How things have changed.
It is a week ago that I headed off to Stuttgart for the Kirchentag – the amazing conference put on across a German city every two years. I have been going for a while and it gets ever better. In 2013 in Hamburg I was invited to preach at the closing service: a congregation of 130,000 and televised nationally. This time I was asked (among other events) to take part in a conversation with Kofi Annan (former Secretary General of the United Nations) and the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The theme of the two-hour discussion: ‘The world is spinning out of control’.

Actually, I was not really needed in this discussion. Like the audience of ten thousand in the huge arena, I really wanted to listen to the two stars discussing what is going on in the world – in the hope of learning something. I did learn, and they deserved the standing ovation at the end. (I was also uncomfortable, though, because I went straight off to hospital after the event to be told I had an “atypical pneumonia” (chest and throat infection) and had to stop. No wonder I wasn’t firing on all cylinders.)

Introduced by the excellent moderator, television journalist Arnd Henze, Steinmeier began with the sort of intelligent paper to be expected from a serious German politician. One of his basic points was that Germany’s behaviour in the twentieth century had caused the world to spin out of control and that Germany now had to take responsibility in the world – not standing back where there is need. He was realistic about the demands and expectations of solutions. Both principled and pragmatic, he passionately articulated the moral obligation to be engaged in the seemingly intractable conflicts and troubles of a changing world.

Having quoted the former Chancellor Willy Brandt, he asserted:

Heute, 32 Jahre nach Willy Brandts Rede ist diese Welt keineswegs friedlicher geworden. So lange ich denken kann, kann ich mich an keine Zeit erinnern, in der internationale Krisen in so großer Zahl an so vielen Orten gleichzeitig auf uns eingestürmt wären wie heute. (Today, 32 years after Willy Brandt’s speech, the world has not become at all more peaceful. As long as I can remember, I cannot think of any time when so many international crises in so many places have simultaneously piled in upon us.)

In his paper later, Kofi Annan wanted to put this into perspective, claiming that the world is a safer and better place today than it was in the past. Urging everybody – particularly the younger generations – to take their responsibility in leading peaceful change in the world (starting small and local), he demonstrated the patient pragmatism that made him able to lead the United Nations through previous crises. In the later discussion I tried to put this into perspective: only 75 years ago nearly 80 million people died in a global conflict – every generation faces its own crises and every generation fears it might be the last

Steinmeier, however, summed up the approach when he said:

Vieles hat sich verändert in diesen Jahren – die Aufgabe nicht. Die Aufgabe von Außenpolitik ist geblieben – wie Willy Brandt ohne jedes Pathos beschrieben hat, nämlich: dass illusionsfreie Bemühen, zur Lösung von Konflikten beizutragen. In einer streitbefangenen Welt voller Krisen und Konflikte, voller Missgunst und Hass, dem Frieden auf die Sprünge zu helfen. Und Frieden lässt sich nicht herbeiwünschen. Er entsteht nicht durch öffentliche Erklärungen; nicht einmal durch Resolutionen der UNO. Selbst die Frage, ob ich Recht habe ist unerheblich. Frieden will erarbeitet werden, meistens dann wenn das was man braucht zum Friedensschluss: Vertrauen, schon restlos ruiniert ist. Deshalb, wenn die Konfliktparteien nicht mehr zu einander kommen, dann kommt es auf Dritte an.

(Much has changed during these years – but the task has not. The task of foreign policy remains the same – as Willy Brandt described without any pathos: the illusion-free commitment to contribute to the resolution of conflicts; in a world of disputation, full of crises and conflicts, filled with resentment and hatred, to lend a hand to peace. And peace doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t come from public statements; not even from UN resolutions. Even the question whether I am right or not is irrelevant. Peace must be worked at, particularly when what is needed for a peaceful conclusion – trust – has already been totally destroyed. Therefore, when the conflicted parties cannot approach each other, that is the time when the Third Party comes onto the stage.)

My contribution was miniscule. But, despite the limitations of such a format, it was a privilege to be invited to take part in this discussion with people who are so deeply engaged in a world that I (and the churches) touch on mainly because of our deep international partnerships and links across the continents.

I began with a statement about how things have changed. This pertains mainly to the fact that I have blogged my way through previous Kirchentags – in order to give wider access to the riches experienced and heard there. These days there is little time for writing this blog – something I regret and hope one day to recover.

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This is the text of the sermon preached in Bradford Cathedral this morning (16 June 2013) by Sebastian Feydt, pastor of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, based on Luke 7:36-50.

Dear brothers and sisters, are we bound together by this biblical story? You as you are living here in Bradford and me who has come from Dresden?

Is Jesus talking to the Pharisees and the woman in a language which we all understand? If so, it must be the language of love. The language of peace. These languages we all understand.

And they connect us.

Because they reflect our longings: to be accepted and loved; to be able to take the next step in our lives freed from burden and guilt; to walk in peace. This longing for love and peace binds us together much more than many other things which were mentioned when Jesus, these men and the women met.

Self-righteous men who talk so much by themselves, who prejudge and judge so quickly other people – often women – still exist in today’s England or Germany as they existed in Jesus’ days.

That women are forced to sell their bodies in order to make a living – and that there are enough men who take advantage of it – this form of slavery goes back further than we can imagine. Prostitution is by no means the oldest business in the world, it is one of its oldest scourges. All recent efforts to make prostitution socially acceptable, to declare it a reasonable service in our modern society does not change the fact that love cannot be “made”, nor can it be bought. Wherever people try to, the language of love withers away. In the end it is muted.

Like the woman Jesus met: no sound passes her lips; she is out of words. Instead, her heart speaks. She pours it out by wetting Jesus’ feet with her tears.

I am touched by this thought.

This is not an everyday moment.

This is not a situation in which someone sheds a few tears out of anger. No, here we are confronted with an eruption of pain and despair and we find it hard to react in an appropriate manner. Just to put an arm around her shoulders to comfort her does not work – it didn’t work back then either. There is more going on than what could be healed by pity. This young woman is looking for a new life. She wants to be recognized as a person, to be addressed by her name and not to be reduced to her past.

This young woman at Jesus’ feet no longer wants to be mute and nameless. She wants to get up, straighten up, to finally start her true life.

Have you experienced such a moment in your lives as well? When it becomes obvious that life cannot go on the way it did any longer? Because the love there was between husband and wife or between partners had faded? Because the big dreams of a merry family did not come true? Because children left and loneliness moved in instead?

We all know times of crisis. We are no strangers to incurring guilt by ill-treating ourselves or others. It leaves us speechless, loveless, peaceless. And it raises our longing for being accepted and loved so that we can take the next step in our lives freed from burden and guilt.

And also to hear: Go and walk in peace.

By following her heart, the woman finds her way. She goes to where she knows she will be accepted: at the table at which she knows Jesus sits. There she gets on her knees. Humble she becomes. And she confesses her sins – to God. Without a word, but still comprehensively. In a way that has Jesus tell her: Your sins are forgiven.

If I want to confess the sins I committed in my life it’s not my mouth that needs to speak but my heart that has to bring it before God and the people. It takes a very special language to realize my guilt and the truth about me and my life and to bring it before God.

The woman speaks the language of love with her tears and her tender gestures. She experiences that she is being heeded and thus considered, accepted and thus admitted into society, acknowledged and thus appreciated. All that lies behind her is not going to build up anew in front of her. Neither she nor any of the other men can re-erect it. The way is clear. Jesus helped this woman to take that step.

This is what is meant by being freed: not FROM your past but WITH your past. I’m not free because I leave things behind but because I face them.

Thereupon Jesus grants the gift of forgiveness as the main precondition for reconciliation and for peace – Shalom. Goodness in our hearts and minds – and our lives. This nourishes the blessing

“Go and walk in peace!”

As Christians we can be peace messengers.

Does the world recognize us as such? As the ones who know how we can find peace?

– In ourselves.

– Together with others.

– Within society, between peoples?

Go and walk in peace!

What is it that connects us? It is the language of peace and light.

Let’s speak it! Here in Bradford. And in Dresden. In Afghanistan. In Mali. And when we ask what would do good to Syria …

Go and walk in peace.

Peace be with you!