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
At a special service on November 23rd, 1980 our building was dedicated to God “As a place where the lambs of the flock of Christ may be fed, where little children may increase in wisdom and favor with God and man, where the young may be taught to remember their Creator in the days of their youth, where a generation may grow up fit for citizenship on earth and in heaven with Thee.”
Biblically speaking a symbolic generation is 40 years. Israel wandered 40 years so that the generation that left Egypt would not be the same generation that entered the Promised Land. So if we apply that symbolism to St. Paul’s we have to say that this building has almost served the purpose for which it was dedicated, to be a place “where a generation may grow up…”
If you were born the day this building was dedicated, then you are almost 36 years old right now, and hopefully through our ministry you have grown in favor with God and man and been made fit for citizenship in the world and in the kingdom of God. And hopefully that means that you desire to pass on the Gospel to future generations just like the 36-year-olds around here back in 1980 did. We are the people to whom this building was dedicated. We are the inheritors, the receivers, the fulfillment of all the prayers and the hard work, the vision those people had in mind.
Time marches on.
Today, with those 40 years almost up, we have several options. I suppose we could shut down the
ministry of St. Paul’s altogether and say our work is done. But no Christian would seriously consider not feeding the next generation with the Gospel. We could relocate St. Paul’s somewhere else and build a new building like the people a generation ago did. That hardly seems like a desirable idea, but it is possible, I guess. We can keep milking the generosity and hard work of our forebears for as many more years as the building they built for us holds out without our doing anything and then shut everything down, but that would not only be ungrateful of us but extremely bad stewardship.
Or we can step up to the plate like they did and make a decision with a view toward 40 years from now in mind. The heating units that were brand spanking new on Nov. 23, 1980 are also almost 36 years old. Buildings, wiring, plumbing, furnaces—they all age. You have to constantly maintain them just to keep them the same as they were. The blessings of a nearly 70,000 square foot facility come with responsibilities. We need to replace the HVAC system in the school with newer, more efficient, and A/C capable units if anyone is going to be nurtured on the Gospel here 40 years from now.
And not only do buildings age, but standards change. Back in 1980 the houses around our church were all the very latest architecture. Today we are far more conscious of the needs of the elderly and most people think tri-level homes have too many stairs for some people to live in comfortably. If our subdivision were being built today the houses would look very different.
What is true of home architecture is true of institutions. Not only have we tried to reduce steps, we’ve tried to facilitate easily getting dropped off and picked up. Newer buildings, especially those that serve the elderly, tend to have a covered drop off/pick up area where people who move slowly can get from the car to the building without being out in the rain and snow.
In 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we hope to begin the process of rededicating St.
Paul’s Lutheran Church and School. The Parish Planning Council has already begun looking into ways to bring this about. It will require a lot of planning, a lot of dedication of time, talents and treasure, and a vision of how we will hand off this ministry to the next generation. This rededication will hopefully address the aging of the building and the changing of the standards in our society around us, and will also take up ideas and suggestions that come from anyone in the congregation, so be sure to attend the meetings, read the newsletters, and give feedback to your deacon or to the staff as things progress.
What we want to be able to do here at St. Paul’s is join in the prayers of those who gave us this place
and at the dedication of it said, “O Lord, the God of our fathers, by whose works of love in past generations You have richly blessed us, grant that our works may prove a blessing to our children in generations still to come.”
Some of your best memories of church services have probably been services that weren’t the normal Sunday morning service. Singing on Christmas Eve (even at the midnight services), getting up while it was still dark for the “sunrise services” in the wee hours of Easter morning, hearing the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” as the ashes are applied on Ash Wednesday, listening in the darkness as the psalm is chanted and the altar stripped at the end of Maundy Thursday services—these tend to be very memorable services that aren’t at the normal time of weekly worship.
It gets harder and harder for these special services to compete with our convenience-dominated culture. People don’t want to stay up late, get up early, go out of their way, or otherwise change their schedule, much less do so with sleepy children. So in most (not all) churches, the late night Christmas Eve service is lightly attended if even still offered. Same with Christmas Day. At Easter the “sunrise service” has been moved to a more reasonable hour and is not packed like the later services. And special services for high feast days like Epiphany, Ascension, Reformation and All Saints very often just get moved to the closest Sunday so they can be celebrated without inconveniencing anyone.
So it might come as a surprise to us that for many centuries the most important church service of the year was the Easter Vigil, which, as the name implies, lasted hours and hours through the night and ended with the Easter proclamation and communion at dawn. This was (and is in many places) the service in which all the adult catechumens (converts to Christianity who had been taught the faith over the course of the year) were baptized, received into membership, and took their first communion.
Most places do not really keep vigil through the night but celebrate the service either Saturday night or Easter Sunday very early. This year were are going to have an Easter Vigil service here at St. Paul’s at 8:00 p.m. on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday. I encourage you to attend because it is one of those special services that make an impression. No, it won’t go all night. In fact, it will only be the first half of the service, and the 7:00 a.m. Easter service will complete it.
The service begins outside with the lighting of a paschal candle (“Paschal” is from the old word for Passover and in church usage just means “Easter-related” because at Easter we celebrate that we have passed over from death to life) from a small bonfire, which in our case will be in the courtyard. The worshippers light their own candles from the paschal candle and go into the darkened sanctuary, with their candlelight symbolizing faith in God’s promises in a fallen world. Various Old Testament readings and musical responses recount God’s faithfulness through all of human history. We then remember our own baptism and crossing over from dark to light, from death to life in the victory of Jesus Christ over sin, death, and hell.
Normally the service goes straight into the Easter proclamation and communion service, but we are going to leave the church in silence and resume Easter morning with the great celebration. Please consider changing up your Easter weekend routine to join us for this very solemn and meaningful service. Most people who do it once find that it quickly becomes one of their favorite services of the year.
Church attendance nationally is down, and not just by a little bit. It is as though in the last fifteen years our culture has just collectively decided that going to church on Sunday is not a "thing" anymore. And what is true for our nation is certainly true for us here at St. Paul’s. In 2001 our average weekly attendance was 822. In 2015 the average was 463. But trends are not fate.
While our societal trends are not really in our control except to the degree we participate in them, we can still focus on what we can influence, which starts with ourselves. Most of the drop in attendance here at St. Paul’s is not because people have quit church altogether but because they have stopped attending regularly. Many people who used to be here every week now come once or twice a month. People who used to come every other week now come a few times a year. We have stopped taking it for granted that our week ought to begin with first things first by attending church and starting thinking of it more like a commodity, something to do when we really feel a need for it or when it is convenient. What was formerly a "given" has turned into an option.
The New Testament tells Christians not to stop meeting together. Apparently some of the earliest
Christians had already begun skipping regular worship under the mistaken impression that “going to
church” didn’t matter for them as long as they had faith. But that misses most of the point about
attendance. The key word is “together,” which means that you not only benefit from the presence of other people as you sing, pray, and hear the Word, but your presence also benefits them.
When you decide to skip church, you aren’t only deciding for yourself that you can do without Word
and Sacrament ministry and the mutual consolation of the brethren for a week. You’re also unilaterally declaring that everyone else can do just fine without you there. And you are wrong. The indelible impression on young minds of seeing widows and newlyweds, trouble-makers and respectable folk, black and white, rich and poor, young and old all singing and praying together can never happen if most of those people don’t show up.
When you stay home because your toddler is such a hassle, you aren’t only making your morning
more manageable. You’re also declaring that the 90 year old who sometimes sits behind you shall not have your toddler to smile at and thereby have his faith in the future of God’s promises reinforced.
When you as a twenty-something stay home from church because Sunday is the day you sleep in and
you don’t feel like you get much out of church anyway because you already learned it all in Sunday
school, you’re not only getting extra sleep for yourself. You’re also depriving some other twentysomething visitor, who never did learn it all in Sunday school, and who is nervous and uncomfortable in church, of the assurance your presence might have given that this strange place is a place for them, too.
When you as a middle-aged man skip church, you’re not only (mistakenly) reasoning that you have
more important places to be, but you are robbing some fatherless teenage boy whose mom made him go to church that morning of the example your presence in worship might have given.
When you stay home because you’re too embarrassed to use the wheelchair, you are robbing your
church family of the comfort of seeing that growing old gracefully is possible, and that should the day ever come from them to be a wheelchair, their church would welcome them as it welcomes you.
No matter who you are or what your situation is, when it says in Hebrews not to stop meeting together, God isn’t just telling you that you will be blessed if you go to church. He is also telling you are a blessing to the others there whether you know it or not. Don’t selfishly rob everyone else of the blessing God wants to give them through your voice, your problems, your prayers, and your presence with them in worship.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana