Reflecting on ‘the Road Between Ephrata and Elizabethtown,’ a Dialogue Sermon by Paul Brubaker and Pam Reist

Pam Reist (left) and Paul Brubaker give a dialogue sermon at Annual Conference 2013
Photo by Regina Holmes and Glenn Riegel
Pam Reist (left) and Paul Brubaker give a dialogue sermon at Annual Conference 2013 titled after their places of ministry: The Road from Ephrata to Elizabethtown.

When I first heard about dialogue sermons 35 years ago I was, if not skeptical, at least questioning. Sermons involved one person. Period. But was that the only way? It set me to thinking.

Around 2,500 years ago the playwright transformed drama through a simple daring act–that of adding an actor to Greek tragedies. Now, instead of a single actor engaging in a monologue, there were now two actors talking to each other. There was dialogue.

More to the point, there were occasions when Jesus engaged in a monologue–especially in the Sermon on the Mount. But most of the time Jesus was engaged in a dialogue with sinners, skeptics, and saints. Think of Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the Syro-Phoenician woman. That’s where the real teaching took place.

Paul Brubaker and Pam Reist gave a joint sermon Tuesday night at the 2013 Annual Conference, titled “The Road Between Ephrata and Elizabethtown,” reflecting their respective places of ministry in Ephrata and Elizabethtown, Pa. Both presented their messages well, and in discussion with Conference-goers afterward I was pleased to discover that those I spoke to appreciated both speakers, and found the confluence of their viewpoints powerful and Spirit filled.

The preachers at Annual Conference 2013 included, in addition to Paul Brubaker and Pam Reist (shown at top) above Paul Mundey pastor of Frederick (Md.) Church of the Brethren who spoke Monday evening; and below Suely Inhauser of the church in Brazil who spoke Wednesday morning, moderator Bob Krouse of Little Swatara Church of the Brethren in Bethel, Pa., who spoke Saturday evening; and Philip Yancey and Mark Yaconelli who gave messages for Sunday’s “Day of Spiritual Renewal.” Photos by Glenn Riegel and Regina Holmes

The presentation was more like the Greek drama than the biblical dialogues. Unlike Jesus, who didn’t know what text was going to be thrown at him in advance whose speeches were much shorter as recorded in the Bible, Brubaker and Reist had carefully considered a passage from Ephesians well in advance, engaged in intensive dialogue prior to the evening worship service, and each presented two set pieces, four mini-sermons if you will.

If I were to take them to task for anything, it was the notion that “no force in religion” is a historic Brethren value. That phrase was invented by Martin Grove Brumbaugh, who, according to Carl Bowman, used that term to replace the core Brethren value of nonconformity (and who also, according to Donald F. Durnbaugh, invented Brethren history out of whole cloth in his 1899 volume). That’s not to say it’s a bad thing–but I wonder if nonconformity speaks more clearly to what our two speakers were getting at when they discussed how it is possible for Brethren who share radically different theological viewpoints to remain together in the church.

The hint here comes from our Brethren nonconformity. We do not fall into line with other denominations, no matter how tempting. And it’s what we do more than what we say that demonstrates the quality of our faith. Dale Brown, Brethren theologian, said once that Brethren don’t have an orthodoxy–a matter of saying the right word–but an orthopraxy which means doing the right thing. We as Christians are a lot like the younger brother of Jesus, Jacob, otherwise known as James, the writer the of letter that has more echoes of the words of Jesus than any other book of the New Testament outside of the four gospels. For us faith is what saves us, but that faith is alive and manifests itself in living like Jesus, not just talking Jesus.

Earlier in the day I had a conversation with Bill Kostlevy, archivist and director of the Brethren Historical Library and Archives. We were discussing Brethren historian Steve Longenecker’s presentation about the Marsh Creek congregation, whose members suffered great losses during the Battle of Gettysburg. We decided that it wasn’t always what Brethren did that led to excommunication. If they were in right relationship, they could work towards reconciliation on the issues that might have separated them. If the relationships weny awry, then suddenly something small like a sister’s choice of hat or a brother’s refusal to share the Holy Kiss became an issue.

I’m reminded that Brethren put up with new member Peter Nead’s tall hat for quite a while, until the relationship was so strong it became possible to settle the matter amicably.

When we are all nonconformists to the structures of this world–living in it, not of it–then there is no need for force in religion. Love in Christ helps us do naturally what the world, with its talking heads and empty controversies, struggles over.

Oh, and Paul Brubaker and Pam Reist were both great preachers and speakers. But if you stream their shared message from the link at you’ll know that.

— Frank Ramirez pastors Everett (Pa.) Church of the Brethren and is a member of the Annual Conference News Team.

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