logo of the German Kirchentag

Sermon for the opening worship of the
32nd German Protestant Kirchentag in Bremen
20 May 2OO9

Pastor Renke Brahms
Moderator of the Bremen Protestant Church
(Bremische Evangelische Kirche)

Dear friends of the Kirchentag, dear Kirchentag people!

Here we are. We don't need to hide. Neither from God's countenance nor from our tasks. Neither among the trees in the Garden of Paradise like Adam and Eve, nor in the belly of the fish like Jonah. But that is what links together these two wonderfully told stories from the first book of the Bible and the book of Jonah - the story on which the Kirchentag slogan, "Mortal, where are you"', is based, and the story of Jonah: We can come before God although we are only mortals and we can come before other human beings because we are people God speaks with and commissions.
crowd at opening service
Part of the crowd at the
opening service

"Mortal, where are you?" God asks Adam and Eve in the Story of Paradise. They had both eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the centre of the Garden. They wanted to be more than mortal, to be God. But what they discover is that they are naked - simply human beings, not gods. But they are human beings - as intended by God, and now they are standing there as God created them. And they are ashamed. That's good. Someone who is able to be ashamed, has a sense that something is not quite right. Don't let yourselves be persuaded that being ashamed is a weakness. It is a strength and it is part of our dignity as human beings. The person who can be ashamed is someone who can sense that things are going in the wrong direction, of wanting to be something more than a human being. Nothing is worse than people who are not ashamed, who want more and more and do not feel the injustice within which they live, and with which they are enriching themselves at the expense of other people.

Is that the fundamental issue - that we continually face the temptation of wanting to be more than mortal? That we believe that we can increase our humanity, our being human if we own more, have more power, can do more than others? More, more - always more? This faith in continual growth borders on idolatry and is making us kaput. We do sense that this competitive grasping behaviour exploits both ourselves and the environment, and means we are sacrificing ourselves to this idolatry. We are destroying our bodies and our souls, our fellow human beings and our earth. We keep hiding ourselves among the trees and losing ourselves in this continual pressure for growth. We end up by forgetting our humanity and thereby forget God as well, just like the people of Nineveh.

But God asks, "Mortal, where are you?" How wonderful that this God lovingly looks for us in the thicket of the forest and longingly asks where we are. We are being sought out. You are sought after. Whether young or old, ordained or lay, a professional or volunteer worker, mayor or recipient of social assistance, manager or employee, soldier or pacifist, black or white, whether you are sitting at the front, or standing at the back - we are people who are sought after, asked where we are. We should respond, "Yes, here I am. I know my own limits and am not overestimating myself but I am ready to take responsibility for myself and my world - this is where I am." This is the great opportunity offered by the Kirchentag. Through worship and prayer, in Bible and at celebratory communion (Feierabendmahl) we come before God and hear God's call: "Mortal, where are you?" And we should not hide ourselves from this God who is lovingly seeking us, but rather respond, "Yes, here I am. I know that I am loved - despite my temptations, my going the wrong way or getting diverted - I know that I am supported and held by the immeasurably great love of God."

German President arriving to speak
The President of the FRG, Horst Köhler,
arriving to speak, with his wife
We celebrate the goodness of God and our faith, and we invite everyone in this city and in this land to celebrate with us: Christian people and those of other faiths, religiously musical and religiously unmusical, doubters and sceptics, fighters and laggards.

Dear friends of the Kirchentag. Now I want to imagine that ]onah preached about this story of paradise to the people of Nineveh. He would have posed the same question as God, "Mortal where are you?" "Where is your humanity? Where is your co-humanity?" The people there would have been moved and turned upside down by this question because they would have sensed that God was seeking them and calling them to repentance.

Jonah was able to interpret the story of paradise so well because he himself knew what it meant to hide away. Jonah hid himself because he thought, "I am only a human being, how can I preach to the people of Nineveh so that they will repent and change their lives?" The task seemed to be too great.

And who doesn't understand Jonah, given the many problems and challenges - and the need to repent and change - with which we are confronted today?

Do I need to spell them out? Yes, I do need to spell them out. Every fifth child in Germany lives at or under the poverty line. Yet it is the children who are our present and our future. Our educational system still does not offer equality of opportunity. In hardly any other country does education depend so much on the background of the parents as in Germany. Despite all our efforts, 1.4 billion people in the world still live on less than a dollar a day, and every seven seconds on our earth a child dies of starvation. The threat to the whole of creation through climate change cannot be dismissed any longer, and all the efforts and statistical games are no longer sufficient given the speed of developments. Old conflicts and wars dominate the daily agenda and demand a peaceful resolution: the Caucasus and the Hindu kush, Israel and Palestine, Sudan and Somalia. There is the danger of new conflicts over water and raw materials. And all that against the background of a global financial and economic crisis the extent of which we still can't evaluate.

Do I need to go on? We will be dealing with all these issues during the Kirchentag. We will see what can be done and developed. We will see what still needs to be done. We will speak of answers and the right way out of the crisis and we'll get quite hot under the collar in our discussions - and it's great that here we can do that! And it is so good that we are not ducking the issues, not putting our heads in the sand or trying to escape on a boat like Jonah - even when this is a Kirchentag of ships!

crowd at opening service
The crowd just grows and grows...
Perhaps Jonah thought to himself, "It's all pointless, Nineveh will never change" and perhaps you think that everything is too complicated and too complex. But we can be sure that even those people who in public seem so self-confident sometimes also want to flee on a boat in the opposite direction.

But God does not leave Jonah alone, he does not leave Nineveh and he does not leave us.
    "Jonah, where are you?"
  • "Mortal, where are you hiding?"
  • "Hey man, what are you running away from?"
  • "What sort of a plan have you been concocting?"
  • "Mortal, where are you? You're being called for, yes they're calling for you, calling for you!"

And the great fish spewed up Jonah onto the dry land. There he stood and got a second chance. Jonah had a choice. We have a choice, Nineveh had a choice - hide or go, flee or remain, close your ears and eyes to the call of God and the suffering of the people, or hear, see and act. We have the choice.

We don't need to hide. Neither from God's countenance nor from our tasks. Not among the trees in the Garden of Eden like Adam and Eve, nor in the belly of the fish like Jonah. We can stand before God, go to God precisely because we are human beings, human beings being sought out by God.

Let us then stand up straight and say, "Here I am. I know that I am needed, I am answering the call of God and taking responsibility. I call upon the people of Nineveh - or whatever the city or land is called - I shout to them about God's goodness, call upon them to repent, call upon them also to take responsibility."

And if tonight more than 250,000 people can say this and repeat this in the coming days, the hope will be awakened that Nineveh will change, wherever it is. There is much to do in the global village of Nineveh. Nineveh - just like Jonah - deserved a second chance, and even a third or a fourth chance.

God's goodness is so great. Let us have confidence in this, celebrate it, tell others and act upon it. And may the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep us in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Provisional tranlation from the German, handed out on the day.


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