How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” Rom. 10:14-15
These famous words from St. Paul describe the chain by which grace from God gets to the individual Christian. That chain includes faith, the Word, preaching, and the congregation and wider Christian community. How will someone in the future be a faithful Christian? Because God will reach them through congregations that gather around preaching and teaching of the Word and send people around the world and across the generations to perpetuate it.
For a couple of years here at St. Paul’s we have been focused on the next generation. Will today’s little children grow up to learn the faith and pass it along? Forty years from now, will today’s six year olds be bringing their own children to church, teaching them the faith at home, and also educating them in the Word in a Christian school? Who can say?
But we can apply the same kind of chain reasoning to that question. Today’s six year olds will not mature in the Word if they cannot read. And they won’t learn to read without teachers and books. And there won’t be any Christian teachers or classrooms if the Christian community doesn’t raise them up and equip them. We can’t guarantee that anyone will believe the Word they are taught, but we can guarantee that they won’t believe it if they aren’t taught it.
Today we’re getting ready for another school year that starts on August 18. Covid, of course, has forced our faculty and staff to make major changes to our schedule and procedures, but through the faithful work of many people, most notably our principal Barb Mertens, who has followed all the guidelines and mandates closely and found ways to allow for safe, in-person school. We’re also dealing with some other changes. Our resource teacher, Mary Beth Hutcheson, and our 1stgrade teacher, Cathi Hansen, have retired. We’ll be recognizing and giving thanks for their many years of faithful service in church on August 16 when we rededicate the teachers for another school year.
Due to all the craziness this summer, at school and in people’s personal lives, we had less time than we normally have to plan the transition to new teachers. Thankfully, we have trained, experienced people in the St. Paul’s community who were ready, willing, and able to step in. Lisa Smith will be our resource teacher, and Zina Bachert will be our 1st grade teacher, and everyone is pulling together to make it a great year.
One of the last pieces of the puzzle is equipping the 1st grade classroom. We need the books and décor to make it a great learning environment. Yes, we have desks and chairs and text books. But we need the whole panoply of young reader books that learners need in order to excel. How can they read if they have not learned? How can they learn if they have no books? God has given us the teachers, the classroom, and the students. Let’s do all we can to make that gift likely to blossom forty years from now into yet another generation of faithful Christians.
If you are in a position to donate first grade level books in good condition or donate toward the purchase of books, posters, and classroom materials, please do so. Just mark the checks as for that purpose or give Amazon gift cards (even electronically), or bring the physical books to office. We can sort through and take it from there. I know I can count on the St. Paul’s community to be a strong link in the chain from God’s grace to individuals in the next generation of the Christian Church.
But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs… I Thes. 4:10-11
Sometimes it seems like the world conspires to make it impossible to mind your own business. That’s why St. Paul called living quietly an aspirational thing. In some translations of the verse it says, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life…” We can often be tempted to think that it is our job to save to the world and get swept up in causes that end up merely distracting us from the actual tasks of our vocation. We devote ourselves to grand things God hasn’t called us to do in order to avoid doing the ho-hum things He has called us to do.
On the other hand, we are all called to do our part. It’s just that we should know the extent of our part. We can’t just ignore the larger world or pretend that problems don’t exist. What we can do is understand that we don’t make the world better when we abandon our daily vocations to fix the world. We make the world better by seeking to make sure whatever tiny part of it God has given us stewardship of operates according to His will.
When we’re stuck at home and the normal goings-on of life are on hold, we can be tempted to live according to the news. This crazy thing took place there, these people did that, can you believe what happened over there… That isn’t real life; that is like watching a soap opera as a distraction from real life. Real life comes from the Table of Duties in the catechism. Your membership in the church, your job description at work, your relationships at home, your neighborhood and citizenship—those are what God has entrusted to you.
Yesterday I did my first in-home communion visit in months. Pastor Stock has been doing the few that have come up, but I don’t think I’d done an in-home visit since early in March. Normally that would be part of the regular job description of being a pastor. It felt good to do it. It felt normal. And it reminded me how important those normal things are. Maybe a year ago had I been going through the normal routine of a typical day, week, or month of my pastoral responsibilities I would not have been struck so much by how crucial and amazing the things on my regular to-do list really were. But it is the same for everyone following a Godly vocation. Feeding the baby, paying the bills, praying for loved ones, working as for the Lord—every day is filled with such opportunities.
Today as you go about doing whatever it is God has given you to do, be it what you were aspiring toward or making it your ambition to do or something less exciting, do it all to the glory of the Lord. His faithfulness endures through all generations.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, Matt. 14:23
This little verse is wedged between the account of Jesus feeding the five thousand and then Jesus catching up to the disciples in the boat by walking on water. William Wordsworth wrote a famous poem that begins, “The world is too much with us…” and it would seem he and Jesus agree on that. Everybody, even Jesus, needs a getaway, a timeout, a time and place to let your mind breathe and your soul pray.
Today we live in a paradoxical situation; loneliness is epidemic, but there is also no place to go to get away from the world. People are stuck in their homes, especially if they live in retirement communities. But the internet brings the world everywhere. The world is too much with us. We panic when we’re unplugged, unconnected, out of touch, yet our constant connection to the world takes the place of genuine connection to other people and private connection to God. We’ve never been more immediately connected to the world and more isolated from genuine relationships.
Where do you go to get away? If your phone is there, or the tv is on, are you really getting away? When do you take time for devotions and prayer? Realizing that the sun will rise without you requires spiritual discipline. We like to keep ourselves busy because then we feel important and that we aren’t wasting time. But Jesus didn’t view it like that.
On the other, vegging is not getting away, either. Jesus didn’t plop himself down with a dumb magazine and a drink and call it “me time.” There is a discipline to it—a heightened awareness, a stilling of the spirit before God, a separation from the hustle and bustle of the world. It isn’t the same thing as selfish giving into sloth and bodily appetite. If it is “me time” it is only so by being “God time” first, since God is the only one who really knows you. He builds up, repairs, gives rest in ways that give genuine peace and rest. He is for you in far better ways than anything you can do if you try to be for yourself.
I hope this vacation season provides you with the sense of perspective that comes from getting out of your routine and your usual setting. I hope it gives you pause and rest and renewed spirit and sense of purpose. I hope it doesn’t feature endless selfies on social media, a 24/7 news cycle, or mere vegging out, but a genuine retreat from the world that is too much with us that is also an approach to a deeper relationship with God and with the loved ones He has placed in your life.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
[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
An excellent wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels. Prov. 31:10
This verse came up this morning in our family devotions from the Treasury of Daily Prayer. It reminded me of an elderly woman I once knew who never missed a Sunday of church, with one exception; she never showed up on Mothers’ Day. The congregation’s tradition was to read Proverbs 31:10-31 for the Old Testament reading every year on Mother’s Day, all about the amazing “woman of noble character” who does everything really well and makes everyone’s problems go away. This woman, who was an exemplary and talented Christian wife and mother and active in leadership in virtually every activity of the congregation, thought these verses of Proverbs were too hard to live up to. They made her feel bad about herself, and the last thing she wanted to do on Mothers’ Day was listen to what she took to be a laundry list of all her shortcomings.
We can all say these words didn’t mean to be putting her down and she shouldn’t have taken them that way, but she did take them that way. It is a basic Law/Gospel problem that confronts all of us. Yesterday’s verse from 1 Cor. 13 is almost not fair—it is talking about the New Man, the life of Christ, but we all fail to live up to it. The question then becomes, what do we make of the fact that we cannot live up to the Bible’s descriptions of what God calls us to be? Do we despair and stop trying? Do we try harder and check our progress later? Do we adjust the standard to be more attainable? Those would be Law-based responses. Those are the strategies of the Old Adam, the sinful nature, to be declared righteous by earning it. The Gospel response to reading such descriptions of righteous behavior and realizing that we don’t live up to them is to see how great is the love God has lavished upon us, that we should be called children of God.
Our efforts aren’t acceptable because they’re so good. They’re acceptable like the crayon drawings of children that the parents lovingly put on the refrigerator. Hardly Rembrandt, but the merits aren’t the point. And the kids who know they are loved respond by trying to make an even better drawing next time. They don’t earn their parents’ love. They try to live up to their parents’ hopes for them because they already have their parents’ love.
Everyone who is honest suffers from the feelings of inadequacy like the women who felt she couldn’t live up to Proverbs 31. I could be a better pastor. You could be a better parishioner. St. Paul’s could be a better church. But we shine with the glory of the children of God because of the unearned, unmerited righteousness of Christ we have by faith. So I urge us never to be discouraged. Not by the pandemic and all the changes going on. Not by the political turmoil in the news. Not by aging and the changing times. Our goals remain what they always have been—to be more and more conformed to Christ according to Hid will. That’s what we’ll be about here no matter else is going on.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Love…does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; I Cor. 13:5
As the summer ripens and the pandemic wears on, what people once did with a can-do spirit of all being in this together can degenerate into irritability. The novelty has worn off. The health information keeps changing. The news is a vexation to the spirit, and the election years are always annoying. All the normal escapes, like sports, theaters, and restaurants are either closed or difficult to take advantage of. The stage is perfectly set for God’s family to start squabbling. What’s the matter with those people who don’t see things the way we do?
So far we haven’t had problems. St. Paul’s has really proven itself resilient and full of people of good will looking out for one another. I want to be proactive about first, thanking everyone for your prayers, willingness to adapt and help, and just generally putting up with a lot in these times. Secondly, because I’m grateful things haven’t turned sour at St. Paul’s but I know the conditions are ripening for that to happen, I want to head off that potential future setback by focusing everyone’s attention today on the Bible verse above.
Verses like I Cor. 13:5 don’t really come into play much when things are really good and there is nothing to be irritable about. Nobody (except chronic complainers) has a problem with a nice picnic in the perfect spot with beautiful weather. Nor do such verses usually come into play when things are really, really bad; nobody complains about the minor annoyances of a picnic during a tornado, either. When things are really good or really bad, it is easy (well, still hard for us sinners, but easier than normal) to be flexible, to go along with the normal give and take of life together, and not to be irritable or resentful.
But sticky humidity and a cloud of mosquitoes can do worse things to our attitude than any tornado. It is for those kids of days we need to be reminded that Love does not insist on its own way and is not irritable or resentful. Sometimes irritations can do more harm to us spiritually than catastrophes.
One of the things that has gone quite well but not by any means perfectly is the way we come forward for communion. We’re working on simplifying and clarifying the process. This week the plan is to have ushers (if available) and markings on the floor so that everyone is perfectly clear about what to do.
Also, we’re setting aside the far south section (far left when you’re facing the altar) for those who agree to wear masks throughout the service, so that those who feel they cannot risk being near unmasked people can still attend if they choose. That section will be ushered out first, and will have the side door directly to the outside available so that they do not need to go through the narthex.
Thanks again for being the family of God in this place!
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
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
One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” Titus 1:12
This is any interesting verse on the topic of stereotypes. Paul is instructing Titus on how to establish Christian congregations among the Cretans. He quotes a famous saying by the great Cretan prophet/wise man Epimenides (c. 600 B.C.). Yet St. Paul quotes this famous pagan about the terrible general character of Cretans in the midst of instructing Titus to appoint elders throughout Crete. He is to appoint men who are trustworthy, sober, upright, and disciplined. Where would Titus find such men in Crete if the Cretan saying were true?
Every pagan culture, in Crete or anywhere else, produced general behavior at odds with sound Christian living. Yet Christ died for the Cretans and everyone else, and the Christian Church is/was to go throughout the entire world. Every Christian comes from and lives in a particular culture. That means we must live with the tension of competing loyalties. One didn’t cease being Cretan by becoming Christian, but Cretan Christians had to buck their own culture in some ways, just like Christians from other parts of the world had to overcome other cultural roadblocks. Our earthly culture—national, regional, ethnic, familial, whatever—can only ever demand our penultimate (second from the highest) loyalty.
... read Pastor Speckhard's full message
Christians must never let any group-identity become their identity, and they must never force other people to fit into the box of a group-identity. But given how difficult a topic this is, I ask the members of St. Paul’s to watch the video linked below. It is an interview presentation by Rev. Dr. John Nunes, who has visited us here at St. Paul’s and who is now president of Concordia-Bronxville. The introduction lasts about four minutes before the real presentation starts: Interview with Rev. Dr. John Nunes
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold,
and the Lord tests hearts. Prov. 17:3
This proverb of Solomon was part of the devotion today for those who use the Treasury of Daily Prayer. It is an amazing thing, and a fearful thing, to ponder.
A crucible is a sort of pot in which you heat up metal or some other chemical compound. You may have used on a chemistry lab. You can use on to purify silver, but gold is a heavier metal. We think of a furnace as something that heats the house, but in this case it refines gold. To purify gold, you have to heat it up to such high temperatures that the impurities, the dross, everything that clings to it that isn’t gold, burns away in the smoke. What remains is purer gold.
The prophets talk about the Lord coming as a refiner’s fire. You put a little chunk of silver over a Bunsen burner, you put a gold ring in a blacksmith’s or a forger’s furnace. The presence of God does to your heart what that furnace does to the gold.
The thing to remember is that God tests hearts because they are precious to Him. He doesn’t do it to cause pain, though the process is painful. Precisely because your heart is precious to Him, He hates the sin that clings to closely. He wants it gone.
When we come into the presence of the Lord, we repent of our sins and submit to the painful process of turning away from them. The sins we love are the hardest to let burn away. Confession of sin that is painless probably isn’t very honest.
Christ redeems us sinners not with gold or silver but with His holy, precious blood. When the Lord tests hearts, He looks for the blood of Christ, more precious than silver, and finds it in the faithful. Therefore we stand in the judgment.
The Judge still hates the dross. The great blessing of ongoing confession/absolution, ongoing Holy Communion, daily remembrance of Baptism, is that is lets you participate, not in your salvation, but in your purifying. It will never happen completely in this life; it will remain a work in progress. But entering into the presence of God and staying there when the knowledge of sin starts to bubble up and the defense mechanisms kick in is a painful but glorious opportunity we all have as members of the Body of Christ.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana