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Principal Pastor Christoph Störmer: Martyria

Sermon on the 14th of November, 2010 in Hamburg

Blessed are they, that are persecuted for Justice’s sake; theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
(Matthew 5, 10)

Dear Parishioners,

Some of you may know of a scene from the ecumenical calendar „The Other Advent“ : A reception, people mill around, a glass of champagne in hand. Someone asks: „And what do you do?“ Reply: „ I’m a Christian“. Astonishment : „O, that’s interesting. And what does that entail?“

What would you have answered?

A classical reply of the Church reads, there were four expressions of our Christianity:

  • One answer could be: „I go to church on Sunday”. Thus, one would satisfy the Liturgia, i.e. the Faith as celebrated in Divine Service.
  • A second answer might be: „I am with the visitation group of our parish“ or „I assist with school home-work in our suburb” or „I work in an honorary capacity in the One-World-Shop” All of that is Diakonia, the practical Christian Charity, practical Faith directed expressed in works of compassion.
  • The third answer could be: „ I like to go to church functions; there I experience community beyond all limits, an exhilarating feast of encounters”. Or: „Soon I shall move to the Community of Harbourcity, the ecumenical project „The Bridge“. That would be playing the cards of Koinonia, i.e. the divided, between cultural and ethnic differences, ecumenically experienced Faith.
  • Finally, I mention as, as the last, a fourth, which today matters most, the „Here I stand“. Or more poignantly: „ Here I stand, I can do no other“. That is Martyria . With that we do not, in the first instant, mean what we devote this service primarily to: the Martyrium, i.e. the fact that someone pays with his life for his witness, his conviction and beyond that becomes a martyr. 

However, I have not come to that, yet. I am still with that person at the cocktail reception, who has taken the first step, a disclosure as it were, and professes his Christianity. Thus, he is ready, as is asked for in Peter’s First Letter, to readily answer anyone who demands of us an explanation of the Hope which is in us. (3,15 – New Geneva Translation).

Martyria thus, begins when a person professes. It is that easy and yet so difficult! To bear witness means firstly, not to point to others but to oneself. It also means, and especially when things go badly, not to duck, but to avow one’s principles, not to hide behind flowery phrases, or cite publications by the Church, the party or family tradition, but to say „I“, to listen to one’s conscience, and in a case of conflict listen more to God than to men.

„What do you stand for? “, asks Giovanni di Lorenzo in his just published, very personal book. In dialogue and combination with Axel Hacke, the Principal Editor of „Die Zeit“, he seeks to find out what is important in our lives today. 
This book has become something of a „stock-take“ for authors. “What is it that still excites us? When did we make off? When do we lie to ourselves?”

At the beginning they already confirm:

„Everywhere in our society one can feel a great desire for clarity, leadership and explicity. We know this from ourselves. However, this need can hardly be met. It leads to erroneous opinions if one faces Life constantly with Ethics, it is also necessary that Ethics can withstand Life.

Many people thus feel a lack of orientation. Some look for support in Heilslehren (course or lecture on redemption), many more, however, (and by far much less dangerous) from counsellors. Others seek refuge in cynicism. And we? Do we rationalise our belief by assigning a value to our ambivalence, and devalue it thereby?

No, because we know very well, that even today we are quite capable to differentiate between good and evil in many situations – and have to. We have just attempted to remain honest. It is not enough to just find the right standards in Life. One also has to be able to convey them, constantly to oneself and to others.“

And then they define the differences between the Now, here in the Federal Republic, and for instance those times we are recalling in this service here today:

„Most of us live in an environment, which hardly ever demands of us to make a fundamental appraisal of what is good. Which one of us has ever had to place his life, his wealth, the safety of his family in jeopardy, because he stands up for justice: To hide a man pursued by dictatorial police, or stand between a man and his attacker, or take part in a demonstration where participants have to risk going to jail. How many of us are prepared to forego something special, because we place a greater value on morality.

But it is because we are risking so little that one should expect us to remember every day, what want to stand for, to live conscientiously and remember the moments when we gave up our own values and demand of ourselves to do better the next time.“

The liturgy of this service, focussing on the remembrance of the Lübeck Martyrs, strengthens us therein. By remembering in our Koinonia, our community, beyond all boundaries of faiths, we acknowledge to one another our failures, but also remind ourselves of our diaconal mission and political responsibilities, each and every one of us can be stirred to show more courage, to show oneself in the spirit of Martyria.

The question: “What do you stand for?“ then also becomes: “What do you stand up for?“ or even more pointedly: ”Where do you cry out for the Jews?”
By adopting Bonhoeffer“s dictum – „Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing the Gregorian chant“, I have already placed the bar that high, that even our Four Martyrs would have dislodged it. To remember the 10th of November 1943 means to acknowledge with alarm and shame how much our Church was entangled in the Nazi State’s system of terror. Even the Confessing Church could not find words of solidarity with the Jews. And in the case of the Evangelical (Lutheran) among the four clergymen whose fate we commemorate today, I am still dismayed today to read how he was cast adrift by his Church, firstly by dismissal from his ministry and discrediting, him subsequently by casting him as a notorious grumbler and declaring him finally unable to think and act rationally, thus classifying him as “bordering on the insane”.

What would have been, if instead a large number of brother clergy had stood with them and testified on their behalf, had stood up for and in their stead, for their incarcerated brothers? Who knows if the Martyria would have become a Martyrium?.

It is of no use to speculate. However, it is worth to reflect upon Martyria comprehensively as the willingness to show fortitude, even in less dramatic circumstances, also to break with thoughtlessness and convenient conformity, in a manner which Ingeborg Bachmann once called “Bravery in the face of the Friend” – it was in 1953, ten years after the execution of the Lübecker (Lübeck Martyrs), at a time when re-armament was being debated and the poetess pronounced: In future he shall be called a hero who avoids the fight, awarded a medal who flees from the flag and indeed shows that “Bravery in the face of the Friend” with determination, which quite often is far more difficult than “Bravery in the face of the Enemy”.

When we think back to our four brave Lübecker, we also have to remember how many years it took, no, what do I say: Half a century had to pass before the Nordelbische Church authorities admitted in 1993: “It is with pain and shame that we have to acknowledge that the Lübecker Landeskirche ( Lübeck church authority) distanced itself from Pastor Stellbrink and deserted him. We regret that there was no rehabilitation at the end of the war by the Church Committee. We cannot right the wrong. We can only acknowledge after 50 years, that leading church personalities obligingly submitted to injustice and left a brother clergyman and his family to their fate. ... The Four Lübeck Martyrs stand for the Church of Jesus Christ, which cannot change course ever or be complicit in injustice“.

A good ten years after this admission of guilt and subsequent rehabilitation and honouring by the Evangelicals, the Roman-Catholic Church began a process which we as Evangelicals do not know in this form.

Through their beatification next year these clergymen, as an example for us, will be raised up to the Christian Pantheon, i.e. declared as belonging to the „Community of Saints“, the Community of Saints which we, in an ecumenical spirit of unity, also acknowledge in our Creed.

As Evangelicals we are somewhat reluctant and repressive- as we shall, as is said in the dictum for this Volkstrauertag (Remembrance Day of the Dead) –„ all have to give account before God’s throne“ (2 Cor. 5,10)

So much disgrace has manifested itself in our Churches during the past year, appearances seem to deceive and hide that behind the pious facade lurks an abyss of treachery and wrong. The Lutheran „simul justus et peccator“ simultaneously excuses and calls into doubt that as, aware of the co-existence of light and shadow, should be deserving of God’s seal of beatification.

But we seem to agree in one thing: Our Four have been beatified already long ago by Him whose words we listen to in the Sermon on the Mount. In the last of eight beatitudes Jesus closes the circle: As it says in the first: Not just for those is the Kingdom of Heaven, who are poor in spirit, i.e. who are poor before God and know it, but also those who are persecuted for Justice’s sake, theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”.

For the sake of Justice – that can only mean that after the enhancing sequence of beatitudes, especially concerning compassion, justice and peace, for truth, for the ultimate, existential truth. To die, to willingly accept death, is something one does either in desperation or for truth, because on would otherwise despair because of the untruth. To those apply the beatitudes.

As Churches we have given, in the course of our histories, away all rights to preach about beatitudes, because we all too often were with the persecutors of dissenters. However, trusting in Jesus’ Good Tidings, we may repeat His words and spread the Word: Blessed are those who are persecuted for Justice’s sake and have paid for it with their lives, as witnesses against mendacious might and evil authority.

Yes, blessed are they that were persecuted for Justice’s sake, blessed are Karl Friedrich Stellbrink, Johannes Prassek, Hermann Lange and Eduard Müller, theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.



Translation: Hans-Heinrich Boeker, Wyoming, Australia



Sermon by Lutheran Principal Pastor Christoph Störmer (from the Main Church of St. Petri in Hamburg) in the Hamburg church St. Ansgar (called „Kleiner Michel“) during an ecumenical service on the occasion of the 67th anniversary of the death of the Martyrs, on the 14th of November 2010.