When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples
came to him. Then he began to speak . . . (Matthew 5:1)
Those of you who are regulars around here know that I have been away for a couple of weeks on
a pilgrimage in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation which was
launched when that Augustinian monk from Wittenberg, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses to
the door of the Castle Church. With Tim at my side, we journeyed from Calvin’s Geneva and the
high points of the Swiss Reformation before crossing into Germany and making our way to
Wittenberg, where we participated in a service of Holy Eucharist on that fateful day, October 31.
One of our stops along the way was the city of Leipzig, most familiar to me as the place where
Johann Sebastian Bach spent the bulk of his life as the Cantor and Director of Music at the
Thomaskirche, the great church of St. Thomas. It was also the place where, in 1529, Martin
Luther preached the Reformation to the people of Leipzig and, even earlier, engaged in one of his
more celebrated disputations with Johannes Eck. You can look that up.
But Leipzig has another story, too, one that struck me as especially meaningful as this All Saints
As cantor in Leipzig, Bach was actually responsible for providing the music for four churches. The
grandest of them was the medieval Nikolaikirche, the Romanesque building dedicated to St.
Nicholas. In more modern history, St. Nicholas served as the spark that ultimately threw off the
yoke of Russian occupation via its East German puppet government.
In the early 1980’s, young people began to gather at St. Nicholas for ten days every November to
pray for peace. This was a time when the arms race was of particular concern, and these annual
peace decades, as they were called, evolved into weekly prayers for peace each Monday at 5:00.
As pressure mounted on the Soviets and the East Germans to lift the Iron Curtain, the
government and the police applied increasing pressure on those demanding freedom and peace.
The crackdown became more apparent in Leipzig in May of 1989 when first the driveways and
later the entire perimeter of the church were blocked by police. Checkpoints were established at
roadway exits leading into the city. Church officials were “encouraged” to end the peace prayers.
Week after week, the numbers of people coming to St. Nicholas on Monday afternoons grew until
the 2,000 seats in the church were no longer enough. Harassment and arrests increased as the
state-controlled press called for the counter-revolution to be put down by whatever means
On October 9,1989, a Monday, 600 East German party members had already taken their places
inside the church along with an unknown number of Stasi, the brutal East German police. The
conflict had reached a breaking point, and this was the day the government aimed to crush the
peace movement. What happened, though, was nothing short of a miracle. No shots were fired.
No violence occurred. At the conclusion of the peace prayers on that day, the 2,000 inside the
church were met with tens of thousands of others outside, their candles casting light into the
So, what happened?
Week after week, every Monday at 5, officials keeping an eye on these revolutionary prayers for
peace were exposed to the same words of Jesus we just heard this morning: Blessed are the poor in
spirit. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the peacemakers. As the pastor of the church later wrote:
“...these people were exposed to the word, the gospel and its impact. I always appreciated
that the Stasi members heard the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount every
Monday. Where else would they hear these?
Thus, these people and the Stasi members heard Jesus Christ’s gospel which they did not
know in a church they could not do anything with. They heard from Jesus who said:
‘blessed are the poor’ and not ‘wealthy people are happy.’
Jesus said, ‘love your enemies’ and not ‘down with your opponent.’
Jesus said, ‘many who now are first will be last’ and not ‘everything stays the same.’”
The Rev. Christian Führer, pastor at St. Nicholas, was certain that it was in hearing these words
week after week that “the party and ideological dictatorship” collapsed. He quotes Horst
Sindermann, a member of the Central Committee of the German Democratic Republic who said,
“We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.”
There was no leader of this peaceful revolution. There was only the Church. Cabaret artist
Bernd-Lutz Lange said of the events: “There was no head of the revolution. The head was the
Nikolaikirche and the body the centre of the city. There was only one leadership: Monday, 5 pm,
St. Nicholas Church." One month later, the Berlin Wall began to come down. (1)
As we welcome new members into Christ’s body today through the sacrament of baptism and
renew our own baptismal vows, we would do well to remember that, in coming here week after
week, we are taking a great risk. The gospel is not merely words on a page but the Word of God
enfleshed in the person of Jesus Christ with the power to place us on a course we never
anticipated nor sought. We do not set out to be meek or poor or mournful, but if that is where we
find ourselves, we might just be walking in the footsteps of Jesus. The gospel does not teach us to
align ourselves with powers and principalities but with those on the margins, and in so doing, we
are much likelier to find ourselves reviled and persecuted. This is a good thing.
This word from the beatitudes - blessed - is often translated as ‘happy’ or possessing
‘unconquerable joy.’ If we consider, though, that Matthew’s is the most Jewish of all the gospels,
we might find a better translation in the Hebrew word for blessed - ‘asher’ (אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי־) - which means
something like “moving in the right direction.” (2)
The less we are concerned with our own comfort and wealth and privilege and the more we are
making sure that others can find stable footing in a world where the cards are stacked against
them, the more blessed we are. This is both a present reality now through the life, death, and
resurrection of Jesus, as well as the certain promise that we will feast at the great banquet with all
the saints who have moved in that right direction and now dwell in the nearer presence of God.
Just as the ones who survived the great ordeal in the Revelation to John now gather around God’s
throne of grace, worshipping and praising night and day, so we, too, are living into that promise
we made in our baptism, that we may come to this table and join with saints and angels and all
the company of heaven whose dwell in a land where there is no sorrow, no pain, no mourning,
where the Great Shepherd guides to springs of water and wipes away all tears.
Or in the words we sang just a little while ago:
O, blest communion, fellowship divine.
We feebly struggle; they in glory shine.
Yet all are one in thee for all are thine.
Alleluia. Alleluia. (Hymnal 1982, 287)
(1) Notes on the Peace Prayers are from a brochure from Nikolaikirche.
(2) Suggested by Earl Palmer, Feasting on the Word.
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|10:00 a.m.||Holy Communion|
|5:30 p.m.||Holy Communion|