Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday Yr B

Thanksgiving Sunday Yr B, 10/10/2021

Joel 2:21-27 & Ps 126 

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“Thanksgiving is Thanksliving”

Mrs. Avondale was walking an interior designer through the mansion, discussing renovations. The professional had many fine suggestions, and Mrs. Avondale accepted them all with the sweep of a hand. 

“I only demand one thing,” she said, turning to the designer. “When my best friend Marguerite comes to visit after we’re finished, I want her to drop dead from envy.”

Contrary to Mrs. Avondale, may we not be so ungrateful for what we have been given in life and so mean-spirited towards our neighbours. In our Scripture passages from Joel, and Psalm 126 today, we learn that Thanksgiving is Thanksliving. 

After a period of drought and suffering from a locust plague, the prophet Joel in our first lesson reminds not only his people, but also the soil and the animals that thanksgiving is thanksliving. He speaks as if the soil and animals were personified, and gives them a message not to fear and to be glad and rejoice, for the LORD will provide plenty of green pastures, and there shall be an abundance of fruit on the fig trees and vines. Then, Joel goes on to remind his people that their prayers are answered; for God shall end the locust plague, provide early and later rains, and renew the earth by granting his people an abundant harvest. By delivering these promises, the people shall be reassured that the LORD is their God and they can praise and thank and trust in God for all things. 

Speaking of abundant harvests, recently I had conversations with two farmers. They both were very thankful and pleasantly surprised by God’s abundance. They said their crops yielded way more than they had expected, in spite of the hot, dry summer and lack of rain. They were thankful and quite satisfied with the harvest. To give thanks means to be satisfied; we are often not satisfied—too much affluence in our society spoils us, and sadly many do not have grateful hearts and have forgotten how abundantly God has provided for us. They have forgotten that thanksgiving is thanksliving. 

Psalm 126 has the superscription: “A Song of Ascents.” These psalms are often linked to God’s people travelling to Jerusalem for one of the major festivals. In this case, the psalm has images of harvest, it may actually have been sung during the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, also called the Feast of Booths, and Sukkoth. 

In Psalm 126 today, the opening verses are full of surprise, awe, wonder, and thanksgiving. The context is likely shortly after or at the end of Judah’s Babylonian captivity. For them, the hopeless situation of exile was turned around completely, God delivered them, even though it seemed like a dream, too good to be true, but it was true—and they responded by worshipping God: “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” The LORD has done great things for us and we rejoiced.” I like the way the REB translates verse 1: “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like people renewed in health.” Health for the Jewish people involved wholeness of mind, body and spirit, and the belief that God was blessing them. Being renewed in health can be a surprise for people who have life-threatening illnesses, which doctors may even have diagnosed them in such a way that there was little hope that they would recover from the illness. People diagnosed with cancer or the coronavirus, but, by the grace and healing of God, recovered. For those exiled people of Judah, the surprise that God had brought them back to Zion went beyond their expectations and so thanksgiving became thanksliving for them. 

As our psalm continues, God’s people pray for rain in dry places as they are sad by the drought and wonder if the crops they plant will grow and if they will even have a harvest. I like the way The Message renders verses 4-6: “And now, GOD, do it again—bring rains to our drought-stricken lives so those who planted their crops in despair will shout “Yes!” at the harvest, so those who went off with heavy hearts will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing.” This rendering, which pictures God answering their prayer by giving his people a bountiful harvest also complements the title that the NRSV Lutheran Study Bible gives Psalm 126: “A Harvest of Joy.” 

Difficult circumstances need not prevent us from living the truth that thanksgiving is thanksliving. Here is one of my favourite stories of thanksgiving, which comes out of a situation of great hardship and suffering. 

The lovely words of praise and faith found in the hymn Now Thank We All Our

God would lead us to believe that this hymn was written during a time of victory. Quite the opposite was the case. Martin Rinkart, a Lutheran pastor in Eilenburg, Germany, wrote the hymn during the Thirty Year War which raged in Germany during the 1600s. 

Eilenburg was a walled city and was a place of refuge for thousands of refugees fleeing the war. As it filled with helpless victims, the city became overcrowded and was under-supplied with food, sanitation, and medical care. Instead of a place of refuge, it soon became a city of death. Plagues raged through the city claiming hundreds of victims.

In the midst of misery and pain, Reverend Rinkart wrote sixty hymns of faith and hope. His hymns helped turn the people’s eyes from their despair to the power and love of God. Rinkart encouraged them to look beyond their circumstances to the eternal blessings of God. With this confidence, Rinkart was able to minister to thousands. In the terrible plague of 1637, other pastors fled or died, and Rinkart was left alone to bury close to 4500 men, women, and children. Some days he would conduct 45 funerals.

As the war drew to a close, Eilenburg was overrun by several armies. At one point, the Swedish army occupied the city, and the general in charge demanded that the people pay a large tribute. On behalf of the people, Rev. Rinkart spoke to the general and begged for mercy. The general was unyielding. Facing possible death, Rinkart called his companions to kneel and pray. “Come my children, we can find no mercy with (humans); let us take refuge with God.” He led the prayer and the singing of a hymn. Stunned, the general watched. When Rinkart rose, the general ordered the levy reduced, and he spared the city. It was with this faith that Rinkart wrote, “Now Thank We All Our God.”1

This story not only underscores the importance that thanksgiving is thanksliving; that even in times of hardship and suffering we can give God thanks, like Pastor Rinkart. The story also underscores the importance of trust and confidence in God through prayer, that God does hear us and answer us—sometimes beyond our expectations. 

So, in our times of trouble and suffering may we, like ancient Israel, and like Pastor Rinkart and his companions turn to God in prayer, trusting and confident that God will answer and provide what is needed most. Thanksgiving is thanksliving. On this Thanksgiving Sunday, thanks be to God for everything and everyone. Amen! 

1 Clergy Talk, November 1999 (Sequim, WA), p. 14. 

Sermon for 19 Pentecost Yr B

19 Pentecost Yr B, 3/10/2021

Ps 26

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“Integrity and innocence”

What do the following three Canadians have in common? David Milgaard, Donald Marshall Jr., and Thomas Sophonow. If you guessed that they were wrongfully found guilty and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, you are correct. 

David Milgaard was charged with the 1969 murder of Saskatoon nursing aide Gail Miller and in January 1970 was sentenced to life in prison. Milgaard’s mother, Joyce, believed from the day he was arrested that her son was innocent. He spent more than two decades in prison. Milgaard was eventually cleared by DNA evidence, and Larry Fisher was found guilty of the rape and stabbing death of Gail Miller.

In 1971, Marshall was wrongfully convicted of murdering his friend, Sandy Seale, in a Sydney, N.S., park. He was released in 1982 after RCMP reviewed his case. He was cleared by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal the following year. Marshall, a Mi’kmaq, was exonerated by a royal commission in 1990 that determined systemic racism had contributed to his wrongful imprisonment.

Winnipeg police announced in June 2000 that evidence had cleared Thomas Sophonow in the killing of doughnut-shop clerk Barbara Stoppel.

Authorities said they had a new suspect in the 1981 murder for which Sophonow was tried three times and spent nearly four years behind bars. The Manitoba Court of Appeal acquitted him in 1985.1

In Psalm 26, even though we do not know the exact situation, it sounds like the psalmist was accused of some wrong that he was innocent of. The title that the NRSV Lutheran Study Biblegives this psalm seems to confirm this: “Plea for Justice and Declaration of Righteousness.” The Good News Bible title is similar: “The Prayer of an Innocent Person.” The Lutheran Study Bible identifies Psalm 26 as a prayer for help. Prayers for help often contain the following 5 elements: i) a call to be heard; ii) complaints about God’s absence, the person’s suffering, and oppressors; iii) pleas for help; iv) statements of trust in God; and v) promises to praise God after the crisis is past. Psalm 26 has some of these elements, so let’s take a closer look.

In verse one, it almost sounds like the psalmist is on trial, or others doubt the psalmist’s integrity. The Message renders it like this: “Clear my name, God; I’ve kept an honest shop. “I’ve thrown in my lot with you, God, and I’m not budging.” The NRSV puts it like this: “Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering.” 

In verse 2, the atmosphere of a court case comes through, and the psalmist seems to be speaking to God as Judge in the NRSV rendering: “Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and mind.” However in The Message rendering it is quite different. The imagery reflects more medical language, and God is like an M.D., and the psalmist is a patient: “Examine me, God, from head to foot, order your battery of tests. Make sure I’m fit inside and out.” 

Verse 3 of the NRSV rendering emphasises the psalmist’s trust in God’s steadfast love, which makes it possible for the psalmist to be faithful: “For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you.” Of course, God’s steadfast love is so rich in meaning in the Bible, among other things it involves God’s justice. So God as Judge will always give everyone a fair trial, and be able, unlike human judges, to discern with the utmost truth, who is guilty and who is innocent. 

In verses 4 and 5, once again the setting has the impression of court language. The psalmist insists that there is no evidence that he is guilty by association, and he is defending his innocence. “I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites; I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked.”

In verses 6 and 7 he defends his innocence and cleanness by washing his hands and stating that he loves to worship God, bear witness to God, and be in the presence of the worshipping community. The Message renders these verses in the following colourful language: “I scrub my hands with purest soap, then join hands with the others in the great circle, dancing around your altar, God, Singing God-songs at the top of my lungs, telling God-stories.” 

Verse 8 is a continuation of the theme of the psalmist loving to worship God in God’s presence: “O LORD, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides.” 

In verses 9 and 10 the psalmist forcefully pleads with God not to punish him or reject him or judge him like those who are criminals. Again the language of The Message is colourful: “When it’s time for spring cleaning, don’t sweep me out with the quacks and crooks. Men with bags of dirty tricks, women with purses stuffed with bribe-money.” 

Verses 11 and 12 conclude the psalm with an emphasis again on the psalmist’s integrity, and his promise to worship God in the future. “But as for me, I walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me. My foot stands on level ground; in the great congregation I will bless the LORD.” 

Integrity is important in life. That reminds me of the following story. Four boys found $13,000 in a brown paper bag on a New York street. Three of the boys wanted to divide the money and keep it. The fourth one persuaded them that the honest thing to do was to inform the police. The police took the money, but the boys’ action was widely publicized. In no time at all, a dozen claimants showed up to state that the money was theirs. It’s amazing how many people lose $13,000 in a brown paper bag! After a period of time had elapsed, the case was brought before the court, and the boys were called in. The judge listened to all the claimants, then praised the boys’ honesty and awarded the money to them. Faced with a conflict of right or wrong, they had made the right choice.2

It has been observed that: People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered. Love them anyway. 

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. 

The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest people with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.

People favour underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for some underdogs anyway. 

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.3

When you think about your life, like the psalmist, there has likely been at least one time when you were accused of doing wrong, but you were innocent. Like the psalmist, others may have questioned or doubted your integrity. Hopefully you, like the psalmist, are here today because of our LORD’s steadfast love, and all-sufficient grace. For that, we offer our praise and thanks! 

1 See the following article on the CBC website: <https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/canada-s-wrongful-convictions-1.783998#sophonow&gt;.

2 Albert P. Stauderman, Let Me Illustrate: Stories and Quotations for Christian Communicators (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983), p. 109. 

3 James S. Hewett, Editor, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1988), p. 54.

Sermon for 17 Pentecost Yr B

17 Pentecost Yr B, 19/09/2021

Ps 54 & Jer 11:18-20

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“Help God! Enemies want to kill me!”

Psalm 54 has the following superscription: To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Maskil of David, when the Ziphites went and told Saul, “David is hiding among us.” The background of this psalm then is described in 1 Samuel 23 and 26. David and Saul are on the outs, David is fleeing from Saul. He goes into hiding in the wilderness of Ziph. The Ziphites betray David by telling Saul where he is hiding. Saul pursues David. However, at the last moment, Saul gets word that the Philistines raided the land, so he stops pursuing David. In 1 Samuel 26, Saul and his army are also pursuing David in the wilderness of Ziph and again the Ziphites betray David by telling Saul where David is hiding. This time, one night David and Abishai sneak into Saul’s camp. Saul is sleeping, and Abishai wants to kill him. David prevents him from doing so, however he steals Saul’s spear and water jar. He tells Abishai that eventually the LORD will deal with Saul. Later, when Saul finds out that David could have killed him, but did not, he and David made peace. Eventually however, Saul was wounded in battle, and then took his own life. 

The NRSV Lutheran Study Bible gives Psalm 54 the following title: “Prayer for Vindication,” and the Good News Bible has this title: “A Prayer for Protection from Enemies.” The Lutheran Study Bible (p. 849) identifies Psalm 54 as a prayer for help. It also has elements of a psalm of trust, a lament, a liturgy, and a prayer of individual thanks. 

In verses 1 and 2, David is desperate, and he asks God to listen to him and vindicate him. The Messagecaptures David’s emotionally desperate state, by rendering verse 2 like this: “Listen, God—I’m desperate. Don’t be too busy to hear me.” 

Verse 3 tells us why David is desperate, again The Message captures how David feels a sense of betrayal: “Outlaws are out to get me, hit men are trying to kill me. Nothing will stop them; God means nothing to them.” 

Just as David felt betrayed by the Ziphites, so too does Jeremiah in today’s first lesson. He has been faithful as God’s prophet and preached to his own people in his hometown of Anathoth. He predicted their destruction, it was a message most likely difficult for him to preach, and the people did not like it one bit, because it was not a message they wanted to hear or accept. So they betray their own hometown prophet and threaten to kill him. 

That reminds me of the following story. MacLean died in early March 1983, he died in Russia. Maclean was actually British. He had gone to the University of Cambridge in the 1930s there, and had joined a circle promoting communism. 

From this circle came many of the most notorious spies for the Soviet Union. In 1951, MacLean was tipped off that he was about to be exposed as a spy. He fled behind the Iron Curtain, where he lived in obscurity.

In Britain at the time of exposure, there was a sense of disbelief that one of their own citizens educated, and part of the aristocracy would be a traitor. Later, other such traitors were also exposed. Some having given the Soviets some of Britain’s and the American’s most sensitive secrets.

Betrayals, of course, can have tragic consequences, they can be a matter of life and death. In some cases even thousands, perhaps millions or even billions of lives may hang in the balance. Of course, the ultimate story of betrayal involved Judas betraying Jesus. Judas’ betrayal of Jesus led to his death on the cross. 

However, David and Jeremiah did not respond to their betrayals like Jesus. True, they did turn to God for help when their lives were threatened. Unlike Jesus, they did not pray or wish for forgiveness for their enemies. Rather, they asked God for vindication, vengeance, revenge, retribution. The Good News Bible renders verses 4 and 5 like this: “But God is my helper. The Lord is my defender. May God use their own evil to punish my enemies. He will destroy them because he is faithful.” 

That reminds me of the following story. Three burly fellows on huge motorcycles pulled up to a highway cafe where a truck driver, just a little guy, was perched on a stool quietly eating his lunch. As the three fellows came in, they spotted him, grabbed his food away from him and laughed in his face. The truck driver said nothing. He got up, paid for his food, and walked out. One of the three cyclists, unhappy that they hadn’t succeeded in provoking the little man into a fight, commented to the waitress: “Boy, he sure wasn’t much of a man, was he?” The waitress replied, “Well, I guess not.” Then, looking out the window, she added, “I guess he’s not much of a truck driver, either. He just ran over three motorcycles.”1

Like David and Jeremiah, perhaps our reaction to the story of the truck driver running over the three motorcycles is that the three cyclists got what they deserved because of the way they treated the truck driver. In our humanness, in our sinful state, emotionally, we may be tempted to get angry and take revenge on those who threaten us or treat us badly, cruelly, and unjustly. Or even worse, we may say what David said in verse 7 of our psalm, as the REB translates it: “I look with delight on the downfall of my enemies.” 

There are several examples in the Psalter of what are called imprecatory psalms—i.e., psalms that call for vengeance. As Christians, I think we struggle with these imprecatory psalms. They depict a “Go get em!” God. A God who likes to punish and destroy people rather than have mercy on them and forgive them. As Christians, Jesus is our perfect example of how we are to deal with our enemies. We are called to love, pray for, and forgive them—which is much easier to say than to do. 

There is much wisdom in what Lutheran theologian, pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to say about the imprecatory psalms. Thus the imprecatory psalm leads to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God which forgives enemies. I cannot forgive the enemies of God out of my own resources. Only the crucified Christ can do that, and I through him. Thus the carrying out of vengeance becomes grace for all [people] in Jesus Christ.

Even today I can believe the love of God and forgive my enemies only by going back to the cross of Christ, to the carrying out of the wrath of God. The cross of Jesus is valid for all [people].2

God is both a just and merciful God. There are consequences for our sinful and evil actions. Sometimes our sinful and evil actions will be subject to cause and effect consequences—we reap what we sow, we dig a pit of sin and evil and the that same pit will be our undoing, those who live by violence will die by violence, and so on. God always wants what is best for each one of us. Therefore, even though we may think that someone deserves to be punished by God may not be punished by God. God’s ways are not our ways. When Jesus was dying on the cross he prayed for enemies: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34) 

May God’s grace direct our thoughts, words and actions in such a way that we, like Jesus, may be able to pray for, love, and forgive even our enemies. 

1 James S. Hewett, Editor, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1988), p. 486.

2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, psalms: the prayer book of the Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1970, 1974), pp. 58-60. 

Sermon for 14 Pentecost Yr B

14 Pentecost Yr B, 29/08/2021

Ps 15; Deut 4:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mk 7:1-8

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“On faithfulness” 

Faithfulness. This Sunday, all of our Bible passages contain the theme of faithfulness. They describe what it means to be a faithful people of God. You and I, everyone, at times, have our struggles to be faithful people of God. There are many words of wisdom in today’s Bible passages, so let’s have a closer look at them. 

The NRSV Lutheran Study Bible gives Psalm 15 the following title: “Who Shall Abide in God’s Sanctuary?” The Good News Bible has this title: “What God Requires.” The Lutheran Study Bibleidentifies Psalm 15 as a liturgy for entering the temple. 

Verse 1 contains two questions: “O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” Both of these questions are similar in nature. One line following another like this containing a similar theme, is called parallelism, and there are several examples of it in the Bible. Reference to “tent,” and “holy hill” describe the temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Most likely the people as they are about to enter the temple ask these two questions. Then, in the following verses, a priest would answer the questions. The priest’s answer in verses 2-5 emphasise faithfulness, how people live and treat one another. 

I like the CEV’s rendering of verses 2 and 3: “They speak the truth and don’t spread gossip; they treat others fairly and don’t say cruel things.” The passage from James also addresses the power of the tongue and the need to control it. In verse 26, James gives this advice: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle (do not control) their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” The gospel passage also addresses this theme, Mark quotes from Isaiah 29:13: “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” In other words, they are not faithful and truthful because their words contradict how they live and treat one another. 

That reminds me of one of my faithful parishioners many years ago, who passed the following poem on to me concerning how powerful our tongue is. The poem was written by Joseph Hough, one of her relatives, and is called “The Tongue,” and goes like this:

My subject of discourse I’m compelled to use,/Please keep your tongue silent, nay, do not refuse,/For a babel of tongues is shocking to hear,/In bridled ones there is nothing to fear,/Would’est thou enjoy life and be happy for aye,/Keeping the tongue from evil is the very best way./It’s the organ of taste, the instrument of sound,/Giving great thoughts, deep ones profound,/Crushing a broken heart, or filling it with bliss,/It must be mysterious to have power like this./Now I am going to sit, some of you may rise,/Deal gently with your tongues if you should criticise,/For there’s a very old adage you’ve oft heard said:/It takes a still tongue to make a wise head:/But I heard that reversed when, very, very, young:/It takes a wise head to make a still tongue.

This poem and verses 2 and 3 of our psalm, and verse 26 of our James text all are, in a way a commentary on the 8th Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.” That reminds me too, of Luther’s explanation of the Commandment in his Small Catechism, which perhaps you remember, it goes like this: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbours, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” Would that everyone obey these words of wisdom! Then there would be no fake news that leads so many people astray these days, and the gossip tabloids and magazines, etc., would no longer exist! 

Continuing now with verse 4 of our psalm, another requirement for God’s people to be faithful and to worship in the temple was to: “stand by their oath even to their hurt.” That reminds me of the following story.

Disregard for a moment your convictions about gambling, and take note of something special in this news story.

On Friday, March 29, 1984, Robert Cunningham ate a meal of linguine and clam sauce at his favourite restaurant, Sal’s pizzeria, where he had been a regular customer for seven years. His waitress, Phyllis Penza, had worked at Sal’s for nineteen years. 

After his meal Cunningham made a good-natured offer to Penza. He said she could either have a tip or split his winnings if his number was drawn in the upcoming New York lotto. Penza chose to take a chance on the lottery, and she and Cunningham chose the numbers together.

On Saturday night, Cunningham won. The jackpot was six million dollars. Then he faced the moment of truth. Would he keep his promise? Would he give the waitress a “tip” of three million dollars?

Cunningham, a police sergeant, husband, father of four, and grandfather of three, said, “I won’t back out. Besides, friendship means more than money.”

Promises are to be kept no matter what the cost.1

Speaking of money, verse five addresses the matter of money-lending, interest, and taking bribes. The Message puts it like this: “Keep your word even when it costs you, make an honest living, never take a bribe. You’ll never get blacklisted if you live like this.” That reminds me of the following story.

Like many other Canadian pioneers, the first Jew to settle permanently in Ottawa was a colourful and exciting personality. Moses Bilsky was born in Russian Poland in 1829, and he reached Ottawa from New York in 1858. He faithfully adhered to the Jewish dietary laws as well as to other traditional religious practices.

Bilsky was one of those unique men for whom Jewish belief and tradition constituted a way of life. As a banker, he was reputed never to have charged interest on loans to poor persons, Jew or Gentile. When he encountered a Jew who showed no interest in the religious community, or who lacked proper conduct, he refused to lend him money at all. Reverend Mirsky tells how one night, during a fierce blizzard, Bilsky appeared outside his door covered with snow. He was dragging a sleigh piled high with fruit, loaves of bread, vegetables, milk, butter, cheese, and eggs.

Bilsky took hold of a string tied to the sleigh and pulling it behind him, walked by (Reverend Mirsky’s) side. With the snow beating his face (Bilsky) told him that he had just learned that the family of the rascal whom he had refused a loan was in want. He would not cross the threshold of his house; but he wanted (Reverend Mirsky) to bring the cargo to the needy folks.2

Now that is faith, it describes God’s faithful people who practice verse 5 of our psalm, keeping the commandments in our Deuteronomy passage, and follows James’ exhortation to be doers, not merely hearers of the word. 

May God grant you and I the grace to be faithful to God and one another in thought, word and deed! Amen. 

1 Craig Brian Larson, Contemporary Illustrations for Preachers, Teachers and Writers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books a division of Baker Book House Co., 1996), p. 190.

2 Stuart E. Rosenberg, The Jewish Community In Canada: Volume 1 A History (Toronto/Montreal: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 1970), pp. 92-93. 

Sermon for 12 Pentecost Yr B

12 Pentecost Yr B, 15/08/2021

1 Sam 21 & Ps 34:9-14

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“Revere God, don’t tell lies, and enjoy life”

Psalm 34 has the following superscription: “Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.” This superscription has a background story involving David in 1 Samuel 21. David is on the run, fleeing from Saul, fearing for his life. He flees to the city of Nob, which is located between Gibeah, Saul’s hometown, and Jerusalem. Nob was a city of priests, and David approaches the priest Ahimelech, who gives the holy bread to David and his men. David then continued to flee from Saul, going into enemy territory, to the Philistine King Achish of Gath—perhaps he was hoping he’d be safe there, and offer his services as a soldier. At any rate, David, wondering how the Philistine king will receive him, puts on an insanity act, scratching the doors of the gate and letting spittle run down his beard. King Achish has no time for such insane behaviour, he has too many other crazy folks to deal with, and so David continues to flee from Gath, escaping to the cave of Adullam. 

The NRSV Lutheran Study Bible, with this background story in mind, gives Psalm 34 the following title: “Praise for Deliverance from Trouble,” the deliverance from trouble being the threat of Saul and the enemy King Achish. So, David would have praised and thanked God for such a deliverance. The Good News Bible has this title: “In Praise of God’s Goodness.” At any rate, Psalm 34 is a song of thanksgiving. However, it is also an acrostic poem, meaning that each line or section begins with a succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In addition to it being a song of thanksgiving and an acrostic poem, our verses for today, 9-14, contain similarities to wisdom psalms. 

Verse 9 begins with a major theme of the Bible’s wisdom writings in both the psalms and the Book of Proverbs—namely, an admonition to “fear the LORD.” The Good News Bible renders verse 9 like this: “Have reverence for the LORD, all his people; those who obey him have all they need.” The REB, translates it like this: “Fear the LORD, you his holy people; those who fear him lack for nothing.” To fear the LORD involves being in a close and healthy relationship with God by worshipping, loving, obeying, respecting, and revering God. 

When we fear the LORD, by being in reverence of God and obeying God, our psalmist goes on to spell out the consequences, the blessings that go along with fearing the LORD, revering and obeying God. Verses 12 to 14 highlight the consequences, the blessings. Basically the psalmist is saying: “Revere God, don’t tell lies, and enjoy life.” Or, to put it another way, these verses of Psalm 34 are a commentary on the commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour,” (Exodus 20:16).

That reminds me of two stories that I’d like to share with you today. The first one goes like this: A man went to his rabbi with a question. “Rabbi,” he said, “I understand almost all of the law. I understand the commandment not to kill. I understand the commandment not to steal. What I don’t understand is why there is a commandment against slandering the neighbour.”

The rabbi looked at the man and said, “I will give you an answer, but first I have a task for you. I would like you to gather a sack of feathers and place a single feather on the doorstep of each house in the village. When you have finished, return for your answer.” 

The man did as was told and soon returned to the rabbi to announce that the task was complete. “Now, Rabbi, give me the answer to my question. Why is it wrong to slander my neighbour?” 

“Ah,” the rabbi said. “One more thing. I want you to go back and collect all the feathers before I give you the answer.” 

“But Rabbi,” the man protested, “the feathers will be impossible to collect. The wind will have blown them away.” 

“So it is with the lies we tell about our neighbours,” the rabbi said. “They can never be retrieved. They are like feathers in the wind.”1 If one tells lies about others and others find out the lies are not true, the liar can end up losing their respect, as well as losing a friend or neighbour, or the liar may even end up losing their means of making a living. There is also the Jewish tradition of linking illness caused by speaking evil of someone or telling lies. For example, Moses’ sister Miriam criticized Moses for marrying a Cushite wife, and Miriam ended up with a skin disease, her skin turned as white as snow (Numbers 12:10). 

That reminds me of the following story: The People’s Power revolt that toppled Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in February, 1986, was perhaps the most thoroughly chronicled popular uprising in modern times. Legions of foreign journalists covered it, and each scene of the unfolding drama was instantly broadcast around the world. Yet remarkably few details emerged about how the rebellion began and why Marcos failed to overcome the lightly armed rebel forces once it was under way. The result, says Bryan Johnson, who was in Manila for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, is a “massive misunderstanding” of the revolt that brought President Corazon Aquino to power. 

According to Johnson, the rebellion’s most durable myth concerns the role of Juan Ponce Enrile, a former defence minister, and the reformist military officers who supported his challenge to Marcos. After Enrile barricaded himself in Manila’s Camp Aguinaldo along with Deputy Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Fidel Ramos and 200 armed men, Marcos went on national T.V. to accuse his colleague of planning a coup. At the time, most Filipinos dismissed Marcos’s charges as another charade by a pathological liar. But those involved now admit that before Marcos discovered their plot, they had planned to attack the presidential palace, imprison the first family and set up a provisional ruling council. “For once in his life, Marcos was telling the truth,” says one of the cabal. “And nobody believed him.”

This is a tragic example of someone who ruined their reputation because of their lies. Marcos had lied to the Philippine people so much that the people had totally lost their trust in him. They believed he was no longer capable of speaking the truth.2 Marcos’s lying led him to take refuge in Hawaii. Perhaps all of his lying was linked to his death in Honolulu of kidney, heart and lung failure. Over the years, there have been several law suits, and many victims and victims’ families of Marcos’s brutal dictatorship have been compensated. 

So, as the psalmist so wisely teaches: “Would you like to enjoy life? Then fear the LORD, revere and obey God, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies.” Then you do not have to worry about looking for feathers that have blown away in the wind; or having to flee to another country for refuge because of the consequences of telling lies. Your life will be blessed, and you will be a blessing for others as well. Amen—by God’s grace, may it be so for each one of us! 

1 Wm. R. White, Stories For Telling: A Treasury for Christian Storytellers (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p. 73.

2 Maclean’s, May 18, 1987, p. 54. 

Book Review: The Righteous

The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes Of The Holocaust 

Author: Martin Gilbert

Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, hardcover, 529 pages, including: List Of Maps, Preface, Acknowledgements, Afterword, Maps Of Places Mentioned In The Text, Bibliography, Illustration Credits, and Index

The Author

At the time this volume was published in 2003, Sir Martin Gilbert had published eight books on Holocaust themes, a subject he had been writing on for forty years. He was an Honorary Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, where he taught and did research for many years. In 1995 he was knighted, and in 1999 he was awarded a Doctorate of Literature by the University of Oxford for the totality of his published work. He also taught Jewish History at the University of California and Hillsdale College, Michigan. 

Content

In addition to the sections of this volume mentioned above, this work contains seventeen chapters, titled: 1 Rescue in the East, 2 Eastern Galicia, 3 Vilna, 4 Lithuania, 5 Poland: The General-Government, 6 Warsaw, 7 Western Galicia, 8 Germany and Austria, 9 Germans beyond Germany, 10 Central Europe and the Balkans, 11 Norway, Finland and Denmark, 12 France, 13 Belgium and Luxembourg, 14 Holland, 15 Italy and the Vatican, 16 Hungary, 17 In the Camps and on the Death Marches. 

Observations

As a historian of the Holocaust, Gilbert has been thorough in the compilation of this volume. In addition to travelling to many of the places mentioned, he has relied on correspondence and conversations from Holocaust survivors and their family members, “the Righteous” (those who helped Jews and saved them by hiding them), and archives, especially from the Yad Vashem Righteous Among the Nations Archive, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Photo Archive, as well as newspaper and journal articles, and books on the Holocaust.

The stories of the Jews who escaped the Nazis and survived the Holocaust because of “the Righteous” Gentiles who hid them are very similar—though, of course, there are unique factors in each of them. 

When asked why “the Righteous” Gentiles hid the Jews, knowing that if the Nazis caught them, they too could be killed (and many of them were, or they too were taken to concentration camps); one of the most common answers was quite modest: “We are not heroes, we only did our duty, what needed to be done.” Some said that it was their Christian faith that motivated them to do the right thing. 

Many of them expected nothing in return from the Jews; and some hid them for long periods of time, even years, until the war was over. However, they not only hid the Jews, they also provided them with food, drink, and sometimes clothing, and even medical care when needed. Those Righteous who could hide Jews only for a short period of time, were often instrumental in moving the Jews to other safe places.

Some of the hiding places were small, crowded, and dark—requiring the Jews to lay down or sit in a position quietly for lengthy periods of time, until it was safe for them to come out of such hiding places. 

In a number of cases, Jews had to be constantly on the move, from one temporarily safe hiding place to another, in order to keep one step ahead of the Nazis. Tragically, many Jews had hidden somewhere safely for a lengthy period of time, only to be discovered close to the end of the war and then murdered, along with “the Righteous” who had hidden them. Also, tragically, Gentile neighbours would betray their neighbours who were hiding Jews. Even after the war, some of “the Righteous” Gentiles were murdered by their neighbours; or they realised that they were not safe where they lived and had to move elsewhere.

“The Righteous” who saved Jews came from all walks of life and backgrounds. Some of them prior to the war had Jewish friends and neighbours and colleagues, and supported Jewish businesses; others had no Jewish friends, neighbours or colleagues. 

On rare occasions, even enemy soldiers would disobey orders knowing they could be killed if they were caught saving Jews. Some soldiers would tell the Jews that they were opposed to Hitler’s “final solution.” 

The Italians, even though they were Germany’s ally in the war, refused to cooperate with the Nazis, and did not kill their Jews, nor did they allow them to be sent to the concentration camps. It was only after the Nazis occupied Italy that the Jews were killed and sent to the camps. 

Many religious authorities, pastors and priests, etc., issued baptismal certificates and false identity documents to save Jews. Some of them protested adamantly to the Nazis authorities and were willing to sacrifice their own lives to save Jews. 

Many of the Jews who were saved by “the Righteous” did their best to show their gratitude to them—sometimes keeping in touch with them all of their lives, and even providing financial support to them. They also publicly honoured them as “the Righteous” at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. 

Several of the stories shared in this volume are indeed heart-warming, highlighting the love, humanity, and benevolent care of “the Righteous” in a time of violent evil, hatred and destruction. 

This volume will remain a helpful and instructive one for Holocaust historians in particular, as well as a general audience. The detailed, extensive Bibliography is most impressive, and will serve as an important reference for readers who wish to study the history of the Holocaust further. Highly recommended! 

Sermon for 10 Pentecost Yr B

10 Pentecost Yr B, 1/08/2021

2 Sam 11:26-12:13a & Ps 51:1-12

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“Forgiven sinners—David and us”

In a Sherlock Holmes mystery, titled “The Case of the Dancing Men,” the story opens with a young woman gathering flowers in her garden. Suddenly, her face is transformed into terror by something she sees. She drops her basket of flowers and runs panic stricken toward her home. Once inside, she bolts the windows and doors, draws the drapes tight, and falls sobbing and trembling into a chair. Her alarmed husband and maid both rush to her aid. She is both unable and unwilling to tell them what has frightened her so. A long time passes before she is finally able to take her husband to the garden and show him the cause of her terror. Someone has painted small figures of dancing men on the wall of her garden. These dancing men are symbols of a troubled past that she has tried to forget. From this moment on, she walks about half dazed, with terror always lurking in her eyes. She could not leave her past behind.

In today’s passage from 2 Samuel and Psalm 51, David could not leave his past behind either. As the old saying goes: “Your sins will find you out.” They certainly did for David. In the 2 Samuel passage, the prophet Nathan, at first, does not directly spell out in great detail the exact sins of David. Rather, he wisely tells a story about a rich man and a poor man. The rich man, to feed a traveller, took the poor man’s only ewe lamb, which was like a daughter to him—even though the rich man had plenty of his own animals that he could have chosen. David, upon hearing this story, is angry and says: “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

Nathan then replies, “You are the man!” Nathan then goes on to confront David with his sins of coveting and committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband, Uriah. David thought that he could get away with his sins, however, with the LORD’s help, Nathan spells out his sins, as well as the consequences of his sins. The child that Bathsheba was about to give birth to would die, and furthermore, Nathan tells David that the sword would never depart from his house.

Nathan was correct, disaster did afflict David’s household. The child died, David’s daughter, Tamar, was raped. His son, Ammon, was murdered. His boy Absalom, rebelled and was slain. His next son to qualify for being king, Adonijah was killed. Then Solomon married over 1,000 wives and they turned his heart away from God. So yes, David’s sins did find him out, and he suffered greatly for them. 

According to one poll taken, out of 250 pastors who had been caught committing adultery, they had one thing in common. Each of them thought, “It can’t happen to me.” Well it did, and their sins found them out. Some of them not only resigned from the ministry, their marriages also ended, and some had health issues. 

Our sins find us out too, that is why it is so important to confess them. That is why in our services of Holy Communion we Lutherans begin with confession and forgiveness. 

Picture Martin Luther as an Augustinian monk in Germany in 1511. He would go to confession, sometimes for up to six hours at a time, in order to share with God every slight flaw in his character and behaviour. He literally believed that every iota of sin had to be confessed in order to be forgiven. He found no real remedy in all this confessing, any more than he did in a string of good works, or in a barrage of good advice from various mentors. Eventually he realized it was not enough to feel sorry for wrongdoings or even to confess them all—he needed a new nature, a fresh start. He needed to say with our psalmist. “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”1 That too, is what David came to realize, after the prophet Nathan had found his sins out.

So David responds with this beautiful Psalm 51. As the superscription states: “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” 

According to my NRSV Lutheran Study Bible (p. 849), Psalm 51 is a penitential psalm and a prayer for help. The Lutheran Study Bible gives it this title: “Prayer for Cleansing and Pardon.” The Good News Bible has this title: “A Prayer for Forgiveness.” 

In the first nine verses, David prays a prayer of confession and repentance. He takes his sins very seriously and employs three different words—transgressions, iniquity, and sin. As “transgression” it is nothing less than “rebellion” (pésha‘ ); as “iniquity” it connotes perversion and twisting of moral standards (‘awon); and as “sin” it implies that the divinely appointed goal that has been set for us has been completely missed (chatta’th).

In addition to these words to emphasise the seriousness and tragic and tormenting consequences of his sins; David prays with two interesting phrases in desperation to seek cleansing and forgiveness. Twice he employs the phrases “wash me” (kibbes) (vv 2 & 7) and “blot out,” or as the Good News Bible renders it “wipe out” (vv 1 & 9). The verb for “wash” is more vigorous than the translation might suggest, for it includes pounding, stamping, and vigorous rubbing in order to loosen the dirt. But there again, if God does it, the effect will be an adequate cleansing, in fact, he shall become “whiter than snow,” a phrase that is reminiscent of Isa 1:18, which statement of the prophet could well be based on this passage.2 Speaking of the Book of Isaiah, the phrase “blot out” (machah) is also found in Isa 43:25, where God is speaking, and declares the following words of promise: “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”

In other words, God will and does forgive, cleanse, restore and recreate David and you and I. Verses 10-12, are familiar to us, since in our liturgy we often sing them as the “Create in Me” offertory hymn–#185 – #188 in our Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

Notice that in verse 10, we sing and pray: “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” Or as the REB translates it: “God, create a pure heart for me.” For the Jewish people, the heart is the symbol and the centre of one’s thoughts and plans, will and attitude, which motivate one’s actions. As Jesus said, everything begins in the heart evil and good, hatred and love.  Only God can give us; only Godcan create in us a clean, a pure heart. That comes when God removes completely our sins. In response we are able to rejoice, to be joyful with our willing spirits we can then begin afresh, like waking up to a new day to love and serve our God and our neighbour. 

Like David, our sins take their toll on us and have consequences. Thank God that is not the end of the story! Also like David, as we go through the hard times, and by God’s grace working in us through the Holy Spirit, we confess and repent of our sins, God can and does forgive us, wash us, and blot out, wipe out our sins, and create in us clean/pure hearts to love and serve God and our neighbour. Now that gives us joy, and is worth celebrating, thanks be to God! 

1 Ben Witherington III, Incandescence: Light Shed through the Word (Grand Rapids, MI & Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), p. 93. 

2 H.C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co., 1969), pp. 401 and 404. 

Sermon for 7 Pentecost Yr B

7 Pentecost Yr B, 11/07/2021

Ps 85:8-13

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“God’s righteousness and justice and ours”

Righteousness and justice. Today I’d like to focus on God’s righteousness and justice, and our righteousness and justice. So I’m going to start off with 3 quotes, which I think are helpful and insightful in regards to righteousness and justice. The first quote is attributed to Rodrigo Rojas: “The annual global cost of training a soldier is 56 times greater than educating a child.” Think of all the children who could be properly educated if 56 times more money was spent on educating children than on training a soldier. Think of how that education would ultimately improve the lives of those children, and most likely all of society would benefit because they would be able to contribute to the well-being of society. The second quote comes from theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “[Humanity’s] capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but [humanity’s] inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” In other words, democratic societies are more just than non-democratic ones; but because we are all sinners there will always be injustices, which are best dealt with by democratic societies. The third quote is from Martin Luther: “Christ took our sins and the sins of the whole world as well as the Father’s wrath on his shoulders, and he has drowned them both in himself so that we are thereby reconciled to God and become completely righteous.” Luther’s quote emphasizes that our righteousness is based on God’s righteousness, thanks to the grace-filled relationship we have with Jesus based on his saving work. 

In today’s psalm, which is a liturgical prayer, asking God to restore God’s people; in verses 10-13 of the NRSV, the word “righteousness” is mentioned three times. In these verses, “righteousness” is personified: “righteousness and peace will kiss each other; righteousness will look down from the sky, Righteousness will go before him (the LORD), and will make a path for his steps.” However in the REB, the word is not “righteousness” rather, it is “justice.” “Justice and peace have embraced, justice looks down from heaven. Justice will go in front of him (God), and peace on the path he treads.” The Message renders these verses a bit different, and puts it like this: “Right Living and Whole Living embrace and kiss! Right Living pours down from the skies! Right Living strides out before him (God), and clears a path for his passage.” 

I like The Message’s rendering, because, I think, “Right Living” may imply the combination of both “righteousness” and “justice.” At any rate, I think justice and righteousness are very closely related to each other in describing both God’s righteousness and our righteousness. As the psalmist implies earlier in verse 8; and as Luther implies in the quote I shared; righteousness and justice are possible for human beings because of our relationship with God, when, by God’s grace, God’s people “turn to him in their hearts.” Precisely because we are the recipients of God’s righteousness and justice, we are able to respond by serving God and one another with righteousness and justice. That reminds me of the following story.

A busload of teenagers was returning from Mexico. They had gone down there as a kind of Christian charity to help out the exceedingly poor people. They worked hard all day, then got back onto the bus; they were very tired, and they were very, very hungry.

They crossed the border back into the United States and stopped at a diner; and they waited. They waited a long time, and finally one of them got bold enough to go over to the waitress and ask if they could be served. The waitress told them she would serve them, but they—indicating the two black teenagers among them—would have to eat on the bus. The teenagers looked at one another, and one of them finally said, “Well, we weren’t hungry anyway,” and they went back to the bus.1 In this story, both black and non-black group members shared the same injustice of not being served a meal. In this way they were all righteous because they all agreed to share the same experience, and not buy into the racism that would have allowed the non-blacks a right that was denied the blacks. 

Speaking of racism, we Canadians like to think of ourselves as a welcoming, hospitable, multicultural nation. Yet, in our history, and even to this day, sadly there have been examples of racism and injustice. In one study done in the past by a University of Toronto political scientist professor, Joseph Fletcher, who led a research team asking 3,300 Canadians about civil liberties, here is what they discovered: 75% of Canadians said immigrants bring discrimination upon themselves by their own habits and customs. 30% said that all races aren’t equal. 33% said laws guaranteeing equal job opportunities for blacks and other minorities go too far. 

Fletcher said his findings show a hesitance on the part of “a substantial proportion” of Canadians to accept immigrants for whatever problems may arise from their being here. 

“I was disheartened and saddened for Canada to see there was so much racial intolerance and prejudice,” said Fletcher. 

“It isn’t just a single question, but rather the pattern of response from all the questions. There’s really a deep-seated distrust of immigrants and foreigners generally, and certainly racial and ethnic groups in particular.” 

Our past history has not always been just and righteous. 82,000 Chinese immigrants had to pay a head tax between 1885 and 1923. One-time Premier of British Columbia, Sir Richard MacBride, spoke this racist comment about immigrants: “To admit Orientals in large numbers would mean in the end the extinction of the white peoples, and we have always in mind the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country.” 8,000 Ukrainian immigrants were interned during World War I. Thousands of Japanese Canadians were stripped of their property and interned during World War II. Immigrants from India couldn’t bring their wives until 1923, and weren’t allowed to vote until 1947. Canada turned a blind-eye to the plight of Jews in wartime Europe. There was a “climatic unsuitability” provision that allowed the government to bar blacks from entering Canada prior to 1953.2 Loyal Canadian German Lutherans during World War II had swastikas painted on some of their churches, and some were even falsely condemned as Nazis. Of course currently the Indigenous Peoples, once again, with the discovery of 215 bodies at the Kamloops Residential School, and 751 bodies at the Marieval Residential School in Saskatchewan are lamenting how unjust and unrighteous both the Canadian government and the church were by forcing their children to attend residential schools, often far enough away from their families that they rarely saw them. Teachers in these schools abused Indigenous children culturally, sexually, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically. The Indigenous Peoples are crying out for justice and righteousness. Add to that, the tragic deaths of a Muslim family in London, Ontario run over by a young white supremacist, and a swastika found on an Edmonton mosque, and we can see that we have a lot of growing to do in Canada before, with the help of our LORD: “Righteousness/Justice and peace embrace and kiss each other; righteousness/justice will look/will pour down from heaven, Righteousness/Justice will go in front of God, and clear a path for his passage.” 

As the Israelites were restored by the justice and righteousness of God who delivered them from their exile back to the promised land; so may our LORD’s justice and righteousness grace us in such a way that we may respond by serving him and one another with justice and righteousness. 

Let us pray: “O God of ev’ry nation, of ev’ry race and land,/redeem your whole creation with your almighty hand;/where hate and fear divide us and bitter threats are hurled,/in love and mercy guide us and heal our strife-torn world.” -Wm. W. Reid Jr. (#713 Evangelical Lutheran Worship)

1 Wm. J. Bausch, A World Of Stories for Preachers and Teachers (New London, CT: Twenty Third Publications, Eighth Printing, 2007), p. 319. 

2 Don Retson, “Racist past comes back to haunt Canada,” The Edmonton Journal, Sunday, April 16, 1989, pp. B1 & B3.

Sermon for 6 Pentecost Yr B

6 Pentecost Yr B, 4/07/2021

Ps 48

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“God, our true security” 

Today I’d like to begin by asking you a question. You may have to think about your answer. You may not be able to answer it right now. Rather, it might be homework for you. So, here’s the question: Where in the world do you feel the most secure? (I hazard to guess that some of you might answer “home.” However, I think we realize that for some people, “home” is, tragically, nota place where they feel secure because they have been abused). Perhaps as you think about the question, you might have two or more answers. For example, you might have an answer to where you felt most secure in the past, and where you feel most secure in the present. Perhaps there were several places you felt secure in your past. Maybe there is more than one place you feel secure in the present. 

As I prepared this sermon, I asked myself this question, and I also asked Pastor Julianna. Both of us had to think for a while before we answered it. For Pastor Julianna, the first place that came to mind was the Rocky Mountains, close to where she grew up in Hinton. For me, the first place I thought of was the church where I was confirmed. (I hazard to guess that some of you might also answer “church.” However, again I think we realize that for some people, “church” is, tragically, not a place where they feel secure because they have been abused). I was blessed because my church was a loving community of faith, where I felt accepted in our Luther League youth group, and where Pastor Archie Morck, who confirmed me, was very supportive and encouraged me in my faith. 

However, as I kept thinking about the question, other places came to mind. In our travels over the years, we have visited several churches in Israel, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Ireland, Scotland and France. As we visited these churches, art and architecture of these churches evoked in me a sense of security. One of my favourite churches that we visited was Viborg Cathedral in Denmark. The original cathedral was built in the 12th century. It was restored in the original Norman (Romanesque) architectural style between 1864 and 1876. The paintings in Viborg Cathedral are awe-inspiring. They were done by artist Joakim Skovgaard. There are many biblical scenes. At the very front of the cathedral, behind the altar is my favourite fresco. It depicts Christ sitting on the throne, with a multitude of the citizens of heaven all robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. The painting is based on Revelation 7:9-10: After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” In this beautiful fresco, Christ has his hands and arms stretched wide open, welcoming everyone as the Saviour of the world. 

Another place that I found awe-inspiring was at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem. People from all over the world make their pilgrimage there and pray. I was impressed at how huge the rocks of the wall were—reminding me that in many of the Psalms, God is referred to as Israel’s Rock, which was a symbol of Israel’s sense of security. 

Speaking of the Psalms and Jerusalem, that brings me to our Psalm for today. Psalm 48 is a Zion psalm, and a hymn of praise. My NRSV Lutheran Study Bible gives it two titles: “A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites,” and “The Glory and Strength of Zion.” The Good News Bible has this title: “Zion, the City of God.” 

The Korahites were a Levite family of the clan of Kohath, and one of the major guilds of temple musicians. They are mentioned in superscriptions of Psalms 42; 43-49; 84-85; and 87-88. 

Turning to Psalm 48 then, Mount Zion is referred to as “the city of our God.” It is synonymous with Jerusalem, the political, economic, cultural and especially the spiritual centre of the Israelites. According to Jewish theologian, Michael Wyschogrod: “There is a place where God dwells and that place is Jerusalem. He dwells in Number One Har Habayet [= Mount of the House/Jerusalem] Street. It is a real dwelling and for every Jew, the sanctity of the land of Israel derives from the sanctity of Jerusalem, and the sanctity of Jerusalem derives from the sanctity of the temple, and the sanctity of the Temple derives from the sanctity of the Holy of Holies where God dwells.”1

So, Jerusalem, Zion, and especially the temple, was for the ancient Israelites regarded in this psalm as the dwelling place of God. Indeed, as time went on, many of God’s people came to believe that Zion, Jerusalem is the spiritual centre or capital of the world and of the whole universe—and people from all the corners of the earth would journey there, as is the case even today. 

Psalm 48 speaks of the security that the people of Jerusalem felt because of its impressive architecture. As the Good News Bible puts it in verse 3: “God has shown that there is safety with him inside the fortresses of the city.” And verse 8 of the Good News Bible confidently declares: “he (i.e. God) will keep the city safe forever.” In the closing verses of the psalm, the people tour the city of God and feel secure because of its towers, ramparts, and citadels. Indeed, earlier in verses 5-7, the psalm describes the response of Jerusalem’s enemies, in the rendering of the Good News Bible: “The kings gathered together and came to attack Mount Zion. But when they saw it, they were amazed; they were afraid and ran away.” So Jerusalem was a secure city and because of its architecture, it was a military stronghold—although that was true only because, as the Israelites believed, God was present in a special way there, and: “he (i.e. God) will keep the city safe forever.” However, there came times in its long history when Jerusalem was captured by Jerusalem’s enemies, and because they had turned away from God and his covenant, God allowed them to be taken away into exile. 

As Christians, down through the centuries, we have regarded Jerusalem, Zion as an important spiritual centre too. That is why, Christian musicians have also written hymns about it. For example, Lutheran theologian, Johann M. Meyfart, who lived from 1590 to 1642, may have based his hymn in part on Psalm 48, when he wrote the following words: “Jerusalem, whose towers touch the skies, I yearn to come to you! Your shining streets have drawn my longing eyes my lifelong journey through.” And in the final stanza, he may have had the New Jerusalem described in Revelation in mind when he wrote: “Saints robed in white before the shining throne. Their joyful anthems raise, Till heaven’s arches echo with the tone of that great hymn of praise, and all its host rejoices, and all its blessed throng unite their myriad voices in one eternal song.” (#348 Lutheran Book of Worship)

Regarded by many as “the father of English hymnody,” Isaac Watts also wrote the following words, which evoke a sense of security, and the deep longing for Zion: “The hill of Zion yields a thousand sacred sweets before we reach the heav’nly fields, before we reach the heav’nly fields, or walk the golden streets, or walk the golden streets. We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion: we’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.” (#625 Evangelical Lutheran Worship)

So, such hymns as these, along with Psalm 48, and passages from Revelation all point us to our true security in God. We long for that New, Heavenly Jerusalem, where we will one day meet, face to face with God our true security forever. That is our hope and the Good News for today. For that, thanks be to God! 

1 Cited from: <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-9b-2/?type=the_lectionary_psalms&gt;.

Sermon for 4 Pentecost Yr B

4 Pentecost Yr B, 20/06/2021

Ps 107:1-3, 23-32 & Mk 4:35-41

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“God is with us in the storms of life”

Today both our psalm and gospel complement each other. Both emphasise God’s presence with those who are caught in storms at sea. Both emphasise God’s power over nature to calm, to still storms at sea. 

My NRSV Lutheran Study Bible gives Psalm 107 the following title: “Thanksgiving for Deliverance from Many Troubles.” The Lutheran Study Bible identifies this psalm as a liturgical psalm, as well as a communal hymn of praise and thanksgiving. (p. 849-850) Communal psalms were sung after being delivered from such times as crisis and life-threatening dangers. 

The first three verses of our psalm are an invocation or call to worship the LORD, exhorting those whom God redeemed, gathered from lands in every direction. As the Good News Bible renders these verses: “He (the LORD) has rescued you from your enemies and has brought you back from foreign countries, from east and west, from north and south.” This may refer to various times in the history of both Israel, the northern kingdom, and Judah, the southern kingdom. It could possibly refer to the exodus when God freed Israel from Egyptian slavery; it may also refer to such times as God leading the people of Israel back from Assyrian exile; or the people of Judah back from Babylonian exile. In any event, it emphasises worshipping God by giving thanks for God’s steadfast love and saving actions. We, like Israel worship by giving thanks for God’s steadfast love and saving actions at work in our community and individually. 

Verses twenty-three to thirty-two focus on seafarers, those who make a living from the sea and end up getting caught in a life-threatening storm. The sea in biblical times was regarded as a foreboding place, a place of chaos and danger, it was a place where many feared to travel. According to our psalm, even these experienced sailors who made a living from the sea “reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end” when the wind lifted the waves of the sea so high that it was as if they reached heaven. Even though they were experienced sailors, in this storm at sea, the psalmist tells us “their courage melted away.” They did all that they could as experienced sailors to save their lives. However it was not enough in this life-threatening storm. So in their fear and desperation they turned to the LORD and cried out to him for help. The LORD answered them, the psalmist tells us, “he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” In addition to stilling the storm, the LORD “brought them to their desired haven.” The LORD was with them in the storm at sea, and the LORD saved them from the storm because he had the power over nature to still the storm. That reminds me of the following movie.

The African Queen tells the story of Charlie Allnut (played by Humphrey Bogart), a hard drinker who runs a small steamboat, the African Queen, through the shallow rivers of East Africa in the early 1900s, bringing dynamite, gin, supplies, and tools to European speculators and miners. He also carries the mail to Rose (played by Katherine Hepburn), a missionary. When World War I breaks out and the Germans burn Rose’s home and church, the British missionary and Canadian boatman flee in the African Queen. 

Their destination is a large lake downriver, where they hope to assist the Allied war effort by blowing up a German destroyer. On the river they face one danger after another. Insects attack. Bullets whiz by as they pass a German-held fort. They fight rapids. With a lot of moxie they survive these tests, but then the river dissipates and splits into a hundred streams. The African Queen bogs down in a marsh. 

With no current to push them along, Charlie and Rose use poles to propel forward, and eventually Charlie has to wade the shallows, pulling the boat by a rope. He shudders when he finds leeches on his back and arms, but he grimly returns to the water, and soon Rose herself slogs through the marsh, hacking a path with a machete while Charlie pulls. Eventually they come to the end of their strength. The boat is stuck on a mudflat, and Charlie is feverish.

He says, “Rosie, you want to know the truth, don’t you? Even if we had all our strength, we’d never get he off this mud. We’re finished.” 

She responds simply, “I know it,” and they resign themselves to death in the wasteland. 

As Charlie drifts to sleep, Rose offers a simple prayer of resignation: “We’ve come to the end of our journey. In a little while we will stand before you….Open the doors of heaven for Charlie and me.” 

But the camera slowly draws back to reveal what the couple cannot see because of the reeds—the African Queen is less than a hundred yards from the shining lake. The camera then transports us far upstream to the river’s headwaters. A torrential rainstorm is sending animals scurrying for cover. Further downstream, the rains have turned the rapids into cataracts. Down on the mudflat a small channel begins to run through the reeds. The channel swells, gently lifts the Queen off the mudflat, and carries it to the lake. Charlie and Rose awaken to the gentle rocking of the boat and a refreshing breeze. 

Reaching the end of human resources can mark the beginning of divine intervention.1 Like the experienced sailors in our psalm who made a living travelling on the sea; and like the disciples, some of whom were experienced sailors; when their experience could not save them; they turned to the LORD who was able to save them. 

Mark tells us that the storm on the Sea of Galilee was fierce: “the waves began to spill over into the boat, so that it was about to fill with water.” Most likely those disciples who had made their living from the sea; who were also experienced sailors; who may have been caught in other storms—most likely these disciples tried their best to keep their boat afloat, bailing out the water, and doing everything else that they could to save their lives. However, this storm overpowered them, all of their experiences as sailors; all of their resources were exhausted; now they feared for their lives. So they wake Jesus up, and having divine power over nature commands the wind, saying: “Peace! Be still!” Lo and behold, immediately the sea is calm. The disciples respond with awe and wonder at Jesus’ power over nature so that the wind and the sea obeyed him. 

We too face storms in life. The storms may be life-threatening such as the coronavirus or cancer, or being caught in a tornado or hurricane, or storms such as what seem like unresolvable conflicts in marriages that end in divorce, or conflicts in the workplace that end in job loss, or as we increasingly hear in the news lately, racial discrimination, profiling and violence against our Indigenous brothers and sisters, and Muslims. Whatever form the storms may take, the GOOD NEWS is that the LORD is with us in our storms; just as he was with those seafarers in our psalm and the disciples in our gospel.

So, trust Jesus when he says “All power is given to me in heaven and on earth;” power over wind and sea; to calm your storms and mine; to remove fear; to enrich your life for having overcome your storms. And, in awe and wonder, give thanks and praise to Jesus who promises to be with us always—even through life’s worst storms. 

As Canadian singer-songwriter Gene MacLellan sang: 

Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the water

Put your hand in the hand of the man who calmed the sea

Take a look at yourself and you can look at others differently

Put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee. Amen! 

1 Craig Larson & Lori Quicke, More Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching 101 Clips to Show or Tell (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2004), pp. 90-91.