Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen
Sometimes, when we think we have so much to teach others, we end up being surprised with how much we have to learn, instead.
This was my experience going to Russia back in 2002, and then with my wife, a couple of years later.
There was a parishioner, Bradn Buerkle, from my former congregation in Plevna, MT, who was studying to become a pastor. As part of his training to become a pastor, Bradn, who got his undergraduate degree in Russian studies, was able to be assigned to a foreign internship.
His assignment was to go to Novgorod, Russia and serve as the pastor of a small congregation, mostly ethnic Germans, which had been reestablished following the reforms and new freedoms that Russians were experiencing under Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s program of “perestroika” (“restructuring”) and “glasnost” (“openness”), and then following the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the reforming Russian state.
A little background.
Russian had long been home to many people of German descent, dating back many hundreds of years. A particularly large block of immigration from Germany to Russia occurred during the reign of Catherine the Great, in the 1800s. These “Volga Deutch” had been recruited to help develop Russian agriculture, and were allowed to maintain their German culture, language, traditions, and churches.
Of course, many of those German churches would be Lutheran.
Prior to the Bolshevik revolution in 1918, the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul in Moscow had over 15,000 members, its sanctuary seated about 3,000, and it boasted of having the largest school in all of Russia. In St. Petersburg, similarly large and prosperous Churches were also thriving. There is one block or so there that had three large churches, a German Church, a Swedish Church, and a Finnish Church, if I recall correctly.
Then with the Revolution, everything changed.
As you know, the Soviets adopted an official policy of atheism, and set about largely banning congregations. A major persecution of the churches followed during which almost all of the clergy of every denomination were killed, including the Russian Orthodox.
This persecution became especially intense for the ethnic Germans following the Great Patriotic War, what we know as World War II.
The ethnic Germans in Russia had suffered during the German invasion as all Russians had, but then following the war, because they were German, those who survived were persecuted further, facing mandatory relocation to Siberia, or worse, being sentenced to the Gulags, basically concentration camps where they were starved to death.
Churches, such as the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Leningrad, or the old St. Petersburg, were seized by the government, and converted to other uses ranging from warehouses, or in the case of the cathedral in St. Petersburg, a swimming pool.
But then, due to the restructuring and reforms during the last days of the Soviet Union, and the early years of the new Russian Federation, everything changed once again.
Now, the Russian government took the opposite roll and became very proactive in supporting the reestablishment of the Christian church throughout Russia and the former Soviet States.
Where possible, the old Churches were returned to the congregations that had begun to gather again, and in some cases, the Russian government itself paid for the restoration of those buildings.
In Novgorod, Russia, which is located between St. Petersburg and Moscow, and which prides itself on being the original capital of the Russian State, over a 1,000 years ago, there had been numerous Lutheran churches. One of those churches, St. Nikolai Lutheran Church, was reopened, and a small band of ethnic Germans began worshipping again.
It was this congregation that Bradn was sent to serve during his internship.
Because of my relationship with Bradn and his family, my congregation in Sandpoint decided to become a sister congregation to St. Nikolai’s.
The first thing we did as part of this relationship was to send a delegation of four of us to visit them.
Our guide, throughout much of our visit, was a man who had helped reestablish St. Nikolai’s, Alexander Fleischman.
Herr Fleischman was a survivor of the Gulags. He had been spared starvation because he had found favor in the eyes of some of the officials and been given double rations.
The stories he told of that time were horrific. He told, for example, of waking in the morning, and knowing who had died during the night, because the rats would immediately eat the ears and nose off of the corpses.
He told of us his deep guilt and remorse, because as a young man he had been forced to be part of the crews that went into the former churches and whitewashed them, covering up all of the priceless art work that decorated the sanctuaries.
Following his release from the Gulag, he was interned in a specific geographical area up north and prevented from leaving. Imagine an Indian reservation, only with borders that could not be crossed.
Finally, he was able to return home to Novgorod.
When the opportunity came to reopen their church, the ethnic Germans did so both for religious reasons, but also to reclaim their German heritage.
One of the major challenges during those early years of St. Nikolai’s new life was that as they were gathering together and forming a congregation, many of the Germans that had become part of the congregation were leaving, having been given the opportunity to immigrate back to Germany.
One of the challenges Bradn faced during his time there was that he had studied Russian, but not German.
A question that the Lutheran Church has had to wrestle with was whether they would be just a church for ethnic Germans, or whether they would become a Russian church for all.
Bradn became a professor at the seminary in St. Petersburg, and a new pastor came to serve St. Nikolai’s, one of their own members, Igor.
One of the questions we asked of our new friends in Novgorod, was how they survived during those 70 years of Soviet oppression. Did they gather in homes to worship? And what about baptisms? We had heard here in this country that once it was possible, many Russians flocked back to the churches to be baptized.
Their response surprised us. No, they didn’t gather in homes, because any gatherings such as that were suspect, and if they had done so, their neighbors likely would have reported them to the authorities.
But even more surprising was that they shared that no, there was no rush back to the churches to be baptized. Most of them related that they had been baptized as infants, privately, in their own homes, perhaps by their babushka, or grandmother.
70 years. And their faith endured from generation to generation.
And out of the ashes the Church was reborn.
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Or “born again.” As some translations put it.
Probably, when you have heard this verse, or that most familiar verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” you probably thought of it individually.
Many people speak about their “born again” experience, a coming to faith through repentance and renewal of the Spirit.
We think about this being born again as a very deeply personal matter.
But this is an American bias, and our radical individualism is showing.
I’ve come to appreciate more and more throughout the years that much of what the Bible says, it says to us collectively, as a group, as the Body of Christ.
St. Nikolai’s Lutheran Church truly knows what it is to be “born again”. For seventy years they were suffering and dying, and then, the Spirit moved through the land, and they were indeed “born again.” New life dawned among them.
And where once churches were converted to warehouses, they bought a warehouse and converted it to a Church.
In America, we enjoy a right to ‘freedom of religion’, and can worship where and as we please.
But increasingly across our country our ‘freedom of religion’ is becoming a freedom from religion.
We are becoming a secular state, not because of a government policy of official atheism, but because of a public attitude of simple apathy.
That’s one of the reasons we are struggling with declining membership here at Peace. The Pacific Northwest is one of the most unchurched areas of our country, and it is so primarily because people simply don’t care or want to bother being part of a church.
If I could do anything for you, to give you hope in the face of all the challenges we face here, I would love to take you to Novgorod.
What better example is there that though people may give up on God, God will never give up on them.
In Matthew 16, following Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, Jesus says: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
Not the Gates of Hell.
Nor the Gates of a Soviet Gulag.
Nor the indifference of the American people.
Though the Church may die a thousand deaths, it will be born again and again, as the Spirit moves where it wills.
This is true, because ““God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
When Jesus says “everyone who believes in him” he is referring not just to individuals, but to this body of believers that is the Church.
He is referring to St. Nikolai’s.
He is referring to Peace Lutheran.
And he is promising that die though we may, we will not perish, but rather we will be born again, and we will see the Kingdom of God. Amen