Church Year

Blind Men Look at an Elephant

Following the Chief Elder After a Hard Election

This was preached at Trinity Moravian Church on November 13, 2016.

It’s been a difficult week. We’ve seen demonstrations, some of which have turned violent. We have seen swastikas painted on walls, racist slurs chanted at Wake Forest. A couple in Kernersville had a terrifying message left on their car. A lot has happened – not in LA or New York or Chicago. In our back yard. In our community.

If you read the message on the cover of this month’s newsletter, a message written weeks before the election, I said that our work as followers of Christ began anew on November 9th. Here’s what I wrote:

The fact is that after the election, things will not return to “normal.” In many ways, no matter who wins one office or another, nearly half our friends and relatives will be angry and disappointed and hostile. That’s the moment when our work as followers of Christ kicks in to high gear – to reach out in a spirit of reconciliation, to show that our spirits were not “sharpened against those that voted on the other side,” and focus with relentless energy on sharing the love of Christ.

If anything, I underestimated the “angry and hostile.” It is not my job to be a political pundit, to analyze or scrutinize. It is my job to challenge the faithful followers of Christ to their highest and best calling. And one calling we are NOT called to is calling one another names. Saying that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist and a bigot; calling everyone who voted for Clinton a “Libtard” – or anything similar; these should be out of bounds for any follower of Christ. Period. If you don’t understand why, you and I need to have coffee this week.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

A number of months ago, while preaching about John Hus’ valiant search for God’s truth, I told an old story about several blind men “seeing” an elephant. Now, I need to make clear that the elephant in this story has no political ties at all. I tried to change the story to a rhino or some other neutral animal, or come up with an illustration of blind men and a donkey, but I came up short. The story has been around for hundreds of years, it originated in India, and it’s always been an elephant. It goes like this:

Six blind men are asked to describe an elephant. They each walk up to the elephant and feel it very carefully. The first one, feeling a sharp ivory tusk, says “It’s like a spear!” The second, feeling the elephant’s trunk, said “No, it’s like a large snake.” The third, which had climbed up on top of the elephant, and was feeling its ear, pronounced that it was like a fan. The fourth, feeling with both hands the huge side of the elephant, said “It’s a wall.” The fifth had reached his hands all around one of the elephant’s legs, and said, “No, you’re all wrong, it’s like a tree!” The sixth man, holding the elephant’s tail, laughed at all the rest. “You’re all fools. It’s just a rope!”

Each man was convinced that he was right and the others were wrong.

There’s an alternate ending to the story: that the next day, six blind women were asked to describe the same animal. They came and each one felt one part of the animal’s body. Then one of them said “I have to go to the powder room.” Strangely enough, all of them needed to go to the powder room, and so they went off together. A few minutes later, they came back and one of the ladies announced, “It’s an elephant.” They had talked in the powder room.

Now, that alternate ending is probably unfair to the guys and maybe too generous to the ladies. But the point is that not only did they talk to one another, they listened to one another.

In the midst of all the media noise and busy-ness of our culture, we have a terrible deficit of listening. Lots of shouting, very little listening. I read a sociological study that was done a while ago that analyzed and tracked hundreds of recorded conversations between real people. They categorized the different tracks of the conversation and whether they were responsive to the other person. In the vast majority of cases, they found that most of the time the people paid little attention to what the other person said; they were just waiting until it was their turn to talk. The majority of the responses had very little to with actually listening to what the other person said.

This happens in marriages all the time. An outsider listening to a marital spat is often baffled because the two are talking about completely different things; or a simple observation is given huge emotional weight by the other spouse that seems completely out of proportion. And sometimes it’s just talking past one another.

A computer programmer is going to the grocery store and his wife tells him, “Buy a gallon of milk, and if there are eggs, buy a dozen.” So the programmer goes, buys everything, and drives back to his house. Upon arrival, his wife angrily asks him, “Why did you get 13 gallons of milk?” The programmer says, “There were eggs!”

In hard and emotional discussions, such as a marital difference or a bad job review, it is most common for people to listen only with an eye toward responding. In other words, they don’t genuinely listen to the criticism or problem, they listen only for things they can use as weapons in response. That’s a guaranteed way to have a disastrous and unproductive non-discussion.

Active Listening

In seminary, when we get to classes on pastoral counseling, one thing that is drilled into us is “active listening.” This is the practice of setting aside all distractions, like the important letter we forgot to send out, and focusing completely and exclusively on what the other person is really saying. In many cases we have to listen for what they are really saying behind the smokescreen of what they have literally said. When someone tells you that “everything is all right” at home when you can feel the tension and the tears under the surface, sometimes we have to tease that out and see what’s really going on. In many cases, we have to listen carefully to angry, hurt spouses and hear every bit of their pain – but be wise enough to know that their side of the story, their version of what the other spouse is like, may not be the whole truth at all.

When we get on to the end of our graduate studies, during our internship (known as Clinical Pastoral Education, usually in a hospital setting) we will be drilled and challenged on our ability to faithfully hear and understand what others have said to us, particularly when it is critical or emotion-filled.

A rule of thumb is to not believe the caricature that one person draws of another, especially when they have some vested interest in slanting the picture. If you believe the false caricature of atheists and agnostics that is drawn by fundamentalist filmmakers, you will have a very false impression of what real atheists and agnostics believe. I know some atheists who are profoundly moral people. In many cases, they have rejected a cruel and flawed version of Christianity, but have not yet found a deeper and more profound spiritual life. I’ve found it helpful to ask them “What kind of God don’t you believe in?” because often I can tell them that’s not the God I believe in, as well. But by the same token, you shouldn’t believe the false caricature that militant atheists like Richard Dawkins draw of Christians! Because the false picture that he draws is unbelievably distorted and hateful. In the world of philosophy and logic, this sort of thing is called a “straw man” argument. You can’t really pick holes in the case the other person has made, so you make up a false representation of their argument, one which is full of holes, and then attack that. It’s one of the most common strategies in the political arena.

So the first thing that we must do as followers of Christ is to stop believing the false pictures that have been carefully crafted for us to convince us to vote one way or another. And the second thing we need to do is listen with genuine compassion and open hearts to the stories of the real people that have been hurt by the system on both sides…on all sides.

And that’s going to be hard. Because most of us today are firmly entrenched in a bubble of comfortable reassurance that everything we think is true and right. We tune in to news channels that only give us news we agree with, listen to pundits who only say things we already think; we dismiss out of hand dissonant information from any other source. We have friends who believe the same things we do. And in many cases, people go to churches filled only with people who also agree with them.

At our recent minister’s conference at Laurel Ridge, it was good to hear Bishop Wayne Burkette say that he was glad that many Moravian Churches are “purple” – i.e. filled with a mix of political points of view. Unlike churches that are homogenous, he said, we are challenged by the real stories and real faith of people who view the world very differently from ourselves. Proverbs 27:17 says “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

We need to LISTEN to one another’s stories. And this is hard work. This is challenging work. This is world-view cracking, unsettling work. We need to set aside the caricatures and easy platitudes and political litmus tests and straw men and listen to one another.

If you’re a city liberal, you need to get outside of your comfort zone and go have coffee at a small town diner with a farmer who’s about to lose his farm, which has been in the family for generations, because you get cheap prices at the grocery store.

If you’re a conservative, you need to go spend some time working at Sunnyside Ministry and listen to the story of the young mother who is working two jobs to support her children, and is paid so little that she cannot feed them and keep the heat on at the same time. The young black man who missed three days from work because of the flu, and now can’t pay his rent and is about to be evicted.

Rod Dreher, columnist for The American Conservative Magazine, recently wrote:

As a conservative, I grow weary of fellow middle-class conservatives acting as if it were possible simply to bootstrap your way out of poverty. My dad was able to raise my sister and me in the 1970s on a civil servant’s salary, supplemented by my mom’s small salary as a school bus driver. I doubt this would be possible today. 1

Responding to this comment, J. D. Vance, the author of the book Hillybilly Elegy, said:

We need to judge less and understand more. It’s so easy for conservatives to use “culture” as an ending point in a discussion–an excuse to rationalize their worldview and then move on–rather than a starting point [for discussion]. 1

If you’re a faithful party Republican or a faithful party Democrat, you need to go and sit down in the worn and tattered parlor of a poor white mill worker in Leaksville or Mebane – or for that matter, Reading PA or Youngstown, Ohio – a proud man who did his job well, and who does not want to be dole, finds his very being destroyed by being on welfare. But he is trained to do nothing else – and hear how both parties have sold him out with empty promises that turned out to be more care packages for the already-wealthy.

If you’re one who is against gay people, you need to sit down and listen to the story of the teenager who has always felt “different;” who has been bullied and pushed around and victimized at school, and who has now been kicked out by his “Christian” parents. He thinks regularly of suicide.

Will these conversations be hard? Of course they will! In a video about our discussions regarding homosexuality and the church, one which I hope you will all see and discuss, Sister Nola Knouse says:

There should be no topic at all that we, as brothers and sisters in Christ, have to avoid talking about. There are Moravians who love Jesus, and who love their sisters and brothers, on all sides of this question, and we owe it to ourselves to deal openly, honestly, and lovingly with one another.

In the Gospel lesson for today, especially selected for the Festival of November 13th, Jesus says:

“Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” – John 10:7-10

The equally challenging Gospel that is normally read on this Sunday in the Church Year, is from Luke 21:

You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls. -Luke 21:16-19

Christ the Chief Elder

One of the things the Scriptures tell us again and again is that we must not put our faith in weak human beings – in kings or politicians or Popes. Other denominations are often lead by a single human authority like the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury. And while I think highly of Pope Francis and of Archbishop Justin Welby, I am under no illusion that they are infallible or perfect. Even less do I put faith in politicians, even those who claim to be outsiders, to solve our problems. In the past, Moravians also had an elected head. In the early 18th century, Leonard Dober served as the Chief Elder. He was a remarkable, faithful, and profoundly dedicated person – but he realized the task was beyond him. In the early Unity, we had Presidents, wonderful leaders like Bishop John Amos Comenius or Luke of Prague, who did their best to lead the denomination – but often felt ill-equipped to meet the terrible challenges they often faced.

When Leonard Dober resigned, saying that no one person was able to supervise the spiritual needs of the wide-flung missions – in the Caribbean, in South Africa, in India, in Greenland, in America – the Elders that met in London in 1741 had a difficult task. The Synod meeting included:

Count and Countess von Zinzendorf, Benigna, their daughter (who was only 16), Leonard Dober, Anna Maria Lawatsch, Friedrich von Watteville, Rosina Nitschmann, David Nitschmann (not the bishop), and August and Mary Spangenberg. Nearly all were under the age of 42, and half of them were women!

In those days, it was very important that every decision was submitted to the lot, as a way of actively listening to Christ. Every name that was floated was rejected by the lot; and in fact, many were submitted tenuously since Dober had fully convinced the Elders of how difficult the job had become. They entered a period of prayer and Bible study; the Scriptures that they read spoke over and over of Christ as the great Shepherd. One of them was the Gospel lesson we read this morning. Finally, a few put forth the idea: maybe Christ Himself should be the Chief Elder, and lead His people directly. Christ was formally nominated and elected by acclamation – I mean, who was going to vote against Jesus? – but then the election was put to the lot. And the lot confirmed the election. In their view, Jesus Himself had agreed to serve in that high office. In good Moravian fashion, they sang a hymn, “We kiss thee with great tenderness, you elder of the congregation.”

This was on September 16, 1741. This decision was not immediately announced. There was no Twitter, no Skype, no telephones, not even telegraph. Communication was by hand-written letter carried by courier on ships and horseback. The Elders decided that the news should be announced simultaneously in all churches; and to allow enough time for communication, they selected November 13, which was a Monday in the old-style calendar.

And that is why today, Moravians the world over gather at the Table of the Lord together, no matter what political party, nation, or station in life, humble Christians together sharing a meal given by the hand of our Savior, our Chief Elder. The actual date of the election, September 16th, is observed each year by pastors, who gather for a Cup of Covenant service in which we rededicate ourselves to the ministry of Christ.

A final point that must be made: this unique election came about not because of the political mechanisations of archbishops and cardinals, sending up white smoke; or of political brokers in smoke-filled rooms where sausage was made; or in anger-filled campaigns of horrible rhetoric and nasty accusations. It came about because these very dedicated people paused to listen to the Savior.

You remember when I talked about “active listening?” One of the things that we must do as followers of Christ is listen actively to HIM. We may not use the lot any more. But Bible study and sincere prayer will do much to transform our hearts from stony brokenness and anger and change them into hearts of love, hearts of faith.

To prepare for this simple meal, we have the privilege of singing together a new hymn, which has never before been sung in public worship, a hymn written by our own Ed Lyons. I hope as you prepare to receive the bread and wine, the body and blood, you will be able to do so with a humble and repentant heart, standing next to brothers and sisters who are bound together as one in Jesus Christ.

Now comes the hour when we meet
To gather in the banquet sweet
For those we serve, who can’t repay,
Whose voices cry to you each day.

The world has tendered heavy cares
On those to whom Thy mercy shares.
We have abundance to delight
The hungry people day and night.

Then let us bow our heads in prayer
And so the sacred meal prepare
To link each one in heart and mind.
Now we shall love, we shall be kind.

As when we set our table good
To take Thy body and Thy blood,
We offer food and drink to those
Who Thou above the privileged chose.

Where Zion’s holy waters flow
The lovely trees of healing grow.
Thy Spirit dwell with us that we
May come those blessed shores to see!

Text: Edward Lyons, III (2016)
 Tune: Puer Nobis (Adapted by Michael Praetorius, 1571-1621) Moravian Book of Worship, page 267

 

1. Rob Dreher: “Trump: Tribune Of Poor White People,” The American Conservative Magazine, July 22, 2016 (more…)

An Easter People

Easter, 2011 – “The Lord is Risen!”

 

Moravians in particular are known as the “Easter people.” We celebrate the Resurrection in our unique and meaningful gathering at dawn in the sacred silence of God’s Acre, the silence broken by the music of birds and gathering brass.  But if you are feeling more empty than full this year, if you are feeling used up and beaten down, perhaps that is because the resurrection needs to happen in you as well.  Christian Rossetti (1830-1894) writes in her profound poem “A Better Resurrection:”

 

I have no wit, no words, no tears;

My heart within me like a stone

Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears;

Look right, look left, I dwell alone;

I lift mine eyes, but dimm’d with grief

No everlasting hills I see;

My life is in the falling leaf:

O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,

My harvest dwindled to a husk:

Truly my life is void and brief

And tedious in the barren dusk;

My life is like a frozen thing,

No bud nor greenness can I see:

Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;

O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,

A broken bowl that cannot hold

One drop of water for my soul

Or cordial in the searching cold;

Cast in the fire the perish’d thing;

Melt and remould it, till it be

A royal cup for Him, my King:

O Jesus, drink of me.

 

The resurrection is not just something that happened to Jesus at a specific point in history, and that we now remember.  It is something that happens in us now, today, this moment.   How does this resurrected Jesus change your life today?

 

- Pastor John

A Moravian Christmas


Moravians sure know how to do Christmas!  But did you know that the Moravian Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem and Salem were regarded with suspicion by other religious folk of the day?  In fact, Puritans had outlawed the observance of Christmas in the early colonies, viewing it as a “Popish,” or Catholic, holiday filled with sin and excess?  In fact, Puritan laws forbidding Christmas were not repealed until 1681, and during the 18th century most religious folks did little if anything to observe Christmas.  Christmas did not become an official holiday in America until 1870.

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was named by Count Zinzendorf of Christmas Eve, 1742, to recall the village of Jesus’ birth.  Moravians saw the incarnation of Jesus as a pivotal event that changed all of human history, and they thought that the love of God expressed in Jesus’ birth should infuse all of life and practice and faith.  They had no problem with rejoicing and celebration to honor the birth of the Savior.  So they went right on having their Christmas services and pretty much ignored what everyone else thought.  When the practice of sharing lit beeswax candles with the children began in Germany on Christmas Eve, 1747, the Moravians in Bethlehem adopted the celebration right away the very next Christmas Eve.  When Salem was founded, the Candle service was a beloved tradition, though back then the candles were only given to the children of the congregation.

Like those faithful Moravians of old, we can celebrate our faith in Jesus Christ without worry or concern about what the rest of the world does.  Don’t get caught up in “Christmas wars” or outdoing the neighbors with your Christmas display.  In fact, it might be a good idea to cut back on some of the worldly trapping of the season and focus more time and energy on being with your family and creating new memories.  Try an Advent calendar with your grandchildren!  Take them to see the Putz in Salem.  Explain to them what Christmas means for your faith.  Set aside time to do something nice for a person who has not been nice to you.  Instead of watching a movie of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, get the book and read it aloud to your children, pretending to be the various characters.  It’s a lot of fun, and an experience your kids won’t forget.

These things which bring meaning to Christmas and build memories don’t cost much at all, but they have spiritual impact that will outlive this year’s hot toy or soon-forgotten video game.  This year, invite a family in your neighborhood to one of the Christmas Eve Lovefeasts – there are many Winston-Salem residents who have heard about the Candle Lovefeast but never experienced it.

May the light of Christ’s love, glowing from stars and candles and faces, illuminate your life this year!

-Pastor John

August 2014 Happenings

What a wonderful summer! August was a month of bubbling activity on our block and among the churches of the Salem Creek RCC! We started the month with our group of churches holding a joint Vacation Bible School, which was hosted by Trinity and Home Churches. Volunteers from Home, Messiah, St Philips, and Trinity helped make activities for all ages come to life as we studied the Bible as a library of books — and we were proud to have the Trinity youth volunteer to sing the 66 books without missing one! The strangest feature of the VBS was a mysterious “Bible Clown” who showed up briefly at the start of each program. Little Ann Workman found him quite terrifying. Several children noticed that they never saw Bible Clown and Pastor John in the same room at the same time – hmmmm!

Many of our members contributed school supplies to assemble the backpacks that were given away at the Anthony’s Plot block party, which had the theme “All Things Good in Our Neighborhood!” That block party was a smashing success, with almost 450 attending. Many Trinity members were present as volunteers, making the day happen smoothly.

The next day, August 17, the Salem Creek RCC sponsored a Children’s Festival at Bethabara Church, a celebration of the “children’s renewal” of 1727. Families from many outlying churches drove in to spend the afternoon at Bethabara park, enjoying games and crafts, and finally a wonderful children’s lovefeast in the sanctuary of Bethabara Church. Many Trinity youth were involved in serving the lovefeast, and the Trinity Puppeteers helped to present the story of the day, under the leadership of Jeannie & Tripp May! One of the puppets looked suspiciously like it might have had Carter Gentle’s hand guiding it. Pastor John, Doug Rights, Bishop Sam Gray, and Thomas Baucom led the singing during the lovefeast with guitars and Bishop Sam’s unique “wheelie keyboard!”

On August 18, the wonderful Trinity Zimmer-Lewtak pipe organ was featured in the “Sounds of Summer” organ series. We had over 160 people attend on a rainy Monday night to hear the concert — a great turnout!

The month closed with a special Vacation Bible School at St. Philips Church, specially designed to coincide with the week that the school lunch program is on hiatus. Volunteers from of group of churches came together to have a wonderful program for school-age children in the Bon Air and surrounding neighborhoods. Many folks contributed food, and in addition to joyous activities, the children had a hot lunch every day – which many of them would not have had without our work!

My heartfelt thanks to all the people who put in many hours of volunteer work to make these events happen! You’ve touched many heart with grace, children with fun and Bible stories, and fed some very hungry tummies! This was the busiest August I remember for many years, and it was fantastic!

- Pastor John

Leading Up to Lent!

Wow, there is so much happening on the corner of Sunnyside & Sprague right now it is hard to keep it all straight!  As master organ builder Tomasz Lewtak completes the very major renovations on our organ, we also receive the first “hot-of-the-press” copies of Jonathan Sidden’s magnificent anthem from the Moravian Music Foundation; we welcome a new Administrative Assistant, Gwen Scott, to our staff, and also student intern Katharine Thomas, who will help with program for the middle schoolers over the next few months.

The organ work will be completed in time for the first Sunday in Lent.  However, as our organist Daniel Johnson literally “pulls out the stops” and takes our newly-revoiced organ for an enthusiastic test drive, I suspect that some of our music in the next few Sundays may not be the traditional somber, quiet, and Lent-like!  That’s all right!  Let the beautiful and shapely sounds that come from the pipes lift up our hearts in praise, that is always appropriate in worship!

After all, the idea of Lent is a season of preparation for Easter — preparation by prayer and the discipline of a little self-denial or extra service to others.  Though most people associate Lent with somber solemnity, Lent is actually supposed to be  a joyful season. The first Preface for the Catholic Mass in Lent actually makes the point elegantly:

Each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed. You give us a spirit of loving reverence for you, our Father, and of willing service to our neighbor. As we recall the great events that gave us a new life in Christ, you bring to perfection within us the image of your Son.

How can we regard such a time with dour somberness?  Moravians are good at joyfully contemplating the Savior while also lifting up voices in song — accompanied by rich diapason notes and assertive trompette!  Maybe we’ll save the Zimbelstern for Palm Sunday and Easter, however!

The Women’s Fellowship have been busy baking those wonderful Moravian Chicken Pies, and are also preparing for our annual hosting of the Day of Prayer service on March 12, and for the complimentary luncheon that follows.  This is always a wonderful day of fellowship, this year the featured speaker will be attorney David Daggett.

I’m also glad to report that our cooperative ministry with Anthony’s Plot and other area churches continues to be a bright spot for the city.  Many of our members have volunteered at the Emergency Overflow Shelter, and our youth have helped with meals and toiletry kits for some of the “least of these” in our community.  As the weather warms up, there will be less needs for these overflow shelters, but the need is still there — if you haven’t yet volunteered, just talk to one of our members who has to hear what a life-altering experience it can be!  I cannot think of a more appropriate Lenten activity than setting aside a night to serve at the Shelter.

- Pastor John

 

Slow – Advent Happening!

The day after Halloween, the Christmas decorations went up in many stores and the Christmas carols started.  Many eye rolls and groans about Thanksgiving being forgotten.  But our commercialized society has lost more than that – the juggernaut that is Christmas marketing has steamrollered over Advent, as well.  Liturgical churches like ours still observe Advent, and we’re going to keep lighting those Advent candles no matter what the marketers outside do!

Advent is not Christmas – it is a four-Sunday time of preparation for Christmas, just as Lent is a time of preparation for Easter.  But our culture is not one of preparation, it is one of sales and marketing.  Let’s move those flat-screen TVs and Chinese toys!  We live in a world of instant everything, we want to be able to move right to the punch line, cut to the chase!  But there is great spiritual value in slowing down, in preparing, in getting ready.

In days of yore, a young craftsperson had to be apprenticed to a master for a number of years to learn a trade.  During that time of preparation, the apprentice could make beginner’s mistakes, learn from the experience of the master, and gradually gain expertise – until he or she became a “journeyman” and eventually a new master!  Our fables and stories seem to value this kind of learning, but when we look at the actions of our culture it is denigrated.  We want fast-track success, short-cut learning, speed dating, and instant everything.  We live in a schizophrenic culture that honors Dicken’s Christmas Carol while at the same time iconizing our own cultural Scrooges!

I urge you to set aside the time this year to slow down, to prepare, to observe Advent even if everyone else has fast-forwarded to Christmas.  Seasons are good, honor and grow by celebrating this one!

 

-              Pastor John

Standing Up For Justice

On October 31, 1517, a monk named Martin Luther posted a list of 95 complaints about the Roman church on the Wittenburg Church door.  Over a hundred years after the martyrdom of John Hus, Luther had rediscovered the same issues and arrived at virtually the same conclusions.  The Church, hand-in-glove with the State, was filled with corruption and abuse.  Indulgences (slips of paper that acted sort of like “Get Out Of Hell Free” cards) were sold at exorbitant prices to pay for an unpopular and never-ending war, and to finance the lavish lifestyle of the wealthy and powerful.  Anyone who opposed or even questioned the church was condemned as an heretic.

Now, I don’t believe that things today are as bad as they were in the time of Hus or Luther.  Not by a long shot!  The cataclysmic struggles of the Hussite Wars and the subsequent Protestant-Catholic Wars decimated Europe and were times of terrible slaughter.  Today we face less violence and have a much higher standard of living.  In our capitalistic society, divisions end up being more about money and power – the “haves” versus the “have nots.”

Five years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the tanking of our economy, income inequality in America has accelerated dramatically.  We’ve now hit an all-time high for income inequality in America, matching the era of the robber barons – and closing rapidly on the kind of inequality that exists in Third-World nations.  Being super-wealthy automatically brings with it power, access to power, and the ability to influence government policy to your advantage.  Both political parties are corrupted by this, and there seems to be no end to the change in policies that can be called “trickle-up economics.”  This is an economy where policies and business practices are rigged to redistribute fair living wages away from workers and upward to those who already have more than they could spend in many lifetimes.

Article Link: Income Inequality Hits Gilded Age Levels, CBO Reports

Income disparity is at an all-time high in the US, equaling the period right before the crash of 1929.

Where is the church in all this? As we see more and more people lining up for shrinking resources at food banks, as we see children going hungry as programs are slashed, as we see the working poor being crushed by the weight of a society that clearly doesn’t care about them, where is the church?  Where are the prophets speaking God’s truth to power, the Isaiah who cries: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed!”  Where is the Amos who calls out, “But let justice roll on like many waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing river?”

Yes, we are called to minister to the less fortunate.  But is our responsibility limited to bringing in cans of food for Sunnyside Ministry?  Does our responsibility as Christians end with a bit of help here and there to get folks through emergencies?  Or does God also call us to wade into the difficult waters of advocacy, to call out those who abuse power to steal from the poor?  The Bible is clear on this!  Both the Old and New Testaments are radical in their defense of the poor and the weak against the wealthy and powerful.

It is time for a season of prayer – to be followed by a season of action.  Christians must shake off the shackles of politics, so easily exploited by pundits and inflammatory rhetoric, and stand up for the kind of justice that allows a space for everyone in society to simply live and thrive.  James writes:

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. -          James 2:15-16

There are many variations of the following story, sometimes called the Story of the River Babies.

One summer in the village, the people in the town gathered for a picnic. As they leisurely shared food and conversation, someone noticed a baby in the river, struggling and crying. The baby was going to drown!

Someone rushed to save the baby. Then, they noticed another screaming baby in the river, and they pulled that baby out. Soon, more babies were seen drowning in the river, and the townspeople were pulling them out as fast as they could. It took great effort, and they began to organize their activities in order to save the babies as they came down the river. As everyone else was busy in the rescue efforts to save the babies, two of the townspeople started to run away along the shore of the river.

“Where are you going?” shouted one of the rescuers. “We need you here to help us save these babies!”

“We are going upstream to stop whoever is throwing them in!”

Christians, we are called to go upstream and find those who are throwing the babies in the river!

 

- Pastor John

Easter is Coming!

Easter is coming!  Throughout the time of Lent, during the solemn days of Passion Week as we read the experiences of the disciples and the Savior, we know that Easter is coming.  We already know “the rest of the story.”  But the disciples did not.  Though Jesus seems to have known what was coming, the disciples were like us – they got up each day and lived the day with hopes and fears, but were never sure what would happen next.  Even though Jesus had tried to convey to them what was coming, they really weren’t able to comprehend the astounding story that they were a part of.  Surely it must have seemed to them that Palm Sunday was a day of great hopefulness and victory.  Even though Jesus had told them that he must suffer and die, surely for many of them there stirred hopes that day that everything was going to work out well.  People were cheering, people seemed to be recognizing him as the Messiah.  Things were looking up!  But as that week progressed, some of them must have been frightened and even appalled by Jesus’ actions in the marketplace, by his confrontational preaching that was sure to offend the leaders in power.  And after that Last Supper in the upper room, when everything seemed to fall to pieces and they scattered in fear, surely dark despair and fear took over.  Peter was so frightened that he even denied knowing Jesus.  Unlike us, they did not know “the rest of the story.”

The observance of Easter was the central celebration for the early Christians.  It was the center point for all worship, the fountain from which all of their faith sprang and bubbled and danced.  Preparing for Easter, particularly the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, was the most important time of the Christian year.  The Moravians began the practice of gathering each night of Holy Week to read together the events of that day, to sing, to meditate, and to pray.  This is still one of the unique parts of our worship that binds all Moravians together, from Labrador to Surinam, from Germany to South Africa.  This spiritual practice of prayer, of reading, of reflection, is a profound and moving way to prepare our hearts for the Resurrection.  Our worship is quite experiential, and for the participants both moving and profound.

I encourage you to set aside the time this year to attend our Reading Services, to experience with other Moravians the moments of the week, the supper in the upper room, the solemn experience of carrying the cross, the darkness of the Tenebrae service, the profound music of Great Sabbath, and finally the great triumph of Easter morning, as in the predawn moments we will proclaim together, “The Lord is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed!”

- Pastor John

On Faith, Relationship, and the Conversion of Saul

This past week the liturgical calendar recognized the Conversion of Paul on Friday, January 25th. Of course, like most stuff on the liturgical calendar, we don’t actually know the date on which Paul was converted, it’s just the date that traditionally has been used to remember the event – and an important event it was in Christian history, especially for those of us that are Gentiles!

Saul, as he was originally known, was a tradesman, a tentmaker from the town of Tarsus, a city in southern Turkey.  Because of his residency, he was a citizen of the Roman Empire, something that would be important later in his life. Saul was a very religious man, a member of the Pharisees, a Jew of impeccable religious practice and credentials.

In fact, Paul was absolutely sure of his Phariseeical Jewish faith – of every bit of it, so sure that he was willing to participate in the stoning of Stephen without a moment’s hesitation – just as the torturers of the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in the 15th century – usually referred to as “The Spanish Inquisition” – were absolutely sure they were doing right as they twisted you on the rack. It was for your own good, for your ultimate salvation that they burned you with hot pokers. They tortured with absolute calmness of spirit, certain of the rightness of their religion. The only problem is that they were WRONG.

I know Christians today so perfectly assured that they are right, right about every doctrine, understanding, and detail, so right that they would not hesitate a moment to stand with Saul holding the coats, throwing the stones, or turning the wheel on the rack. They have confused their certainty about their personal beliefs with TRUTH, and confused their certainty about their own sense of being right with GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS. They are not the same thing.  In fact, there are ways in which they are diametrically opposed!

This confusion between “I am right” and truth, between “my understanding” and God’s understanding, is one of the fundamental problems of religion through the centuries. The fact is that human religion is really based on “I am right,” rather than on “God is right” – even when they confuse the issue by whacking you on the forehead with a King James Bible. True faith derives from an encounter with the living God, not from a list of precepts.

It was an encounter with the risen Christ that changed Saul’s life and transformed him from a murderer of Christians to a believer himself. Like 007, he set off to Damascus with a “License to Kill” in his pocket, breathing “threats and murder” against those who followed “The Way.” But along the road to Damascus, he stumbled onto “The Way” himself when he met the risen Savior.

I don’t know exactly what happened or how it happened, but Paul’s experience was that of a bright, blinding light and a voice: “Why are you persecuting me?” Saul was knocked off his feet, he had the rug pulled out from under him. He went from an absolutely self-assured raging crusader to a blinded, helpless man whose world had been turned upside-down. But that’s what an encounter with the living God does to people! It turns their world upside-down, turns their certainties into doubts, and makes them sure of only one thing – that there is indeed a God, and they are not Him!

From this experience, Saul had to completely rebuild his life, had to turn 180 degrees and reverse the entire direction of his being. But the amazing thing is that God lets us take such U-turns, in fact He often makes them happen! Conversions do happen, they are real, and when they happen like this they are very fundamental in nature.

Paul, as he came to be known rebuilt his life on a new foundation – not the foundation of a list of religious beliefs, but the foundation of actual experience, an actual relationship with the very Savior he had once doubted with complete certainty. His new life was built on faith, not dogma.

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” — Galileo Galilei

And this brings up an important point about faith – one that I often discuss with members and friends that experience times of doubt or pain of challenge. “Faith” is an abused and misused word!
Most often I hear the term “FAITH” used in a way that means “thoughtless belief without doubt in the impossible or contradictory or simply silly.” Many Christians behave as if willfully believing a certain list of propositions, no matter how silly or contradicted by reason or science, is what God wants us to do.  No, I love the comment by Galileo: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

And the comment by our Moravian Bishop Edwin Sawyer: “The door of the church ought never be so low you have to leave your brains outside.”

“The door of the church ought never be so low you have to leave your brains outside.”

– The Right Rev. Edwin Sawyer

But when we use FAITH in a normal sentence – such as “I have faith that Joe will do the right thing,” or “I have faith in you.” Do we mean that we are stubbornly and blindly believing against all evidence that Joe, who is a crack addict in and out of jail who abandoned his family, embezzled from his employer, and has destroyed pretty much every relationship in his life will, because of our belief, suddenly turn around and behave completely out of character? NO! We mean that even in a new situation that we’ve never experienced, we expect that the reliable, good, solid person that we have watched in other situations over the years, will do the right thing – because that’s what Joe does. Our faith is based on our experience with Joe, in our relationship with Joe.

FAITH is based on experience – on relationship, not on willfully believing a list of particular silly things.

It is when we know another person that we are confident of what that person will do in any situation. One of my favorite bits from Count Zinzendorf is actually a footnote to a sermon on one of Paul’s letters, about a comment that is a little ambiguous and hard to translate. In the footnote, the good Count wrote: “I am sometimes confused about what Paul means here, but I am saved from error because I know the One about Whom he is speaking.” I know the One about Whom he is speaking!

Again, on the road to Damascus, Paul went from being absolutely confident of his own rightness, of being 100% unshakably certain that everything on his list of litmus tests for Jewish orthodoxy were RIGHT to a blind, shaky confused man who had actually experienced the presence of the Savior. He had to rebuild his life on that RELATIONSHIP and ACTUAL EXPERIENCE of the Savior now rather than on a list of proposition.

There are Christians, in fact many Christians, who will tell you that you are not a “good” Christian if you believe in evolution or the big Bang or that the Earth was not created on 23 Oct, 4004 BC (as Bishop James Ussher confidently decreed) or some other date picked out of a hat by another fundamentalist based on some other Rube Goldberg contraption of contrived logic. BALONEY. The True Christian life is based on a real relationship with the Savior, EXPERIENCE of God of Creation. As a result, the growing faithful Christian will often have periods of doubt and questions as he or she grows, as his self-assured beliefs are challenged by a Damasucs Road experience, as her childish beliefs have to fall by the wayside in the experience of grown-up situations that call for grown up courage and grown up faith in a grown-up God!

“Faith” is not pulling up your socks and turning off your brain and willfully believing in something silly or magical or contradictory. It’s not believing the impossible, as in my favorite bit from Alice in Wonderland:

“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Now, the fact of the matter is that as we grow in faith – that being again a living relationship with a living Savior, not some superficial belief in a set of propositions – we will wrestle with new and deeper spiritual issues and questions. We will never be at the same spot on the journey of faith as someone else; and so inevitably some will see further down the road than others, one standing at the top of a hill will see beyond the valley that another is in. Both are on the same journey, following the same Savior, but at different points. And such differences in perspective inevitably cause differences in opinion and perception. How could it be otherwise? But the true test of those who are part of the Kingdom is that they are called to be One even when experiencing such differences in perspective.

This is nothing new! Paul ran into this sort of thing right away with Peter, who after all felt that he was the proper head of the Church – and who at this point believed that the message was only for Jews, not for Gentiles. They had quite a wrestling match over this, in fact Paul’s calling to preach to the Gentiles nearly cost him his relationship with the Church in Jerusalem – and this tension was only resolved through Peter’s visionary experience, another intervention of the divine not unlike Paul’s Damascus Road experience.

Our Moravian Church has experienced such differences and struggles over the centuries, and will continue to struggle with these issues as surely as God made little green apples. If we stop having these struggles, that will be the time to feel for the pulse, shake the head sadly, and pull the sheet up – for we will be dead. Turmoil, differences, and struggle are not signs of weakness, they are signs of life.

So in all of this the question that I would leave you with is this: HOW DO YOU EXPERIENCE THE SAVIOR?

Ordinary Time

We are now in Ordinary Time! Sounds like H. G. Wells or Doctor Who or Star Trek – you know, after the USS Enterprise has emerged from a singularity that has created a tear in the space-time continuum, Mr. Spock calmly announces, “Captain, we have successfully returned to Ordinary Time.” But it has nothing to do with science fiction – it’s actually the portion of the liturgical year that is not Advent or Easter or Pentecost. There are actually two periods of the Church Year that are referred to as “Ordinary Time:” the period following the Baptism of Jesus until Ash Wednesday, and the period following Pentecost until the beginning of Advent.
I’ve always been a bit intrigued with the concept of “Ordinary Time.” Since most of our lives are lived in “Ordinary Time,” regular days at the office or at school or commuting to work, I think it can be a terrific symbolic reminder that God is just as present in those average days as He is in the mountaintop days; that He is with us in the trenches of daily life as He is in the moments of celebration.

Read more about Ordinary Time on Wikipedia.

This is particularly important to us here at Trinity this year, because we’ve just finished a year of celebration, a year of parties and luncheons and special events to celebrate our Centennial. And now it’s over, now we return to “Ordinary Time.” There are no big parties and special events for the second month of our hundred and first year – or for the second Sunday of the third month of our hundred and first year. It’s back to the regular work of being the Church. But that is a special as it gets, because it’s there in midst of the day-to-day ministry that the work of God really happens, that the Kingdom is made manifest. That’s the place where the sick are supported, where the bereaved are comforted, the needy find help, and the despairing find hope. Mighty important work, the work that is done in “Ordinary Time!”

So it’s back to Ordinary Time, back to the week-in, week-out work of the Church of Christ. Ordinary Time can be pretty special!

- Pastor John

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