Joseph Wiesenfarth’s Homily from November 29, 2020

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Joseph Wiesenfarth

29 November 2020

Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Corinthians 3-9, Mark 13:24-37

In these fraught times, I am thinking about something they remind me of in the  past.  Once upon a time when I was about half of my present age,  I was editing a notebook of George Eliot’s with entries in seven languages, many of which were in                   German.  So I took myself off to a Goethe-Institut in Blaubeuren, then West Germany.  Classes were six hours a day, five days a week for a month.  Now Blaubeuren was famous for a large pool of very blue waters, but not for anything else.  It boasted seven churches and one movie theatre.  Consequently, though we students came from different continents and countries, we all had the same idea on weekends:  Get out of town! 

          Almost, though not quite, most memorably was a weekend in the city of Ulm on the Danube.  A few of us went to a Bach Festival there, and I sat on the dais next to the harpsicord and strings.  The music embraced me . . . totally.

            Another weekend proved to be even more memorable, though it didn’t start out that way.  I took the train to Herrlingen to investigate the burial site of Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel.  In World War II his genius in battle in North Africa earned him the title “Desert Fox.”  Moreover, his military intelligence and his knowledge of the troops and armaments of the Allied D-Day invasion told him that Germany would be destroyed if it did not surrender.  But Hitler wouldn’t surrender.  Therefore, Hitler had to die.   But the assassination plot failed.  Rommel was condemned to death and required to take his own life.  He did.  He was in different ways a hero, and I was curious to see how a peaceful Germany honored its greatest soldier.

          As I entered the cemetery where Rommel is buried, the very large tombstone for one Ludwig Wiesenfarth greeted me.  It was surrounded by smaller stones for a variety of Wiesenfarths.  I remembered that my father, whose parents both immigrated from Germany, told me that Wiesenfarth is as common a name in Germany as Smith is in the United States.  It may be an old name originating in an agricultural world since it could be loosely translated into something like meadow path or meadow ride.  So what my father told me once upon a time made sense, though I had always thought the popularity of our name in Germany an exaggeration.  At that moment in Herrlingen, however, I found my father right on the mark. 

          I immediately stepped out of the cemetery and asked a passerby if he knew of a Wiesenfarth family in Herrlingen.  He said that he did, and that he just left a Wiesenfarth across the street in die Schenke—in the tavern—and he would ask him to step out.  He did.  If I am remembering correctly, that the gentleman’s name was Joseph.   Looking for a legendary German soldier and patriot, I found a namesake.  Indeed, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel lay modestly and obscurely buried with a simple metal marker in a remote part of a cemetery dominated by my family—if, indeed, my very remote family.  

          What happened to me in Germany, a Joseph staring at perhaps another  Joseph, way back in the very late ‘80s of the last century was a new sense of self, to say the least.  And I mention that now because our readings today give us a new sense of the self of Jesus as we look at the Messiah, who has been, will be, and, as the scriptures tell us, still is among us.  Isaiah, Paul, and Mark, all three, are about the meaning of that presence.

          Today’s readings give us a new sense of self because Jesus is the promised Messiah, who has been, will be, and is.  His way is prepared by Isaiah who has 

God tearing “open the heavens and com[ing] down” to his people because if he hides himself there will be nothing but sin and this people will fade like leaves on a tree.  God must come, therefore, and use them as a potter does clay and make them into an altogether new people.   

          Paul and Mark make the point that what Isaiah called for has happened.  I think of Paul as a changed man.  He was a Pharisee on his way to Damascus to take part in the persecution of followers of Jesus when he met Jesus on the road,   was knocked down and changed into the new Paul who traveled to many cities to  affirm with their inhabitants, as he did with the Corinthians, that Jesus died for our sins, rose from the dead, and lives on until the Second Coming.  What he writes in his letter to the Corinthians affirms all this and more.  He would travel every path that led to families of believers and encourage them in their faith and their comity with him as a people awaiting the return of Jesus as Messiah.  What Paul is celebrating with the Corinthians, then, is that like him they have been made anew in the Risen Jesus.  And that for him and for them three things matter—believing, hoping and loving.  And the supreme is loving.

          Now Mark would also have us think today about End Matters, as Paul does with the Corinthians.  But we can also look at beginning matters because starting today we are in Advent.  And whereas we do not want in any way to neglect the importance of what we’ve read in Isaiah and Paul, I think it appropriate also to think about where we will be four weeks from now.  We will not be thinking of a yew tree, but of an evergreen tree.  We will be thinking about the birth of Jesus.  It will be the feast of the green and bright world of shepherds and angels and lights . . . heavenly lights . . . and a star above a stable, to be precise.  So in the very dark world we at this moment inhabit because of the pandemic and the unprecedented chaos inflicted on us after the presidential election, we have something refreshing awaiting us wherever we find ourselves on Christmas Day.

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