My grandfather was an immigrant Dane. His father died in Schleswieg-Holstein before he was born. He left his homeland at the age of 10 and journeyed through Hamburg and Baltimore to Green Bay in 1890. His family left behind poverty, German occupation, and the threat of conscription into the German army. In the United States, he faced poverty, ignornance of the language, the deaths of an older brother and sister, a robbery, the death of a son, and bankruptcy during the Depression.
Struggle was by no means the whole of my grandfather's story, however. My grandfather became a successful businessman, married the love of his life, raised 3 daughters, became a successful businessman again, enjoyed 4 grandchildren, and lived to a comfortable old age.
When I remember my grandfather's story, I am remembering who I am as well. It is my heritage, the cumulative experience of my family, and it shapes how I experience life.
I have other ancestors with other stories, all of which shape who I am and how I look at life. I may tell you some of their stories another day. For today, I remember just one: My grandfather was an immigrant Dane. This is who I am.
When the Hebrew people were wandering in the desert, they were always looking forward to settling in the land which God had promised them. When they finally arrived in the new land, and the very first produce of the land ripened, they were to take a basket full as an offering to God.
Bringing this first offering to God, they were to declare to the priest their obedience to God's instruction that they should settle in the land. After that first declaration, they could approach the altar. But when the people came before God with the basket, there was a different declaration. This is what they were to say to God:
My father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt with a small company and lived there until they became a great, powerful, and numerous nation. But the Egyptians ill-treated us, humiliated us, and imposed cruel slavery upon us. Then we cried to the Lord the God of our ancestors … and so the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm …. [Dt 26:5-8]
Their declaration began with the memory of where they came from: They remembered that their ancestor Abraham was a nomadic Aramean, that they lived in slavery, that God rescued them. This is where they came from; this is who they were. Only after declaring this were they to set the basket down as an offering to God.
Remembering who they were and where they came from was an essential part of who the Hebrews were to become. The special requirements for justice and fairness which God imposed on the Hebrew people are explained as a natural consequence of their ancestors' experience with injustice. This is who they were to become, according to God's command through Moses:
You shall not deprive aliens and orphans of justice nor take a widow's cloak in pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there. [Dt 24:17-18]
Because they knew injustice, and because they remembered their past as slaves who had been freed by God, they were expected to do justice.
After obeying God, after remembering the story of their ancestors, after making their offering and worshipping God, then God's command was that they should celebrate.
You shall all rejoice, you and the Levites and the aliens living among you, for all the good things which the Lord your God has given to you and to your family. [Dt 26:11]
God's command was that the people should remember their past, then rejoice in the present.
This month we celebrate the 550th anniversary of the birth of the Unity of the Brethern. The Unity was born out of conflict. Our predecessor, Jan Hus, was burned at the stake; our spiritual ancestors were persecuted and driven from their homes and from their homeland. After the Thirty Years' War, continuing persecution succeeded in dispersing the members of Unity and effectively obliterating the Unity as a continuing body. Bishop Jan Amos Komensky wrote The Bequest of the Unity of Brethern as the church's last will and testament.
This is where we come from; this is who we have been.
In 1722, a few straggling Moravians settled in Germany. This community was plagued by conflict, as the residents found it impossible to get along. We even have a hymn recalling how they "failed with one another". [Moravian Book of Worship, #396.] Conflict was not the end of the Moravian story, however, just as slavery in Egypt was not the end of the Hebrew story. By God's grace, in 1727 a renewed Unity was born in Herrnhut.
This, too, is where we come from; this, too, is who we can become.
In 1850, 123 years after the Moravian renewal, a small group of Danish and Norwegian immigrants journeyed to Fort Howard by way of Milwaukee and organized the Ephraim community here. This congregation did not avoid turmoil and dissension any more than the Hebrews or the Moravians of Herrnhut. Troubles arose in the congregation's first year, 1850, and the congregation split (for the first time) in 1853. That wasn't the last of conflict and discord. Many of you will remember more recent struggles.
I can imagine that God's command to us might be, "Do not condemn people who fight among themselves. Remember that you come from West Side Moravian." And from the first Ephraim settlement. And from Herrnhut. So we might well recall Moses' admonition to his people:
Know then that it is not because of any merit of yours that the Lord your God is giving you this rich land to occupy; indeed, you are a stubborn people. [Dt 9:6]
Yet by God's grace you have been repeatedly renewed and reborn. God has raised up leaders from among you, leaders for both the local and wider church. God has inspired a mutuality and fellowship among you that doesn't require that you always agree. You have not only survived; God has given this congregation a hope for what you can become. You might well adopt God's command to the Hebrews that they should celebrate.
You shall all rejoice, you … and the aliens living among you, for all the good things which the Lord your God has given to you and to your family. [Dt 26:11]
This is where we've come from. It shapes who we are and how we see the world. This morning, and every time a child is baptized, you "accept your obligation to love and nurture him in Christ". That includes passing on the cumulative experience of your ancestors: of the Hebrews and of the Brethern in Prague, of the communities in Herrnhut and in Fort Howard.
The past is our heritage. It is who we are. It is our gift to our children. But Jesus says,
No one who sets his hand to the plough and then keeps looking back is fit for the kingdom of God. [Luke 9:62]
Jesus was aware of the history of his people. He often quoted the stories and rules of the Hebrew scriptures, the law which Moses set out and especially the interpretations of the prophets. Jesus knew his heritage, but he did not stop with the past.
When Jesus' time on earth was nearly completed, "he set his face resolutely toward Jerusalem" [Luke 9:51] and he demanded the same resolution from his followers. There was work to do.
In this season, we are preparing to embark on a journey that does not require us to travel to distant lands. Our next adventure as a congregation will be sharing our gifts and heritage with a new minister as she shares hers with us. It will be good to remember our history and to share our past adventures.
Still better will be to discover the work that our Jesus has for this congregation to do. Our past shapes who we are and how we experience life. We should remember our history but we should not wallow in it. There is still work for us to do. Jesus says,
Leave the dead to bury their dead; you must go and announce the kingdom of God. [Luke 9: 60]
Remember who you are and where you come from. Celebrate the good things God has given to you and to your families. Then put your "hand to the plow" and announce the city of God.
Scripture quotations from The New English Bible. Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press. © 1961, 1970.
Ferslev family history presented at http://pivotrock.net/Ferslev/FerslevFamily.html.
History of West Side Moravian Church presented at http://wsmoraviangb.org/who/WhoWeAreIndex.htm.
Index to sermons.