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.
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…)
This sermon was preached on June 21, 2016 at a hastily arranged joint service between St Philips Moravian Church and Trinity Moravian Church on the Sunday following the killings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
This has been one of those weeks where every pastor says to themselves, “What shall I say?” And as I looked over the service, I realized that the service we had planned, based on the prescribed lectionary readings, was uniquely appropriate for a time when we may be beset by fear.
You may have seen Rembrandt’s painting of this story, the story of the calming of the sea. It is an amazing painting, showing the wave-tossed boat, the waves, the storm clouds. It was the only seascape he ever did. What is interesting is that if you carefully count the people in the boat, you will find fourteen — the twelve disciples, Jesus, and Rembrandt himself. Because he was making a statement, a statement that said, “I am in the boat fearful with the disciples.” Well, we are in the boat fearful today. It is so hard to wrap our minds around the terrible events in Charleston this week.
Some of us pastors have been talking both in person and online about what to say today. My dear brother Sam Gray, whom I always pay attention to, pointed out that in the first century they did not understand how the weather worked the way we do today. Of course, they did not have Accuweather, they could not go on Weather.com and pull up the radar, they did not have our local weather caster Laney Pope to pop up and say “Big storm coming!” They would have little notice, and had to pay prompt attention to the signs — the freshening wind, the change in temperature. They thought that the storm essentially was the symptoms that they could see — the waves and the wind and the billowing clouds. They did not understand scientifically that the thunder was the rapid expansion of superheated air around the lightning bolt, that the lightning bolt itself was caused by differential in electrical potential between the ground and the clouds. But above all, they did not understand that all these symptoms were caused by a huge low pressure system. A system much larger and more powerful than the symptoms they observed on the surface.
So too we look at the symptoms, we see the waves coming over the bow, we hear the thunder, we feel the wind, and we are scared of the symptoms. We humans tend to do that. We often confuse symptoms with causes and causes with symptoms. A hundred years ago, doctors thought that the blood clots they would find in arteries during autopsy after a heart attack were caused by the heart attack — not the other way around. Today we know that it is those blockages that cause the heart attack. Often the things we think of as incidental, as not mattering much, are actually the causes of the things we fear.
When we’ve had a week like this, when there is a terrible tragedy, it’s sort of a litmus test. There has been a lot of chatter this week, displaying the dividedness of our nation — what we say seems to depend more on our beliefs before the event than on the event itself. And I’ve heard many comments this week about symptoms.
I’ve heard it said that the problem is there are too many guns in this country, too easy access to firearms. Well, sure! There are way too many guns in the hands of foolish and misguided people in this country. It is too easy for an angry person to kill a bunch of people in seconds. But in 1981, Michael MacDonald was lynched with a rope — a rope that could have been used to save a drowning person or pull a car out of a ditch, but instead was used to murder. In 1965 at Selma, James Reeb was beaten and kicked to death, kicked to death with boots that could have been better used to march for good.
I’ve heard other people say that it’s our mental health system that is a mess. Well, yes, our mental health system is terrible. It’s had cost-cutting go on year after year until it is eviscerated and crippled, it’s had too many good ideas go awry. We don’t have enough beds and counselors to deal with even a tiny fraction of the problem. I can’t even describe how broken that system is. But we also know for a fact that the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators.
We have people who say “Our country has gone away from God, we need more God, we need more Jesus.” Well, duh. Sure, things would be better if everyone were to seriously try to live out the love of God. But sometimes when I pick at that and pull at it a little bit, I find that what they are talking about is a white Jesus who apparently belongs to an exclusive country club. And we don’t need any more of THAT Jesus, we need the Jesus of the Gospels who loved the outcast and reached out to all who were hurting and needed His love. That’s the Jesus we need.
And so we focus on one symptom or another, depending on what we already thought a week ago. And we say well, that’s the “cause” of all of this — but no, I think the cause is like the storm – it’s a huge system behind the symptoms that we can’t see and we don’t like to talk about and we don’t like to acknowledge. A big powerful system of hatred and racism and malice. And we like to pretend that it doesn’t exist anymore — but it does.
My friends, I will state it as plain as day: this young man said clearly that he committed these horrific murders of entirely innocent people BECAUSE THEY WERE BLACK. No other reason. Racist hatred had taken him to a place of darkness that I hope we don’t understand.
And God save us all, he sat there in that meeting and thought “maybe I won’t go through with it because these people are so nice.” Can there be any more specific definition of evil than someone who would have those doubts and yet still pull out the gun and shoot people who had been kind to him?
It’s easy for us to look at the symptoms and say “that’s the cause” and then say, “It has nothing to do with me.” But it does have something to do with us. It has something to do with every one of us on both sides.
Those who were killed included four pastors, one retired, a track coach, a choir member, an elderly aunt, a college student who was her nephew and who stood between her and the bullet. We are those pastors, we are that choir member, that coach, that aunt, that nephew. But we are also the perpetrator. For every one of us has participated in that system of oppression, that judgment and condemnation. Even when we try hard, we fail, we move forward and we slip back. When we look the other way, when we laugh even uncomfortably at terrible jokes, when we passively accept the wrongs that are perpetrated, we are part of that big system that produced Dylann Roof.
I am so glad that we can come together today and enjoy one another, and celebrate our oneness in Christ, our love for one another. But the question is what are we going to do now? We need to move forwards with this. We need to move forward in embracing on another in love. We need to go ahead and stand against racism and hatred whenever we encounter it in our lives. And I mean right down to when someone tells a hurtful joke in our presence, a joke that tears at the humanity of people of color or of a different religion. We need to leave the room, we need to call out the joke-teller and challenge the casual racism that pervades our society. It’s time for us to have the courage to do what we know in our hearts to be right. We need to love like Jesus loved, fiercely and fearlessly.
Originally, I was planning to preach on the passage from 2 Corinthians this morning. But that also is so appropriate for today! Paul mentions the endurance of the disciples through afflictions and hardships, through calamities, beatings, imprisonment, riots, sleepless nights, hunger, that they had gone through to bring the love of God to other people. They suffered for the Gospel. And they participated in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ to bring love to others. And he says “TODAY is the day, now is the acceptable time; behold, today is the day of salvation.” And today IS the day to start, the day to take action. Not tomorrow, not next week, not when we get around to it. And he goes on, “We put no obstacle in anyone’s way.” What obstacles do WE put in the way of others in living out their faith, in discovering God’s love? How do we put that off and interfere with the progress that God desires for others? We have been through many years of the remarkable phrase that our Supreme Court invented, “all deliberate speed,” which basically means to make haste slowly. And we have turned that into deliberate foot-dragging. But God tells us TODAY is the day. Not tomorrow, not in a week, not in a few years, not in ten or twenty years. TODAY. Now is the acceptable time. Here we stand fifty years after Selma and while some people would say there’s been a lot of progress, I’ll stand up here and tell you that we have not made nearly enough progress. Still today, it is far too easy to be arrested or harassed when your only crime is breathing while brown or black, being in the wrong neighborhood when you are a person of color. Still today our society is divided, still today the effects of racism and slavery ring on in our culture.
Now I should mention something that is rarely referenced — blacks aren’t the only ones who have been enslaved in our history. There was a period in the 1600s when boatloads of Irish were shipped over as slaves in conditions not too different from those experienced by Africans. Even later on the system of indentured servitude came awfully close to slavery when it was abused, when tricks were used to keep servants in debt so that they could never buy their way out of what amounted to slavery. Much of our early prosperity arose on the backs of exploited and abused people, a system of owning human beings. When the Moravian Church in Salem during the eighteenth century made that terrible choice to purchase a human being, we took a giant step back from our ideals and our calling. It doesn’t matter that the church treated slaves better than anyone else, it was a betrayal of our very beliefs. In 2006 our Synod voted to apologize for our participation in slavery. But it took us over two hundred years to do the right thing, and in the meantime there were many other ways in which we fell short of the very beliefs that we espoused and preached.
There are many ways in which our culture has sought to keep different people down, economically and in other ways. The people who can end racism are those of us with light skin, those who have inherited the prosperity of the past that was created on the backs of slaves. We’re the only ones who can really put an end to it. People of color have been demanding it for years. It is the rest of us who have to get on board.
Sociologists tell us that as we do make progress, those who feel their power and privilege slipping away from them will become anxious and will lash out. That’s what was going on this last week. And so it seems that every time we take two steps forward, we take one back. This last week one hatred-filled young man tried to make us take a step back. But we must not let hatred win, we must instead take two steps forward, and if God is willing, THREE! We will persevere, we will move forward. Let “deliberate speed” now mean that we move forward with a deliberation and determination that cannot be sidelined, that cannot be diverted, not letting anything – ANYTHING — distract us or dissuade us. The course of history shall still bend towards justice — and together we will march in that direction.
- Pastor John
March 1, 1457 is the day recognized as the official date of the organization of the Unitas Fratrum, the Unity of Brethren – so this month actually marks the 558th anniversary of the Moravian Church. This was sixty years before Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral; and over seventy-five years before the Church of England separated from Rome. Many historians now refer to the Hussite movement as the “First Reformation,” and recognize that there was in fact a strong and organized reform movement in place before Luther and Henry VIII were even born. The movement had an enormous impact on the life and worship of central Europe, much of which was wiped out in subsequent wars and swept under the carpet when the area later became Roman Catholic. This is not a “big” anniversary year of the founding – but it is the 600th anniversary of the evnt that led to the founding – the martyrdom of John Hus. We’ll be hearing a lot more about him as we get closer to that July 6th anniversary.
Ours was a church born out of struggle and war — that then sought a way to peace. Following Hus’ martyrdom in 1415, his followers in Moravian and Bohemia rose up against the Roman Catholic armies, and a period known as the Hussite Wars began that ravaged the area. There were initially a number of different Hussite groups with varying and sometimes competing ideas; but as war raged on and these groups competed, eventually a variety of Hussites came together to found the Unitas Fratrum or Unity of Brethren.
Through five hundred and fifty-eight years, the Church has seen a lot of changes. The Unitas Fratrum almost died out (some historians feel it actually did die out) in the 17th century during the time of Comenius and the Thirty Years’ War. It was reorganized by that legendary band of settlers on Zinzendorf’s lands in 1727, and that movement defines many of the traditions and practices that we so love today.
But through all those years and changes there have been some important constants: the centrality of Christ, the compassion and love of God, the incredible grace that is extended to us, and an emphasis on looking back to Apostolic Christianity rather than the institutional pronouncements of Rome. The idea that there are really only a few “essentials” and that other differences should not divide Christians has been an important constant; so too is the idea that it is essential that we live lives that express Christ’s love. Indeed, the early members of the Unity referred to themselves as “Brethren of the Law,” the law of love. It has to be said that we have not always lived up to this great tradition, sometimes getting more caught up in the external non-essentials.
But when we are at our best, we have a peculiar role to play in a divided and hostile world: to remind the world of the love of Christ, and to live out the rich heritage of faith that proclaims:
In essentials, UNITY
In non-essentials, LIBERTY
In all things, LOVE.
- 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?
This month, as we celebrate Worldwide Communion here in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Winston-Salem, we gather symbolically with Christians around the world at one great Table of the Lord. It’s interesting to reflect that this worldwide testimony or our shared faith started as the idea of one man in one church – ironically, in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr became pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in 1913. He served there for thirty-two years, until 1945. Nationally recognized as a gifted preacher and pastor, he was the first to broadcast Sunday morning sermons over the world’s first commercial radio station, KDKA Pittsburgh. They broadcast the first radio message broadcast to the Arctic (on Christmas Sunday evening, 1922) and the first worship service broadcast to the Antarctic, reaching Admiral Byrd at Little America on Easter Sunday morning, 1929. Dr. Kerr was also the author of the hymn “God of Our Life, Through All the Circling Years.”
In 1930, he had an idea – to invite all Christians around the world to celebrate Holy Communion together on the same day. The first “Worldwide Communion” was held at Shadyside Presbyterian in 1933 – all by themselves. But Dr. Kerr began a campaign to spread the idea, and soon it was adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) and then in 1940 by the Department of Evangelism of the Federal Council of Churches (the predecessor of the National Council of Churches). The department’s executive secretary, Jesse Bader, led in its extension to a number of churches throughout the world.
In a lot of ways, there couldn’t be churches more different than Shadyside Presbyterian and Trinity Moravian in the Sunnyside neighborhood. Shadyside is a very upscale, formal church where the ushers still wear formal cutaway morning coats, and Trinity is a fairly informal congregation with many working-class members. But such differences are swept aside as we gather around the table of the Lord! There, we gather as equals, sinners who have been redeemed by grace. There we gather, bank president next to janitor, Harvard professor next to a mother from a tiny village in Tanzania.
I love this story of the first “Worldwide Communion being celebrated at just one church! It pays to think big, to lift up our common hope in faith in a big way. Dr. Kerr did, and soon many others joined in. And this month we join the millions around the world in our common celebration!
- Pastor John
For those that are interested, you can read more in the article Worldwide Communion by John Dalles.