Taylor gave me a generous and thoughtful gift of Will Willimon’s compilation of fourteen of Karl Barth’s early sermons, preached at Safenwil. Hard to believe that just two weeks after finishing my coursework I’m already picking up Barth. Granted, it’s not Dogmatics, (even I’m not that crazy) but still.
I’ve been feeling a little low lately. Perhaps it’s the persistent concern of being found out as a fraud, or not being good enough, or whatever. Mourning may last for the night but joy comes in the morning, comes to mind. Sometimes it seems the second half doesn’t come through. Even though I believe in God, I often live life as a closed system. No interruptions could shake what’s going on; a kind of half-baked nihilism.
It’s hard to believe at face value really. I grew up in the church, have read plenty of scripture and theology since, and try to cultivate my, sometimes fledgling, spiritual life. [Spiritual is not the word I want there, as it connotes a lack of embodiment and realness, which is possibly a contributing factor to the disconnection I sometimes realize between my “spiritual life” and “life.” I just can’t think of a better phrase right now. But I digress]. Familiarity breeds more malaise, than contempt. Sometimes the goodness and grace and abundance of God will bust through while reading Scripture, or more often at the communion table, but that is the exception rather than the rule. The sense of somehow knowing it all (preposterous and pretentious as it is) leaves little room for surprise.
Enter Karl Barth’s sermon on Mark 10:46-52, about Jesus restoring sight to a blind beggar. Whew…take a breath of relief. I know that first half was a little emo and angsty, but there is good news in this blog post, I promise. Barth’s whole sermon springboards off one sentence: “A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside” (1). This blind beggar, for Barth, is a microcosm of all humanity. Inexplicably cast aside by life. Questions of what is a human being surface: “Does life make fools of us all? Has it ever, even for one person, kept the promises it made? Does life have any consideration at all for us when it chooses to turn the wheel of fate, so that what was up is now down? Does it not lie in wait for each of us, with sin and care, sickness and old age?” (3).
But this is not the end of the story or sermon; another one will walk by the blind beggar. This one was subjected to the worst of life, but not overcome by it. The reason for despair and resignation to the way things are is our tendency to make a way in the world apart from God. “God is the key to life, but human beings have lost this key….” (6.0). Jesus preaches the power of God over against the power of life. He doesn’t tell the blind beggar to accept his fate and muddle along. Barth again, “He promises that life must not remain as it is, that none of the dark secrets of life may threaten and depress them indefinitely, that with God life shall be different. He calls out, ‘God seeks you, you human beings, in your misery, God, whom you have lost. God comes to you before you do anything, and God has followed after you! God loves you in your sin and distress and will not leave you in it! Believe in God, so life will no longer be able to make of you what it will. Believe in God, and you will be the stronger one! Do not just accept life, and by no means accept life’s meaninglessness, but accept God, who helps you!’” (6.2).
This is a different way of being in the world. Barth reads Scripture with the fascination of a child, hearing in this one verse, what it would likely take me reading all four gospels to even approximate. His wonder and amazement jars loose any assurance of knowing in a way that is exhilarating rather than terrifying. As a kind of safety net, I tend cordon off those places where I might be surprised by God, instead encountering the God I am comfortable with. Barth calls me out of this comfortable complacence into a different way of seeing and being, pointing toward the One who can restore sight. “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”
At a lunch meeting of the class of 2013, Stanley Hauerwas exhorted us to read Barth during our years of ministry: “It will sustain you.” I think he’s right. I’m thankful for his words, Willimon’s compilation of Barth’s sermons, and Taylor’s gift. Here’s to reading with new eyes.