Dear Bonnie, dear family and friends, sisters and brothers,
“When life becomes meaningless, and when one is drowning in despair, any kind of do-it-yourself-faith does not work. When the bottom has dropped out, one discovers that one’s ego power is reduced to zero and that it takes two to believe, for one must borrow faith from someone still strong in faith when one’s own faith is gone. It is a word from the outside that promises radical change and brings comfort. The biblical God is a lover who offers good news in the crucified Christ, who endows victims of ego power with gospel power.”1
This passage of classic Eric Gritsch prose has been reverberating in my mind and heart during these weeks.
It is classic Gritsch in not mincing words, in giving easy to memorize, yet potent images – and it is classic Eric Gritsch in being utterly honest and giving us a glimpse into his own faith journey.
On our bulletin we read and in our first lesson we listened to Erics confirmation verse, which he received in September 1945 …
Die auf den Herrn harren, kriegen neue Kraft, dass sie auffahren mit Flügeln wie Adler, dass sie laufen und nicht matt werden, dass sie wandeln und nicht müde warden.
Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles they shall run and not be weary they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 45:31)
That verse, carefully selected by the interim Pastor of Bernstein and his mother, became, as he recalled, a living word, popping up in his head in good times and bad. But I want you to notice the first part of the sentence, too, and that is Verse 30: “Männer werden müde und matt, und Jünglinge straucheln und fallen - even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted…”
Remember, this was 1945, Eric’s father, Pastor Matthias Gritsch had disappeared in the war, and it was only in 1948 that his family would know for sure that he had “fallen” been killed during the last weeks of WWII. Young Eric may have met the same fate, had it not been for this ability to pass as a gypsy boy– which as many of us know saved him and made him some sort of mascot of a Russian tank platoon.
This is where his theology was formed: you either become a cynic, or you find meaning – something that his later encounter with Victor Frankl would give some non-theological frame and affirmation.
In those wild years, the Pastor’s kid could have very well ended up on a slippery slope Instead he found and trusted in that outside word – which led him to the outside world.
Eric told the story of his life in “The Boy From The Burgenland”, and he told stories from it to all of us – and then more. His life was interwoven with the 20th century as well as with the 16th century. He was able to make the lessons of both available to us, bring them to life to us, and he did so in a convincing, irresistible way.
In my view, it had a deep significance that his seminal Luther book was called “Luther – God’s court jester.” I am probably not the only one noticing that Eric Gritsch was that, too. He had something of a Harlequin in him. Not the funny joker, but rather of the deep sort. Like all jesters, he had a sad side to him, and it was in and through that underlying sadness that his humor had that great depth to it.
We all remember his charm, his appearance, his smile, his hospitality, his words of wisdom and his humor. Some of us met his sharpness in assessing people and situations, which became more urgent in older years. He had no use for prolonged discussions. If he felt passionately about an issue, he had a prophetic quality, be it for children’s communion or debating Luther’s anti-Semitism. It took our church 30 years to catch up with insights he offered as part of its first human sexuality task force. He tackled “Born-againism”, that shadow of American Christianity, in a book that still waits to be fully explored. He deplored church-talk that is not grounded in our reality and does not acknowledge the reality of evil in the world, and gave us timely and timeless language like “servanthood and serpenthood”, equipping generations of ministers of Word and Sacrament for their task. He was fearless, he did not mind clashing with authorities if needed (or foster daughter teenagers for that matter), and he did not mind surprising (to put it mildly) people by some turns in his life. But those turns would be those that kept him mounting up, like coming to this country, like retiring at 62, getting a divorce and starting a new life writing teaching, traveling and as Bonnie’s husband and our member.
And if you knew him well, or had a sense for Central European cultural codes, you could see the Viennese in him, and that behind his charm and everything was a very complex soul, sometimes lamenting (whining) in a very Viennese way, which is just a little bit morbid.
Now we are giving him a “scheene Leich”, as they would say in Vienna. We do so looking ourselves for that word from the outside, the gospel. It promises radical change – indeed it does. It changes our perspective from being fixed on the end, the ashes, our loss, to lift up our eyes and being lifted up with wings like eagles. In baptism we are made members of the household of God already, and our destiny is made secure through faith. We have had it, he would say. It’s done. Sometimes the journey is filled with joy, and sometimes it is very sad. Yet the promise that God has already given us all with him sustains us in our journey and gives substance to our hope and comfort – and teaches us to tackle life with humor and good spirit.
So we go on. It is hard to imagine how. But we will. We will remember Eric Gritsch and his teachings, and hopefully they will give us insight in how to understand ourselves and the gospel, linking our situation to that of our brother and teacher Martin Luther. We go in trusting in the same words that he trusted, coming back to the same foundation and having it nourished and built in word and sacrament. The biblical God is a lover who offers good news in the crucified Christ, who endows victims of ego power with gospel power.
This is where wants us to be and this is what he would want us to continue, and with God’s help, we will.
Eric loved to tell the story of a funeral his father did: when the corpse turned out to be in suspended animation than truly dead and became conscious, knocking form the inside of the coffin to be released and revived with Slibovitz (plum Schnapps) This gave Eric’s father instant fame in the village and around as the “Resurrection Pastor” ….
Well this is not going to happen today – but in a way Eric is knocking from the urn, from the pages of his books, knocking rom inside our memories, wanting us to turn this sad occasion into a joyful one and to bring his teachings to life, in our hearts and minds and actions and in Christ’s church.
May God grant Eric, our brother, his faithful servant, everlasting rest and peace and to us the peace which passes all human understanding and helps us to live in gratitude and hope.