Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 10/14/2012

This is my tenth Anniversary Sunday.  Did you know that?  I’ve been here for awhile.  After that many years I hope it’s safe to confess that I wasn’t a big fan of Anniversary Sunday and the accompanying dinner when I first got here.  I didn’t say much, but it kind of rubbed me the wrong way.  In part I think it was because I’d never been a member of or pastor of a church that made a big deal about anniversaries except maybe for years that were multiples of 5 or 10 or 25 but not every year.  For an outsider coming in it seemed like celebrating a church anniversary every year might be a little too self-congratulatory and along with that it could foster the idea of the church as a museum rather than the living body of Christ; I had my reservations.

Well, I’ve gotten over it.  It’s always a nice day of celebration and celebration is good, you need to do that once in awhile.  Also, especially during the first few years I was here, in preparation for Anniversary Sunday it was always interesting to go through some of the booklets that have been printed over the years to learn some of the history of the church and the history of Ishpeming.   Because of that, sometimes it makes me feel like what I do on this day is more of an address or a lecture than it is a sermon, and perhaps it is, but once a year I guess that’s OK, plus it’s always a good meal and I do like to eat, so as long as there are people willing to do the work to make it happen (and there is a lot of work that goes into it) I guess we’ll keep doing this sometime in October every year. 

But you know, at the risk of collective self-congratulation, another reason I’ve gotten over my initial skepticism about Anniversary Sunday is because this is a special place.  Now I know every church probably thinks it’s special and in some ways I suppose every church is, but people told me that about Bethany early on, and I don’t mean you people; it was other people.  It’s just that I didn’t really understand what they were saying. 

Bishop Skrenes made some comments before I interviewed here.  I don’t remember his exact words but it was basically that Bethany has kind of a unique character among UP congregations but I had no idea what he was talking about.  Whenever I ran into Tom Lee, still whenever I run into Tom Lee he always talks about what a special place Bethany is but I just thought he was waxing nostalgic about his former church.  I always joke with him that I’m glad he left so I could come here.  What he would often do though after saying what a great place Bethany is and how wonderful the people are, he’d follow it with, “They come out of that Augustana tradition you know,” but again I had no idea what he meant by that.

The Augustana tradition didn’t mean anything to me even though I did internship at Immanuel, Chicago which was pretty much the flagship church of the old Augustana Synod.  All it meant to me was that Swedes founded the place but that’s all I knew.  I didn’t know there was anything unique about the Swedish approach to Lutheranism…until this year.

This is the June 2012 edition of Currents, the journal the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago publishes six times a year and you can’t see it but it says “Augustana: A Lively Tradition.”  The seminary is celebrating its 50th Anniversary so they’re reflecting on some of the church bodies that came together when it was founded in 1962.  My first reaction when this issue came in the mail was, “That sounds boring.  Why don’t they ever come up with more interesting topics.”  For whatever reason though, I started to read it and as I read, some things started to make more sense to me, things about Bethany, things about me, things about what it is that I like about being here.  Some of the comments made by people like Bishop Skrenes and Tom Lee made more sense. 

It didn’t take me nine years to figure out that Bethany was a special place; I’m a quicker study than that so I got that impression pretty early.  What the articles in here did though, was to help me better understand what its Augustana roots have to do with making Bethany a special place.

For one thing, from its early days in the mid 1800’s the Augustana expression of Lutheranism was about the work of bridge building.  I don’t know how much you know about the history of Lutheranism in this country but it’s a confusing alphabet soup of splits and mergers as church bodies get their shorts in a bunch about one thing or another and then either leave or struggle to find ways to co-exist.  It continues today as churches have left the ELCA to join the LCMC or the NALC because the LCMS won’t take them; alphabet soup!  It’s hard to keep it all straight.

Augustana churches and churches out of that tradition though, have been more inclined to try and build bridges, to try and find reasons to stay together rather than to separate, to steer more of a middle ground that tolerates differences.  When I read that I thought, “That makes sense,” and it certainly reflects what the ELCA is all about and it reflects what goes on around here.  When Luke was intern here and had to fill out mid-year evaluation papers one of the questions was “How does your church handle conflict?”  He said to me, “What am I supposed to say?  There hasn’t been any,” and he was right.  He created a little before he left but we lived through that too.  That’s what Augustana Lutherans do.

Related to that and perhaps even more significant was the effort of what the article calls scholar/pastors back in the 1920’s and 30’s, to steer a faithful path between what you might call “anything goes” doctrinal laxity and the rigid, confessional fundamentalism of groups like the Missouri Synod.  In some ways nothing has changed; it’s the same path we seek today.  Again, from the perspective of Augustana, there had to be a middle ground.  Among the scholar/pastors named in the article there is a C.J. Sodergren (spelled the same way) and an A.D. Mattson and I can’t help but wonder if he isn’t connected to Ted Mattson who was pastor here at about the same time as from what I’ve heard about Ted Mattson he would definitely fit that description of scholar/pastor.

Speaking of Pastor Mattson, one of the things he did while he was here at Bethany was to move to the exclusive use of English in worship.  This was another Augustana emphasis from its earliest days, the recognition that for a Swedish Lutheran church to survive in this country it would have to make some adaptations, becoming something other than just a replica of the Church of Sweden.  Other branches of the Lutheran church fought harder and longer to preserve the native language but Augustana thought it was important to move to English.  Another Augustana emphasis embraced by Pastor Mattson concerned worship and liturgy as the primary means of teaching the faith.  Doing worship and doing it well were important to him and I would like to think that we continue to honor than emphasis today.

The Augustana church was also ahead of the curve in using modern scholarship to interpret the Bible, thus allowing for different and more progressive interpretations.  To quote from the article, “One does not have to pledge allegiance to any of several propositions regarding verbal inspiration in order to commit oneself wholeheartedly to the affirmation that the Bible proclaims the gospel of the living God who redeems humanity through the death and resurrection of his Son.  In fact, such propositions are not so much wrong as that they miss, or obscure, the point of the message.”  That is certainly the way that I approach the Bible in my teaching and preaching as it allows for questions more than it seeks absolute answers and from what I know of the pastors who have preceded me, it has been this way for a long time.  It’s not always an easy approach because it does sometimes produce more questions than answers, but…it’s the Augustana approach and it makes the Bible a living word, not a dead, settled word.

You see what I’m saying though?  Whether we’re aware of it all the time or not, a lot of who we are as a congregation comes out of the Augustana tradition.  Those roots go deep.   

All this was affirmed for me again when former bishop Dale Skogman preached at Pastor Kal Kalweit’s funeral a few weeks ago.  Some of you knew Kal; he was the interim here at one point and actually he’s another one of the people who told me what a special place Bethany was when I got here.  Bishop Skogman spoke of Kal as a pastor out of the Augustana tradition and he mentioned many of the things I’ve already mentioned as being characteristic of an Augustana pastor and church.  He also mentioned a willingness to take a stand, not always a popular one on controversial social issues of the day, commitment to area social ministries outside the church and an emphasis on stewardship of one’s time, talents and financial resources.  Again, as Dale spoke that day I was thinking, “That’s a pretty good description of Bethany.”

Anyway, all of this was kind of illuminating for me.  It’s not to say that other expressions of the Lutheran church don’t share some of these same characteristics, but when you look through the lens of Augustana tradition history there are things about Bethany that come into clearer focus.  We are a product of our history.  The primary focus though, always was and continues to be what was in the quote I read earlier.  The primary focus is the proclamation of the gospel of the living God who redeems humanity through the death and resurrection of his Son.

It is a reason to celebrate.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

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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