United Methodist Church in Pleven
Rededication of the Church, July 10, 2010
Sermon delivered by Heinrich Bolleter, Bishop retired
My first visit to Pleven was about twenty years ago.
After the political changes, we were together with the late superintendent Zdravko Beslov looking into the possibilities of a restitution of the buildings, which were expropriated by the communist government.
The Church in Pleven was at that time used as a Puppet Theatre and also the Pastors House next to it was no longer in our possession. Both were in a rather bad condition.
I am referring to these early struggles about the restitution and the recuperation of the buildings to remind us about the hope and the persistence of the Methodist People in Bulgaria, believing in a resurrection of the Church in Pleven and in many other places.
The pathway to the celebration of today is stretched over a time of twenty years of hard work. It was a path of hope and disappointments, a path of faith and persistence and it was a path enriched and supported by the global Methodist family.
Cultivating a "Christian Culture of Persistence and Hope" is dependent from the leadership. If the leadership does not show persistence and hope, a rebirth of the Church is merely a dream. So I am mentioning the Superintendents who were the carriers of hope: Zravko Beslov, Bedros Altunian and Daniel Topalki. Not to forget the local laypeople, who were always ready to witness about the hope that is in them, to mark their presence and to engage in hard work. It is faithful people, men and women, who are at the center of our Christian witness in times of transition and despair.
The recuperation and restoration of Church property is only one of the visible signs for our Christian Culture of Persistence and Hope; it is the faithful people who are the living expression of a Culture of Persistence and Hope.
I have found this Culture of Persistence and Hope in Psalm 91, and I am going to read now the Verses 1 + 2. "You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord: My refuge and my fortress; my God in whom I trust".
Looking closer into this Psalm 91, we are invited to follow the experience of a pilgrim at the temple in Jerusalem. The person had fled from great difficulties and challenges he met in the daily life and is now seeking in the temple the presence of God and a renewal of strength and hope.
First we recognize a very strong sequence of pictures for God in whom he has put his trust:
“My refuge, my fortress, the rescuer from hidden traps”!
And Verse 11: “For he will command his angels, to guard you in all your ways. On their hands, they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone”.
There are four observations I would like to share with you, when we are looking into Psalm 91:
1. The Pilgrim was seeking refuge in the temple. He was stressed and breathless. All the risks in the daily life as well as the threats and the challenges waiting for him in the unknown of the future had led him to the point, where he was willing to give up. So he arrived in the temple with one big wish in his heart: “Oh God, give me a break! Oh God give me a break! Restore in me faith hope and love! Please do it! Do it now!”
People in our civilizations, in the US, in Bulgaria and also in Switzerland, are stressed by the challenges of the present time and afraid of the future. This seems to mark our awareness of life. Life has become very stressful, risky and dangerous.
And as the pilgrim of the Old Testament is seeking the presence of God, we all have obtained access to God and his Grace through Jesus Christ our Lord. As St Paul says (Romans 5, 3 – 5): “We know, that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts trough the holy spirit, that has been given to us”.
It is our personal relationship to God through Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit in which the Christian Culture of Persistence and Hope is rooted.
2. What I did not find in the Psalm:
Bulgaria like most of the Civilizations is claiming, that the “Golden Age” lays ways back in the history. In 1981, Bulgaria was celebrating 1300 years of its history as an empire. And a huge monument was built on the plateau above the city of Shumen. It shows the history of the empire under the Bulgarian tsars and kings as well as under the rulers of the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empire. There the “Golden Age” is marked as the Second Bulgarian Empire about 900 Years ago. If the “Golden Age” is in the past, than our life is dominated by the feeling of a big loss. We have lost the “golden age” and are since going from tragedy to tragedy in our history. Many of the Bulgarians have such a pessimistic view of their life.
In Psalm 91 we do not find this orientation to the past as the “Golden Age”. And connected to that the lamentations about the present time and the future. The Psalm is written in the presence and the future tense. Jews and Christians are looking differently at our history. For them, the “Golden Age” is in the future. It is not a lost paradise we have to regain.
Jews are talking about the coming of the Messiah and we are talking about the kingdom of God and about the new creation, God himself is about to create for us, among us and with us.
Jesus himself announced: (Mark 1,15) “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news”.
As Christians we are a future oriented people of hope. The best is still to come! The “Golden Age” is about to come.
That is, why we are living future oriented with persistence and hope.
3. Psalm 91 is showing us the difference between optimism and hope.
Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. It means no courage, just a bit of naivety to be an optimist.
No Christian, knowing about the tense future of our society can naively be an optimist.
But a Christian can never ever give up hope.
We are the people of the Covenant with God. And the risen Christ is the one preceding us into the future, which belongs to God. Christianity for me is the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind. And hope is what really transforms the human situation.
To have hope needs courage, great courage. It needs the courage to confess, that the future belongs to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Here in Bulgaria we are living in the midst of a civilization of mistrust and despair. We are surrounded by a lot of citizens, who have resigned and who are full of frustration. It was never easy to live as a Christian in Bulgaria, but there is no better time to radiate hope nurtured through our personal relationship to the one God, to whom the future belongs.
People are looking for hope and inspiration. Where do they turn for guidance, when trust in the institutions is fading?
There is no more tested compass than Christian faith which has been tested against reality for more than 2000 years.
To walk as Christians in Bulgaria is a witness for persistence and hope. The rededication of this church building makes us walk with pride. We do not walk with arrogance, because we feel a sense of deep gratitude to God, who is our refuge and our fortress; our God in whom we trust.
4. Psalm 91 is also referring to the angels. God ordered angels to guard us wherever we go. Most of the times these angels have no wings. It is you and me that God is calling to serve him as “angels” inviting us to support others and to bear others through difficult times.
And it is our witness this very day that God has sent his angels to Pleven. Without their help, we could have stumbled and could have lost courage and hope.
The angels are the partners of the Dunwoody UMC and the West Market Street United Methodist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, as well as many others from Europe and the US who over the years have prayed for us and helped us to continue the work with persistence and hope. The United Methodist Networks like “In Mission Together” are a part of our experience that God has sent his angels. And we are deeply grateful for that.
And now you all, who sit here in the High God’s presence join me in the confession of the pilgrim in the temple: „God, you are our refuge and our hope. We trust you for our way into the future. We are your people the children of you covenant.“
You will allow me to close this sermon with a personal experience:
The first official visit after more than 40 years by the Bishop of the UMC
became possible in Spring 1991. It was arranged so that I could speak also to the Director or Minister for Religious Affairs. His office was still located in the foreign department of the State of Bulgaria, because under the communists, there was the understanding, that religion is not compatible with the ideology of the state.
After a short greeting, Dr. Popov declared that the best thing for me to do would be to return as soon as possible to my Episcopal office in Zurich, Switzerland. He said: “The Methodist Church in Bulgaria is practically no longer existing in Bulgaria”.
And he had some reason to say so: out of the former 36 congregations only three were existing in 1991 and two out of the three were no longer clearly defined as “Methodist”-congregations. The surviving pastors were at an age, that a restart of the Church seemed impossible.
But I was invited to Bulgaria by a group of active Methodists among them some very old and frail pastors, who were members of the last Annual Conference, which was held in 1949. And the following Sunday in a common understanding I was in the Dr. Long Church in Sofia officially recognizing the new Superintendent, naming him the pastor for the Dr. Long Church, and ordaining 3 lay persons for the restart of the mission.
It was the Holy Spirit who gave us persistence and hope to do this.
Our Christian witness in this society is a culture of hope. We are willing to follow God into the unknown land of the future. The “Golden Age”, the best to come, lays in the future.
At the end of Psalm 91 God speaks to the pilgrim in the future tense:
"Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will rescue them and honor them” (Psalm 91, 14 – 15).