The Transfiguration of Jesus is our Gospel for the last Sunday in Epiphany every year.
It gives us – looking on with his disciples – a glimpse of Jesus’ divinity, his God-self, as his journey turns towards the cross; and as we turn towards the journey of Lent.
Let’s note that we’ve jumped twelve chapters in Matthew’s Gospel; the lectionary will circle us back to some of what we missed, in the summer and fall.
But for now we are suddenly fairly late in the story.
Jesus is headed towards Jerusalem, and anticipating the part of his mission where he gets arrested, condemned, and killed.
Just a few verses later he tells his disciples “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.”
The disciples are greatly distressed by this… as you would be.
But Jesus is very clear that doing and saying the things he is doing and saying is going to make the powers that be seize him and crush him.
I wonder what they were talking about, Jesus and Moses and Elijah – or whoever these mysterious beings are, whom the disciples think are the great prophets Moses and Elijah.
In his Gospel, Luke says that they were speaking about Jesus’ departure that he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Meaning: his death.
Which makes sense – that this is a time for Jesus to take counsel, and perhaps comfort, before facing the hardest part yet of his earthly mission. A conversation about what’s ahead, and about how to stay the course.
I’ve had conversations a little like that – not with people who anticipate being arrested and killed, but with people getting ready to do a hard thing, and trying to prepare themselves, and work out how to do what has to be done as well as possible.
Maybe that’s what’s happening here.
It’s the understanding and teaching of our church that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine; and I can’t imagine that any amount of divinity makes it easy for a human to willingly face mortal danger.
Jesus following his path towards death paved the way for a lot of other people to follow Jesus towards death.
The apostle Stephen was the first Christian martyr, stoned to death in the seventh chapter of Acts for preaching the Gospel.
But many followed.
There were waves of persecution that led to many Christians being imprisoned, and some killed, because they refused to participate in the Roman state religion.
(Saint Valentine, for example!)
The early church came to hold the martyrs in very high regard, as having made the ultimate sacrifice for Christ.
Martyr is a funny word. M – A – R – T – Y – R.
You may be familiar with it in secular language, meaning of someone who appears to enjoy suffering for the sake of others.
But that’s a distortion of its earliest and simplest meaning.
It’s a Greek legal term, meaning a witness, as in a court of law.
It took on its religious meaning as early Christians bore witness to their faith – gave testimony to their convictions and hopes – under threat of torture and even death.
Those early generations of our faith-ancestors understood martyrdom as a way to respond to – and even emulate – Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross.
It became less common for Christians to die for their faith, after the year 300 or so, but it was by no means uncommon.
Yet in the mainline churches like the Episcopal Church, we don’t tend to talk a lot about the Christian martyrs – ancient or modern.
I’m not sure why not.
Maybe it seems a little dramatic. A little indecorous. Excessive.
There’s a tiny little section in our hymnal for feasts of martyrs – Hymns #236 through 241 – but I didn’t grow up singing them.
Sometimes we talk about the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement – Jonathan Daniels, Dr. King.
Sometimes we talk about the martyrs of World War II – Dietrich Bonhoeffer is probably the best known.
But today I want to talk about Sophie.
Sophie Magdalena Scholl was born in 1921, in Ulm, Germany, the fourth of six children. She was part of a lively, loving family, and was a smart, curious, loving child.
The Scholls were not particularly religious, but were people who thought deeply about ethics and values; her father was a pacifist and had been a conscientious objector in the first world war.
When Sophie was 11 or 12, something started to happen in her country – a new movement, with a new leader. His name was Adolf Hitler.
At first it was exciting! Everybody was talking about a new chapter for Germany, with unity and prosperity for everyone. There were clubs for kids to join to celebrate being German. Sophie joined one, and became a leader. They marched and sang and went on outings; it was fun! Everyone felt caught up in the hope and energy of the moment.
But this new movement in Germany wasn’t for everybody. The leaders said that only some kinds of people count as real Germans. Others don’t belong – especially the Jews.
There had been Jews in Germany for a long, long time, and some of the best music and poetry and writing in Germany came from German Jewish musicians and poets and writers.
But the Nazi movement said: All of that is no good. Sophie’s brother Hans found out he wasn’t allowed to sing his favorite songs. Sophie learned that her favorite poet, Heinrich Heine, was off limits. And the young Scholls started to look more critically at this new movement.
Deep down inside, Sophie’s heart began to turn. She couldn’t just go along with things anymore.
Sophie finished school; by then World War II had started and Germany was deep in wartime. Hans and all her male friends had to become soldiers. Young women had to work for the German cause too, before they could start university or take another path. During those difficult years, Sophie kept in touch with a group of friends who shared thoughts and feelings about the war and the Nazi regime.
An elderly Roman Catholic priest and scholar befriended the group and influenced their thinking, bringing Christ and faith into their reflections on how to live in such times.
In 1942, Sophie’s brother Hans and his friends started a secret resistance network at the university where he was studying. It was called the White Rose Society. They wrote essays urging ordinary Germans to resist Nazi ideas. They printed thousands of copies of their essays, and secretly sent them all over their city and country.
When Sophie found out, at first she was shocked – but then she asked to join them. She knew that because she was a girl, and looked young and innocent, it would be easier for her to get away with buying supplies and distributing leaflets.
It was dangerous work, but Sophie knew that. She knew that terrible things were happening – and even more terrible: ordinary people were standing by and letting them happen. Sophie and Hans knew that they were doing and saying things that might make the powers that be seize them and crush them. And they went ahead anyway.
On February 18, 1943 – eighty years ago, yesterday – Sophie and Hans were on a university campus in Munich, leaving leaflets for students to find. Sophie had a few papers left, so she threw them over a balcony into an open area. But a janitor saw her, and reported her to the Nazi secret police.
Sophie and her brother Hans were arrested by the Gestapo. They were tried the following Monday, sentenced to death, and executed later the same day. Sophie was 21 years old.
On the last day of her life, February 22nd, 1943 – eighty years ago, this Wednesday – Sophie said, “The sun is still shining.”
When we reflect on the lives of the blessed martyrs, we might feel like they must have been a different kind of person – a different kind of Christian – than our ordinary selves. Surely their faith was stronger, their inner vision clearer, to lead them towards the cross in such a way.
But I’ve spent some time in the past week reading excerpts from Sophie’s letters and diary, and there’s so much that is, as we say, relatable.
She struggled with having to live through difficult times, writing in a letter to her sister, “Sometimes, and especially of late, I’ve felt that it’s grossly unfair to have to live in an age so filled with momentous events.” (145)
She found consolation in music, as so many of us do. She writes at one point about hearing something on the radio that stirred her and helped, in her words, “distance me a little from the turmoil around me, with its resemblance to glutinous, hostile mush.” (189) She continues, “Music represents neither more nor less than the air that enables a flame to burn more brightly.” (190, winter 1942)
She found solace and escape in nature – again, as I know many of us do. She wrote in 1942, “I’ve always felt, and I still do now, that I can hear the most consummate harmony resounding from field and forest…” (204)
And the night before her arrest, she wrote a letter to her sister about looking forward to spring, saying, “You can’t help rejoicing and laughing, however moved or sad at heart you feel, when you see the springtime clouds in the sky and the budding branches sway, stirred by the wind.” (280)
Sophie questioned her own motives and felt like she should be doing more. As perhaps many of us do.
In June of 1940, she wrote to her boyfriend, a soldier, about the need for clarity of conscience in complicated times – but went on to say, “Very few of my actions correspond to what I consider right… Weariness keeps me silent when I ought to speak out… I know what I’m like, and I’m too tired, lazy, and bad to change.” (75, 77, 1940, to Fritz)
In January of 1943, just a month before her arrest, she wondered whether she’d ever done anything out of truly good motives, or just to look good or keep up with others she admired. She wrote, “It’s beyond me that some people have moments of temptation only. I have moments of greater lucidity, and I’m grateful for them, but the rest of the time I’m paddling around in the dark.” (268)
Sophie struggled with prayer – as perhaps many of us do at times. Late in 1941 she wrote, “When I try to pray and reflect on whom I’m praying to, I almost go crazy, I feel so infinitely small… I get really scared, so the only emotion that can surface is fear… I can’t pray for anything except the ability to pray.” (176-77)
In June of 1942 she wrote of praying desperately against becoming numb: “Teach me to pray… better to pray for pain, pain, and more pain, than to feel empty, and to feel so without truly feeling at all. That I mean to resist.” (207-08)
Later that summer she wrote, “I too often forget the sufferings that ought to overwhelm me, the sufferings of mankind. I place my powerless love in your hands, that it may become powerful.” (209)
In October of 1942, four months before her arrest and death, she wrote, “Whenever I pray, the words drain out of me. The only ones I can remember are, “Help me!” I can’t offer up any other prayer….. So I pray to learn how to pray.” (249)
She writes about feeling like she didn’t know how to approach or name God. Like she was too bad, too small, too distracted. She describes wanting to fall to her knees at an Easter service – and feeling too self-conscious and inhibited. (194)
And yet: There is no question, reading her diary, that it was her faith and her conscience that drove her to join her brother in resisting the Nazi evil, and thus to her death.
There is no question that Sophie Scholl is a Christian martyr.
In my sermon last week I said: Choosing good is hard, for lots of reasons. We are often conflicted, confused, self-deluded, weak and weary.
It can help to have a community, people in it with us.
It can help to have a season like Lent to invite us deeper into it.
Maybe it helps, too, to have people we admire and honor to show us what it looks like to choose the good when it’s hard.
In weakness, weariness, confusion.
Perhaps part of the work of this season – of Lent, of this season of the world – needs to be reckoning with what matters to us deeply enough to stand up for it, to work for it, even when it’s costly.
We aren’t in the depths of World War II. But we live in profoundly uncertain times. Threats to democracy, civic strife, the deepening climate crisis… We probably feel some recognition of Sophie’s “glutinous, hostile mush.”
I can’t help thinking about Sophie from the perspective of a parent and friend of young people. When her father, Robert Scholl, tried to get into the courtroom for Hans and Sophie’s trial, the guard told him, “You should have raised them better.”
Sophie and Hans are both a worst-case and best-case outcome for a parent: young people of courage, resourcefulness and conscience, who stood up to evil and paid the price.
Part of me wants to urge the youth of our parish to dwell deeply with the stories of people like Sophie, to help form their hearts and souls for struggles ahead.
Part of me wants to say, Look away. Never mind. Stay home. Stay safe.
But it’s not up to me.
From one perspective, the White Rose was a failure. Ordinary Germans did not rise up against the regime, as they hoped.
Sophie believed their deaths would spur a student revolt, but it didn’t happen. People were either too comfortable or too scared.
But their lives and witness remind us that there are things we do because we have to. Because they are necessary and right, regardless of whether they work.
That there’s always an alternative to standing by, or looking away.
That sometimes all we can do is place our powerless love in God’s hands, and trust that somehow it will become powerful.
Diary and letter excerpts are from the book At the heart of the White Rose, edited by Inge Jens.