Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 6/8

How much do you have a need for order or a desire for order in your life?  It varies from person to person but I think we all experience it to some extent.  We want life to have at least some order that we can count on.  As with many things, there are racial and ethnic stereotypes about this; for example, people of German ancestry, like me, supposedly have a great need for order, everything in its place, things happen on time, efficiency is highly valued.  Southern hemisphere people, on the other hand, are supposed to be much looser and more relaxed about such things.  I know that people who have visited our companion synod in Tanzania have said that’s one of the things you have to adjust to, you just kind of go with the flow because what it says on your schedule for the day probably won’t happen quite that way.

Actually church is a good example of degrees of order as worship styles vary greatly from denomination to denomination with some finding comfort in the predictability of liturgical worship, others preferring something that is more unpredictable and spontaneous and pretty much everyone has an opinion about it.  

There are stereotypes, there are extremes, but if you think about yourself, I’ll bet you have developed routines and patterns that provide order to your day, to your week, to your life, to your job, routines and patterns that you find comfortable and which help keep you pointed in the right direction.  After a while you don’t think about it too much, it’s just the way things are, until something happens to upset that order, and then what do you do?  How much disorder can you handle before it pushes you too far?  I should emphasize that we shouldn’t scoff at and quickly be dismissive of this need for order because it’s real; and I don’t say that just because I have such a need.  I say it because it’s in the Bible in a variety of ways.

          The creation account in the first chapter of Genesis is a story of God bringing order to the chaos of the cosmos.  It is an orderly account of an orderly creation process which results in an orderly world that works, that is dependable.  Historically it’s thought that this account was written to reassure and encourage the people of Israel when they were in exile; they had been defeated which also meant their God had been defeated and so they weren’t sure there was anything they could count on anymore.  The creation story reminds them that there is still order, their God is still in control. 

          In addition to the creation account and many of the Psalms that emphasize the good order of God’s world, much of the law of the Old Testament is intended to help provide for an orderly way of life.  Speaking about the law you could say that it runs along two general paths which can sometimes be in conflict with one another. 

One path of the law aims at the practice of social justice, care for the poor, widows, children, outcasts and aliens, the neighbor in broad terms, and as Christians tuned in to the ethical teachings of Jesus which echo this strand, this is perhaps what we pay closest attention to.  But along with that, while we know we’re called to practice justice, the will of God also points to a divine desire for order so another strand of the law aims toward purity or holiness; that’s what all those ritual laws of sacrifice and cleanliness address and while we may find much of it archaic and seemingly irrelevant, as it points to the divine desire for order, this too must be respected.  

It too is part of the plan and this is reflected in each of us by our desire for some semblance of order and by the fact that we’re upset when that order is challenged or disrupted.  The disruption is especially acute when it’s tension between order and the call for justice that causes it.  I’m increasingly convinced that a lot of the conflicts that have taken place throughout the history of the church and those that still take place have to do with the tension between these two paths, particularly when a threat to order is perceived.

          For example, we could go back 500 years and talk about the Reformation.  We’re taught that the controversy was about Luther’s reaction against the sale of indulgences which were supposed to buy your loved ones out of purgatory.  Now for Luther, this was very much a theological issue; but it was also a justice issue as the poor were being exploited by those in power.  Even more than that though, from the side of Luther’s opponents anyway, the issue was about his challenge to the authority of the Pope.  That’s an order issue. 

The Catholic church had established hierarchies and practices and if they let an upstart monk upset all that, who knew what would happen.  There were those who knew Luther’s criticisms were valid, but the threat of disorder made even those people nervous about letting him get away with too much.  The more Reformation history I read the more I think that if it was just about theology, compromises would have been reached that would have kept Luther in the fold.  It was his threat to order that was the real problem.

          A somewhat more contemporary issue would be the ordination of women.  For many churches it’s not a big issue anymore: the ELCA has been ordaining women for almost 40 years now; but while those churches and individuals who are opposed to the ordination of women would probably claim that it is a biblical issue, based mostly on one verse from one of Paul’s letters, I think that even more it is an issue of order.  I have to think that those who have been or continue to be opposed to ordaining women have to know that women are fully qualified and capable of serving as clergy because they’ve been doing it for years, but still, the sense of the order they have always known is upset by the idea. 

          But this represents an issue where, at least in some denominations, like the ELCA, the traditional teaching of the church, the traditional order of the church has been reinterpreted, understanding ordination of women to be more about justice and equality than as being a threat to order.

          I think you could argue that this threat to order is a big piece of the controversy around sexuality that many churches, including the ELCA, continue to struggle with.  With homosexuality much more out of the closet than it once was I don’t think there are too many of us that don’t know someone who is gay, probably are related to someone who is gay, so we know they are decent, law abiding, talented, productive and in many cases Christian people.  But even knowing all that, for some the thought of changing the church’s traditional teachings about this is a threat to order that for emotional reasons becomes magnified so that all kinds of other things seem to be placed in jeopardy.  Those who don’t want to change these teachings might argue that the Bible says this or that so it’s clear to them, but the truth is that any of the verses that are quoted can be interpreted in different ways; they’re not conclusive. 

It’s the threat of disorder that is most upsetting as tension is created and it is not to be lightly dismissed as an irrational fear; it’s real.  The struggle between and within individuals about this highlights the tension that can exist between the biblical laws that point to order and purity and those that call for justice, and while it’s different for each of us, we all have some point where that tension become uncomfortable. 

In my reading of things though, there is no question about where Jesus comes down on this.  He doesn’t make any hard and fast pronouncements;  that’s true;  that’s not usually his style.  Instead he says things like, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”  He quotes the prophet Hosea in order to instruct the Pharisees about the tension created by his association with those who are unclean, tax collectors and sinners and hemorrhaging women, and his acts of welcome and healing and justice.  He doesn’t say what’s right or wrong; he gives them something to think about. 

The Pharisees weren’t bad people.  They were just defending and guarding the tradition as they understood it and that is to be respected.  But Jesus points to the fact that tradition can’t become an idol; the desire for order can’t become an idol when justice is at stake.

For Jesus the justice strand of the law always trumped the order strand.  His blatant violation of some of the biblical laws that provided for order was a lot of what got him in trouble.  But note too that he didn’t violate all the laws of order and purity; in most ways he was a good, observant Jew; we move cautiously down this path. 

So…go and learn what this means; I desire mercy, not sacrifice.  Except be careful; it might get you in trouble.        

 
 

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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