“For as that righteous man [Lot] lived among [the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah] day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard.” II Pet. 2:8
Yesterday in our regular Bible study we read some of Luther’s commentary on Genesis, in which Luther considers and approves (while admitting it only a theory) the ancient tradition that the Melchizedek whom Abraham paid tribute to was actually Noah’s son Shem, who was still alive all those years after the flood.
Luther makes the point that, whether or not he was King of Salem, it must have been difficult for Shem to live so long and see so much, given that nothing really changed about the wickedness of human nature. Here is an old man who remembers the world before the flood and how the people were so wicked that God determined to blot them out. He remembers the Tower of Babel, and how the people were so proud and defiant that God decided to confuse their language and scatter them. Now he lives among pagans and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, and will live to watch the fire and brimstone rain down upon them. That’s a lot of life among wickedness. It had to have been a tedious and depressing cycle to watch.
Today we consider someone who is 100 years old to have seen a lot—the Great Depression, WWII, the Civil Rights Movement, the Sexual Revolution, the nuclear arms race, and so forth and so on until we get to this, the COVID year of 2020. But if that really old person is righteous (and by that I don’t mean without sin, but having the righteousness of Christ by faith) it can be a torment to see so many things change while human sinfulness remains the same. Such a person probably does not envy the great old patriarchs from Genesis who lived many centuries.
When you watch a loved one destroy his or her own life with bad decision-making or the cycle of addiction, only your love for that person that makes it hurt you. You could protect yourself from hurt by refusing to love people bent on self-destruction. But that is not the Christian way. We know our own sinfulness too deeply, and we know the grace of God even for the likes of us, and we know the redemption of the cross for all people. What hurts us is when people we love hurt themselves through their sinfulness and do not know God’s transformative mercy in Christ.
This little section of the Easter season between Ascension and Pentecost should restore our confidence that no matter what we have seen or will see, the reign of Christ is more constant than time itself, deeper than human depravity, and more powerful than death and the devil. However long we live, and whatever “change and decay” we see in the world around us in the coming months and years, we have a promise of an eternal kingdom that helps us embrace the love that hurts in this life. In that way, God empowers us to be little Christs to an always dying world.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. Act 7:58
Acts was written by Luke, who says (Lk. 1:1-4) that he carefully set out to write a history of Jesus and the early Church. And Luke was there with St. Paul at the very end of St. Paul’s life (II Tim. 4:11). Much of the information we have about St. Paul comes from Luke. So why does Luke seemingly go out of his way to condemn Paul (Saul) with this little aside about who was watching the coats at the stoning of Stephen? You’d think Luke would want to downplay, or at least not want to highlight such an embarrassing detail. But keep reading.
What Luke could have been teaching us it not to judge God’s ways, or lose heart prematurely. St. Stephen was beloved by the Church. His being unjustly stoned to death would have made many people wonder why God would allow such a thing. It made no sense. It was a huge loss to the Church. But we know that most of Acts ends up being about that very same Saul. He becomes a great Apostle. His story prior to his conversion laid the groundwork for his conversion and subsequent history. You just have to keep reading when it seems like everything has gone wrong.
When we encounter things that make no sense to us, such as when innocent people suffer, when death seemingly picks people at random, when government are unjust, when the Church suffers setbacks, we can begin to question God. We should know from our own Scriptures and from the name of our congregation that the story isn’t over. God is always going somewhere with this, no matter what “this” is or how terrible it may be. History isn’t over; we need to keep reading.
Since we know that time after time God had brought good out of evil, we should simply keep our eyes open for what the benefits of this strange, ongoing situation might be. Maybe it was necessary to shake you out of a spiritual lethargy. Maybe this will help our society re-prioritize. Maybe people are getting the training they need to fight some other virus in the future. Maybe all of those things and countless other good things are going on.
What is certain is that this Easter season we need never fear any kind of endings. Whether that ending is death, or of a career, or stage of family life, or anything dear to us, we look forward. We keep reading. The Christ who came out of the tomb is with us. The disease, injustice, or ravages of time that bring the things we love to an end do not have the final word, and are likely just the seeds of amore glorious, unforeseeable future. St. Paul has been on both side of a martyrdom—first helping to kill St. Stephen, then being unjustly executed himself for his faith. But the story of Christ and His Church goes on. St. Paul’s, Munster is a part of it. You are a part of it. It is full of endings that erupt into new chapters. Don’t be afraid, and don’t be surprised when it turns out God has been going somewhere with this. Keep reading.
Disorienting. That’s what today feels like to me. It is hard to get your bearings when the landmarks aren’t there. By landmarks, of course, I don’t refer to the things that mark the physical landscape. I mean the things that give shape to time, the habits and rituals by which we all live.
God invented time along with everything else in Genesis 1, and He gave shape to it, a seven day pattern that has continued unbroken since the beginning of the world. Even we Christians, who are not bound by Old Testament Sabbath laws, still typically worship once every seven days, the day after Jesus’ Sabbath rest in the tomb. Church doesn’t have to take place on Sunday, but it always has. It is disorienting (especially but by no means exclusively for pastors) to get up on Sunday morning and think, “So…. What should I do today?” I read the following in an online article last night:
JERUSALEM - Adeeb Joudeh, standing in front of the now-locked Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City, had a pretty specific answer when asked when the church last closed to the public like this: "It was the year 1349, at the time of the Black Plague," he said, holding the key that had shut things down a day earlier and back in the 14th century as well.
A little over a year ago I was there at that church with some of others of our St. Paul’s family. Its huge, ancient dome encloses the traditional locations of the cross and the empty tomb. It seemed like if there were any constants in the world, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was one. It has closed for brief periods a few times in history for this or that reason, but the last time is was ordered closed for an indefinite period was 671 years ago. Wow. One comforting thing, one silver lining in that fact, is that I feel better about suspending worship at St. Paul’s, something I never thought I’d do and about which I still have mixed feelings. But hey, if they’ve closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I guess we can be closed, too. But it is still disorienting.
But anything that is disorienting demands a reorienting. You have to get your bearings. In the Milwaukee airport there is a great sign that read “Recombobulation Area.” I love that word, recombobulation, referring to what comes after the discombobulation of going through the arcane process of airport security. When you get lost, confused, or thrown off your game, you reorient.
The Gospel disoriented its first hearers. Jews and Gentiles mixing? Righteousness not by works? God becoming a man, and that man dying? And then rising? How could that be? All the old ways seemed to be collapsing. All the old assumptions, all the patterns, all the givens were thrown out the window. And yet to those with ears to hear, it was Good News. It was Good News because the massive Reorientation was based on Christ, the true, immovable cornerstone by Whom all of time gets its bearings. The wholesale disorientation caused by God making all thing new didn’t end there; it began a great reorientation on that cornerstone.
Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. The Third Commandment, insofar as it talks about a day, refers to Saturday. But that was the Old Covenant. It pointed to Christ and was fulfilled in Christ. That’s why Christians are not bound to worship on any particular day, and typically do not, like Jews do even today, worship on the Sabbath, that is, Saturday. Instead, we mark time as reoriented around the stone which the builders the rejected, the death and resurrection of Christ—Sunday, the first day of the New Creation, the day Christ rose, the eighth day of creation, when God makes all creation new.
Luther’s catechism, as usual, captures this reorientation on Christ perfectly. What does it mean to remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy? We should fear and love so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it. Amazingly, the explanation doesn’t even mention a day. That was the old landmark, the Law, the thing that pointed ahead to Christ. We have the fulfillment, the proclaimed Gospel of Christ crucified and risen. We keep this commandment whenever and wherever we attend to the proclamation of the Gospel with all seriousness, reverence, and earnestness.
Reorienting. That’s what this bizarre quarantine can be for you. It gives all of us a chance to get our bearings and examine our habits, schedules, and priorities to see whether and how they are oriented on Christ. Perhaps they already were before all this. Perhaps not. But no forced change in schedule can disorient those whose lives are oriented on the immovable rock that is Christ, the cornerstone.
I hope you all partake of Matins today via the website. Matins is old. But the last closing of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is much older, predating the English language itself. Chaucer wasn’t even writing yet the last time this happened. There are no permanent things except the one thing upon which everything depends—the Word of God become Flesh and reigning forever. When you worship via the website, I hope your focus is not on the archaic words, whether you love them or don’t like them at all. Your focus should be on the words of Scripture, Pastor Stock’s Christ-centered sermon, praise of the eternal God, and the timeless Gospel that gives you life today and every day, in any circumstance, until we join in the heavenly worship of God forever.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard.
At a special service on November 23rd, 1980 our building was dedicated to God “As a place where the lambs of the flock of Christ may be fed, where little children may increase in wisdom and favor with God and man, where the young may be taught to remember their Creator in the days of their youth, where a generation may grow up fit for citizenship on earth and in heaven with Thee.”
Biblically speaking a symbolic generation is 40 years. Israel wandered 40 years so that the generation that left Egypt would not be the same generation that entered the Promised Land. So if we apply that symbolism to St. Paul’s we have to say that this building has almost served the purpose for which it was dedicated, to be a place “where a generation may grow up…”
If you were born the day this building was dedicated, then you are almost 36 years old right now, and hopefully through our ministry you have grown in favor with God and man and been made fit for citizenship in the world and in the kingdom of God. And hopefully that means that you desire to pass on the Gospel to future generations just like the 36-year-olds around here back in 1980 did. We are the people to whom this building was dedicated. We are the inheritors, the receivers, the fulfillment of all the prayers and the hard work, the vision those people had in mind.
Time marches on.
Today, with those 40 years almost up, we have several options. I suppose we could shut down the
ministry of St. Paul’s altogether and say our work is done. But no Christian would seriously consider not feeding the next generation with the Gospel. We could relocate St. Paul’s somewhere else and build a new building like the people a generation ago did. That hardly seems like a desirable idea, but it is possible, I guess. We can keep milking the generosity and hard work of our forebears for as many more years as the building they built for us holds out without our doing anything and then shut everything down, but that would not only be ungrateful of us but extremely bad stewardship.
Or we can step up to the plate like they did and make a decision with a view toward 40 years from now in mind. The heating units that were brand spanking new on Nov. 23, 1980 are also almost 36 years old. Buildings, wiring, plumbing, furnaces—they all age. You have to constantly maintain them just to keep them the same as they were. The blessings of a nearly 70,000 square foot facility come with responsibilities. We need to replace the HVAC system in the school with newer, more efficient, and A/C capable units if anyone is going to be nurtured on the Gospel here 40 years from now.
And not only do buildings age, but standards change. Back in 1980 the houses around our church were all the very latest architecture. Today we are far more conscious of the needs of the elderly and most people think tri-level homes have too many stairs for some people to live in comfortably. If our subdivision were being built today the houses would look very different.
What is true of home architecture is true of institutions. Not only have we tried to reduce steps, we’ve tried to facilitate easily getting dropped off and picked up. Newer buildings, especially those that serve the elderly, tend to have a covered drop off/pick up area where people who move slowly can get from the car to the building without being out in the rain and snow.
In 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we hope to begin the process of rededicating St.
Paul’s Lutheran Church and School. The Parish Planning Council has already begun looking into ways to bring this about. It will require a lot of planning, a lot of dedication of time, talents and treasure, and a vision of how we will hand off this ministry to the next generation. This rededication will hopefully address the aging of the building and the changing of the standards in our society around us, and will also take up ideas and suggestions that come from anyone in the congregation, so be sure to attend the meetings, read the newsletters, and give feedback to your deacon or to the staff as things progress.
What we want to be able to do here at St. Paul’s is join in the prayers of those who gave us this place
and at the dedication of it said, “O Lord, the God of our fathers, by whose works of love in past generations You have richly blessed us, grant that our works may prove a blessing to our children in generations still to come.”
Some of your best memories of church services have probably been services that weren’t the normal Sunday morning service. Singing on Christmas Eve (even at the midnight services), getting up while it was still dark for the “sunrise services” in the wee hours of Easter morning, hearing the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” as the ashes are applied on Ash Wednesday, listening in the darkness as the psalm is chanted and the altar stripped at the end of Maundy Thursday services—these tend to be very memorable services that aren’t at the normal time of weekly worship.
It gets harder and harder for these special services to compete with our convenience-dominated culture. People don’t want to stay up late, get up early, go out of their way, or otherwise change their schedule, much less do so with sleepy children. So in most (not all) churches, the late night Christmas Eve service is lightly attended if even still offered. Same with Christmas Day. At Easter the “sunrise service” has been moved to a more reasonable hour and is not packed like the later services. And special services for high feast days like Epiphany, Ascension, Reformation and All Saints very often just get moved to the closest Sunday so they can be celebrated without inconveniencing anyone.
So it might come as a surprise to us that for many centuries the most important church service of the year was the Easter Vigil, which, as the name implies, lasted hours and hours through the night and ended with the Easter proclamation and communion at dawn. This was (and is in many places) the service in which all the adult catechumens (converts to Christianity who had been taught the faith over the course of the year) were baptized, received into membership, and took their first communion.
Most places do not really keep vigil through the night but celebrate the service either Saturday night or Easter Sunday very early. This year were are going to have an Easter Vigil service here at St. Paul’s at 8:00 p.m. on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday. I encourage you to attend because it is one of those special services that make an impression. No, it won’t go all night. In fact, it will only be the first half of the service, and the 7:00 a.m. Easter service will complete it.
The service begins outside with the lighting of a paschal candle (“Paschal” is from the old word for Passover and in church usage just means “Easter-related” because at Easter we celebrate that we have passed over from death to life) from a small bonfire, which in our case will be in the courtyard. The worshippers light their own candles from the paschal candle and go into the darkened sanctuary, with their candlelight symbolizing faith in God’s promises in a fallen world. Various Old Testament readings and musical responses recount God’s faithfulness through all of human history. We then remember our own baptism and crossing over from dark to light, from death to life in the victory of Jesus Christ over sin, death, and hell.
Normally the service goes straight into the Easter proclamation and communion service, but we are going to leave the church in silence and resume Easter morning with the great celebration. Please consider changing up your Easter weekend routine to join us for this very solemn and meaningful service. Most people who do it once find that it quickly becomes one of their favorite services of the year.
Remember all the hype around Y2K? All kinds of people thought that computer glitches would threaten civilization. My brother was locked in at LTV Steel that night to be there in case emergency measures were called for needed his engineering expertise. Or perhaps you remember when the ancient Mayan calendar ran out of numbers, briefly popularizing the idea that the end of the world was nigh. People have always been fascinated by such major calendar events. Even if you’re not a conspiracy theorist or Da Vinci Code type of kook, major anniversaries make you think.
Another such big anniversary is coming. October marks the 499th year since the traditional date for the beginning of the Reformation, when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses (theological statements he was willing to publicly debate) in Wittenberg, Germany. That’s one short of the Big 500, but that just gives us time to really think about the significance of that time span and prepare for how we want to acknowledge it.
We are St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and School. If the people who fought and died for the right to teach salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ could leap ahead 500 years and see us today, what would they think? In what ways would they say their sacrifice was worth it, and in what ways would they expect better of us? It is an interesting thing to ponder because we have a whole year to work on it.
They fought for getting the Bible into languages the common people could read and for getting copies of the Bible into their hands. Do we view that as a precious enough birthright to actually take advantage of? Or do we treat regular Bible study in the home and in church as something we can live just as well without? They fought for the Gospel of free forgiveness proclaimed in the name of Jesus to penitent sinners. Do we treasure that Gospel or take it for granted and view it as a superfluous part of our week amid all the more important things we have going on? They viewed sound Christian teaching as something worth being martyred for. Do we hold fast to the truth, or do we treat doctrine as no big deal?
Much has changed since 1517. The Roman Catholic Church has changed greatly, adopting many of the positions enumerated in the Augsburg Confession. We don’t need our 500th anniversary to be some sort of “in-your-face” to Catholics. But we do need to dedicate ourselves to receiving and passing down the Gospel. We don’t know, of course, whether there will be another 500 years of history, but if there is, we want there to be another 500 years of people proclaiming and believing the Gospel message here at St. Paul’s, and we are a critical link in that chain.
Let the one year lead-up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation be for you personally and for all of us at St. Paul’s a chance to think about how we can best be the faithful recipients of the of the faith once handed down and the faithful forefathers of some future people who will look back at us 500 years from now, God-willing, and thank Him that they received the faith through us.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana