Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 7/18

“Preach the gospel at all times—if necessary use words.” That’s a saying attributed to St. Francis, one that I hear quoted occasionally at the pastors’ text study or at other clergy gatherings. “Preach the gospel at all times—if necessary use words.” The point of the saying is obvious (I think), that point being that actions speak louder than words, for the Christian, actions modeled on Jesus’ ethic of love, forgiveness, compassion, care for others and so forth can be more effective than just talking about Jesus as a means to proclaim the gospel; walking the walk vs. talking the talk is what it comes down to.

Last week the gospel was the story of the Good Samaritan which ends with Jesus saying to the lawyer who had questioned him, “Go and do likewise;” walk the walk of the Samaritan in other words. Today’s gospel is what comes right after the Good Samaritan story with Martha doing, kind of like Jesus said, exercising hospitality (toward Jesus himself no less), walking the walk, with hospitality being another one of those biblical virtues that’s upheld in texts like today’s first lesson with Abraham and Sarah and the three visitors. Yet, Martha is reprimanded for her doing. It’s a gentle reprimand to be sure, “Martha, Martha you are distracted by many things,” but it’s a reprimand nonetheless, and of course Mary, who is not doing anything except sitting at Jesus’ feet, is commended for choosing the better Mary vs. Martha; walking the walk vs. talking the talk; deeds vs. creeds. Texts like these set up this tension and it’s a tension that has existed throughout the history of Christianity. Which is more important: what you do or what you believe?

We find ourselves at different places on this, the pendulum swings and we want to know who’s right, which is it, and if we want the Bible to solve it for us it won’t as these successive gospel texts illustrate. In one Jesus emphasizes doing, in the other he says doing is a distraction, just sitting and listening to his words is more important. There is a tension in this, but in some ways it’s a false tension because what is really highlighted is the fact that both are important. In the life of the church listening to and proclaiming the words of Jesus is important, that’s what worship is all about, but our worship doesn’t amount to much unless we then act on Jesus words and model his teachings. On the other hand if the church gets so focused on service and action and justice that it doesn’t take time to sit and listen, then the church just becomes another service or charitable organization like Kiwanis or Rotary, Red Cross or the United Way. Such organizations are fine; they do good work; following that saying of St. Francis you could say that they proclaim the gospel without words. It’s proclaiming the gospel with words though, that makes the church unique.

So I want to talk a little bit about words and about the church because there is a problem, the gist of it being that there are fewer and fewer people involved in church and that’s pretty much across the board. We notice it here; the number of funerals is greater than the number of new members coming in and quite of few of those funerals have been for people who used to be here every week so we notice it. Some of you may have seen the article in last Sunday’s Detroit paper about declining numbers in the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit and their efforts to do something about it. In the six years I was on Synod Council here I don’t think there was ever a meeting where decreasing numbers and dollars were not part of Bishop Skrenes’ report.

There is a problem and compounding the problem is the fact that anti- church, anti-religion voices are louder and more organized. In the latest issue of Christian Century which is one of the journals I read regularly there was a little piece about a group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation that has started an ad campaign that includes signs on buses in Chicago that say, “Sleep in on Sunday.” I think they could save their money though because I really don’t think you need an ad campaign to make that happen.

The question always, is why? Why are there so many who pretty much find the church irrelevant? Many of those people would say they believe in God, but they don’t see much need to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen at least not in the manner that such sitting and listening is done in worship. The pendulum swings toward the theology of the good person: what’s most important is what I do, that I’m a good person; what I believe doesn’t matter so much. Adding to the hostility toward church and religion is the fact that it seems like religious belief and conflicts within and between religions has done a lot of harm over the years. That’s true and it adds to the negativity. Why has this happened? How have we gotten to this point?

There’s no simple answer, hence there’s no simple solution.

Everybody has their ideas including me, and one of my ideas has to do with words. I think that in some ways the church has wound up being its own worst enemy because some who have claimed to have sat and listened to Jesus have then made his message, the message of the church into something that doesn’t sound a whole lot like the Jesus I find in the Bible. I think that for many the words they have heard about Christianity have largely been about sin and judgment and God’s anger, especially God’s anger about certain sins that the church has decided are worse than all others. A result of these words is that Christianity winds up seen as what I call a believe it or else religion, a religion where your questions aren’t really welcome or they are welcome as long as you finally agree that the church’s approved answers are the right answers and that anyone who disagrees with those answers is doomed. We welcome you as you are, but only if you promise to change and fit our mold.

Now I don’t think that that sounds like Jesus. If that’s what Christianity is and that’s what the church represents, I’d sleep in on Sunday mornings too. Words are important and some of the words that have typically been used to articulate Christian faith have not been very helpful when the words of Jesus are so much more about love and forgiveness and welcome despite the fact that we fail to live as God would have us live, that we fail to be who God would have us be.

In the Bible stories we have about Jesus, he quite consistently invites people into a relationship, he invites them to walk with him and he does it despite the fact that many of them are pretty messed up and confused and often don’t really understand what he’s talking about. But he invites them to follow from wherever they happen to be on the journey. He invites the questions of people like the lawyer last week and Martha this week because questions are part of the relationship. He doesn’t demand that they have all the right answers; he doesn’t demand that they follow in lock step. The Old Testament isn’t a whole lot different as God’s story is told and God works through a rather motley collection of imperfect people who have their own journeys in relationship with God. Those journeys include many missteps, missteps that might make God mad and might have consequences but which more often than not lead to forgiveness and another chance. “God’s anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime.”

Instead of hearing these words though, people hear the Bible used to exclude and condemn which is easy to do if you pick and choose verses; those verses are there; but those words of exclusion and condemnation aren’t the words you hear sitting at the feet of Jesus, they aren’t the words that represent the core testimony of the Bible. There are those who respond to the wrathful, angry God. Some of the churches that focus on that side of God are doing very well. But I would suggest that there are also many who are turned off and turned away by such rhetoric.

Now I don’t pretend that this is a totally adequate explanation of declining church numbers; it’s not, but I think it is a factor in the decision of some to reject the church and just adopt the theology of the good person, to just be Good Samaritans or Martha’s extending care and hospitality to others without seeing a need for the church and all its baggage. I do think there are some for whom church activity would be more appealing if they knew that there are churches that report the words of Jesus differently and more accurately.

For me, the point of what we want to do with our TV6 advertising and evangelism is to let people know that there is another way to be a Christian, in my opinion a more authentic way to be a Christian, a more authentic way to be the church. We need to unapologetically differentiate ourselves from what have tended to be the loudest Christian voices. Whether we like it or not, there is a stereotypical image of the Church and Christianity that exists out there and we all wind up being painted by that brush because many hear “Christian” and just assume that we’re all the same. What we have the opportunity to do is to take a step in breaking the stereotype; for me, that’s the goal of what we’re trying to do. It takes a long time to break stereotypes though, but we can take a step.

The challenge now, and what I’ve been thinking about a lot, is finding the right words…because, all due respect to St. Francis, words are necessary and they are important.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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