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Chaplain Peter Otto: Pass on the Fire

Sermon on the 7th of November, 1999 in Lübeck

Gospel: Luke 11:14-23: Casting out a dumb devil and Jesus’ confutation.

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Faith!

During my studies in the Frankfurt Seminary a fellow student had attached to the outside of his door a quote which I read at least once a day, because his room was opposite to our mail room. And every time when I was at my post box in the mail room, I read this quote on the opposite door, when I left. This quote remained in my memory, because I find it most memorable. It makes a point of a lot of those things I think are enormously important for the traditions of our faith and today’s commemoration of the Four Lübeck Martyrs: The quote goes as follows: “Tradition is not the adoration of the ashes, but the passing on of the fire”.

Ashes – that is what you, the Luther Community, and we, the Prioy Community Herz Jesu, preserve in our churches as reminder and remembrance. The ashes of Karl friedrich Stellbrink and the ashes of Hermann Lange. Indeed, neither here nor there, neither on this Sunday nor next Wednesday are we going to worship the ashes of those two. But during the remembrance services for our four martyrs Johannes Prassek, Hermann Lange, Eduard Müller and Karl Friedrich Stellbrink we are upholding a tradition, which has been cherished for many decades. It is a tradition kept alive through remembrance. That is why, year after year, people who were in contact with the Four, were related or befriended, or appreciated them as teachers or companions, come back to Lübeck.

The ashes of Pastor Stellbrink and Chaplain Lange which we keep, tell of Fire. I do not mean that existence-threatening, destroying and death-delivering fire of National-Socialism, which robbed those four of their lives on the 10th of November, 1943 under the guillotine in the Hamburg Holstenglacis Prison. But I mean that fire of faith, which put them in contention and conflict with the unjust Nazi-Regime. It is this fire we must rediscover and pass on, if we do not want to run the risk, to adore their ashes and thereby the past and the deeds of the Four.

Maybe, the beginning of today’s gospel can be the important key to understand the four executed. The evangelist Luke tells that Jesus casts out a demon, which was dumb. Dumbness surely can have a variety of reasons: Somebody lacks the bodily precondition in the region of mouth and throat, to be able to speak. Or someone is so shocked and fearful, that words fail him.

The Lübeck Martyrs were not dumb. They spoke openly and freely, as they thought, what they perceived through their faith. Karl-Friedrich Stellbrink, for instance, called the British air-raid in the night from the 28th to the 29th of March, 1942 a type of “Divine Judgement”. Johannes Prassek, together with Hermann Lange and Eduard Müller distributed sermons of the Bishop of Münster Clemens August Graf von Galen, who had taken quite a stand against the Nazi-Dictatorship; and in his sermons Prassek enumerates the injustices more and more.. A parishioner is supposed to have warned Johannes Prassek: “Chaplain, if you continue like this, you will soon be dragged from the pulpit. You will land in the KZ (Concentration Camp)”. Prassek laughed. He then became serious: “Haven’t I spoken the truth?” And then, quietly, as if only to himself: „When they come to get me, they’ll be doing only what I have long bee am waiting for”. (See: Pelke 12) .

Some may have thought them stupid or irresponsible in those days..
But Prassek is as one with Pastor Stellbrink and their friends Chaplains Lange and Müller: „We priest must show the courage to speak the truth“. (See: Lösch mir die Augen aus 36)

Johannes Prassek thus brings home the message, what concerns him and his friends. It is about truth. It is not about adolescent rebellion against authority and the state. Instead, it is about truth. And thereby about people. Because untruth makes men dependent and enslaved.

Where does he get the courage and the strength to do all this? To speak the truth, knowing full well, that it may cost his life? How could they remain true to their convictions, that this was the correct way?

Where did Pastor Stellbrink get the strength, to remain true to his conviction, after his Church dropped him? How much did the rumor, that their bishop, Wilhelm Berning, had cast them adrift, unsettle the chaplains? [Incidentally, it is by no means beyond dispute, whether Bishop Berning really approved of the actions of his chaplains, or may be looked upon them as the actions of imprudent, careless grown-up boys?]

It is said of Johannes Prassek, that he exclaimed after the trial and pronouncement of their sentences: “Thank God that this farce is over!”. After his sentencing he even wrote to one of his schoolgirls: “I have only one problem: they might retract the sentence. That disappointment would be too hard to bear”. (See: Pelke, 54) A retraction of their sentences would not have been a present-of-life for Prassek and the others, but only confirmation that they had not been taken seriously. “Mental derangement” or “Certifiably insane” would have been their credentials in that case.

Our four Martyrs were no politicians, who went into opposition of Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship because of their political convictions. They were Christians. Religious men, who were convinced that our God is the God of Life. That our God wants life not just for a few selected by the state leadership, but for all: No matter which religion or denomination, no matter what colour or nationality, no matter whether hale or disabled – just for all! They were no doubt driven by the Holy Spirit who shows us the Holy Scriptures also in the form of fiery tongues! I am convinced that the Holy Spirit is the fire that made the steam which drove Karl Friedrich Stellbrink, Eduard Müller, Hermann Lange and Johannes Prassek. They could not sit still in their presbyteries. They had to open their mouths and speak the truth. Surely, they did not put anybody in harms way. Family and friends were not meant to dragged in with them. But the power of the Spirit, his fire was so big and mighty, that they could do nothing else but speak out. A saucepan, placed on the fire with the lid firmly closed, will – if there is enough energy added – explode. That is most certainly what would have happenend to the Four, had they remained silent. But their speeches were no end in themselves, to avoid tearing themselves apart inside through silence about the Nazi injustices. Their speeches served the truth, as Prassek used to formulate, and thereby men and God.

I don’t think that they would have wanted to be adored or glorified by us. And they certainly don’t want for us to stiffen in reverence about their courage to speak and tell the truth.

On the contrary, I am convinced that they want for us to share that fire which drove them and pass it on. Because we too are Christians, Believers who do not want to keep their mouths shut, when it involves the truth, when it involves people suffering injustices. Let us stay awake and mindful of our time. Let us see when it becomes necessary for us to speak out.

It cannot be that we remain silent when scientists want to play “God” and by way of genetic material from a mammoth found in the ice of Siberia, want to clone one using an Indian elephant cow to bear it. So it says in the media recently.

It cannot be that we, as Christians, remain silent when eight photo-models advertise their egg-cells on the Internet for amounts of between DM 27,000 and DM 270,000 so that some parents can fulfil their desire to have a “beautiful” child.

It cannot be that we the Lutheran or Catholic Church remain silent on the topic of abortion. That we silently accept, that despite counselling for life, we fail in our country and society to convey to women and couples in conflict situations a perspective of life with their child. And if the PDS (a political party) demands in Bundestagsdrucksache 13/397 (Federal Parliament Paper) free choice for women regarding abortion, because it is part of the right of personal choice of a woman, whether she carried a pregnancy full term or not, then we forget somebody: Namely the Unborn Child. And that is where we as Churches are required to lend our voice to those who have none or are not listened to.

It cannot be that our country transacts war-material exports to countries where human rights all too often are trampled underfoot. It cannot be that the hatred of foreigners and anti-Semitism are played down as societal phenomena. And there are no doubt many other domains and issues when there is too much silence. Included in that are critical disputes with our political parties, with all parties: SPD as PDS, CDU as FDP, Bündnis 90 / Greens or whatever they might be called.

We are the spiritual heirs of the Four Lübeck Martyrs. And inheritance demands a pledge. It’s not good enough to hold memorial services, to recall what they said and did, and that we praise their deeds. All that is important. But the remembrance, the engagement and courage of Johannes Prassek, Karl Friedrich Stellbrink, Eduard Müller and Hermann Lange will only have meaning, when we discover the fire, which drove the Four. The fire of the Holy Spirit and the Faith, which they themselves received from those people they led on the path to Faith in God the Father of Jesus Christ. The fire which drove them to speak and not to remain silent. This fire has been passed on to us. We have received it from our parents, our religious teachers, our pastors or whoever instructed us in our faith. It is the same fire of Faith, the Lübeck Martyrs lived by. It is up to us to make visible and clear that the tradition of our Faith, our Churches and our remembrance of the execution of the clergymen Eduard Müller, Johannes Prassek, Hermann Lange and Karl Friedrich Stellbrink is not the adoration of their ashes, but the passing on of their fire. Amen.



Chaplain Peter Otto, meanwhile a Parish Priest, held this sermon on the 7th of November, 1999 in the Luther-Church in Lübeck, the parish of Pastor Stellbrink. He speaks about the fire of faith, which the Martyrs wanted to pass on, had to pass on, and which is an obligation for us today.