“A Fine Sabbatical Experience”


Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon on September 11, 2005, the first Sunday following his return from a three-month sabbatical.  The gospel text is Matthew 18:32b-33.


Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.


Resurrection People, I’m back!  These three months of my sabbatical have been good for me mentally, spiritually and physically.  I pray that the good Lord will permit my new burst of enthusiasm and learning to really benefit our ministry together at Resurrection.


Last week, Pastor Carol and I were in Munich, Germany, and we were overwhelmed with the scenes of devastation from Hurricane Katrina that were on all the t.v. news channels.  Because of e-mail, we knew that you here at Resurrection would be hearing ways to give support to those in need.  We did something that was not on our original travel agenda; we visited the Concentration Camp Memorial at Dachau.  It was not a pleasant experience.  We wanted to see how you can face life again after a tragedy of gigantic proportion (in their case man-made, the planned murder of 32,000 people).  I believe the whole purpose of the concentration camp memorial with all the grizzly pictures, is summed up in the simple memorial wall. It’s outside of the building that served as the entry point, where folks had all their belongings taken, their hair sheared off, stripped naked, and prison stripes put on.  The words of the memorial are in 4 languages: Never Again.


1.  What did I do on my sabbatical?


The focus of my sabbatical was on the patriarch of Lutherans in America, Pastor Henry Melchior Muhlenberg.  He arrived in America in 1742 from Germany and lived until 1787.  I read his journals (2100 pages worth).  Because he was living in and near Philadelphia during the time of the American Revolution, he writes interesting bits of information about famous people we all know about.  During my driving times I listened to audio books on John Adams and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, to see how perspectives agree and differ.


While you were worshipping here on Sundays, I was worshipping at a number of congregations that were served in some way by Muhlenberg.  I read the lessons at Trappe Lutheran Church in Pennsylvania.  We worshipped in the sanctuary that was built in 1743 and old Henry himself made an appearance during worship, complete with white wig and black robe.  I also led worship in Woodstock and Madison, Virginia. 


I also worshipped at some congregations locally to see how they do it: Tabernacle and Fredericksburg United Methodist Churches, Fredericksburg Baptist Church, Fredericksburg Presbyterian Church, Christ Lutheran, Lord of Life Lutheran in Fairfax, and Prince of Peace Lutheran in Springfield. 


My longest trip without Carol was to the ELCA Assembly in Orlando, Florida, where I listened with interest to the debates and even helped serve communion at one of the worship services.


2.      what did I learn that could be good for

   Resurrection and myself?


·        The congregations I visited are more similar than I might have imagined.

      Most offer both traditional and contemporary liturgies; most put

      all the liturgy in the bulletin like we do;  the early service time in most

      start at one of these times: 8:15 or 8:30; the attendance patterns are just the

      same as ours in the summer.


·        As a visitor, I was more impressed by what was happening in the congregation than what was happening up front.   It mattered to me and

helped my worship that people were participating in the singing and listening

to the sermon.  It really mattered to me after the service if people acknowledged me and greeted me. 


·        Church finances are a constant concern of congregations, especially in the summer.  Muhlenberg came from Germany where the taxes of the people pay the pastor’s salary and build the church buildings.  Here in America the taxes supported only the established  church, the Anglicans.  The real shocker for Muhlenberg was that the entire ministry depended on the free-will offerings of the people!


·        I told the folks in some of the congregations in Pennsylvania and Virginia

where I led worship,  “I serve a congregation that is just 16 years old.  I am

most interested in how a congregation such as yours can exist for over 200

years, how you get through the hard times, where you get your strength and

resiliency…”  A good number of folks shared their insights with me and I

plan to tell some of that in the month of October during the 10:00 Teaching




3.  The heart of the Gospel


Pastor Carol and I spent 3 days in Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther lived the last 36 years of his life.  That visit really helped us understand the concept of teamwork that was involved in the Reformation.  Luther may have been the leader and most recognized face, but he could not have done it alone.  Just down the street from Luther’s house, is the house of Lucas Cranach, an excellent artist and owner of a print shop.  I had always heard that when Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church, someone copied them and took them to a printer and then had then widely distributed.  Now we know that the person was Lucas Cranach, who gave the order to have his printing presses make lots of copies of the 95 Theses.  Further, Luther wrote wonderful words of theology, but Cranach was the one who put this theology into art in the form of sanctuary art and illustrations for books and leaflets.


The word that came to us today out of the gospel lesson is the word “forgive.”  Remember that in Jesus’ parable a slave owing a big debt to his master receives forgiveness of that debt.  And then, that same slave does not forgive the debt of a fellow slave.  So Jesus concludes that God the Father expects us to treat one another as we expect God to treat us.


The Catholic Church in Jesus’ day seemed to have made forgiveness a matter of business.  “You want to get forgiveness from God?, just put some money in the box, say some Hail Marys, perform some deeds, and you will receive the forgiveness that God has entrusted to the church to give out as it sees fit.”  The recovered message that Luther and the church reformers wanted to emphasize is this:  “On the cross, Jesus has paid the price for the forgiveness of our sins.  Now, how we respond to that good news is how we show our gratitude and thanks.  The Church can’t charge for forgiveness.  It is the Gracious Gift of our Loving God.” Our gracious forgiving of others is a demonstration that we appreciate the forgiveness that God extends so freely to us.


In the journals I read that one of the first things Henry Melchior Muhlenberg did upon arriving at his new congregations in Pennsylvania was make this very Lutheran announcement:  from now on you will not be charged for receiving the sacraments of baptism and holy communion as pastors before me have done.  When you and I receive the sacrament today, remember to give thanks for the God-inspired witness of the reformers who have gone before us.


I’ve selected “Ein Festerburg” for the hymn of the day.  The last time that Pastor Carol and I sang “A Mighty Fortress” was in the Castle Church at Wittenberg, the church where Luther is buried beneath the pulpit.  Today we gladly join you in singing this great hymn of the Reformation.