"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

How Much Is Enough? (Sunday, November 11, 2012)


People were always asking Jesus to solve their problems for them. Bad enough he had to turn water into wine, and restore sight to the blind, and heal the sick, and all that. One guy even  asked him, out of nowhere, to interfere in an inheritance battle within a family.

“Teacher,” the man in the crowd cries out to him, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  But this is one fight Jesus is not going to get involved in.  “Friend,” he replies, “who set me to be judge or arbiter over you?” According to the rules of the day, the answer to this question was clear:  the oldest son was to receive double what any of the other sons would receive. That was the way things were done in ancient Judea at the time, and Jesus saw no reason to fiddle with it.

But Jesus was here to talk about the Kingdom of God, not mere dollars and shekels, so that’s where he goes with this conversation. The issue, Jesus says again and again and again, is the life you lead, not the things you have. And, as always, Jesus tells them a story.

There’s this rich man, he says; his land, we are told, “produced abundantly.” The rich man wonders to himself: “What am I going to do with all this wealth that I have produced?” “I’ve built all this. What am I going to do with it?” Ultimately, he decides to pull down his barns, and build larger ones, and store the crops away. Then, he’ll be all set for many, many years—“And I will [then] say to my soul, ‘Relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”

But God (as is often the case) has other plans. “You fool!” he tells the rich man. “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. This is your last day on earth. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? What’s going to happen to all your stuff that you’ve so carefully hoarded, and stored away, and made plans for?”

Then, Jesus delivers the clincher: “So it is,“ he says, “with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” They collect and collect and collect. And hoard and hoard and hoard. But there is never enough, and what good do their possessions do them when they’re gone? Absolutely nothing. We may not be sure where we’re going when we leave this earthly realm, but one thing we know for sure is that they don’t take the American Express Platinum card there! (Or I’ll be very surprised if they do.) All our wealth will do us no good when we’re gone.

“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”  The problem isn’t the man’s wealth.  Jesus doesn’t condemn the rich farmer for being successful—or for working hard and industriously—or for having land and enabling it to produce—or for renting it to people to work as tenant farmers—or for being successful at what he was doing—or for charging a fair price for his goods—or for providing for his family-- or even for putting some of his wealth aside, and planning for the future. No, Jesus seemed to have no problem with any of these things; within the worldview of Jewish religion and society at the time, he probably would have found them quite commendable.

But, here, Jesus doesn’t say to the wealthy man, “Well done, good and faithful job creator,” does he? He doesn’t commend the farmer here; rather, he calls the man a “fool”.  

A fool? But not for being successful. Not for possessing wealth or material goods, or even for using them to live a comfortable life. No, Jesus says, the man is a “fool” because he is hoarding his wealth; because he is keeping it stored away in barns, , and ignoring his responsibility for those beyond himself . He is being condemned for “storing up treasures” for himself, but “not being rich toward God”, in the words of Jesus.  

Sun and rain and soil have combined to make this man rich, along with an abundance of the grace of God, and a little luck, too, we can imagine. He has been gifted by life; he has been rewarded, and that’s fine; that’s no sin.

But what fruit does all his wealth bear? Selfishness. That’s it. Greed.  He wants more. He is going to store all that grain away in those great big barns. What does he plan to do with it? Not eat it all himself, certainly. He’s going to sell it, of course—at some point in the future; probably during a time of scarcity or famine, when the price is really high. Rather than share what he has, and help others out of their distress, he’s going to profit from their pain instead. There’s where the sin arise; there’s where his alienation from God springs. There’s where he starts his movement away from God and toward utter foolishness.

Excessive greed—and covetousness and envy—and self-centeredness-- lead us to forget about our connections—our interdependence with all life— our dependence on the greater Spirit of Life in which we live and move and have our being. When we hoard, and crave more and more and more for ourselves alone, then we forget about our responsibility to other members of our community, and our brothers and sisters with whom we share this world. We forget about God, the great Source of Life, without whom he would not even exist. We live completely for ourselves, and no amount of wealth, then, will ever be enough. We will never be full. We will never be satisfied.

The more self-occupied we are, the less self-satisfied we will be. I’m not talking about a healthy ego here; I’m not talking about a healthy sense of self-esteem. Those things are fundamental to living a healthy life in our world today. I’m talking about our need to have a sense that the circles of any of our individual lives are only made complete in union with the circles of the lives of others.

But listen to this guy in this parable: He talks just to himself; he even congratulates himself on a job well done. “I’ve built all this,” he exults. “How great I art! I’ve really done it again!” Of the 50 words we hear from this guy (in their English translation, at least), a full dozen of them are “I”, “my”, or “mine”: “my crops,”, “my barns”, “my grain”, “my goods”. His greed has led him down the road to isolation, and in isolation there is no life, just him and his greed “Blessed is he who is joined to all the living,” the book of Proverbs tells us. We can assume that the inverse is true as well, and cursed is he (or she) who is cut off from all others, who is isolated from them, who lives for himself (or herself) alone.

There are currently approximately 358 billionaires in the world. Only 358. None of us, I suppose. Each billion dollars of their wealth represents the lifetime production of 20,000 working men and women who labored to produce it.

We do not live for ourselves alone. We do not build our wealth by ourselves. We will never have enough unless we remember that truth; remember those to who we owe a debt; and share what we have with those around us.

Now, after Jesus is done talking about the foolish rich man, he goes on and hints at what a satisfied life might be.

“Consider the lilies, how they grow,” Jesus says just a few verses down in the gospel of Luke, “they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink… Instead, strive for [God’s] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

We are, each one of us, a simple flower—just a lily of the field. Maybe a day lily, or an Easter lily, or a glorious Cala lily. There’s lots of diversity among lilies, but some scholars think that the lilies Jesus would have been referring to, with which his listeners would have been familiar (and yes, there are scholars who figure such things out) would have been what we call Loden lilies today: a common flower that grew among the grass and weeds in the area where Jesus preached. A simple flower, quite plain; but pretty hardy, too, able to adjust to adverse circumstances, and which grew abundantly wherever it took root.  

Sturdy, but simple, and not especially stunning. Nothing like King Solomon in all his glory, certainly. Not like Solomon, one of the wealthiest rulers of all time; who built the Great Temple of Jerusalem; who had shields and thrones built of gold; who built his palace with golden steps and doorways. He sat surrounded by 12 great lion statues, all solid gold. King Solomon was considered wealthier than all the other kings of his day combined.

But that’s not real abundance, Jesus says. Solomon had a lot in life, but he was never satisfied with his lot in life. He was always off looking for new riches and new conquests. And ultimately, in the course of life, even Solomons come and Solomons go. But the flowers of the field continue to burgeon forth, year after year, season after season. If you want to see what real abundance is, Jesus says, then look at the lilies of the field. The simple lilies who know they are dependent on the Source of Life for their entire lives.  

If you want abundance, Jesus says, if you want to have enough, then live the kingdom of God—practice the reign of love within your hearts. That love is infinite, and that reign lasts forever. Even in good times, even in rich countries, there might be just so much money to go around; just so many fatted calves that you can slaughter; just so much grain you can hoard in the barns you’ve built.  We become “rich toward God” when we stop circling the wagons around ourselves, and caring only for ourselves, and reach out and embrace and share all we have with all creation. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Where there is great love, the hungry heart is filled.  

I think Jesus would have agreed with Brad Pitt, or, actually, with Tyler Durden, the character Pitt portrayed, in the movie Fight Club [Though I don’t think he would have liked the movie very much, but maybe I’m wrong. Who am I to speak for Jesus?] At one point, Durden exasperatedly shouts at his friend, played by Edward Norton: “You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not [the clothes you wear.]” {He actually uses a more colorful and explicit figure of speech than “the clothes you wear”, but it’s a figure of speech that even I can’t repeat it here.}

Or as President George Herbert Walker Bush (the elder President Bush; “Daddy Bush” as my mother calls him) said in his inaugural address:

“We are not the sum of our possessions. We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend; a loving parent; a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood, and his town better than he found it.”

That, very simply, is how we transform our reality, and transcend our limitations, and live out the way of the divine in this, our little kingdom of days. This is how we come to some sense of “enough” in these little, limited lives we lead. It is how we experience that profound, sustaining abundance which beats at the heart of this precious life. It is the way we bring about—right now-- if only in the holy moment we have before us, the blessed reign of the Love of God.

Monday, November 19, 2012

"We Are All Pilgrims" (Thanksgiving Sunday, November 19, 2012)


            As we heard, it was quite an arduous journey that our Pilgrim ancestors withstood, to make it here to our own particular corner of North America. Sixty-five days on the high seas, over high waves and strong storms; crammed into the ‘tween deck of a rickety wooden ship; 102 of them (104 if you count the dogs), crammed into a space no more than 75 or 80 feet long and 25 feet across (and only 5 or 6 feet high). Sixty-five days. You can bet no one said “Time flies when you’re having fun.” No-- no doubt, they felt every hour of all of those sixty-five days. But, as William Bradford said, “They knew they were pilgrims,” and, as such, they felt the deep, inner impact of the journey in which they were engaged.

            We are each on our own journey, of course; our own journey through life. A journey with at least its own share of challenges and discomfort—though, usually, thankfully, nothing like that which the Pilgrims withstood.  So sometimes (maybe even often) we do say, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” Or we just say, “Time flies.” Because it does. The twinkling of an eye, and twenty years, give or take, have passed. Our journey meets one milestone, and heads toward another. Common journeys shared as one come to a fork in the road, and go their separate ways.

            It hasn’t been all fun, this journey we have shared for over 19 years now; this journey that will, slowly, surely, draw to a close over the next three seasons. Even the best vacations, the most pleasurable trips are seldom all fun. Important life journeys—like jobs, and relationships, and marriages, and raising children—never are all fun. There are always going to be challenges and frustration mixed in amidst the joy; that’s what makes them real.

            As I contemplate the conclusion of my journey as your minister here in Stoughton, my thoughts first turn to all those dear souls, dear friends, who have passed from our presence over the past nineteen years. And I am humbled by the privilege of having known such wonderful people. And humbled, as always, by the sheer privilege of having been your minister.

No, it hasn’t been all fun. Life isn’t. But I remain convinced, increasingly as the years have passed, that we have cultivated a higher fun-to-frustration ratio in our time together than anyone else in similar circumstances could have done. We have been as well matched, you and I, in temperament and disposition as minister and congregation could be. The Search Committee did a good job back in 1993. You have done a good job! Maybe even I have done a good job!

I could not have asked for better fellow-pilgrims with whom to share this part of my life’s journey.

You have been so kind to me, and to my family, over these past nineteen years. You have shown me the graciousness and hospitality that is at the heart of this dear church. Perhaps that is what we have to offer a world which needs it so very badly: a radical hospitality—a generosity of spirit—a deep sense of acceptance--  which will continue, long after I’m gone, to welcome all people, whoever they are, wherever they have been, wherever they are along the journeys of their lives, not as strangers, but as dear fellow pilgrims.

At this season of Thanksgiving, I will continue to shake my head in wonder and delight at whatever force it was (and I believe it was the grace of God) which brought me here to minister among you, and walk this road, and sail this sea, side by side with you, my fellow pilgrims.  

Thanks be to God for that.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Religion and the Presidents (Sunday, November 4, 2012)

We make a big ballyhoo about the “separation of church and state” these days, and for good reason. But back in the early days of this Commonwealth—back when we were still a colony, actually—there was no such thing. Rather, there was, believe it or not, a state church (which Massachusetts would have until 1833, the last state in the country to do so). The “First Parish” in each community was the “established” church in town—and its minister, as you might imagine, a real “Big Wig” (often literally, in the real old days). Back in the Colonial period, he was (and it would have been a “he”), the “guardian of public morals”, and even Superintendent of Schools. Neither of those are jobs I would especially want to have now.

Church attendance was pretty much mandatory back then (now that’s not such a bad idea; only kidding!) and the official Town Minister was often asked to preach (at length—what other kind of preaching is there?) at various community events like important anniversaries, and days of thanksgiving and fasting—and, on Election Day. The “Election Day Sermon” was a common aspect of community life in mid-18th century New England, and Election Day itself was observed as a sort of public festival. It started with the firing of a canon and the mustering of the local militia; then, there would be a procession of town officials, from the Town Hall to the local First Parish Church; then, there would be a church service and a sermon—a long Election Day Sermon, in which the local minister would pontificate upon the importance and meaning of civic virtue and choosing the right men (it would have always been men, back then) and while he would not have told people for whom to vote, he might have hinted, fiercely, in one direction or the other—and everyone in town would have to listen!

Well, the “Election Day Sermon” (or, in this case, the “Two Days Before Election Day Sermon”) here in Stoughton has evolved into our little gathering here this morning, and a sermon only a fraction in length of what it would have been back in 1750! So who can say there hasn’t been progress?

Still, somehow, as much as things have certainly changed over the years, in election after election there still seems to be an awful lot of influence placed on the question of the relationship of the candidates’ religious beliefs and their suitability for office. Last time around, there were questions about Barack Obama’s relationship to his Black Nationalist pastor in Chicago, and lingering doubts about whether or not he was “really” a Muslim in disguise. This time around, the questions revolve around Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith (along with those lingering imbeciles, who still think that President Obama is “really” a Muslim in disguise). We also have two Vice-Presidential candidates who both are called, sincerely, “devout Catholics”—even though they disagree on abortion, gay marriage, the social safety net for the poor, and just about everything else. As most “devout Catholics” do.

We’ve never had a President who was a Mormon, or a Muslim. Still, more than fifty years after John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, we’ve only had one Roman Catholic President (and, interestingly, since then there has been only one other major party candidate who was a Catholic—John Kerry in 2004; Michael Dukakis was close; he is Greek Orthodox).

I hope we have a Mormon President. Some day. It doesn’t have to be anytime soon.

And I hope we have a Muslim President some day, too. (Wouldn’t that be interesting?)

And a Jewish President. (With a Muslim Vice President perhaps. Or maybe vice verse. They’d have to work that out!)

I wouldn’t even mind a Jehovah’s Witness becoming President. Though the fact that they don’t vote or hold public office would make that difficult.

I wouldn’t mind any of these things, because, you see, I (like the Almighty) have this personal prejudice in favor of diversity. The wider the array of differences among people, the more glorious the world is, and the wider the variety different perspectives we have representing this great land of ours, the better off we will be in the long run. That’s my philosophy.  

It would even be nice to have a Unitarian Universalist President, someday. We’ve never had one of those either (mainly because there have, technically, only been Unitarian Universalists since the merger of Unitarians and Universalists in 1961). Just give us time. Maybe one of the kids in our church school? Wouldn’t that be grand!

In the years before that, there never was a Universalist President of the United States. There has been, as far as I know, only one nominee of a major party who was Universalist. That was Horace Greeley, the Democratic nominee against Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. Greeley, a well-known journalist, who had coined the phrase “Go west, young man!”, was overwhelmingly defeated by Grant. He then had the bad manners to die even before the Electoral College met (the only candidate ever to do so), so that his electors (paltry as they were) were split among four other individuals.

The last Unitarian nominee for President was Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Some people even attacked Stevenson for his Unitarian faith. They said that because he wasn’t a “real Christian”, Stevenson was unfit to be President. When asked by a reporter if a non-Christian could be President, Stevenson replied, a little tongue-in-cheek, “The problem with democracy, you see, is that anyone can become President.”

Two of the first six U.S. Presidents stand firmly in the Unitarian tradition—John Adams, our second President, and his son, John Quincy Adams, our sixth. But even though they are in our tradition, their brand of liberal religion was very different from that which we practice today.

The elder Adams, especially, was a committed Christian, in the sense that he was a firm believer in the life and teachings of Jesus. But he was also an ardent free thinker, who sided time and again with the Liberals against the Calvinists in the battle that was then splitting New England congregationalism (and which would lead to the formation of the American Unitarian Association some years later, in 1825).

“My religion is founded upon the love of God and my neighbor, on the hope of pardon for my offenses; upon contrition; upon the duty as well as necessity of struggling with patience against the inevitable evils of life; in the duty of doing no wrong, but all the good I can,” Adams wrote.

Adams attended and supported his home church in Quincy faithfully (indeed, both he and his son, as well as their wives, are buried in the crypt of the First Parish Unitarian in the center of Quincy, the “Church of the Presidents” as it is called). But Adams had little patience with the trappings and pretense of most organized religion. He once told a friend that he saw in most members of the clergy the “pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces.” In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, he wrote: “Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, ‘this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.’” As President, in signing the Treaty of Tripoli with the Muslim Barbary state in 1797, he declared in no uncertain terms: “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion.” The Religious Right would have John Adams tarred and feathered for such statements today!

The next “official” Unitarian to hold the Presidency was none other than the illustrious Millard Fillmore. Fillmore was an active member of the First Unitarian Church of Buffalo, New York, where his memory is, apparently, still held in high esteem. (You do not make fun of Millard Fillmore in Buffalo!) Fillmore enamored himself to many fellow Unitarians early in his career when, as a young lawyer, he argued in favor of overturning a New York state law which required all witnesses in court to swear an oath saying they believed both in God and in the existence of a hereafter. But Fillmore also angered many fellow Unitarians later on when, as President in 1850, he signed the notorious Fugitive Slave Act which required runaway slaves in the North to be returned to their Southern masters.

Likewise, the next Unitarian President, William Howard Taft, faced controversy within our own denomination. In 1917, Taft, a former President by then, was serving as Chief Justice of the United States, and was also the Moderator of the American Unitarian Association at its annual meeting in Boston. At that gathering, Taft locked horns with John Haynes Holmes, minister of the Community Church in New York City, and an ardent pacifist, over American entry into the First World War. Largely through Taft’s insistence, a resolution by Holmes opposing the war was defeated by the delegates present. So, it’s not just Catholic Vice-Presidential candidates who disagree about various social issues.

So, officially, there have been four Unitarian U.S. Presidents. Of course, sometimes we claim those who were “like us”, even though they were never officially “one of us”. The most notable of these, perhaps, was Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson was, officially at least, Anglican (Episcopal). But he seldom attended Anglican services, and like his sometimes friend/ sometimes rival John Adams, Jefferson had a deep appreciation for the moral example of Jesus of Nazareth—if not for his divinity. Jefferson called the teachings of Jesus “the sublimest system of morality that has ever been taught.” But he rejected the Virgin Birth, all the miracles credited to Jesus, as well as the entire supernatural structure which the years had appended onto what he called “pure Christianity”.

To counter all this, Jefferson wrote a short book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (sometimes known as The Jefferson Bible), which presented Christ as a kind and gentle moral sage, freed from all dogma and superstition. An historian describes the process Jefferson used in producing his “Bible”:

“…Jefferson did most of his work [on the Jefferson Bible] while sitting in the old White House. Late into the night, he sat pouring over the gospels with a razor and a glue pot, physically splicing out miracles and pasting together a non-supernatural account of Christ.”

Indeed, as the same observer has written:

“If today, a President sat up late at night cutting passages out of the Bible, the Right would go ballistic, claiming sacrilege, while the Left would be disgusted that a President would take religion so seriously as to be tormented by a thirst to find a version of faith he could believe.”

There is little doubt, though, that Jefferson was an ardent Deist, who looked for evidence of God’s handiwork not in the pages of scripture, but in the works of nature. The references to “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence which Jefferson authored were not mere turns of his literary pen. They were, rather, clear statements of what Jefferson and most of our other founders believed.

While he never became a Unitarian officially (indeed, there was no official Unitarian organization until two years after Jefferson’s death), Jefferson did hold Unitarian beliefs and practices in high affection. In a very interesting letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse in 1822, Jefferson wrote:

“I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priest, the genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.

Well, about the prospects for Unitarianism in the New World, Jefferson was a bit overly optimistic. But about his hopes for our new nation, and his faith in its liberty and freedom, he was not.

We should rejoice, it seems to me, that our Presidents have approached matters of faith from such a diversity of directions. For it is in this diversity of belief that our strength as a nation truly lies. “Religion is a matter which lies solely between [a] man and his God,” Jefferson wrote, “He owes account to none other for his faith or his worship.”

As it is for each of us, so it should be for our President. His faith is his own, and may it guide him ever toward justice and wisdom. May we judge our government’s policies not on the basis of creed, but on the basis of their fairness and efficacy and whether they serve the cause of human need and help to usher in a better and more peaceful world.

It is the separation of Church and State which keeps our state free and our churches strong.

And it is the workings of the mystery of faith within each one of us, as private individuals and as public servants, which make us complete and whole.

As President, Harry S. Truman (who was a Southern Baptist, by the way) would regularly recite the following prayer:

Oh! Almighty and Everlasting God, Creator of Heaven, Earth and the Universe:
Help me to be, to think, to act what is right, because it is right; make me truthful, honest and honorable in all things; make me intellectually honest for the sake of right and honor and without thought of reward to me. Give me the ability to be charitable, forgiving and patient with my fellowmen - help me to understand their motives and their shortcomings -- even as Thou understandest mine! Amen, Amen, Amen

There are certainly worse prayers that a President could pray. There are certainly worse prayers that any of us could pray, as we make our decision this coming Tuesday.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

Saint Alexander: The Freedom Fighter Who Became a Saint (October 28, 2012)

It was January of 1943, and Hans Hirzel had a bit of a problem. Sophie Scholl—a friend of both his sister and himself, now a student at the Ludwig-Maximillian University in Munich, and (secretly, of course) a member of the White Rose student resistance group-- had come Munich a few days before and had presented him with a briefcase chock full of typewritten, mimeographed leaflets, ominously titled “A Call to All Germans”. It was the fifth leaflet the group had produced, and its content presented a direct challenge to the Nazi dictatorship:

“The war is approaching its destined end,” the leaflet read. “Hitler cannot win the war; he can only prolong it. The guilt of Hitler and his minions goes beyond all measure. Retribution comes closer and closer… But what are the German people doing? They will not see and will not listen. Blindly they follow their seducers into ruin…  Germans! Do you and your children want to suffer the same fate that befell the Jews? Do you want to be judged by the same standards as your seducers? Are we to be forever a nation which is hated and rejected by all mankind? No. Dissociate yourselves from National Socialist gangsterism…  A new war of liberation is about to begin. The better part of the nation will fight on our side. Cast off the cloak of indifference you have wrapped around you. Make the decision before it is too late…”

            In the Nazi state where a citizen’s every move was subject to scrutiny, mere possession of such incendiary literature could bring swift retribution. Helping to reproduce it and distribute it could bring a long term in prison at the least-- and just as likely, a death sentence.

            But now, Hans Hirzel, 18 years old, just out of high school and waiting to enter college in Munich himself, had about 1000 copies of the leaflet, hidden in his bedroom at the parsonage of the church where his father was pastor. He had heard from Sophie Scholl some of the things that she and her older brother Hans and several other university students had been doing to show their opposition to the regime. He had agreed to help them spread the word in other cities—including their hometown of Ulm. Now, his chance had come—with all the danger it included.

            He went to see his schoolmate, Franz Müller, whom he knew also opposed the Hitler regime. Müller, a faithful Catholic, had even given Hirzel and some of their other friends copies of sermons delivered by Bishop Clement von Galen of Münster against the Nazis’ euthanasia policies. They had spoken among themselves of doing more in opposition to the dictatorship. Hans knew that Franz would help—or he at least hoped so.

Hans Hirzel
Franz Müller

            Franz agreed to try to get enough postage stamps to mail the leaflets— and envelopes, too. Sophie had given Hans money donated by various individuals for just this task. Purchasing a thousand stamps at once, obviously, would arouse suspicion even in a society less-observed than Germany at the height of war. He would have to make trips to as many different post offices as possible—as far away as Stuttgart and Tübingen, if need be, always with a ready excuse of what the stamps were for. Finally, stamps and envelopes, were secured—not quite a thousand, but enough to get going on their dangerous project. The two schoolboys agreed to meet to get the leaflets ready for mailing.

            But where? Neither of their homes were safe, not with parents and neighbors and siblings prowling around. Nor, of course, would any public place be acceptable. Then Hans thought of the choir loft at his father’s church, the Martin Luther Church in Ulm, which boasted one of the largest and best pipe organs in the entire area. There was a large space behind the organ, where no one ever went. They could move a table there, a couple of chairs; he could set up a small lamp by which they could work; he would also bring a typewriter to address the envelopes, with addresses taken at random from the telephone book. Meeting there would arouse no suspicion: Hans was a gifted musician, who often used the organ at the Martin Luther Church to practice; he even had his own key to the building. He would even play a few pieces as they worked, to disguise their true intentions in being there.


            They met the next night, and walked to the church. Hans let them in, then locked the door behind them. They drew the black-out curtains in the sanctuary, then made their way up the stairs to the organ loft. As Franz Müller arranged the leaflets on the table, Hans sat at the organ bench and began to play. The first song he chose was Luther’s Ein Feste Burg—“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”.

            Even though he was a staunch Catholic, Franz Müller knew Luther’s masterpiece; indeed, all Germans did. It was an important aspect of their culture and history—a song sometimes called “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation”, a stirring call to arms in the face of the evils of the world.

            A mighty fortress is our God,

            A bulwark never failing,

            A helper sure amidst the flood

            Of mortal ills prevailing…

            Luther’s last line brought to mind the high stakes of the fight these two boys were now waging:

            The body they may kill,

            God’s truth abideth still,

            His kingdom is forever—

            Or, in the original German “Das Reich muss uns doch bleiben.” – “That Reich will remain forever.”  That Reich—not the insane Third Reich of madmen who now ruled over Germany—that is what would abide forever.

            “It was as though I was hearing my own death sentence,” Franz Müller said later, “That was clear. We might well die because of what we were doing there. But then, I began to breathe heavily, and I thought to myself, ‘Finally, someone is speaking the truth!’”

            Indeed, some would die. By the end of the next month, February 1943, Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans Scholl, and their friend Christoph Probst, would be executed in Munich when they were discovered distributing leaflets at the university. Within weeks, the Gestapo had rounded up dozens of their supporters in cities throughout Germany. Their investigations led them readily to Hirzel and Müller in Ulm.


            Thirteen defendants went on trial at the Second White Rose trial in April 1943—among them Hans Hirzel, Franz Müller, and Hirzel’s sister, Susanne. The judge was Roland Freisler, president of the “People’s Court” of the German Reich, Hitler’s “hanging judge”. Somehow, Freisler got it into his mind that three Aryan-looking youngsters like Hans and Franz and Susanne—all were blonde with blue eyes, epitomes of the German racial ideal—could have freely chosen to become enemies of the Third Reich. They must have been tricked, Freisler believed; misled, fooled; they were “impressionable schoolboys” who should not have to pay for their errors with their lives. Instead, he sentenced Hans and Franz to five years in prison, and Susanne to two years for her lesser role.


            But toward others of the defendants, whom he considered White Rose ringleaders from the University in Munich, the hanging judge was not so forbearing. Three of them-- Professor Kurt Huber, Willi Graf, and Alexander Schmorell—were sentenced to death.

Alexander Schmorell was born in Orenberg, in the depths of Russia, almost a thousand miles east of Moscow on September 16, 1917.  His father, Hugo Schmorell, was an ethnic German, although he had also been born and raised in Russia. His wife, Nataliya Vvydenskaya—Alex’s mother-- was the daughter of an Orthodox priest, and, shortly after his birth, Alexander was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church.

When Alex was only two years old, his mother died of typhus. In 1920, his father married Elisabeth Hoffman, a Catholic German woman who had also grown up in Russia, and in 1921, the Schmorells left Russia in order to flee the Bolsheviks who had just come to power. They took with them Alex’s nanny, Feodasiya Lapschina, under the pretext that she was the widow of Hugo’s brother. The family later had two more children, Erich and Natascha, who were baptized Roman Catholic. But under the influence of Feodasiya Lapschina, and in honor of his late mother, Alexander was raised in the Orthodox faith. Also because of Feodasiya, all three of the Schmorell children grew up in a bi-lingual household, maintain close ties to their family’s original roots in Russia.

In 1935, when he was 17 years old, Alex met Christoph Probst, a fellow student at the Neue Realgymnasium, or high school, in Munich. Their friendship grew, and in 1940, Alex was best man at Christoph's wedding to Herta Dohrn. In 1942, he became godfather to their second son, Vincent.


In 1939, more at the insistence of his doctor father than by his own choice, Alexander began to study medicine, and in the fall of 1940, he transferred to the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, with an internship in the medical student military company of the Nazi army.

From the start of Hitler’s Reich, Alexander Schmorell despised the Nazis. Because he still considered himself more Russian than German, their ideas of a "master race" were anathema to him. He especially resented any ideas that he and his fellow Slavs were somehow "inferior" to racial “Aryans”. When he was inducted into the military, he refused to swear the oath of absolute allegiance to Adolf Hitler. But for some reason, his commanding officer chose to ignore Schmorell’s actions, and he was sent as a medic, first to Austria, then to Czechoslovakia, as those countries were forced one after the other, under the German yoke. But Alexander often told his friends that, even if ordered to do so, he would never turn a gun on his Russian brethren. While he loathed Stalin and the Communists almost as much as he did the Nazis, he still considered Russia his true homeland, and yearned to return there when the war was finally over.

Sometime in the fall of 1940, Alexander Schmorell became part of the same student-military company as Hans Scholl.  They became friends, and Hans started coming to the Schmorells' house for "reading evenings", which Alex would host now and then. It was here that Hans Scholl also got to know Christoph Probst, then later Willi Graf. Soon, this group began speaking among themselves of the need for a concerted effort to oppose Hitler and the Nazis from within Germany, and the nucleus of the White Rose was formed.    

Between the middle of May and the end of June, 1942, Alex and Hans wrote the first four of the group’s leaflets. When, with the help of an artist friend named Lilo Ramdohr, Alex managed to get hold of an old duplicating machine, distribution of the leaflets began in earnest.  Full of citations from German arts and letters, the Bible, world religions, as well as facts and figures from the daily papers, the early White Rose leaflets called upon the German people not just to oppose particular policies of the German government, as Bishop von Galen had done, but to rise up and topple the entire regime. A passage from the Second Leaflet of the White Rose written by Alexander Schmorell in 1942, contains the world’s first public outcry against the Holocaust and the destruction of the Jews:

“…since the conquest of Poland three hundred thousand Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way. Here we see the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history. For Jews, too, are human beings-- no matter what position we take with respect to the Jewish question-- and a crime of this dimension has been perpetrated against human beings.”

In July, Scholl, Schmorell, and Graf were sent to the Eastern Front in Russia for three months. In spite of the severity of the conditions he faced, Alex was thrilled to step foot in the land of his birth once again. Because of his fluency in Russian, he was able to meet with regular Russians on his own, and even attended Orthodox services, while still dressed in his Nazi uniform.


When they returned to Munich in October of 1942, the efforts of the White Rose were revived and redoubled. Hans Scholl’s sister, Sophie, joined the group, as did Professor Kurt Huber. Contact was made with the Hirzels in Ulm and allies in other cities. There were tentative ties forged with other small circles of resistance throughout Germany. In January of 1943, the Fifth Leaflet was published, and the White Rose members sought out ways to distribute thousands of copies throughout the German Reich. Alexander Schmorell made the most arduous and dangerous of the journeys—traveling to Linz, Vienna, and then Salzburg, to distribute leaflets.

After the fall of Stalingrad in February of 1943, a wave of pessimism swept over the German nation. It now seemed evident that Germany might well lose the war. A sixth White Rose leaflet was published, calling for wide-scale desertion from the Nazi cause. On February 18, however, Hans and Sophie Scholl were caught while distributing this leaflet at the University in Munich. They were arrested, and soon, too, was Christoph Probst. Immediately,  the search for other accomplices began. At first, Alexander Schmorell attempted to escape to Switzerland, and even managed to secure a forged passport. But when he realized how dangerous this ploy might be, he decided to return to Munich and go into hiding there instead. But on February 24, he was recognized at an air raid shelter, and turned in to the police. On April 18, he and twelve other White Rose accomplices were placed on trial. On April 19, three—Graf, Huber, and Schmorrel-- were sentenced to death. On July 13, 1943, Alexander Schmorrel was executed by beheading in the same room at Stadelheim Prison in Munich where the Scholl siblings and Christoph Probst had met their fate a few months before.

            But the story of Alexander Schmorrel does not end with his death, of course. Nor does the story of the White Rose.

            In their fifth leaflet, the members of the White Rose had written:

“Only in large-scale cooperation among the nations of Europe can the ground be prepared for reconstruction… The Germany of the future must be a federal state… Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the protection of individual citizens from the arbitrary will of criminal regimes of violence-- these will be the bases of the New Europe.”


            However imperfectly, their dream of a New Europe would be realized in the years after the war by the work of the European Union.  

             The White Rose was not a religious group per se, of course. But it cannot be doubted that faith in God and a search for a wider, deeper meaning of life were among the primary reasons that these young people acted as bravely and selflessly as they did. Alexander Schmorell was the only one of the group who was Orthodox. Some, like Willi Graf and Franz Müller, were Catholics. Most, like the Scholls and the Hirzels, were Lutherans, of varying degrees of piety. Some professed no particular faith all.  But their deep and fundamental faith in the ability of men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit to transform the face of the world is obvious and exemplary. Even some of his closest friends thought of Alexander more as a cultural exponent of Orthodoxy than as a deeply religious person. His faith seemed, at first, a way for him to stay connected to his Russian heritage, if nothing more. But his faith would be deepened in the crucible of a heroic and self-sacrificial life. It would become real in the face of danger and then death.  In his letters to his family from prison, Schmorrel would write about this deepening faith in the clearest of terms. Facing certain execution, he experienced a deep and transcendent feeling of peace, knowing he served the truth. In his last letter, written just before his execution, he exhorted his father, step-mother, and siblings, "Never forget God!" Alex felt comforted by God’s presence, surrounded by the deeper meaning—a deeper truth which the example of his life now demonstrated clearly to all of us, and all posterity. And for this reason, if no other, Alexander Schmorrel is a saint.

For perhaps true sainthood is not necessarily about outward holiness and piety, but about how a person lives out the Way of God in the years and days and hours of the life he or she is called to live on earth. And it is about the ways in which these blessed men and women remind us—constantly, persistently, in all their diversity and glory—what God requires of each of us in our own lives—right now.

St. Alexander Schmorell was glorified as a New Martyr by te Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in Munich, Germany on February 5, 2012. His home parish lies across the street from the cemetery at Perlacher Forest where he was buried in 1943, in the shadow of Stadelheim Prison where he was killed.