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Sermon by Archbishop Urmas Viilma at the LWF Church Leadership Consultation in Central and Eastern Europe

Sermon, Mt. 5:14–16
The LWF Church Leadership Consultation in Central and Eastern Europe
28 October 2019, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Tallinn

Urmas Viilma, Archbishop of the EELC

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Mt. 5:14–16)

In the Soviet period, it was prohibited to cut down any trees, shrubs or thickets that sprung up around rural churches in Estonia. In the same vein, many cemeteries were turned into forests. The underlying reason was ideological – churches were not supposed to be visible and cemetery crosses had to be shrouded in bushes. The teachings of the church and the word of God were like a light, to be hidden and smothered by the authorities. However, what actually happened was that the world outside the church, governed by the atheistic and Marxist Soviet regime, itself grew dark. Those who stayed in the church, who remained true to their faith, they lived in the light. It was a strange time – the Soviet society voluntarily opted for darkness over light, for stupidity over wisdom, for falsehood over truth.

There are still people today trying to convince us that religion is a personal matter. That we should not bother other people with our faith. Even some Christians believe that they do not need to share their faith with others, as if those who share could end up with a shortage of faith or as if faith could run out. As a church, we must be confident in resisting this attitude that confines believers, and the church, to a private sphere, between church walls, hidden from the public. Jesus preached and taught in public, he performed miracles and healings in public. If we were to think of Christianity and of the church’s mission in society as something private, it would become a light hidden under a bowl.

Indeed, we have experienced among our contemporaries the expectation that the church would come to them. We, on the other hand, tend to hope that people will come to us. In this way, we are likely to remain staring at each other from a distance. If we want to affect change and achieve a breakthrough, we cannot sit expectantly inside the church – we must step outside, to meet people. We must make sure that our Christian life can be heard and seen by others. For even the best speech or sermon about earthly or heavenly matters remains nothing but a flicker of air if it is not converted into acts of love. Thus, the presence of the church in the public sphere must be manifested in tangible acts, proceeding from our faith.

At the same time, and in the midst of it all, the church has to resist the temptation to become simply another low-cost recreational venue or entertainment provider. The proclamation of Christ as truth and love cannot become a commodity, offered for a discount price on a shop window of different religions and worldviews. Faith is not something that we can buy today and discard tomorrow, like a trendy seasonal product. While we can all become citizens of God’s Kingdom free of charge, Christian faith comes with a high cost of blood and life, paid by Christ as he died on the cross.

Even today, many Christians in the world, in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, are prepared to pay a similarly high cost. Martyrs have lost their lives because they were not willing to deny their Christian faith. In the public! They did not agree to reject light by renouncing Christ. Instead, they were prepared to leave their homes and live as refugees. Wouldn’t it have been easier and safer for them to deny Christianity, thus preserving their life? But to them, faith was dearer than life. A martyr’s death meant light, while life without faith meant darkness.

The increasingly secular society of the West, that is the context surrounding our churches, has chosen the path of denial of faith, while living in material prosperity. Even anonymously, many participants in Estonian population censuses have decided to deny their Christian faith and Lutheran heritage by declaring themselves as non-religious. In fact, it seems to me that they were simply honest. It is perhaps closer to the truth if they admit that they are not religious Christians, instead of outwardly performing their duties as church members and paying their membership dues.

In recent times, the question of truth has become a publicly debated issue in Estonia, as well as in Europe and the entire Western world. Many people talk about ‘post-truth’ society. However, it would mean that truth is out, and all that remains is falsehood! When the light goes out, the room is filled with darkness. We can all witness how the entire public media is suffering from the plague of fake news. This leads to many distorted truths, because they entail more intrigue, mystery and shade. Truth has been replaced by smoke and mirrors. Truth is being toyed with and manipulated. As a result, the actual truth can sometimes remain completely concealed and undisclosed. The discourse is dominated by half-truths, or half-lies, that mislead and guide people towards blind alleys. Would it even be possible, in such a society, for a person who has given up the Christian truths to live with integrity without falling into falsehood and darkness? We need to find the true source of illumination before we can walk in the light. Where should we look for it? In whom or what should we trust? The media? Social media? Science? Innovation? Artificial intelligence? Politics?

I am convinced that, in this almost primordial chaos, the church is perfectly placed to restore order and cast a light – by proclaiming Christ as the foundation, cornerstone, beacon, compass and anchor of life. We may welcome all innovations and replace our old mobiles with smartphones, use electric vehicles instead of fossil fuels, harvest energy from wind, sunshine and waves, but this will not help us in our human quest for answers and in our longing for salvation and eternal life.

Only the church’s public proclamation of Jesus Christ, of God’s grace and of love for our neighbour can serve, in this rapidly changing world, as a reassuring message of eternal Truth and Light without shadows. People need this message today as much as they did 30 years ago when the Iron Curtain fell.