They’re back. Worms. Thousands of them. All slithering about in our backyard. There are big worms and little worms, fat worms and thin worms, disgusting, slimy worms and more disgusting, slimy worms. And they are literally everywhere, meaning you can’t take a step without ending up with worm mush on your shoes. That’s not completely true. They are everywhere, but as soon as you get too close, the worms scamper back into their holes like pieces of spaghetti being sucked up by Lady and the Tramp. Be alarmed. Be very alarmed. There are worms everywhere. And nobody knows why. For months, our worms stayed underground, just trying to stay warm.  But an early spring has changed their minds about going topside; and when it rains, it’s like it’s spring break. According to most experts, worms come out after a rain because it is easier to move about when the surface is wet.  And so, if they want to move north for the summer, the rain affords them a superhighway to make the transition. Other experts believe that worms come to the surface for food, but most think that worm-love has something to do with it. I am loath to admit it, but my backyard is being used for a worm-orgy. Now, it is hard to know for sure why worms are dancing about in my backyard because worms don’t have much of a brain, so it is hard to guess why they do what they do. All I know is that I do not like it. The slithering. The slinking. The scampering. The worm sex. Where is the early bird when you need it?

Now, I know the facts: Worms are good for the lawn and are neither scary nor dangerous. But I’ve seen the movie, Tremors, so I know if worms get out of hand, bad things can happen (see also, the following movies: Dune, The Empire Strikes Back, The Mongolian Death Worm and What’s New Scooby Doo: The Fast and the Wormious). I would like to propose that we have let some seriously demented worms get out of hand in our communities, and they have turned into Tremor-worms who destroy everything. But here’s the thing. When we first see them, they look harmless and ordinary. But when left to their own devices, they grow and multiply and eat away at everything that is good. We are looking at chapter 4 at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. The main point of the chapter is to talk about ministry to one another, but to do so, Bonhoeffer has to identify several “worms” that rise to the surface to undercut our attempts at unity and devour our hopes of oneness. But here’s the deal.  All of us are guilty of these sins. In other words, Bonhoeffer believes we all have worms. Now, if that is unsettling to you, there is something you can do to begin the process of eradicating them. We begin by acknowledging we have a worm-problem. To help in that regard, here are four of the most typical community-devouring worms.

First worm: Thinking we are better than everyone else. Instead of opening the chapter on a good note, Bonhoeffer starts with the bad news. Right out of the gate, he starts talking about the first worm when he begins by identifying this worm. Here is the first sentence of the chapter: 

“‘An argument started among the disciples
as to which of them would be the greatest’ (Luke 9:46).
At the very beginning of Christian fellowship there is engendered an invisible,
often unconscious, life-and-death contest to see who would be the greatest.
This is enough to destroy a fellowship.”

Thinking we are better than others shows itself in many ways. It is seen when we nurse an attitude of superiority, when we find ourselves looking down on others, when we believe that our needs and wants are more urgent than the needs of others and/or when we feel the need to judge the people around us. The insidious part here, though, is that most of the time, these are not conscious actions.  If asked whether you thought you were better than others, you would most certainly deny it, just like I would deny it. But never underestimate the power of self-deception. In every community, there are worms of inflated self-worth, the need to judge others, the need to always be seen as right, and the need constantly to compare ourselves with others. These worms burrow deep within our communities, not to aerate the soil, but to eat away at the bonds between us. The first step in destroying community is to have an attitude of superiority to those around you. The first step to eradicate this sin is to see it in yourself.  

There is a second worm: gossip and malicious language. Oftentimes, we speak critically about people behind their back, trying to sway the opinion of those to whom we are speaking with negative thoughts about others. We don’t intend to be mean. We are just expressing our frustration about someone with a friend. But what we are doing is sin. We are casting aspersions on someone’s character. We are questioning their motives. We are belittling their abilities. We are emphasizing their failures, shortcomings and mistakes (and ignoring their successes). We are slandering their name by telling others why we don’t trust this person or like them. And we are quick to make everyone know why this person doesn’t measure up.  But again, we don’t mean to be malicious. We are just sharing our thoughts.  Bonhoeffer writes:

“But to speak about a brother covertly is forbidden,
even under the cloak of help and good will;
for it is precisely in this guise that the spirit of hatred among brothers
always creeps in when it is seeking to create mischief.
Such critical thoughts can be curbed and smothered
by never allowing them the right to be uttered.”

Now, this is not something new. The New Testament speaks frequently about the dangers of the tongue, unwholesome talk and abusive speech. But the most poignant passage in this regard is found in the book of James (4:11-12): 

“Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another.
Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister
or judges them speaks against the law and judges it.
When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.
There is only one Lawgiver and Judge,
the one who is able to save and destroy.
But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?”

The problem here is not with understanding what James is saying. The problem is this: we don’t want to obey it. We don’t want to guard our tongues or to monitor our speech. It is too much work. We don’t want to refrain from trash talk or snide remarks. It steals our fun. We don’t want to be the one who only has good things to say. It’s not normal. Our problem here is not in understanding God’s will. It is in wanting to do it.

A third worm: refusing to acknowledge and own our sin.  Bonhoeffer offers this godly advice:

“He who would learn to serve must first learn to think little of himself.
This is the highest and most profitable lesson,
truly to know and to despise ourselves.”

Aye, there’s the rub. See, none of us like to think of ourselves as being in the wrong. And while meekness is a virtue in Jesus’ eyes, most of us have no desire to be meek. For us, meek is weak. As a result, we always see ourselves in the best light possible which also means that we regularly refuse to see or to own our sin. In one of the most convicting paragraphs in the book, Bonhoeffer writes these hard words:

“If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable
in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all.
My sin is of necessity the worst, the most grievous, and the most reprehensible.
Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others;
but only for my sin is there no apology whatsoever.
Therefore, my sin is the worst.
He who would serve his brother in the fellowship
must sink all the way down to these depths of humility.
How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility
if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own?”

That is a very powerful statement, but this next one is even more powerful:

“Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ
will rightly think little of himself.”

One last worm: A love of power and authority. Here is our problem: We define authority and even spiritual power as the world does, not as Jesus did.  In Mark 10:43-44 Jesus says,

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,
and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”

Bonhoeffer writes: 

“Jesus made authority in the fellowship dependent upon brotherly service. . . .
Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities,
virtues, and talents of another person,
even though these be of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly
and has no place in the Christian community;
indeed, it poisons the community.
The desire we so often hear expressed today
for ‘episcopal figures.’ ‘priestly men,’ ‘authoritative personalities’
spring frequently enough from a spiritually sick need
for the admiration of men, for the establishment of visible human authority,
because the genuine authority of service appears to be so unimpressive.”

With incredible foresight, Bonhoeffer has identified one of the major problems of the evangelical church today, the cult of personality. We’ve stopped being interested in shepherds. Today, we want celebrities; we want superstars; we want big names and great ratings. But we have it all backwards. Jesus calls us to be servants, not stars. Whoever wants to be great, must be the slave of all.

Bonhoeffer concludes this chapter with these words:

“The question of trust, which is so closely related to that of authority,
is determined by the faithfulness with which a man serves Jesus Christ,
never by the extraordinary talents which he possesses.” 

You know, when I walk out into my backyard and see all the worms, even though I know they are just worms, it still is a little creepy. I just don’t expect the grass to slither and the earth to move. And to see a worm get sucked back into the ground in a split second is just a bit disturbing. Now, if these worms were snakes, I wouldn’t ever go outside again. But they are just worms. They are no big deal. That’s also what we think about these four worms that we’ve looked at today (thinking we are better than everyone else, gossip and malicious talk, a refusal to acknowledge and own our sin, and a love of power and authority). We think they are no big deal. But these worms are everywhere, and every day they are multiplying. And they are destroying our communities. Thankfully, there are things we can do to exterminate these pests.  That’s what we will turn to next week. In the meantime, think about this: Which of these four worms is most prevalent in your interaction with others?