[Jesus] answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. Matt. 16:2-3
The signs of the times are nothing new, really. The specifics are unpredictable, of course. I don’t know anybody who saw 2020 coming, for example, in terms of the shut-down, the protests, or anything else in this weirdest year of my life. But interpret doesn’t mean predict, necessarily. When we interpret things in terms of the fall into sin and redemption in Christ, the raging of the nations and the worldly reign of death, the signs changes year to year, but we can still interpret them with the same Word of God. What exactly to do about them is a different matter; we have to use whatever limited lights and resources we have to plan a way forward into the future, always with truth in the ultimate Lordship of Christ.
Worldly matters are far easier to predict. We don’t know the specifics of the weather, but the changes of season are fairly predictable. So some things we do here at St. Paul’s simply account for logistical issues we can all see coming because it is summer time. People travel. Vacations happen. Volunteers are harder to schedule. Calendars are harder to mesh.
A couple of changes we’re making this week have nothing to do with interpreting the signs of the times (which is what the services are about—applying God’s Word to today) and everything to do with interpreting the worldly seasons and rhythms of life. We’re going to start live-streaming the 9:30 service this week instead of the 8:00 service. I know this will inconvenience some people, but it will really help coordinate the schedules of the people needed to make the services happen. Also, the Wednesday evening Bible study is going to take a hiatus until August. So the next time we will meet is August 5. The Thursday morning Bible study will continue through the summer as scheduled.
We don’t yet know how exactly we’re going to start everything back up again once we start the transition back to in-person meetings and Bible studies. It will probably involve a combination of in-person and live-streamed or Zoom interaction. Details will be unveiled as our plans for fall begin to solidify over the summer. As always, stay tuned.
We know how to interpret the signs of times—it is a fallen world and a time of testing, but also Anno Domini, the year of our Lord—and as for the logistics, well, we’ll do our best with all the gifts and tools God gives us.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. Ps. 4:8
Unsettling. If you have been following these daily updates from the beginning you might remember the first Sunday without church here, when I began the update with one word-- disorienting. Everything seemed off, wrong, somehow messed up being a pastor on Sunday morning and not having anything to do. Well, that was back when the pandemic was the only problem we faced. Today we have civil unrest, and again I want to start the update with one word—unsettling.
The massive stone wall across Calumet Avenue is an unsettling sight. Yes, it is there for understandable reasons, just like I was home on a Sunday for understandable reasons. But that wall is still unsettling. As a symbol, it seems like the sort of thing you see in war-torn countries that have been racked by chaos. We saw things like that on our trip to Egypt, for example. But we never expected to see things like that in Munster. It feels wrong, off, out of place, messed up, even if it makes perfect sense on a practical level.
Unsettling. In some ways, that is the point of civil unrest—to unsettle things that had settled in an unsatisfactory way. The settled state of ongoing tension and conflict between law enforcement and many minority communities needed to be unsettled. It was unsustainable. Its historical foundation was bad, leading in some cases to gross injustice and murder of people in custody and in other cases to people suffering in lawless neighborhoods where criminals worked with impunity. It couldn’t last. This can be time of re-examining assumptions, acknowledging problems, and rebuilding on a firmer foundation, so that what settles can benefit all citizens with just and fair law and order.
Unfortunately, not everyone shares the goal of just and fair law and order. People who oppose law and order generally tend to co-opt any unsettling situation and turn it into a frenzied time of lawlessness and destruction. Anarchists, common criminals, opportunists, and nihilists cling like leeches to peaceful protests. Hence the need for massive stone walls, police on every corner, and the constant threat of escalated confrontation. Sad. Necessary. Unsettling to look at.
Our St. Paul’s family includes people of all races and people of all political persuasions. We aren’t held together by anything worldly, we’re held together by something much stronger that cannot be unsettled. No matter what any of us is feeling or thinking about current events, we know our ultimate security, and our ultimate unity with each other, is in our Lord. We must resist dividing ourselves and our church family along the familiar lines the world is always categorizing us by. We have a deeper unity.
In that deeper unity, we give thanks for the ways God provides for us, including the many law enforcement officers and first responders in our congregation who volunteer to risk their lives protecting people of all races and who serve honorably. In that unity, we pray for victims of injustice, including injustice at the hands of dishonorable or racist first responders, and for a more just society to emerge from this time of unrest. In that unity we pray for peace across worldly dividing lines of any kind. And in that unity we thank God for the law and order in which are privileged to live, asking him to allow everyone in our midst to enjoy the comfort and security of that blessing.
But in the end it is not the stone wall that allows us to sleep soundly at night. It is the promise of the Gospel, that this fallen world is redeemed in Christ, that we are brothers and sisters in Christ because we are children of the heavenly Father. In that knowledge, and only in that knowledge, we can rest secure in any unsettling situation, for God alone makes us dwell in safety.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. Ps. 46:6
Injustice. Anger. Unrest. Collateral damage. What a terrible series of events just as we were beginning to reopen from the lock-down.
I suppose if you had a time machine you could go back six months and it would seem like taking a vacation in a strange wonderland where there just weren’t a lot of pressing problems. Record employment levels and wage growth, no wars going on (foreign or domestic), no pandemic or rules about distancing. People came to church and stood around chatting over coffee and donuts afterwards. The news talked endlessly about who had lied to whom about whose dealing with Russia, because, hey, you have to talk about something to keep a 24 hour news cycle going.
On one hand, fantasizing about such a trip in a time machine should make us realize how blind we typically are to the good things in life. We didn’t think of it as a wonderland six months ago, and probably weren’t as grateful then as we would be now to experience it. But on the other hand, having such a time machine would make us realize that today isn’t all that unusual.
Suppose you went back to 1919. Mangled WWI veterans were everywhere, and demanding benefits the government had promised them but not delivered on. The Spanish Flu, a pandemic far worse than Covid was ravaging the country and the world. Race riots that dwarf anything we’ve seen this year rocked New York City and many other urban centers. Organized crime was gearing up to make hay of the impending Prohibition, which was being finalized to go into effect the next year.
Or fast forward to, say, 1933. Persistent, inexplicable, record high temperatures were rendering much of the country into the Dust Bowl. Fascists and Communists were fighting for control of Europe. Domestically, migrations of people looking for work caused constant social strife. The economy was in tatters and unemployment was at record high levels. Groups of people all over the country were reduced to living in tent cities outside of towns.
1942? 1968? We sometimes forget how frightening such times may have been to live through because we see how they worked out. The point is not to downplay the problems we face today, but to look to the one constant—the raging of the nations, and the fact that God is with us still.
If we took our time machine forward instead of back, we might find ourselves in a strange wonderland in terms of technology but in a dystopian wasteland in some other ways, and it might make us think of today as an unappreciated gem of a day. Who knows? But it is a safe bet that the nations will be raging and the God of Jacob will be our fortress. Thankfully, we don’t have a time machine. Thus, we get to take one day at a time, experiencing the passing good things with gratitude and the particular challenges without fear.
“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
For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven. Eccl. 3:1
When? People have been asking that question about so many things lately. When will school open? When will we be able to go back to church? When will the stores open? When will sports return?
Naturally, people disagree about the specifics of when this or that should happen. Indiana and Illinois seem to disagree. People in stores seem to disagree as to what measure remain necessary. We all have our own preferred “experts” whom we trust, and those experts disagree. When the Bible says that there is a time for everything, it doesn’t say with specificity when those times begin and end. Some disagreement and give and take is just a normal part of life in the world.
What Ecclesiastes is really getting at, though, is not a timetable for everything but that everything comes to an end. There is nothing permanent under heaven. Normal is not permanent. Abnormal is not permanent. Neither health nor illness endure indefinitely. That’s why Ecclesiastes lists pairs of opposites—a time to be born, a time to die. A time to plant, a time to reap, a time to weep, a time to laugh, etc. No particular time just goes on and on.
A time of disruption, therefore, invites to consider what is permanent and eternal. Nothing “under heaven,” that is, in this life and world, really is permanent. Nothing, that is, except the Gospel. Christ, who is eternally God and Man and who lives forever, became incarnate in this world “under heaven” for us. Christ is the only thing about which we can say “always,” to any “when” question.
The day-to-day details of the shut down can frustrate people. We do not know how to plan anything. But the shut down can also make us look at the larger scheme of things, our phases and stages of life, and big picture aspects of how we have organized our lives. But the little picture and the big picture get their meaning from Christ, who is all in all.
If you find yourself getting frustrated by the little inconveniences or overwhelmed by larger changes going on, put it into context. The only eternal context. This day and your life are redeemed and therefore have eternal significance beyond the “under heaven” futility of Ecclesiastes. Christ who has conquered all and gone through the heavens remains with you in this life in the Word and Sacraments.
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful…” I Cor. 13:4-5
This morning as I was making the daily catechism review video for the Confirmation class (you can access them from the website if you want to review the catechism, too, which you should) I emphasized the point from the close of the Commandments that God demands perfection. Keeping the Law pretty well doesn’t cut it in terms of justification. Salvation is an all or nothing deal, which is why salvation by works will never….work.
In my high school journalism class, we could not turn in any article that had even a single error in it. If anything was misspelled, if there were any grammatical errors, even punctuation in the wrong spot, the teacher would simply hand the paper back and say, “Turn it back in when it is fixed and I will grade it.” He didn’t even tell us what or where the error was. The goal of that persnickety approach, of course, was to make us good proofreaders. Remember, back in the days of print journalism you couldn’t fix an error once things literally went to press, at least not without incredible effort and expense.
Different world, different story today. Even major newspapers put out articles online that haven’t been proofread very thoroughly. If anyone points out an error, they fix it with a click. Typos matter less because they aren’t nearly so permanent, but speed of getting things out there matters more. You’ve probably noticed these daily updates have had plenty of typos in them day after day. I’ve become accustomed to the modern, online, speed-rather-than-precision way of writing. But I’ve always been glad I took that merciless journalism class. In one personal triumph of my high school years, I found an error in the teacher’s handout that even he didn’t know about. The article covered a tennis match, and the author had spelled it “tennis racket.” The preferred spelling is/was “tennis racquet.” If only salvation had been by works for just that one moment! Alas, for every triumph there were ten disasters.
Take it out of the realm of old school journalism and into life. God is Love. If you perfectly exemplified His Love in your life, you would NEVER be even a little bit impatient, unkind, envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, resentful, or insistent on getting things your way. Does that sound like you? Or do you need a Savior?
The shutdown can help us learn the importance of being patience and kind and not being irritable or rude. We find ourselves with strangers in annoying lines, or living for such an extended period at home with people whose habits we can’t escape. Suddenly we see the need. But we also see how far short of the glory of God we consistently fall.
As we look toward opening things back up and easing back into church attendance in the coming weeks and months, we’ll also have plenty of chances to exercise the need for patience. There will be irritations and disagreements, I’m sure, in terms of when and how we should be doing this or that. Rest assured we will be looking at it from every angle and trying our very best. Will it be perfect? No, it will probably not be perfect. It will be a new era, but with the same old story of Christ crucified and risen, proclaimed, taught, given and shed for those gathered in faith around the Word and Sacraments.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Rom. 12:18
One of the silver linings to any unexpected disaster is the way it brings people together. A power outage becomes a time of laughter and deep conversation. A blizzard is when bonding happens. Even a funeral tends to heal the scars in our family relationships. And this pandemic and the national shut-down can have some of the same effect. Knowing that we’re all in it together gives it a sense of adventure. It is easier to have an encouraging word for a stranger.
On the other hand, being cooped up with the same people day after day, no outlets, no respite leads to cabin fever, especially with the unseasonably cold weather this week. When people go stir crazy, this verse from Romans becomes more important than ever. You can’t always get along with everyone, but it is important that you make self-sacrificial effort. Whatever the argument, don’t be the cause of it if you can help it.
A few days ago I was (Of all things! Who could have guess that it would come to this?) standing on an x in a maze of taped off shopping carts out in the parking lot waiting my turn to enter the grocery store. An older man came out, which meant another person in line could go in, so I stepped up to the next x six feet closer to getting inside. The man who had come out stopped to chat. So I chatted a bit. He seemed lonely. Maybe this trip to the store was the only human interaction he would be getting that day. We talked about the crazy situation, the weather, the lack of sports seasons, and other people in line seemed to be nodding along and joining in the camaraderie and togetherness. Then the man blurted out, “I blame Trump for all this,” and right away the spell was broken. People in line began to make eye contact to see who would nod along and who would argue. Some may have thought the man was crank. Others may have thought him a sage. But it was certain that the sense of togetherness dissipated.
Politics will do that, especially in an election year. I can think of almost nothing more important to fulfilling this verse in your life than that you avoid politicizing this pandemic. People are frayed and frazzled. Everyone has had it up to here with someone, but no one can agree on where to place the blame. As your pastor, I ask you not to worry about that right now. Vote in November however you please, but let the pandemic, for all the terrible things it is and does, also be something that unites. This verse is especially important when people are already looking for reasons to be cross, but also unusually open to experiencing togetherness.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Democrats and Republicans. Well-off or struggling economically. Stranger or family member. Young or old. People who are scared and people who think the whole thing is overblown. Simply being a source of peace in a time of trouble can be a huge Christian witness. Avoid the temptation to score points, put people in their place, vent frustrations on someone, or anything like that.
Your Lord has defeated death. You have nothing to prove to anyone. You have nothing to fear from anyone. You have all kinds of opportunities to live peaceably with everyone, because Christ is your peace, and He lives forever! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. Rom. 13:1-5
Of all people, Christians have good reason to know that the governing authorities can be good or bad, but remain the governing authorities either way. Jesus stood before Pilate and died unjustly. St. Paul appealed to Rome and died unjustly. Luther’s Catechism includes “…devout and faithful rules, good government…” in the list of things that constitute the daily bread for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. But, like other things in the list such as good weather and health, we pray for it, then take what God gives us gratefully whether it was what we were hoping for or not.
When to obey or disobey secular authorities has always been a matter of some debate among Christians. In Acts 5:29, the Apostles explain that they disobeyed the order not to preach the Gospel (even after having been arrested for it) because “We must obey God rather than men.” But we also have the 4th Commandment telling us not to anger the authorities but to obey and honor them. Throughout Christian history it hasn’t always been clear when to disobey or submit to unjust authorities, or even when the authorities were really being unjust. From the book of Acts to the Reformation to modern times, the relationship between church (God’s eternal, right hand kingdom) and the secular authority (the temporal kingdom of the left) has been a matter of strong debate and disagreement.
In these strange times, more and more controversy has surrounded state governors issuing edicts about the manner in which churches may or may not offer Holy Communion. This, to say the least, has sparked a fair amount of debate among clergy charged with administering the Sacrament. Who does the governor think he is to tell me how distribute spiritual, eternal things? That’s the kingdom of the right, and none of the governor’s business! On the other hand, who does that pastor think he is disobeying laws about physical, temporal things like eating and drinking? Public health and preventing the spread of contagion are clearly matters of the left hand kingdom and therefore the governor’s God-given task to oversee. If our spiritual practices put other citizens at physical risk, that clearly falls under the governor’s responsibility to the public.
The Sacrament attaches the spiritual and eternal Word and promise of Christ’s body and blood to the physical, worldly elements of bread and wine. That connection between the spiritual and the biological means that the left and right hand kingdoms can’t help but collide when a spiritual practice causes a bodily danger. The Church must obey God rather than men when it comes to shepherding souls with God’s Word and Sacraments. But the secular authority is still the authority when it comes to public policy concerning temporal lives and the spread of contagion. So we’re trying to be good Christians and good citizens. But again, it isn’t always self-evident how to do that. In this case, the dual spiritual/biological nature of the Sacrament itself brings together the two kingdoms that govern spiritual/biological Christian people who are citizens of an eternal kingdom and various earthly realms.
What can you do? First, be patient. I, frankly (and I know Pastor Stock shares this sentiment with me), have little patience for governors telling me how to administer Communion. I feel like telling them they better back off. But I also have to remember that they are trying to do their job of keeping people safe, that this pandemic is a new thing for them, too, and that they are doing their best. If anyone thinks being governor is an easy job or that they could do it better, I suspect such people are kidding themselves. We all need to put the best construction on things, endure difficulties, and not let disagreements spiral needlessly out of control.
Second, pray. If nothing else, Governors Holcomb and Pritzger and President Trump and the other authorities under them need and deserve our prayers. There are so many people and situations to pray about, but please include the leaders of both Church and State in your prayers. All of us are making it up as we go along in this unforeseen situation, and we’re all bound to make a few mistakes.
Third, make sure we keep our priorities in order. Presidents, governors, and health commissioners are legitimate but not ultimate authorities. We must, like every generation of Christians in the history of the Church, make clear that when it comes to pastoral practice and spiritual matters, we will gladly take into account but not be ruled by secular leaders. Spiritual matters are outside their authority and competence. We can accommodate much for the sake of good order, but what the congregation does is more essential, not less so, than any business or government.
Lastly and most importantly, be not afraid, but rejoice and be glad in this joyous Eastertide! Don’t worry about things outside your control, because your Lord is risen and nothing is outside His control. No temporal, worldly situation can matter more than that. Be assured that you will be served, by hook or by crook, with God’s Word and Sacraments. Maybe not in the manner or frequency you’d like, but still adequately. We will figure it out. We are in good hands.
Easter means there is nothing this world can do to you. You are a citizen of an eternal kingdom. Rejoice in hope, be patient in affliction, be constant in prayer (Rom. 12:12), because it is in doing those things that you most meaningfully shout to the world, “He is risen indeed!”
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana