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: 

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. 


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.