Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

On April 1st, the day after Easter, our group of 18 travelers flew off to Central Europe to walk in the “Footsteps of Haugs.”  Well, that’s what we called the tour since Janna and I were returning to places in Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic where our family lived and travelled during my 5 years as the ELCA’s Regional Representative. We visited the Lutheran school in Bratislava where I supervised the American teachers, and the 250 year -old church where I served as the pastor. We attended a worship service in the Chapel of the Hapsburg Palace where the Vienna Boy’s Choir performed, and we danced and sang at the sites in Salzburg where the Von Trapp children galivanted about in the movie the Sound of Music.  We ate far too much strudel, schnitzel and goulash, and were frequently confused by names from Maximilian and Maria Theresa to Vladislav and Wenceslaus.  We discovered that St. Stephen of Hungary was not the same saint, as St. Stephen in Austria, and that good King Wenceslas of Bohemia, was not yet king when he looked out on the feast of Stephen.

One name, however, stood out among the Central European saints. He is probably the most famous person, you’ve never heard of, St. John Nepomuk. In an odd twist of fate, this rather obscure priest who died in Prague in 1393 became a truly global presence.  There are chapels, churches and monuments dedicated to Nepomuk in Spain, Italy, Germany, Slovenia, Switzerland and a dozen other countries around the world, including the United States. Surprisingly, there are over 12,000 statues of Nepomuk across central and eastern Europe. Once you’ve seen one, you recognize him everywhere across Central Europe.  Most statues show a plain figure, holding a palm and cross, wearing a biretta hat, with five stars floating above him in a halo.  But in Prague, where Nepomuk died, you can see statues both at his death site and grave as well.

As a parish priest, Nepomuk had unintentionally gotten himself caught up in Palace intrigue. King Wenceslaus IV, who ruled Bohemia from Prague at that time, fell into a power struggle with the Catholic Church. Wenceslaus’ rule was characterized by varying degrees of idleness, favoritism, and cruelty. Against his wishes, the Church pursued its own policies, and the two sides found themselves opposed to one another. Some chroniclers assert that Nepomuk criticized the king.  Others claimed that Nepomuk who served as confessor to the Queen – 20-year-old Sophia of Bavaria, was the cause. The king had become jealous and suspicious of his young second wife and went to her trusted priest-confessor Nepomuk to find out if she had been unfaithful. Nepomuk refused to break the sacred seal of confession, and in return, the King arrested and tortured him in a dungeon in Prague, where he was eventually tossed from the Charles Bridge into the Vltava River and drowned. Legend has it that as he hit the water, five stars were seen to come from the water.  The stars are often portrayed in the statues. Devoted townspeople gathered his mangled corpse, when it washed up along the banks of the Vltava.  Nepomuk’s body was laid to rest in St Vitus Cathedral. The Archbishop of Prague, fearing for his life, escaped to Rome and declared John a martyr for the faith. In 1729, he was beatified by the Roman Catholic church and canonized a saint.

It is not exactly clear what made this story so popular.  The most likely explanation, however, is that the legend of John Nepomuk was so compelling on many different levels- for laypeople, clergy and academics, and for Catholics and Protestants. For the peasant masses and townspeople, Nepomuk was a symbol of unwavering faith in times of trial and persecution, an inspiring model of Christian faith to embrace and follow.  Due to the manner of his death, he became known as a protector against floods and drowning. For this reason, his statue can often be found on bridges or near rivers in many small towns and villages.

The clergy could find much to be pleased with this tale as well. From their perspective, the honorable and devout priest carried out his duty, making the ultimate sacrifice. While a powerful king attempted to extract information from him that would violate his covenant with God to maintain the secrecy of confession, Nepomuk stubbornly refused and lost his life in witnessing to the faith. It is a powerful witness for those who are called to serve.

For the academics and scholars, Nepomuk’s death was a cautionary tale about the inevitable conflict that can arise between Church and State when evil acts are committed by either side, in the name of faith or government.  In the face of such evil, faithful men and women are called to be witnesses to God’s truth. The lessons of John Nepomuk’s life are just as real and relevant today.

God’s invitation to be his witnesses in this world is not an easy task. On that first Easter evening, even as the women returned from the tomb with the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, and the two disciples running back from the village of Emmaus with the news of Jesus making himself known to them in the breaking of bread, there was still doubt.  Faithful Thomas was not the only naysayer. Huddled together in their large upper room with the doors shut and the drapes drawn, the disciples were scared. And then suddenly and miraculously, Jesus appeared to them. And what was their reaction to Jesus’ appearance? Did they fall down on their knees in adoration and praise?  No, the disciples were startled and afraid. They thought they were seeing a ghost. So Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your thoughts?”

My friends, our sojourn in Central Europe, taught us again and again, that Jesus’ invitation to be his his disciples, begins by saying, “Yes,” to Christ and his promise of the resurrection- fully aware that there may suffering and loss along the way for staying the course. But we were also reminded that the invitation to be his witnesses may mean saying, “No,” with your life, freedom and possessions- especially in the face of the church and the rulers.

The story of faith in Central Europe is not unlike that of John Nepomuk- especially for Protestants. During the darkest times of the 1600’, their properties were confiscated, their churches destroyed, they were indentured in forced labor, they worshiped secretly in the forests, and were removed from their homes. It was a pattern that repeated generation after generation with different ethnic groups and with different churches and rulers playing the part of the oppressor.  Even the beloved story of the Von Trapp Family singers is the portrait of a family struggling to say, “No” in the face of the evil, persecution and the loss of everything they had known.  We are indeed called to say, “Yes” to Christ in this world, so that others may believe and place their trust in him, but we must also be prepared to say “No,” fully knowing the cost of that word.  As we heard often from our guides and friends in these past two weeks who knew the hardship of two totalitarian rules under the Nazis and Communism, as well as appeasement of world leaders in World War II, “You cannot negotiate with a dictator.”

Finally, there are times when we as God’s witnesses are called to be the bridge between people.  “Yes” and “No” may be the right answer, but others need to be a part of the solution.  In these moments you must find the words that allow people to come together and to work together- rather than speak in words that condemn and separate. Ultimately, this is the work of God’s Holy Spirit, but it’s where God’s needs your witness, your strength and your love.  You cannot make another person believe as you do. You can only offer all the evidence and proof required through your life and words. Through your Yes’es and through your No’s.  It is a daunting task.  But, my friends, it is this word of life- this testimony of the love and life of Jesus Christ that has the power to change lives and the world around us. Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.