Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the LORD has helped us.” 1 Sam. 7:12
One of my favorite hymns, called Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, features the lines
"Here I raise my Ebenezer
Hither by Thy help I’ve come
And I hope by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home."
Those words refer to the 1 Samuel verse. Samuel set up a pillar of stones and called it Ebenezer to remind the people, who were in the ongoing campaign of trying to occupy the Promised Land and encountering a lot of obstacles. What they needed was something they could look to that would remind them in tough times that God had been with them in the past all the way to the present moment. That would encourage them going forward when they faced challenges; they could count on the God Who had always been with them to continue to be with them. His faithfulness would endure. That’s what an Ebenezer assures us all.
Today is my 51st birthday. I think birthdays can be like a calendar version of an Ebenezer. This morning I talked in chapel with the school kids about this verse. Unfortunately, we were unable to livestream the chapel service like we normally do. But I used memories from each of my own grade school years to tell the story of my own life (from age 6-14) in terms of God’s faithfulness to His promises in good times and in bad. Reminders like that matter going forward.
Along the trail near church there are rocks painted with encouraging words on them like “You can do it!” or Keep it up!” Those words are supposed to encourage people running races and feeling so tired that they just might give up. The encouragement really helps people running a race, and St. Paul often refers to the course of a person’s life as a race. Milestones can encourage us. But unlike the phrases on the painted rocks along a marathon or 5k route, the real Ebenezers that matter are those that point not to you and your own willpower, but to God and His faithfulness.
St. Paul’s as a congregation also needs encouragement in this time of the pandemic and other major challenges facing the church. We don’t want to live in our own past, but we do want to remember that the God of our own past is the God of our future. We are in good hands. The
Lord has helped us until now. And He will always help us.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Now in the eighteenth year of his reign, when he had cleansed the land and the house, he sent Shaphan the son of Azaliah, and Maaseiah the governor of the city, and Joah the son of Joahaz, the recorder, to repair the house of the Lord his God. They came to Hilkiah the high priest and gave him the money that had been brought into the house of God, which the Levites, the keepers of the threshold, had collected from Manasseh and Ephraim and from all the remnant of Israel and from all Judah and Benjamin and from the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And they gave it to the workmen who were working in the house of the Lord. And the workmen who were working in the house of the Lord gave it for repairing and restoring the house. They gave it to the carpenters and the builders to buy quarried stone, and timber for binders and beams for the buildings that the kings of Judah had let go to ruin. And the men did the work faithfully. Over them were set Jahath and Obadiah the Levites, of the sons of Merari, and Zechariah and Meshullam, of the sons of the Kohathites, to have oversight. The Levites, all who were skillful with instruments of music, were over the burden-bearers and directed all who did work in every kind of service, and some of the Levites were scribes and officials and gatekeepers.
II Chron. 34:8-13
Probably many of you merely skimmed the above paragraph from II Chronicles. It is one of the many boring paragraphs in the Old Testament that people who want to read the Bible stories tend not to pay much attention to. It is filled with humdrum details about the nuts and bolts of religious life. It reads like the minutes of a church council meeting, which is sort of what the Chronicles were. This paragraph never comes up in church services. Plus, it has a lot of names of people that most people have never heard of and that are hard to pronounce, so nobody ever volunteers to read these paragraphs aloud in Bible studies, either.
What the above paragraph does for us, however is to help us realize that God works in both wondrous and tedious ways. God uses famous people and obscure people. His people do dramatic things in amazing ways, and they do everyday things in a workaday manner. Even Solomon’s Temple faced the people with organizational issues. They had stewardship campaigns, job descriptions, committees and organizational charts, and had to deal with payroll issues involved with hiring laborers to do basic things like make general repairs. It might disillusion us to think of people serving the Lord by punching a clock, but those people made serving the Lord possible for everyone.
The Temple and its purpose was fulfilled by the death and resurrection of Christ. The Romans utterly destroyed the building (per Jesus’s prediction) about forty years later, in A.D. 70. Our churches today are not exactly the same kind of thing as the Temple in Jerusalem about 2650 years ago as described in this passage from Chronicles. But worshiping God and receiving the fulfillment of the Temple in His gifts of Word and Sacrament still involves committees, organizational charts, stewardship campaign, payrolls, building maintenance, and so forth. Sometimes we might get the impression that such things have no place in a truly spiritual, religious life, but the fact is that they do and always have.
Kings and Chronicles explain how Temple worship went through all kinds of ups and downs of disrepair and restoration through the centuries. The same is true of congregations and church buildings. Right now, of course, we face a lot of uncertainty as we go through the regular fall routine of trying to put together a budget for next year. We’re going to have stewardship emphasis this fall as we seek to emerge from the pandemic without having to curtail our ministries or let things fall into disrepair.
Your own spiritual life probably goes through ups and downs as well. Sometimes your prayers uplift your soul, other times you feel like you’re just going through the motions. Sometimes you can almost feel the Spirit’s presence in worship, and other times you’re bored and checking your watch. But God never gives up on you. His gifts are real and true no matter they feel like, and the Spirit works through them. And your participation, your input, and your offerings make this ministry possible for everybody whether it seems like you’re part of a bold, amazing story, like some parts of Kings and Chronicles, or just keeping things clean and helping to make payroll, like other parts of Kings and Chronicles.
Christ is King, and all of history, the exciting and the boring, is the chronicle of His salvation and grace toward sinners like you and me.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. Matt. 7:24
You probably noticed that Pastor Stock was doing the church service by himself this past weekend. I was up in Northern Wisconsin for our annual “work weekend” at my uncle’s island, now inherited by my cousins. It is an old fisherman’s retreat (really old—the one log cabin dates to the late 19th Century) with a lodge and cabins on it. We take a family vacation there every year in July, but it takes a tremendous amount of upkeep to make those vacations possible. Maintaining buildings in the harsh weather of the North Woods, and doing so without any road access makes for a constant challenge. Therefore, many years ago we added the mid-June, pre-vacation season work weekend to keep the island available for all the people whose memories and traditions depend on being able to visit each year.
The buildings are beautiful, and two of them in particular, the rec house (dock house) and the boat house have become iconic landmarks of the scenery for people out on the big lake. The problem is that they are in a literal sense partially built on sand. The islands and shorelines up there are mostly made out of Great Lakes fieldstones, some clay, and sand with a stringy web of stubborn tree roots holding it all together. The lake level goes up and down, the piling posts rot, the ice pushes against the shore and into every crevice, the tree roots force their way in every direction, rocks shift, and the old buildings settle in ever more catawampus positions, with window and doorframes groaning futilely to keep their corners square. Our strategies for keeping walls up up involve an endless array of jacks, cinderblocks, fieldstones, lumber shims, and hope.
The yearly effort is a great object lesson about Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount because we actually get to observe the futility of building on sand. But we love those buildings. We try to keep them up, but we know we are working against time and the elements, which are both relentless adversaries. In a deeper sense we also see how so often some of the major building blocks of our own lives lack solid foundations. What we think we know—about ourselves, our past, our relationships, our future—can turn out to be tentative at best when our hopes are in this world. It is okay to love the things of this world as long as we’re willing to let go of them. Your body, your loved ones, your house—they can all be a labor of love as long as you remember that love is about letting go, too. None of them can bear up under being the foundation of your life.
The only Rock that never shifts is Christ. God’s love for us in Him, the forgiveness we have, the place in His family, the assurance of His presence, are all things no health situation, job situation, or relationship situation can take away. At St. Paul’s we build everything we are and do as the family of God in this place on that solid rock. For that reason, we never fear the vagaries of time and the changeable cultural moods that beat against our faith in Christ. We know nothing can do anything to Him, and He is faithful.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
…but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
Patience is a virtue. Waiting is the hardest part. We do not lack clichés to express the difficulty of experiencing delay. Waiting saps our physical, psychological, emotional, and sometimes even spiritual strength.
As the school year here at St. Paul’s winds down to a conclusion next week and as the weather starts to turn toward summer, the burden of the COVID regulations starts to take its toll. Anyone can hunker down for a while, especially in a crisis. There is even a bit of fun and novelty to it. But it wears on you. Even the best things in life, like Christmas decorations or lazy summer days eventually start to feel old. Less glorious things wear out even faster.
The burden of time depends on what exactly we’re waiting for. When we’re anticipating something good and certain, like Christmas or the last day of school, the waiting is hard because of the exuberance of anticipation. When we await something bad certain, like the alarm going off too early or a bad report card being sent home, the wait burdens us with dread. We just want to avoid thinking about it.
But what about when we aren’t even sure what we’re waiting for? Many of us are waiting for a return to normal without a clear idea of what that looks like anymore. Good or bad, it isn’t certain. And sometimes uncertainty weighs us down even more than something certainly bad.
When we think about patience and waiting in this terms—good or bad, certain or uncertain—we understand a little more clearly what Isaiah means by those wait for Lord renew their strength. When we remember what we’re ultimately waiting for—that it is not just good but the best thing, and not just certain but the only truly certain thing—then that reminder gives us the strength to endure the waiting, the difficulty, the bad things, and the uncertainties of life in this world.
The Holy Spirit brings the Gospel into your heart and mind, and the fruit of the Spirit, the fruit of a mind fixed on Jesus, includes patience. Take what comes, fast or slow as it comes, as the knowledge of the ultimate truth renews your strength.
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.” Acts. 2:1
Wouldn’t that be nice? They were all together in one place. Of course, it couldn’t last. The church grew very rapidly beginning that very day of Pentecost, such that it soon became impossible for the Christians to gather together one place. The Christian Church’s ability to gather together in one place lasted less than one day. Not even an individual congregation like St. Paul’s can ever get everyone all together in one place at one time; we have different service times.
But there are different kinds of togetherness. Doing the same thing as other people is a form of togetherness with them even if we do them at different times and places. In more typical circumstances, we have multiple service times but not different services; whether people come to early or late service, they are “together” in what they did. When we use our hymnal liturgies in worship, we express a kind of togetherness with other congregations and with Christians in the Church Triumphant.
Any time everyone experiences the same thing, it brings a sense of togetherness, as in, “We’re all in this together,” even though we’re not all together in the same place. This pandemic has scattered us into our own homes, but in every respect except physical proximity it has brought the congregation together. People have been patient, helpful, appreciative of one another, caring, and in some ways really experienced the meaning of “church family” when they couldn’t be together with their church family.
Now things are beginning to open back up. The stay-at-home order we’ve endured and about which we have been “all in this together” begins a gradual process of loosening up for us this week. But before sharing the details that the pastors and Board of Deacons have planned out, I want to share a potential concern and ask for your help in nipping it in the bud. My concern is this: there is a chance that as we begin to gather together again, we’ll lose that sense of “we’re all in this together” that has been so beneficial. As we open the church back up (gradually), those who can come back to church sooner must remain “all in this together” with those vulnerable people who may not be able to safely come to church for many, many months. And those who continue to watch the services from afar must remain together with those who are attending worship in person and not resent the fact that some, but not all, will be able to partake of things that we’d all love to partake of.
When we’re all together in one place, togetherness is easy to feel. When we’re all enduring the same thing at the same time from separate places, togetherness is also easy to feel. As we make it possible for some but not all to come together, the truth of what brings us together—Christ—will remain the same for all of us, but the feeling of it might dissipate. We all need to go out of our way to focus on the unity we have in Christ and as members of the St. Paul’s family as move into the next phase of reopening.
This Sunday, May 10th, we will continue to do one, live-streamed service at 8:00 a.m. as we have the past several weeks. The difference will be that the church will be open for those who wish to attend in person. All social distancing guidelines will remain in place. We especially encourage anyone who has a particular vulnerability, or who lives with vulnerable people, to continue participating via livestream from home. Indiana’s guidelines strongly recommend that those 65 and over and anyone with any underlying health issues should participate in church remotely via livestream rather than in person during this phase. Everyone is free to make up their own minds about whether to attend, but we certainly encourage everyone to have patience and follow the published guidelines. We are not expecting a large crowd. Depending on how things go this week, we hope to go back to offering three services on May 17th with a very gradual increase in in-person attendance.
Please do not come until you are perfectly comfortable doing so and are willing to cheerfully follow all of the stringent protocols we will have in place for everyone’s safety. That means you’ll have to sit in a designated place, possibly not of your own choosing, wait for the ushers to release you afterward, and go straight back outside without any of the normal greeting and chatting with friends.
The service this Sunday will include communion (again, following all distancing guidelines, which will be explained at the service) for those attending in person, but the livestream will conclude with the Service of the Word as usual. We continue to offer communion by appointment to those who feel a desperate need. We will never deny communion to anyone who requests it. But we hope most people can wait until the gradual reopening makes it possible for them to attend worship or to receive one of the pastors into their home for in-home communion.
We remain all in this together. We remain united by Christ and united as congregational church family. The gradual transition means some people will be further down the road to the new normal than others. It is important that such people not forget about the unity they have with one another and, most importantly, with our mutual Lord Jesus Christ.
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
“…and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…” Heb. 12:1b
Yesterday I had a Zoom meeting with a group of pastors from other denominations, one of whom I hadn’t seen in many years. He told the group that this verse has been rolling around in his mind for many weeks because of the all the disruption to church life (along with every other kind of life) brought by the pandemic. I think many pastors have come to a new appreciation of this verse because we have been unable to plan things the way we normally do. The whole group shared that sentiment. We all pastor different kinds of congregations in very different contexts, but this verse rang true to all of those situations.
Sometimes the key aspects of this verse get lost amid the famous words that come before and after. Heb. 12:1 begins with “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” We often refer to those famous words when we consider salvation history from the Old Testament all the way through the history of the Church. Heb. 12:2 begins, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus…” and we often refer to those famous words for obvious reasons. But wedged in between there are the words above, which contain two ideas that pertain to today.
The first is endurance. It is an easy thing to think about and a hard thing to have. At a marathon, anyone can cheer the runners on. Not everyone can keep running. We can all hear and know the truth of encouraging words, but that doesn’t mean we can act on them easily. When all this began we needed courage and wisdom (and we still do, of course), but now that it has been going on a lot longer than we first anticipated (remember when we thought we’d be back in school by mid-April?) we need endurance. We need to keep drawing strength from the Word after the novelty of the whole thing has worn off and the frustrations of it persist.
The second key aspect of the excerpt is that the race we run is the one that set before us, not the one we choose. It doesn’t matter in the slightest what we would have done or could have done in some other circumstance. We take up the challenge God gives us, not the challenge we give ourselves or the challenge God gave to Christians in other times and places. The times you live in, with all its wonders and conveniences like instant Zoom meetings, all its quirks and absurdities like masking tape exes on every floor, and all its particular terrors and sufferings, from ICU units to careers destroyed, these times, and no other times, mark the race that is set before us. This context, and no other context, is where God gives us an opportunity to bring Christ.
One of the most famous scenes in The Lord of the Rings features Frodo saying that he wishes he lived in different times. The wise old Gandalf says, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” It is the same sentiment—don’t focus on the imaginary challenges (or lack thereof) you wished you faced. Focus on the real challenge you face. The race that is set before you is the only race you can run with endurance. It, and nothing else, is your true calling.
So many of our good intentions begin with “If only…” The Hebrews verse begins with “Therefore…” It grounds your day in reality, not unreality. But the reality it grounds your day in stems from the truth of salvation history and the presence of God in our context as well. Live the life God gave you. Run the race set before you. We at St. Paul’s and you in your personal context are part of the grand and glorious story of those redeemed by Christ.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana