For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. Eccl. 3:1
Lately Heidi has been reading a chapter of Charlotte’s Web aloud every morning after devotions. It is a familiar, beloved story. My favorite detail is the description of the crickets’ song before the big county fair. “Summer is over and gone, over and gone… Summer is over and gone, over and gone.” Even the first time I heard the story as a kid, that way of interpreting the sound of cricket seemed so sad and yet so beautiful at the same time that I never forgot it. I even opened a sermon with those words one time at the beginning of the school year.
Today, of course, summer has just begun. The days have only this week started getting imperceptibly shorter, and most of the big summer traditions, like fireworks, pool parties, and vacations, are still ahead of us. But so many of them won’t be the same this year. This year it seems like it isn’t just a season, it is an era that is over and gone, over and gone. When will things go back to normal? Maybe it is a new normal.
Will church ever be what it was? Will parades and county fairs be what they were? Storefront sidewalk sales? Park league baseball?
Such unknowns and major changes often fill people with anxiety. Sometimes that anxiety comes out in anger, despair, or complete disengagement. Sometimes we simply indulge in nostalgia. But I think it a more hopeful and constructive approach to remember that there is a time for everything under heaven. There was a time in God’s plan for the season, stage of life, or era that is passing. And the next season, stage of life, or era is also something God has allotted a time for. It is sad, but it can also be beautiful to witness the changes and transitions.
The important thing for Christians to remember is that God Himself came into world “under heaven” not only to redeem it but to give us citizenship in an eternal kingdom, about which crickets will never sing that it is over and gone or that it is dying.
Even when “change and decay in all around I see” we know that the God “who changest not” will abide with us. All times and seasons are His, and His love for us is eternal.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. Matt. 28:19-20
Even though it moves around on the calendar from year to year, I join many other pastors in thinking of the day of Trinity Sunday as the official start of summer. Other people go by Memorial Day or the end of the school year, but this is when all the big festivals marking Christ’s life and ministry are done and we move from the Christ half to the Church half of the year. The paraments in church turn green and stay that way for the most part all the way until Advent.
It is also a good time to focus on what we do here and why St. Paul’s exists. We baptize and teach. Always have, always will. Some of the external may change. The pastors and teachers come and go. The building undergoes modifications and changes. The format of how we do what we do adapts to suit the circumstances. But it is still always going to be the church gathered around Christ, who is with us always in Word and Sacrament. And by always, He specifies that this is the way He will be with us “to the end of the age.” Eventually He will come again and inaugurate the new, eternal age to come visibly, which we participate in now only by faith.
Sometimes it seems like we’ve got to be betting close to the end of the age. And who knows? Maybe we are. But Christians have always felt that way. The key is to view the time we have as a gift. We get the chance to keep baptizing, preaching and teaching Christ in the presence of Christ. It is up to God when to finally call it.
Sometimes the long, green half of the church year seems less inspiring than the festival-filled half. The temptation is to lose our zeal because things seem the same week after week and the themes seem less dramatic. But this is the Christian life. Every day won’t be your baptism, confirmation, or some holiday. The point of all those things is living your baptized life on regular, ordinary days like this one.
Some things can really deepen our faith in the this “ordinary time.” One of them is a ministry we support called Issues, Etc. which offers podcasts on a whole variety of topics. Yesterday we did the Athanasian Creed in church, which we do once a year on Trinity Sunday. It has some challenging truths in it. You can deepen your learning by going to this podcast.
Work while it is day. The flip side to baptizing and teaching is living baptized lives and learning. In that way Christ is with you to the end of the age.
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.
We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain… Heb. 6:19
Today is the last day of the school year. We used Heb. 6:19 as a theme verse talking about how our souls are anchored in the Lord. Certainly we have all needed this anchor for our souls in turbulent times. Life teaches us this lesson again and again; there are no fixed certainties, there is no place of refuge, nothing can hold fast in the storms of life except the grace of God won for us by Jesus Christ.
Nobody in the first semester of school could have foreseen how the second semester would go. The whole school year was suddenly disrupted. But in terms of Christ being an anchor for our souls, nothing changed. Sports seasons were cancelled, restaurants closed. But our relationship to God in Christ and His eternal mercy and grace toward us held fast. The terrible events of the last week in Minnesota, in which police inexcusably killed a man in custody and local residents inexplicably burned down an auto parts store in protest seem merely to add to the general idea of things going wrong and nothing being safe. But even that whole terrible situation is something Christ knew about when He agreed to take it all to the cross.
If you anchor your soul and try to find lasting peace in anyone or anything apart from Christ, including yourself, it disappoints you. You end up adrift. But when you are safely anchored in the storm, you need not fear. 2020 has thrown everyone for a loop, and many things may never be the same. The world is changing quickly and in some cases furiously. Anyone whose peace depends on politics, business, money, entertainment, comfort, health, safety, familiarity, or any worldly thing has reason to fear. But Christians do not. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
So it will be interesting to see the St. Paul’s students move on to another grade or off to high school. This will always be a memorable year for them and for all of us. Long after I’m gone, they’ll probably be telling their grandchildren about the pandemic year when they were in grade school at St. Paul’s. (And who know how laughably old-fashioned our technology will seem to those grandchildren!) And in the near term, they’ll hopefully come back to school in the fall not too far behind where they need to be to keep learning. But no matter what happens, I hope for all our students, as I’m sure do you, that the truly eternal things, the central reason for St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and School, will be the thing that stays with them no matter where life takes them or what future years may bring.
We can give no guarantees to these young people about their future in terms of health, jobs, college, marriage, or anything. But we can give them the sure and solid anchor for their souls, the Lord who promises to weather every storm with them and see them safely home.
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13
This Memorial Day as we wrap up the Easter season we remember not only THE spiritual, eternal, once and for all death of Jesus on behalf of those He calls His friends, but we also honor all those who in strictly temporal terms made the ultimate sacrifice for us in the armed services. The pandemic and the unprecedented measures to contain it have also brought up all kinds of constitutional issues concerning who has the authority to do what and how we can responsibly exercise the freedoms so many people died fighting for.
In 2012 the LCMS launched a Free to be Faithful initiative, for which I wrote an essay. I invite you to take time this Memorial Day to read it and reflect on the issues it raises. Even if we cannot observe this solemn day at some public gathering, we can consider our calling as Christians in civil society and as inheritors of a great nation. I hope you’ll take the time to read it today, and that your day is blessed.
And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:10-11
“What did you expect?” That’s usually a semi-accusatory response you might get from someone when you express disappointment. The gist of the accusation is that things didn’t turn out wrong. Rather, your prior expectation that they would turn out differently was unrealistic. Disappointment is always a function of expectations. If you never expect much, you’re never disappointed. If you always expect a great deal, you’re very often disappointed.
For Christians, the better question is what do we expect? Our expectations define our whole lives. We expect everything to work out for the good of those who live in God. We expect the dead to be raised. We expect everlasting life. We expect to made perfect.
When we go by sight, we’re constantly disappointed. Things don’t always seem to be working out for the good of God’s people. In fact, in some times and places it seems like the exact opposite is true. Death seems to have the final word, and the grief of separation is what seems eternal. We look upon the paltriness of our own lives, our lack of true holiness, and inability to overcome sin, and if anything we just get more and more disappointed with ourselves. It would be a sign of dubious spiritual health if we started to more and more satisfied with ourselves rather than more and more discontent with our sinfulness. If we aren’t disappointed when going by sight, we have reason to double-check that our expectations align with God’s Word and our vision of what is happening is really clear.
The history of the Christian Church as we know it begins with Acts, Chapter 1. The promise given by the two mysterious white-robed men invites us to go by faith, not by sight. Faith is the only way to live by a promise. Jesus was taken from their sight precisely so that they must proceed by faith. So has the Church lived ever since. We expect perfection and have the only balm for everything that falls short of it, which is forgiveness. Christ Ascends to the throne of God, sends the Holy Spirit into this world, and the whole history begins of God’s people living by faith in His fulfilled death and resurrection.
This Thursday is Ascension. Pastor Gumz of Trinity, Hammond has spent a great deal of effort putting together a video service involving all the circuit churches and pastors. We will give you information on how to access that service this week, so that our tradition of having a circuit-wide celebration of Christ’s Ascension can continue uninterrupted.
The important thing is neither the tradition nor the technology that makes it possible to continue. The important thing is the Ascension itself, which teaches us that our expectations of God can never be too great, our disappointment with our own sin can never be too great, and our faith in Christ to bridge the gap can never be too great. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Alleluia!
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. Proverbs 3:5-8
Sometimes our practical, worldly problems overwhelm us. It is hard to see the value in reading the Bible, praying, and focusing on spiritual things when bodily things and the necessities of life demand our constant attention. Proverbs provides a good intersection between the spiritual and the physical, the theological and the practical, eternal life and regular life in this world. Proverbs 3:1-12 seems to make some very this-worldly assurances. The odd verses tell you what to do, and the even verses tell you what the reward of that will be. So, for example, in the quotation above, verse 5 tells you to trust God, and verse 6 say that if you do that, He will make your path straight. So far, so good. But what about the more tangible matters? Verse 4 promises success not only in God’s eyes but in the eyes of the world as well. Verse 8 seems to refer to physical health. Verse 10 refers to personal finances. Do we really turn to the Scriptures on those matters?
In the last two months, physical health has been on everyone’s mind first and foremost, either directly because of the virus or indirectly because of the added roadblocks to eating right and exercising. (I know I’ve gained over ten pounds!) Personal finances has been a close second as whole sectors of the economy have collapsed and people wonder about jobs and bills with no answers in sight. Social distancing has tested the strength of our relationships; we suddenly have to endure the long absence of the constant, unavoidable presence of the people in our lives. We have not offered church in the normal way. This pandemic has had the potential to take a serious toll on every kind of health—physical, emotional, financial, social, and spiritual.
Sometimes hardships in all these areas can seem like God punishing us. But Prov. 3:12 wraps up all the practical advice with the assurance that even the hardships in our lives show God’s love to those whose eyes are open to it. The preceding verses do not provide as much of a recipe for achieving your ambitions but a way of looking at every aspect of worldly health in light of God’s love. When we begin with trust in the Lord, we do indeed find success in the eyes of the only people whose opinions matter. We really do find that we have more than enough. We do not fear living a life that is too long or too short.
I wish I could tell you that everything is okay in a worldly sense in your life. But I don’t have access to any particular information that you don’t have about viruses, unemployment, the stock market, or any other practical matter. But I can draw your attention to the promises of Scripture. If this shut-down has taken its toll on your physical health, your financial future, or your personal relationships, it can also be God’s loving reproof to being the healing of your whole person with first things first—your faith. We who know of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and hell have every reason for confidence as we trust in the Lord with all our heart. And if this pandemic jolts us into getting our spiritual lives in better order by seeking first the kingdom of God, the rest will follow in God’s loving ways and time. God’s got this. All of it. He’s got you. All of you, every aspect of your life. Trust the one who loves you more than you can possibly know, and lean not on any worldly way of looking at things.
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.
I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus Christ, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. I Cor. 11:23-24
St. Paul was not in the upper room where the Last Supper took place. He wasn’t a Christian at all until much later. Yet he still received the gift and promise of Christ Himself, from Christ Himself, with a commission to pass it on. That gift and promise is Holy Communion.
As a church named after St. Paul, it makes sense that we have been focusing lately on passing on what we received. The whole Rededicated Campaign to the next generation has been our effort to say to people forty years from now, “What we received from the Lord through St. Paul and across all these generations, we also delivered to you.” It also makes perfect sense that regular Communion is at the heart of what we’re all about. But it also makes sense that we might not always receive that gift in the normal way at the normal time. After all, St. Paul didn’t.
The times we live in—call them odd, terrible, confusing, unique, frustrating, interesting, whatever they might be in your mind—have interrupted the normal flow of things here for all of us. The Board of Deacons met last night (via Zoom) to discuss how best to proceed as a congregation in terms of offering communion during Holy Week and Easter. Pastor Stock and I have looked at what other congregations and church bodies have done, and indeed, there is a wide array of approaches out there, with many pros and cons. We looked at all of them and at the specifics of our own context.
Our goal is to keep everyone safe, keep Christ at the center of our personal and congregational life, keep our confidence in the efficacy of the Sacrament absolute, and keep everyone in the congregation connected to Christ. In order to balance all of those competing goals, we have decided to offer Services of the Word online until such time as we can come together again as a congregation for Word and Sacrament. (We will not deny the Sacrament to anyone who asks out of desperation due to a crisis or emergency situation, but that would be on a case by case basis.)
Maundy Thursday without Communion? It seems like if there was ever a time to focus on the Sacrament, it would be then. And Communion will still be the focus, but as a matter of preparation. We have been doing a Lenten series about eyes and seeing, and Maundy Thursday’s theme is More Than Meets the Eye. The eyes of the world simply see a ritual with some bread and wine. Only the eyes of faith see the truth of the matter, that in, with, and under that little ritual with bread and wine is Christ giving Himself for the life of the world and His Church being nurtured in faith.
Tomorrow’s service, therefore, will focus on the importance of those eyes of faith. We will not waste this unexpected pause in the normal flow of services. We will embrace it, using the “down time” to focus on preparation. Normally I do that on the Wednesday of Holy Week with all the confirmands and their families in preparation for their first Communion. We use Christian Questions and their Answers from Luther’s Catechism.
Tomorrow’s sermon will take the confirmands and the whole congregation through that preparation as we focus on Communion while receiving the gift of Christ another way, building up the eyes of faith. Unless you call with an emergency, the next time you take Communion will be some weeks from now; hopefully not many, but we cannot know quite yet. If we use this time wisely, then the day we do come together again for worship will combine the best aspects of two things that otherwise are nearly impossible to combine-- first and familiar. It will be much anticipated and well prepared for, like a confirmand’s first Communion.
But for most of us it will also comfort us with the familiarity that only years of faithful repetition brings. But most importantly of all, whatever it feels like, it will be Christ for you, the same Christ who is with you even now, and who invites you to pick up a cross and follow Him. That cross-bearing includes, for the time being, the cross of not receiving every blessing He has for you (at least not yet). But in spiritual yearning and with the gifts He does give us, we view the events of Holy Week, the Sacrament, St. Paul’s, your life, this day, and even the disruption of this pandemic through the eyes of faith.
So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. Ps. 90:12
Even in a normal year, Holy Week tends to be a time of increased reflection on death, for the obvious reason that the events of the week center on the crucifixion of Christ. In this pandemic year, we’re reminded of death even more. Every little thing we do—put on gloves, disinfect a doorknob, wear a mask, stand six feet apart—reminds us of death. People are dying. We might be spreading deadly disease. We can’t escape the topic. It dominates the news worldwide.
But that is a good thing! Did you know that many great devotional writers and pastors have said daily reminders of our own mortality can benefit our spiritual lives tremendously? For example, perhaps the most famous devotional writer in the history of Lutheran churches, Johann Gerhard, wrote a reflection called “The Daily Consideration of Death.” In it, he addresses his own soul and tells how beneficial it is for us to remember that we are pilgrims and temporary sojourners in this world. We make wiser decisions, we keep our priorities in better order, we get less discouraged by worldly setbacks and experience more peace and joy when we remember that every day might be our last.
“We deceive ourselves sadly if we think of death as only taking place with the last breath of life here; on the contrary, day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, we are dying.” Those words by Gerhard simply state a fact. We are born with a finite number of heartbeats. Every beat reduces that number by one, like a countdown. He says there is huge spiritual value in waking up every day with the knowledge that this might be your last day, and going to bed at night as a sort of “practice death” knowing you might never wake up.
But isn’t that morbid? Not at all. It is simply true, and no threat at all to those who know Christ and the victory over sin, death, and hell. “….If I should die before I wake, I pray, Thee, Lord my soul to take.” That little “Now I lay me…” prayer is one way children learn to number their days and gain a heart of wisdom. It is when we forget that we are mortal, when we disregard the reality of death or ignore, that we make foolish decisions, put our faith in nonsense, and stop relying on our Creator and Redeemer for every good thing.
As you cannot celebrate Holy Week in the normal ways this year, I urge you today to be aware of every reminder of death you see—every death toll on the news, every rubber glove or mask, every mention of the stay-at-home order. Keep track. Let it help you examine your life, put your days and years in the context of eternity. And let the events we commemorate in Holy Week make that context a source of comfort and hope.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana