This Friday we welcome guest blogger Lauren Plummer who offers a encouraging word for #pandemicpastoring. Lauren is a pastoral intern at Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, TN, where she recently preached this sermon in a zoom worship service. We welcome Lauren’s voice to this space, and we hope that you join us in considering the “fragile threads that hold us” in these pandemic days.
Weak Strength in God’s House of Belonging
Peter wrote this letter to the church in Asia Minor, offering some encouragement about how they might live holy lives in the midst of their trials and suffering, and from this angle, he may shine light on a word for us, too. I can’t help but notice that in response to all the troubles they’ve unloaded on Peter, he doesn’t respond with some charge to stand strong in the Lord’s mighty power or in the full armor of God. Rather he tells them:
Be more like babies.
Love the word as much as babies love milk (which is a lot). Be nourished by it and grow. He leaps from this metaphor about domestic tenderness to a sort of confusing one about living stones, and cornerstones, spiritual houses, and stones that make people stumble? This is a text that gets used sometimes to say who’s “in” and who’s “out,” but I rather think Peter’s advice to the church challenges traditional notions about weakness and strength in the kin-dom of God.
Peter tells the church: be like the living stone who the builders sized up and tossed out — a stone they didn’t think would make for a strong foundation in the kind of structure they wanted to build.
Unlike the fortresses and towers prized by the world, the spiritual house God is building is a home made of the rocks nobody wanted, characterized by things like mercy and belonging.
I’ve been contemplating (and I bet I’m not alone) our human weakness and vulnerability just a bit lately. How easily we can be undone or do harm to others — but also the truly amazing feats we go through to fight for each other sometimes. And what really matters most when things get hard.
I’ve been especially disturbed by the waves of protests against shelter-in-place orders and governors rushing to re-open business as usual. People are openly fighting for economic status quo over human life.
But I’ve been particularly haunted by a photo that has circulated of one such protester here in Nashville holding a sign that reads, “Sacrifice the weak. Re-open TN.” It’s enough to make me wanna cuss — but honestly, that’s a pretty good job of summing up what could be our national motto (for a long time now) — our tendency to sacrifice human life and dignity to benefit wealth and power.
It’s enough to make me wonder if another world really is possible. I wonder who this person thinks of as “the weak.” I wonder who they think of as being strong. I read this beautiful essay about “weak” strength in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written just a few weeks ago on the anniversary of his death. It has helped me find some footing while the ground beneath us is shifting, so I’ll share some highlights with you.
(In case you need a quick refresher, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and teacher. He was part of the resistance movement against the Nazi regime and participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He believed this was a sin, but that doing nothing would be a greater sin. He was executed by the Nazis and is considered a hero and a martyr by many.)
Laura Fabrycky served as a guide at the Bonhoeffer Haus (his family’s home) in Berlin, and she shares a reflection on that experience. She moved to Berlin with her diplomat spouse just after the 2016 election, and she visited the Bonhoeffer Haus in search of a hero’s wisdom to buoy her in that turbulent time. She was surprised by the humanizing details she found in Bonhoeffer’s story on that first visit.
She says: “The German guide that morning told us a story that put human flesh on the hero’s bones and set the singular individual in a more relational . . . frame. Here, we met Bonhoeffer the son, the brother, the friend and neighbor, even the citizen. We saw how these fragile threads of relationship—unarmed, organized in and by love, and maintained through practices of committed belonging — not only significantly shaped his life and its trajectory but also offered a moral counter-witness of their own.
When Nazi ideology and policy quickly poisoned the civic and political well, these ties of belonging, [seemingly weak in comparison], proved sustaining.” She points to these threads of relationship in places like the hospitality of the Bonhoeffer home, where Dietrich’s mother was always hosting a poetry reading or a puppet show and inviting all the neighbors. Also Dietrich’s parents — they held divergent worldviews and still exemplified love and respect.
Together they fostered a family culture in which they expected their children to care for people and give particular respect to those people in a weaker position. Then there was Bonhoeffer’s uncanny ability to make and keep friends. His biggest contribution to the resistance network was his “soft” skill in making friends outside of his own culture and cultivating bonds of trust.
Likewise, also formed many young pastors in his small seminary, teaching Christian pastoral practices that equipped them to serve as pastors in prisons and on battlefields in a time of moral crisis. Fabrycky began to understand that rather than “a singular hero leaping from strength to strength — like all of us, Bonhoeffer was formed in the small, slow, even weak places of life — by home, family, and friends.”
She writes that the “weak center” of the Bonhoeffer Haus becomes even more clear against another memorialized site on the other side of Berlin — the Secret Police headquarters which she says offers “a witness in the unequal struggle for the soul of the German nation.” You see, the Police headquarters was the main office of the Reich state security. It represented one of the powerful centers of those horrific years, and preserving its witness was critical to telling the truth.
It was known as a place of “intensified interrogation,” (a fancy way to say torture), and Bonhoeffer was imprisoned there for seven months after he was arrested. The SS headquarters existed “to assure the security of the Third Reich,” armed with “every available means for the official exercise of [its] power.”
Fabrycky says, “Its ability to project power into people’s homes, even into their minds and hearts, appeared totalizing and impenetrable for many years. Its apparent strength was its beguiling appeal,” promising hope and deliverance from Germany’s shameful national weaknesses, which Hitler of course blamed on their alleged enemies — the Jews and any other who threatened the myth of Aryan supremacy.
Since the fall of that regime of brutality and domination, another witness to weak centers has arisen to shine light on a force more powerful: the German Resistance Museum — which honors the many individuals and groups that refused to accept the noise and disinformation of the Reich. Here, visitors learn of Jewish and Christian resistance groups, the coordinated efforts of artists, intellectuals, labor unions, and the resistance efforts of young people.
Fabrycky says Bonhoeffer’s name and face appear there, too –but as one in a sea of names and faces that represent a whole “chorus of weak centers, allies in what was most important in life.” She writes: “This network of relatively unknown and ordinary humans refused to let the organizing principles of the Reich reorganize them.” And that refusal was grounded in simple forms of belonging — rooted in traditions, values, and a love of God and others. Fabrycky reminds us that this chorus of weak centers memorialized at the Resistance Museum is a witness to the hidden strengths that we often forget are undergirding every movement for peace and justice in our world.
To be clear, Bonhoeffer’s times are not our times.
The early church’s times are not our times.
We face our own struggles.
And yet, our world is full of “strong centers” that project their power into our minds and hearts until we can sometimes hardly imagine a life free from the poison — of white supremacy, nationalism, or militarism.
These centers of power have always survived on sacrificing the weak— naming people “other” or “expendable” because of race, nationality, ability or socioeconomic status. Living in the shadow of Empire, we must resist the pull to become callous toward human life or blame our problems on those deemed “weak.”
We must be careful to refuse the “necessity” of refugees detained at our borders or people trapped in prison cells while a pandemic rages.
We must refuse to accept this world where black folks are never (ever) safe from the terror of racist violence.
We must resist any other equation in which some lives are just worth more than others.
I must refuse to believe that the person holding that “sacrifice the weak” sign is truly my enemy.
What that person has forgotten, the friends of Jesus must remember — that we are at our strongest when we live in solidarity with the weakest among us– when we hold care for one another as tenderly as we’d hold a newborn baby; when we long for God’s kin-dom on Earth as fervently as a baby longs for milk. Bonhoeffer’s life and Peter’s letter to the early church remind us:
The way of Love offers a different view of power.
We strive to be like Jesus, the living stone, whose power came from love of God and a life of service bound up with the sick, the poor, the sinners, and all those cast aside by the high and mighty. Chipped and broken, soft enough to yield our own desires and make sacrifices for the good of others, our lives as God’s people are not compatible with the building plans of Empire. When all of us draw strength from our relatively weak places — relationships of trust & traditions of care, our strength spreads underground like the root system of an ancient forest, like water that breaks the rock.
When we refuse to sacrifice the weak because we are the weak and they are us — God builds us into a powerful house of belonging, with love and mercy enough for the whole world. In times like these we ought not look for a hero to save us or be enticed by the power of might and domination.
We need the witness of the weak centers—the witness of love, solidarity, and deep belonging, which sustain and preserve the soul of this world.
We are creating that slow and steady strength when we call to check in on each other, or drop off a generator in a power outage, when we play music for each other, when we raise our children as community, and when we share our joys after worship.
We build the house of belonging when we send money where it’s needed, when we speak out, use our privilege to benefit those marginalized, and make friends with people who are different from us. We cultivate solidarity when we decide we’ll not gather again in the church house until it’s safe for all of us to gather — not just the young or healthy or “strong.”
We cultivate solidarity when we live knowing we aren’t free until everyone is free. When many people are lashing out in fear and seeing the other as a liability, may we look around and see the abundance and strength we have in relationships of mutuality.
Thanks be to God for every weak center — every fragile thread that holds us in belonging. And may it ever be so.
Lauren Plummer’s background in street outreach and community organizing led her (back) to church and to her current role as a pastoral intern at Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, TN. She earned an MTS from Vanderbilt Divinity School with an emphasis in pastoral care and social justice work, and she is currently pursuing a Masters in Mental Health Counseling from Belmont University as a part of her call to healing ministries and community care.
Ministers, chaplains, activists, leaders, congregational pastors . . . whatever your role in ministry, how are you living and working in this unprecedented worldwide season of the coronavirus pandemic? To support you in bringing pastoral leadership and care to your situation, Three Minute Ministry Mentor offers support and resources on our Pandemic Pastoring Page.