Listening with Fathers and Mothers

I’ve enjoyed translating and reflecting on addresses and sermons delivered by Pastors Herman Kilian and later Theodore Schmidt at the 75th, 100th and 125th anniversaries at St. Paul’s in Serbin. They encourage us to remember how sermon writing was different a century ago as well as to wonder what parishioners expected from a sermon.

Today’s preachers often use a technique called narrative preaching in which a story is used to capture listener interest as the sermon begins. Sometimes the story is too long or reveals too many secrets of the pastor’s family on too many occasions. The sermons from Serbin usually plunged right into the text, quoted many Bible passages as well as favorite hymn texts. Considered trite today, the sermon often concluded with a hymn, sometimes with the recitation of all the verses. However, given that the laity may have been unacquainted with any literature other than the Bible and hymnody, it was probably appropriate to use these references to draw applications to parishioner’s lives.

The Serbin anniversary sermons also make frequent reference to the importance of holding on to faith until death. Death was a more frequent visitor in Serbin families, and the cemetery adjacent to the church building in which regular worshippers could wander after worship on Sundays called its reality to mind. It’s hard to convince today’s younger generations to buy health insurance because they think they may never get sick, much less die. Members in Serbin understood some of life’s realities better than they are understood today.

Also, the separation between religious denominations was more definitive in Serbin’s early years because language and doctrinal issues tended to enforce it. The Schmidt pastors regularly emphasize the purity of the Word which alone would remain when things like language disappeared. Luther and Kilian were frequently referred to as those who had embraced this purity. Intermarriage and being transplanted to other parts of the U.S. have diminished the strength of this emphasis today, and descendants of the early Wends now living in more ecumenical families and environments throughout the U.S. may regard some of the language used in the early sermons as quaint.

Nevertheless, it’s worth listening to the words once again and listening with the ears of fathers and mothers who first heard and cherished such sermons. Their trust that in the pastor’s use of biblical language and hymnody there was a treasure to be kept is a precious insight. Their reality that life is not without its limits is instructive. And their notion that in the midst of many contemporary words, some of it just chatter, there is a Word worth hearing that is the truth to which faithful Christians still cling.

David Zersen, President Emeritus

Concordia University Texas


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