An Easter Hymn: The rock was no longer in place

The rock was no long in place,

dark and still the morning came;

Mary’s weeping tear-stained face

filled with sad-ness and deep pain:

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

The Lord called Mary by name.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus is a-ris-en

said to doubting Thomas one

evening. “Touch-ing’s not for-bid-den,”

said the Sav-iour to him, “come.”

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

My Lord, my God, you have won!

Then he came and stood a-mong them,

they were filled with fear and doubt;

tak-ing a broil-ed fish, he then

ate. “Know now what I’m a-bout.”

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Christ is with us, sing and shout!

Text: Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson, Copyright (c) April 17, 2021

Based on: John 20:1-18-Gospel reading for Easter Day; John 20:19-31-Gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday of Easter; Luke 24:36b-48-the Gospel reading for the 3rd Sunday of Easter

Tune in public domain: Helmsley

Sermon for Easter Day Yr B

Easter Sunday Yr B, 4/04/2021

Ps 118:1-2, 14-24

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“God’s reversals: From rejected stone to chief cornerstone”

According to my NRSV Lutheran Study Bible (p. 849), Psalm 118 is identified as a liturgical psalm. As a Christian reading this psalm, I would also interpret it as a Messianic psalm, insofar as it reminds me of the Passion and resurrection of Jesus. The Lutheran Study Bible gives Psalm 118 this title: “A Song of Victory,” and the Good News Bible has the following title: “A Prayer of Thanks for Victory.” According to biblical scholars, Psalms 113-118 are also identified as Egyptian Hallel Psalms. These psalms were sung during the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks-Pentecost, and the Feast of Booths/Tabernacles, also called Sukkot. 

The opening two verses of Psalm 118 serve as a responsive “Call to Worship,” thanking God for his steadfast love, God’s covenant faithfulness, God’s grace. Most likely a priest or other worship leader would sing or speak verse one, and the congregation would respond with verse two.

Verses 14-16 emphasise God’s victory; which may have been deliverance from Egyptian slavery and reference to the exodus out of Egypt; or deliverance out of Assyrian or Babylonian exile; or because of the word “my” singular perhaps deliverance from some kind of illness.

Again in verses 17-18, the singular “I” and “me” are used, this time in reference to some kind of life-threatening suffering. The words “I shall not die, but I shall live,” could be understood by us Christians as a reference to Jesus’ resurrection.

Verses 19-20 may be a liturgical entrance rite into Jerusalem for the three pilgrimage festivals. Verse 19 again may have been spoken by a priest or even perhaps all of the faithful pilgrims standing at a gate-entrance into Jerusalem, requesting the gate to be opened for them. Verse 20 may be the response of perhaps some other priest inside the gate who would then open the gate while singing or speaking the words of invitation. For us Christians, perhaps these verses remind us of our resurrection and entrance into heaven. 

Verse 21 is similar to verse 14, this time rather than referring to “the LORD,” the psalmist speaks more intimately and directly to God, saying: “I thank you….” Perhaps again the verse may refer to God delivering the psalmist from some kind of life-threatening illness; or safe travel to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festival. 

For us Christians, verse 22 is a reference to Jesus’ death and resurrection: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” This verse was very important to the gospel writers and it also is cited in Acts and 1 Peter.

In Matthew 21:42, Jesus cites this verse in reference to his audience—the chief priests, elders and Pharisees, as he tells them parables emphasising reversals. 

In Acts 4:11, Peter addresses the Jewish council, in defence, he bears witness to Jesus, citing this verse, and then states that salvation comes through Jesus. 

In 1 Peter 2:7, Peter cites verse 22 of our psalm in a sermon to Christians—affirming this verse as a fulfilment for Christians who believe that it refers to Jesus. 

Coming back to our psalm, the psalmist, in verses 23-24 is in deep awe, wonder and reverence, at how marvellous the LORD could act to reverse a rejected stone and turn it into the chief cornerstone. Such action, on God’s part, is an occasion for joy and celebration. 

God’s reversals have been present all along, throughout the Bible. Here are a few of them, that you likely remember. 

Abraham and Sarah were old, well beyond child-bearing age, moreover, Sarah was barren. God acted in a marvellous way to reverse that situation, giving Abraham and Sarah their son Isaac, and fulfilling his promise.

There were three other Old Testament matriarchs who were also barren—Rebekah, Rachel and Hannah. God marvellously reversed their situation and gifted them with children. 

Moses, who at first considered himself a poor public speaker and did not have confidence to be a leader, became one of Israel’s finest leaders, thanks to God’s marvellous reversal. 

Joseph was sold by his brothers, and ended up in an Egyptian prison. God marvellously acted, Joseph became Pharaoh’s Prime Minister. 

David was the youngest son of Jesse, he orchestrated the death of Uriah and committed adultery with Bathsheba. Even though David’s sins were great; he repented of his sin deeply desiring to please and obey God; and God acted to marvellously make him Israel’s best-loved king. 

Mary, the mother of Jesus, a young teenager, became pregnant out of wedlock. Then God acted with one of his most marvellous reversals by Mary giving birth to Jesus, God’s Son, our Saviour and Messiah. Moreover, God’s reversals continued in the life and ministry of Jesus, who loved and highly valued the least, the lost, the poor, the outcasts of society. He also called poor fisherfolk to be his disciples and, after his resurrection they would go on to become the leaders of his church.

Speaking of resurrection, the greatest and most marvellous reversal of them all happened on that first Easter Sunday, when God acted to raise Jesus from the dead. 

That is why you and I are here today. To celebrate with joy and thanksgiving Christ’s resurrection, and the promise that one day we too shall share in a resurrection like his. 

Easter is the feast of freedom. It makes the life which it touches a festal life. ‘The risen Christ makes life a perpetual feast,’ said Athanasius. But can the whole life really be a feast? Even life’s dark side—death, guilt, senseless suffering? I think it can. Once we realize that the giver of this feast is the outcast, suffering, crucified Son of man from Nazareth, then every ‘no’ is absorbed into this profound ‘yes’, and is swallowed up in its victory.

Easter is at one and the same time God’s protest against death, and the feast of freedom fromdeath. Anyone who fails to hold these two things together has failed to understand the resurrection of the Christ who was crucified. Resistance is the protest of those who hope, and hope is the feast of the people who resist.1

So today we are filled with joy and celebration because there is hope beyond the grave. There are also hopes and small resurrections in this life. God is still at work to act in marvellous ways to reverse those things which try to destroy us or rob us of hope and new life. God’s reversals at work in our life can and do change failures into victories, hopelessness into hope, and hate into love. The student who fails in one field, studies another field and thrives in it. The sceptic is given a new-found hope when they are healed of their cancer. The one who hated a neighbour down the street because of their skin-colour comes to love them when they discover that they have more in common than what divides them. All of these, and countless more reversals bear testimony to God’s marvellous saving actions and are little resurrections in this life, which point to the big, final resurrection, that, God-willing, we all one day will share in, thanks to Christ’s resurrection. As the apostle Paul reminds us, God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom; God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. So, even though COVID-19 seems like it will never end, there is hope beyond it, thanks to what God has done through the resurrection of Jesus. 

Let everyone say: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah! Amen! 

1 Jürgen Moltmann, The Power Of The Powerless: The Word Of Liberation For Today (San Francisco, et. al.: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1983), pp. 125-126. 

Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday

Palm/Passion Sunday Yr B, 28/03/2021

Ps 31:9-16

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“Suffering: The psalmist’s, Christ’s and ours”

Today is Palm, also known as Passion Sunday. It is the beginning of Jesus’ last week on earth. The word passion refers to Christ’s suffering. So Psalm 31:9-16 is an appropriate one for today—even though the psalmist is speaking of his own suffering, as followers of Jesus, we can see some similarities of the psalmist’s sufferings with our Saviour’s sufferings. My NRSV Lutheran Study Bible has two titles. Psalm 31 has the following superscription: “To the leader. A Psalm of David.” The second title is: “Prayer and Praise for Deliverance from Enemies.” The Good News Bible gives it this title: “A Prayer of Trust in God.” The Lutheran Study Bible (p. 849), identifies Psalm 31 as an individual prayer for help and lament. 

Someone asked C.S. Lewis, “Why do the righteous suffer?” “Why not?” he replied. “They’re the only ones who can take it.” There is some truth in Lewis’s answer, especially when we focus on the passion, the suffering of Jesus. 

In a famous study by Victor and Mildred Goertzel, entitled Cradles of Eminence, the home backgrounds of 300 highly successful people were investigated. These 300 subjects had made it to the top. They were men and women whose names everyone would recognize as brilliant in their fields, such as Helen Keller, and Albert Schweitzer. The intensive investigation into their early home lives yielded some surprising findings:

Three fourths of the children were troubled either by poverty, by a broken home, or by rejecting, over-possessive, or dominating parents. 

Seventy-four of 85 writers of fiction or drama and 16 of the 20 poets came from homes where, as children, they saw tense psychological drama played out by their parents.

Physical handicaps such as blindness, deafness, or crippled limbs characterized over one-fourth of the sample.

“The world is inexplicably mysterious and full of suffering,” wrote Albert Schweitzer. Both a Christian and a doctor, Schweitzer recognized the immensity of human suffering. He devoted himself to its relief, but he recognized the mystery and accepted it.

Those in Victor and Mildred Goertzel’s study who were people of faith grew stronger in their commitment to God and love of neighbour through their suffering—as was the case with the psalmist and Jesus, and hopefully the same is true for you and I. 

Since today we focus on the Passion, the suffering of Jesus, let’s take a closer look now at verses 9-16 of our psalm, which for us may also be regarded as a Messianic Psalm, in that it reminds us of Jesus’ sufferings in other biblical passages. 

After the psalmist prays in the first eight verses for help and expresses trust in God’s deliverance from his enemy—the enemy may be some kind of illness, and/or others violating the first commandment by worshipping idols—he then goes into a lament beginning in verse nine. 

In verse nine, the psalmist asks God to be gracious in his distress. The Good News Bible puts it like this: “my eyes are tired from so much crying.” The NRSV renders it this way: “my eye wastes away from grief.” What New Testament passage does this remind you of? In Luke 19:41-44, Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem. He foresees Jerusalem’s destruction: “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (vs 44) 

In verse ten, the psalmist cries out with the following lament: “For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing.” This may remind you of the suffering servant song in Isaiah 53:3, where we read in the RSV translation: “He was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” 

In verse eleven of the REB translation, the psalmist’s lament continues. This time he refers to “my enemies” plural. He also complains about his neighbours and friends, saying: “I am scorned by my enemies, my neighbours find me burdensome, my friends shudder at me; when they see me on the street they turn away quickly.” In other words, the psalmist is feeling socially and perhaps spiritually isolated, rejected, betrayed and persecuted. Once again the words of Isaiah 53:3, describing the suffering servant come to mind: “He was despised and rejected by others; and as one from whom others hide their faces.” Jesus’ suffering on the cross also comes to mind, in the words of Mark 15:29-31: “Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross! In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.” 

Then, in verse twelve of our psalm, the psalmist feels totally abandoned, and says, in the Good News Bible rendering: “Everyone has forgotten me, as though I were dead.” This reminds us of Jesus’ experience of his disciples abandoning him when he was arrested in the words of Mark 14:50: “All of them (i.e. his disciples) deserted him (i.e. Jesus) and fled.” 

Speaking of death, in verse thirteen of our psalm, the psalmist now laments that his enemies are out to destroy him, saying: “they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.” Once again the story of Jesus’ Passion come to mind in the words of Matthew 26:3-4: “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.” 

Here I would like to emphasise that it was not all of the Jews, or even all of the Jewish leaders who planned the death of Jesus—nor should we Christians today blame the Jews for killing Christ. The whole larger picture of the Passion of Jesus emphasises that humankind crucified Jesus, so to blame the Jews is wrong and feeds into antisemitism, which has been so destructive over the centuries, and is unfortunately still present today. As followers of Jesus, who himself was a Jew, we Christians are called to love our neighbour, which includes loving (not hating!) the Jewish people. 

Now back to our psalm. In verses fourteen and fifteen, the psalmist prays a prayer of confidence and trust, realizing that, no matter what happens to him, his life is in God’s hands: “But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, “You are my God.” Here I am reminded of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane as he agonized over his imminent suffering and death, he prayed the following words with confidence and trust in God, as recorded in Mark 14:36: “He said, Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” 

In verse sixteen, the psalmist prays for God’s blessing upon him, reminiscent of the Aaronic benediction in the Book of Numbers 6:22-26, which we often end our worship services with. The psalmist’s prayer also are words of trust in God’s all-encompassing steadfast love, which remind us of the last words of Jesus on the cross as recorded in Luke 23:46, also words of confidence and trust: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” 

So, these words of Psalm 31, as well as the other biblical passages I shared with you today are also words of encouragement for you and I—they are words that instruct us in our suffering and give us hope. 

That reminds me of the Japanese Lutheran theologian, Kazoh Kitamori, who wrote a book entitled: Theology of the Pain of God. In this work, Kitamori presents the idea that because of God’s love, justice and mercy God suffers pain. God who loves the world and humankind so much is willing to undergo endless pain. The justice of God demands punishment for sin—yet, in love and mercy God suffers pain to prevent complete punishment from being carried out and taking its ultimate course. We humans and the whole created universe experience God’s very being/essence/personality in our pain and suffering. God is in solidarity with us humans and the whole universe when we suffer and are in pain. One who suffers and is in great pain really is in very close relationship with God. For Kitamori, the clearest revelation of God is in pain. 

That is why the crucified Jesus is the Saviour of the world. When we suffer, he suffers with and through us—therefore we can face, live with, and by God’s grace, overcome our suffering, knowing and trusting that God is always with us and we are with God. Moreover, suffering is not the ultimate end. There is redemption. There is resurrection. For that, thanks be to God! 

Book Review: Accidental Preacher: A Memoir

Accidental Preacher: A Memoir

Author: Will Willimon, Afterword By Kate Bowler

Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019

242 pages, including Prelude, Afterword, and Index, hardcover

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

About the Author

The following information is from the jacket cover: “Will Willimon is professor of the practice of Christian ministry and director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. He is an internationally renowned preacher and widely read author noted for his humor, his insight into the Christian faith, and his theological commitment. His many books have sold over a million copies.”

Rev. Dr. Willimon, a Methodist preacher and former bishop, is the prolific author of over 80 books, thousands of sermons, and numerous articles in publications such as The Christian Century. He also has a popular website: willwillimon.com. 

A Personal Note

Over the years, I’ve appreciated Rev. Dr. Willimon’s written works and website posts. A few years ago, our synod clergy study conference was privileged to have Dr. Willimon as the keynote speaker. He is an incredibly gifted master storyteller, able to tell one story or anecdote after the other ad infinitum. 

Contents

There are nine chapters written by Dr. Willimon, each beginning with a biblical citation. The chapter titles are as follows: Fortuitous Baptism, Unwitting Call, Inadvertent Summons, Unexpected Church, Unplanned Disruptions, Adventitious Preacher, Serendipitous Writer, Unanticipated Friends, Unforeseen Commission. 

To whet readers’ appetites, I am going to cite one or more quotations from each chapter.

In Fortuitous Baptism, Willimon has this to say about his mother: “My mother ended her day reading her bedside Bible. That one so fiercely independent as my mother daily submitted to the writings of these ancient Jews made a deep impression.” (p. 19)

Also in chapter one, when a grade four student boasted that he gave his life to Christ, Willimon reflecting on such a boast, counters it with this insight: “You can’t give something to somebody who already owns what’s being given.” (p. 37) 

In Unwitting Call, Willimon reflects on calling, identity and God: “Believing that most of the important things that define us are accidental, externally imposed, Christians believe the question is not “What do I want to do with me?” but rather “Which God am I worshiping and how is that God having his way with me?” (p. 45)

In Inadvertent Summons, Willimon observes: “That we are not self-made implies that we are God’s property, to be called for as God pleases. In the New Testament, “calling” or “vocation” refers to discipleship rather than employment.” (p. 53) 

For pastors, according to Willimon one’s calling, one’s vocation is an ongoing struggle: “Church doesn’t wait for you to have the proper motivation for worship in order to call you to worship. And there are so many times, when you have been called to be a pastor, that you don’t feel like being a pastor but still must act the part. As a pastor, your personal problems take a backseat to the needs of others.” (p. 71)

In Unexpected Church, Willimon shares this humorous tidbit: “To everyone’s surprise, there I was, 1998, delivering the final address at Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral Successful Church Conference. A thousand pastors had gathered around the theme “How to Succeed at Ministry.” I, of course, chose “Failing at Ministry with Moses, Peter, and Just about Everybody in the Bible.” (p. 86)

There are several thought-provoking Willimon statements in Unplanned Disruptions—some may find them prophetic, others cynical and hyper-critical, yet others painfully true.

On the Bible and family: “Scripture’s lack of interest in childhood, parents, and family is born of the conviction that God is more responsible for you than Mom or Dad.” (p. 98)

A critique of and prescription for mainline Christianity: “Buttoned-down mainline Christianity offers aspirin for those in need of massive chemotherapy.” (p. 101)

On Willimon’s experience of racism: “You already know that I grew up in an unashamedly, legally white-supremacist culture. Each day I boarded a Greenville bus that bore the sign: South Carolina Law: White patrons sit from the front. Colored patrons sit from the rear. Nobody questioned that sign, especially those who preached to me on Sunday.” (p. 102)

A critique of natural law: “Natural law is a fiction devised to help us cope with our contingency before God. Sorry, anal-retentive legalists, the world was not created by a lawyer.” (p. 104)

On preachers who pervert the theology of the cross: “Ingratiating preachers transform Jesus’s cross into a snuggly bourgeois blanket.” (p. 107) 

On the upper middle class and pneumatology: “The upper middle class has a myriad of ways to tame the Holy Spirit.” (p. 113) 

On God continuing to work within us: “How easily people like me get it wrong; how disruptively God works to set us right.” (p. 116)

In Adventitious Preacher there are a generous array of homiletical insights. 

On the nature of preaching: “If a preacher finds the words to bring the gospel to speech, it’s only grace. The Christian faith is inherently acoustical. You can’t self-inoculate the gospel; somebody’s got to tell it to you. It’s auditory.” (p. 122)

A couple of priceless quotes from Luther on sermons and preachers: “Luther said ‘a sermon is a surgeon’s scalpel!’ Hey, he also said, ‘Whenever the word of God is rightly preached, demons are unleashed!’” (p. 127) “God can ride a lame horse or shoot with a crooked bow,” said Luther. By God’s grace, even life’s setbacks can be used by God to re-call a preacher.” (p. 129)

On the process of sermon preparation and when the preacher is not satisfied with their sermons: “When composing a sermon, I apply a theological test: What is God doing in this biblical text, and what might God condescend to do in my sermon? In my sorriest sermons, Jesus may elect to preach.” (p. 142) Yours truly has experienced this numerous times over the years!

On a best thing about being a preacher: “One of the best things about being a preacher is that one preaches from, rather than apologizes for, a biblical text.” (p. 144) 

On clergy leaving the ministry: “Of the twenty people who were ordained with me, only two of us made it to retirement as clergy.” (p. 145) 

On the consequence of preaching: “Preaching is judged by its performance in the lives of the saints.” (p. 147) 

In Serendipitous Writer, Willimon links “good preachers” with writers: “Good preachers are voracious readers, recognizing in writers and stand-up comics our kith and kin who, like our Lord and Dostoevsky, create worlds through words.” (p. 163)

A warning about those who write an autobiography or a memoir: “Gertrude Stein dismissed autobiography as inferior literature that “anyone can write,” then proved herself wrong in The Making of Americans. Be suspicious of memoirists who claim to give you a fully accurate rendition of themselves.” (pp. 164-165)

In Unanticipated Friends, Willimon acknowledges preachers’ indebtedness to other preachers: An unindebted preacher is a poor preacher, though the line between grateful apprenticeship and smarmy plagiarism gets thin. My own incriminating paper trail is too long for me to be righteously indignant that a fellow preacher snitched one of mine.” (pp. 185-186)

On the importance of Willimon’s wife as his friend: “Never a truer word was spoken by my mother than “Without Patsy, (Willimon’s wife) you would be a disaster.” (p. 189)

On God’s forgiveness: “Don’t attempt friendship, in marriage or otherwise, without a God who forgives.” (p. 196) 

On advice from Willimon’s friend Rev. Carlyle Marney: “I called Marney and asked him if I should interview at Duke. “Sure. But if you’re hired by Duke, you must become more adept in using a word:bullshit.” (p. 209) 

In Unforeseen Commission, Willimon reflects on the surprise element of prophecy: “Now anybody God chooses, even betrayers like Peter or me, can be enlisted for prophecy.

On the authority of a bishop, Willimon offers this satirical comment: “I wish that Jesus had authorized lapel pins, Boy Scout badges, corporal’s stripes, judge’s wigs, Tasers, or doctoral hoods to give God’s servants clout, but that’s not how Jesus works.” (pp. 226-227)

This memoir is a brilliant example of how God humorously and absurdly chose and called Rev. Dr. Will Willimon into the ministry. All preachers would benefit in some way from reading this volume. 

Sermon for 3 Lent Yr B

3rd Sunday in Lent Yr B, 7/03/2021

Ps 19

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“God’s glory, the law, and beyond”

My NRSV Lutheran Study Bible has two titles for Psalm 19: The superscription-title is “To the Leader. A Psalm of David” and the second title reads: “God’s Glory in Creation and the Law.” The Lutheran Study Bible (pp. 849-850) identifies Psalm 19 as a creation psalm and an instructional-wisdom psalm. Psalm 19, along with Psalms 1 and 119 are also referred to as Torah Psalms—they praise God’s laws. Indeed, there are several similar phrases about the law in these psalms if you compare them. For example, Ps 19:10 is similar to Psalm 119:127 and 103. Both of them state that God’s law is to be desired more than gold and it is sweeter than honey. 

Turning to the first six verses of Psalm 19, which focus on God’s glory in creation, over the centuries these verses have been an inspiration to musicians. Franz Joseph Haydn, probably the greatest composer of his age, who left a rich legacy of oratorios and symphonies, was once asked where he obtained his musical inspirations and ideas. Simple in his lifelong Catholic faith, he answered, “Well, you see, I get up early, and as soon as I have dressed I go down on my knees and pray God that I may have another successful day. Then when I’ve had some breakfast, I sit down at the clavier and begin my search. But if I can’t get on, I know that I must have forfeited God’s grace by some fault of mine, and then I pray once more for grace.”

One of his greatest works is The Creation, based on the account of the creation in Genesis and the opening verses of Psalm 19, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He had to be carried, due to illness, to the gala Vienna performance of The Creation. In a tremendous ovation the distinguished audience rose with thunderous applause as a tribute to his genius. Franz Joseph Haydn protested and, pointing his hand toward heaven, exclaimed, “This did not come from me—it all comes from above.”1

At least two other musicians were inspired by the words of Psalm 19. Isaac Watts wrote his hymn “The Heav’ns Declare Thy Glory, Lord” and Thomas Birks wrote his hymn “The Heavens Declare Thy Glory” based on Psalm 19. 

After the psalmist begins with God’s glory in creation, he shifts his train of thought to praise God’s law, also known as God’s Torah. The word Torah literally means God’s teaching, God’s instruction.

In verses 7-9, the psalmist employs six different words, which are synonyms to describe God’s laws. In each case the word also has an adjective: the law is perfect, decrees are sure, precepts are right, the commandment is clear, fear of the LORD is pure, and ordinances are true and righteous. In four of these synonyms, each has some consequence or benefit: the law revives the soul, decrees make the simple wise, precepts rejoice the heart, the commandment enlightens the eyes. 

In verse 11, the psalmist describes the function of the law: it warns you of the consequences if you do not obey it; and it rewards you if you do obey. That reminds me of the following story told by Professor Fred Craddock.

Professor Craddock says: I recall in a class on the parables a few years ago, the students gravitated heavily toward the stories of a reversal type in which the offer of grace was extended to the wayward son, the publican, the eleventh-hour worker, and the servant who took big risks with the master’s money. These students frowned on punishing lazy stewards or slamming doors in the faces of poor girls who forgot to bring oil. In short, grace was no longer unexpected, but instead was expected by these seminarians and hence was no longer grace, and if it was, it was cheap. So Professor Craddock read this story once without explanation and asked if it was a parable. 

There was a certain seminary professor who was very strict about due dates for papers. Due dates were announced at the beginning of a semester, and failure to meet them resulted in an F for the semester. In one class three students did not meet the deadline. The first one explained, “Professor, unexpected guests from out of town came the evening before the paper was due, and I was unable to finish it.”

“Then you receive an F,” said the professor. 

The second student explained, “On the day before the paper was due, I became ill with influenza and was unable to complete it.”

“Then you receive an F,” said the professor.

The third student, visibly shaken at the news about the fate of the other two, cautiously approached the professor’s desk. Slowly he began, “Professor, our first baby was due the same day the paper was due. The evening before, my wife began having pains, and so I rushed her to the hospital. Shortly after midnight she gave birth to a boy. Our son weighs eight pounds. We named him Kenneth.”

The professor listened with interest, moved his chair back from the desk, and looked up at the ceiling. After a long pause, he looked across at the student and said, “Then you receive and F for the course.” The news spread rapidly through the seminary. A large delegation of students came to the professor to protest.

“Why have you been so cruel and harsh?” they asked. 

The professor replied, “At the beginning of the semester I gave my word concerning the papers. If the word of a teacher in a Christian seminary cannot be trusted, whose word can be trusted?” The students were dismissed.

Most of the students were angry not only with the professor in the story but with Professor Craddock for telling it. They insisted it was not a parable.2

That story reminds me of the closing verses of Psalm 19, wherein the psalmist confesses that he is in need of something beyond God’s law. The law shows him his sins—both his unwitting sins and his wilful sins. Yet the law cannot forgive him of his sins—only the LORD and his grace can do that. 

That reminds me of another story. When I was in seminary, many years ago, I handed in a paper late. At the end of my paper, I wrote to the professor apologizing for my tardiness, and telling him that he should operate by the law, and dock me the appropriate marks for handing my paper in late. Well, the professor liked my paper, and rather than getting an F like the students in the story earlier, my professor chose to be gracious—I ended up getting a B. 

As the psalmist says, yes, the law is good. It functions to punish us if we disobey, and it rewards us if we keep the law. Society needs the law for everyone’s protection and well-being. For example, the lower speed limits in school zones protect students from being injured or run over, and protect drivers from injuring the students. The law however also functions to show us our sins. As the psalmist admits, no one is perfect, we all sin, and cannot perfectly keep God’s law. The law cannot forgive our sins, we need something beyond the law. Rather, the law functions to reveal our sins and shortcomings, and to drive us to Christ who, by his grace, forgives us. 

That is why the psalmist ends his prayer in verse 14; and that is why many of us preachers pray a version of verse 14 before we begin our sermons: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” Only by God’s grace can my words and our thoughts become acceptable. Thanks to what Jesus has done for you and I on the cross and through his resurrection, we are forgiven and generously receive his gift of grace. 

During this Lenten season, by God’s grace, may we all be more mindful and appreciative of what Jesus has done for each one of us through his suffering and death on the cross! 

1 Benjamin P. Browne, Illustrations For Preaching (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1977), p. 47. 

2 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001), pp. 18-19. 

Sermon for 1 Lent Yr B

1st Sunday in Lent Yr B, 21/02/2021

Ps 25:1-10

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“God the loving, merciful, and gracious teacher”

My NRSV Lutheran Study Bible gives the original superscription-title of Psalm 25 as “Of David.” The Good News Bible has “By David.” The REB is different in that David is not credited as the author, and so it is titled: “For David.” According to biblical scholar, Claus Westermann (The Psalms: Structure, Content & Message, p. 17), Psalms 3-41 represent a collection attributed to David. Besides their common superscription, another characteristic is that they are all psalms of an individual. Hymnwriter Paul Gerhardt may also have been inspired by the words of Psalm 25 when he composed his hymn “Nach dir, mein Gott, verlanget mich,” loosely translated: “For thee, Lord, pants my longing heart.” 

The Lutheran Study Bible also titles Psalm 25 like this: “Prayer for Guidance and Deliverance.” The Good News Bible has the following title: “A Prayer for Guidance and Protection.” According to my NRSV Lutheran Study Bible (p. 850), this psalm is one of the eight acrostic poems in the Psalter. An acrostic or alphabetical poem starts each line with a succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet. However, a careful reading of Psalm 25 reveals that it is a rather “mixed bag” in terms of the type of psalm it is, along with its variety of themes. In addition to it being an acrostic poem, it is also a prayer for help, and a wisdom psalm, and a lament. 

The opening three verses focus on trusting in God for protection against his enemies whom he seems to feel threaten him, and petitioning God not to be put to shame. The contrasts between those who trust and wait for the LORD and those who are enemies and are “wantonly treacherous” are emphasized in these verses. However, the REB renders verse 3 like this: “No one whose hope is in you is put to shame, but shame comes to all who break faith without cause.” Rendered in this way, the language is similar to Proverbs and the wisdom psalms, and highlights the psalmist’s confidence in God. 

In verses four and five, there is a shift in thought. Now the psalmist makes his request that God would teach him to know God’s way, God’s path, God’s truth. Knowing the way to go and following the right path is very important in life. For example, if you are driving in a strange city and do not pay attention to signs, maps or GPS, you can easily get lost. Or if you refuse to see or read a road sign that says: “Danger Do Not Enter,” you might risk getting into an accident. The same is true of our life of faith. We can willingly learn God’s way, God’s path, God’s truth by reading and studying the Bible, praying, attending worship, loving God and neighbour. All of these help us to learn and know God’s way, God’s path, God’s truth, and to grow in our faith and life journey. 

In verses six and seven, the psalmist makes an intercession for God to be mindful of and to remember God’s mercy and steadfast love, and to forget the sins and offences of his youth. 

Both the Greeks and the Hebrews used many words where we have been satisfied with one. As there are many words for our one love, so with mercy. The Hebrew chesed is seen over and over again in the Psalms, and Coverdale frequently translates it as lovingkindness,[our NRSV renders it steadfast love] that continued forbearance shown by God even when his chosen people are slow to keep his commandments and swift to turn to foreign gods. 

Another Hebrew word for mercy is rachamim, which has to do with tender compassion, the care of the shepherd for the stray lamb, the pity shown to the weak and helpless. And there is chaninah, a joyful, generous mercy, loving and kind. 

So mercy, as all the other Beatitudes, is a Christ-like word, and I must look for understanding of it in the small and daily events of my own living, because if I do not recognize it in the little things I will not see it in the great.1

Most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, likely regret some of the sins of our youth, and perhaps they may even rear their ugly heads when we are adults. That reminds me of the following story. 

A Catholic priest living in the Philippines was a much-loved man of God who once carried a secret burden of long-past sin buried deep in his heart. He had committed that sin once, many years before, during his time in seminary. No one else knew of this sin. He had repented of it and he had suffered years of remorse for it, but he still had no peace, no inner joy, no sense of God’s forgiveness.

There was a woman in this priest’s parish who deeply loved God, and who claimed to have visions in which she spoke with Christ, and He with her. The priest, however, was skeptical of her claims, so to test her visions he said to her, “You say you actually speak directly with Christ in your visions. Let me ask you a favour. The next time you have one of these visions, I want you to ask Him what sin your priest committed while he was in seminary.” 

The woman agreed and went home. When she returned to the church a few days later, the priest said, “Well, did Christ visit you in your dreams?”

She replied, “Yes, He did.”

“And did you ask Him what sin I committed in seminary?”

“Yes, I asked Him.”

“Well, what did He say?”

“He said, ‘I don’t remember.’”

This is what God wants you to know about the forgiveness He freely offers you. When your sins are forgiven, they are forgotten. The past—with its sins, hurts brokenness, and self-recrimination—is gone, dead, crucified, remembered no more. What God forgives, He forgets.2

Verses eight to ten of our psalm repeat the themes the psalmist made in the previous verses regarding: God’s way, God’s path, God’s steadfast love (chesed), God’s faithfulness. Again the language in these verses is very similar to Proverbs and the wisdom psalms. Here the psalmist is receiving the benefits, the blessings of God’s love, mercy and grace by responding in keeping his covenant. 

Keeping his covenant involves serving others in everyday living. God wants both justice and love for the world. Justice may involve something as practical as the fairness of standing in line at a store; if someone slips in ahead of us, we know how unjust that is. 

Love and justice belong together. Many people from hungry countries, including Christians there, have been thanking us for the love we have shown in their lands, but they are asking us to be more just as well. They point out several international trade practices which could be fairer for them. 

While we have given them shiploads of food, we have taken from them many more shiploads of resources at cheap prices—copper, bauxite for aluminum, chrome, cotton, clothes, sugar, coffee, oil, crafts, and now even meats and produce, to list some of them. It’s not that we shouldn’t have bought these goods—international trade is a good thing—but the hungry countries tell us we need to be paying a fair price so that they can gain buying power too. 

They tell us we have slipped in line ahead of them at the resource stations of the world. While they were trying to recover from the burdens of colonialism, slavery, and confinement on reservations, we gained control over the mineral supplies and many of their food-growing lands. As they tried to catch up, they were forced to sell cheap to gain what exchange they could. 

We may think sometimes they are ungrateful asking for more justice. We wonder, Why can’t they see how much our investments in their countries have helped them, and how risky those investments are? Why haven’t they used our aid to help themselves and get ahead? Why do they let their grain spoil in storage? Why don’t they kill their sacred cows? Why don’t they work as hard as us? Why isn’t our love enough? 

But maybe we have not had a chance to hear their side. They wonder about us, and may ask, Why do they demand such a high rate of return on their investments? Why do they take so much of the profits? Why does so much of the plastic that they use end up polluting our oceans and killing the marine life there? Why do they throw away their aluminum cans and left-over restaurant food? Why do mining companies come and destroy our environment? Why don’t they work as hard as us? Why aren’t they more just? 

The problems of international trade are very complex, however God’s principle of justice must be applied in every way it can. It is an attitude which changes our worldview. 

During this season of Lent, may we like the psalmist, confess and repent of our sins; willingly learn from God our loving, merciful and gracious teacher; and respond to God’s love, forgiveness and grace by treating others justly and humbly, lovingly serving them. 

1 Madeleine L’Engle with Carole F. Chase, Glimpses of Grace: Daily Thoughts, And Reflections (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996 & 1998), pp. 268-269. 

2 James S. Hewett, Editor, Illustrations Unlimited: A Topical Collection of Hundreds Of Stories, Quotations, & Humor For Speakers, Writers, Pastors, and Teachers (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1988), p. 216. 

Sermon for 5 Epiphany Yr B

5th Sunday after Epiphany Yr B, 7/02/2021

Ps 147:1-11, 20c

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

God’s just and compassionate reversals”

The last five psalms of the Psalter are Hallel psalms. They all begin and end, functioning kind of like bookends, with the Hebrew word Hallelujah, translated into English as Praise the LORD! My NRSV Lutheran Study Bible (p. 849), identifies Psalm 147 as a Hymn of Praise, and biblical scholar Claus Westermann, identifies it, along with all five Hallel psalms as a Psalm of Descriptive Praise. They are psalms of descriptive praise because they are responses to God’s love, grace and justice by giving specific reasons for praising God. Westermann states that: this sort of descriptive praise could be raised whenever the assembled congregation wished to honor its God: at the major festivals, at sacrifices, and at worship services of all sorts. This is true of worship taking place in the temple as well as (and especially) at family celebrations of such events as the Passover, the beginning of the Sabbath, and numerous other special occasions (The Psalms: Structure, Content and Message, p. 83). The title that myLutheran Study Bible gives Psalm 147 is “Praise for God’s Care for Jerusalem.” The Good News Bible has the following title: “In Praise of God the Almighty.”

Psalm 147, as I count them, provides six reasons for offering God a hymn of praise. However, I’m going to focus on four of them, which, I think, have a similar theme, namely, God’s reversals of justice and compassion. These four reversals in today’s psalm are: i) the LORD builds up (restores) Jerusalem; ii) he gathers the outcasts (brings back the exiles) of Israel; iii) he heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds; iv) he lifts up the downtrodden (he raises the humble) and casts the wicked to the ground.

When I looked at the other Bible passages for today, I also discovered that each one of them highlighted in some way this theme of God’s just and compassionate reversals. In Isaiah 40:29, the prophet writes the following concerning God’s just and compassionate reversal—encouraging his people who were in Babylonian exile and likely feeling defeated, depressed, and wondering if God had now permanently abandoned them: “He (i.e. God) gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.” In our second lesson, the apostle Paul, describing his ministry says, in 1 Corinthians 9:22: “To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.” In today’s gospel, Mark 1:34 describes Jesus’ public ministry by reversing the powers of evil by ushering in God’s kingdom. Jesus’ public ministry is described like this: “And he (Jesus) cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.”

So, as you can see, God’s just and compassionate reversals are found in all of these Bible passages, and indeed, throughout the Bible. God’s just and compassionate reversals reflect who God is and what he is doing among his people and in the world.

The ultimate reason for commitment to the poor and oppressed is not to be found in the social analysis we use. As Christians, however, our commitment is grounded, in the final analysis, in the God of our faith. It is a theocentric, prophetic option that has its roots in the unmerited love of God and is demanded by this love.

In other words, the poor deserve preference not because they are morally or religiously better than others, but because God is God, in whose eyes “the last are first.”1

To believe you can approach God without drawing nearer in compassion to suffering humanity is to fool yourself. There can be no genuine personal religious conversion without a change in social attitude. Compassion and justice are companions, not choices.2

So, it is clear from today’s Psalm and our other Bible passages that two central themes are found in the Bible regarding justice. First, God’s all-encompassing love, concern, and mercy are for all human beings. Second, our responsibility to love God’s creation and care for God’s people—especially those who are outcasts, exiles/refugees, brokenhearted and wounded, and the downtrodden—is to respond to God’s grace.

There are many Jewish stories told by rabbis about the prophet Elijah. As you recall, Elijah did not die—rather, God took him up to heaven in a chariot of fire. So, out of this biblical story, the rabbis told more stories about how Elijah came back to this world to help others in need. These stories often emphasize that God loves and cares for those who are poor and needy, as is the case in the following story.

There was a poor but pious man who scarce could keep alive, and he had a wife at home, and sons who numbered five. “How long can we go on like this?” the pious man’s wife said. “We haven’t anything to eat, not a single crust of bread! You’ve studied Torah and that’s fine, but now what will we do? Get you to the marketplace, and may God pity you!”

But how,” her husband asked her, “can I go anywhere,” when I have neither cloak nor coat nor anything to wear? I have no money, either, not a penny to my name—Why, send me to the market and I will die of shame!”

And so the woman hurried to her neighbours, borrowed clothes, and gave them to her husband, may God save him from his woes. The man went to the market and stood there teary-eyed; then heavenward he cast his glance and to the Lord he cried: “O Master of the Universe, You know I’m all alone, little children have I five, but food to feed them none. Please, dear Lord, I beg of You, either pity me, or let me die and put an end to all my misery.”

Now as he stood there weeping, who should the poor man meet but Elijah, bless him, coming up the street! “There, there,” Elijah told him. “Wipe your tears, my son. Pretend I am a slave of yours and sell me to someone.” “But Master,” said the pious man, “how can I sell you? And anyway, who’ll take me for a rich, slave-owning Jew?” “Fear not,” Elijah said to him. “Do everything I say. Give me a penny when I’m sold, and that will be my pay.”

And so the poor man led Elijah to the market. Everywhere he went, people took him for the slave and Elijah for the master, and Elijah had to keep telling them, “He is the master—the slave is me!” Just then an official of the king’s passed by, liked the looks of the man for sale, and bought him for eighty dinars. Elijah took a penny for himself, gave the rest to the pious Jew, and said to him, “Here, this is for you and your family. You’ll never have to be poor again.”

Then Elijah went off with the official, and the man returned home, where he found his wife and children faint from hunger. He put food and drink before them and told them the whole story, to which his wife said, “It’s a good thing you listened to me, because had you waited any longer, we would all have been dead!” And from that day on, the Lord blessed him and made him a wealthy man who never lacked for anything.

Some time later, the pious Jew met Elijah and told him, “You’ve saved my life!”

Give thanks to God the Creator, Who has done this great kindness to you,” declared Elijah, of blessed memory.3

May we along with the psalmist, heed Elijah’s exhortation in this story, and offer God our thanks and praise for his just and compassionate reversals to bless those in greatest need, as well as us. And let the congregation sing: “Praise the LORD!” Amen!

1 Marc H. Ellis & Otto Maduro, editors, Expanding The View: Gustavo Gutierrz And The Future Of Liberation Theology (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988, 89, 90), p. 14.

2 Wm. Sloane Coffin, Credo (Louisville & London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 51.

3 Pinhas Sadeh, translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin, Jewish Folktales Selected and Retold by Pinhas Sadeh (Toronto, et al: Anchor Books Doubleday, 1989), pp. 124-126.

January 27, 2021 International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day—also known as Yom HaShoah—which was designated as such by the United Nations in 2005. I have blogged about this in previous years.

I encourage you to visit the following links, which focus on Yom HaShoah, I would especially recommend the Yad Vashem website for a wealth of information.

Resources at the Yad Vashem website.

Yad Vashem online Holocaust Remembrance Day Event

This article from the Jerusalem Post

This article was written by Rabbi Hier and Rabbi Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre

Prime Minister Trudeau’s statement on the 2021 International Holocaust Remembrance Day

My 2018 blog post

My 2012 blog post

My 2011 blog post

My 2010 blog post

My 2009 blog post

My 2008 blog post

Sermon for 3 Epiphany Yr B

Read my sermon for January 24, 2021 here: 3 Epiphany Yr B

Sermon for 2 Epiphany Yr B

Read my sermon for January 17, 2021 here: 2 Epiphany Yr B