Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 10/18

On the second of October, 1870, the Swedish Evangelical Bethany Lutheran Church in Ishpeming, Michigan was organized.  Fifty men, besides the women and children, men with names like Hagstrom, Hendrickson, Larson, Lind, Wahlstrom, Johnson and Peterson signed their names and became the charter members of the new Bethany Church.    

As far as clergy goes, for three years the church was served by visiting pastors and theological students.  One, a certain Pastor Frisk served in 1871 but was the subject of a motion that read, “Pastor Frisk from this time on will not be allowed to serve as teacher or instructor in the congregation, inasmuch as he is so far separated from us in doctrine and confession.”  It makes you wonder what the divisive issues were in 1871. 

Another visiting pastor Aron Lindholm was received with great gladness by the friends of the Truth, but enemies mocked and persecuted him.  Yes on one occasion it went so far that they actually tried to take his life, but God held a sustaining and protecting hand over his faithful servant, and in spite of the persecution of enemies, the good work went forward.   In 1873 Pastor N. Th. Winquist was called as Bethany’s first full time pastor.

It’s hard to imagine what this area was like in the 1870’s.  Reading the anniversary booklets though, clearly it was a kind of a rough and tumble place, drunkenness and brawling are mentioned prominently.  In one place Ishpeming is called one of the county’s liveliest towns which could mean a lot of things I suppose.  There apparently were many who were skeptical and condescending toward the church, the church is mentioned as an object of scorn and laughter for the free thinkers and fractious elements.  In one place it says that the number of unbelievers far outweighed the number of communicant members and even that there were those who would gather outside to make sport of the church.

Through it all though, the church survived and flourished as Swedish immigrants came to work in the hundred or so iron mines that existed here at that time.  There was always a group who persevered against whatever obstacles there were and continued to preach the Word and celebrate the sacraments and, as we celebrate our 139th anniversary, this is a day on which we remember and give thanks for their witness.  Actually we’re at the beginning of three consecutive Sundays where we think about the past as next Sunday is Reformation Sunday, a day on which, among other things, we remember our Lutheran heritage and then the Sunday after that is All Saints Sunday when we remember the faithful deceased, especially those who have died since last All Saints Sunday. 

But while including a look at the past, all three Sundays also have a forward looking component to them.  Today we also think about Bethany as it is in 2009, next week we celebrate confirmation with our most recent group of young people who continue in the tradition that Luther began and on All Saints day, in addition to the deceased, we also remember that we are the present day saints of the church.

My newsletter article this month started with the following quote: “No longer a dominant cultural force, the church today finds itself in a wilderness of disillusionment and self doubts about its mission in the world.  Beset by culture wars from without and theological conflicts from within, the church has had to embark on a difficult journey; one that winds (some would say) through an impassable wasteland or (others counter) toward new frontiers of mission and cultural engagement.” 

It’s a quote from 1997 but I mentioned in the article that it could have been written this year, 2009.  Reading about the early days of Bethany, it sounds like it could have been written back in the 1870’s as well.  Whatever time you’re talking about, past or present, the church is on a journey, and there will always be some who see that journey taking the church down the tubes because its not like it was back in the glory days whenever they were, or maybe because they see the church conforming too much with the culture, but there will also always be those who are able to see new possibilities as changes occur. 

The church isn’t the same as it was in 1870; it’s not the same as it was in 1970.  It doesn’t play the same role it once did when it was kind of a cultural expectation that you would attend church; but, in my opinion, the answer isn’t to try and turn back the clock.  The answer is to try to imagine the possibilities while asking where the Spirit might be leading us.

The ELCA as a church body is changing, I think.  I know that some are distressed by that, but one thing I think is happening is that after 20 years of existence, the ELCA is more clearly defining what it is as a church body.  One way to look at it is to say that it is a church moving in a direction where justice trumps holiness.  Let me explain what I mean by that.  In his Theology of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann identifies two threads or traditions that run through the Old Testament, especially through the commands of the Bible.  One thread has to do with holiness or purity, how to be holy in the eyes of God, the other has to do with justice, how the people of God are to live in the world. 

Some of the commands relative to holiness and purity seem arcane and dated to us but what they represent isn’t arcane and dated because what they represent is order that makes access to God possible.  God wills that there be order in life and in worship so that the divine can be experienced and also so that life operates in a manageable way and is not threatened by disorder and chaos.  We may find the ways they go about achieving this order to have little relevance to us, many of the laws about sacrifices and offerings and ritual cleansing, but what they reflect is the fact that we all have a desire for order in our lives, and to one degree or another, we find it disturbing when that order is challenged or upset.  We like things to be a certain way that makes sense to us.  The holiness tradition that runs through the Bible is attentive to our need for order.

The other tradition has to do with justice, living in harmony and peace with all people but there is a clear emphasis on care for the poor and the needy, economic justice where debts are forgiven, justice where all people, including the outcast and the stranger are treated with dignity; read through the Bible and you can’t help but notice how often these themes show up in the law and the prophets and in the Psalms. 

These two strands, holiness and justice, kind of run together in the Bible, often without too much problem; but tension between them occurs when the execution of justice upsets a sense of order.  It happens with the Old Testament prophets who are critical of those who follow all the rituals but who aren’t worried about the needs of others, but it happens even more with Jesus in the New Testament.  Pretty much all of his clashes with the Pharisees, the religious establishment of his time, had to do with this tension and in every case Jesus comes down on the side of justice.  With Jesus, protecting holiness can’t mean that justice is denied.

In its actions this summer, I think the Churchwide assembly came down on the side of justice and by doing so the ELCA has more clearly defined itself.  Not everyone is happy with the definition, but a process of prayerful deliberation was followed so at this point we live with the decision and faithfully try to discern the direction the Spirit is leading us.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus articulated a vision that he called the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God wasn’t a vision of angels dancing in heaven, it wasn’t about what happens when you die.  It was a vision of God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven, a vision where practices of justice and mercy and kindness and peace define and are integral to the order of the world.  The trouble, of course, is that this vision of Jesus is clouded and blurred, sometimes totally obscured by other visions, other realities that in many cases seem much more practical and much more appealing.  These visions come from outside the church but inside it as well.

So what do we do in the midst of change as we begin the 140th year of ministry at Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church?  We acknowledge and give thanks for the past, we learn from the past, and we do what the Hagstroms, Hendricksons, Larsons, Linds, Wahlstroms, Johnsons and Petersons did.  We keep the vision of Jesus alive, by telling his story in words and through the sacraments.  We tell the story because we don’t despair about the church heading for an impassable wasteland; we see the possibilities of new frontiers and cultural engagement and hope, always hope.

Let us pray: 

We love to tell the old, old story.
We love to sing the old, old song
of your saving deeds of mercy and freedom and healing and newness.
We know about Exodus freedom and dancing tambourines.
We know about promised land and abundance.
We know about strangeness where…the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, the poor rejoice.
We know.  Give us courage to trust what we know and to obey what we hope.

We know that the old, old story—in our telling—becomes a new, dangerous and transforming song.  And so we sing!

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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