The Sanctity of Suffering: Pastor’s message for May 24

Interim Pastor David Mueller

Editor’s note: On this Memorial Day weekend, we thank God for those who have served our country and given the ultimate sacrifice. We pray for those who suffer in body, mind or spirit. And we gather once again — together in spirit, yet from afar — to worship by way of this pre-recorded video during this time of Coronavirus pandemic.

Thanks to Interim Pastor David E. Mueller, John Lasher, director of music and worship arts, and Barbara Sheridan, worship assistant, who lead us today. Also participating are members of this week’s virtual choir: Dave Herrmann, John Lasher, David McClure, John Nichols, Cheryl Powell and Teresa Stebner, along with vocalists Fred and Jan Meckley. Our pre-recorded service is linked below, with the text of Pastor’s message included here if you wish to follow along.

 

“The Sanctity of Suffering” (1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11)

David E. Mueller, Interim Pastor

The Easter Season is about to end and next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, that Festival of Empowerment occurring 50 days after Easter. I have spoken previously of the number 50, which in Biblical numerology means “Jubilee.” Jubilee is an opportunity to start over again, cleansed and redeemed from the past. Read Leviticus 25 for the origins of Jubilee.

The Gospel lesson for today (John 17:1-11) is a portion of Christ’s “High Priestly” Prayer, one of only two times we to get to listen in on the very prayers of Jesus. The other is in the Garden of Gethsemane following the Last Supper and just prior to His arrest. The prayer here is about the relationship between the Heavenly Father and Jesus, that of complete “oneness.” Jesus prays that those who believe in Him, His disciples throughout history, might be “one as He and the Father are one.” Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Christian history is that the Church remains as divided as we do. Christ’s own prayer has not been answered.

I am opting to use as my text today the second lesson from the first letter of Peter. Before we jump into Peter’s words, I believe it best that we first pray:

Heavenly Father, good, glorious and gracious God, we thank You for allowing us still to meet during this viral crisis, even if we do so removed physically from each other. Enable us, however, to be spiritually one, united and knowing the bond of peace, willing and increasingly able to represent You in positive, loving and uplifting ways to the world brought low by all kinds of forces, including right now, a virus. May our words to others and — if possible — our deeds bring healing, helpfulness and hope. We ask as we have been taught and invited to ask, in the Name of Jesus. Amen.

As I have shared on previous occasions, there are various forms of suffering we can experience:

1) Standing for what is right and just (if anything, there is not enough of this);

2) Suffering for Christ (probably not much of that either);

3) Suffering because we live on a fallen planet. Of this we tend to think there is far too much. In living on planet earth, we can suffer from either consequence or coincidence. It must be said that if you go out in public without a mask and don’t keep social distance, you could get COVID-19 or give it to someone else. That is consequence. If you happen unknowingly to get the virus even when taking appropriate and necessary precautions, that is coincidence.

The suffering Peter speaks of, however, is purely because of Christ.

We often incorrectly think of persecution as a common risk for early Christians everywhere. This was not true. Only during the reign of Emperor Diocletian (late 3rd and early 4thcenturies) was persecution universal within the Empire. Prior to that era, persecutions were regional and sporadic. Peter was writing at a time when persecutions could happen. It sounds as if, indeed, they were.

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12) On Sunday mornings we are in the midst of a study on the Seven Churches of Asia Minor as are recorded in Revelation 2 & 3. Frequently in most of those congregations, refusal to venerate the Emperor in some way, thought by Christians to be idolatry, guaranteed serious sanction.

I must admit to becoming particularly upset with those who believe that saying “Merry Christmas” became forbidden with those saying it anyway being persecuted. I never stopped saying it even as I also have said “Good Hanukkah” to my Jewish friends. Rabbi Grumbacher says “Merry Christmas” to me and my family. Jesus warned us about straining for gnats and swallowing camels. (Matthew 23:24). This is a perfect example of such and hardly persecutory.

There were precious few Christians in Nazi Germany and their occupied countries who took the risk of saving Jews from not just persecution but annihilation. The greater masses of “Christians” in those territories either didn’t care or were too afraid to act. Claiming they didn’t know what was going on was pure nonsense. There are eras in Christian history when the Christians were the persecutors, as also in the Spanish Inquisition. This is as sad as it gets!

In our own day, literally right now, we are learning that COVID-19 is having proportionately far greater incidence and impact among people of color and the poor. What is an appropriate and effective manner for Christians to speak out about and act to mitigate this reality? Regardless of government action or inaction, are Christians, in America and elsewhere, willing to risk some form of sanction or persecution precisely because Christ mandated us to care for the vulnerable ones? It is a greater problem with us when we become indirectly persecutors. Ignoring this reality is a deadly sin of omission.

We “rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings … if you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed because the spirit of glory … is resting upon you.” (1 Peter 4:14) Paul wrote the same thing in effect when he also invited Roman Christians to rejoice or boast in their sufferings, speaking specifically about suffering for Christ right there in the capital city. (Romans 5:3-5)

While not seeking to suffer, which would be a genuine sickness of spirit, there is something sacred about suffering, especially suffering for Christ and (or) suffering for what is right and just according to Christ.

Perhaps the sanctity of suffering is most revealed in Peter’s invitation to “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God so that he may exalt you in due time.” (1 Peter 5:6) Humility is the first of the seven saving virtues. Especially Luke the Evangelist employs these reversals like those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted; the first shall be last and the last first. There is that timing issue again in Christian understanding of God, namely, that suffering, injustice and the like may be the norm now, but the promise patiently trusted is coming when the Lord decides.

“Cast your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves … resist him (the devil) … and after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace … will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you.”

We are not in Christian teaching promised immunity from anything difficult, dangerous, diseased, etc. What we are promised is that in the midst of any of those, we are loved, cared about and promised ultimate relief. In the meantime and in the midst of whatever suffering we incur, especially for Christ, we are to rejoice.

There is something holy in such suffering. There is sanctity in suffering. We do not and, indeed, must not, go looking for suffering in order to know sanctity, because as we are living for Christ and what is right and just, suffering will come on its own. The “world” cannot stand true righteousness and justice and all too often will not accept true love and care. Our purpose and our prayer is that the people of the world may come to see the sanctity of our suffering and rejoice with us in the Christ who suffered for everyone everywhere. Amen!

Online service for May 17: “Abiding ‘Effectionately'”

Interim Pastor David E. Mueller

As we continue to observe social distance to help slow the spread of the Coronavirus, we give thanks for the technology and leaders that bring us together even when we are apart.

Join us for this pre-recorded worship service, led by Interim Pastor David E. Mueller, Director of Music and Worship Arts John Lasher and Worship Assistant Gregory Landrey. Also participating are this week’s virtual choir: Dave Herrmann, John Lasher, David McClure, John Nichols and Cheryl Powell and vocalists Fred Meckley, Jan Meckley and Teresa Stebner.

The link to the video is below and you can follow along with the text of Pastor’s sermon here, too.

“Abiding ‘Effectionately’” (John 14:15-21)

David E. Mueller, Interim Pastor

I believe I have previously shared with the people of St. Mark’s about the “Get Well” card we developed at Concordia a long time ago. It bears repeating today. You will see why in a minute.

In my pastoral training, we were taught when entering a hospital room or a living room to take a quick snapshot. In the case of a hospital room, look for cards, flowers, balloons or any other signs that the patient has people who care for her or him. Living rooms are far more difficult to assess.

In hospital rooms, I often noticed a card signed by everyone back at the fire hall, the Kiwanis, or the bowling league. I wondered why we couldn’t design a card from the congregation. A commercial artist in the congregation and I put our heads together and came up with a functional design. A scroll-like oval formed the outer side of an 8 X10 piece of heavy and nice stationary forming the words: “Your brothers and sisters in Christ at Concordia are praying for you.” We passed this around during worship on a clipboard and everyone in attendance signed it. It turned out to be wildly popular both for those who received it as well as a reminder to pray for those who signed it. It folded with praying hands on the cover and a Bible verse on the right inside folded page. The verse was John 14:18, which read in the then RSV: “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.” 

Especially during times of spiritual struggle, medical malady, relational brokenness, pandemics and whatever else might be causing a person agony, promises of God become particularly pertinent. The only caveat that invariably must be understood and accepted is God’s timetable. 

I have often used the illustration of a toothache, which thank heavens I have not had in a long time. When a severe toothache hits, the whole body becomes almost useless and whatever one is doing or supposed to do comes to a grinding halt until one’s dentist can work her miraculous art. For some period of time we are defined by that toothache. No amount of time spent remembering that your kidneys and other vital organs are functioning fine matters. 

In many human circumstances with pain, a person in effect can to some extent be defined by the matter. He becomes a “cancer patient;” she is a “divorcee and single mother;” Mabel has a son who is a “junkie.” The prayers for remedy can be prayed without ceasing even as the tears are increasing and the fears not decreasing. God seems a million miles away, not really giving a rip about my issue, or too busy with more difficult problems, etc. The “I will come to you” promise seems shallow and extremely difficult to believe. 

I have been touched in my own struggles with Psalm 6. It’s a short Psalm and I hope you will read it later. In it, David is desperate and depressed. He floods his bed with tears. Nothing is going right. But in short order, long before any actual resolution to his issues, David reaches out and proclaims: “The Lord has heard my supplications; the Lord accepts my prayer. All my enemies SHALL be ashamed….” (6: 9 & 10a) In effect, David seems to have learned to trust God’s timing.

Jesus promised to return and it has been two millennia! God is not in a hurry!

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalm 13:1-2a;). Here too, David holds nothing back in his questioning, but we need jump only a few verses (5 & 6) to read: “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” 

There is a spiritual art to maintaining faith in the midst of difficulty, disaster, dismay. In John’s Gospel, appointed for today, there are some “holy hints.” 

“If you love me you will keep my commandments.” Dutch Priest Henri Nouwen has written about “the wounded healer.” Often, those most effective in helping — even healing — others, are those who are themselves in pain. Sensitivity activates in us that often isn’t present or active when all is well. The current viral crisis has produced incredible amounts and accounts of people helping people even if there are also sad accounts of others being self- absorbed and unreasonable. 

Years ago, I was attending another conference and was in great emotional pain. I ended up co-founding a professional organization and the letters I received when I got back astounded me. One Native American wrote: “Everything you said had deep top roots of wisdom.” That sounded and felt good but I didn’t understand how I could have functioned so well, given how I felt. Jesus’ primary commandment to “love one another,” did not abrogate loving God and others as self, but accentuated them. Loving may seem easier when all goes well, difficult but deeper when things are not right.

Jesus also offers the Holy Spirit, the “Advocate.” I love Acts 4:31: “When they (the Disciples) had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.” The Holy Spirit empowers us to love.

“Because I live, you also will live.” (John 14: 19b) And that is our hope, no matter how dark the night, joy comes in the morning. (See Psalm 30:5.) 

When it comes to God acting, God fulfilling promises, we need faith (trust), love, spiritual empowerment, hope, and … patience. James the Apostle in his letter (5:7) wrote: “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.”

This litany of necessary ingredients to abiding “effectionately,” as well as affectionately, is no small list and of no minor tools of the truth trade. Yet as we receive and employ this equipment, these gifts: “You know him (Jesus), because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” Nothing that can be named (see Romans 8:31ff) can separate us from him, nothing! Jesus means everything! Amen.

‘The Christian Walk:’ Pastor Mueller’s message for Sunday, April 26

Road to Emmaus, by Robert Zund

[Editor’s Note: We continue together — yet apart — as our community continues to respond to the Coronavirus pandemic. We are grateful to Interim Pastor David E. Mueller, John Lasher, director of music and worship arts, worship assistant Brian Schmidt, a member of our Leadership Council, and our musicians and vocalists for their efforts in providing this prerecorded video. Join our worship by clicking on the video below and follow the text of Pastor’s message here on the website.]

 


“The Christian Walk”

Interim Pastor David E. Mueller

I mentioned in Easter Sunday’s message that it was a constant that none of the compatriots of Jesus recognized him immediately after his resurrection. Here again today we have in Luke 24 where Jesus encounters two men, unknown to us but not to Jesus, who didn’t know it was Jesus. We are told: “… but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” (24:16) We could spend endless amounts of time trying to figure out their failure to recognize, but let’s not!

The conversation the two fellows and Jesus were having had to do with the events and people surrounding the death of Jesus. That said, they moved on to the still unbelieved accounts of his resurrection. Jesus referred to their foolishness not for disbelieving their contemporaries but for failing to believe their own Prophets.

I have often wondered what life was like for the ancient Israelites. Back then God seemed frequently to speak with various people, like Abraham or Moses, and as frequently to accomplish incredible things before the eyes of the common people, like the Exodus, unexpected victories in various battles, the competition between the prophets of Baal and Elijah on Mount Carmel and so forth. How could any of them “not see” or see and go on to live as if they had not seen? 

I  believe that in the Hebrew Scriptures there is a vivid contrast between the grace of God and the sins and stubborn intransigence of God’s chosen people. Yet here on the road to Emmaus we get the same thing in effect. Even if they did not recognize Jesus, surely they must have been impressed with this stranger’s understanding of and capacity to articulate the Scriptures! At least they were interested and engaged!

Upon entering Emmaus, Jesus started to excuse himself, but the two of them talked him into staying with them. They sat together and when Jesus blessed and broke bread and gave it to them POW!  Their eyes were opened, they recognized Jesus … and then he vanished! There is clearly a Sacramental implication here, but let’s not make too much of it.  

The more significant point is that they were sharing food.

Lutheran historian Martin Marty. in his book “When Faiths Collide,” maintains that in Judaism, Christianity and Islam there is strong emphasis on hospitality and meal fellowship. If, therefore, you

Interim Pastor David Mueller

In my moving around the congregation by phone, among the things I have heard is that families are having meals together for a change. Conversations around the table are occurring and there is joy, even power, in that return to basic human practice. Games are being played together and puzzles worked if only to kill time; it is good.

want to get to know your Muslim or Jewish neighbors better, invite them to dinner. The conversation will be enlightening both ways. In my ministry, I learned much about needs and concerns from men over lunch. Obviously, it has not been appropriate with women unfortunately.

 Also unfortunately, I must insert a necessary warning here. It is being reported that there is a noticeable if not dramatic increase in domestic violence during the “shelter at home mandate” due to COVID-19. I realize that I accomplish little by saying it, but say it I must: DOMESTIC ABUSE IS PATENTLY UNACCEPTABLE, IS A CRIME, AND BETTER NOT BE TAKING PLACE IN YOUR HOME. IF SO, IT MUST STOP IMMEDIATELY! WOMEN, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO TOLERATE THIS IF YOU ARE EXPERIENCING IT. CALL ME AND I WILL WEAR A MASK, GLOVE AND A GARBAGE BAG IF NECESSARY TO ESCORT YOU OUT OF THAT ENVIRONMENT WHERE YOU WILL BE SAFE!

 And now back to a more positive point. A very real part of what allows for productive intimate conversation over a meal is the time afforded the conversation. Like much of life, learning about each other takes time.  

Speaking of time, walking together and talking together is also potentially productive in increasing awareness and understanding of each other.

In the familiar verse of John 14:6, Jesus is quoted as having said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life….”  In John 11:25, Jesus tells Martha in the context of her brother Lazarus’ death: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Finally in John 10:10, Jesus says: “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.”

In Biblical Greek, there are two words translated “life:” “bios” and “zoa.” This can get complicated, but allow me to keep it simple: “bios” is life in that there is breathing and blood flowing, while “zoa” is deeper and more significant than drawing breaths and pumping blood. Actually zoa applies to eternal life.

I back up. “Way” means path or road. The two men, one of whom we learn was Cleopas, which does not help us much, were walking on the odos (road). They learned the truth (alaethea). Please do not let the facts get in the way of the truth, it has been said. Truth about Jesus is not simply that he rose from the dead, but that he and his word matter ultimately. Life is being fully alive, filled with the Spirit and grounded in hope. It is entirely possible to be breathing and pumping blood but not having zoa.

Our second lesson appointed for today (1 Peter 1:17-23) presents a clear picture of what being on the path, knowing the truth, and living the life looks like. “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth, so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed through the living and enduring word of God.” (1 Peter 1:22,23) Now that is being fully alive!

It amazes me in these difficult and dangerous days that so many people, Christians included, count personal freedoms as more important than personal responsibilities. It takes genuine if misguided faith to believe that opening up our society soon will not produce tragic results. It would seem that some people just don’t see what is right in front of them! They refuse to believe either that they cannot possibly be harmed by what was normal behavior or that they cannot possibly harm others or both. We must sacrifice for now so that we and others around us may survive if not thrive later.

The Christian walk first involves listening to Jesus, learning to love Jesus as He loves us and others as we love ourselves. It is seeking opportunities to “share” bread, either by partaking together someday or by giving portions of our bread to others. Living is giving in the Christian walk!

In his “Small Catechism,” Martin Luther asks: “What is meant by daily bread” for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer? “Everything required to satisfy our bodily needs, such as food and clothing, house and home, fields and flocks, money and property, a pious spouse and good children, trustworthy servants (not slaves/my words), godly and faithful rulers, good government, seasonable weather, peace and health, order and honor, true friends, faithful neighbors and the like.” 

In “Ethics,” compiled by biographer Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer claimed that when Christians pray the Lord’s Prayer, they are also praying it for or on behalf of those who don’t or won’t pray it. In effect then, according to Bonhoeffer, I pray for and seek to provide if necessary daily bread for others as well as myself.  

If Luther is right — sometimes he isn’t — then praying for and providing the litany reported above is exactly what we Christians need to be about especially in times like these. This we do, not to win any awards or gain any rewards, but precisely because, as Peter puts it (1 Peter 1:18,19): “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited … with the precious blood of Christ….”

While the pain, sacrifice, sickness and death virtually all over the world is ever so real, what a great time to walk with Jesus in truth and life, to care about and dare to share with others in an obedient and loving way. May it be so with all of you.