We Are Creating Tomorrow’s Heritage: A Sermon on John 17:17-21
The greatest amount of moaning and wailing that I’ve heard from my fellow students at seminary is over church history courses. The amounts of reading are prodigious, the time periods seem distant, the information irrelevant to a modern audience geared toward moving forward and most of all, they exclaim, it’s so boring! Well, I’ll be the first to admit that I have had, on occasion, to resort to reading my Calvin out loud so I wouldn’t fall asleep and that Karl Barth’s writing style always gives me fits! I am in agreement with historian David McCollough when he says, “No harm’s done to history by making it something someone would want to read.” No harm is done, either, by making it something someone would want to hear. Most people who claim not to like history just didn’t have a good history teacher. I say this as a deep lover of historical study, with a B.A. in History and a seminary specialization in Church History.
I am one of the lucky ones. Oh, I’ve always had an interest in history, the great goings-on of times long ago, the everyday lives of people from ages past. But, when I say I am lucky, I am referring to my middle school history teacher. Mr. G had a true passion for the past, along with a knack for relaying his love of history to 7th and 8th graders. He made it relevant. That is, he figured out how to convey its relevance to us. Part of his method was to appeal to the scatological bent of kids that age by telling us tidbits about the prevalence and common treatment of dysentery during the Civil War and what, exactly, goes into hot dogs, as part of a discussion of the Industrial Revolution and the growth of factories. Mostly, though, he simply told us the truth. Instead of relying on a never-ending column of dry names and dates, we were told juicy stories about a fascinating array of real people and occurrences that just happen to have been in the past.
When my class moved to the high school, so did Mr. G. He was determined that his students know things that are still seldom taught in our schools, things that don’t always speak well of our American heritage. For while it is true that our forefathers (Mr. G included the foremothers, too) gave us things like the Constitution and fairer labor practices, they also bestowed on us a terrible heritage of broken treaties with the natives of this land and internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. We like to gloss over ugly truths like this, but it is imperative that we speak these truths as loudly as we proclaim our pride in the accomplishments of our nation. As Goethe put it, “patriotism ruins history” and when we don’t have the whole story, we miss valuable lessons.
The same kind of veneer is often put on church history. As Christians, we are proud of our faith’s message of love to the world. We are hasty to skip over atrocities done in the name of Christ, atrocities such as the Crusades, the Inquisition and exclusionist tactics practiced by Christians today. As Protestant Christians, we are proud of our heritage as a denomination that grew out of the Reformation. We speak of Christians such as Martin Luther, who, in fighting the corruption of the Church, helped to create a whole new way of being Christian. Yet, we avoid talking about other Protestants such as Thomas Müntzer, who led 8,000 peasants in the bloody Battle of Frankenhausen, a battle fought over varying interpretations of Christ’s message. As American Protestants, we are proud of our roots that stretch back to the Mayflower Pilgrims. We neglect to include things like the hanging of Quakers like Mary Dyer or the banishment of those, like Anne Hutchinson, who spoke out against Puritan sermons.
The good news in the dark parts of our heritage is that we can study what happened and make sure it never happens again. We can make sure we follow the example of people in history who got it right and guard against slipping into the ways of those who did not. It is all too easy to say that we would never allow something like the Holocaust to happen. Yet, how many of us, with our parish, our job or our family at risk would genuinely have the courage to stand against the rising flood of hatred? How many of us would be a Karl Barth or a Dietrich Bonhoeffer? How easy it would be simply to go along to get along, to protect those we love through our complicity! How many American pastors over the past few years have preached against a war that meets none of the traditional criteria for just war? I know that if I was told that I had better put the American flag up instead of the cross in my church or risk my mom’s life, I would most likely fly that flag high. I wish I thought I would behave differently, but I am not so certain of my strength. In all my humanity, I very well might, like Peter denying Christ, act to save my own skin rather than to tell God’s truth. I can only try my hardest to be a truth-teller, knowing what I know of history.
So, the past is relevant, in all its evil as well as all its good. What Christians have done in the past has shaped irrevocably who Christians are today. I have found myself embraced when claiming the name “Christian” and have found myself under suspicion, challenged, as well. We must act in the present to deserve the embraces and we must act in the present to eradicate the suspicion. We are responsible for future generations being able to claim their heritage with the pride we are able to show in celebrating ours. We don’t want to live in the past, to assume that because our ancestors have accomplished much, we may rest on their laurels. We want to live our lives as Christians today in such a way that future generations will wish to live up to our example.
In the history of
When we speak of
Heritage is not an empty vault, filled with dust and void of nourishment. Heritage is more like a banquet table, at which we find a rich array of dishes, with God as executive chef and our spiritual ancestors as sous chefs, doing their best to replicate God’s recipes for the delight of future generations. We are invited to drink and eat the riches of God’s table. We set aside that which is not bread, our worries, cares, prejudices. We set aside all notion of tradition and heritage as prison cells. We take a seat at the table and eat what is good. We also step into the kitchen and don our aprons to prepare nourishment for the coming generations.
In so doing, we are about the work of Christ, who asked for sanctification not only for the apostles, who sent not only the apostles into the world. Christ’s interest was for our sanctification as well. Christ asks us to go into the world so that all may believe in him and so that all may be one. Jesus’ charge 2,000 years ago echoes down the ages to us. We would do well to incline our ears to what God is speaking to us today, in order that our actions may become part of the beauty of the table God is setting throughout history, and not tainted meat or molded bread to be thrown out with the garbage of the past by future generations.
Edward Gibbon said, “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past.” It is up to us to hold high the lamp of our heritage and use the past as a solid foundation from which to soar into the future God would have us create. Without the foundation, we have nothing to stand upon.