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Zion’s UCC honors First Defenders with special Sunday service

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Churchgoers and guests recently gathered to commemorate the patriotic service of the Civil War Allen Rifles Company and other First Defenders during the annual Honorary First Defenders Sunday service at Zion’s Reformed United Church of Christ, Allentown.

The Rev. Bob Stevens, pastor at Zion’s church, extended a welcome to members of the Allentown Chapter of the Honorary First Defenders who attended the Feb.9 commemoration. This was Stevens’ 25th year honoring the First Defenders with the special service.

Soloist John Bauer of Lower Saucon Township performed the gathering music, singing “Here I am Lord,” “It is Well,” “Surely the Presence” and “How Great Thou Art” before the service began in addition to the anthem “Eagle’s Wings” after the sermon.

Additionally, members of the 96th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry reenactors served as the service’s color guard, dressed in Civil War-era uniforms, and performed the posting and retirement of the colors.

Lt. Col. Richard Kawood, first Vice Commander of the Honorary First Defenders, presented the history of the First Defenders, five troop companies – the Allen Rifles of Allentown, Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading, Logan Guards of Lewistown, Washington Artillerists and National Light Infantry of Pottsville – which were the first to reach and defend Washington D.C. during the Civil War.

He also noted that among the First Defenders was Ignatz Gresser, the only Allentonian to ever receive the Medal of Honor.

“By their presence there, they not only deterred the South from carrying out any plans they had to capture the seat of government but doubtless changed the course of the great internecine struggle itself,” Kawood said.

In addition to Kawood, other officers from the Honorary First Defenders also participated in the ceremony by reading passages from the Bible. John Dawson, second Vice Commander selected Isaiah 58:1-9a, Patricia Veresink, Esq., third Vice Commander recited I Corinthians 2:1-12 and Sgt. 1st Class Michael Hoffman, fourth Vice Commander chose Matthew 5:13-20.

Stevens noted how his service evolved over time, pointing to the presence of prayers from the 1861 Soldier’s Prayer Book in the day’s liturgy, the inclusion of “The Creed of Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words” and use of historical typeface. “This is a commemorative service in many ways,” Stevens said.

He also said that he was grateful to learn about the history of the First Defenders and was thankful for the opportunities he has had to serve as a member of the Honorary First Defenders.

“All of this has been such a meaningful part of my life and ministry here at Zion’s Church,” Stevens said.

Stevens explained how he wove together the history of the First Defenders, the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln with stories from the Bible in the sermon, noting that this year he found himself thinking about Lincoln “first and foremost.”

“Lincoln was salt and light in his generation,” Stevens said, “because when decay and decline threatened the nation, like salt Lincoln preserved the Union; when the darkness of the Civil War descended to destroy our republic, Lincoln was like a beacon of light.”

Stevens connected Lincoln’s second inaugural address to the text from The Sermon on the Mount “Jesus said, ‘love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,’” Stevens said.

“Again, it’s Lincoln who leads the way for us… he used these famous words, ‘with malice towards none, with charity for all.’

“Do you hear, as I hear, within those words, echoes of ‘love your enemies?’ There it is, in Lincoln’s poetic phrase.”

Additionally, speaking of the recent National Prayer Breakfast, its keynote speaker Arthur Brooks and the current social climate in the United States, Stevens explained how the words of Lincoln and Jesus emphasize understanding the viewpoints of others. “The context is one of extreme political polarization,” Stevens said.

“Brooks quoted this difficult text; he called them to embrace moral courage, he called them to do this difficult thing, ‘love your political enemies to bring healing to our nation.’ Dare I call that Lincoln-esque?

“Remember, loving your enemy doesn’t mean agreeing with them; it does mean respecting that they have arrived at their viewpoint because it makes sense to them, not because they are senseless idiots.

“For the most part most people think what they think, act the way they act, and vote the way they vote because it makes sense to them. Loving your political enemy, it means seek first to understand.”

Stevens concluded his sermon by asking the audience to reflect on the First Defenders. “What were the First Defenders defending?” Stevens asked.

“The president, the capital, or were they responding to a test during their own time of polarization and contempt?

“Were they responding to a test of whether this nation, or any nation, so conceived can long endure?”

Churchgoers then received the blessing of anointing and communion, if desired, before reciting The Lord’s Prayer and Benediction, collecting offerings, and singing the Song of Dedication, “How Beautiful, Our Spacious Skies” to conclude the service.

Afterward, guests were invited to stay and enjoy a covered dish luncheon in the Fellowship Hall, featuring veggie trays, potato salad, beverages and cherry pie, courtesy of the Honorary First Defenders and Zion’s UCC.