace done that we received with such joy just two months ago [he was referring to the Munich agreement between Hitler and Chamberlain, September 29-30, 1938], so that today each of those Ten Commandments that we have just heard has struck us like a hammer blow right in the face and has knocked us to the ground? What a short blink of an eye separates that report of peace and this Day of Repentance! Back then we told ourselves in this very place that the new peace opens a new space for repentance — and now, so few weeks later, how’s it going? How have we used this period of time? What do we expect God to do, if we come to him now singing, reading our Bibles, praying, preaching, and confessing our sins as if we can really count on his being here and on all this being more than empty religious activity? Our impertinence and presumption must make him sick. Why don’t we at least just keep our mouths shut? Yes, that might be the right thing to do. What if we just sat here for an entire hour without saying a word, no singing, no speaking, just preparing ourselves silently for God’s punishment, which we have already earned? And when that punishment becomes obvious and visible, we will know better than to go running around screaming and railing against it wondering, “How can God let something like this happen to us?” Yet how many of us will do just that and in our blindness not see the connection between that which God allows and that which we have done and brought upon ourselves? We really should prepare ourselves so that we can say when it comes upon us: “O Lord, our sins have earned us this” (Jer. 14:7).[i]
Gollwitzer did preach a fine sermon that Sunday, ending it saying,
Now just outside this church our neighbor is waiting for us — waiting for us in his need and lack of protection, disgraced, hungry, hunted, and driven by fear for his very existence. That is the one who is waiting to see if today this Christian congregation has really observed this national day of penance. Jesus Christ himself is waiting to see.[ii]
Gollwitzer’s sermon was part of a long tradition going back all the way to the prophet Amos, a tradition insisting that the integrity of our worship is determined not by how closely we follow the lectionary or the rubrics or the unwritten rules of whatever we consider to be proper liturgy, not by any of that—the integrity of our worship is determined by our actions outside the sanctuary.
I hate, I despise your festivals, [says the Lord,] and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos accused the leaders, including the priests of the king’s sanctuary, of perverting justice and cheating the poor in the marketplace. And in the context of such oppression, he told them, their worship, though religiously presented, was no fragrant offering of praise but only ugliness, noise and stench. “The cumulative image of these [lines of Amos’s speech] is God’s holding the nose, shutting the eyes and closing the ears to Israel’s ceremonies.”[iii] Justice and righteousness characterize the God of Israel, and they are to characterize the life of God’s people. Without justice and righteousness, our worship is not worship of the Lord God, but a celebration of religious fantasies. In God’s house, attention to the liturgy must go hand in hand with attention to the well-being of the poor. Without attention to the order of life in the city and beyond, attention to the order of worship is religious distraction at best, and idolatry at worst.
In Samaria, where Amos proclaimed the coming of God’s judgment, the citizens came to the sanctuary bearing gifts and dressed in their Sunday best, but they had forgotten how to live as God’s people. You trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, Amos cried. You push the afflicted out of the way, you oppress the poor, and crush the needy. You hate the one who reproves in the gate and abhor the one who speaks the truth. You trample on the poor, afflict the righteous, and push aside the needy at the gate.[iv] You think of yourselves as worshipers of God, but you are tramplers, haters, oppressors, and crushers. You do not see past your own well-being, your own security, and the pleasures of your own lifestyle. Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
In 1935, when the German government’s rhetoric and actions against Jewish citizens was growing increasingly hateful and violent, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Only those who cry out for the Jews may also sing Gregorian chant.”[v] Too few were paying attention; too many kept singing their beloved hymns on Sunday morning, folding their hands and bowing their heads in prayer, only to fall silent as soon as they stepped from the sanctuary into the streets where hate and fear ruled. People were grateful for the comforts of a familiar liturgy and the hymns they had known since childhood, but only very few did speak out or stand up on behalf of their persecuted neighbors. The terror didn’t last; the liberators came, but millions had been killed and Europe lay in ruins.
“Liturgy in the absence of justice does not please God; it nauseates God,” writes Nicholas Wolterstorff. Gregorian chants, Genevan psalms, Lutheran chorales, Anglican anthems, Orthodox troparions, Baptist revival songs, and non-denominational praise chorusses can be the most beautiful expressions of worship, but sung in the presence of injustice they disgust God. “Liturgy is for giving voice to life, to lives of faith.”[vi] In our lives, we seek to obey God, individually and collectively; and in the liturgy we praise the one whom we seek to obey, and we confess our failings. In our lives, we show our love of God in all that we do; and in the liturgy we bless and praise the God we love. In our lives, we strive to be like God: holy, merciful, just. And in the liturgy we intercede with God to be our holiness, our mercy, and our justice. But if in our daily lives we do not do what we can for the feeding of the hungry and peace with our neighbors, then interceding with God for the hungry and for peace on earth is a disgusting religious performance. If in our daily lives we do not actively imitate the divine longing for justice and righteousness, then professing devotion to God in worship is a disgusting religious performance. Without connection to lives ordered by God’s love and the demands of that love, worship nauseates God.[vii]
Love demands that we honor our veterans, especially the wounded warriors and those who have come home no longer knowing what it was they were sent to fight for. Love demands that we give them not just medals, but the best medical care our country has to offer, jobs that pay a living wage, and affordable housing. And love demands that we don’t just let them do our fighting for us, but that we give ourselves with courage to the struggle for a better tomorrow for all.
I want to close with a brief quote from one of the church fathers. Sing to the Lord a new song! was the text for one of Augustine’s sermons. He said, “You tell me, ‘I am singing!’ Yes indeed, you are singing. You are singing clearly, I hear you. But make sure that your life does not contradict your words. Sing with your voices, your lips, and your lives. … If you desire to praise [the Lord], then live what you express … and you yourselves will be [the Lord’s] praise.”[viii] Sing with your lives, and you yourselves will be the Lord’s praise.
[i] Hellmut Gollwitzer (November 16, 1938) in Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich, ed. Dean G. Stroud (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 130.
[ii] Gollwitzer, 138.
[iii] Jannie Du Preez, “Let justice roll on like...”: some explanatory notes on Amos 5:24.” Journal Of Theology For Southern Africa no. 109 (March 1, 2001) 95.
[iv] See Amos 2:7; 4:1; 5:10,12.
[v] My translation; quoted from memory. See Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Eine Biographie (München: Kaiser, 1983) 685.
[vi] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Justice as a condition of authentic liturgy,” Theology Today 48, no. 1 (April 1, 1991), 17.
[vii] See Wolterstorff, 17.
[viii] Sermon 34, 5-6.