Whoever is slothful will not roast his game,
but the diligent man will get precious wealth. Prov. 12:27
It is sometimes true of everyone. We have what we need, but we lack the basic gumption to do any of the work to make it useful for us. It takes a certain basic diligence to make use of the good things God gives us. One potentially precious gift God is giving us is the chance to come together as a congregation and study a good book together with the help of the author. Here is the schedule for the 4 week study of Pr. John Nunes’s new book Meant for More. Each session will take place on Wednesday evening from 7-8 p.m. via Zoom. I’ll send the Zoom link out early next week.
Jan. 20 - Preface through chapter 4 (pp. VII-51)
Jan. 27 - Chapters 5-9 (pp. 53-94)
Feb. 3 - Chapters 10-14 (pp. 97-141)
Feb. 10 - Chapters 15-20 (pp. 143-190)
It is all on the schedule and worked out. If need be you can even get the book for free as long as you promise to read it with us. This great gift is there for the taking.
But moderate interest and good intentions won’t get you started reading. You do have to “roast your game” so to speak. You actually have to order the book rather than decide you’ll do that later. Or you have to call the church office or drive by to pick up a copy. You have to make sure you have access to zoom, and look for the link in next week’s updates. Those things are not really that hard, but that is precisely why they’re so easy to put and so frequently on the list of things we had good intentions about but never got around to doing. Don’t let that be you in this case. Do the basic diligence to be a part of this opportunity.
I’ve asked the whole staff and the lay leadership of the congregation to make this a priority.
Of course you can still join the zoom meeting even if you haven’t read the book. Pr. Nunes is an excellent presenter. And you can still read the book even if you can’t join the zoom meetings. Do what you can to participate; I think you’ll be amply rewarded.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
and give no opportunity to the devil. Eph. 4:27
The Bible talks about our enemy the devil prowling around looking for someone to devour. If you’ve ever seen one of those nature documentaries you know exactly what that means. The predators prowl around the perimeters of some flock or herd just looking for opportunities, any slip-up or mistake. The prey are generally safe as long as they make no mistakes. The first hint of a mistake, though, could spell their doom.
Other translations of Ephesians 4:27 talk about not giving the devil a foothold. There is another striking image, that of a mountain climber. The devil is trying to maintain footing to have some kind of ground from which to maneuver. Without a foothold a climber cannot last long. So the idea here is that the devil needs for us to give him something in order for him to be able to work on us. He needs a beachhead, a foothold, an opportunity. He can’t defeat us by force because we belong to Christ. But he can bide his time and wait for us to do something that lets him worm his way into our hearts and minds and from there into our behavior and relationships.
The context of Eph. 4:27 is that of anger. When you stew on anger and hurt it gives a foothold to the devil. But it could just as easily be jealousy, self-pity, lust, pride or any sinful trait. We are all sinners and all experience the effects of other people’s sins. We all have to allow for imperfections in this world. What matters is what we do with our sin and sin of other people. We’re tempted to stew on it, gnaw on it, feed on it, and let it fester in our hearts and minds. This simply invites rottenness to infect everything. Dealing with it quickly and thoroughly via confession and absolution and/or reconciliation makes all the difference. If you don’t, it gives opportunity to the devil.
Think about handwashing during the pandemic. Nobody says you can keep your hands clean. You’re going to get them dirty going about your day. You have to touch stuff. The key is to wash them regularly and thoroughly. Then the dirty stuff or the bacteria can’t get a foothold, so to speak, and has no opportunity to grow. But if you don’t wash your hands over a period of time, something that would have been easily dealt with at first becomes very hard to deal with later on.
How is the stress of the election returns, the pandemic, and other aspects of life tempting you toward giving an opportunity to the devil? Where do you find him seeking a foothold in your life? How is spiritual staleness, which is simply lack of refreshment, festering into a spiritual dirty contagion?
This weekend the readings will focus on remaining vigilant and keeping our lamps burning. Nobody knows the day or the hour. We must heed St. Paul’s admonition not to give the devil a foothold or opportunity. However long the times seem, however old and tedious things feel, come be refreshed by Word and Sacrament. Be reconciled to your neighbor. Be renewed and rededicated. God’s gifts rob the devil of his opportunities in your life.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
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
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.
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Lk. 10:41-42
Trying to halt the spread of contagion while still living our lives has forced governments to distinguish between essential and non-essential activities, jobs, and events. It has led to some almost comical misclassifications, at least in most people’s opinions. For example, we read reports that in Michigan you can buy lottery tickets but not garden seeds. In some places, apparently, you can be outside getting fresh air and exercising, but not if you’re doing it by landscaping your yard at the same time. In North Carolina, the government has declared that protesting the government’s classifications of what constitutes essential and non-essential activities is itself a non-essential activity, so you’re not allowed to be outside doing that. Which sort of begs the question, doesn’t it?
It is easy to find seemingly ludicrous examples, but that is because reducing everything to simple categories of essential and non-essential depends on a set of criteria that has never been agreed upon. I’ll bet if any of us tried to classify everything and enforce it, in no time there would be social media memes everywhere mocking the ridiculous consequences of the choices we made. It isn’t as easy as it sounds.
There is a famous scene in Schindler’s List in which Nazi officers have to classify all the Jewish workers in Warsaw as essential or non-essential. But at least they have a single criterion: is the job essential to the war effort or not. That makes things a tad easier. In one instance, an elderly man is declared nonessential and condemned because he is a teacher of history and literature. He is saved at the last minute when his friend convinces the officers that he is actually a metal polisher, required for the manufacture of armaments. What is essential? What isn’t? Who makes that call? Of what is a civilization made?
Nobody likes to be declared non-essential. Today, people who might have looked down on others who worked certain jobs are receiving their comeuppance. People who stock shelves, make deliveries, mop floors—these people are being lauded as the backbone of society. Nobody is saying, “We need a ballerina and three modern dance majors over here! Stat!” It turns out the people who might have once turned up their noses at basic trades and menial jobs are now finding themselves the ones declared non-essential, at least by some definitions.
In The Breakfast Club, a brainy A-student talks about taking shop class and failing to make a lamp properly, and how stupid the assignment was. Another student in shop class mocks him for being such a useless egghead in all the useless smart kid classes. The smart kid responds, “Well, did you know that without trigonometry there would be no engineering?” To which the critic replies, “Without lamps there would be no light.”
What is essential? What is non-essential? Students, and sometimes even their parents, fall prey to this overly-simplistic way of thinking sometimes. In the height of frustration trying to do school and work at home, the question, “Why do I have know this stuff?” never seems more apt. The foolish approach is to say that if isn’t going to help you get a better job, you should only do it if it is fun. The purpose of education goes beyond maximizing employment potential or mental entertainment. Language, history, art—these are all non-essential in terms of sustaining life, but essential in terms of making civilization worth sustaining. What is essential?
I hope one casualty of this shut-down is the tendency to look down on the jobs that require less formal education, but that prove essential in times of crisis. I also hope we don’t fall into the trap of looking down on jobs that do require a lot of education but don’t serve much immediate purpose in a crisis. Maybe one thing God is giving us is a renewed appreciation for all the various ways we depend on each other. For example, if you’ve been watching Netflix while stuck at home, thousands of people with “nonessential” areas of expertise, like creative writing, acting, history, modern dance, etc. have made that possible. So have countless people with “essential” expertise in the technology that makes streaming possible. So has the guy who delivered your tv to the store or your house, and the electrician that wired up the outlet. Everyone fits into the picture somehow. Be grateful for the many Marthas who did a million things for you that you couldn’t have done for yourself. We are interconnected.
The familiar story of Mary and Martha takes the world’s views of what is essential and non-essential and turns it upside down. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things—online classes, internet connections, delivery status updates, cleaning up breakfast—but one thing is necessary. There is it is. THE distinction. Christ is the one thing needful.
Jesus makes the distinction for us. Whatever else is essential to survive a crisis, to build up a civilization, to make a living, there is only one thing that that is essential in any eternal sense. If nothing else, God might be using this crisis to make us examine what is important and what isn’t. It is easy to lose track of it. Every other distinction between essential and non-essential fails. Not this one. You have Christ. He will not be taken away from you. You have the one thing needful. That is essential forever.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. Rom. 13:1-5
Of all people, Christians have good reason to know that the governing authorities can be good or bad, but remain the governing authorities either way. Jesus stood before Pilate and died unjustly. St. Paul appealed to Rome and died unjustly. Luther’s Catechism includes “…devout and faithful rules, good government…” in the list of things that constitute the daily bread for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. But, like other things in the list such as good weather and health, we pray for it, then take what God gives us gratefully whether it was what we were hoping for or not.
When to obey or disobey secular authorities has always been a matter of some debate among Christians. In Acts 5:29, the Apostles explain that they disobeyed the order not to preach the Gospel (even after having been arrested for it) because “We must obey God rather than men.” But we also have the 4th Commandment telling us not to anger the authorities but to obey and honor them. Throughout Christian history it hasn’t always been clear when to disobey or submit to unjust authorities, or even when the authorities were really being unjust. From the book of Acts to the Reformation to modern times, the relationship between church (God’s eternal, right hand kingdom) and the secular authority (the temporal kingdom of the left) has been a matter of strong debate and disagreement.
In these strange times, more and more controversy has surrounded state governors issuing edicts about the manner in which churches may or may not offer Holy Communion. This, to say the least, has sparked a fair amount of debate among clergy charged with administering the Sacrament. Who does the governor think he is to tell me how distribute spiritual, eternal things? That’s the kingdom of the right, and none of the governor’s business! On the other hand, who does that pastor think he is disobeying laws about physical, temporal things like eating and drinking? Public health and preventing the spread of contagion are clearly matters of the left hand kingdom and therefore the governor’s God-given task to oversee. If our spiritual practices put other citizens at physical risk, that clearly falls under the governor’s responsibility to the public.
The Sacrament attaches the spiritual and eternal Word and promise of Christ’s body and blood to the physical, worldly elements of bread and wine. That connection between the spiritual and the biological means that the left and right hand kingdoms can’t help but collide when a spiritual practice causes a bodily danger. The Church must obey God rather than men when it comes to shepherding souls with God’s Word and Sacraments. But the secular authority is still the authority when it comes to public policy concerning temporal lives and the spread of contagion. So we’re trying to be good Christians and good citizens. But again, it isn’t always self-evident how to do that. In this case, the dual spiritual/biological nature of the Sacrament itself brings together the two kingdoms that govern spiritual/biological Christian people who are citizens of an eternal kingdom and various earthly realms.
What can you do? First, be patient. I, frankly (and I know Pastor Stock shares this sentiment with me), have little patience for governors telling me how to administer Communion. I feel like telling them they better back off. But I also have to remember that they are trying to do their job of keeping people safe, that this pandemic is a new thing for them, too, and that they are doing their best. If anyone thinks being governor is an easy job or that they could do it better, I suspect such people are kidding themselves. We all need to put the best construction on things, endure difficulties, and not let disagreements spiral needlessly out of control.
Second, pray. If nothing else, Governors Holcomb and Pritzger and President Trump and the other authorities under them need and deserve our prayers. There are so many people and situations to pray about, but please include the leaders of both Church and State in your prayers. All of us are making it up as we go along in this unforeseen situation, and we’re all bound to make a few mistakes.
Third, make sure we keep our priorities in order. Presidents, governors, and health commissioners are legitimate but not ultimate authorities. We must, like every generation of Christians in the history of the Church, make clear that when it comes to pastoral practice and spiritual matters, we will gladly take into account but not be ruled by secular leaders. Spiritual matters are outside their authority and competence. We can accommodate much for the sake of good order, but what the congregation does is more essential, not less so, than any business or government.
Lastly and most importantly, be not afraid, but rejoice and be glad in this joyous Eastertide! Don’t worry about things outside your control, because your Lord is risen and nothing is outside His control. No temporal, worldly situation can matter more than that. Be assured that you will be served, by hook or by crook, with God’s Word and Sacraments. Maybe not in the manner or frequency you’d like, but still adequately. We will figure it out. We are in good hands.
Easter means there is nothing this world can do to you. You are a citizen of an eternal kingdom. Rejoice in hope, be patient in affliction, be constant in prayer (Rom. 12:12), because it is in doing those things that you most meaningfully shout to the world, “He is risen indeed!”
You shall have no other gods before me. Exodus 20:30
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea. Psalm 46:1-2
No matter how hopeful we try to be, it is hard not to think that spring of 2020 is likely to prove a turning point for the nation. I’m reminded of the famous poem Shine, Perishing Republic, which contains the line, “And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant, insufferable master.”
A clever servant, insufferable master. People have adapted that line from the poem to many things, most notably money and technology. They are tools and servants that have a tendency to take charge of our hearts and begin to dominate us. That’s how the first commandment gets messed up. The good gifts God gives us to possess end up possessing us instead. The creation displaces the Creator as the thing we rely on. We end up putting our faith in false gods.
Fear, panic, and despair always result when the false gods (which are often good things in themselves, just in the wrong place in our lives) fail us. The government. The economy. The scientists. The environment. Even our physical bodies—they’re all excellent servants, all terrible masters, and all prone to become the false gods of our lives. When everything goes wrong, God is still God. It is our false gods that have proven themselves incapable of saving us.
The pain of all this upheaval is real and nothing to take lightly. The things God gives us to serve us are all good gifts, and He knows all our needs. Trusting the true God does not mean disdaining good government, or treating people’s economic livelihoods as nothing, or downplaying the importance of good health. It means accepting the good things of creation as gifts, but keeping everything in its place.
We take very seriously the spread of disease, the stability of the economy (which is in unprecedented territory in terms of unemployment numbers), the ramifications of politics and elections, and so forth, without letting such things become gods. These are the mountains of our lives, the things by which we’ve always navigated and assumed would also be there. Now they’re being uprooted and tossed into the sea. Perhaps they’re just being put back in their proper place.
Money is not God. Science is not God. Physical life and health are not God. When people panic, they tend to think that you either have to treat something as the most important thing or else you’re not taking it seriously at all. Christians refuse that choice. We neither deny the goodness of, nor put our faith in, things like science, money, health, or government. We keep everything in its place, knowing that even the mountains are not eternal.
One translation of A Mighty Fortress, Luther’s great hymn on Psalm 46, it this way—“And take they our life, goods, fame, child and wife, though these all be gone, they yet have nothing won. The kingdom ours remaineth.” We shall have no other gods before the Creator. We receive the things of creation—government, technology, finances, health, etc. from His hand as undeserved gifts, as servants, not masters. And when they give way and fail us, we need not fear, for we know that our God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
March 30, 2020
“April is the cruelest month…”
That’s the first line of T. S. Eliot’s poem called The Waste Land. It seems appropriate for today as we approach the end of March with the news that things are going to be shut down through the month of April while this virus tries to lay us to waste and we seek to resist the spread of it. That means we will have to do everything differently for the very biggest church celebrations of the year; nothing will be normal. Cruel indeed.
But one thing that will seem very odd, but which is actually just things going back to normal, is the idea of Christian teaching taking place in the home. The first line of Luther’s catechism, which we have used for five centuries to teach the faith to the next generation, is “As the head of the family should teach in a simple way to his household…” In Luther’s eyes, ongoing, daily learning in the home was normal. By contrast, the ways we in the modern world have compartmentalized our lives in separate, unrelated spheres—church, home, school, work, sports, social life, etc. would be abnormal to him. My guess is that he would see what we consider to be normal as somewhat spiritually debilitating.
One advantage, among the many disadvantages, of teaching the catechism remotely online, is that it lets us take at least one step toward better reintegrating church, school, and family. To be clear, such integration is always one of our goals at St. Paul’s, even in “normal” times. But increasingly, modern life militates against that goal. Integration of faith into all the spheres of life is easy to have as a goal, but seemingly harder and harder for many people to have as a reality.
The Reformation itself disrupted the world’s routine in the name of getting things back to normal, to the way they should have been. The reformers saw that the way everyone was leading their Christian lives had taken a bad turn. One of those bad turns might be familiar to us—compartmentalization. Monasteries were communities of worship (meaning Scripture teaching and learning, prayer, and praise) and service of the community and the wider world. The Church had begun to teach that people who lived in such communities were earning righteousness, were on a higher spiritual plane than regular people. The reformers would know—many of them, including Luther, lived in such communities.
Luther demolished the idea of earning forgiveness with good works, no matter how good those works might be. But when he left the monastery, his point was not that the things they did were bad. The point was that those things ought to happen in the Christian home. We don’t need to flee “worldly” callings to pursue spiritual calling. We need to integrate them. We need to make the Christian home the hub of all the facets of Christian life.
Basically, your house is a monastery. I know it probably feels like that more than ever these days. But seriously, your house is nothing other than a community of worship and service (and this is true even if you live alone). Everyone in the house wakes up with a calling from God not only to be strengthened in faith via the Word, and pray, but also to serve the household and the wider world according to each person’s role within it. The idea of strict compartmentalization—church for churchy stuff, school for facts, work for earning money, home for rest and amusement—insults the dignity of the home.
Today we begin a walk through the basic teachings of Christianity via video link. I’m no tv star, but I will be posting a 5-15 minute video each day, or most days, that go through the catechism bit by bit through the month of April. The confirmands are assigned to watch them, but I hope the whole congregation will join in. But here is the key. Watch them together with anyone else who lives in your house. Don’t take turns, or watch with headphones, or sit in separate rooms. Make it something you do for a few minutes together. Doing so will bring together, that is, integrate, church, home, and school at least partially in your Christian life. You should be able to link to today’s video below, or from the website soon.
Disorienting. That’s what today feels like to me. It is hard to get your bearings when the landmarks aren’t there. By landmarks, of course, I don’t refer to the things that mark the physical landscape. I mean the things that give shape to time, the habits and rituals by which we all live.
God invented time along with everything else in Genesis 1, and He gave shape to it, a seven day pattern that has continued unbroken since the beginning of the world. Even we Christians, who are not bound by Old Testament Sabbath laws, still typically worship once every seven days, the day after Jesus’ Sabbath rest in the tomb. Church doesn’t have to take place on Sunday, but it always has. It is disorienting (especially but by no means exclusively for pastors) to get up on Sunday morning and think, “So…. What should I do today?” I read the following in an online article last night:
JERUSALEM - Adeeb Joudeh, standing in front of the now-locked Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City, had a pretty specific answer when asked when the church last closed to the public like this: "It was the year 1349, at the time of the Black Plague," he said, holding the key that had shut things down a day earlier and back in the 14th century as well.
A little over a year ago I was there at that church with some of others of our St. Paul’s family. Its huge, ancient dome encloses the traditional locations of the cross and the empty tomb. It seemed like if there were any constants in the world, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was one. It has closed for brief periods a few times in history for this or that reason, but the last time is was ordered closed for an indefinite period was 671 years ago. Wow. One comforting thing, one silver lining in that fact, is that I feel better about suspending worship at St. Paul’s, something I never thought I’d do and about which I still have mixed feelings. But hey, if they’ve closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I guess we can be closed, too. But it is still disorienting.
But anything that is disorienting demands a reorienting. You have to get your bearings. In the Milwaukee airport there is a great sign that read “Recombobulation Area.” I love that word, recombobulation, referring to what comes after the discombobulation of going through the arcane process of airport security. When you get lost, confused, or thrown off your game, you reorient.
The Gospel disoriented its first hearers. Jews and Gentiles mixing? Righteousness not by works? God becoming a man, and that man dying? And then rising? How could that be? All the old ways seemed to be collapsing. All the old assumptions, all the patterns, all the givens were thrown out the window. And yet to those with ears to hear, it was Good News. It was Good News because the massive Reorientation was based on Christ, the true, immovable cornerstone by Whom all of time gets its bearings. The wholesale disorientation caused by God making all thing new didn’t end there; it began a great reorientation on that cornerstone.
Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. The Third Commandment, insofar as it talks about a day, refers to Saturday. But that was the Old Covenant. It pointed to Christ and was fulfilled in Christ. That’s why Christians are not bound to worship on any particular day, and typically do not, like Jews do even today, worship on the Sabbath, that is, Saturday. Instead, we mark time as reoriented around the stone which the builders the rejected, the death and resurrection of Christ—Sunday, the first day of the New Creation, the day Christ rose, the eighth day of creation, when God makes all creation new.
Luther’s catechism, as usual, captures this reorientation on Christ perfectly. What does it mean to remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy? We should fear and love so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it. Amazingly, the explanation doesn’t even mention a day. That was the old landmark, the Law, the thing that pointed ahead to Christ. We have the fulfillment, the proclaimed Gospel of Christ crucified and risen. We keep this commandment whenever and wherever we attend to the proclamation of the Gospel with all seriousness, reverence, and earnestness.
Reorienting. That’s what this bizarre quarantine can be for you. It gives all of us a chance to get our bearings and examine our habits, schedules, and priorities to see whether and how they are oriented on Christ. Perhaps they already were before all this. Perhaps not. But no forced change in schedule can disorient those whose lives are oriented on the immovable rock that is Christ, the cornerstone.
I hope you all partake of Matins today via the website. Matins is old. But the last closing of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is much older, predating the English language itself. Chaucer wasn’t even writing yet the last time this happened. There are no permanent things except the one thing upon which everything depends—the Word of God become Flesh and reigning forever. When you worship via the website, I hope your focus is not on the archaic words, whether you love them or don’t like them at all. Your focus should be on the words of Scripture, Pastor Stock’s Christ-centered sermon, praise of the eternal God, and the timeless Gospel that gives you life today and every day, in any circumstance, until we join in the heavenly worship of God forever.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard.
Next month the Board of Deacons is going to post a long list of St. Paul’s members on a bulletin board with a request to the congregation to help us to know their situation and/or contact information. I’d like to explain why we’re doing that so as to avoid misunderstanding, confusion, or embarrassment.
Pastor simply means “shepherd” and refers to the one who shepherds souls with the Word of God and being the Holy Spirit’s instrument in calling people to repentance and faith. But in this era we pastors have a harder and harder time even knowing where anyone is, much less the state of their faith.
The number one reason people are getting harder to shepherd these days is that the typical church member comes to church less often. Pew Research says that one generation ago people who considered themselves regular church-goers attended their church 3-4 times per month on average. Today that number is down to 1.6 times per month. This trend, of course, is contrary to the 3rd Commandment, terrible for people’s spiritual lives, and probably also bad for society generally. But it is an unmistakable trend nonetheless.
Another reason the pastoring task is growing harder is that people are far busier, far more mobile, and far more protective of their time and privacy. My grandfather pastors could walk around the neighborhood during the week “making calls” on church members who had missed church. Today there is an issue with even having up to date and reliable contact information for those people, even assuming we could coordinate our schedules for a visit. It’s a different world.
At St. Paul’s we do our very best to pastor/shepherd all the members of the flock/family. Members of the Board of Deacons assist the pastors by each taking a portion of the alphabet and attempt to contact anyone who has not been in church for a full month to find out if there is some problem the church can be helping with, a conflict that needs to be resolved, or perhaps simply the need for a little encouragement to get back into good habits. At every monthly meeting each deacon reports on his efforts from the previous month and gets a new list of people to contact. And each deacon makes contacts in his own way. Some write cards, some use email and Facebook, some call on the phone (often simply leaving messages) and some try to make personal visits.
The individual deacons do have some successes in tracking people down and encouraging them to come back to church or (in cases where people have moved) helping them transfer their membership to a congregation close to them. And we try to account for snow birds, college students, shut-ins, deployed military, or people who we know come to church but just never sign the book for whatever reason. But after accounting for those cases we still usually have a lot of people left, and our monthly reports include fewer and fewer successes in contacting them and more and more “I couldn’t get in touch,” or “Not sure this phone number is still good,” or “I heard this person took a new job out of state but there is no forwarding address.”
Despite the ongoing efforts of the Board of Deacons we have a long list of people who have not been in church here in two years as far as we know and whom we’ve had no success in contacting about it. In short, it’s a list of people in our flock/family whom we are failing to shepherd or be a family to.
This problem affects the whole family here, and the whole family can be part of the solution. The Board of Deacons and the pastors might not know the situation of each person on the list, but surely somebody in the congregation does. We need the whole family acting as a family and being their brother’s keeper in the case of absent members.
There are lots of perfectly innocent reasons your name might appear on this list. In some cases it might simply be a typo in an email address. But in other cases it might be something more serious like an illness. The goal is not to embarrass anyone. The goal is make sure St. Paul’s is able to minister to and shepherd everyone in the flock to the very best of our ability.
I’m writing this in advance of posting the list just to prepare people and explain it. Given the divine mandate to shepherd God’s flock and our ongoing struggles to fulfill that mandate for every member, I think posting the list is a positive step as long as people understand the intent. I also know it is an easy thing for people to take the wrong way. So when the list gets posted in April, please check it for your own name or anyone you know. Then talk to one of the pastors or to your deacon (the appropriate deacon’s name and contact info will accompany each name on the list) to make sure we have good contact information and any other knowledge that will help us serve the whole family better.
See you Sunday (or Saturday).
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana