Sermon, Stones at Rownica Forest Church, Poland, 14 July 2017

15.06.2017Petri Merenlahti

Phil. 2:5-6

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.”

 

Sisters and brothers in Christ,

I bring greetings from Finland and from Finnish Lutherans. It is a special delight to bring greetings from Finland to worship such as this, celebrated here in the nature of the Rownica Forest. This is an important place for you; this is where the Polish Lutheran heritage breathes. Our churches have different histories and have followed different paths to the present day. But at the same time we have much in common: and above all, a shared Lutheran heritage.

We also have in common the fact that Lutheranism has grown and lived in the middle of the forest, even if in different ways. The forest is an important part of the Finnish landscape of the soul. Bringing greetings is therefore especially pleasant in such an environment. In Finland, too, worship is sometimes celebrated in the forest. Christmas forest churches are organised in many parishes. The forest has traditionally been a place where Finns have experienced the holy presence. The Creator breathes in the rustle of the trees.

The forest also means protection and safety. An old Finnish legend tells how the Holy Family fled to Egypt through a forest. In this way, the legend transports the Biblical story to a Finnish landscape. In the legend the Holy Family flees Herod’s pursuing soldiers by entering a spruce forest. At that time – so the legend goes – all the branches of the spruces pointed firmly upwards. Through these spruces Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus fled, their lives in danger. They were tired, and Herod’s soldiers were approaching. Eventually, Mary and Joseph were no longer able to keep going. The soldiers were right behind them. The exhausted Mary and Joseph crouched down at the roots of a spruce, sure that the end had now come for them and the little infant Jesus. The soldiers’ voices were already to be heard. Then the spruce under which they were crouching dropped its large branches all the way down to the ground. Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus were sheltered under its branches. The soldiers ran past. The Holy Family was saved. The legend says that since then spruce branches have pointed downwards.

The legend is a legend; it is Finnish oral folklore. It explains the importance of the forest, but also the fact that Christians are identified with those fleeing and seeking protection. They feel that Jesus Christ himself is with them when they are tired, scared or threatened.

It is from the land of such tales that I come with greetings for your celebration. The slogan of these festivities is “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever.” In the same way we can say: Jesus Christ is the same in Finland and Poland; Jesus Christ is the same in the Finnish spruce forest and here in the Rownica Forest.

 

This place is a place of stories. I do not mean legends. I mean stories that are told about what it is to live as a Lutheran Christian. They describe the road we share, which leads us to today.

Remembrance is important. If people lose memory, they lose an important part of who they are, of their identities. Each of you brings your own life history and your own story. Because you have made an effort and arrived in this place on foot, in your memories and your life stories the Lutheran faith has a place. This kind of place is known and remembered by each person. Or rather, it is remembered in part, as human memory is always fragile and fragm    entary. Perhaps some of your memories contain situations when you were afraid, tired and needed safety and protection. I cannot know what faith and church have meant to you. I am convinced that Jesus himself has been with you, regardless of whether or not you have recognised his presence. When we are called to follow Jesus – and may the same mind be in you that was in Christ – it does not mean fearlessness and a demand for unshakeable bravery, but trust that he is with us.

Remembrance is important; the church’s shared memory is important. Remembrance needs places. This is a place that helps us to tell our stories – it not only helps everyone to tell his or her own story, but also the common story of the church and of following Christ. That narrative, which is told here and which has drawn us to this place, is no legend, but the story that tells how the church has come to the present day.

No one can remember or know everything. Memory is fragile and fragmentary, and so is our shared memory. The past is always a little different, depending on the situation in which it is told; it changes. Alongside remembrance there is always forgetting.

That is why this place and these stones are important. They contain your shared memory. They remember more than any of you can remember. These rocks are witness to the story of what it has been to follow Christ, and how the church has lived through the centuries. They have witnessed its difficult and easy stages, and the fear and courage that faith has entailed.

 

It is to this moment that God has brought us. In this service we join in the long story of faith; we become part of the memory of these stones. It means a lot to me that I can in this way be a part of the story of Polish Lutheranism and the faith of Poles. At the same time, our participation in this service is a sign that your story is not isolated, but is part of the shared story of the heritage of the Reformation, part of global Lutheranism. And even more, it is part of the story of the whole church of Christ in the world. Our worship is connected to this; each of our stories is connected to this, as is that which has brought us to the middle of the forest.

The church of Christ is not just the Poles’ or the Finns’ church. The church of Christ is for all those who, their minds, souls or bodies being in danger, need protection and safety. It is the task of the church of Christ in the world at this very moment, in which growing numbers of people are forced to go without protection and safety, including those who have lost their home. When we leave here, we will have attached ourselves to the story which this forest and these stones tell. All of us will continue in our own ways the story of the church of Christ in the world. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”