Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"The Majesty of His Cause"

Message preached January 26, 2003
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
Ellis J. Shenk (guest preacher)
based upon  2 Peter 1:2-8, 16-19

Order of Worship

            Life's experiences have a way of shaping and remaking us. Indeed, experience creates the content of our memory, forms the lenses through which we see subsequent events, and tints the emotions we sense as we observe history unfolding. If you ever picked up a foreign newspaper, you may have wondered what happened to your world. The very news coverage focuses on different issues, and the perspective will be different. More than we are consciously aware, what we read in the daily news, or in the Good News may be colored by our past experience.

            When I was approached to speak today, I reflected that I most usefully could share was some insights about the Christian Church that are mine because of my different experience. Even if I can not make my experience yours, I hope I may challenge you to expand your concept of the Church and its meaning for you and to consider some of your own experiences in a different light. Not that my experience was better (or worse) than yours. At any rate, none of us can change the past. But sharing in the experience of others may help us consider ways to change the future.

            What I want to talk about today is THE CHURCH - the Body of Christ, and how my understanding of it has changed. Consider with me where your own understanding of the church is rooted, how this understanding has changed as you have matured, and where it may be in need of renewed examination.

            In preparation for today, I did a bit of inventory. I have visited about 34 foreign countries, and I have specific memories of taking part in worship services in more than twenty of those countries. One of the strangest was in Copenhagen, Denmark. I traveled there one Easter week end from Hamburg, Germany. I was cold and tired from treading the streets. When I passed a church, and found the door unlocked, I stepped inside the empty sanctuary and took a seat. I sat and meditated and rested. People started appearing and taking seats. No one acknowledged me. So I sat on. I sat on too when they wheeled in a coffin. By that time it seemed too late to leave. I sat through the whole funeral service, then left. I spoke to no one, no one spoke to me. Most of my visits to churches abroad were a great deal more sensitive to local custom.

            Some of you may remember the days at Brethren colleges when chapel attendance was compulsory. I spent four years in Elizabethtown College during that era. The then college president, Dr. A. C. Baugher, was not among the most stimulating speakers. Despite that, the insight in one of his messages has stayed with me for fifty years, and is a sort of framework on which to hang further understanding. On second thought, he must have been a more effective communicator than I then gave him credit.

            Dr. Baugher described how as a young child, he thought of the church as a building, the building where his family went to worship each week. When he was a bit older and more socially aware, he came to understand that the church was the congregation, the people with whom his family worshipped. Then as he matured, he became aware of the wider Church of the Brethren in the Southern District of Pennsylvania, and later the General Brotherhood of the Church of the Brethren. Along the way, he too accepted neighbors - Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Mennonites, and others as part of Christ's church.

            I don't fully recall the conclusion of Dr. Baugher's sermon. But I venture to say that his analysis has sent you back in time reflecting on your earliest understanding of what the church was for you. Like A. C. Baugher, my earliest understanding of the church was that it was a building, a brick structure in Richland, PA, and later, the people who regularly met there. My parents soon introduced me to the wider Brethren circle that was involved in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and then Annual Conference on several occasions.

            As a youth I was nudged then drawn into the district youth activities, then widened that circle. Though we had no National Youth Conference in my college years, there were occasions to meet Brethren youth from California & Kansas, Indiana & Virginia, Ohio and so on. I also took part in a national conference of youth from many denominations across the United States. It was an enriching experience which I now realize helped to shape my faith and my world view.

            Three months after graduating from college, I was in Brethren Volunteer service, and headed for four years of service in Germany, and briefly in Austria. My assignment in service to refugees had the title of Traveling Resettlement Officer - helping refugees to emigrate from Germany - and made me part of the World Council of Churches staff. Relationships within the World Council of Churches quickly expanded my concept of Church. I counted as close colleagues people from many countries, churches and ethnic backgrounds: American, American Baptist, Anglican, Armenian, British, Congregationalist, Dutch, Evangelical Lutheran, German, Polish, Reformed Church, Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Scottish, Serbian Orthodox, Swedish, Swiss, and Yugoslavians. A majestic array of Christian caring.

            There was not much that I understood about their faiths, but I asked questions and observed. When I arrived, a decade had not yet passed after World War II had come to a close. Our mental images were still about the horror of war and the devastation of German cities. So, for a member of a denomination so small in numbers, and no longer present in Europe, there was a certain comfort in realizing that the Christian faith was alive and active in Europe, despite all that had transpired during World War II.

            While I served under World Council auspices, I took part in annual staff retreats near the WCC headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. On one such occasion, Robert Mackey, a Scottish leader in the World Council of Churches spoke, and titled his rousing sermon about how denominations from around the globe had joined in the World Council of Churches "The Majesty of His Cause." The details of the sermon I do not remember, but I recall Robert Mackey's enthusiasm, and my broadening vision of Christ's Church that emerged as he spoke. Most of all, that title, "The Majesty of His Cause" stayed with me through the years, and surfaces when I become aware what churches are doing in a wide range of historical and cultural settings, and when I allow myself to be aware of what the faith of others means to all Christians around the world.

            The Apostle Peter may have had a similar feeling when he says: "...we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power...of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty." He was a witness to Christ's teaching, and his ascension. Undoubtedly there were other witnesses who spoke less compellingly about their encounter with Christ. We do not have the same possibilities today. But I contend that we still have the opportunity to sense the Body of Christ today, not in the way that Peter did, but still a reality. That is the experience I want to share today.

            I want to share about some of the people and experiences that helped me to form my expanding mosaic of the Church. There was the Halmos family, German Baptists in Kassel who invited Brethren volunteers into their home to teach them German (both language and culture) and to take part in what Brethren were then doing in the city of Kassel. Frau Halmos thanked Brethren leaders, on several occasions, for sending what they most treasured, their young sons and daughters, to live among former enemies, to take part in volunteer service, work camps and student exchanges. Friedrich and Ruth Halmos were evidence of the Body of Christ, clear and strong partners in the Christian message of peace which Brethren attempted to share. Their witness was humble, yet majestic.

            Another image comes to mind from my brief service in Austria in 1956-57. A number of Brethren volunteers, including Steve Grubb's mother, worked in refugee camps to assist Hungarians who had fled their country. In two months, over 100,000 Hungarians fled across a loosely guarded border after riots in the streets of Budapest had challenged and loosened the Soviet control over their nation. One of my duties was to serve as driver for one of the Hungarian Reformed pastors who led Sunday worship services in a series of refugee camps. I recall the deep emotion and tear-filled eyes of the worshippers as they sang once again their old national anthem. They explained that because it contained reference to God and his protection of their country, this national anthem had been outlawed under the Communist rule. Though the outward form had been denied them, these Hungarian Christians kept the reverence for God and the church in their hearts across a decade of repression. They evidenced a deep love for the majesty of his cause.

            I too remember with a warm heart the several occasions when the Brethren Haus in Kassel offered rooms, meals and fellowship for church workers from Communist East Germany, pastors and wives as well as Protestant sisters. This was during the years when their government encouraged loyal citizens to report for investigation anyone suspected of undermining government policy. Children were indoctrinated to report parents, should they let their guard down. Government permission was required for church meetings. For church workers, the opportunity to rest and relax where they did not have to be constantly on guard, to meet West Germans, and to fellowship with American Christians was a small gift the Brethren could offer. To me there was something really majestic about this small exchange.

            But the experience also gave me an appreciation for the faith and commitment of millions of Christians then under Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China, among others. It also helped me to ponder how, despite oppression and suffering, faith grows deeper and stronger, and God protects his flock and the seed of his message.

            Fast forward a few more years, and I'm now in Italy. There I had my introduction to a country in which Roman Catholicism was the state religion. A visit to the catacombs and the site where St. Paul purportedly had been jailed reminded one how long the Church has been around. Though the Catholic Church before Vatican II had many faults and weaknesses, there was also much good in the Italian church. A visit to Assisi reminded of Italy's gift of St. Francis to the world.

            In Italy I was also reminded of the roots of the Reformation that had been set down by dissident Christians, centuries before Martin Luther. Brethren workers met one year in a conference center near Turin run by the Waldensian Church. In their struggle to live out their understanding of Christ's message during the Dark Ages, Waldensians had retreated to the rugged mountains on what is now the border between France and Italy. Brethren and Waldensians have a great deal in common, including leadership dedicated to act and witness for peace. Later, as I visited in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland in the village of Eggiwil from which some of my Anabaptist ancestors had fled, I noted that they too had hidden in the less accessible hills of Switzerland. Sometimes the Christian message survives and is reborn in hiding, sometimes it flees, but there is real majesty in survival.

            During ten years in Puerto Rico, and two in Ecuador, I learned once again that Christian faith, worship and action can only be genuine when expressed in its own language, Espanol, and in its own Hispanic cultural ways. Have you ever thought of your Christmas carols as sad? That's how some Puerto Ricans characterized them when compared to the lively beat of their own Christmas music. In fact, the staid hymns and formality of liturgies from post Reformation European churches have little attraction for Latinos.

            Though Christ's values need to challenge social values and norms, many cultural values of other nations that are different from our own are only that - different - not better or worse. There is real majesty in the freedom of cultural expression that manifests itself in the Church worldwide.

            Though I had spent several years studying about Asia, my acceptance of a job in Bangladesh was the beginning of a dozen years of deeper relationship to Asia and parts of the Pacific. Bangladesh, then the seventh most populous nation in the world with nearly 100 million inhabitants was about 85% Muslim. It was my first experience of living and working where Christians were a minority - less than 2% of the population - and where the political will was directed toward enhancing things Muslim, and limiting things Christian. When missionary numbers were cut by natural attrition and shrinkage of number of visas, national church leaders stepped up to the job of evangelism. The roots put down in the early mission efforts of pioneer missionary William Carey among the Bengali speaking people survived the conflicts of partition of British India and the war of liberation from Pakistan.

            The agency I worked for was Christian, but not engaged in preaching and evangelism. We worked instead to support and strengthen various smaller denominations in their efforts to meet the physical needs among members and their communities, and supporting their primary education programs. I keenly remember one occasion on which a Bangladeshi evangelist pastor invited me to assess with him what might be some appropriate ways to assist a small but growing community of new believers.

            Our two oldest children joined the pastor and me, and several others. We drove perhaps 45 minutes north from Dhaka to a river's edge where the pastor negotiated the fare with a boatman who would paddle us about an hour on his 12 foot country boat. When we arrived at the designated point, we set out on foot for the village, some distance away. Soon we discovered there was no way ahead, other than to remove our sandals, and wade half way to our knees in mud for several hundred yards. When we arrived at the clump of large trees that had been our target, and as we began to explore how we would clean ourselves, villagers appeared with containers of water, and then stooped and washed our feet. We had journeyed to their village because we thought they might need our help. But before we finished greeting and meeting, we learned that we very much needed them in an immediate way. The circumstances surrounding that foot washing set my Brethren mind scrambling to decode lessons to be learned. There was real majesty in that moment of seeking to serve, but waiting instead for others to serve me.

            Later, for seven years I traveled for a month or two each year, targeting a dozen nations of Asia and the Pacific with a mission of helping Catholics and Protestants to cooperate in helping their villages to meet human need and have a more abundant life. Colleagues of mine did similar work in Africa and Latin America. We shared stories, and had a sense of life around the globe.

            In Asia, I met with both Catholic and Protestant bishops, priests, pastors, heads of church agencies, international parachurch agencies, missionaries of all stripes, and often the members of church parishes in the far corners of Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Burma - to name some of the principal countries in which we assisted program.

            Though the community I visited may have been Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or of a tribal or animist religion, we assisted no program in which there was an absence of Protestant-Catholic cooperation. Program effectiveness was dependent on good leadership, strong cooperation, and community acceptance. But the nature of our organization also taught me how real the body of Christ is, despite our geographical and church separations.

            We did not have funds for in-country staff. Instead, we counted on a sort of agency character reference from a person or agency in-country who was known to one of our member agencies. Rarely did we fail in obtaining that level of connection between the communities on the far side of the globe, and our own agency.

            Though bodies within Christ's Church teach different doctrine, sometimes speak conflicting messages, trace their origins through different historic points on the globe, lack a common form of worship, do not speak a common language, give loyalty to diverse forms of church governance - they are no less part of the Body of Christ. Despite those divergences and differences, there is majesty in the way that the Body remains in touch, and in the way that all of this has some discernible unity of purpose and direction.

            Just a nod to the negatives. Christians do not only bear witness to God's love and the body of Christ. Similar to what happened after Brethren missionaries left India, I can recall instances where leaders battled over control of church property left by mission boards. Relief assistance can be another cause of contention. The National Council of Churches in Bangladesh broke up because of counter accusations between several leaders of misuse of funds received from foreign donors. The whole YMCA program in Karachi was caught up in a similar crisis. I could cite other instances as well. Such problems tarnish the majesty, but also make clear the tawdriness of those who abandon the majestic cause.

            The environmental movement has succeeded in educating us to the reality that we are part of the environment and that what we do has an effect on nature worldwide. It is impossible to isolate ourselves from the big picture. Our actions affect the whole.

            If we really sense that our church is part of the Body of Christ, some of the same logic applies to what our church will do. Yet the church too often has promoted its differences. We are still mired in placing nation above many other values. It's time to consider instead our unity. I covet for you an appreciation of how the church, the Body of Christ, has spread across the earth, and that this congregation is a part of that body in ways we fail to comprehend. We need to be more aware of our connectedness.

            My experience has brought me in touch with so many people and places that quite often, as I get world news from newspaper, radio or television, I find myself more in empathy with those suffering loss or injustice abroad than with the values of the news media. As in the play "Six Degrees of Separation," I know someone, who knows someone, who knows someone,.... who knows those very people who suffer. They were not made for suffering, but like us, to fulfill their God given potential. And in Christ's body, there should be zero degrees of separation.

            One final Majestic moment. Last week the Brethren Newsline shared notice about a special service on Martin Luther King Day in the Washington Cathedral. Carolyn, Krystal and I shared in this service with many hundreds more. Again I savored the Majesty of His Cause, as Bishops and church leaders led us in committing to peace and justice. We reflected on the scriptures and Martin Luther King's calls to peace nearly 34 years ago. King's sermon excerpts calling our nation to peace are equally compelling for our time. In Martin's words and those of today's leaders, we were reminded that justice is the basis for peace, not might.

            Let me share part of the closing prayer:

         "O God of many names and many nations, you sent your Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world may be saved through him: so enflame us with a love of you that together we may show forth your kingdom. Give us...strength to abandon retribution and seek your new creation. Free us from our bondage to violence and enable us to see your world of Peace. Sustain us with your spirit and uphold us in your love." 

Truly, when followers of the Prince of Peace seek to follow him in faith, that is a Majestic moment.

January 26, 2003

2003, Ellis J. Shenk

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