Jesus said, “I tell you it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who, then, can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Matthew 19:24-26
I can relate to the disciples. I often feel sorry for them. God’s commandments were overwhelming for them. Jesus’ stories and parables were confusing, and he was always doing unconventional things. He welcomed foreigners and outcasts. He disregarded dearly held religious traditions and etiquette. The disciples tried hard to understand Jesus; they only wanted a little encouragement…maybe an occasional pat on the back. If Jesus would only say, “I know you’re trying your best. Keep up the good work”.
Instead, Jesus said things like, “Get behind me Satan!” when Peter tried to defend him as he was being arrested. Or, “It’s worse than you thought. To meet God’s standards, it’s not enough to avoid killing a person, you don’t even call them a fool!” (Matt 5:22) And in the lesson above, Jesus says, “even the rich and powerful can’t find an easy entry into the kingdom of God”.
We will encounter these sayings in the coming weeks as we make our way through the season of Pentecost. As we ponder these sayings, it seems as though Jesus is making salvation impossible. And, in a way, he is.
During the discussions we’ve been having recently in our study of Luther’s theology, we’ve wrestled with the same question the disciples asked. We realized that, like many people of Luther’s time, we are tempted to calculate our own virtue. We convince ourselves that we’ve done more good than bad and congratulate ourselves that we are fairly righteous people who deserve a place at the banquet feast in God’s eternal kingdom.
But, as Luther discovered, Jesus blows that kind of thinking right out of the water. He reminds us that we are helpless to make our way into God’s kingdom by our own efforts. As we confess every Sunday, we are in bondage to sin and cannot save ourselves. So, like the disciples, we want to ask, “Who, then, can be saved?” The answer, of course, is everyone! But, it’s not by what we do. Instead, it’s by what God has done through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
That’s the Good News Jesus wanted the disciples…and us, Jesus’ modern-day disciples…to know. So, he tells us, “For you, this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.” So don’t even bother to try.
Does that mean that we can give up trying to be good since it won’t lead to our salvation? Paul would say, “Absolutely not!” We are still called to do good things in the world, but they are not done with the aim of getting into heaven. Luther puts it this way when he says, “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.” So, all those things we were doing for our benefit are now to be done for the benefit of our neighbor and the well-being of our community.
As we go into the summer months, I pray that you will bask in the warmth of God’s love and forgiveness, relax into the salvation that has been won for you in Christ’s death and resurrection, and go hang out with your neighbors, letting them know that you are there for them.
Music to Our Ears
Each month we include a little article about a favorite hymn. Do you have a hymn that gets stuck in your head like ear candy? Is there a hymn that touches your spirit deeply each time you hear it? Perhaps you have a hymn that always gives you a sense of peace when your heart is troubled. Do you want to know a bit of the backstory behind that hymn? If so, you can submit your suggestions by e-mailing either Pastor Karl at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com . Although it isn’t necessary, we would love it if you would include a little story telling us why this is your favorite hymn.
This month’s selection is not in our hymnbook but is a very familiar and popular hymn. Since June is a favorite month for weddings and, over the years, many people, including Laura’s parents, have told me that they were married there, I thought this well-loved hymn would be appropriate for this month’s article. It is known by a couple of names, including The Church in the Wildwood or The Little Brown Church in the Vale.
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” Exodus 20:8
The Little Brown Church in the Vale sits in a beautiful park alongside Highway 218 in the town of Bradford, near Nashua, in northern Iowa. But it wasn’t there when the song was written.
In 1857, a twenty-seven-year-old New York native named William Pitts was traveling by stagecoach from his home in Wisconsin to Fredericksburg, Iowa, to see his girlfriend. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon when the stagecoach made a pit stop in Bradford. Pitts took a stroll among the trees to stretch his legs. The gently sloping hills formed a slight valley, and the Cedar River flowed peacefully by. Pitts thought that grove of trees would make a perfect setting for a church.
Unable to erase the scene from his mind, Pitts returned home and composed the words and music to “The Little Brown Church in the Vale.” Nothing came of his song, however, and he filed it away.
Five years later, the newly married Pitts relocated to Iowa to be near his elderly in-laws and to teach music at Bradford Academy. Imagine his surprise when he saw a church building sitting in the very spot he had previously envisioned it. It seems that Christians in the community had grown tired of meeting in abandoned stores and had determined to build a church. Although the Civil War was raging and times were hard, by 1862, the building was up. It had to be painted using the cheapest color…which was brown.
When Pitts saw the little brown church in the vale, he rushed home and found the manuscript for the “Little Brown Church in the Vale” packed among his papers. He sang his hymn at the church’s dedication in 1864. Soon afterward, he sold his manuscript to a publisher in Chicago for twenty-five dollars. He used the money to enroll in Rush Medical College. After graduation, he spent the rest of his life as the town physician in Fredericksburg, Iowa…about fourteen miles from Bradford.
Today, the Little Brown Church boasts a membership of about one hundred members, but it’s best known for the thousands of weddings and more thousands of tourists who flock there each year to see the church in the valley by the wildwood…the little brown church in the vale.