[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
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
But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Heb. 3:13
Most photo albums feature standard pictures of important events familiar to everyone. Birthday parties, vacations, proms and graduations, Christmas and Easter family photos, weddings and baby showers, and so forth. Same stuff, different faces, fashions, and years.
A photo album of the first half of 2020, by contrast, would feature a bunch of unique things unlike any other year. Just in my own experience locally here I’ve seen some crazy, memorable things this year. Grocery aisles completely emptied of bread and paper products. The camera in an empty church on Easter Sunday. Downtown Chicago completely deserted and quiet. The parking lot at Beverly Shores collapsed into Lake Michigan. Closing chapel with just the teachers holding screen shots of their students. Kids playing thigh deep in floodwater on Briar Lane. Lines of masked people weaving through a shopping cart maze waiting to get into Jewel-Osco. A massive concrete barrier built across Calumet Avenue. You get the idea.
Still, as a Christian community we exhort one another regardless of whether it is a routine day or a special celebration, a predictable event or a completely bizarre event. The main thing about every day is the common or particular temptations it brings and the common or particular opportunities it brings I terms of living the Christian life.
Daily contrition and repentance, daily taking hold of Christ by faith, daily thanksgiving for daily bread, daily prayers for daily concerns—these are not things that can wait “until things get back to normal” or that we do “when things settle down.” Whether today is your triple bypass surgery or just another day of sitting on your front porch, your first day in a new job or your retirement party, your wedding day with photos your grandchildren will look at or just some day with no photos of anything in particular—it is still called “today.” You are still tempted away from the baptismal life of a Christian today. And you are still exhorted by your Christian community to remember who you are, Who your Lord is, and what really matters today. You also have a chance to exhort others in your Christian community to do the same.
Don’t get distracted by swirling events in your own life or in the news. Every day is God’s. Live today as an eternal son or daughter of an eternal King.
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; Acts 20:29
Seems like a strange verse for a daily update or devotion. It comes as St. Paul is getting ready to leave after spending a long time teaching the faith to a group of people. The parting of ways is an emotional one for Paul because he knows he won’t see them again and desperately wants them to remain strong in the Gospel after he is no longer there to help them. And he knows it won’t be easy for them. The thought of what false teaching will try to do to them makes him want to go over everything again one last time. But eventually you have to let go.
I think in some ways on a smaller scale we experience that emotional parting every year at graduation. Young men and women to whom we’ve taught the Gospel for years depart into the next stage of life. Granted, we aren’t physically parted from them and we hope to continue in ministry together, so that isn’t the same as in Acts. But we have to acknowledge losing hold of them in a way and letting go the way St. Paul had to let go. We know what we’ve taught them and how important it is. But we also know from our own personal experience and from many years of watching our graduates head through high school and beyond that the fierce wolves of life and the falseness of the Zeitgeist are not likely to spare them.
I once adapted the lyrics of the table blessing song from Fiddler on the Roof for Christian use, and I always think of that song at confirmations and graduations. “May the Lord protect and defend you. May He always shield you from shame…” At our graduation service the fierce wolves were on my mind, and how desperately I wanted these kids to stand firm in the Gospel. Our principal Barb Mertens even started crying (or at least got something in her eye and needed to clear her throat) in speaking about the class, and I suspect that emotion only increases year by year through any person’s ministry.
But at the end of the day, you have to let go. They aren’t babies or kids anymore, and yes, it is a spiritually dangerous world. We can’t put our confidence in how well we’ve taught them or how well they’ve learned it. We have to model the faith for them by letting go with confidence that God never forgets His promises and that His plans for us are always good. The wolves and this world’s prince may still scowl fierce as they will; they can harm them none…one little word can fell them.
We pray that our graduates and their parents do not suddenly become strangers to St. Paul’s but continue to be nurtured and fed as part of our Christ-centered community. And we wait upon the Lord who answers prayer.
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!
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. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I Corinthians 1:10-13
No matter how quickly the world might be changing as a result of Covid-19, the old adage seems to remain true—the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Christian Church still fails, at least visibly, to live in the unity God intends for us. In worshipping via livestream, we all realize that we have thousands upon thousands of Christian and pseudo-Christian choices available to us at the click of a button. What makes them different? How are they united and how are they divided? You might have driven past some church a thousand times on your way to St. Paul’s and thought to yourself, “I wonder what goes on in there.” Well, thanks to Covid-19, it is pretty easy to find out anonymously. We have no idea who is watching our services, and nothing stops anyone from watching any other church’s online services.
Now is a good time, therefore, to really take a look at what makes various churches the same or different, and what makes any given difference important or unimportant. To that end, we’ve begun a Bible study via zoom in Wednesday evenings at 7:00 to examine the various teachings of different church bodies. Everyone is welcome to attend, so feel free to invite your friends, relatives, and neighbors. After all, amid all the cons of not being able to meet in person, we may as well take advantage of the huge pro of this situation, which is that people can join in from anywhere. The Zoom info is included in this update. Ask for help if you need it. We’d love to have you.
Last week we looked at the broad ways of understanding how various kinds of churches relate to each other. One way is to look at how different churches order our sources of knowledge about God—Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience, Church Councils—in terms of their authority for Christians. Another way is to trace a timeline and look at the history of how various factions broke off from each other or reconnected to each other.
Tomorrow we’re going to look at one of the most basic questions we all face. How is it that there can be more than one kind of Lutheran church in the United States? What makes them different? How did they get that way? Which differences really matter, and which are merely a matter of cultural preference or history?
In future weeks we’ll look at other church bodies and movements, comparing what they believe, teach, and confess, and how those beliefs show up in the way they worship and live, to what we believe, teach, and confess. So if nothing else, it will really help all of us delve into our own faith and refresh our sense of why we do what we do. That might be yet another good thing God brings out of this difficult situation. Hope to see you tomorrow night!
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” Ps. 122:1
Yesterday’s worship service brought with it a flood of unfamiliar feelings. For some, it might have been finally feeling the gladness the Psalm talks about after years of taking it for granted or not really appreciating it in church. For others, it might have been the sinking feeling of walking into the sanctuary and seeing roped off pews and all the social distancing measures in place. For others watching online, it might have been a keen yearning for the day when they, too, can attend church in the sanctuary safely, or in some cases resentment that for some people that day has arrived sooner than for most. Whatever the emotions, though, the promise remains the same. The service of the Word as livestreamed and the Word and Sacrament in person point us to our Risen Lord and, in different ways, give Him to us by faith.
The total attendance yesterday was 46. As expected and encouraged, the vast majority of the congregation remained unable to worship in person due to health concerns. That will likely remain the case for quite some time. Attendance will return slowly. Nobody should rush back or feel pressured to attend until it is safe for them. Nor should those who do return be condemned for doing something unsafe; we strictly followed every health guideline.
As we gradually move back into a regular worship schedule we will continue to livestream the services. Our congregation has done a commendable job of keeping in contact with one another and remaining united as a church family in this crisis. While such unity and harmony could be threatened if we focus on the distinction between those who are able to start returning to worship sooner and those who cannot yet even consider coming back, I don’t expect St. Paul’s to have much of a problem. I’ve been impressed at how people have rallied, and the gradual transition out of crisis mode in the coming months need not affect that. Rather, what we should look at is how both groups of people—those who can attend in person and those who cannot-- are able to illustrate a truth about worship in this world, which is that it is always only a foretaste of the feast to come.
Yesterday in the children’s message Jaymes Hayes talked about how Jesus went to prepare a place for us in God’s house. When we come to church, we’re coming to God’s house only in a prefigured way. We gather in God’s house here in this world to receive the promises that will ultimately be fulfilled in God’s house in the world to come. People who yearn to be in church, in God’s house, every Sunday and who feel the separation most keenly are experiencing something that is true of the whole Christian life, which is that we yearn for the feast in God’s house that we have been promised. And people who can be in church on Sunday experience the foretaste of the feast to come, but they, too, sense the separation from their church family and the absence of so many of the brothers and sisters in Christ, and yearn for when we can all be together.
We all look forward to the day when we can be back in church together. But being back in church together is itself an exercise in looking forward to the Last Day, when we all, without hesitation or concern, without sin or regret, can be glad as we are ushered into the eternal house of the Lord. That day is coming for all of us. The promises in the Word and Sacraments are for all of us. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Matt. 6:34
April showers bring May flowers. On the other hand, “Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day.” After yesterday was such a surprise nice day to be outside, I have to admit it was a bit depressing to wake up to gray skies and rain that looks to be settling in to stay all day. It is amazing how much the weather can affect moods, especially when there is really no place to go. If we had a choice about the weather, we’d have to weigh the benefits of May flowers tomorrow against having a nice day today.
Balancing the need to live for today while planning for tomorrow has always been a mysterious task. Just because we aren’t supposed to anxious about tomorrow doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to take tomorrow into account at all. Planning for tomorrow is part of today’s to-do list. The difference is that St. James tells us all our plans should contain the tacit caveat “God willing,” since we don’t know for sure what will happen. And Jesus says not to let tomorrow gnaw at you with worries and fears, but to plan for it, wait for it, and takes whatever it brings in full confidence that somehow it will be full of God’s grace. We who sow seeds do so in view of the harvest down the road. Today we focus on today’s work of plowing and planting.
Those of us in charge of planning the near future at St. Paul’s have been frustrated by our inability to know what the laws and health recommendations will be tomorrow. Indiana’s stay at home order expires tomorrow, but there has been no indication yet as to whether it will be extended, modified, eased, or cancelled. Obviously, such a situation makes it hard to answer any questions. Our Board of Deacons has been meeting weekly to consider the situation. We’re looking at how and when to being the process of opening things back up at St. Paul’s. When we do that, we will do it with all the proper safeguards in place to ensure that we’re being good neighbors to our members and our community while putting first things first in our earthly lives.
We’re all getting antsy to ease back into normal life. For now, though, answers to specific questions will have to wait for the May flowers. I do not know, for example, whether Confirmation will be able to happen on May 31, but I do know families need more than a moment’s notice to prepare for it the way they’d like. I’m not sure yet when we will be able to have a communion service in the sanctuary. Today we will continue receive God’ gifts with thanksgiving. Those gifts include the rain that waters the earth and makes it fruitful, the time we have to work, read, and pray, the church family we have at St. Paul’s, with whom we remain one in heart even as we inhabits different homes, and especially the Word, which bids us not to worry. Tomorrow will worry about itself.
“…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.
When Latin was in the process of evolving into modern Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian, the word “quarantine” was born in Venice. The root of the word means “forty.” (You can probably see many other possible derivatives that have to do with the number four or forty, like quad or quarter, or maybe I’m just sheltering in place with a Latin teacher). In seafaring Venice, a quarantine referred to a forty day period of separation for sailors who had ventured to plague-ridden ports. The choice of forty days for such things, though, has a much longer pedigree.
Forty days, forty years—Biblically these are times of testing and cleansing, be it the Israelites wandering in the wilderness or Jesus fasting in the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. It’s one of the reasons Lent is forty days (technically the Sundays don’t count) and there are forty days from Easter to Ascension, just like in the New Testament.
Here at St. Paul’s, we’ve been using the idea of forty years as a Biblical generation in our Rededicated campaign that started last year. We’ve been at our current site forty years (forty-one years now) and want to do whatever it takes to help people in Munster in A.D. 2059 inherit from us all the gifts we inherited from the previous generation. In the midst of that campaign, we’ve come upon a genuine time of testing. I don’t know if it will be literally forty days or not, but the purpose can remain the same.
When we think of a time of testing, of some message or opportunity from God that actually shows up on our calendars, questions naturally arise. How do you know God intends this time for this or that purpose? What is the meaning of this pandemic? Is it God’s wrath? A call to repentance? If so, to whom? How do we know what global events really mean?
Over the weekend, I read an article by a well-known intellectual, Andrew Sullivan, which made the following claim: "The truth, of course, is that plagues have no meaning. All they are is a virus perpetuating itself inside and alongside us. Period. We know this now — unlike many of our ancestors — because of science." Is that true? How can science prove or disprove meaning? It can’t, not even theoretically. Meaning is outside the realm of science, in the realm of philosophy and religion. Science can describe viruses and explain how they spread and what they do to us. Science can, with limited success, attempt to predict how a pandemic will develop. But science cannot tell us what such a pandemic means or doesn’t mean, and anyone who thinks science can do that doesn’t understand the parameters within which scientific investigation works. You may as well ask a chemist to examine the molecular structure of the water in the font and tell us what Baptism means.
By the same token, apart from a clear Word of Scripture (or some direct revelation from God, which no Christian should expect, since we’ve been promised that Scripture is sufficient for us) pastors cannot declare with any degree of certainty what exactly this pandemic means, either. We cannot go beyond what God has revealed. We can only go by what we know, and we don’t know why exactly God allows this pandemic to happen. Preachers (usually on tv) who proclaim that they know why this is happening are similarly going way beyond the parameters of their office, which is to preach and teach the Word of God, not put God’s signature on their own opinions.
But just because we don’t know for sure where exactly God is going with this pandemic doesn’t mean we cannot take away edifying lessons from it. We could understand it as a forty day call to repentance, and we would not be wrong. We couldn’t say, “Thus saith the Lord” about that interpretation. We couldn’t use it to call someone else to repentance. But we can be called to repentance ourselves. As long as we don’t bind anyone else to our own interpretations of events, we are free to interpret them for ourselves in any way that is in keeping with what we know of our God incarnate in Jesus Christ.
With that in mind, how has this whole, surreal experience of the nation shutting down changed you? How will you let it change you? What will be your new focus, your new priorities when we come out of this? What will you seek to cease doing, and to what will you rededicate yourself? If you have edifying answers to those questions, then it is true to say for you that this time is a time of testing and cleansing. It certainly can be. Hopefully it will be. If so, it has meaning. No experiment or cocksure declaration about the powers of science can take that away from you.
Many people are trying to predict what this pandemic will mean for the future of the Church. It is all guesswork, because it is God’s future and God’s Church, and He hasn’t told us. Anything He allows to happen invites somehow closer to Christ and His bride the Church. So whatever else may happen out in the world, in your life I pray that this “quarantine” of a sort may clarify your resolve, strengthen your faith, and render you a more committed Christian than you were at the beginning of the year. After all, He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana