Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. Matt. 7:24
You probably noticed that Pastor Stock was doing the church service by himself this past weekend. I was up in Northern Wisconsin for our annual “work weekend” at my uncle’s island, now inherited by my cousins. It is an old fisherman’s retreat (really old—the one log cabin dates to the late 19th Century) with a lodge and cabins on it. We take a family vacation there every year in July, but it takes a tremendous amount of upkeep to make those vacations possible. Maintaining buildings in the harsh weather of the North Woods, and doing so without any road access makes for a constant challenge. Therefore, many years ago we added the mid-June, pre-vacation season work weekend to keep the island available for all the people whose memories and traditions depend on being able to visit each year.
The buildings are beautiful, and two of them in particular, the rec house (dock house) and the boat house have become iconic landmarks of the scenery for people out on the big lake. The problem is that they are in a literal sense partially built on sand. The islands and shorelines up there are mostly made out of Great Lakes fieldstones, some clay, and sand with a stringy web of stubborn tree roots holding it all together. The lake level goes up and down, the piling posts rot, the ice pushes against the shore and into every crevice, the tree roots force their way in every direction, rocks shift, and the old buildings settle in ever more catawampus positions, with window and doorframes groaning futilely to keep their corners square. Our strategies for keeping walls up up involve an endless array of jacks, cinderblocks, fieldstones, lumber shims, and hope.
The yearly effort is a great object lesson about Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount because we actually get to observe the futility of building on sand. But we love those buildings. We try to keep them up, but we know we are working against time and the elements, which are both relentless adversaries. In a deeper sense we also see how so often some of the major building blocks of our own lives lack solid foundations. What we think we know—about ourselves, our past, our relationships, our future—can turn out to be tentative at best when our hopes are in this world. It is okay to love the things of this world as long as we’re willing to let go of them. Your body, your loved ones, your house—they can all be a labor of love as long as you remember that love is about letting go, too. None of them can bear up under being the foundation of your life.
The only Rock that never shifts is Christ. God’s love for us in Him, the forgiveness we have, the place in His family, the assurance of His presence, are all things no health situation, job situation, or relationship situation can take away. At St. Paul’s we build everything we are and do as the family of God in this place on that solid rock. For that reason, we never fear the vagaries of time and the changeable cultural moods that beat against our faith in Christ. We know nothing can do anything to Him, and He is faithful.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
“O Lord, You have searched me and known me.” Ps. 139:1
Yesterday morning we were talking in the office about how the sudden surge in online services for schools, churches, businesses, meetings, and taxes (and stimulus checks) has also caused an explosion of online identity theft. Unscrupulous opportunists prey on people who need to have their personal information online. Sure enough, yesterday afternoon I heard that many people got an email seemingly from me asking for an urgent favor. It wasn’t from me, though. It was spam from an identity thief. I hope it did no harm, but my apologies (along with my thanks for your concern) to those who opened it.
The idea of someone else stealing our identity can infuriate us. It declares the real you to be nobody, while a thief, a fake you, calmly and in broad daylight takes away whatever goods and good will you might have earned. Trying to prove who you are to someone who doesn’t know you can be almost impossible.
In one of the most under-appreciated episodes in the Bible, a woman whose baby has died tries to steal the identity, in a way, of another young mother by claiming the other woman’s child as her own. Thus, two women come before King Solomon claiming to be the mother of the baby. Without any DNA tests or fingerprinting or anything, what would you do if someone simply claimed to be you? How was Solomon supposed to know who was who or what to do about the baby? Surprisingly, he ordered the baby cut in half so each woman could have a share. One woman said fine. The other offered to give up her share to save the baby’s life. Then Solomon ordered the live baby given to the second woman. Her self-sacrificial love proved her identity as the real mother. What wonderful wisdom! But imagine if instead of some secret list of usernames and passwords, your only way to prove who you were was to show self-sacrificial love.
The amazing thing about all of salvation history is how much of it, in story after story, is based on mistaken identity, fake identity, hidden identity, and even stolen identity. How did Israel inherit the covenant in the first place? Israel (at the time called Jacob) fooled his father Isaac into thinking he was his brother Esau. With his wily mother’s help, he used hairy goat skin and tasty meat from the kitchen like a stolen password.
In the New Covenant, we trust utterly that God never forgets who we are. We have not earned our place in His family at His table. For Christ’s sake God has issued us an identity as His children. We might forget who we are, but He never will. Never. We don’t have to prove who we are to God anymore. He is the only one who knows.
One of my biggest concerns during this lockdown, apart from the obvious health threat to those who have contracted or been exposed to CoVid-19, has been the intense isolation for people who already may be living in a borderland of confusion due to memory loss. In even on a good day you have a hard time remembering who you are, who loves you, and how you relate to the world around you, and then suddenly (and inexplicably if you can’t remember it) you find yourself alone all day every day, it would be hard not to feel like nobody at all. We might lose our sense of identity, but God never will.
When we place our trust in the promises God makes to us, we put the burden on Him to remember who we are. We can’t guarantee we’ll remember. Even as Christians we can’t reliably produce credentials of our own self-sacrificial love. But we have the credentials of Christ’s self-sacrificial love for us. The identity the world gives you, comprised of taxpayer ID #’s, SSN#’s, DL #’s, Passport #’s, etc., is part of your treasure on earth, where thieves break in and steal. The identity God gives you in Christ is treasure in heaven and can never be ruined, lost, or stolen. God has searched you and known you. You never have to prove it to Him. He will always know you as His beloved child.
All things are wearisome, more than one can say. Eccl. 1:8
Sigh. A gray, snowy morning, which would be such a welcome, exciting thing on, say, the day after Thanksgiving or the Friday before Christmas, can be just wearisome in the second half of April. It seems like this winter has been all length and no depth. We had snow for Halloween and All Saints’ Day, and now again almost six months later, but not very much in between, when people might have enjoyed it with Christmas lights or gone sledding. I’ve always been impatient with uncooperative, irksome weather. It seems like everything would go such so much better if I were in charge of such things. Sigh.
Sometimes the little things get us down more than the big things. Have you ever noticed that the moment when people finally get angry or start crying or give up is usually when some minor setback happens? In a movie, the heroin will endure unimaginable suffering and loss with stoic resolve, but start crying when her grocery bag breaks and everything falls out and makes a mess. Or the guy will get fired and find out his wife is leaving him and just grit his teeth, but then go nuts on the fast food employee that got his order wrong. It isn’t that the little setbacks add so much to the big burdens we carry. It is that such minor irritations added to all the big things make it seem like the universe is just taunting you.
So it is for everyone who is going through this pandemic. Some people are afraid for their lives. Others aren’t afraid at all, and wondering why they had to lose their jobs. Some are losing hope. Others are losing patience. People are enduring major, major problems and disruptions, compared to which crazy weather, or a broken dishwasher, or the internet going out in the middle of an online assignment, seem petty and paltry. But when added to all the big burdens, it is those little thing that might drive us anger or tears.
Today the Confirmation class is finding out that their big day is being rescheduled and remains tentative. Today someone is trying to celebrate a birthday without any friends able to come over. Today someone is cancelling the family reunion they’ve been planning for years. It seems a tad crass to compare such things to the major suffering people are enduring out there. But such things are still crosses to bear, even if they aren’t so dramatic. Yours is the only life you can live. Your happiness and sadness matter as much as anyone’s.
Nothing is too little or too big to pray about. Pray for an end to the Coronavirus. Pray also for a good spelling test or for a good meal together with the family. If it matters to you, it matters to God. He is your loving Father. Never be ashamed to take your little burdens as well as you big burdens to the foot of the cross and lay them down, or lift them up to the throne of grace in prayer. God won’t necessarily give you your way, but He will remind you that what you are enduring, be it little or big, is not the universe taunting you, nor you being forgotten about. He knows your hopes and disappointments, and He loves you more than you know.
All things are wearisome? On their own, maybe. But not in the context of redemption and the victory of Christ. Today is a gift. It is an opportunity. Your Lord is with you even as this frustration grows and the shutdown drags on. Take everything, no matter the size of it, to the Lord in prayer. He would give anything—He did give everything—to have that relationship with you! Secure in that knowledge, you can handle anything with His help, even another day like this.
When [Jesus] had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed His place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is the messenger greater than the one who sent him. . If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” John 13:12-17
Today as we celebrate Maundy Thursday we focus on how Holy Communion connects us to the death and resurrection of Christ. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Saturday Easter Vigil are usually designed to be one long service focusing on the whole of Salvation History as fulfilled by Jesus and alive in us via the Word and Sacraments.
As promised yesterday, today’s service focuses on preparation for Holy Communion as we wait for when we can receive it again. So this update will focus on a separate aspect of Maundy Thursday. You might want to read the Gospel of John, chapters 13-18 today. Amazingly, that’s 6 chapters, about a third of the whole Gospel of John, all recording the events of Maundy Thursday. Instituting Holy Communion was of primes importance, but certainly not the only amazing thing Jesus did on that night. It was Maundy Thursday when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.
As Teacher, He taught by example. He modeled for His disciples (same root as discipline—the disciple is supposed to mold himself to the master via imitation). As Lord, He demonstrated what it means to rule. It means to serve. Jesus’ followers, including us, cannot claim that any service to anyone is beneath us. Otherwise we’re saying that the servants are greater than the Master.
What it means to learn from Jesus and to have Him as our Lord is easy to forget. We talk about being baptized into His death and resurrection. We preach Christ crucified and risen. We receive the fruit of His sacrifice in Holy Communion. But we ought always remember that we’re baptized into a foot-washing Christ. We preach a Christ who gave Himself up and lived and died for others. We are given life by Him in order follow Him. He promises blessings to those who serve others as He served—in humility, meekness, and self-sacrifice.
We still have opportunities during this national time-out to think of ways of serving other. While such acts of service cannot replace the forgiveness and grace we receive in the Word and Sacraments, they can still be a source of tremendous blessing from the Lord this Maundy Thursday.
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 27, 2020
This is the day the Lord has made!
First thing most mornings I use a little prayer book by John Baillie called A Diary of Private Prayer, which has a prayer for every morning and every evening the month. I’d like to share a portion of the prayer for the 27th day of the month (slightly edited, since Baillie uses archaic, King James language). After giving thanks for the work of Christ, the prayer continues as follows by giving thanks for what we have received from all those who have gone before us and asking God to incorporate us into that ongoing, glorious history:
For the power of His cross in the history of the world since He came; For all who have taken up their own crosses and followed Him; For the noble army of martyrs and for all who are willing to die that others may live; For all the suffering freely chosen for noble ends, for pain bravely endured, for temporal sorrows that have been used for the building up of eternal joys; I praise and bless You holy Name.
O Lord my God, You dwell in pure and blessed serenity beyond the reach of mortal pain, yet look down in unspeakable love and tenderness upon the sorrows of the earth. Give me grace, I beg you, to understand the meaning of such afflictions and disappointments as I myself am called upon to endure. Deliver me from fretfulness. Let me be wise to draw from every dispensation of Your providence the lesson You would have me learn. Give me a stout heart to bear my own burdens. Give me a willing heart to bear the burdens of others. Give me a believing heart to cast all my burdens on You.
During this very strangest of spring breaks, one of the blessings I’ve experienced is God forcing me to adapt, which I’m not naturally inclined to do. But I think St. Paul’s will be a better congregation next year and year after because of some of the ways we’re adapting now. We’ll be more focused on what is important, and more able to communicate and serve people in different circumstances.
Spring break ends this weekend and school starts again Monday via remote learning. Our teachers have been hustling and scrambling to learn new technology, prepare different lessons, and make it possible to keep teaching despite the circumstances. I’m going to do the same thing (lest those energetic darn teachers make me look bad!) with various Bible studies starting next week. You’ll need either Zoom or Facebook Live to participate in real time. Not ideal, but better than nothing. And I think even after this craziness ends, we’re still benefit from some of the changes we’re being forced to make today.
Keep an eye on your email Monday for instructions on how to participate in Bible study next week.
This weekend’s church service will be matins from LSB, and should be available for viewing by Saturday evening. We hope to begin live-streaming services next week.
Peace be with you!
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana