[Jesus said] “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’” Luke 14:28-30
Planning. How on earth does one plan anything these days? Not only did nobody anticipate what this year would be like, but we’re more aware than ever that we don’t know what next year will be like. All planning is tentative. Christians have always known that. We walk into the future with faith in the One walking with us, not knowledge of what will happen.
Still, there is a common sense element to it. You have to plan. Sometimes you have to plan far in advance, trying to remain flexible to accommodate the unexpected, but not just waiting and waiting to see what happens. You have to plant if you want to reap. When Jesus warns against worrying about tomorrow, he is warning against worrying and fretting, not planning and preparing. And when He rebukes the man in the parable who built bigger barns to secure his future, He rebukes faith in the worldly and visible at the expense of spiritual, eternal things; He is not rebuking the common sense logistics involved with farming.
Sometimes we plan things at church waaayyyyy in advance. For example, people planning on getting married here need to plan it. A lot of variables might prevent it from happening as planned, but it certainly won’t happen as planned if it was never planned. Or take another example. In March of 2022 I’m hoping to take another group of pilgrims to the Holy Land. Will it happen? Hopefully. But certainly not if it isn’t planned. Will the choir sing at Easter? Who knows? But not if they didn’t rehearse any songs in advance. Operating a school here at St. Paul’s requires this constant balance of planning and flexibility, too.
That’s why I like Jesus’ word “estimate.” You don’t know in advance how much the tower will end up costing. But that doesn’t mean you just start building and go until you run out of money. You estimate. You acknowledge uncertainty, but plan based on estimates. Every year we head into the first semester with a lot of estimates about how much of this or that we will need, what things will cost, how many snow days to factor in, etc. Same with planning church services.
When you estimate, you factor in two things. Jesus says you estimate the cost and compare that to how much money you have. In the case of congregations, how much money you have is also a matter of estimating. People move away. New people join. People lose their jobs or get promotions and give more. All you can do is a make an educated guess about how much money people will put in the offering plate (or donate online) to make the ministry here possible.
Of course, Covid-19 threw a massive monkey wrench into everyone’s estimates of everything. The income and expense sides of our estimates changed dramatically. But we still have to plan. We have staff, supplies, maintenance, and improvements to consider. We are laying the foundation for the school year and in a larger sense for ministry to the next generation. We have to be able to estimate what we will able to do with what we will have, always allowing that there is no certainty except in Christ’s presence with us and for us.
Right now, in-person church attendance hovers at ballpark 50% of where it normally would be. Hopefully the other half are live-streaming the services remotely. We’re working on ways to have more people attending while keeping the livestream option available. And of course we’re hoping the pandemic subsides or a vaccine comes along. But who knows?
Weekly offerings are at about 85% of where they normally would be, which is pretty good. That means people are still supporting the ministry even as they have to stay away and worship remotely. Planning for the future, though, looks very different if the estimate on the income side takes a 15% hit for any length of time. Will the offerings come back? Who knows? If it stays at 85% as the pandemic subsides, though, we’ll really have to reevaluate our plans. We have to make honest, good faith estimates based on the best information available.
Everyone understands that when unemployment skyrockets, offerings go down. And when uncertainty takes over, offerings require more faith, which really tests us. No surprises there. But everyone also wants to see St. Paul’s (admittedly tentative) plans for the year and the next generation succeed. We’d rather not plan on having 15% less going forward as a congregation; it would adversely affect our mission; we don’t much fat in the budget. But with many people struggling, it falls on those who aren’t struggling financially to go above and beyond when it comes to giving to make up the difference. Please consider doing what you can to start inching that 85% back toward 100% by the end of the year, so that our planning and estimating here at St. Paul’s can build on the ministry we all have here.
God will continue to work in us and through us, come what may. We don’t have to guess or estimate about God’s grace. It is boundless. The practical, common sense logistics of farming in the fields of the Lord is what this is all about, and we’d all love to build on the tremendous blessing that St. Paul’s has been for countless people throughout the years.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. James 1:22
We’re used to quoting St. John when we do Divine Service 1, when we begin by saying, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…” Here St. James makes the flip-side point. If we say we have no good works to do or that we do not need to amend our sinful lives, we deceive ourselves. Your spiritual life was given to you as a gift, just like your physical life. But it needs to be nurtured, exercised, and fed.
When we think about the Gospel and salvation, we naturally think in terms of what God has done for us. Salvation isn’t something we do, nor is forgiveness something we earn. It is given to us for free. We are adopted into God’s family and declared to be His children by His Word of promise, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and the Holy Spirit’s faith-creating call.
But St. Paul and St. James both knew there was in innate tendency in all of us to hear the good news and think, “Oh. That’s nice. I’m going to heaven when I die,” and leave it at that. In other words, we think of the Gospel as something that doesn’t change anything in this life. St. James called that a “dead faith” that isn’t really faith. It deceives us because it claims eternal life while leaving the Old Adam, the sinful nature undisturbed. There is no new life without a killing of the old in contrition and repentance and the arising of the New Man to a life of righteousness. That is the daily struggle of the Christian life. Absent that struggle, there is no faith.
The Holy Spirit gives us faith in the call of God’s Word. He also “gathers, enlightens, sanctifies…” He makes us a part of a living body, He opens our eyes day by day through preaching and teaching to the realities of the kingdom of God, and He helps us always to be turning away from sin and temptation and to confess our sins when we fail.
At our voters’ meeting last night we all understood that nothing was happening as usual. We don’t really know what the future will bring. It is a time of testing in many ways. Times of testing call on us not to be mere hearers of God’s Word, but doers of it. While we are purely passive in the matter of salvation, we must not remain purely passive in the matter of Christian living. To do so would be to deceive ourselves.
One thing you can do in this time of separation is continue to make sure everyone you personally know at St. Paul’s stays connected. You might be that connection. When physical proximity doesn’t bring us together, nevertheless the mutual consolation of the brethren can continue. Praying for one another, giving a ride, chasing away loneliness for someone, delivering hard copies of the bulletins or updates to those who don’t have internet, and maybe watching the services together with someone who can’t figure out how to watch on their own. That’s the sort of thing that a congregation with living and active faith can be doing. And we could list a million other things. Nobody has nothing to do.
Thanks be to God, I’ve seen St. Paul’s rise to the occasion. How long it will last or what it will look like in the future nobody can say. But God’s Word continues to work and spread in our midst no matter how strange the times we live in might try to stop it.
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment… I Cor. 1:10
St. Paul knew that worldly divisions and false teachings can both creep into a Christian congregation and destroy the unity we have by faith in Christ. When that happens, the immediate impulse is to separate into camps. That kind of disunity then leads to physical separation. But such separation is not God’s or St. Paul’s goal for a healthy congregation.
One of the great blessings of gathering for worship is that it forces us to focus on the eternal good we have in common rather than anything earthly that divides us. We see young, middle-aged, and elderly; single, married, and widowed; black, brown, and white; Republican, Democrat, and apolitical/other; people who seem to have it all together and people who struggle to make it through the day (and sometimes we guess wrong which are which). But we all receive the same blessings in Christ and are made a family.
The pandemic has caused most of us to participate in worship remotely. The ability to do that has blessed people tremendously. The gift of technology meant being stuck at home did not have to mean being cut off from God’s Word as proclaimed by our church family at St. Paul’s. The big stumbling block, of course, was how to receive communion remotely. We’ve hopefully overcome that hurdle for the time being by assuring our membership that we will bring communion to those who do not feel safe coming to church. But there is another stumbling-block to worshipping remotely that we might not even be aware of; worshipping at home allows one to withdraw into a “camp,” without even meaning to, safely unconfronted by the array of people God calls into His family here.
Selfishly, we miss our friends, of course, when we don’t get to see them on a Sunday. And that is a real hardship. But worshipping at home also provides the very dangerous, worldly benefit of allowing you not to see or think about the people in your church family you’re just as glad not to encounter in worship. Worshipping at home, the person with a MAGA hat out in the car is not confronted by the fact that the person he or she is singing with and in communion with has a RESIST hat out in the car, and vice versa. The one who thinks young people are misguided isn’t confronted by the faithful young person, and the young person who thinks old people just don’t care isn’t confronted by the caring elderly person. Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter are forced to realize their deeper unity when they worship together as baptized children of God. When they worship in their living room, though, they’re allowed to worship from within their own little mental/emotional/political shell.
All this is to say that unity has never been more important and never been more endangered. The temporary necessity of worshipping at home takes away one of the strongest forces for unity, which is worshipping together physically, and is happening when worldly divisions have never been more influential. My concern is that people are looking for ways to change to a new normal of worshipping remotely, and I think that new normal would be unhealthy for all of us.
Many things are beyond our control, of course, and each of us deals with a separate set of health risk factors relating to the pandemic. Those who are or who feel unsafe in worship should continue worshipping from home and receiving the gifts of grace through the proclaimed Word, and receiving communion periodically, if possible, via a pastoral home visit.
To those who are beginning to get out and about more now that the guidelines are loosening up, I can’t encourage you strongly enough to worship in person rather than remotely. If you are not at risk in public places where solid health guidelines are followed, make sure the church service is one of the places you physically come to rather than take in remotely. As St. Paul appealed to the Corinthians, I appeal to you—be a force for unity in the church family by being here if you are able. You will be blessed to be a blessing.
“…and on this rock I will my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Matt. 16:18b
Many aspects of this stay-at-home order seem imprisoning. That is sort of the point of it; trying to lock down the virus by locking down ourselves, the virus’s hosts. But one thing I find somewhat paradoxically refreshing about a total, unexpected disruption like this is that it liberates us from having to have any confidence that we know what the future will bring.
Nobody on New Year’s Day had any idea whatsoever how strange 2020 would prove. Wall Street investors didn’t know it. Politicians didn’t know it. Scientists didn’t know it. Yet everybody’s life has been profoundly affected. Projections from any quarter, by anyone, have proven unreliable.
Why do I find that comforting in a way? Because it means I don’t have to have a projection, either, or even pretend to have one. You and I don’t need to express any confidence that we know what the next few months or years are going to be like, how things are going to change in the church, country, or world as a result of this, and anything like that. We have to do our daily work, and plan and prepare as best we can, and take what comes. All pretense of knowing the future is shaken, as a house built on sand.
In some ways this failure of projections has been going on for several years. Polls failed miserably to predict the Brexit vote or the presidential election, and people began to lose faith in polling data. Global temperatures stopped matching climate models, and people began to argue about how reliable the models were. Today’s models of the pandemic have been all over the map. The fact of the matter is, we find comfort in polling, projections, confident predictions, because it is unsettling to walk into a dark future. We put our confidence in very uncertain things because if we didn’t, we have no confidence at all.
But wait a minute! Is that really true? Of course not, at least not for us. We who put our confidence in our risen Lord and the promises of God have every reason for confidence. Will the stock market rebound this year? Who knows? Will school start on time in the fall? Who knows? Will church attendance go up or down as a result of this? Who knows? But we know, and I mean we KNOW, with absolute certainty, that the Church will never fail. This declaration about the future is not built on the sand of human institutions or predictions, it is built on the rock.
When you feel perplexed or fearful, remember that promise. I can’t promise anyone’s health, livelihood or 401k will recover. I can’t promise the football players drafted this week will actually play games in the fall. I can’t promise anything, but I can promise everything, at least everything of lasting importance. The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. I’d say take it to the bank, but banks fail. This promise is more certain than a bank. You are a citizen of the City of God, a pilgrim here in this world of swirling change. When it gets overwhelming, remember the promise that cannot fail.
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.”
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana