A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
February 5, 2015
Last week I received yet another inquiry from someone doing some Sorge family genealogy. Interest in our family roots and branches is widespread in our family, leading a distant relative a few years back to discover that our family tree goes back to Phillip Melanchthon, Martin Luther’s key assistant and a brilliant theologian in his own right. I have found a deep resonance personally with Melanchthon, and I wonder if it is more than accidental.
It is impossible to know who I am without knowing where I come from. You know me as an urban American pastor, but it is impossible to know me well if you don’t also know that I grew up in a small-town German-Canadian pastor’s home, and that I was a church musician before I was a pastor.
Throughout the second half of Exodus, God gives Moses an elaborate order of worship and festivals for Israel to observe in perpetuity. They have one overarching purpose – to make sure Israel will never forget their root story of deliverance from bondage by the power of God. Israel’s entire worship life can be summed up in a single imperative: Remember! Remember who you are. Remember where you came from. Remember how you got here. Remember the mighty hand that saved you and guided you. Remember that you are not your own.
We began 2015 with reflections on two other imperatives for the people of God that are especially apropos for the turn of the New Year: Repent! Reconcile! Today’s focus on Remember! transitions us to a new series on Grace and Gratitude that we will explore in the weeks ahead.
Remembering is the core of Christian worship, just as it was for ancient Israel. “Do this in remembrance” is more than the words of institution for the Lord’s Supper; it is the essence of Christian worship. As with Israel of old, Christians in worship are called to remember who we are, where we came from, how we got here, and who is our Savior and Lord. The opening words of “A Brief Statement of Faith” capture the essence of our worship in a nutshell: “In life and in death we belong to God.”
Because we belong to God and not to ourselves, we also belong to each other and not to ourselves. To remember rightly is to remember in company with others. God’s worship directives to Moses were corporate mandates for the whole community, rather than instructions on personal piety. I cannot chart an individual genealogy; mine is inescapably a family tree. I truly know who I am only as one among others upon whom I depend for my very existence itself.
This has profound implications for the church’s life. We all too readily break ourselves off from our roots, assuming that we can simply graft ourselves onto other branches, or even be replanted to form new trees, and thereby become more fruitful. That may prove true in some respects in the near term, but it does not build health and strength for the long haul. Being disconnected from our family system profoundly alters and ultimately weakens our identity and mission.
Consider the great Reformers on whose shoulders we stand. Disconnection from the larger church was never Luther’s or Calvin’s or Wesley’s intention. Luther and Calvin were forced out, while Wesley never left despite the encouragement of others to do so. Calvin sought continuously to mend the breach with Rome, petitioning Rome in vain to convene a council that incorporated all the churches, in order to consider together the matters over which the church had fractured. He was even willing for the Pope to preside at such a council! Yet descendants of these great leaders have proven much more ready to form new churches when they find their mother church defective, than to heed their pleas to avoid doing so if at all possible.
When we remember who we are, whose we are, and how we got here, we cannot disown our family tree. Remembrance is inherently an act of fresh engagement with our root system. It is literally to re-member, to renew and fortify our identity as members of a larger body.
Remember! How might renewing and deepening our engagement with our family tree help us renew and deepen our connection to our Lord and Savior, who calls and binds us all together?
Yours in the family of faith,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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