The Estonian Evengelical Lutheran Church
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Sermon on Independence Day – Republic of Estonia

Sermon – Jeremiah 29:11
Independence Day, 106th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia
24 February 2024, Tallinn Episcopal Cathedral (TV broadcast on ETV)

Urmas Viilma, Archbishop of the EELC, President of the Estonian Council of Churches

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for peace and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11)

55 years ago, on Midsummer Day of 24 June 1969, Ernst Jaakson, General Consul of the occupied Republic of Estonia in New York, sent out a letter, on an official template with Estonia’s national coat of arms, which included a single sentence, „The people of Estonia join those who hope and work for freedom and a better world.“ The day before, Ernst Jaakson had received a letter from the NASA administration with a request to invite the leaders of his country to provide a goodwill message that the US astronauts would take to the Moon. Being the official representative of the Republic of Estonia, a country that was believed by many to have been erased from the map, only existing in memory, Ernst Jaakson himself compiled the requested message.

Less than a month later, on 21 July 1969, the first human being stepped on the surface of the Moon. The astronauts of Apollo 11 took messages from 73 countries to the companion of our home planet, including the hopeful message from the representative of the Republic of Estonia. The goodwill messages from leaders of all the participating countries were engraved in tiny letters on a small silicon disc that still rests in an aluminium case in the southwestern part of the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility (Mare Tranquillitatis), the place where astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon 55 years ago.

I am amazed by Ernst Jaakson’s optimism and faith in a better future. Having maintained the continuity of Estonia’s independent statehood in exile through decades of occupation, his message for the Moon’s surface counted Estonians among the nations that love and cherish freedom with all their hearts.

I am happy to observe that, after ten years of Crimean annexation and two years from the onset of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, Estonia remains among the nations that cherish freedom and advocate for it. Paraphrasing the well-known adage, If you want peace, prepare for war” (si vis pacem, para bellum), it might be appropriate to say in the current situation that, If you want peace, make war” (si vis pacem, fac bellum). Like many others, I am feeling increasingly anxious about this because, having been guided by the principle that a small war can help prevent a large one, we are now in the midst of an intense arms race. In fact, we find ourselves at the hotspot of a new cold war. It seems paradoxically absurd to be in a situation where the only effective method to have peace is to acquire even more arms and to allocate more and more of the state budget funds for this. I am not comfortable with the knowledge that, by paying the new or higher taxes, I am a moral accomplice in weapons deals. Even though I would like us to be able to follow the principle, “If you want peace, prepare for peace” (si vis pacem, para pacem), provided that certain conditions are met, I am prepared to pay the taxes.

Christians believe that wars are caused by people who have lost their way. From the prophet Jeremiah we can learn about God’s plans (Jeremiah 29:11). The Creator thinks of peace, not of evil, to give us future and hope. The churches in Estonia have not lost hope and have not ceased praying for peace in Estonia and in Ukraine. I also asked my students to write some prayers, thinking on Estonia’s anniversary. A young man from the final middle school grade wrote, “Dear heavenly Father, I pray for Estonia! I pray for You to protect Estonia and give wisdom to the leaders of the country. I thank You for the beautiful nature. I also pray that, if war should come to Estonia, You would be here to help those who need it.”

Peace in the world begins with good and respectful relations between state leaders. Peace in a country begins with overcoming political differences, looking for agreement, and being considerate of each other. Peace at home begins with trust, mutual understanding and love. Ultimately, peace in the world begins with love at home. If there is no peace, it means that we have failed in love.

Peeter Volkonski, a distinguished musician, actor, stage producer and translator who will celebrate his 70th birthday in September, was asked by a journalist about the sins for which one should pray to God for forgiveness. Volkonski answered that injustice is the greatest sin. He added, “We all do injustice. Most of the injustice is done unintentionally but you may also discover that you have done it intentionally.”[1] Indeed, injustice caused by a deficit of empathy can inflict the greatest harm on the human soul.

In this year’s message on the start of the Lent season, I called for special consideration to be given in prayer to our country and people, to lay our present and future before God. In order to do this together, the Estonian Council of Churches has dedicated this year to the Lord’s Prayer. It is now 500 years since the Lord’s Prayer was first recorded in Estonian language, as the Isa mede prayer, in the Kullamaa Socage Register from 1524-1532. The Lord’s Prayer, together with the Hail Mary, were the first longer texts that were deemed to be worthy of being written down in Estonian at that time.

On Holy Thursday, 15 minutes before midday, we invite everyone to stop what they are doing, to say the Lord’s Prayer silently or aloud, alone or with others. The words of the Lord’s Prayer are shared by all Christians, but they are also familiar to many others who are not members of a church. Saying the Lord’s Prayer as a prayer for peace is an act of repentance and love that is attainable for everyone. There is no doubt that this minute will change the world if we believe that changing the world starts with ourselves. In this change, we ask for help from the Father who knows and loves us.

A personal relationship is often pivotal for the course of our lives. Our willingness to defend will increase if a war becomes personal. But we should also do everything in our power to make peace something that is personally important to us. It is not a peace that is needed only by Ukrainians. To make it our personal peace, we need a change in ourselves. Starting today. Then, we will not only have a personal peace and a personal state, but we will also be personally invested in the world and everything that happens there. The message by Ernst Jaakson that reached the Moon 55 years ago serves as a proof that empathy and love for our neighbour can even create a personal universe.

The long-term plan for Estonia should envision a better future where knowledge-based education is supplemented by awareness-based education. Perhaps, this could be achieved through education on worldviews or religions. In addition to the things that we can measure, our convictions and beliefs should also be based on the guidance of our conscience, our soul and our awareness. None of the latter has a fixed measure or weight but nevertheless, we know that they are ultimately needed for us to be alive.

The 106-year-old Estonian state is alive and in good physical health. However, the mental health of our dear Estonia is in need of spiritual support and balance. Achieving this correct balance is a theme on the recent album of the beloved musician Tõnis Mägi:

You know you need a balance.
Your heart and soul are at stake.
Even when all is well – pray!
Sometimes, a shoe can slip on the parquet.

(‘Tasakaal’ – ‘Balance’ by Tõnis Mägi)