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.

Sermon for 2 Pentecost Yr B

Sermon for 2 Pentecost Yr B, 6/06/2021

Ps 130

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“Waiting for God”

Psalm 130 was apparently Martin Luther’s favourite psalm. This is what he had to say about it: “a proper master and doctor of Scripture.” In other words, a GOOD NEWS Psalm, which communicates what really matters—God’s forgiveness and saving grace. Maybe because this was Luther’s favourite psalm, he wrote a penitential hymn based on it, with the title of the opening verse: “Out of the Depths I Cry to You.” This hymn, is #600 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, under the Confession and Forgiveness section. Dating back to at least the 5th century, the church has regarded Psalm 130 as a penitential psalm, along with Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 69, 102, and 143. 

The NRSV Lutheran Study Bible gives it two titles “A Song of Ascents,” and “Waiting for Divine Redemption.” The CEV Bible has one title in brackets, (A Song for Worship), and a second title: “Trusting the LORD in Times of Trouble.” Psalms 120-134 all have the title “Songs of Ascent.” Many scholars believe that these psalms were sung by faithful pilgrims as they travelled up to Jerusalem for the yearly festivals. Some scholars also think that the word “ascents” refers to the faithful ascending the stairs of the temple for worship.

In addition to Psalm 130 being identified as a penitential psalm and a song of ascents or pilgrimage psalm; the Lutheran Study Bible (p. 849) also identifies it as a prayer for help or lament. To understand this psalm as a penitential, pilgrimage and lament psalm, I think it is helpful to consider the insights of biblical scholar, the Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann. In two of his books, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, and Spirituality of the Psalms; Dr. Brueggemann suggests that patterns of thought and speech in the psalms are similar to the patterns of human life. For example, there are satisfied seasons of well-being, there are anguished seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering and death, and those seasons can become turns of surprise when we are overwhelmed with the new gifts of God. He also puts it another way, summarizing it in three words, stages, or seasons. There are times of orientation when all seems well with the world. There are times of disorientation when the world is turned upside-down and trouble and suffering are the order of the day. Then there are times of reorientation when life is restored, sometimes even better than in a time of orientation. Reorientation can come sometimes in unpredictable, creative and surprising ways. 

Turning to the first three verses of our psalm, we learn that the psalmist is in trouble, it was, as Brueggemann might say, a time of disorientation. A time of suffering and trouble or crisis perhaps in the extreme, since the psalmist says: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.” Or as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message: “Help, God—I’ve hit rock bottom!” Or as the CEV puts it: “From the sea of troubles I call out to you, Lord.” When we “hit rock bottom,” we often refer to some crisis or disaster, something that overwhelms us. When we have a “sea of troubles,” we may very well feel that our life is in danger, since the troubles are so great that we cannot overcome them. 

In verse two of The Message, one has the sense of the psalmist’s boldness and desperation, as he prays: “Listen hard! Open your ears! Listen to my cries for mercy!” The CEV captures something of this desperation as well, the psalmist prays: “Won’t you please listen as I beg for mercy?” In other words, the psalmist cannot help himself, and others cannot help him. Only God can help him in his tragic, life-threatening situation. 

Verse three is a confession of sin, although the psalmist does not recite specific sins. He realizes that he and everyone for that matter are helpless to defend their sins if God kept a record of them. As the CEV puts it: “If you kept a record of our sins, no one could last long.” If God kept a record of our sins, all of us would have to plead guilty for every one of them. We would stand condemned before God. 

However, verse four moves us from disorientation to reorientation; from despair to hope. As The Message renders it: “As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit, and that’s why you’re worshipped.” 

Yet, in verses five and six, the psalmist returns back to a time of disorientation, a time of waiting. Waiting is mentioned three times in these two verses: “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” The sense of waiting here is not peaceful, it is tense and stressful. The image the psalmist employs here is that of a soldier or security guard watching through the night for enemies or burglars. It can be difficult to stay awake through the night until morning. When the morning arrives, then the soldier or security guard is less tense and relieved of stress. 

There are many times in your life and my life when waiting is difficult and stressful, yet necessary. For example, I think back many years ago to the time when I graduated from seminary. I was waiting for a call to begin serving as a pastor, and had not yet received a call. Dr. Hordern, our seminary president, consoled me with the following words of wisdom: “All things come to those who wait.” I ended up having to wait for a year before I received my first call and was ordained. That year of waiting was not easy, it was stressful, and I was most grateful when my waiting was over. 

Life is filled with waiting, and a lot of waiting can be difficult and stressful. Parents waiting for their children to be born and as they live out the various stages of their lives; which may involve a lot of difficult, stressful, unwelcome twists and turns and sufferings. The unemployed wondering how they are going to pay all of their bills and debts, and waiting to be employed again. The person who is seriously ill or suffering from a life-threatening disease, waiting for surgery or treatments. The brother or sister who is alienated from his or her sibling, and waiting for forgiveness and reconciliation. Those in the midst of war, waiting for it to end. Victims of injustice because of the colour of their skin, waiting for justice in order that they might have equal access to work, education, and health-care. The senior citizen who believes that they have lived a full and meaningful life, waiting for death. All of us waiting for COVID-19 to be over so that our lives might have some sense of normality again. The list could go almost endlessly on. 

As people of faith, we have much to learn from our psalmist. We do not wait without hope. The psalmist tells us: “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.” God’s word is a word of hope, a word of promise. That’s why the psalmist can shift from the tense, anxiety-ridden, and stressful waiting in his state of disorientation into the hopeful state of reorientation. The psalmist concludes with words of wise counsel and confidence addressed to Israel in verses seven and eight: “O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.” Or as The Message puts it: “O Israel, wait and watch for God—with God’s arrival comes love, with God’s arrival comes generous redemptionNo doubt about it—he’ll redeem Israel, buy back Israel from captivity to sin.” 

So, we are able to watch and wait, because we have the hope that whatever state of disorientation we might find ourselves in; it will not last forever. We wait and watch and hope for God’s steadfast love which is always dependable. His steadfast love has the power to redeem us, to buy us back out of slavery to sin—thanks to the saving work of Jesus. We are set free in Christ, and that is the GOOD NEWS today! Thanks be to God! Amen. 

Sermon for Day of Pentecost Yr B

Day of Pentecost Yr B 23/05/2021

Ps 104:24-34, 35b

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“The life-creating Spirit of God”

Prayer: Come, Holy Spirit, breathe your abundant life into these words and into each one of us. Amen. 

Today marks the celebration of the third major festival of the church year, Pentecost. The Jews celebrated Pentecost, which they call Shavuot, an agricultural festival commemorating the harvest of the first fruits brought to the temple. It is also a spiritual festival, wherein the Jews remember God giving them the Torah on Mount Sinai. We celebrate Pentecost, and the word suggests from the Greek Πεντηκοστή, meaning 50, referring to the 50 days after Easter, on which we celebrate the Day of Pentecost. Of course, on this day we focus on the third person of God the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit, who came upon those first followers of Jesus in a powerful way with wind or breath and fire. So today we will explore a little the Spirit of God’s life-creating presence in our Psalm. 

My NRSV Lutheran Study Bible gives Psalm 104 the following title: “God the Creator and Provider.” The Good News Bible has this title: “In Praise of the Creator.” The Jerusalem Bible gives it this title: “The glories of creation.” The Lutheran Study Bible identifies Psalm 104 as a hymn of praise and a creation psalm (p. 849). 

In verse 24 the psalmist in awe, wonder and reverence writes: “O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” The word manifold means: having many different parts, applications, forms, etc., numerous and varied. And, “In wisdom you have made them all;” could be interpreted as a reference to God’s Spirit; reminiscent of the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, where the Spirit of God is actively moving/creating with God the Creator. 

Isn’t it amazing how manifold God’s works of creation really are—filling the earth and the oceans?! According to the research that the California Academy of Sciences did in 2011, there are about eight million, seven-hundred-thousand species on Earth (give or take 1.3 million). 6.5 million species on land and 2.2 million species in the ocean depths. However, according to research done in 2019, (see the website phys.org), scientists estimated the number of species on Earth range between 5.3 million and, get this, 1 trillion. If there were about 1 trillion species on earth—that’s more than the estimated number of stars in the milky way galaxy. Here is another interesting number—roughly 18,000 new species are discovered every year. WOW! Isn’t that amazing! How right the psalmist was when he said: “the earth is full of your creatures.” 

That reminds me of an awe-inspiring experience that I had earlier this past week while I was out for my constitutional, morning bicycle ride. Almost throughout the entire ride, which was one hour, I could hear the sound of Canadian geese flying over me. When I stopped for a brief rest, I looked up into the sky, and WOW! I saw gaggle after gaggle of geese flying over me. That experience reminded me of what an amazing God we have. The creative, life-breathing Spirit of God is at work along with the Creator to create so many different creatures.

The sense of awe, wonder and reverence while enjoying God’s creation has been shared by many of God’s people down through the ages. One such person was Professor Tony Campolo, who tells about going whale watching off the coast of Cape Cod. “Suddenly, says Tony, an elusive humpback whale swam up alongside the boat and poked its head out of the water. For what seemed like thirty seconds this sister of the sea stared directly at me. The encounter took me by surprise. No words can describe the sense of awe and wonder that came over me. For a moment, I was one with God’s creation.”1

Whether we live amid a fertile tropical island or on the slopes of majestic mountains; whether we graze animals on an African savanna or migrate from oasis to oasis in the Arabian desert; whether we fish off the coast of Newfoundland or farm in Alberta; whether we work in congested urban centres or remote rural areas; wherever we live, we can marvel at God’s creative handiwork in creation. 

Yet, sad to say, there are some who do not give credit to God the Creator and the life-breathing Holy Spirit for creating such a wonderful planet. Even though the complexity and beauty of God’s creation is all around us and we are a part of it as well—some people choose not to see God as Creator, and life-breathing Spirit. The evidence is all around them, yet they do not see—which reminds me of another story.

The Amazon River is the largest river in the world. The mouth is 90 miles across. There is enough water to exceed the combined flow of the Yangtze, Mississippi, and Nile Rivers. So much water comes from the Amazon that they can direct its currents 200 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean. One irony of ancient navigation is that sailors in ancient times died for lack of water caught in windless waters of the South Atlantic. They were adrift, helpless, dying of thirst. Sometimes other ships from South America who knew the area would come alongside and call out, “What is your problem?” And they would exclaim, “Can you spare us some water? Our sailors are dying of thirst!” And from the other ship would come the cry, “Just lower your buckets. You are in the mouth of the mighty Amazon River.” The irony and the tragedy around us today is that God, the fountain of living water, is right here and people don’t recognize Him!2

For creation to happen without God would require odds of about ten trillion to one, according to Dr. A. Cressy Morrison. It’s that unlikely! Morrison, a scientist and mathematician, wrote that science has learned a great deal since Darwin’s day, and it all points toward the existence of a Creator. 

Coming back to our psalm again, in verses 27 and 28, the psalmist speaks of all of God’s creation looking to God to provide for them. In fact, you may recognize these verses, which have often been reworked slightly as the following table grace: Blessed are you LORD God of creation; for the eyes of all wait on you, and you give them their food in due season. You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature. 

The next two verses, 29 and 30, are similar in theme to verses 27 and 28, in that they emphasise that God is the provider of life. Without God’s life-breath Spirit there is death. And: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” Or as the Good News Bible puts it: “But when you give them breath [or send out your spirit], they are created; you give new life to the earth.” Or as the Jerusalem Bible renders it: “You give breath, fresh life begins, you keep renewing the world.” I like the rendering of that last phrase in the Jerusalem Bible: “youkeep renewing the world.” This rendering, I think, in addition to emphasising God as Provider; it also underscores that God the Holy Spirit is actively participating and present in the world. 

That reminds me again of the life-breath of the Spirit. Just as God the Spirit provides oxygen in order to give life to you and I and all other creatures; so the life-breathing Spirit gives us; breathes into us spiritual life by giving us the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit keeps renewing you and I everyday! Therefore, we along with our ancient psalmist and countless other people of faith down through the centuries, right up to this day are able to, in deep gratitude, pray: Come, Holy Spirit, come! “Bless the LORD, O my soul. Praise the LORD!” Amen.

1 J. Howard Olds, “Come, Holy Spirit, Come,” in: <https://sermons.com/sermon/come-holy-spirit-come/1442591&gt;.

2 James S. Hewett, Editor, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1988), p. 242. 

Sermon for 6 Easter Yr B

6 Easter Yr B, 9/05/2021

Ps 98

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Make a joyful noise to the LORD”

In addition to being the 6th Sunday of Easter, today is Mother’s Day. So I thought I’d ask you three questions about mothers. What type of flowers are best to give on Mother’s Day? Chrysanthe-mums. Which movie do mothers like the best? Mamma Mia! Why are there no Mother’s Day sales? Well, because mothers are priceless. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers!

Now to Psalm 98. My NRSV Lutheran Study Bible has two titles: the superscription is, simply, “A Psalm.” The second title is: Praise the Judge of the World.” The Good News Bible gives it this title: “God the Ruler of the World.” The Lutheran Study Bible identifies Psalm 98 as a hymn of praise (p. 849). Hymns of praise celebrate God’s love and grace. They were written for community worship. The original occasion from which Psalm 98 was created may have been God’s deliverance of Israel from some kind of danger or crisis.

As ancient Israel knew; as the church down through the ages knew; as you and I know; music, making a joyful noise to the LORD, is an extremely important and integral part of the community of faith’s worship.

Martin Luther had several significant things to say about the importance of music. On one occasion he said: “A person who does not regard music as a marvellous gift of God must be a clodhopper indeed, and does not deserve to be called a human being, but should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.” On another occasion Luther said: “Whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate, what more effective means than music could you find?”

Then there was that famous quote attributed to Shakespeare, but actually written by William Congreve: “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.”

Speaking of Shakespeare, I don’t know if you are aware of this, but Sir Edward Elgar is the composer behind “Pomp and Circumstance,” which was named after a line from William Shakespeare’s “Othello.” Sir Edward composed the song in 1901, and the march was intended for the coronation of King Edward VII. When Elgar received an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1905, the march was played in his honour as a recessional. Once Yale used the march, other universities began to play the march as well. Eventually it became the trendy thing to do and “Pomp and Circumstance” became forever ingrained in graduation custom.

Speaking of music in relation to schools; here are a few student answers that public school music teachers collected from test questions.

Refrain means don’t do it. A refrain in music is the part you better not try to sing. A virtuoso is a musician with real high morals. Handel was half German, half Italian, and half English. He was rather large. Beethoven wrote music even though he was deaf. He was so deaf he wrote loud music…Beethoven expired in 1827 and later died from this. When electric currents go through them, guitars start making sounds. So would anybody.1

In Psalm 98, the psalmist exhorts God’s faithful: “O sing to the LORD a new song.” The reason for sing a new song to the LORD is given: “for he has done marvellous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.” So the “marvellous things” may refer to God’s “victory,” God’s deliverance of Israel from some danger or crisis—perhaps it was some kind of military victory.

Of course, for us Christians, during this Easter season, when we think of God’s “marvellous things,” and when we think of God’s “victory,” what comes to mind is God raising Jesus from the dead, and by so doing, winning the final victory over sin, death and the powers of evil.

So important is God’s “marvellous things,” God’s “victory” that: “All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.” Again, from our perspective as Christians, the message of the Gospel, of Jesus’ resurrection, is a “go and tell” message meant for all people. That’s why over the centuries missionaries have preached, and continue to preach, the Good News in Word and deed around the globe. A message of priceless worth.

In verses four to six, the psalmist continues to exhort Israel and us to: “Make a joyful noise to the LORD,” to “break forth into joyous song and sing praises.” It is most tragic that COVID-19 has prevented us from singing in our worship services! Most, if not all of us grieve, and truly miss not being able to sing as we worship the LORD. We look forward, and hope that the time will soon come when it is safe for us to make a joyful noise to the LORD by singing hymns of praise.

The psalmist continues in verses four to six by mentioning that singing was accompanied by musical instruments. Three of them are mentioned—the lyre, trumpets, and the horn.

The lyre was actually a harp, it was a portable rectangular or trapezoid-shaped instrument with two arms, often of unequal length and curved, joined at the top by a cross-piece; the strings were roughly the same length. It was an instrument of joyful celebration, generally used to accompany singing. David, the “sweet psalmist of Israel,” is depicted playing a lyre in a sixth-century floor mosaic at the synagogue at Gaza. In Jerusalem, a lyre with twelve strings connected by an oblique crossbar decorates a brown jasper seal, dating back to the seventh century B.C.

The trumpet was made of metal, either bronze or silver. It was probably a short, straight instrument, with a high, bright tone and a range of only four or five notes. Its early uses are well summarized in Numbers 10:2-10. It was played by the priests, usually in pairs, but occasionally in large choirs (2 Chronicles 5:12-13), and it numbered among the sacred gold and silver utensils of the Temple (2 Kings 12:14; Numbers 31:6).

The horn, most likely the ram’s horn-shophar, is the most frequently mentioned biblical instrument, and the only ancient instrument still in use in the synagogue. It was usually made from the horn of a ram, sometimes softened with heat and straightened or shaped. It was a simple instrument that could only produce two or three notes, and it was used mostly for signalling, especially in times of war (Judges 3:27; 6:34; Nehemiah 4:18-20) or of national celebration (1 Kings 1:34; 2 Kings 9:13).2

In addition, to God’s faithful people singing and playing psalms of praise; the psalmist personifies God’s creation in verses seven and eight; exhorting the sea and its creatures to roar; the floods or rivers to clap their hands; and the hills or mountains to sing together for joy. During biblical times, the sea and floods were viewed as foreboding places; places of danger and chaos. Yet, here in this psalm they ironically praise and worship God by roaring and clapping.

Verse nine provides the reason for human beings and God’s creation to worship and praise the LORD: “he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness [justice], and the peoples with equity.”

New life is possible when God judges the earth. God is able to right the wrongs of the world. Tyranny and oppression are replaced with freedom and justice. Illness and disease are transformed into healing and health. God’s judgement, justice, righteousness, and equity give hope to the hopeless; remove hatred by his love; and surprise us all by defeating the powers of sin, death and evil with his new, resurrection life. So let us continue to make a joyful noise to the LORD—even if it is by humming, until the day comes when we can sing again!

1 David E. Leininger, Lectionary Tales For The Pulpit: Series VI Cycle B (Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 2008), p. 145.

2 See “Music,” in: Paul J. Achtemeier, General Editor, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985), pp. 668-669.

Sermon for 4 Easter Yr B

4 Easter Yr B, 25/04/2021

Ps 23

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Our caring, protecting, and loving Shepherd”

A mother was concerned about her kindergarten son walking to school. He didn’t want her to walk with him, and she wanted to give him a feeling of independence. However, she also wanted to know that he was safe.

When she expressed her concern to her neighbour, Shirley offered to follow him to school every morning for a while, staying at a distance so he wouldn’t notice. Shirley said that since she was up early with her toddler anyways, it will be a good way for them to get some exercise.

All week long, Shirley and her daughter followed Timmy as he walked to school with another neighbourhood girl.

As the two children walked and chatted, kicking stones and twigs, Timmy’s friend asked, “Have you noticed that lady following us to school all week? Do you know her?”

Replied Timmy, “Yes, I know who she is. That’s my mom’s friend Shirley Goodnest and her little girl Marcy.”

Shirley Goodnest? Why is she following us?”

Well,” Timmy explained, “every night my mom makes me say the 23rd Psalm. It says, ‘Shirley Goodnest and Marcy shall follow me all days of my life.’ So, I guess I’ll just have to get used to it.”

My NRSV Lutheran Study Bible gives Psalm 23 two titles. The superscription reads: “A Psalm of David.” The second title is: “The Divine Shepherd.” The Good News Bible also has two titles: “A psalm byDavid” and “The LORD Our Shepherd.” The REB gives it the following title: “A psalm: for David.” TheLutheran Study Bible identifies Psalm 23, along with ten other psalms, as a trust psalm. “Trust psalms express faith and confidence in God amid great difficulties, threats, and dangers.” (p. 850)

Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. However, because the appointed psalm is the same one every year on this Sunday, it is also referred to as Shepherd or Good Shepherd Sunday. The twenty-third Psalm is the best-loved psalm of them all. In fact, for millions of people, it is the all-time favourite scripture passage. Clergy and laity alike read or recite the words of this psalm when people are on their death-beds, at funerals or memorial services. Musicians also seem to have adopted the twenty-third Psalm as their favourite, since they have composed several settings or tunes for it. Artists also love this psalm. My earliest childhood memory of this psalm is the picture of Jesus with a lamb in his arms and carrying a shepherd’s staff. Many people from a variety of backgrounds have composed take-off poems of Psalm 23 or paraphrased it. You probably have read some of these over the years. There’s something about this psalm that appeals to almost everybody. We all find comfort and strength, encouragement and hope in the words of this psalm. Today I’d like to look a bit at verses 1, 4 and 6, and explore possible meanings for us.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Or, in the words of the Contemporary English Version: “You, LORD, are my shepherd. I will never be in need.” Or in the words of the REB: “The LORD is my shepherd; I lack for nothing.” Or, my favourite rendering of verse 1 from the Good News Bible: “The LORD is my shepherd; I have everything I need.” The Hebrew sense of the word “want” here literally means lacking nothing. The word want also is directly connected with God: it is precisely because God is my shepherd that I shall not want. God provides for all of my needs in every area of my life. God provides for the needs of my whole person—body, mind and spirit/soul.

Another way of looking at these words may be because we have everything we need, we don’t have to be caught up in the materialism, the obsession with consuming for the sake of consuming, we don’t have to be greedy or horde things. We can live contented lives because the LORD our shepherd meets our needs. The LORD provides my basic needs of food, clothing and shelter, and, in our part of the world so much more! We really do have so much to thank the LORD our Shepherd for! So, I would like to give you a little homework. Today after this worship service, please go home and write out or verbally discuss all of the many ways that the LORD has provided for your needs beyond the basic ones of food, clothing and shelter—then offer a prayer of thanksgiving. Actually this might be something for you to consider doing every day. Of course the greatest spiritual needs that he provides us with are: faith, hope and love.

Turning to verse four now: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley (the valley of the shadow of death), I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and staff—they comfort me.” Or, in the words of the CEV: “I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won’t be afraid. You are with me, and your shepherd’s rod makes me feel safe.” Or, as the Good News Bible renders it: “Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, LORD, for you are with me. Your shepherd’s rod and staff protect me.” The Hebrew here literally means “pitch-dark valley.” This certainly could be a real danger for sheep, since their vision is rather poor, and if travelling on a dark night they might very well fall off a steep cliff or lose their way placing them in danger to predators.

During this time of COVID-19, I think verse four is especially meaningful, since many probably feel like they are walking through “the valley of the shadow of death.” For those who are dying of the coronavirus, and for their families, it can be very scary, and a painful and lonely death—especially if family members cannot be with their loved one when they die. Or the valley for others might be depression—especially those who live alone and feel isolated, or those who may have lost their job. For some wives and children, the valley might be a terrible experience of domestic violence. Fear of such evil violence can paralyze people.

There are so many things in life that fill us with fear. Fear of failure. Fear of succeeding. Fear of disappointing someone or yourself. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the great unknown, Death.

And then there’s everyone’s fear. The fear of being found out that you’re not who you really say you are. That you will be exposed. That kind of fear often freezes us out of doing something to change, doing something to become the person we want to be.

And then there’s the worst fear of all. Whenever we fail, or fall or stumble in our walk of faith, the enemy begins to creep in with words of doubt. “You failed. You fell, God can’t really love you like that. You’re supposed to be better than that. What if someone else finds out? What will they think? What does God think? God’s probably up there, disgusted, ready to thump me on the head and boot me out.”

That kind of fear can cause us to doubt. Fear freezes. But that’s not what God wants.1

In contrast to such fear, verse four gives us confidence in God’s protection, and that we don’t have to be afraid even in death. Albrecht Dürer, a contemporary of Martin Luther’s, put this assurance into art. His engraving, “Knight, Death and the Devil” is a classic expression of the spirit of the Reformation. A knight in full armour is riding through a valley accompanied by a figure of death on one side, the devil on the other. Fearlessly, concentrated, confident, he looks ahead. He is alone but not lonely. God is with him, walking through that dark valley.

In reference to death then, the words of verse four are true, since dying does not last forever. The LORD our Good Shepherd walks us through death and leads us safely to the other side, into his heavenly realm. We don’t have to fear death with the LORD our Good Shepherd leading us through it.

That leads us to verse six: “Surely (or Only) goodness and mercy (or kindness) shall follow (or pursue) me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD (forever) my whole life long. Or, in the words of the CEV: “Your kindness and love will always be with me each day of my life, and I will live forever in your house, LORD.”

The Hebrew word translated “follow” can also be accurately translated “pursue,” it is a forceful, strong, active verb. So the LORD our Shepherd wants us to have his goodness and mercy so much that he never gives up on us. Rather, he actively runs after us until he catches up with us in order to give us those wonderful gifts of goodness and mercy, love and kindness. The sense of the Hebrew word for mercy can refer to God’s loyalty, God’s faithfulness. During this Easter season, his loyalty, his faithfulness is, of course, epitomized in the resurrection—which we continue to celebrate every Sunday. He is with us here, now, and always. Christ’s resurrection also is the sign of hope that one day we will share in a resurrection like his and be with him forever in a more complete way. For that, thanks be to God!

1 Billy D. Strayhorn, “Close Enough For Comfort,” at: <https://sermons.com/sermon/close-enough-for-comfort/1440724&gt;.

Sermon for Easter Day Yr B

Easter Sunday Yr B, 4/04/2021

Ps 118:1-2, 14-24

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday

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

Ps 31:9-16

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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