I thought I would start off today talking with you some about my daughter’s wedding in Brunello, Italy, and the church Joy and Claudio were married in—second time around. Just so you know, she and Claudio were married in Baltimore, they live in Bethesda, so they were married in Baltimore on June 30th. Claudio’s folks flew in from Italy to be there, of course, along with Claudio’s brother, Marco, a few cousins, aunts and uncles. But a lot of Claudio’s friends and extended family, just couldn’t make the trip. So, it made sense to have a second wedding—in the small town that Claudio grew up in and where his brother and parents still live. This second wedding was presided over by the only priest Claudio has ever known, Don Giamo.
I’ll get to the priest in a minute, but first let me tell you about the church. It was built in the mid 1500’s. It has a simple exterior—no gargoyles or flying buttresses, just stucco and brick-- but inside—OH, my goodness! On the front wall of the church— is a mural—and according to Don Giamo, it is the oldest extant church mural in Italy. During a plague, not THE black plague since that happened a few hundred years before the church was built, but during A plague, the church became a hospital. At that time for some reason, the mural was plastered over— Now the mural is being restored in all it’s magnificence. And, as you can see from the front cover of your bulletin, it IS magnificent.
At the wedding rehearsal, with Claudio acting as translator, I was introduced to Don Giamo. Claudio told the good priest, now in his 80’s, that I am a Presbyterian pastor. With a twinkle in his eye, Don Giamo put his hands together, in a gesture of prayer, and bowed to me—and I did the same right back at him. Then we both said something to the effect, “We are all one in Christ,” that kind of thing, each in our own language. Love that man!
After the rehearsal, some of us stood around and admired the mural. You can’t see this from the picture, but on the front wall to the left of the apse, is a rendition of heaven. White winged, white gowned angels are welcoming into heaven those who have done Christ’s bidding on earth. Lots of happy faces. Ah, but on the right! A winged Satan is hovering above. He looks down on writhing, and for the most part, naked bodies. We studied this right side of the mural for a time. Among the damned was a naked woman wearing a necklace—no doubt, someone of wealth, and a naked man wearing a bishop’s mitre cap, you know those large pointy hats? Yep, according to the artist anyway, there be clergy in hell! Again, with Claudio acting as translator, one of my daughters mentioned the various folks depicted as being in hell. Don Giamo nodded, and, again, remember the twinkle in his eye, “Yes, rich people, poor people, priests, bishops—and I suspect there may even be some Presbyterians there!”
That story, believe it or not, is a lead-in to what I really want to talk about today, which is not, Presbyterianism or Catholicism, but a theologian you have probably heard of, in sermons, or in your reading. His name is Karl Barth. He is, not even arguably, he is THE most significant Protestant theologian of the 20th century.
Karl Barth was born in Germany in 1886 and he died in Switzerland in 1968. You won’t be having an exam after the sermon. I promise. Just wanted you to have a time-frame for reference—his life spanned two world wars. Barth’s work influenced the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, Stanley Hauerwas, Jurgen Moltman to name a few other great figures still read and admired in theological circles still today.
As I said, Karl was born in Germany in 1886. He was in his 40’s when Hitler came to power. By that time, Karl had already established himself as a theologian. Barth surmised that Hitler was up to no good at a time when many, no, better, most of Germany’s church leaders condoned Hitler’s power grab. They believed that God was acting through Hitler to restore Germany to greatness. They reckoned: “How could a vision so awe-inspiring so pro-German, so pro-Christian be wrong?” Karl Barth, though. He had a sense of Hitler’s evil intentions. He knew that Christ is above any earthly state. A Christian’s allegiance must be to God and Christ, first. Not even Hitler, not even the state, stands above God.
In other words, Barth failed to march in goose-step with Hitler. Fearing for his career and even his life, he immigrated to Switzerland, with his wife, his five children and his gifted assistant and co-writer, Charlotte von Kirshbaum. The family, plus Charlotte, settled in Basel, Switzerland. Karl continued his work there, serving as a professor in theology. It was there that he eventually published his magnum opus, and I do mean magnum opus--a thirteen volume work titled Church Dogmatics.
Barth was more than an academic, though. He lived what he preached. From Basel, he continued to voice his concerns about Hitler. Through his writings, he attacked church leaders who supported the Nazi Regime. Karl was a leader in the Confessing Church, the only church organization, indeed the only organization at all, in Germany, to stand up to Hitler.
In my eyes, and in the eyes of many who study theology, Karl Barth is a hero—I would say saint, except that Protestants don’t have saints, but you get my meaning. He stands on a pedestal in the corner of my brain, a pantheon, reserved for Karl, Martin Luther, the reformer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Walter Wink (my favorite theologian), Thomas Jefferson, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Maya Angelou—That’s where Karl Barth stands, with them, again, in my personal pantheon of prominent personae. How’s that for alliteration?!
Sad to say, though, last year some of Karl Barth’s private letters to Charlotte, his assistant, maybe his co-writer, (there is speculation, but women weren’t allowed to be theologians back then). Anyway, last year some of Karl Barth’s correspondence to Charlotte became public. Shocker. The two were lovers. Ok, maybe not a shocker. I actually suspected they might be—maybe you did, too. it turns out, though, they were more than that. Karl so loved Charlotte that he moved her into his home in Basel Switzerland. Imagine that. “Honey, I love Charlotte, she’s like a second wife to me, so you and the kids will have to love her, too.” What did his wife think of that arrangement? I have no idea. So far, her correspondence to him, and his to her haven’t surfaced. There’s more, even than that, though. According to Kart Barth’s letters to Charlotte, he found a way to justify himself. In some of his letters he boldly states that God approved his union to Charlotte. God had provided Karl with a true help mate, a confidant. Theirs was a holy relationship.
There must be a fitting platitude to fit this iconoclastic bit of news—all good things must come to an end, maybe—or how about something scriptural: “My how the mighty heroes are fallen!” That’s from 2nd Samuel. Or Romans. Paul writes, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” I get that. I accept that. I KNOW MY SCRIPTURE!!! But Karl Barth? How hypocritical! Anyone else Lord, but Karl Barth?
The very reasoning that led him to condemn Nazism, Karl Barth’s belief that Christ stands as our supreme master above all and in all—that to Christ we owe our primary allegiance and obedience— Shouldn’t that belief have prevented him from taking up with Charlotte? From putting his own well-being ahead of that of his wife and children? For perhaps putting an end to his calling? And yet, like Nazi sympathizers who reconciled their Christian faith with Hitler and Nazism, Barth reconciled his affair with Charlotte with his religious beliefs. Somehow he managed to do that. Barth, then, is a hypocrite. I never thought I would say that, but it’s true. He’s a hypocrite!
A while ago, a clergy friend was cleaning out her bookshelves and she offered me one of her books which includes some of Karl Barth’s lectures. I grumbled: “ I have sworn off Karl Barth, thank you very much.” He has been banned from my personal pantheon of prominent personae. He’s not the only hero in my life for whom I have now, at least a grain of disrespect—Martin Luther—he was an anti-semite. And of course, Thomas Jefferson—he wrote “All Men are created equal,” but he owned slaves and he “bred” them—his words, not mine. He bred them so that he could sell them at market—like they were livestock. It wasn’t their intention to disappointment me, but they have. And maybe they have disappointed you too.
So, today I offer you my own take-aways from my struggles. Maybe you will find these observations helpful:
First, human beings in general, think in extremes. It’s either good or bad; the painting is either pretty or ugly. The music either sublime, or it hurts our ears. It’s just like that mural I told you about earlier—people either belong in heaven or hell. In our minds, and as reflected in that mural, we divide the world in two.
But the world is not really like that, is it? There’s this vast middle ground that we mostly ignore. It’s easier to navigate our world that way, certainly, but it’s a fantasy. Our world is complicated and so are people. We live in the gap. Between the dream and the reality. Between high moral purposes and the sad day-to-day hohum-ness and downright evilness of the world and the putting all our forces behind a achieving a better way; between the not even close and the almost there. Barth and Jefferson and the rest, shared their dreams with us. Those dreams are now my dreams and maybe they are your dreams, too.
Two. The people we revere probably never wanted to be revered in the first place--or if they did, then they had ego problems along with everything else! We shouldn’t put people on pedestals to begin with. God alone is worthy of our devotion.
And three, if we are honest, we admit, that WE are flawed, too. Well, everyone except me! We aren’t even just a little flawed. We are deeply flawed. For that reason, Jesus says, Judge not. What comes around, comes around—another platitude, but a good one. Self-justification is so woven into the fabric of our souls. We will never rid ourselves of it completely.
I will return one more time to that mural—on the front cover of your bulletin. You’ve got heaven, you’ve got hell, and you have Christ in the middle. In the gap. His hands outstretched. He stands there with us—embracing us. He judges us, but he also forgives us. And he forgives more than he judges, good thing! He sits in the middle and holds it all together—heaven and hell and us. We live by God’s grace and Jesus’s abounding love, in that gap. Amen