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