It was interesting a couple of years ago to look back at what life was like in 1912, when this church was founded. As I sat down to write this message, I wondered what was going on a hundred years ago now.
- World War I (known then as “The Great War” and “The War to End All Wars” had started in Europe, but America had not yet gotten fully involved.
- D. W. Griffith held the first screening of “Birth of A Nation.”
- First transcontinental phone call from New York to San Francisco.
- Congress voted down a proposal to allow women to vote – it would take another four years!
- The Ford Motor Company manufactured the millionth Model T, revolutionizing travel in America.
And while all these things were going on, the congregation on the corner of Sunnyside & Sprague was actively ministering to a growing neighborhood, reaching out with community events and programs, helping those in need and preaching the Gospel.
Today, we don’t have brand new Ford Model Ts driving by the church; it’s more likely to be a Toyota. Instead of calling from New York to San Francisco on a wire, we can take a little gizmo out of our pocket while walking down Sprague Street and call Germany or Japan, get the weather in Timbuktu, and download documents from China. Women can not only vote, but they may decide elections since they turn out at higher rates than men! We’re not watching silent movies filled with racism like “Birth of a Nation,” we will be showing “Selma” and discussing ways to move forward with racial reconciliation in this new century.
Lots has changed – but some things haven’t. The bell at Trinity will ring to announce Sunday School and worship, we’ll be holding programs to actively minister to the neighborhood, we’ll be supporting one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, and living out the Gospel of love as Christ makes us able!
- Pastor John
Today is August 13, a date that has no special meaning for most people, but has unique importance for Moravians. This is the anniversary of the renewal of the Moravian Church in Herrnhut, Germany in 1727. The church, founded in 1457, had been nearly destroyed by the Thirty Years’ War, and the church was outlawed in Bohemia and Moravia. A small remnant – what Moravian Bishop John Amos Comenius earlier called a “hidden seed” – migrated to the land of a Lutheran noble, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Zinzendorf, a unique spiritual genius, permitted the “Herrnhuters” remarkable religious liberty for the day, but with the unfortunate (and perhaps predictable) result that religious excess and controversy exploded in the village.
The Count resigned his court position in Dresden to become a noble pastor to the troubled group, visiting and calling the people together for prayerful study of the Scriptures. During this period, the residents became convicted that their behavior toward one another had been inexcusable – that the Savior called His followers to exhibit love toward one another, to be “one” in His name. Out of this grew the remarkable document known in German as the “Bruderlisch Vertrag,” the Brotherly Agreement, now known as the Moravian Covenant for Christian Living. Rather than a doctrinal statement, the Moravians signed a code of Christian behavior. This was signed on May 12, 1727 by all the residents of Herrnhut. A few months later, at a special service of Holy Communion held on Wednesday, August 13, they experienced a powerful sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit – and those who had been divided felt truly one in Christ. This reestablished the ancient call of the Unity – to live out the Great Commandment and the Beatitudes in community in a way that bore witness to the world of the love of God. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35, NIV. This is a call that the Unity has sought to live out for over 557 years, since our founding in 1457.
In a recent online discussion about this, I made the (almost correct) statement that the Moravian Church is the only mainline denomination to have never experienced a schism or split. I was properly corrected by someone who recalled that in the very early days, a group did split off over the issue of whether or not Brethren should swear oaths. That group reunited with the Utraquists, a group that eventually died out. But since that time, for over five centuries, we have worked to preserve Christian unity as a primary virtue and testimony to a religious world that is most often divided and bickering. That testimony is respected out of all proportion to our tiny size by larger denominations, who often seek to learn from us how to achieve what we do. Moravians have been pioneers in the ecumenical movement, calling denominations together in the name of Christ – and as a result, we have twice had Morvian clergy elected to head the World Council of Churches, and twice to head the National Council of Churches in Christ – despite the fact that we are one of the smallest member denominations.
So today we are faced with a decision: once again, as has happened in each generation, or probably each decade, we face a divisive issue that threatens to tear our unity apart. We have people who believe that their issue is one that is so important, they must leave the Unity if a vote does not go their way. Some of them want to form an “independent” Moravian Church, something which is really an oxymoron, since it overlooks the central tenet of being a part of the Unity – that is, to be part of the Unity!
So once again, our unity is challenged – as it has been so many times before. The Unity is a relationship – much like a marriage – which must be nurtured and maintained. Just as in a Christian marriage two people commit to relationship with one another – each also in relationship with the Savior – so too we commit to a relationship with one another, each also in relationship with the Savior. As in a marriage, we must overlook each other’s shortcoming and bear one another’s burdens, so it is in the Unity. We live together as sisters and brothers in Christ, not always agreeing in detail, but always agreeing in love – and seeking to follow the Savior together.
We have a choice today – as the Herrnhutters had a choice 287 years ago, and as the founders of the Unity had a choice 270 years before that. As indeed we have had again, again, and again: do we continue to bear witness that we are disciples, known by our love for one another? Or shall our differences consume us so that we break this astounding witness? We have a choice today, just as we will have a choice tomorrow: a choice to continue this witness of unity, or to destroy it and prove to the world that even the Moravians cannot live together in love. Which shall it be?
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
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
Though I haven’t seen it lately, several years ago it was common to see posters and bumper stickers that said “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Though I’m not sure where the quote actually comes from, the Washington Post attributed it to CHARLES DEDERICH, the founder of Synanon, a self-help community for drug abusers and alcoholics, based in California. Though it may have been worn out through overuse, it’s a pithy thought, focusing us on the possibilities of the future if we take responsibility for today.
So – today is the next day of the rest of the life of Trinity Moravian Church! We’ve had our wonderful Centennial Celebration, we’ve reflected on the hundred years of history and the courage and vision of those in the past who followed Christ in active ministry to our neighborhood. Special thanks to all those who worked so hard to make that wonderful celebration happen – Centennial Committee, choir, ushers, kitchen workers, our tireless office administrator Kim Noftle, and many others. Only those who worked “behind the scenes” really know how much work was involved.
But now what? I’ll tell you what! It’s back to the work we are called to do! BEING the Body of Christ, SHARING one another’s pain and joys, HELPING those in need, LISTENING to each other and our neighbors, listening also for the guidance of the Savior in each moment, GROWING in grace.
I have shared many challenging articles and studies with our Joint Board over the last couple of years, but one theme emerges from recent research on the Church. While “institutional church” is in as much trouble as the newspaper business (pretty bad!), individual congregations thrive when they are actively involved in local ministry and purpose, where people in the parish know one another, love one another, and minister side by side, and are connected to the neighborhoods they are in.
Voices like Ross Douthat in the New York Times call us back to the “Empire Church” of yesterday, longing for an authoritarian top-down orthodoxy that has probably never been what Jesus had in mind. Moravians have never been about that. There’s a way in which we’ve always been small, local, connected. Moravians have a sense of being connected to one another and to the Savior that is a fundamental part of who we are and the peculiar ministry we are called to – to change our communities by our mere presence and existence.
We haven’t always fulfilled that special role of being “salt” and “light.” There have been many times that we have just been sticks-in-the-mud, mired in traditions without remembering the meaning that gave them vitality. There have been times when we have stumbled terribly, accommodating the world and public opinion rather than faithfully loving all we meet. There have been times that we have been so hide-bound that we couldn’t move fast enough to do what needed doing. But there have also been times when we have stood up and lifted those candles high together, and shed light in a dark corner that needed it desperately.
So what do we do with today? Today, and tomorrow, and the day after that we need to stand up and hold our candles high, we need to do what needs to be done in our congregation, in our Regional Conference of Churches, in our neighborhood, and in our city. We need to do that little thing we are called to do – change the world.