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Sermon on Independence Day – Republic of Estonia

Sermon – Jm. 3:17-18
Independence Day, 105th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia
24 February 2023, Tallinn Cathedral (TV broadcast on ETV)

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

The Apostle James writes, But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:17-18)

In the past year, Christians have prayed for heavenly wisdom to be bestowed on everyone who has the power to end the war in Ukraine. Ukrainians perceive this conflict as a war of independence because they defend their homes, land, people, culture, and freedom. But how is this war understood by the invaders who fight on a foreign piece of land? Who would give them the wisdom to end this senseless aggression?

If someone could compile a word cloud of all the prayers that have been lifted to God from the depths of human heart since the beginning of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, the word ‘peace’, written in the largest letters, would occupy the central position. When we talked about peace before February 24 last year, we usually meant peace of mind, domestic peace, school peace, repose in labour disputes or forest cutting, or Christmas peace. The concept of peace had an abstract and distant semantic field. It was the same with war. We had learned about war from books and had heard the stories from our parents or grandparents. War was something remote, both in time and in space.

Today, war is a reality, not a grandparents’ memory from distant times. Peace has not yet become a reality in Ukraine. As long as there is no peace, the war in Ukraine is our war too. If we want the coming peace to be our peace, we need to work for it – with everyone contributing to the best of their ability. There simply is no other option. Just as the robbers in Jesus’ famous parable turned an accidentally passing Samaritan into a benefactor, as he showed mercy on the beaten man, Putin has turned the majority of Estonians, other European nations and many countries of the world into kind-hearted benefactors. By helping Ukraine, we, just as the other nations and states, have chosen a side.

When accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, in 1986, the Romanian-born American writer and human rights advocate Elie Wiesel, who survived the Holocaust, said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”  [1]

In this war, it is impossible to remain neutral, to distance oneself from the events. Instead of neutral, we need to be objective because God, too, is objective. He always sides with the righteous and opposes evil. The Apostle Peter writes, “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Pt. 3:12) It is easy for us to choose a side as long as we are with God.

In connection with the sad anniversary of the annexation by Russia, the Communion of Protestant Churches in Europe, representing 95 member churches, has invited everyone to pray with the words from an ancient Persian prayer:

All that we ought to have thought, and have not thought,
All that we ought to have said, and have not said,
All that we ought to have done and have not done.
All that we ought not to have thought, and yet have thought,
All that we ought not to have spoken, and yet have spoken,
All that we ought not to have done, and yet have done.
For thoughts, words and works, pray we, O God, for forgiveness. [2]

Today, on the 105th anniversary of our native and beloved Republic of Estonia, we can observe with gratitude that God has been on our side in our history as well. We have been able to come to this day through a complex history that includes, unfortunately, wars, deportations, repressions and a long period of occupation among its many milestones. Nevertheless, because we are free, we are able to assert that God has been on our side.

Over the past years, we have lived in a society with constant anxiety disorders. It is only natural for war to cause anxiety, which is why uneasiness and fear should be seen as an adequate response to the current events. Anxiety is also felt by the younger generation that needs us to be providers of support and security. Or is it the other way around and we can find hope in the young people?

In her class essay, an upper secondary school student from Tallinn wrote, “Future is the greatest source of fear for a human being. It does not matter if it is about the next school or work day or about the question if, in ten years, we even have a world to protect. Fear follows us everywhere. Being afraid is utterly natural in modern society but, amidst all this fear, we should not forget to live. (11th grade, Old Town Educational College)

We should not forget to live! Is it not a refreshing reminder on Estonia’s day of celebration? However, it seems that IT development rushes us towards a future where artificial intelligence leads our lives instead of us. The excuse is that it makes life easier or more convenient. But where is the boundary between convenience and laziness? While AI can, in the wake of innovation, take over some of life’s practical functions, the artificial mind cannot replace us in leading our own lives. The AI does not have the ability to have faith, to ask for forgiveness, or to forgive.

The information technology expert, founder and long-time CEO of Apple Inc. and creator of the first personal computer Steve Jobs, who would be 68 today, dedicated his entire life to innovation and development of information technology. Nevertheless, he has said, “Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them. /…/ Innovation is saying no to a thousand things.”  [3]

Even today, AI is capable of taking care of the simple things. It can form words, sentences and long thought constructions on the screen, but it cannot feel, taste, smell, or love. Without love there are no smiles. Tears cannot flow if there is no love. If you love, you are alive! This is why it is important to love – to love the Creator and the creation, our mother and father, our neighbours, children and grandchildren, our fatherland and mother tongue, flag and national anthem, the sound of the bells from our local church, the wails of seagulls, the smell of the sea and the calmness of a bog, spiced sprats and barley porridge, rye bread and blueberry pie. The colours and joys of life in Estonia are hidden in the smallest and seemingly trivial things. Nonetheless, they are the key to a happy life. Life and love are made of the simplest things.

The textile artist and original thinker Anu Raud who will celebrate her 80th birthday in May has said, “I really love that in Estonia, which is so small and belongs to us all, wherever people see a rake lying on the ground, they pick it up and set it against a tree or a fence. If a flower needs water, they will water it.”  [4]

Is this not exactly the same wisdom that the Apostle James writes about? But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:17-18) May God grant us the skill to be peacemakers!


[1] Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, Elie Wiesel, TIME, 2 July 2016

Urmas Viilma

24.02.2023 Tallinn Cathedral